John Drury


Prophets, Honor, and a Floating Ax Head (2 Kings 6:1-7)


2 Kings 6:1-7


1a        Then the company of the prophets said to Elisha,

  b        “Look, now, the place where we sit before you[i] is too tight[ii] for us. 

2a        Let us go now to the Jordan

  b        and take from there each man one beam

  c        and make for ourselves there a place to sit.” 

  d        And he said “Go.” 

3a       Then one said, “Be pleased, now, and go with your servants.” 

  b        And he said, “I will go.” 

4a        So he went with them;

  b        and they came to the Jordan and cut down trees.

5a        Then it happened[iii] that while[iv] one was felling a beam, the iron fell into the water.

  b        So he cried out saying, “Alas, my Lord, it was borrowed!” 

6a        The man of God said, “Where did it fall?” 

  b        So he showed him the place. 

  c        Then he cut off a piece of wood

  d        and threw it there,

  e        and he[v] caused it to float. 

7a        Then he said, “Raise it up for yourself.” 

  b        And he stretched out his hand and took it.



Why study such a simple story?  Is it not just one more miraculous act recorded to venerate Elisha? It seems a bit gratuitous.  Yet the narrator of this story weaves together an important episode in the Elisha cycle.  Rather than merely pointing to Elisha’s miraculous solution, this story reveals the particular problems of his community of prophets.[vi]   In so doing, this episode completes the characterization of his company of prophets begun in chapter two.   As James Mead points out, “The primary emphasis in the text is upon the need rising out of the man’s status as a ‘borrower.’” [vii]  It is this very status that I wish to probe.  I propose that this narrative portrays the company of the prophets as a group in socioeconomic trouble leaving them in dread of debt and dishonor.

This episode appears in the last half of the Elisha cycle.  This extended prophetic narrative runs constant from 2 Kings 2 through 9:13, though Elisha is introduced in 1 Kings 19:12-21 and his deathbed story in recounted in 2 Kings 13:10-21.  The Elisha cycle oscillates between three major types of episodes: (1) political events, which make up the majority, (2) more domestic concerns, focused primarily on the widow from Shunem, though the Naaman story may be included here, and (3) matters concerning the company of the prophets.  These fellow prophets play a crucial role at both the beginning (ch. 2) and the end (9:1-13) of the main block of the Elisha cycle.  Yet five stories stand out as focused particularly on the needs of the prophetic community (2:19-22; 4:1-7; 38-41; 42-44; 6:1-7).  Among these, the story of the floating ax head offers the final word.

Although this episode can be treated with the company stories primarily in view, its closer literary relationships must not be ignored.  The preceding story about Naaman has the obvious Jordan River connection, as well as a more subtle character contrast between the man who lost his ax head and Elisha’s lad Gehazi.[viii]  Both try to secure socioeconomic security, but by taking clearly divergent paths.  When turning to the following story of the blinding of the Arameans, such clear connections are found wanting.  As Richard Nelson points out, the organization of chapters 6-8 is paratactic:[ix] the “placing of short items side by side” without hierarchy, climax or summary.[x]  Such a placing is not haphazard, but rather allows for a swing of the camera back to concurrent developments on the national scene.

            Before turning to the internal structure of 2 Kings 6:1-7, a word about atmosphere and form are in order.  The miraculous form begs for an atmosphere of awe that is conspicuously absent.  Rather, the story is carried by straightforward dialogue.  The characters almost seem rushed.[xi]  Emotional content bursts in only as the prophet frets over a borrowed ax head.  The attention is diverted away from the miraculous solution and onto the practical problem.  Such a focus explains why so much time is given to the relocation plan that what would otherwise be regarded as mere a mere “set up” matter.

This very interplay of Elisha and his company is highlighted by the following structure.  Speakers are highlighted in bold to show the narrator’s focus on the company. 


I. Scene One: The Request (1-4)

A.     General Request and Response: Relocation (1-2)

Narrator: Introduction to Character Speech (1a)

a.       Prophets Share Problem and Solution to Elisha (1b-2c)

                                                                           i.      Problem: place is too tight (1b)

                                                                         ii.      Solution: threefold proposed plan (2a-c)

1.      Go to the Jordan (2a)

2.      Collect one beam each (2b)

3.      Construct a new place there (2c)

b.      Elisha Permits the Plan (2d)

B.     Specific Request and Response: Presence (3)

a.       One Requests that Elisha Accompany them (3a)

b.      Elisha Promises to Come (3b)


Conclusion & Transition. Narrator: Elisha goes with them and they go and cut trees (4)


II. Scene Two: The Miracle (5-7)

A.     Problem: Borrowed ax head in the water (5)

a.       Narrator: while one was felling a beam, the iron falls in the water (5a)

b.      One cries out to Elisha (5b)

B.     Solution: The Ax Head Floats (6-7)

a.       Collect Information (6a-b)

                                                                           i.      Man of God asks where it fell

                                                                         ii.      The one shows him

b.      The Process of the Miracle (6c-e)

                                                                           i.      Elisha cuts off a piece of wood

                                                                         ii.      Elisha throws it in the spot

                                                                        iii.      Elisha causes it to float

c.       Retrieving the Ax Head (7)

                                                                           i.      Elisha commands him to raise it up (7a)

                                                                         ii.      The one takes it into his hand





1a        Then the company of the prophets said to Elisha,

  b        “Look, now, the place where we sit before you is too tight for us. 


Some interpreters like to see the first four verses as simply a “set up” for the miracle recounted in the last three.[xii]  Yet the first verse alone is packed with intriguing information.  It is a crucial verse for profiling the company of the prophets.

            Who are the ~yaiÞybiN>h;-ynE)b.?  The “company of the prophets” is unique to the Elisha cycle.  They refer to a number of prophetic communities spread about Israel.  Such communities were found in Bethel (2:3), Jericho (2:5), and Gilgal (4:38).  The significance of this particular community of prophets is that they sat before Elisha.  We know they ate together (4:38), but also may have heard his teaching or oracles.[xiii]  Whether this was a “school” in the proper sense is unlikely.  Rather, the episodes as a whole paint the picture of a struggling yet growing prophetic community.[xiv]

            The focus of this verse is on growth.  They are running out of space because so many are joining their ranks.  This is not just the narrator’s excuse to get them down by the river for a miracle.  Rather, this growth continues a theme woven into previous company episodes.  There are 50 men at Jericho (2:16), and by 4:43 the nearby group at Gilgal numbers 100.  These narrative clues suggest this group is numbering 150 or 200.  And with growth comes practical problems such as sufficient space. 

2a        Let us go now to the Jordan

  b        and take from there each man one beam

  c        and make for ourselves there a place to sit.” 

  d        And he said “Go.” 


Here we find the prophets presenting their threefold relocation plan: head to the Jordan, collect wooden beams, and construct a new gathering place.  If they are going to the Jordan, from where are they coming?  The previous narratives place prophetic communities near the Jordan – Gilgal and Jericho.  Here we find either a new location or a continuation of the group at Gilgal, for this is where we last found our characters (4:38).  It seems best to think of all these groups generically as the companies in the Jordan valley.  In this way, they are contrasted with Samaria, the elevated central capital.

            The second part of the plan was for each man to take a beam.  If this group is bursting out of its seams, then this means a lot of beams and therefore a lot of axes.  For each man to have an axe surely implied that some would need to borrow theirs.[xv]  So a borrowed ax head is foreshadowed already by verse two.

            The final step is to build a new place by the Jordan.  The completion of this step is never narrated.  Whether the building is ever constructed is left open.  This is the last time we see the prophetic community in great need.  This may imply the relocation secured them as a community.  It may also mean that their counter-influence on Israel dwindles off.  One could point out that the only other occurrence of “make for ourselves” (WnL'î-hf,[]n:w>) is during the construction of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:4).  Were the prophets getting prideful about their size?  Such a reading is intriguing but inconsistent with the characterization of the prophets as polite to and dependent on Elisha.

This very politeness can be contrasted with Elisha’s curtness.  Their speech is long, detailed, and honorific (cohortative verb hk'l.nE; “now/prithyaN"å; “be pleased” la,Ah), while Elisha shoots off single verb answers.  This aids in the characterization of the prophets as respectful and dependent on their leader Elisha.[xvi]  It does not necessarily imply that Elisha is cruel to them, for he does grant their requests.  Rather, Elisha’s curtness points to the hurried atmosphere of the first scene.[xvii]

3a       Then one said, “Be pleased, now, and go with your servants.” 

  b        And he said, “I will go.”


This verse not only sets up Elisha’s location for the sake of his miracle in the next scene, but also characterizes the prophets as keenly interested in Elisha’s presence with them (~T'_a, also appears in v. 4).   Yet while the whole company shares the relocation plan, just one asks Elisha to come with them.  Was he the leader, or an anomaly?  It seems evident that the prophets have come to value Elisha’s presence both as teacher and miracle worker, and therefore this one surely represents the whole.[xviii]  More importantly, this use of “one” (dxa) parallels with the second scene:

A    The Whole Company: Relocation Request (1-2)

B    One of the Company: Presence Request (3-4a)

A’   The Whole Company: Cutting Trees (4b)

B’   One of the Company: Loses and Regains Ax Head (5-7)


4a        So he went with them;

  b        and they came to the Jordan and cut down trees.


The above parallelism explains why verse four is a both a conclusion and a transition.  By a chiastic arrangement it concludes the first scene:

A    Relocation Plan and Approval (1-2)

B    Presence Request and Approval (3)

B’   Presence Request Fulfilled (4a)

A’   Relocation Plan Fulfilled (4b)


At the same time it begins the next scene by yet another chiastic structure:

A    Presence of Elisha (4a)

B    Cutting Project Underway (4b)

B’   Cutting Project Problem (5)

A’   Presence of Elisha as Solution (6-7)



5a        Then it happened that while one was felling a beam, the iron fell into the water.

  b        So he cried out saying, “Alas, my Lord, it was borrowed!” 


This verse forms the heart of the episode.  Here the final clues are given to complete the characterization of the company of the prophets.  The aforementioned parallelism between the two scenes suggests that this one prophet is not an anomaly but rather a representative of the prophetic community.  They may not have all lost a borrowed ax head, but the company as a whole shares in his socioeconomic plight.

            In order to probe the prophet’s socioeconomic situation, we must turn first to the literary devices at work in this verse.  The term for “iron” (lz<r>B) is used throughout the Hebrew Bible, and quite a few times as a stand-in for “ax head.”  Yet this episode pulls not on general usage but rather makes a specific allusion to the Law.  If one’s iron ax head slips off and kills another, one is guilty of blood yet may run to one of the Cities of Refuge (Num. 35:16; Deut. 19:5).  The setting is exactly parallel: men in the woods cutting down trees.  Yet the problem is entirely different: instead of committing manslaughter, the prophet loses a borrowed ax head.[xix] 

On the one hand, the change of content makes the allusion comical.  This comical aspect is furthered by a word play on “fall” (lp;än).  The Hiphil Participle “felling” is applied to the beam, while the Qal Perfect “fell” describes the action of the iron.  The reader gets the impression that everything is falling apart.

On the other hand, the allusion adds weight to the significance of a lost ax head.  Although no one was murdered, debt and shame are matters of life and death.[xx]  The debt for an expensive ax head could result in slavery (paralleling the debt and enslavement themes of 4:1-7), and the shame accrued could potentially begin a feud between the community of the prophet and that of the creditor.  Hence the prophet understandably falls into fear and cries out to his master.

            A socioeconomic reading such as this counters symbolic readings, both ancient and contemporary.  In a sermon on this text, St. Gregory uses an intertext wherein a Goth novice casts his rake in the swamp while clearing the brush around the Abbey.  Benedict throws in a stick and the rake floats.  Gregory suggests that both the Prophet and the Goth are failing in their task to clear out vice, and it takes a superior like Elisha or Benedict to get them back on track.[xxi]  A contemporary interpreter, Herbert Brichto, offers a strikingly similar reading.  He argues that the story symbolizes the novice prophet who cannot properly use his prophetic power and therefore needs Elisha’s expertise to train him.[xxii]  Both these readings are fascinating yet manage to overlook the broader context of the struggling yet growing prophetic community.  If this episode has a symbolic function, it is that the socioeconomic struggle of the one prophet stands as a synecdoche for the struggle of the whole community.[xxiii]

6a        The man of God said, “Where did it fall?” 

  b        So he showed him the place. 

  c        Then he cut off a piece of wood

  d        and threw it there,

  e        and he caused it to float. 


This verse narrates the miraculous solution provided for the socioeconomic problem.  In light of the previous episodes, the reader will expect the call on Elisha to result in some kind of miraculous solution.  The question in everyone’s mind is “How will he do it?”  Instead of a sudden retrieval, Elisha asks where the ax head fell.  Just as the problem was preceded by the collection of beams, the solution is preceded by a collection of information.  Interrogation of this sort is also found in the story of the prophet’s widow (4:2).  This interrogation is not a sign of weakness, but rather an invitation to the needy one to become an agent in the solution.  Such participation is consistent with the dialogical structure of the episode.  It is also a theme other prophetic community stories (2:19-22; 4:38-41).[xxiv]  That this participation amounts to the prophet pointing out the “place” (~Aqm) harks back to the opening scene where the prophets ask to move from one “place” (1b) to another “place” (2c).  According to this episode at least, location and solution are intimately linked.

            As for the details of Elisha’s part in the miracle, three interpretive options emerge.  The first simply rationalizes the process, so that the stick is seen as a long pole by which Elisha gets the ax head to “flow” into shallower water.[xxv]  The second understands it as an example of imitative magic, whereby the ax head copies the buoyancy of the wood.[xxvi]  A third reading is that Elisha “whittles a new handle” and throws it in the water so that the ax head and handle meet and float up together.[xxvii]  The first reading ignores the importance of the miraculous element in the prophetic company episodes.  The second reading overlooks the detail that the stick was not merely picked up but “sheared” (bc;q'), probably into a particular shape.  The third reading retains the miraculous element yet sees the practical import of a better fitting handle.

7a        Then he said, “Raise it up for yourself.” 

  b        And he stretched out his hand and took it.


The dialogical movement of the episode continues until the very last moment.  Elisha does not complete the task but rather commands the prophet to raise the iron out of the water.  The final action therefore belongs to the prophetic community, not to Elisha.  Therefore, an inclusio is formed between first and last action, both of which are ascribed to the community.  The actions of the master are interspersed, surrounded, and completed by the actions of the servants.  In contrast to those who say that the “spotlight falls upon the central character of Elisha and his actions,”[xxviii] the prophetic community shares the spotlight and may even steal the show.

            This final verse confirms that Elisha’s miracle is not simply for show but for the benefit of the community.  He tells the prophet to lift it up “for yourself” (%l).  The prophet is empowered (“hand” [dy] connotes power) to get on with his work.  Although we are left without the final details of the relocation project, the practical flavor of Elisha’s miracle and command suggest that all went as planned.


This little narrative completes an ongoing portrayal of the company of the prophets as a group in socioeconomic trouble living in fear of debt and dishonor.  The miracle serves as a solvent for these communal problems.  The significance of this social setting points to the rhetorical power of a story such as this.  Any reader who finds herself in a similar fear can be encouraged that God helps the needy.  This text does more to readers than reveal that “Elisha’s salvific activity touches the daily and mundane needs of individual persons as well” as kings and nations,[xxix] or that “God’s power invades the world of the ordinary to effect strange reversals.”[xxx]  These readings still assume that centers like Samaria and Aram are more important that the peripheries of the Jordan valley.  This story sees the survival of the prophetic community not as mundane or ordinary, but as a central concern.  For a reader in need, this offers an even better hope.

            This episode not only encourages readers, but also calls them to participate in the divine solution.  Although the presence of the divine is crucial both in the plot and in our lives, human agency is affirmed.  It is one of the prophets who requests Elisha’s presence.  It is one of the prophets who, when faced with his own socioeconomic plight, speaks up and cries for help.  And when the “man of God” comes to the rescue, he involves the needy man in the miraculous solution.  Human agency is therefore divinely directed and accompanied, and is not an autonomous grasp for an easy solutions, such as the trickery of Gehazi (5:19b-27). This story calls us readers to participatory action, freeing us from the understandable yet misplaced fear of debt and honor, so that we may act as though God were with us – for God really is with us.  

            For modern readers, the issue of the miraculous always manages to cloud matters.  Brueggemann, however, lifts up the miracle as the very point of application: 

It is, I suggest, the work of synagogue and church to invite folk into the narratives of wonder as an act of resistance against the world of technology that wants to reduce all possibility to human explanation and human control.  Those who cherish this narrative and others like it know that human life cannot be lived in its fullness, except by appeal to and reliance upon the power of transformative wonder that is in, with, and under our best explaining, controlling technology.[xxxi]


Such a critique accurately lifts up iron as a symbol of technology and helps to break our dependence on technology in order to relocate it on God.  However, the content of the miracle is the restoration of much needed technology.  Furthermore, Brueggemann’s words could be said about any miracle story.  By setting his sights on technology, he may have missed a tighter analogy: the persistent shame surrounding the request for help.  Even in our age of technology, the rhetoric of the story stands, calling us to speak up.





[i] More woodenly rendered, ^yn<ßpl. ~v ~ybvyO rva  reads “where we sit there before your face.”  yn<ßpl simply denotes presence and is therefore redundant in English, as well as the additional “there” (~v).  Translating ~ybvyO as “sit” is appropriate because the company of prophets are known for eating together (4:42) and presumably “sat” under the tutelage of Elisha.  The term allows for the possibility that they were “dwelling” together, though they clearly have families (4:1-7) and Elisha himself is purported to have a house of his own (5:9).

[ii] As an intransitive Qal Perfect, rc simply translates as the stative “is tight.” It is unclear whether the place became tight, though this is not left out.  Most translators find it appropriate to add a “too” in order to to get the meaning of rc across to English readers.

[iii] The Septuagint replaces yhiÛy>w: with kai idou ( = hnhw).   The two are easy to mix up.  Yet in this context the switch is explicable, for a scribe may have expected a “behold” to introduce this dramatic turn in the story.  It seems unlikely that a scribe would have intentionally removed a dramatic “behold” for a simple “it happened.”  It is therefore likely that the MT preserves an older reading.

[iv] The participle lyPiäm; may have the temporal thrust rendered above when the context warrants, as seems to be the case here.

[v] Since the man of God (~yhiÞl{a/h'-vyai) and the piece of wood (#[e) are both masculine nouns, it is unclear whether he or it caused the iron to float.  The iron in verse 5 has proved that this narrator is quite willing to make inanimate objects the subjects of verbs.  Nevertheless, since the two previous verbs have the man of God as their subjects, the waw consecutive chain naturally points to him over it.

[vi] In support, Long and Overholt conclusively argue against hagiographic readings of Elisha miracle stories, pointing instead to their role in legitimating prophetic authority.  Unfortunately, they fail to recognize the role of the socioeconomic deliverance unique to the company of the prophets episodes.

[vii] James K. Mead, Elisha Will Kill”? The Deuteronomistic Rhetoric of Life and Death in the Theology of the Elisha Narratives (Unpublished Princeton Theological Seminary Dissertation, 1999) 179.

[viii] It is worth noting both the prophet (6:5) and Gehazi (5:20) refer to Elisha as their “master.” 

[ix] Richard D. Nelson, 1st and 2nd Kings (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987) 184.  Wesley J. Bergen claims that this renders Elisha disjointed character, Elisha 125. Philip E. Satterthwaite demurs, arguing that Elisha is a sort of second Joshua who is training his company of prophets to re-conquer Israel.  While I find this reading of the cycle as a whole compelling, it does not address how this particular story could relate directly to 6:8-23.  Cf. “The Elisha Narratives and the Coherence of 2 Kings 2-8” Tyndale Bulletin 49 (May 1998): 1-28.

[x] R. D. Nelson, 1st and 2nd Kings 10.

[xi] Note, for instance, that the verb “go” appears five times in the first four verses.

[xii] For instance, see R. D. Nelson 185; T. R. Hobbs 2 Kings 71; Herbert Brichto Toward 199.

[xiii] See also 6:32, where the Elders are seen sitting before Elisha.

[xiv] Arousing empathy, not contempt at ineptness and dependence as Bergen claims Elisha 126, 176.

[xv] That each man was to cut down his own beam shows that the lost ax head would not have held up the whole project as Brueggemann contends, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 341.

[xvi] Mead claims these interactions point to intimacy between Elisha and the prophetic company, Elisha Will Kill”? 177.  Though this seems consistent with the characterization of each throughout the cycle, it is not implied by these social interactions.  They are more a function of plot than of character.

[xvii] Note that of the five times %lh appears in this scene, Elisha speaks two of them.

[xviii] They have also learned that Elisha is prone to cave in, as shown in their request to search the mountains for Elijah (2:17).

[xix] It is important to note that in neither case is it implied that the one swinging the axe is careless or hasty.  Slipping ax heads are common, especially if a borrowed iron does not fit one’s makeshift handle. 

[xx] J. K. Mead argues that matters of life and death are central to the Elisha cycle and are present within this episode, in Elisha Will Kill”? esp. 175-180.

[xxi] Pearse A. Cusack, “The Story of the Awkward Goth in the Second Dialogue of St. Gregory I” Studia Patrsistica Vol 17 part 2 (Elizabeth A. Livingstone, ed. New York: Pregamon Press, 1982).

[xxii] H. Brichto, Toward 199-200.

[xxiii] Phillip Satterthwaite attempts to salvage Brichto by embedding it back into the context of the Elsiha cycle (“The Elisha Narratives” 18-19).  His success is only partial, however, for his singular focus on the company of the prophets as a re-conquering “true Israel” blinds him to the socioeconomic struggle of the emerging community. 

[xxiv] Brueggemann points out this participation theme, 1 & 2 Kings 341.

[xxv] G. H. Jones, 1 and 2 Kings Vol II 422.

[xxvi] For instance, see R. D. Nelson, 1st and 2nd Kings 185; J. A. Montgomery, Kings 381.

[xxvii] Herbert Brichto, Toward 200.

[xxviii] T. R. Hobbs, 2 Kings 73.

[xxix] C. L. Seow, “1 Kings” The New Interpreter’s Bible 200.

[xxx] R. D. Nelson, 1st and 2nd Kings 185.

[xxxi] Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings 344.






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Light, Jacob. “Story Telling in the Bible” Immanuel 7 (Spring 1977): 21-24.


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Satterwaite, Philip E. “The Elisha Narratives and the Coherence of 2 Kings 2-8” Tyndale Bulletin 49 (May 1998): 1-28.


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