II Kings 6:1-7
Elisha was apparently associated with several miracles. Those that involve healing or the deliverance of a nation from invasion we can appreciate. The one that we have heard about this morning, where he made an ax head float, is just weird. At best it sounds like some sort of magic trick. There’s more to it, though, and to get at that I want to tell another story.
My Aunt Dot worked for the town of Tonawanda, NY for many years. I am not entirely sure what all she did, but I do know that it involved typing. It must have involved a lot of typing, because she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from it. Many years after she retired, she was typing away on a computer keyboard and drinking an orange soda, two activities that don’t always go well together. First, she spilled the soda onto the keyboard. Then she grabbed some paper towels and began running them over the keys to soak things up. Do you know what can happen if you just press on random keys? It occurred to her that she should maybe unplug it after that, which was a good move considering that the next thing she did was to keep the whole thing from getting sticky was to take a wet dishrag and wipe it all down. She let it dry but it still felt sticky, so she sprayed everything again with windex before she plugged it in again, only to find that the screen was filled with funny lines and the machine was making odd noises.
She was not dumb. Everything that she did would have made sense if she had been using a manual typewriter, or even an electric typewriter – and, yes, there were luxurious IBM Selectric models whose use overlapped with current technology. My aunt, whose mind was at the start of what would eventually become a profound forgetfulness, had simply begun to revert to the more familiar side of the technological divide that she had lived through.
The story of Elisha and the floating ax head is hard for us to appreciate fully because it comes to us from a time of even deeper transition. The situation involves woodcutting, not typing.
“When they came to the Jordan, when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was felling a log, his ax head fell into the water.” [II Kings 6:4-5a]
So far, it’s pretty normal. Anyone who has used an axe knows that they break. That’s one of those things they taught us in Boy Scouts; never stand near someone using an axe or a hatchet in case the head flies off or the haft, the handle, breaks. Listen to the woodcutter’s response, though, when that happened here, and the ax head flew into the river.
“He cried out, ‘Alas, master! It was borrowed.’” [II Kings 6:5b]
Maybe you’ve had to borrow a chainsaw. When was the last time you had to borrow an ax? It’s one of the basic tools of survival. If you were going to build yourself a cabin, it’s one of those things that you would be sure to keep on hand. The fact that this one was borrowed is a reminder that, as one commentary puts it,
“Whereas axes were relatively inexpensive in modern times, they were not so in ancient Israel, where iron was scarce and, in time of war, largely reserved for military use.”
It wasn’t just that iron ore was scarce. In the same way that national security leads us to restrict the sharing of certain types of technology, the ability to smelt iron was not general and, in some cases, was controlled knowledge. A few generations earlier, according to the First Book of Samuel,
“there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines had said, ‘The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves.’” [I Samuel 13:19]
We are right here at the end of the Bronze Age. Iron is cutting edge technology.
A lost ax head is equivalent to having a company’s entire IT system go down. Since the ax was borrowed, it wasn’t just the user who would feel the loss, but the owner as well, and anyone else who might have benefited from the blade later on. That’s how these things work. The summer after I graduated from high school I worked on data entry in the financial aid office at Swarthmore College. One day a question that I did not quite understand appeared on my screen and since it was a yes-or-no question I figured I had a 50-50 chance and pressed the button for “yes”. Then the screen froze. It stayed frozen until the end of the day, when my boss came in holding a pile of paper about two feet thick. “This,” she said, “is a print-out of the entire financial aid package for every student in the school.” At that time, they were working on a mainframe and there was one printer for the whole system. They would call you when your work was done and you could pick it up, which is what she had done. For most of the day this had been the only document printed on campus, while all the other jobs had waited in line behind it.
We laugh about this stuff. We get a chuckle when Grandpa puts his milk in the icebox. But not all the effects of changing technology are benign or trivial. Not all have to do with getting used to new programs or gadgets or terminology.
What happens to people when a new technology is out of reach, like an ax head that is underwater? Huge social changes come about because of what might be called (at least later on) technical progress. Some of those changes may be painful to live through and there are people who are just not up to it. When an old industry slows down or dies out, not everyone can simply move smoothly into another field. Some are too old and by the time they retrain, no one wants to hire them, or they have financial obligations that they cannot meet on an entry-level wage. Some do not have the ability to learn whatever the up-and-coming fields require. Some who would move with the job market are limited by obligations to family. Others who might be able to overcome all of this face a degree of depression and anxiety too great for them.
You see some people give up. Look where you find the greatest trafficking in illegal drugs and you can pretty much track where the changes of our own day have upset the earlier patterns without replacing them with others. If people are shooting up in abandoned factories and vacant houses, maybe those buildings themselves bear witness to the connection between a lack of meaningful opportunity and drug use. There are almost stereotypical images that link rural poverty to the establishment of meth labs. One report from the National Institutes of Health states the obvious:
“In Central Appalachia, focus groups have identified economic disparity, unemployment, and under-education as characteristics that may increase both substance use and treatment failure.”
In other words, when the ax head sinks into the mud, everything else goes along. Without the tools, you cannot get the work done.
That’s why it’s imperative not to lose sight of the way that God, through Elisha, made a piece of iron float back up from the bottom of the Jordan river. That’s the same river where Naaman’s deadly leprosy was cured. It’s the same river where Jesus would be baptized and the Holy Spirit would settle on him like a dove. At the direction of Elisha, the man of God, the iron ax blade floated back up to the surface.
“He said, ‘Pick it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it.” [II Kings 6:7]
More is happening here than a veiled promise that if you just give everything enough time it will all work out. That is just not true. There have been many places and many societies and many people who have not been able to steer through times of profound change. Some have collapsed. But the same report I just read from about conditions in Central Appalachia goes on almost immediately to say this:
“Characteristics such as strong faith in God, strong family ties, strong sense of pride, and valuing self-sufficiency, on the other hand, may act as preventative factors and help to bolster treatment effectiveness in the region.”
I love it that the first characteristic it identifies as a source of hope, even for people who have gone under in some way, is “strong faith in God”.
Change is going to happen. We are not still living in the Bronze Age. We don’t just use iron to cut lumber to build homes. We use steel itself as the framework for skyscrapers and barns alike. God does not put technological change on hold for us, but does help us negotiate the difficulties that come with it. Not all change is good, but faith helps us to evaluate the good and the bad, that we may choose wisely and, when there are unintended consequences, respond with compassion and care to the people who get left out or get caught in the middle, because there are a lot of them around.
Over in Mont Clare on Canal Day last month, I read the history of the old Lock Keeper’s house that sits back behind St. Michael’s playground. It was built at a time when the Schuylkill Canal was busy. Someone had to be on call twenty-four hours a day to maintain and run the lock, and sometimes to deal with problems among the barge workers who came through. Eventually, though, the freight traffic shifted to the railroads, and later to trucking, and the canal closed down. But no one forced the last lock-keeper, or his sister and nephew who lived with him, to leave the house that was their home. Change came, but caring was already there, and because of the caring, change brought hardship but not catastrophe.
 Choon-Leong Seow in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 199.