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.
2 KINGS 4:38-41
We know with certainty what kind of gourd it was that Elisha’s servant fetched for the stew. Most scholars suggest it was citrullus colocynthis, a relative of the watermelon, sometimes called ‘bitter apple’, and known in biblical times as ‘wild gourd’ or ‘gall’. It was possibly from the same fruit that the juice that Jesus was offered on the cross.
The fruit of citrullus colocynthis is basically poisonous. It can be used cautiously as a medicine for stomach pains or as a laxative, and the seeds are edible if ground to make bread. They also produce oil, which can also be used to make candles. Small amounts of the fruit can be used as a moth deterrent. If consumed in large amounts, however, the fruit can be deadly. Opium is often suggested as an antidote!
It is therefore not surprising that Elisha’s guests were alarmed at being offered mothball stew by an unwitting cook. Yet Elisha was able to act quickly and miraculously to save them. A similar thing happened in the wilderness immediately after the Israelites had fled from the Egyptians. The water in the wilderness of Shur was bitter but God showed Moses a piece of wood to throw into the water to make it safe to drink (Exodus 15:22-25).
As in the story of Elisha, whatever the properties of the wood may have been, there was a deeper meaning, which Moses made explicit; ‘If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and ; keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you" (v 26).
Not all nature is for our good. More importantly, in what seemed like danger, brought on by foolishness, Elisha knew what to do and acted fast. His solution was simple and effective.
In Elisha’s time there was famine in the land. The famine may have been physical but it also represents a spiritual famine. The wild gourds represent false teachings which, although innocently thrown into the pot, bring ‘death’ and ‘poison’ to the healthy word of God. Elisha’s solution is to throw in good flour and we might want to go so far as to associate this with Jesus, the true food who purges the poison of secular society and renders cynicism impotent, bringing new life where there has previously only been death and sin.
Lord Jesus, purge away the impurities and poisons of our lives, and fill us with the good food of the gospel. Amen