In the first episode of this week’s haftarah, we are told of a woman, from among “the wives of the sons of the prophets”, who had fallen on hard times after the death of her husband. Her creditors threatened to take her children away as slaves, so she entreated the prophet Elisha for help. While this woman remained unidentified, she does mention to Elisha that her husband was a “servant of God”.
The rabbinic tradition, which frequently tries to pin down the identity of unknown characters, associates the woman’s husband with a man named Obadiah, who managed King Ahab’s household. This Obadiah was renowned in the book of Kings for having saved God’s prophets from the hands of Ahab’s idolatrous wife, Isabel, who sought their death. Still, the woman in our story remains nameless.
But, does anonymity necessarily imply insignificance? In the biblical story, this woman heroically saves her children from bondage. If that is not enough, the following midrash embellishes her role, making her a heroine of “biblical” proportions.
To understand the midrash, we need to know the events of the previous chapter in Kings. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea were at war with the nation of Moab. The king of Moab, Mesha, had decided to offer up his son as a sacrifice to his deity in order to enhance his war effort. In a strange turn of events, a great wrath came not upon Moab but upon Israel and Judea who were forced to retreat.
The biblical story seemingly links Mesha’s behavior with the retreat. Rashi, in his commentary to this story, offers a midrashic explanation: “[King Mesha] asked his attendants, ‘What is so special about this people Israel that God’s performs miracles for them?’ The servants relied: ‘Their forefather Abraham had an only son and God asked him to offer him as an offering and Abraham was willing to fulfill God’s command.’ Now, King Mesha also had a firstborn and he thought to offer his son up as an idolatrous offering to the sun deity [as an attempt to emulate Abraham’s behavior]. God became angry at Israel because Mesha’s act, reminding Him that Israel was also guilty of offering human sacrifices to idols.” (adapted from Rashi on 3:27)
Rashi saw this answer as satisfactory since it answers the above question and also offers a didactic lesson on the sinfulness of idolatry and human sacrifices. Rashi, however, does not quote the entire midrash. The midrashic source of Rashi’s interpretation has an enigmatic ending: “Said Rabbi Mana: ‘Were it not for the merit of the wife of Obadiah, Israel would have been destroyed that very day. Why? For a woman from among the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha.” (Pesikta deRav Kahana 2:5, Mandelbaum ed. p. 23)
What could the “anonymous” woman of the story in our haftarah possibly have done to account for the “miracle” Rabbi Mana assigns to her? Obadiah’s wife did two virtuous acts which contrasted with the sinful acts of her brethren. First of all, by crying out to Elisha for help, she showed her recognition of God when all those around her were involved in idolatry. In addition, her love and compassion for her children could be contrasted with those who wantonly offered up their children for ill-gains.
In some sense, the woman’s anonymity is intrinsic to her heroism. It allows us to see someone whom we might have judged to be unimportant transformed into an ultimate hero – someone to serve as a role model for others. In the end, it turns out that it was not just Elisha the prophet who saved the day but also this unsung heroine who was loyal both to God and to her children, as well.