Scenes from history: Israel in mortal danger

Israel was once saved by a series of ironic incidents brought about by a series of anonymous heroes. May it ever be so.

Adadnirari III (photo credit: Courtesy Stephen G. Rosenberg)
Adadnirari III
(photo credit: Courtesy Stephen G. Rosenberg)
Today Israel is in mortal danger from a nearby aggressor, and it looks for salvation to foreign powers, sitting in council many miles away.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, Israel was also in mortal danger, and salvation came from a foreign power in a strange and distant land, according to the Tanach.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was under attack from its stronger neighbor to the north and its capital was undergoing the worst-ever recorded siege (2 Kings 6:24).
There was no food to eat, the head of an ass sold for 80 pieces of silver, and women were consuming their babies so as to stay alive.
The king, whose name is not given, was powerless, and blamed the prophet for the disaster. But the prophet knew relief was on the way and claimed that on the next day the price of bread would crash. The captain of the guard pooh-poohed the prophecy, saying that could never happen so soon, and the prophet countered by telling him that he himself would see it happen, but would not be able to enjoy it.
Events followed quickly one after another, with irony piling on top of irony. The captain did see the price of bread plummet, and was killed while trying to control the crowds rushing through the city gate to get to the food.
The great prophet was right, but the news of the relief came from the lowest-of-the-low, from four lepers camped outside the city.
The relief itself had come from a distant power that would one day be an arch-enemy.
It was perhaps too much for the people to understand, but they gloried in it and Israel, the Northern Kingdom, survived for nearly another hundred years.
It was all happening in 804 BCE, when the kingdom of Aram, which we call Syria, struck at Israel and besieged its capital Samaria. The unnamed king of Israel was Jehoahaz (815-803 BCE), grandfather of the mighty Jeroboam II.
Jehoahaz’s army had been decimated by Aram’s Ben Hadad III, and he was unable to help his starving people.
But the lepers saw that the besieging army of Aram had suddenly fled their camp, and the lepers came to the city to tell Jehoahaz that his troubles were at an end. Why had the Arameans so surprisingly and suddenly fled? The small nations along the Mediterranean coast, like Israel and Aram, were under the domination of the great Assyrian power, located hundreds of miles to the east.
Mighty Assyria kept its colonies in order by marching over each year, and taking tribute, but around 800 BCE it could not do that as it had trouble at home. As it did not appear in those years, the little western powers started to revolt and fight for power among themselves, and Aram, the stronger, invaded its southern neighbor.
Israel was helpless, but the prophet Elisha saw a way to avoid disaster. He sent his best acolyte, Jonah, to Nineveh, where he threatened and pleaded with Assyria to come west, as they had done in the past, and put Aram in its place. Assyria did just that in 804 BCE.
Thus, while its army was besieging Israel’s capital, the Arameans realized that if Assyria was marching west, the first thing Assyria would do would be to attack Damascus on the way and overpower it. To Aram, its own capital was of more importance than Samaria and so, as soon as it realized that Assyria was on the march, it immediately withdrew its forces from around Samaria and rushed them back across the Jordan to protect Damascus.
Samaria was saved, and it was the four lepers, searching for food, who first discovered that the Aramean army had decamped and, in their haste, left their tents full of food and drink.
The city could now gorge itself on the ample supplies left behind by the besiegers. The lepers broadcast the good news, but it was the Assyrians who had made it all possible.
The Tanakh only says that there was a savior (2 Kings 13:5) but does not name him, that would have been too embarrassing.
This powerful episode in our history is recorded without the name of the Israelite king, without the name of the foreign savior, without the names of the all-important lowcaste lepers, and without any mention of the name of the acolyte of the prophet Elisha, who went to summon the Assyrians.
But we can work out that it was king Jehoahaz, that it was the great Assyrian army under Adadnirari III, that it was Gehazi, servant of Elisha, and his leper sons, and that it was the young, later prophet, Jonah, who went to Nineveh.
Thus Israel was saved by a series of ironic incidents brought about by a series of anonymous heroes. May it ever be so.
The author is Senior Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem