Death in the pot - part 1

As sound bites go, "Man of God! There is death in the pot!" is not the likeliest of phrases to make it onto a motivational poster. But it is in this strange tale from the life of Elisha that we hear whispers of a greater story; one which wouldn't be fully appreciated until centuries later.

If you're not familiar with the record you might want to refresh your memory: 2 Kings 4 v 38-41.

And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets. And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof. But he said, Then bring meal. And he cast it into the pot; and he said, Pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm in the pot. (KJV)

At first reading it's a slightly bizarre account of a narrowly averted mass poisoning. We may remark on how glad everyone was that God's prophet was there, or how nice it was for him to provide dinner for everyone.

This pretty much misses the point.

The importance of the passage becomes clear when we break the story down into its constituent parts. Here's the "meta-story", see if you hear any Bible echoes:

  1. Famine - There is a scarcity of food and grain. The ground is unfruitful.

  2. Command - Elisha, God's mouthpiece, gives a command to his servants which will ensure their wellbeing.

  3. Fall - The innocent actions of one man result in a bitter, poisonous fruit being shared between all (ringing any bells yet?)

  4. Consequences - Due to the error of one man, the fate of all is now in jeopardy. The people are unable to obey the command.

  5. Solution - Elisha gives a second command to add coarse meal to the pot. The people are provided with the "poisoned" stew, which they are now able to partake of.

Hopefully by now you are desperately trying to remember which letter refers to this picture. The answer is Romans, and chapter 5:

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men" - Romans 5v12

Here's our poor hapless man from the story, beguiled by a fruit, and whose actions meant that all fell under the curse of death (see also: Adam & Eve).

"...for until the law, sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come." - Romans 5v13-14

The sons of the prophets were provided with a way to life (eating the stew), but they couldn't partake of it. Despite knowing God's commands, mankind also is unable to follow them.

By the hand of a mediator, Elisha, a further command was given and a coarse, grainy substance was added to the pot. This mitigated the effects of eating the poisoned stew and sustained the people until something better could be provided.

What else in the Bible was designed to mitigate the effect of sin, but ended up being too bitter and coarse for people to fully partake of? Why did death reign from Adam to Moses?

Because Moses gave them the Law. The schoolmaster. He mediated the commands of God. Of itself the Law could justify no-one, but it was at least an effective method for engendering faith! The stew was also effective in sustaining the people, even if they still had to munch their way through a coarse, bitter stew.

This story is a 4-verse metaphor for sin and the Law, played out with vegetables and a large cooking pot. This is magnificent. What human author could possibly have come up with an idea like that?!

In part 2 we'll compare the Law (or, un-poisoned stew) to the new covenant in Christ, which just happens to be the next provision in the Kings record.

Comment over on Facebook or Twitter (@biblesnippets), and award yourself bonus points if you open your Bible and figure out the connection between Elisha's next actions and the new covenant before next week!

EDIT: You're welcome to try and figure it out first, but part 2 of Death In The Pot is now available.

Photo credit: Xenocryst @ Antares Scorpii via photopin (Creative Commons)


Bible enthusiast, husband, Dad, and tech-head with too many projects and not enough time.