Floating axe head?

For some reason, this particular miracle-story of Elisha is often ridiculed by otherwise conservative believers (that is, people who are willing to believe in a miraculous resurrection of Jesus) as pointless and unbelievable. Just today I was reading a book by Robert Jenson, a respected modern Lutheran theologian, who referred to it as a “parlour trick”. I thought, just for the fun of it, that I would post some of Peter Leithart‘s comments on the deeper significance of this story within the context of 1-2 Kings and the OT as a whole. (Sorry, I forgot to record page references.)

Iron is a rare commodity in ancient Israel, so that losing an ax head will lead to significant debt. If he cannot pay, the debtor may have to enter “debt slavery” until he can restore the cost of the borrowed item…

From this perspective, Elisha’s miracle is no trivial demonstration of power. In recovering the ax head, he delivers the man from indebtedness and potentially slavery, as he delivers the widow (2 Kgs. 4:1-7). He is again acting as a kinsman-redeemer, restoring life and property to those who follow him. Elisha’s instruction to “take it up” (6:7) echoes his instruction to the Shunammite woman to “take up” her son (4:36), suggesting that by saving the ax head Elisha gives the man new life. His reversal of the laws of gravity reverses the laws of death and destruction, the tragic plot of loss (Dillard 1999, 121-26). Elisha heals and delivers by throwing salt into a spring (2:19-22) and meal into a pot (4:38-41), and these repeat the miraculous healing of the waters at Marah (Exod. 15). That Elisha accomplishes this miracle through a stick of wood would have interested Origen, turning the miracle into a sign not only of Easter but of Good Friday.

The miracle also symbolizes the future of Israel. The ax head sinks into the water and returns like Jonah the prophet. In Jonah, submersion and return is an image of Israel’s exile in the sea of Gentiles and its return to the land (Leithart 2000a, 179-86), and the ax head passing through the Jordan further strengthens the association with Israel’s exile and return. For the original exilic readers of 1-2 Kings, this narrative demonstrates again that clinging to the prophet and his word is the way of return–both the way of repentance and the way of restoration to the land. When Israel is sent to slavery to pay off its debt of sin, it hopes for a new exodus that will restore it to the land, in a cosmic Jubilee.

It is significant, further, that this resurrection images takes place in water, through submersion and return. In the previous chapter, Naaman goes down into the same water and comes back cleansed from his leprosy, reborn with flesh “like the flesh of a little child” (2 Kgs. 5:14), and the ax head sinks into the waters of the Jordan and is restored, saving the prophet form a debt.

Leithart has more to say, but I think this is sufficient to demonstrate at least the high probability that this isn’t a pointless “parlour trick” without greater theological significance.