It is very easy to miss the story of the floating axe-head. Indeed, a book containing stories in 2 Kings that I found in a theological library which should have included that story in 2 Kings 6:1-7 completely omits it. The book comments on the story immediately before the story of the floating axe-head, and the story which immediately follows it, but entirely omits the story of the floating axe-head itself. The author of the commentary evidently considered the story of the floating axe-head too weird or too insignificant to be included in his commentary. An iron axe-head flew off its handle while the followers of Elisha were cutting trees near the Jordan River to build a place for themselves to live, and the axe-head sunk into the depth of the Jordan River. When the owner of the axe complained to Elisha, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed!”, Elisha cut a stick of wood, cast it into the Jordan, and the iron axe-head floated to the surface where it was recovered. Whatever. The prophet did a miracle. What else is new?
It never seemed to occur to the author of the commentary to ask what the story meant in its day, or why it was included in the extended narrative of 2 Kings, much less what it might mean in our day. The author seems to have assumed that it was only written down for its “wow” factor—the prophet Elisha made an iron axe-head float. Wow. Cool. Largely meaningless, but cool.
In this story, as in most of the Old Testament stories, cultural context is everything. Elisha and his band of prophets lived in a day when their message of pure Yahwism and the necessity of rejecting the syncretistic worship of Baal and other gods, was unpopular. The king said that the worship of Baal and other gods was part of a generous, large-hearted, ecumenism, but Elisha and his prophetic commune knew otherwise. Combining the worship of Baal with the worship of Yahweh, they said, was not generous large-hearted ecumenism, but simply apostasy, a betrayal of Yahweh who insisted that He alone be worshipped by His people. Turning to Baal or to other gods was not spiritual generosity, but idolatry, an adulterous defection from the God who led Israel out of Egypt and entered into a covenant with them on Mount Sinai. Elisha and his band of prophets were therefore profoundly unpopular in Israel, and were under constant threat.
They lived together in a kind of commune or monastic skete. As their numbers grew, they needed to build so that they could survive. They decided therefore to go to the banks of the Jordan River (then heavily forested) to cut logs to build a place where they could find stability and peace. As one of their number lifted up his axe to cut the logs, the axe-head flew from the handle and vanished into the depths of the Jordan River.
This was no small catastrophe. In those days, Israel was technologically inferior to the surrounding nations, and an iron implement such as an axe-head was invaluable. Losing it then was not like losing an axe-head now, when we can simply go the hardware store and buy another axe. In Elisha’s day, it was less like losing a replaceable tool, and more like totalling a friend’s borrowed Lamborghini : the cost of replacing it was prohibitive, and in Elisha’s day would have involved the borrower possibly selling himself into slavery to pay for the loss. As well as causing an immediate work stoppage and a failure to build the required place for the prophets, the borrower would have also forfeited his future. No wonder the one who lost the axe-head cried out, “Alas, my master! For it was borrowed!” For all intents and purposes, his life was now over.
Elisha remained serene, trusting in Yahweh. He cut a piece of wood and threw it into the Jordan River, and at once the iron axe-head floated to the top of the river where it was recovered. The man’s life was saved, and the building could continue.
What did this miracle mean? In its original context, this miracle revealed that if Israel would hearken to the word of Elisha and the prophets, Israel could remain at peace, safe from the threat of invasion, disaster, and captivity. Elisha and the prophets proclaimed that Israel must reject the worship of Baal and the other gods, and cling to Yahweh alone. If Israel would hearken to Elisha when he told them to shun idolatry as the man hearkened to Elisha when he told them to cast a stick of wood into the Jordan River, all would be well. If Israel hearkened to the prophetic word and shunned idolatry, they could avoid invasion from foreign armies and national disaster, but if they continued along the path of idolatry, foreign nations would invade and destroy them, and they would be taken away as slaves and into foreign captivity (as eventually happened, when they ignored the words of the prophets). If they obeyed the word of Elisha, they could continue to build a home for themselves and grow and remain secure—even as the followers of Elisha did after building with the logs they took from the banks of the Jordan. This was the original message of the floating axe-head. The story was not simply about what it took for Elisha to build a place for his community, but what it would take for Israel to build a place for their future.
Christians continued to read this passage in the light of their experience of Christ. In particular, Christian exegetes asked the question, “Why did Elisha throw a stick of wood into the Jordan? Why did he not just throw another rock into it? Or dirt? Or why did he not just say, ‘Let the iron axe-head float?’ Why did he throw anything into the river?” The answer, of course, was the wood of the Cross. The wooden stick prefigured the Cross of Christ. This was not hard to figure out, and the writer of the canon for the Third Sunday in Great Lent, writing about the Cross of Christ, figured it out pretty quickly. One of the stichs on the eighth ode of that canon says, “Come, Elisha the prophet, and tell us plainly: What was the wood that you threw into the water? ‘It was the Cross of Christ, which draws us up the depths of corruption and we venerate it with faith forever!’”
Just as the iron axe-head floated into defiance of the laws of nature and arose from the depths of the Jordan River, so we also, in defiance of the laws of nature, shall arise from the depths of the grave at resurrection of the dead. After the depths of the Jordan swallowed up the axe-head, it should have remained in those watery depths forever. In the same way, the abyss of death will one day swallow us all up, and there can no escape from its depths. But since the wood of the cross has been cast into the depths of death, the laws of nature will work backward, and we will arise from the depths of corruption. The wood makes all the difference: it makes unfloatable iron to float, and it makes mortal bodies to arise immortal.
This story of seven brief verses, buried in the long narrative of 2 Kings, has immense significance for all of us who face the certainty of death. Death will one day swallow us up, and the grave will close over us, even as the waters of the Jordan closed over the sinking axe-head in the days of Elisha. Well may we cry, “Alas!” as did the owner of the axe! But the wood of the Cross makes all the difference. It made the iron axe-head to float, in defiance of nature’s laws, and the Church has never forgotten it. The Lord Himself promised the same thing: “He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). And His Church has never ceased to proclaim the same miracle of us rising from the depths of corruption: every year the Church exults and sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”