Sunday, July 15, 2007

So what's up with that floating Axehead?

The company of the prophets said to Elisha, "Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to live."

And he said, "Go."

Then one of them said, "Won't you please come with your servants?" "I will," Elisha replied. And he went with them.

They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. "Oh, my lord," he cried out, "it was borrowed!"

The man of God asked, "Where did it fall?" When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. "Lift it out," he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.

2 Kings 6

Our preacher chose this story as the text for today's sermon. He explained that this story disturbs him, not because God made the axehead float, but because God doesn't do a lot of things that are a plainly more important than a prophet's borrowed axe.

We pray, he said, for people who need to be healed from diseases, and they aren't healed. We pray, he said, for people who need peace in their families or joy in their lives, and they dismantle their families or succumb to depression. How do we deal with these disappointments?

Now I don't know about you, but I think that it's pretty ballsy for a preacher to raise these sorts of questions from the pulpit. People need to hear that their doubts are perfectly well grounded -- that there really is something disturbing about the idea that God would float a borrowed axehead and not heal a cancer-stricken mother of three.

Rather than address the question of whether God actually floated an axehead for Elisha, our preacher chose to direct people toward what might be called "everyday miracles" ... rain, gentleness, generosity, things like that. Don't miss these miracles, he said, because you're fixated on floating axeheads, or because you've altogether given up on them.

I think this is a good redirection, and definitely a helpful antidote to the attitude that says, "your prayers aren't answered because you don't have enough faith." (Mark 11) But I question whether this goes far enough. As I've said before, I think the issue is primarily moral: can we say God is "good" if God floats axeheads for prophets but neglects to answer our prayers for suffering families? I think it is much better to say that God doesn't float axheads than to insinuate that prophets' axheads are more important to God than the friends and relatives of ordinary people.

As I was thinking about this, though, I began to wonder about my constant insistence that God be good. What if "God is good" is just as much a metaphor as "Jesus is the son of God?" What if, in using God's goodness as a basis for argument, I am overextending the metaphor "God is good"?

I'm not sure what to do with that thought, but I find it a little disconcerting.


shane said...

Elisha was a hack. But perhaps when the Philistines controlled most of the iron production in the ancient near east, salvaging an axehead isn't such a bad miracle.

btw. . . The text doesn't say God made it float. A better example of dubious use of supernatural power in Elisha's ministry might be the example of the 2 bears and the children.

Emerging From The Fire said...

I have been struggling with this concept lately. I found soulpastor's ( recent posts "God on Mute" to be very helpful. At the end, though, it is just frustrating.

1)God is good.
2)God is powerful enough to stop bad things from happening.
3)God does not stop some bad things from happening.

It doesn't seem logical unless one of the three statements is wrong.

Connor said...

"Don't miss these miracles, he said, because you're fixated on floating axeheads, or because you've altogether given up on them."

Sounds nice and maybe its right but the axeheads tend to be the focus of church. Just think of all the stories they teach in bible school to kids. Seems like almost every story has God doing something spectacular. Hard to get over years and years of that.

scoots said...

They were she-bears, Shane. She-bears.

A friend of mine who's a preacher showed me the outline last week of a recent sermon by a close friend of his whose first child wound up stillborn this past year. This would-have-been father preached on prayer, and he noted how Jesus, Paul, and Moses all made fervent prayers to God that were denied.

Those three unanswered prayers all have better Scriptural explanations than does a mother today dying of cancer, but in any event I think they’re a good place to start in our theology of prayer. God says no, a lot.

I think Luke-Acts is a good place to go to study prayer as well. Prayer in these two books is not just a place to ask God for things, but is a time for confession, a time for decision-making, and a time for God to reveal God’s will to the people. Jesus says to ask God for things like the Holy Spirit and endurance in trials. He also talks about the importance of not giving up, which implies that God will often say no for a long time.

Still, it’s depressing that I don’t think I really expect God to do anything in the world.

Matthew said...

@Shane: "btw. . . The text doesn't say God made it float."

True, that was even mentioned in the sermon. But I think we're supposed to infer that God did it.

Anyhow, the point is that lots of people want a way to reconcile the frenetic, sometimes morally questionable action of God in the biblical stories with the apparent inaction of God in our everyday lives.

Matthew said...

@emerging: "It doesn't seem logical unless one of the three statements is wrong."

I agree. I'm now playing with the idea that *all* of these statements are wrong, or at least that all of the statements are metaphors and so are prone to the problem of having their bit of truth stretched too far.

But if I have to give up one of those statements, I'm most inclined to give up #2.

(Although "powerful enough" is kind of an odd concept ... you can conceive of a being who has infinite power to smash rocks but absolutely no power to put them back together.)

Matthew said...

@Connor: "Seems like almost every story has God doing something spectacular. Hard to get over years and years of that."

@Scoots: "it’s depressing that I don’t think I really expect God to do anything in the world."

I think these sentiments are related. For years we've been told that God works by floating axeheads and parting oceans and healing lepers, and then when we don't see axeheads floating or oceans parting or lepers healed, something has to give.

After we've released our death-grip on biblical literalism, maybe we'll be able to consider the possibility that God acts more gently than we have been taught ... that the divine power doesn't smash down strongholds, but, bit by bit, washes them away with our expressions of love, courage and hope.

shane said...

@Scoots- What is the textual significance of "she-bears" vs. "bears" short of Bible Trivia Pursuit? Have I missed something? Maybe she-bears are meaner.

@Matthew- See, in business you never let a person pick their own successor, because often they will pick someone with less ability in order to preserve their own legacy, and I believe the same is true in propheteering. Elijah's about to taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, what does he care? In some ways, I think Elisha's ministry is a prophetic/heroic narrative similar to David's mighty men.

Matthew said...

@shane: "I believe the same is true in propheteering"

"Propheteering." Ha!

Connor said...

I choose Shane as my successor.

scoots said...


Sorry about the she-bears thing; it was an inside joke that no one on this blog is in on. (Well, actually, one guy I know who reads this might have gotten a kick out of it.) Basically, a friend of mine preached on the bears text a few weeks back, and the NRSV has “she-bears.” We got a kick out of it.

Emerging From The Fire said...


I had always been most inclined to give up #2 (thinking of a distant God that once had power, but somehow lost it or a God like the Wizard of Oz that never had it but everyone thought he did).

Sometimes I think about giving up #1 and that just screws with my head and makes me feel like a evil person.


Matthew said...

@emerging: "Sometimes I think about giving up #1 and that just screws with my head and makes me feel like a evil person."

I'm pretty sure that questioning God's goodness doesn't make one an evil person. In fact, "how can God be good" seems to be a recurrent question among the good people whom I most admire.

Regardless of your own goodness, though, my experience has been that these kinds of questions are either exhausting or emerge from ehxaustion.

So here's my offering to anybody who is a little tired out from questions: the stand-up comedy of Demitri Martin.

Emerging, it's good to have you around, I hope you'll stay for a while.

Emerging From The Fire said...


Anonymous said...

more posts, faster pls!

Matthew said...

"more posts, faster pls!"

Meh. For that to happen I have to have more thoughts faster.

Anonymous said...

more thoughts, faster pls!

Karla said...

Wow. I enjoy these conversations so much, but often feel that I am out of my depth and have nothing to contribute. I still pretty much feel this way, but it is comforting to know that there are so many intelligent individuals struggling with the same questions I am. One of the hardest lesson for me to learn growing up was that God always answers prayers, but sometimes his answer is "No".

P.S. Does anyone else who is staying in Abilene right now feel the need to look into building an ark??

Paul said...

One thing that's clear to me is that we're here to be good.

If people don't make some convincing moral strides in the coming generations - being concerned, say, for the unborn, only less as stem cells and embryos than as the actual children we're bringing into an increasingly unsustainable environment - then it's hard to envision a long term future for the species. For here and now, looks like God left the work up to us.

And for us to be useful presumes us being good. Moral. Corruption and greed are blighting countless human lives, killing off other species, and wreaking havoc with the environment. We can be as clever as we want, but if we're not good enough, we'll prove too stupid to live, so to speak.

As to God, I think you raise a valid question, or maybe we could frame it as a complaint and look to God's answer to Job from out of the whirlwind, which seems to run along the lines you're thinking: that God could be bigger or more inclusive than what we know as good.

But I'd take his message to humans to be something like: Be good.

Gosh, the word verification just now spelled yahweh! (Kidding...)

Matthew said...

Hi Karla and Paul! Karla, for some reason your post didn't come through for moderation until today. (Aug 9)

Karla, in that light, I guess the question would be, "How can we understand God's 'Nos' to be morally justifiable?" If a person were lying in the dirt in front of you, stabbed and bleeding to death, it would be hard to think of you as good if you responded to his "please help" with "no".

And if this is the Karla I assume it is, then don't give me any nonsense about being out of your depth. Puh-leeze.

Charles said...

I had three thoughts:

1) A Gabriel Garcia Marquez story describes an old blind man who makes a pilgrimage to a holy site and prays for a miracle. When he wakes up the next morning, he's grown three new teeth.

2) For "God is good," maybe we can substitute "God is God," accept God as God is, and come to terms with the fact that we cannot possible come anywhere close to really understanding God.

3) I choose to believe shane's pun on the axehead story ("Elisha was a hack") was intentional. In any case, it made me laugh.

Matthew said...

Hi, Charles!

"For "God is good," maybe we can substitute "God is God," accept God as God is, and come to terms with the fact that we cannot possible come anywhere close to really understanding God."

This seems to be the mystic's path, and I think it's a fine way to go, as long as you're willing to be consistent.

Because if it's not possible to defend an assertion as basic as "God is good", it sure as heck isn't possible to defend any of Christianity's peripheral doctrines, like heaven, hell, or the divinity of Christ.

Charles said...

Hi, Matthew. Thanks for your reply. I surely don't think of myself as a mystic. I was thinking more along the lines of how we "know" the difference between what's "good" and what's "bad" whether in our own personal lives or in the daily news of the world, and we presume God surely must see it the same way we do. Hence our question, "Then why does God permit ________?"

Matthew said...

"we presume God surely must see it the same way we do"

I think we *have* to make this assumption, particularly in those cases where "we" means "most human beings" and not just "me".

For example: most people would probably say that torturing someone for eternity is evil ... evil if a person were to do it and evil if God were to do it.

But if we can't assume that our instincts are correct in even this dramatic example of good and evil, then we have to admit that we have no idea what "good" means and can never be taught because we can never find a moral authority we can trust. Because if we have no idea what good means, there is no way for us to evaluate God's claim to be good and compare it with the claims that other gods might make about whether they are good.

I'm kind of muddling the issue here, but my main point is that we have to assume that our instincts about good and evil are correct, and that if we take the Bible to be literal truth, God's behavior seems to sometimes fall on the evil end of that spectrum.

Robin Edgar said...

I don't suppose you ever read Isaiah 45:6-7 did you?

Eric said...

I am just a random reader who is preparing a children's ministry lesson on this passage, and came across this blog entry from my Google search.
Lots of interesting things have been said in the post and the comments, and I just wanted to add my take on this subject.
Perhaps for point 3 a bit of editing might help:

3)God does not always stop bad things from happening.

God is indeed good, and God really is able to stop bad things from happening. I tend to think that our perceptions of God's actions are incomplete and we can't always see the big picture. Just because we don't understand something that God does or does not do doesn't necessarily mean that God is inconsistent.

Anonymous said...

the axe head is a type of the holy spirit, the axe has power as long as the head is on while you are swinging it, but when you get lose and careless it might get wobbly and if you really get laxydaisy it might fall off into the water. then when you realize you left god you repent and pick him up where you left off at.

The axe is a symbolization of getting loose in your walk , you get out of fellowship with god you no longer have the power of the axe , you are just banging the tree with a stick.

Anonymous said...

Another way to look at the account of the so called 'floating axe head' would that the stick that Elisha 'threw' into the water was a long pole that Elisha, guided by revelation, was able to insert into the hole in the axe head and was thereby able to lift it out of the water. Then the servant was able to simply grab it off the end of the stick by reaching out his hand.

And as far as God's lack of willingness to heal and stop bad things from happening, Jesus taught that all things that we pray for, beleiving, we will have them. God is limited by our believing. God changes not, so if he was willing to perform miracles in the old testament times, he is just as willing to perform miracles in the new testament times. However, we do not do our part by taking believing action therefore we do not see God's deliverance.

Matthew said...

I've been ignoring these comments to an old post, but:

@Robin: And there are plenty of other texts that say things like, "God is light, in him is no darkness at all." The text contradicts itself. Shouldn't be news to anyone.

@Eric: Some things are just evil (the torture/rape/murder of innocents), and while God ostensibly could stop them from happening, God doesn't. (Whether God /sometimes/ stops them is irrelevant. It's like saying "but officer, think of all those people I /didn't/ murder!") Theologies that can't honestly deal with God's inaction, without resorting to some cop-out like "you didn't believe enough," or "that murder will work out for the best" are, in my mind, highly questionable.

@Anon1: That's funny.

@Anon2: If you're going to claim "God changes not", or in modern English, "God does not change", then surely you will also claim, "God is all-powerful."

And if that's the case, then (1) Why should God's power be determined by our belief rather than God's own mercy, and (2) What happens when we ask God to do something evil, or something that God just doesn't want to do, really believing that God will do it for us? Does that force God to do something? And doesn't that threaten the sovereignty of God?

'Fisayo said...

@ Shane: You need to stop being rude. Elisha was a strong voice in his time. This is not just a story. Elisha lived and walked the face of the earth.Show some respect.

@ Matthew: You need to read your bible and ask for revelation. God's ways are past finding. Quit trying to be logical.

God did not send his son into the world to stop bad things from happening. He sent his son to redeem man to himself and provide an opportunity for a glorious and peaceful eternal life. All through history, the people who have understood God the most have always known that God has given man all authority on the earth. Man will account for the use of that authority on judgement day.

Matthew said...

ke ke ke

Anonymous said...

This blogpost is like an axehead telling its wielder that he is chopping down the wrong tree: irrelevant and simpleminded.

The real import of the story is that Elijah threw a stick into the water: prophetic of future piece of wood providing redemption.

Anonymous said...

Hi Everyone my name is Erick and i have read the majority of all the posts. I have been studying this scripture and have found that there are many schools of thought for the floating axe head. I myself have often woundered why this story was written, surley there must be a hidden message somewhere. Here are the ones that stand out to me most.

1. During this time an iron axehead was a costly tool, too expensive for members of the prophetic company to purchase. Having lost it the prophet faced having to work off the value of the borrowed axe as a bondservant.
Therefore when Elisha threw the piece of wood into the water, it was as if the Lord demonstrated his concern for the welfare of his servants.

2. What I personally have come to believe is that when the Prophet lost the axe one of the things he lost was his cutting edge. And sometimes we will be in a position where we have lost our cutting edge or our drive in following God! I believe that the broken branch simply represented a divine move of God. And sometimes when we are in a position when we have lose our drive the only way of get it back is through a divine move or touch from God.

Matthew said...

Thanks for your comment, Erick, and thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

May the floating axe head is there to remind us that some times we fly off the handle and what is it we do to get a handle on our troubles. Do we continue to fly off the handle or do we get a better handle on our problems. God gives us the power to prepare our tools with his word before we go out into the field and work. If our tools are readied for action then we wont loose our heads when we are confronted with adversity. 2Timothy215

Anonymous said...

Jesus said, "Only God is good." Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

abby_13092 said...

God bless. I just want to say my opinion. God is good, he has not lost his power and he can heal and do all other things. Why do we think God has lost his power? The Lord Jesus is the same as yesterday today and foever more- with that said, you contradict the word of God, you have doubt in your mind, the bible says dont let a man think he will recieve ANYTHING if he has doubt- he is a doubleminded man. Lose your doubt and increase your faith and you will see healing. We dont see these miracles bcuz no one is looking for them. The bible says that with fasting and praying demons come out, how much more with healing cancer, aids? You cant just say in the name of Jesus if you dont have a relationship with your God and have faith. We need ppl like Elijah who looked for God whole heartly.Who fasted 40 days just like Moses did and Jesus did. This is more than going to the temple and praising God. This is about having an intimate relationship in your secret place where God will glorify himself thru you in public. It's sad to see those who see God as a corruptible man.Romans 1:22-23. When you seperate yourself for God liek Elijah, you will see the glory of God not only in the little things but big things as well.

abby_13092 said...

Also, so what if God does not heal a mother of cancer? Do you know the mind and heart of that woman or person? The heart and mind is deep and only God knows the most intimate of it. How do you know if that lady will not leave the Lord once she gets healed? How do you know? What happens if God wants to glorify himself in that cancerous woman? Just like Jesus glorified the father thru him, using the man who was blind since birth! The man didnt even sin but that was so that the Lord might glorify himself to those who were so doubtful and had a hard heart! We see God as someone who says no all the time, but doesnt he know what is best for us? Doesnt it say that it is better to pluck out your eye than go to hell? Isnt it better to have cancer and aids than not to have it and live in the flesh and condemn ourselves to go to hell? I think not. If we live in the spirit and walk in the spirit and think of the things of the spirit whih is life and peace, I thinkod will say yes to our prayers bcuz we are aksing what God wants us to ask! Let me know what you think. Im not trying to attack. lol. God bless

abby_13092 said...

sorry for the mistakes *Like *God, etc lol Im not trying tp put ppl down, the last thing i want to do, just wanna open you guys to my view :)The Lord loves us no matter if we fail him, hate him, think he is weak and not real. Good thing abt God lol

Matthew said...

hi, abby. thanks for commenting. =)