2020 was an interesting year for the question of ‘moral character’. We’ve seen both the best and worst in human nature during the pandemic - incredible sacrifice and dignity through to selfish disregard for anyone else at all. One interview that went viral stuck with me though. Van Jones, a CNN host, broke down in tears after the US election results explaining, “It’s easier to be a parent this morning, to tell your kids ‘character matters’.“ Many of us would ‘amen’ that as a sentiment whether we are people of faith or not.
There are also a number of characters in the Bible that we might describe as ‘morally ambiguous’. David’s right hand man Joab comes to mind and so does the servant of Elisha – Gehazi.
Gehazi appears across a number of chapters in 2 kings which take us on a journey to explore his story. It’s got to be said that living alongside and working for the ‘man, of god’ must have been quite something. With “double the anointing” of his mentor Elijah, Elisha performed some pretty remarkable (if domestic) miracles and clearly had something of a reputation. These included the ‘healing’ of Jericho’s toxic water supply and the provision of miraculous oil for a vulnerable widow. They also included his cursing of a mocking crowd of local youth which resulted in them being mauled by bears!
Elisha was – in short – not someone to mess with!
2 Kings 4.8-37
We first meet Gehazi in the account of the Shunammite woman’s hospitality. He, along with his master, were in the habit of staying over in the specially built room of an affluent, but childless local couple. What we see in this narrative is that Elisha trusted Gehazi and valued his opinion. To ask God for a child for her was Gehazi’s idea…after all that was what all ancient families longed for – descendants.
Similarly, when the child is struck down and dies it is Gehazi whom Elisha sends to intercept the mother, to receive her message and to take his staff to raise the boy. There is little in this account to suggest that Gehazi was anything but a solicitous servant, if somewhat overprotective of his master in the same way the disciples tried to send away those who wanted Jesus to bless their children.
Of course, it must have been enormously stressful and humiliating that, having run 15 miles to resurrect the boy, he was unable to do so – even with the prophet’s staff. No one would mistake the servant for his master – he was not ‘the man of God.’
We must remember the enmity and violence that raged between local nations and tribes at this point in Israel’s history. Violent incursions and raiding parties were common – indeed Naaman’s knowledge of Elisha’s power came from a Hebrew girl kidnapped on just such a raid. Gehazi would have been well aware of the crimes committed by Naaman and his army on God’s people, perhaps his own family had suffered at Aramean hands? Similarly, much of Elisha’s ministry took place during a time of terrible famine. Many of his miracles involved feeding the hungry, restoring poisoned food, and providing for the destitute. Gehazi had seen poverty and experienced hunger, he knew how the people were suffering despite his master’s actions and what effects financial instability can have.
2 Kings 5
In this chapter we are told of the healing of Naaman, instructed by Elisha to dip 7 times in the Jordan and of Naaman’s desire to worship the God of Israel from them on. Elisha refuses the offer of payment offered by Naaman – ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothing. This was wealth beyond imagination (a talent of silver was half a lifetime’s income for a labourer), and Elisha refused it all. “As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, I will take nothing.”
God’s blessing was not for sale like other gods, his grace was freely offered to those who would humble themselves as Naaman had.
It was just too much for Gehazi. He decided “I will run after him and take something from him”. Concocting a spurious story of two visiting prophets in need Gehazi extracts a talent of silver and two changes of clothes. Small fry compared to Naaman’s great wealth. Naaman is glad to give, even climbing down from his chariot to do so and doubling the requested silver. No one has been hurt – right? Everyone is a winner!
“Your servant went nowhere.”
Doh! This is Elisha, the man who hears directly from God. The man who offers military strategy to the king because God tells him where the enemy armies are situated. To lie to Elisha is…well… just stupid! Admittedly, Gehazi had seen occasions (like with the Shunammite woman) where Elisha had NOT known what was going on, perhaps he hoped that this would be one of those?
Sadly for him, it is not. “Did my heart not go with you, when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Is it the time to receive money and receive clothes and olive groves and vineyards and sheep and oxen and male and female servants?” Elisha is furious, the free grace of God has been undermined. In his anger he speaks in hyperbole – “In this time of famine, as the people suffer. Is it appropriate for those associated with God to seek wealth and comfort for themselves? To insulate their future from suffering? Is it your job to provide for yourself? Has God not been faithful?”
“Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.” So he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow.” (2 Kings 5.27)
Gehazi’s downfall is immediate and dreadful. His crime an affront to both God and Elisha.
And that would be a terrible ending, if indeed it was.
2 Kings 8.1-6
Strangely in the court of the king.
It is a surprise that the disgraced servant of the man of God, and one with leprosy to boot should be talking with the king but 2 Kings 8.4 reports “Now the king was talking with Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, saying ‘please relate to me all the great things Elisha has done’.” Clearly the king’s curiosity outweighs his repugnance at Gehazi’s situation and we might, as cynics, read this as Gehazi continuing to trade in on his stories of ‘the good old days’ – to make a buck from his former glory stories. However, God uses Gehazi – he is the right man in the right place at the right time.
Just as he has recounted the astonishing story of the resurrection of the Shunammite’s son, she and the child appear at the kings’ court. After seven years away to escape the famine (at the instruction of her friend Elisha) she has returned to find unscrupulous neighbours have commandeered her land. She has come to ask the King to intervene and restore her home.
“And Gehazi said, ’My Lord, O king, this is the woman, and this is her son, whom Elisha restored to life.’ When the king asked the woman she related it to him. So the king appointed an officer for her saying ‘restore all that was hers and the produce of the field from the day she left the land until now.’” (2 Kings 8.5-6)
The end for Gehazi is not one of shame for his greed and deception, for his lack of faith and trust, for exploiting Elisha’s powers for his own gain.
The last we hear of Gehazi he is speaking well of his old master, encouraging faith in the King, and interceding for his master’s friend the Shunammite, who now appears to be a widow.
We know no more of his fate, but we see in this small account a glimpse of redemption, of restoration, of the second chances we associate with Jesus. Just as Peter’s betrayal was forgiven and he was given a part in God’s plans, so – many centuries before – was Gehazi. And like Peter, who wept bitterly at his betrayal I think its fair to assume Gehazi did the same. That he realised the seriousness of his crime and accepted the consequences. He could have become bitter, self-destructive, slanderous of his old master but apparently, he did not.
How he came to have favour with the king we do not know, but that too is surely a sign of God’s mercy and redemption. He did not starve in a gutter, or become destitute, he found favour with the King, and presumably sustenance in that.
We often read, hear, even live stories of those who should know better making catastrophic errors. Sinning in a way that destroys and damages those around them and brings God’s name into disrepute. Once they have fallen from their pedestal, we rarely give them much thought beyond sorrow at their sin. But there is promise here that God not only sees but continues to care and can bring some good out of the ruins if we are humble enough to repent and turn back to him.
I can easily identify with Gehazi, my inability to trust God – despite his relentless faithfulness, the temptation to try and make myself secure. I’m unwilling to throw stones at Gehazi because I recognise his failings in myself – and I’m doubly grateful for the grace which is constantly extended to me each time I get it wrong.
So – morally ambiguous and flawed? Yes. But redeemed and used by God despite that? Absolutely.
© Ruth Perrin 2021. Last revised on 30 March 2021