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76

CHAPTER VIII

THE FAMINE AND THE SIEGE

2 Kings vi. 24-vii. 20

"'Tis truly no good plan when princes play
The vulture among carrion; but when
They play the carrion among vultures—that
Is ten times worse."
Lessing, Nathan the Wise, Act I., Sc. 3.

If the Benhadad, King of Syria, who reduced Samaria to the horrible straits recorded in this chapter, (2 Kings vi.) was the same Benhadad whom Ahab had treated with such impolitic confidence, his hatred against Israel must indeed have burned hotly. Besides the affair at Dothan, he had already been twice routed with enormous slaughter, and against those disasters he could only set the death of Ahab at Ramoth-Gilead. It is obvious from the preceding narrative that he could advance at any time at his will and pleasure into the heart of his enemy's country, and shut him up in his capital almost without resistance. The siege-trains of ancient days were very inefficient, and any strong fortress could hold out for years, if only it was well provisioned. Such was not the case with Samaria, and it was reduced to a condition of sore famine. Food so loathsome as an ass's head, which at other times the poorest would have spurned, was now sold for eighty shekels' weight of silver (about £8); and the fourth part77 of a xestes or kab—which was itself the smallest dry-measure, the sixth part of a seah—of the coarse, common pulse, or roasted chick-peas, vulgarly known as "dove's dung," fetched five shekels (about 12s. 6d.).117117   So asafœtida is called "devil's dung" in Germany; and the Herba alcali, "sparrow's dung" by Arabs. The Q'ri, however, supports the literal meaning; and compare 2 Kings xviii. 27; Jos., B. J., V. xiii. 7. Analogies for these prices are quoted from classic authors. Plutarch (Artax., xxiv.) mentions a siege in which an ass's head could hardly be got for sixty drachmas (£2 10s.), though usually the whole animal only cost £1. Pliny (H. N., viii. 57) says that during Hannibal's siege of Casilinum a mouse sold for £6 5s.

While things were at this awful pass, "the King of Israel," as he is vaguely called throughout this story, went his rounds upon the wall to visit the sentries and encourage the soldiers in their defence. As he passed, a woman cried, "Help, my lord, O king!" In Eastern monarchies the king is a judge of the humblest; a suppliant, however mean, may cry to him. Jehoram thought that this was but one of the appeals which sprang from the clamorous mendicity of famine with which he had grown so painfully familiar. "The Lord curse you!" he exclaimed impatiently.118118   So Clericus. Comp. Jos. ἐπηράσατο αὐτῇ. "How can I help you? Every barn-floor is bare, every wine-press drained." And he passed on.

But the woman continued her wild clamour, and turning round at her importunity, he asked, "What aileth thee?"

He heard in reply a narrative as appalling as ever smote the ear of a king in a besieged city. Among the curses denounced upon apostate Israel in the Pentateuch, we read, "Ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat";119119   Lev. xxvi. 29. or, as it is expressed more fully in the Book78 of Deuteronomy, "He shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land.... And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and thy daughters, which the Lord thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee: so that the man that is tender among you, and very delicate, his eye shall be evil towards his brother, and towards the wife of his bosom, and towards the remnant of his children which he shall leave; so that he shall not give to any of them of the flesh of his children whom he shall eat, because he hath nothing left him in the siege.... The tender and delicate woman, which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil towards the husband of her bosom, and towards her son, and towards her daughter, and towards her children: for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly in the siege and the straitness, if thou wilt not observe to do all the words of the law, ... that thou mayest fear the glorious and fearful name, The Lord thy God."120120   Deut. xxviii. 52-58. We find almost the same words in the prophet Jeremiah;121121   Jer. xix. 9. and in Lamentations we read: "The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of My people."122122   Lam. iv. 10: comp. ii. 20; Ezek. v. 10; Jos., B. J., VI. iii. 4.

Isaiah asks, "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?" Alas! it has always been so in those awful scenes of famine, whether after shipwreck or in beleaguered cities, when man becomes degraded to an animal, with all an animal's primitive instincts, and79 when the wild beast appears under the thin veneer of civilisation. So it was at the siege of Jerusalem, and at the siege of Magdeburg, and at the wreck of the Medusa, and on many another occasion when the pangs of hunger have corroded away every vestige of the tender affections and of the moral sense.

And this had occurred at Samaria: her women had become cannibals and devoured their own little ones.

"This woman," screamed the suppliant, pointing her lean finger at a wretch like herself—"this woman said unto me, 'Give thy son, that we may eat him to-day, and we will afterwards eat my son.' I yielded to her suggestion. We killed my little son, and ate his flesh when we had sodden it. Next day I said to her, 'Now give thy son, that we may eat him'; and she hath hid her son!"

How could the king answer such a horrible appeal? Injustice had been done; but was he to order and to sanction by way of redress fresh cannibalism, and the murder by its mother of another babe? In that foul obliteration of every natural instinct, what could he do, what could any man do? Can there be equity among raging wild beasts, when they roar for their prey and are unfed?

All that the miserable king could do was to rend his clothes in horror and to pass on, and as his starving subjects passed by him on the wall they saw that he wore sackcloth beneath his purple, in sign, if not of repentance, yet of anguish, if not of prayer, yet of uttermost humiliation.123123   1 Kings xxi. 27; Isa. xx. 2, 3.

But if indeed he had, in his misery, donned that sackcloth in order that at least the semblance of self-mortification might move Jehovah to pity, as it had80 done in the case of his father Ahab, the external sign of his humility had done nothing to change his heart. The gruesome appeal to which he had just been forced to listen only kindled him to a burst of fury124124   Compare the wrath of Pashur the priest in consequence of the denunciation of Jeremiah (Jer. xx. 2)..The man who had warned, who had prophesied, who so far during this siege had not raised his finger to help—the man who was believed to be able to wield the powers of heaven, and had wrought no deliverance for his people, but suffered them to sink unaided into these depths of abjectness—should he be permitted to live? If Jehovah would not help, of what use was Elisha? "God do so to me, and more also," exclaimed Jehoram—using his mother's oath to Elijah125125   1 Kings xix. 2.—"if the head of Elisha, the son of Shaphat, shall stand on him this day."

Was this the king who had come to Elisha with such humble entreaty, when three armies were perishing of thirst before the eyes of Moab? Was this the king who had called Elisha "my father," when the prophet had led the deluded host of Syrians into Samaria, and bidden Jehoram to set large provision before them? It was the same king, but now transported with fury and reduced to despair. His threat against God's prophet was in reality a defiance of God, as when our unhappy Plantagenet, Henry II., maddened by the loss of Le Mans, exclaimed that, since God had robbed him of the town he loved, he would pay God out by robbing Him of that which He most loved in him—his soul.

Jehoram's threat was meant in grim earnest, and he sent an executioner to carry it out. Elisha was sitting in his house with the elders of the city, who had come81 to him for counsel at this hour of supreme need. He knew what was intended for him, and it had also been revealed to him that the king would follow his messenger to cancel his sanguinary threat. "See ye," he said to the elders, "how this son of a murderer"—for again he indicates his contempt and indignation for the son of Ahab and Jezebel—"hath sent to behead me! When he comes, shut the door, and hold it fast against him. His master is following hard at his heels."

The messenger came, and was refused admittance. The king followed him,126126   In 2 Kings vi. 33 we should read melek (king) for maleak (messenger). Jehoram repented of his hasty order. and entering the room where the prophet and elders sat, he gave up his wicked design of slaying Elisha with the sword, but he overwhelmed him with reproaches, and in despair renounced all further trust in Jehovah. Elisha, as the king's words imply, must have refused all permission to capitulate: he must have held out from the first a promise that God would send deliverance. But no deliverance had come. The people were starving. Women were devouring their babes. Nothing worse could happen if they flung open their gates to the Syrian host. "Behold," the king said, "this evil is Jehovah's doing. You have deceived us. Jehovah does not intend to deliver us. Why should I wait for Him any longer?" Perhaps the king meant to imply that his mother's Baal was better worth serving, and would never have left his votaries to sink into these straits.

And now man's extremity had come, and it was God's opportunity. Elisha at last was permitted to announce that the worst was over, that the next day82 plenty should smile on the besieged city. "Thus saith the Lord," he exclaimed to the exhausted and despondent king, "To-morrow about this time, instead of an ass's head being sold for eighty shekels, and a thimbleful of pulse for five shekels, a peck of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two pecks of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria."

The king was leaning on the hand of his chief officer, and to this soldier the promise seemed not only incredible, but silly: for at the best he could only suppose that the Syrian host would raise the siege; and though to hope for that looked an absurdity, yet even that would not in the least fulfil the immense prediction. He answered, therefore, in utter scorn: "Yes! Jehovah is making windows in heaven! But even thus could this be?" It is much as if he should have answered some solemn pledge with a derisive proverb such as, "Yes! if the sky should fall, we should catch larks!"

Such contemptuous repudiation of a Divine promise was a blasphemy; and answering scorn with scorn, and riddle with riddling, Elisha answers the mocker, "Yes! and you shall see this, but shall not enjoy it."

The word of the Lord was the word of a true prophet, and the miracle was wrought. Not only was the siege raised, but the wholly unforeseen spoil of the entire Syrian camp, with all its accumulated rapine, brought about the predicted plenty.

There were four lepers127127   The Jews say Gehazi, and his three sons (Jarchi). outside the gate of Samaria, like the leprous mendicants who gather there to this day. They were cut off from all human society, except their own. Leprosy was treated as contagious, and if "houses of the unfortunate" (Biut-el-Masákin) were83 provided for them, as seems to have been the case at Jerusalem, they were built outside the city walls.128128   Lev. xiii. 46; Num. v. 2, 3. They could only live by beggary, and this was an aggravation of their miserable condition. And how could any one fling food to these beggars over the walls, when food of any kind was barely to be had within them?

So taking counsel of their despair, they decided that they would desert to the Syrians: among them they would at least find food, if their lives were spared; and if not, death would be a happy release from their present misery.

So in the evening twilight, when they could not be seen or shot at from the city wall as deserters, they stole down to the Syrian camp.

When they reached its outermost circle, to their amazement all was silence. They crept into one of the tents in fear and astonishment. There was food and drink there, and they satisfied the cravings of their hunger. It was also stored with booty from the plundered cities and villages of Israel. To this they helped themselves, and took it away and hid it. Having spoiled this tent, they entered a second. It was likewise deserted, and they carried a fresh store of treasures to their hiding-place. And then they began to feel uneasy at not divulging to their starving fellow-citizens the strange and golden tidings of a deserted camp. The night was wearing on; day would reveal the secret. If they carried the good news, they would doubtless earn a rich guerdon. If they waited till morning, they might be put to death for their selfish reticence and theft. It was safest to return to the city, and rouse the warder, and send a message to the palace. So the lepers hurried back through the night,84 and shouted to the sentinel at the gate, "We went to the Syrian camp, and it was deserted! Not a man was there, not a sound was to be heard. The horses were tethered there, and the asses, and the tents were left just as they were."

The sentinel called the other watchmen to hear the wonderful news, and instantly ran with it to the palace. The slumbering house was roused; and though it was still night, the king himself arose. But he could not shake off his despondency, and made no reference to Elisha's prediction. News sometimes sounds too good to be true. "It is only a decoy," he said. "They can only have left their camp to lure us into an ambuscade, that they may return, and slaughter us, and capture our city."

"Send to see," answered one of his courtiers. "Send five horsemen to test the truth, and to look out. If they perish, their fate is but the fate of us all."

So two chariots with horses were despatched, with instructions not only to visit the camp, but track the movements of the host.

They went, and found that it was as the lepers had said. The camp was deserted, and lay there as an immense booty; and for some reason the Syrians had fled towards the Jordan to make good their escape to Damascus by the eastern bank. The whole road was strewn with the traces of their headlong flight; it was full of scattered garments and vessels.

Probably, too, the messengers came across some disabled fugitive, and learnt the secret of this amazing stampede. It was the result of one of those sudden unaccountable panics to which the huge, unwieldy, heterogeneous Eastern armies, which have no organised system of sentries, and no trained discipline, are constantly85 liable. We have already met with several instances in the history of Israel. Such was the panic which seized the Midianites when Gideon's three hundred blew their trumpets; and the panic of the Syrians before Ahab's pages of the provinces; and of the combined armies in the Valley of Salt; and of the Moabites at Wady-el-Ahsy; and afterwards of the Assyrians before the walls of Jerusalem. Fear is physically contagious, and, when once it has set in, it swells with such unaccountable violence, that the Greeks called these terrors "panic," because they believed them to be directly inspired by the god Pan. Well-disciplined as was the army of the Ten Thousand Greeks in their famous retreat, they nearly fell victims to a sudden panic, had not Clearchus, with prompt resource, published by the herald the proclamation of a reward for the arrest of the man who had let the ass loose. Such an unaccountable terror—caused by a noise as of chariots and of horses which reverberated among the hills—had seized the Syrian host. They thought that Jehoram had secretly hired an army of the princes of the Khetas129129   The capitals of the ancient Hittites—a nation whose fame had been almost entirely obliterated till a few years ago—were Karchemish, Kadesh, Hamath, and Helbon (Aleppo). and of the Egyptians to march suddenly upon them. In wild confusion, not stopping to reason or to inquire, they took to flight, increasing their panic by the noise and rush of their own precipitance.

No sooner had the messengers delivered their glad tidings, than the people of Samaria began to pour tumultuously out of the gates, to fling themselves on the food and on the spoil. It was like the rush of the dirty, starving, emaciated wretches which horrified the keepers86 of the reserved stores at Smolensk in Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, and forced them to shut the gates, and fling food and grain to the struggling soldiers out of the windows of the granaries. To secure order and prevent disaster, the king appointed his attendant lord to keep the gate. But the torrent of people flung him down, and they trampled on his body in their eagerness for relief. He died after having seen that the promise of Elisha was fulfilled, and that the cheapness and abundance had been granted, the prophecy of which he thought only fit for his sceptical derision.

"The sudden panic which delivered the city," says Dean Stanley, "is the one marked intervention on behalf of the northern capital. No other incident could be found in the sacred annals so appropriately to express, in the Church of Gouda, the pious gratitude of the citizens of Leyden, for their deliverance from the Spanish army, as the miraculous raising of the siege of Samaria."130130   Lectures, ii. 345.


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