Toxic Stew

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(I was asked to give a message to our local congregation. Here’s what I shared in its entirety.)

There is a gourmet dish from Japan that is considered a culinary delight. It is a very expensive dish with an average price of $300 a dinner per person. It is said that this is a dish to die for. Literally. It is fugu, a dish made from pufferfish. It is said that it is quite delicious, but eating the thinly sliced fugu makes your lips and tongue tingle and even numb. Why? Because it contains a toxin, a poison that is over a thousand times more deadly than cyanide. Preparing the fugu is only done by skilled and properly trained chef. If the dish is not properly prepared, it can cause paralysis and death to those who eat it within minutes. Is it really a dish worth dying for?

Our study for today is about a toxic stew. The story is found in 2 Kings 4:38-41.

38 Elisha returned to Gilgal and there was a famine in that region. While the company of the prophets was meeting with him, he said to his servant, “Put on the large pot and cook some stew for these prophets.”

39 One of them went out into the fields to gather herbs and found a wild vine and picked as many of its gourds as his garment could hold. When he returned, he cut them up into the pot of stew, though no one knew what they were.

40 The stew was poured out for the men, but as they began to eat it, they cried out, “Man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it.

41 Elisha said, “Get some flour.” He put it into the pot and said, “Serve it to the people to eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot.

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Hungry Bodies

Elisha went to visit a school of prophets in Gilgal. Gilgal is a location on the eastern border of Jericho where the Israelites encamped immediately after crossing the Jordan River. There, they erected 12 stones that they brought from Jordan’s river bed, as a memorial to the miraculous stopping of the river when they crossed it. Gilgal is an important place in the history of Israel, so I believe it is just appropriate that a school for prophets was located there.

The schools of prophets were established by Samuel, and it was located in many places. Besides Gilgal, there was one in Bethel, in Ramah, in Jericho and maybe other more places. It was in these schools that young men were trained in becoming God’s workers. Maybe their subjects include: Prophecy 101, or Miracle: Defying Physics, or Anatomy of a Prophet. Now Elisha visited this group like a visiting professor.

There was a famine in the land, and everybody is affected. Perhaps Elisha saw the physical effects of the famine in the body of his students. Perhaps he could hear the grumbling of their stomachs and saw hunger in their faces. I know it is hard if not impossible to learn or listen to a lecture when you are hungry or starving.

So Elisha asked his servant to cook a meal for all the students. Be aware that this task was not easy. First, there was a famine so food is scarce. Second, this was a large group of people, perhaps more than100 men, as was mentioned in chapter 4:43.

Difficult it may be, Elisha was showing concern not only in the spiritual learning of these men, but he was concern as well about their physical and basic needs. One lesson for us my friends is God is concern about people’s basic needs and so should we.

Evangelism and Bible studies are very good, but let us not neglect our other community services that provide basic needs of the people. There are people that have no decent meal, even one meal in a day. Some have no warm jackets to wear come winter time. Some have no comfortable bed to sleep in or shelters to go home to. Some cannot afford to see a doctor or get medicines when they get sick. And these people are in our own community right now. Or maybe even in our very church. What am I doing for them? What are we doing for them?

Deadly Mistake

One of the young men, perhaps one fo the students, went out in the field to gather vegetables. He was eager to help, but he lacked the discerning ability. He ended up gathering a wild gourd that was poisonous.

Many Bible scholars believe that the wild gourd described here is colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis). Colocynth is a common plant in Palestine. It is a wild vine with yellow round fruit that can be easily mistaken for an edible gourd like squash, pumpkin, and melons. It taste bitter and has a potent toxin that when ingested can cause severe mucosal irritation. It is a strong cathartic even in small amount. If larger amount is ingested, it can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, seizure, and even death.

colocynth

When we moved here in Iowa someone invited me to go deer hunting. I hesitated. Deer hunting is not a part of the culture that I grew up in the Philippines. First of all, I don’t know how to shoot a gun, and definitely I have no skill in using a bow and arrow. I’m afraid I’ll start shooting anything that moves and end up shooting my hunting partner, so that’s too dangerous for me. Besides, I don’t have a heart to shoot a deer.

Then somebody suggested I go mushroom hunting, morel mushrooms to be exact. Now that’s new to me. When they say hunting, I imagine something that you chase or go after. So I asked are these mushroom or fungus walking or moving? Then they told me that these mushroom are not moving. So what’s the thrill in that? What skill do you need? I was then told that the skill is that you need to know what they look like and where they usually sprout. Can you identify the morel mushroom from other mushrooms that look-alike but are poisonous? And the thrill? Gathering and eating the wrong mushroom and end up poisoning yourself. That sure will be an adrenaline rush!

And that’s what happened in our story. Mistakenly gathering the poisonous type due to lack of knowledge in identifying and discerning what’s good and what’s bad.

There’s a lot of poisonous materials we can mistakenly take in. Of course there are foods that seemingly harmless but they are toxic to our bodies. Foods loaded with sugar, preservatives, cholesterol and fats, and empty calories. I think you know what I mean.

But there are also toxic materials that we take in that can poison our mind. Reading materials, TV shows and movies, and violent games that are not appropriate for Christians like us. They can numb and desensitized our conscience that we don’t know what is right and what is wrong anymore.

Lastly, there are also teachings that may seem right but are really false teachings. These false teachings can lead us astray. How can we discern these false teachings? Only by knowing the truth. So friends, let us continue studying our Bibles so we will not get lost.

Back to our story. How do hungry men eat? I imagine when the food was served they started inhaling their food. Maybe many have already taken several spoonfuls, when somebody shouted “there is death in the pot!” Perhaps some of them have even already finished their plate. Though some may have not started eating yet, like those who are at the back of the potluck line.

So there are different levels of concern here. Those who have not eaten yet, their concern is that they will stay hungry. For those who have swallowed a few bites, their concern is that they will start vomiting, or will have diarrhea and get sick. But for those who have ingested a lot or even finished their plate, their concern is getting seriously ill or that they may even die!

But who do you think has the greatest concern? The young man who gathered the poisonous vegetable!

This man is one of them. These are his friends and classmates. He probably have eaten already too of the poisonous stew, but his concern is not so much of him getting sick nor even dying. His concern is that he would be guilty for the death of all these men! How would you like to leave a legacy of being responsible for wiping out the whole school of the prophets?

Friends, we all make mistakes. Even with our best intention we can still make mistakes, just like this young man.

Some of our mistakes can be harmless. Like when you put salt instead of sugar while baking a cake. But some of our mistakes can have grave consequences. In my line of work, a small mistake can mean life and death. Moreover, some of our mistakes can even cause eternal consequences. Have you given an unsolicited advice to somebody and they took them wrongly and they end up leaving the church? Many of our mistakes is with our relationships – breaking our own family, or causing a brother or a sister to go astray. And worse, some of our mistakes are not done with our best intention, rather we make mistakes intentionally. Meaning, we know it is wrong yet we do it anyway.

What mistakes have you done that you are still suffering the consequences up to this day? What mistakes in your life that you still have not forgiven yourself up to this day?

In our story what happened when the mistake was discovered? They called Elisha for help, and Elisha corrected the mistake and redeemed that young man. That is true with our God. God can forgive and correct our mistakes.

**********

Many years ago, there was a story of a young lady pianist who was performing concerts in different towns and cities. She was advertising that she was a pupil of Franz Liszt, one of the greatest pianist that lived in 19th century. The truth was, she never met Franz Liszt and was never been a pupil of his. She was only using the name of the great pianist to attract a larger audience. Then one time, she learned that Franz Liszt was in the same town where she has her forthcoming concert. Surely she would be discovered as a fraud and that would be the end of her career. So she went to the hotel where Franz Liszt was staying and approached him crying and on her knees, confessing her lie. Franz Liszt gently asked her to play in the piano one of the pieces in her repertoire. After making a few suggestions, he dismissed her with a smile and said, “Now my child, you can call yourself a pupil of mine.”

That’s how God deals with sinners. We make mistakes, but God can forgive us and will even redeem our mistakes if we only let Him.

Poison Antidote

Elisha probably knew about toxicology and some chemistry. In one instance he put salt to make a bad water into a wholesome water (2Kings 2:19-22). Here in our story, he put flour into the poisoned stew and made it edible. How did the flour neutralized the toxins? I believe it was a miracle. But for the gluten-sensitive they would say, now with the flour, it is not gluten-free anymore.

When the men called Elisha, they cried “There is poison in the stew.” In other Bible version it was translated us “There is death in the pot.” This is a closer translation. The original Hebrew word that was used here in 4:40 that was transliterated as “death” is the word “maveth.”

“Maveth” can be used to define death and dying. This word first appeared in Genesis 21:16. Let me give you the background story of this verse.

Sarah and Hagar, her maidservant was not in good terms anymore. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was bullying Isaac. So Sarah asked Abraham to send Hagar and her son Ishmael away. Abraham sent Hagar and her son away into the wilderness. He sent them with bread and a bottle of water. But when the water was gone, they were dying of thirst in the desert. Hagar cannot stand seeing her son Ishmael die in front of her, so Hagar cried to the Lord.

Genesis 21:16 – “Let me not see the death (maveth) of the child.”

The Lord heard Hagar’s prayer and the Lord showed them a well.

“Maveth” can also be used to personify death, like in Psalms 9:13. This is a psalm written by David after a victory over the Philistines where he almost died.

Psalms 9:13 – “Have mercy on me, O LORD! Consider my trouble from those who hate me, You who lift me up from the gates of death (maveth).”

Back to our story. When the men called Elisha and cried “There is death in the pot,” they are not telling Elisha that the stew was bitter and needed to be fixed. Nor they were telling Elisha that they would just get sick or will have vomiting and diarrhea. Knowing now the context of that word “maveth,” they were literally saying to Elisha to do something quick for we are dying! This was a cry of desperation. Whether their fear was real or unreal, in their mind they believe that unless something was done quickly they were going to die!

When Elisha poured flour in the pot and served it again to them, it became a delicious food to satisfy their hunger. But more importantly, it became a balm, a medicine for the sick, and cure for the dying. God thru Elisha turned the same poison into cure.

Our world is poisoned with sin. We all took this poison. We are all doomed to die. But God provided a cure.

Cure For The Dying

One of the most powerful toxin known to man is venom from poisonous snakes. We have King Cobra, Black Mamba, rattlesnakes and other vipers to name a few.

Every year, roughly 100,000 people around the world die from a venomous snake bite. Depending on the toxicity of the venom and how much venom is injected into the body, a snakebite will cause tingling, muscle weakness, breathing problems, external and internal bleeding and eventual death.

To avoid death, a snakebite victim must immediately go to a hospital for antivenom treatment. If the patient arrives in due time — and if the hospital has the corresponding antivenom in stock — there’s an almost 100% chance of survival. The reason why so many people die from venomous snake bites is that even if a hospital is nearby, there often isn’t enough antivenom to spare or plainly no antivenom available.

The antivenom was first introduced only about 100 years ago — until then, people could only rely on their own immune system to survive, which frequently didn’t cut it. Albert Calmette, a protege of the famous Louis Pasteur, made the first antivenom serum in 1896 in present-day Vietnam after a flood forced cobras into a village near Saigon, where they bit at least 40 people and killed many. Calmette, taking inspiration from the then-innovative vaccination wave, made it his mission to create antivenom. He eventually discovered a process by which horses could be injected with venom to produce antibodies. He then extracted blood from those horses and injected it into the snake-bitten victim. Today, although techniques have improved over the century, the process remains more or less the same.

In a story in the Bible, when the Israelites just left Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness and was passing through Edom, many of them complained to Moses that they have no food and water and that they will die in the wilderness. Then God sent poisonous snakes described as “fiery serpent” and bit them and many of the Israelites died.

Scientists and Bible scholars believe that the snake that have killed many Israelite is the Palestinian saw-scaled viper or also known as carpet viper. This snake inhabit the Arava Valley, which is a desert that extends from the Dead Sea to the southern tip of Israel, along Israel’s border with Jordan. These snakes prefer rocky terrain, they camouflages very well in its natural environment, but they are very aggressive when disturbed and are deadly venomous. Its venom is so potent that the amount of poison in a single bite is enough to kill 6 people.

Palestinian saw-scaled viper

Within minutes of the bite from this snake, localized swelling and pain will quickly spread. Then internal bleeding will happen causing shock, and within a few hours, the bite victim is dead. 

I can only imagine the horror of the Israelites when one by one, their friends, their family members who were bitten by the snakes, were dying in front of their eyes and nothing can save them. The people realized their mistake and they pleaded for Moses to intervene for them to the Lord.

There is no antivenom at that time but God still provided a cure. The Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it in a rod. And whoever will look into that bronze snake will live. God used the same symbol of snake that killed them, to be the symbol of cure. God turned the poison into cure.

The bronze snake was a symbol or a type of the coming Savior that will save the world.

John 3:14-15

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

The cross is a symbol of death, of punishment, and shame, but God through the death of his Son, Jesus, turned the cross into symbol of life, of hope, and redemption.

Yes, we are all doomed to die, but God provided for us a cure. May we brothers and sisters, accept Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer. This is my prayer.

(*photos from the web)

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