This season of Lent invites us to contemplate our sin in order to prepare for Easter, a time of new beginnings. The story of the waters of Jericho illustrates God’s role in new beginnings.
When Israel entered the land of Canaan, it immediately sacked and destroyed the fortified city of Jericho after God collapsed the walls.
In Joshua 6:26, Joshua pronounced a curse on anyone who would rebuild the city. It would cost the lives of his eldest and youngest sons. 1 Kings 16:34 tells us that, in Ahab’s time, someone named Hiel rebuilt Jericho. The curse occurred just as Joshua had prophesied.
History can tell us what happened at some time in the past. It cannot predict what will happen in the future. At the time Jericho was rebuilt, it was still a city under curse. Its bad water kept it from prospering. Whatever hopes Hiel had for it seemed dashed. No one could have predicted cursed Jericho would ever be anything else.
But God is in the business both of cursing and reversing curses. Divine intervention destroyed Jericho under Joshua. Divine intervention reversed the curse under Elisha.
The new Jericho’s troubles reversed
Shortly after Elisha watched Elijah ascend bodily into heaven, the elders of Jericho approached Elisha with a problem. The city’s water supply was bad. Bad water made the city unfruitful (2 Kings 2:19-22).
The Bible doesn’t provide dates for either the reestablishment of Jericho or the beginning of Elisha’s ministry. But Hiel rebuilt Jericho sometime in Ahab’s 22-year reign. By the time of 2 Kings, Ahab had died and so had his son Ahaziah after a two-year reign. So Jericho had languished with bad water for more that two years and possibly as long as 24 years.
But the elders of Jericho did something no one associated with Jericho had ever done. They approached a man of God. They asked Elisha to heal the waters of Jericho.
Elisha told them to bring him a new bowl with salt in it. Then he threw the salt in the water and God pronounced the water healed. References to Jericho in the gospels have no memory of any curse.
Why was it salt that healed the waters of Jericho?
It seems weird to throw a bowl of salt into bad water to turn it into good water, but God works in ways that seem strange at first glance.
First of all, Elisha ordered a new bowl, not just any bowl. God does not work with anything people have used. A new beginning demands a new vessel.
Second, salt had special meaning in Israelite worship.
- In Exodus 30:35, salt was part of the recipe for the holy incense.
- Leviticus 2:13 commands salt with all grain offerings.
- In Numbers 18:19, God provides certain offerings for the priests’ living and calls it a covenant of salt.
Salt preserves food and brings out its flavor, but it can also destroy. When Rome sacked Carthage, it salted the ground so nothing would grow there. Judges 9:45 describes Abimelech salting Shechem for the same reason.
Regarding Jericho, think of Satan as the salt that ruined it. But the salt Elisha threw in the water was the presence of God, which effectively reversed the curse.
More curses reversed in the Bible
Moses did something similar. After the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites arrived at Marah. The water was so bitter they couldn’t drink it. In Exodus 15:25, Moses prayed. God showed him a piece of wood. When Moses threw the wood in the water, it became sweet.
That wood is the cross of Jesus. When we apply the cross to any bitter situation in our lives, it, too, becomes sweet.
The passage in 2 Kings does not say that Elisha prayed, but he must have. If throwing salt in the water had been his idea, it would have accomplished nothing. It was God’s idea. God both curses and reverses curses from Adam to Jesus:
God expelled Adam from the garden in Genesis 3 and cursed the ground. Then immediately he announced that the seed of the woman (Jesus) would reverse the curse.
Moses described the curse of the law in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. All of us, not just Israel. The cross of Jesus brought all the blessings of Abraham to Gentiles (Galatians 3:13-14).
New beginnings require new thinking. A pagan rebuilt Jericho, but its leaders appealed to a man of God. Jericho symbolically stands for sin. Their appeal to Elisha indicates repentance. Repentance means a complete change of direction, which is impossible without first having a complete change of thoughts.
We are all born into the curse of Adam. We are all born bound for hell. Jesus died to make a way for us out of hell. Repentance, our acceptance of his way, not only reverses the curse on our lives but brings us unimaginable blessings. The healing of the waters of Jericho gives only a hint.