Bible Reference: 2 Kings 4.38-41.
Elisha was a prophet (848-797 BC) in the Northern Kingdom and a disciple of Elijah. Elisha’s long ministry was during reigns of Kings Joram (Jehoram), Jehu, and Jehoash (Joash) over the Northern Kingdom. In this story, Elisha was in Gilgal, north of Jericho in the tribal lands of Manasseh. Gilgal was in the midst of a famine. A company of prophets was meeting with Elisha. Elisha directed his servant to cook a large pot of stew for the men. The servant went out into the field to gather herbs. Finding a wild vine, the man filled a fold of his cloak with gourds from the vine. Although no one recognized gourds, they cut them up and placed them in the stew.
After the stew cooked, it was fed to prophets. As they ate the stew, they became sick and cried out, “O, man of God, there is death in the pot” (2 Kings 4.40 NIV). Immediately, Elisha directed servants to get flour. He put the flour into the pot. The flour was probably stirred into the stew. Then, Elisha directed that the floured-stew be given to the company to eat. Believing Elisha mitigated the poisonous substance in the stew, the prophets ate it. None became sick.
Many botanists and Bible scholars proposed that the wild vine and gourds were Citrullus colocynthis, a cucumber-like plant with laxative effects. C. colocynthis is called “the bitter gourd.” In the past, it may have been eaten, however, in the twenty-first century this gourd isn’t considered an edible plant. It grows in sandy soil and gravel in Israel. As an herbaceous vine, the bitter gourd trails over the ground or climbs fences using tendrils. Leaves resemble those of a watermelon or the familiar garden pumpkin.
After the vine withers, gourds are seen lying in the soil or sand. Over time, rinds break down. Seeds enter the soil or are eaten by animals. Bitter gourd is propagated by seeds or by root segments; seeds germinate after spring rains. The bitter taste and severe laxative effect are in the pulp. When washed and consumed separately from pulp, seeds are described as tasteless.
Likely, flour added to stew was from barley, the flour of the poor in Israel. Possibly, flour coated the gourd pulp and/or the prophets’ stomachs and intestinal tracts. Flour reduced or eliminated the gourd’s severe purgative effect, which could easily lead to dehydration and death. Alternatively, prophets’ faith in Elisha and his flour remedy could have opened a door for God’s power to detoxify the gourd stew. The chronicle of Elisha’s life showed that time-after-time God assisted Elisha as he walked in God’s path (2 Kings chapters 4 through 6).
Symbolism of Elish’s vine
In the Elisha episode, the bitter gourd is associated with death. The prophets thought they were dying after they ate the gourd-filled stew. Originally, God’s plan was that men and women didn’t die, but, lived forever. Because Adam and Eve desired to be independent of God, they disobeyed him. Subsequently, the human race became subject to death. Throughout the Old Testament millennia, only Enoch and Elijah didn’t die physically. God doesn’t take pleasure in death. God wants even the wicked to repent and live. Certainly, God wouldn’t have taken pleasure in the death of his prophets.
Some individuals fear death. Job personified death as the “king of terrors” (Job 18.14 NIV); however, Job declared that death is naked before God. Ever gracious, God made a simple way for men and women to live forever. Jesus, the Christ, said that anyone who hears his word and believes God … “has crossed over from death to life” (John 5.24 NIV). By his own death, Jesus bought immortality for the human race. Jesus’s death overcame Satan, who holds the power of death in this world.
A way of looking at physical death is that death is a gift, not punishment, from God. God allows our bodies—often with pains and diseases—to die so we can be raised to a new life. Younger individuals may die so they don’t have to face agonies that result from life in a fallen world. Possibly, you and I will physically die before Jesus comes to take the saved from the earth. As Christians, we don’t have to believe that death is the “king of terrors.”
When Jesus comes the second time, Christians who have died will rise. This is named the “first resurrection.” Our bodies—decomposed, blown up, or cremated—will be raised. Perishable, mortal bodies will become imperishable and immortal. Our physical death will be swallowed up in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Then, we will live with Jesus eternally.
The apostle John wrote that blessed and holy are those who take part in the first resurrection. They won’t participate in or be hurt by the second death. The second death is the lake of fire reserved for those who didn’t believe in Jesus as Savior. Elisha’s belief and actions saved prophets from dying from poisonous gourd stew. Jesus’s actions save us from eternal death. After reading about the lake of fire, I know it’s not someplace I want to go.
Reflection: Why did God, the author of the Bible, put the story of Elisha and a deadly vine in the Bible? This story seems so unimportant in the scheme of the Bible. What are we to learn from it?
Copyright: July 6, 2019; Carolyn Adams Roth
Please visit my website at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com