Was There Death in the Pot? – 2 Kings 4

The Bible foretells a great famine coming at the end of this age.1 Fortunately, so far not many of us have experienced such a disaster. But there were many famines in the ancient past which are described in some detail throughout God’s Holy Book. Our study portrays such an event that happened during one such famine several hundred years before the time of Christ when, while scrounging for food, something bad got thrown into the cooking pot.

The story takes place in the hill country of Ephraim,2 where a school for prophets was located in the city of Gilgal.3 This city was where the prophet Elijah resided. In sermons we often hear much about Elijah, especially when he was suddenly lifted up in a whirlwind. (For an article on that subject, see the link in References & Notes).4 However, this discourse is not about Elijah, but the man who replaced him, another prophet called Elisha.

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The meaning of his Hebrew name is “my God is salvation” and it is transliterated into English as Elisha. During the 8th century BC, this man was a student of Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21) before becoming his successor (2 Kings 2:8-18). Like his predecessor, Elisha was a passionate proponent of God’s laws as well as Israel’s cultural traditions. Many commentators consider him both a political activist as well as a revolutionary in his time.5 He was a miracle worker and for sixty years served as an advisor to many kings of Judah.6

Elisha once made bad water good by throwing salt into a spring (2 Kings 2:19-22), but some time later on there was another problem, one concerning food poisoning. It is this latter event that is our focus. Our Bible story is told in 2 Kings, chapter four.

When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets.” One of them went out into the field to gather herbs; he found a wild vine and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. They served some for the men to eat. But while they were eating the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” They could not eat it. He said, “Then bring some flour.” He threw it into the pot, and said, “Serve the people and let them eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot (2 Kings 4:38-41, NRSV).7


Analysis of the Story

The ‘lap full’ of wild gourds means they were carried in a large cloak that is thrown loosely over the left shoulder and fastened under the right arm, so as to form a lap or apron; it was a common way to carry food obtained from foraging.8

In verse 40, a prophet cries out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” I suggest it was not a complaint of ingesting poison, but an outburst of surprise, such as when we taste something and it is too spicy, or too bitter, or overly salted. In such a case we may jokingly exclaim, “Hey, what are you trying to do, kill me?” The Hebrew word used for ‘death’ (mawet) can also be used figuratively for ‘ruin’.9 Furthermore, in the last verse, the two Hebrew words used for ‘harmful’ (dâbâr + ra) can also mean ‘cause distress’ or ‘displeasure’.10 So the stew may have been just unpleasant rather than harmful.

A famine was in the land because the people had abandoned the true God, Yahweh,11 and worshiped Baal12 the god of the idolatrous cult of Baalism. The Lord had promised the nation of Israel that it would be blessed if they obeyed him, but cursed if not. They didn’t obey and now were in the mist of a food shortage from lack of rain. It was no different back then, than it is today; when societies do not follow the words of the true God, bad things happen.

To the prophets’ school in Gilgal was the place to which Elisha was returning. And like the Lord Jesus, whom Elisha so resembled in his ministry, he would use this famine and the current conditions and events to illustrate certain truths and to teach the reality of God’s covenant with the nation.13

I think it is reasonable that they all knew that the problem with their stew was caused by the gourds. After all, the story specifies the “wild gourds,” but no other ingredients are precisely mentioned. This harmful fruit probably came from the Citrullus colocynthis plant,14 which is native to the Mediterranean Basin and Asia. The long, large tap root helps it survive in desert areas and it is well known to be bitter and was used as a medical laxative15 at times.


Theological Similarities

There is an instructive analogy between a spiritual or moral famine and the physical event that Elisah confronted. They had a lot of food ready for a lot of people, but it was tainted. What to do? Throw it out? No, there is a famine so it must be saved, if at all possible. The pot is like the world and the stew is like a conglomeration of man’s ideas, religions, cults, and humanistic philosophies. The toxic wild gourds represent how they can contaminate the whole stew.16

This is one of the principles we should glean from the prophet Elisha. When God’s people turn away from Yahweh, even God’s true followers can suffer. For instance, because of the moral and spiritual famine or breakdown in our current society, it is unsafe for all of us to walk down the streets at night, even in our own cities.17

Flour is a well-known substance that stabilizes liquids in cooking. It absorbs and nullifies bitterness and mellows many tastes. As a frequent traveler, Elisha would have known this by having come across similar situations elsewhere and possibly he was nudged by God to use it. The flour the prophet added represents the word of God, which is an antidote to wrong actions and ideas.

For the whole world, the message is that this planet is full of poisonous ideas and situations which lead to death; we need God’s guidance for guaranteed life. To extend this similarity even further, the flour implies a picture of Jesus today, being the bread (flour) from heaven. It is Christ’s body which gives us life and his teachings which give us support during this current spiritual famine.18

So, was Elisha’s action to solving the problem a miracle or just common sense? Maybe it was just a hunch or ‘gut feeling’, after all some people feel that a gut feeling is a message from God. (For more on that subject, see the short article “Is that Gut Feeling a Message from God?” listed in References & Notes.)19 You decide for yourself, but God provided someone who could take the correct approach at just the right time. Either by instruction from God or by just drawing from life experiences and education, Elisha knew exactly what to do — add some flour to resolve the dilemma.

This incident is illustrative of the poison of sin and its cure. It is a lesson concerning divine grace for humanity and the healing of all the bitterness from our earthly experience. Humankind is infected with the poison of sin, but the remedy for this misery is adding Jesus to the bitter social stew in which we live.20


About the Music Selection

American rock and roll singer and pianist Jerry Lee Lewis died recently at the age of 87 (28 October 2022).21 Lewis and his cousin, Pentecostal televangelist and pianist Jimmy Swaggart, were sometimes called the ‘Boys from Ferriday’, for they both grew up in the small town of Ferriday, Louisiana. That town claims to have produced more famous people per square mile than any other city in America.22

I was born in Louisiana a few years after these boys were, and I am well aware of their rise to celebrity status, as well as their many problems of living in this sinful world. Like all of us, they had failed sometimes, but they never gave up on their faith in Jesus for a helping hand.

Concerning musicians, or any other type of persons of fame, I’ve always said that whatever one thinks of their morals, we should still be able to appreciate their talent. And that is my attitude toward the selection for a song related to the theme of this article; that song is titled ‘Jesus, Hold My Hand’. No matter where we go or what we do, we need Jesus to guide the way, so that we can do the best we can.

Lewis was still playing music even in the year he died, although because of a stroke, he could only use one hand to play the piano. For this musical selection, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart recorded the song early in the year of Lewis’ death. Selected lyrics are below and a music video link is listed in References & Notes.23

As I travel through this pilgrim land
There is a friend who walks with me
Leads me safely through the sinking sand
It is the Christ at Calvary

This would be my prayer, dear Lord, each day
You help me do the best I can
For I need Thy light to guide me day and night
Blessed Jesus, hold my hand

Copyright © 2023, Dr. Ray Hermann

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References & Notes

  1. Hermann, Ray “The Black Horse of Famine”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 30 May 2022), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/the-black-horse-of-famine/
  2. Ephraim: one of the 12 tribes of Israel, whose land was located within the hilly region of central Palestine. In later times, these people became one of the ‘lost tribes’.
    “Ephraim, Jewish Tribe”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 July 1998), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ephraim-Jewish-tribe
  3. Easton, M. G., Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature, (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1893), p. 289.
  4. Hermann, Ray, “Enoch and Elijah: Are they Dead or in Heaven?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 11 May 2020), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/enoch-and-elijah-are-they-dead-or-in-heaven/
  5. “Elisha”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 July 1998), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elisha
  6. “Elisha”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 November 2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha
  7. All scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989). Used with permission.
  8. Jamieson, Robert, et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, [orig. c. 1871]), vol. 1, pp. 233.
  9. Vine, W. E., et al., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1996, vol. 1, p. 55.
  10. (1) דָּבָר (dâbâr) [Strong’s #H1697]: a cause or thing; pertaining + portion, which, etc.
    (2) רַע (ra) [Strong’s #H7451]: bad, worse, evil, distress, wrong, displeasure, etc.
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
  11. Yahweh / YHWH: name of the God of Israel. This name was revealed to Moses in the Book of Exodus. Some Bible versions use the name Jehovah (or others).
    “Yahweh”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 July 1998), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yahweh
  12. Baal: The god of Canaanite people (circa ~2000 BC to 200 BC). Son of Dagan who became the god of storms, agriculture, and later a fertility god in northern Israel, Lebanon, and later Egypt.
    Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods: Over 2500 Deities of the World, (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993), p. 36.
  13. “Death in the Pot (2 Kings 4:38-41)”, (Bible.org, 8 June 2004), https://bible.org/seriespage/11-death-pot-2-kings-438-41
  14. Citrullus colocynthis (older scientific name was Colocynthis citrullus): common names are bitter apple, bitter cucumber, wild gourd. It resembles a watermelon vine, but bears small, hard fruits with a bitter pulp.
    Citrullus colocynthis”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 October 2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citrullus_colocynthis
  15. Cabal, Ted, (Ed.), The Apologetics Study Bible, (Nashville TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 441.
  16. “Death in the Pot (2 Kings 4:38-41)”, see above.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Hermann, Ray, “Is that Gut Feeling a Message from God?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 21 October 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/is-that-gut-feeling-a-message-from-god/
  20. Barlow, J., in The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, 21 Volumes, (Eds.) Joseph Exell, et al., (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1892), vol. 8, 2 Kings 4.
  21. Swartz, Tracy, “Jerry Lee Lewis dead at 87″, (New York Post, 28 October 2022), https://nypost.com/2022/10/28/jerry-lee-lewis-rock-n-roll-legend-dies-at-87/
  22. “Ferriday, Louisiana”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 January 2023), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferriday,_Louisiana
  23. “Jesus, Hold My Hand”, Artists: Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis; Songwriter: Albert E. Brumley; Album/CD: Jimmy Lee & Jerry Lee – The Boys from Ferriday, Publisher: Jim Records | SonLife Broadcasting, 2022, (copyright/licenses: Apple Music, others). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act of 1976 — MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/zfeJq4Zos_c
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