Achazya: Part 4: "A Hairy Man With a Girdle of Leather About His Loins" (7-8)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Eliyahu Narratives
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #74: Achazya

Part 4: "A Hairy Man With a Girdle of Leather About His Loins" (7-8)

(7) And he said to them: What sort of man was it who came up to meet you and told you these things?

(8) So they said to him: A hairy man with a girdle of leather about his loins.

And he said: He is Eliya the Tishbi.


This dialogue, conducted between Achazya and his messengers, has dual significance: it guides us towards a proper understanding of the messengers' act in deciding to return to the king and fulfill Eliyahu's mission, and it also helps us understand Achazya's motives in questioning his messengers.


In the previous shiur we addressed the praiseworthy decision of the messengers, who became emissaries of Eliyahu and conveyed his message to their sinful king.  But one could argue and say, did Achazya's messengers have any idea that it was Eliyahu who was rebuking them for their journey, and that it was he would was demanding that they become his emissaries on their return journey to their king? It is clear that they were not familiar with him at all! "A man came up to meet us" – it is with these words that they report back to Achazya in verse 6.  Thereafter they give an external description of him: "A hairy man with a girdle of leather about his loins."  When Achazya immediately identifies him, on the basis of this description – "He is Eliya the Tishbi" – we understand that the messengers did not know him.


In truth, even if they did not know him, it was clear to them that this "man" was a prophet of God – both because of the content of his message (a prophecy in God's Name) and because of his external appearance, which apparently was typical of prophets.  (Some commentators understand the expression "a hairy man" as meaning that he wore a mantle of hair – which was characteristic of prophets, as explained in Zekharya 13:4.  Alternatively, the expression may be understood as meaning that he had long hair – which would certainly hint to the fact that Eliyahu was a nazir, as many other prophets probably were; see Amos 2:11).  But the fact that they failed to recognize him is most surprising, as Radak notes (commenting on verse 8):


"This is surprising: how could the messengers of the king of Israel not recognize him? Did he not regularly appear before Achav, and in Shomron?"


This question leads us to conclude that the messengers certainly did recognize the man in front of them as Eliyahu, the prophet.  Even if they had never met him or seen him in person, they would certainly have heard about him and could have identified him by his powerful presence and by the prominent signs which they used to describe him to Achazya.  However, they also knew that mentioning the name of Eliyahu would arouse their king's anger, since he was the prophet's archenemy, and they might be endangering their lives by revealing that they had obeyed him and become Eliyahu's emissaries vis-א-vis Achazya.  Therefore, they pretend ignorance and report to the king as though they have no idea who Eliyahu is.  They have returned speedily, as it were, since there is no longer any need for them to go on all the way to Ekron.  Their king's question, "Will I recover from this illness?," has already received an answer – "You will surely die."  What difference does it make to the king whether he receives this answer from a "local man of God" or from the Philistine oracle? After all, Eliyahu did demand of Achazya's messengers that they fulfill his mission, but he did not require of them to give up their lives or to endanger themselves unnecessarily.  Hence, they had the sense to convey God's message to the king without arousing his anger against themselves.  But in this play of innocence, they take care to ensure that Achazya himself concludes that the man who spoke to them – and through them, to him – "He is Eliya the Tishbi."


Let us now clarify the significance of this dialogue from the point of view of Achazya's intentions in questioning his messengers.  Why is it so important to Achazya to know "What sort of man was it" who sent him a message via his messengers? What does he gain from a description of the man, and why does he think that he will be able to identify him on the basis of his messengers' description?


It seems likely that Achazya was not familiar with all of the prophets who were active in Israel at the time.  However, he certainly knew the most prominent among them, the main prophet of he generation – Eliyahu.  His heart told him that this prophet, who had "hounded" his father, Achav, on several occasions, and who had been persecuted by Izevel, his mother, was the same one who had revealed himself to the messengers and sent the prophecy of destruction.  This prophet was already known for his manner of catching the king "red-handed," as it were, rebuking him with a piercing rhetorical question, and ending off his rebuke with a prediction of terrible punishment.  This is what Eliyahu had done to his father, Achav, at the threshing-floor of Navot, at the exact time when Achav had gone down to take possession of it:

"Have you then murdered and also taken possession?!...  In the place where the dogs licked the blood of Navot, the dogs will lick your blood, too." (I Melakhim 21:19)


Here, too, the same man of God arises to meet Achazya's messengers just as they make their way to inquire of Ba'al-Zevuv.  He sends, through them, his rebuke in the form of a rhetorical question ("Is it for lack of… that you send to inquire…?") and the imminent punishment ("Therefore…").


It is with great and barely concealed anxiety, then, that Achazya directs his question towards his messengers: "What sort of man was it…."  In response he hears an exact description of the characteristic signs of Eliyahu.  What he suspected has turned out to be the truth: "He is Eliya the Tishbi!"


It is with these dramatic words that the first part of the story ends.  This dialogue between Achazya and his messengers lays the foundation for the second part of the story, where it becomes clear that Achazya's questioning is intended not only to confirm his suspicions, but also for a practical purpose: to try to lay his hand on the prophet in hiding, who so embitters the lives of the royal family.




Part 5: Why are the Two Captains of Fifty, and their Fifty Men, Consumed by Fire? (9-12)


1.         The Question


In his commentary, Mar'ot Ha-tzov'ot, Rabbi Moshe Alshikh raises the principal question in relation to the second part of our narrative with the following words:

"Attention should be paid: what was the sin of these two captains of fifty, and their respective companies of fifty men, whom Eliyahu consumed with fire? They were merely emissaries, having been commanded by their king to declare their message!"


In the series of shiurim devoted to "The Drought" and "Chorev," we noted that Chazal, in the Gemara and in the midrashim, do not hesitate to express themselves in criticism of Eliyahu and his actions.  In our chapter, however, we find among their comments no hint of such criticism.  This is explained by the fact that the Sages do not criticize Eliyahu on the basis of their subjective feelings, but rather on the basis of veiled criticism concealed in the text itself.  In other words, they regard part of the Eliyahu narratives as having been recorded with the intention of criticizing his actions, and they decode these textual hints in their midrashim.


Such criticism – both on the level of the text itself and in its interpretation by the Sages – is possible only in a case where Eliyahu operates on his own initiative (as in his oath concerning the cessation of rain, in chapter 17, or his journey to the desert in chapter 19).  But wherever Eliyahu is guided by a Divine command, and acts in accordance with it (as, for example, in the story of the vineyard of Navot), there is clearly no room for any criticism.


What is the nature of Eliyahu's actions in our narrative? Eliyahu is guided by an angel of God both at the beginning of the story – in the very idea of interfering with Achazya's dispatch of the delegation to inquire of Ba'al-Zevuv, god of Ekron, and also at its end, where he is commanded to descend from the mountain together with Achazya's third captain of fifty.  In the two middle units – the burning of the two captains of fifty together with their men, representing the subject of our present discussion – Eliyahu acts on his own.  He himself decrees the descent of fire from the heavens, and God immediately responds, time after time, with no hint of any tension or criticism.  We return, then, to the question of the commentators, formulated this time in the words of Rabbi Yitzchak Arama in his Akeidat Yitzchak:


"What capital wrong did these first (two) captains of fifty and their respective fifty men do to him… such that he cast the fire of his anger among them, to consume them?"


2.  For What Reason are Two Captains of Fifty Sent, with their Men?


After Achazya correctly identifies the "hairy man with a girdle of leather about his loins," we are told:


"He sent to him a captain of fifty with his fifty." (9)


For what reason does he send them? This question is of great significance for a clarification of the main problem set forth above.  Ralbag proposes a surprising explanation as to the purpose of this dispatch:


"This means to say that he sent to Eliyahu - to honor him and summon him – an important captain who would have fifty men walking before him, and those fifty men went with him."


To his view, the king sent an honorary delegation to ask Eliyahu to come to the king.  Eliyahu's honor is expressed in the status of the captain who is sent to him.  This is a captain of such importance that fifty men usually walk before him, and they do so now, too. 


But this is a very problematic interpretation.  Our text speaks of a "captain of fifty, with his fifty" – meaning, a captain who commands a unit of soldiers numbering fifty men.  Thus, the captain is not of such important rank after all, and the purpose of sending him to Eliyahu cannot be to honor the prophet.  We therefore return to our question: for what reason is a commander sent together with a platoon of soldiers to Eliyahu?


Clearly, the platoon of soldiers, with their commander, is dispatched with a view to violent "military" action.  These fifty men are apparently entrusted with the task of seizing Eliyahu at any price.  Such a great number of soldiers sent to confront a single man must be meant to prevent any possibility of disappearance on the part of the prophet – who is known for his ability to disappear and elude his pursuers.


The approach that views the captains of fifty and their men as being sent in order to force Eliyahu to come down to them is accepted among certain commentators.  But why would Achazya want to capture Eliyahu? We may suggest three possible reasons:


a.         Achazya wants to force Eliyahu to appear before him and to declare his prophecy directly, rather than through the agency of messengers.

b.         Achazya wants to punish Eliyahu for the prophecy of punishment that he has conveyed to him, and for preventing his messengers from carrying out their mission.

c.         Achazya wants to kill Eliyahu for the above reasons, and perhaps also as a continuation of the policy of Izevel, his mother, who had sworn to have him put to death (I Melakhim 19:2) and who was still capable of doing so (see II Melakhim 9:30-31).


In the next shiur, we shall attempt to decide which of these possibilities seems the most likely.



Translated by Kaeren Fish