Elisha and the Treatment of Severe Depression
II Kings 4:1-17 tells a remarkable story of a women who comes to the prophet Elisha in a state of despair. Her husband who was one of the band/guild of the “sons of the prophets” is dead; and now her two sons are being taken into slavery by her creditors. Elisha does not know what to do and asks, “What can I do for you?” Up to this point, the narrative may be said to portray the despair clinicians face in the treatment of severe depression. It is especially disturbing when the therapist is at a loss and infected by the patient’s sense of hopelessness. Treatment of severe depression has largely moved from psychodynamic psychotherapy into the realms of psychiatry, cognitive –behjavioral therapy and psycho-pharmacology. Nevertheless, I believe, this story provides an intriguing psychological perspective on how to heal such cases of despair.
Before proceeding with the story, it is important to place it within the context of Elisha’s own life story and a turning point in his development as a “therapist”. Clearly there are important differences between a prophet and a therapist. I am suggesting that at times, prophets as Men of God did play a similar role as healers. (Abramovitch 2004)
The beginning of Elisha’s prophetic career involves his dramatic calling by a mentor, the prophet Elijah. Elisha is plowing in the field when Elijah, the reigning prophet throws his cloak over him. Elisha understanding this act as a ritual selection, asks to say farewell to his parents. Elijah, however, forces Elisha to choose between filial devotion and his new role as an apprentice, “son to prophet”. By analogy, this calling may correspond to a training analyst who recognizes a candidate as a worthy successor and even a future leader of the local institute. Analysis often does force candidates to work through their “loyalty” to early parental figures and develop a new alliance with their analyst and analytic values.
Elisha serves his master over a period of years. When Elijah’s time on the earth is coming to and end, Elijah encourages him leave him behind. Elisha, however, is determined to follow Elijah to the end saying, “As God lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” (2:4,6). Before Elijah is taken he asks his disciple if he has a final request. Elisha asks for a ‘double share of his spirit’ (2:15). Elijah replies that if he sees him being taken then his wish will be granted and when he sees Elijah taken skyward in a fiery chariot, he receives the sign of spiritual succession. The “sons of the prophets” recognize that the spirit of Elijah has passed onto him (2:15). In terms of inner transformation accompanying the analyst unto death often has a special significance for former analysand-canadidate colleague. If he can participate in the dying process, he may be able to mourn and also receive his or her special blessing and spiritual inheritance. Not to so, may leave the junior surviving analyst bereft and unabIe to work issues through with the now absent analyst (Powers). In terms of Institute politics, Elisha is rewarded by being given public recognition in his new role of inspired leadership. The skyward journey of Elijah may imply an important role of the Sky Father in his future role.
Three other incidents precede the story of the widow. In the first, Elisha adds salt to “heal” poisonous waters of a town by adding salt. Salt is a symbol of life, permanence, wisdom and knowledge that serves to overcome the thanatos forces of the underground.
Next is a troubling incident indicative of Elisha vindictive nature and his negative power counter-transference. Young boys come out the town of Bethel call him “baldhead” or “baldy”. In his anger, he curses them. Two bears emerge from the forest and savage and kill forty-two boys. Although Hebrew tradition tries to undermine the authenticity of the episode saying, “There was no forest and no bears!” the story reflects the enormous potential of the therapist to raise up destructive forces from the
unconscious (forest). Elisha may be inflated by a power-persona complex inspired by his previous success. It suggests an unanalyzed complex left unresolved in his personal analysis.
The story immediately prior involves international realpolitik. An alliance of three kings of Israel, Judea and Edom have decided to attack the neighboring kingdom of Moab the desert of Edom. Their campaign is stalled for lack of water. Elisha, the prophet is called upon for help. A musician helps him enter into an abasiement du niveau mentale or trance state. In the trance, he understands that water will appear miraculously in the desert valley (wadi) and the campaign will be successful. Elisha’s position as Elijah’s successor, the worker of miracles, advisor to Kings is now secure. These episodes touch on the collective nature and recognition in his new public persona as the leading figure mediating the will of heaven. He can listen to the Self, hear its Voice and inspire men to action. Presumably, he has also learned about his own dark side in the story of the boys and the muderous bears.
In the story the widow, the focus turns from the collective to the personal and Elisha is transformed from a miracle worker into a therapist. In the rest of the article I will focus on this story, telling it bit by bit and providing two sorts of compatible interpretations, one more practical coping and the other more symbolic of his the inner world. The woman who turns to Elisha is a widow in a man’s world who turns to her husband’s employer/ superior as a provider of last resort. In an intrapsychic sense
her inner state represents a woman who is cut off from all of her masculine figures symbolized by her dead husband and enslaved sons. Her young sons, perhaps young animus figures are inaccessible and reflect her sense of feeling alone, helpless, without the ability to act in the world. The debt to the creditors may reflect a psychological sense of obligation that strips her of all her libido. To seek help, she turns literally to a male therapist and/or symbolically to a masculine image of an inner healer.
Elisha at first does not know what to do but then inquires: “What do you have at home?” (4:2). In a literal sense, Elisha is asking about the woman’s resources; symbolically he is inquiring into what remains and is accessible in her inner world. Home is a common symbolic representation of the Self.
The woman responds by stating, “There is nothing at home except a tiny measure of oil”.
Literally, the woman indicates that there is almost nothing left in her cupboard, while symbolically she feels her inner resources are virtually exhausted and hence the despair, inability to act and her symptoms of severe depression. And yet, Elisha perceives the diagnostic indicator between treatable and intractable depression, the key to the transformation of depression. Had the widow said, “There is nothing at home.” then Elisha the therapist would have “nothing” to work with reflecting emptiness [except perhaps “ a presence that signifies that nevertheless there is meaning” [Buber]. The fact that even a tiny bit olive oil or single jug or oil (the Hebrew is ambiguous) indicates that there is something with which to work. Oil as discussed below had a special place in the ancient world and as a contemporary symbol.
What follows is the prototype of multiplication miracles which subsequently becomes a centerpiece in the New Testament Gospels (see for example the miracle of the fishes and loaves in Matthew 14:5-21; 15:32-39 and similar narratives in Mark, Luke and John)
Elsiah tells her to borrow jars from all her neighbors and not to stint. She is then to close the door and pour the oil into the vessels and fill then. The sons hand her the vessels and she pours in the oil. When all the oil has been poured, her sons tell her that there are no more jars either.
From a coping and networking perspective, borrowing a multitude of containers from neighbors serves a double purpose. It reactivates an apparently moribund social network of neighbors. She is able to ask for help and is not alone nor helpless At the same time, even before the pouring begins, her house is now full overcoming the sense of absence she had been experiencing so intensely. Symbolically, the “miracle” is even more impressive. Elisha’s suggestion allows her to reconnect with previously inaccessible inner allies (her neighbors) and regains a sense of potential. Even though the jars are initially empty they embody the possibility that they may become full.
The next device Elisha applies is to make the house a vas ben clasum the well closed container in a way in which the therapeutic setting requires a secure temenos, by shutting the doors fast behind her. Inside, she is able to reconnect with absent animus helpers or inner potential, symbolized by her sons who work together with the woman’s ego complex.
The children provide the containers while she fills them with oil.
Oil had a special place in the ancient world of Israel. It was then as now an important source of food and cooking, an essential component of the healthy Mediterranean diet.
It was also used to anoint and cleanse the skin, face and other the exposed parts or the whole body as an act of soothing in the fierce heat of the holy land. It also served as a cosmetic. Olive oil was also prized for its medical properties, promoting health and strength. But a main use was for the lighting of oil lamps that was the main source of illumination in those antique times. Oil also had a religious function. It was used to light the Menorah that stood in the Jerusalem Temple and to anoint the sacred altar. Within the Book of Kings, anointing with oil indicates divine selection of a man to become God’s anointed one to serve as King over Israel, as Elisha had Jehu anointed King (II Kings 9). Catholic rituals of baptism, confirmation and sacrament of the sick (extreme unction) all use olive oil.
As an archetypal symbol, oil as food suggests that it provides the most basic source of nurturing and nourishment. Rubbing over the body re-enacts a primary sense of soothing connected to skin in a way similar to baby massage, or therapeutic massage in adults, aromatherapy. Oil, then, would soothe a disturbed sense of body-self or “second skin” of a disturbed infant. Oil is also a practical healing and strengthening and illumination, insight into the inner world and the depressed state. Finally the oil is a symbol of the connection with sacred ritual. For the widow “anointed with depression” the despair the woman is experiencing is something for which she is chosen to undergo by Self/God.
Pouting the oil may help her discover the meaning for the divine illness has been sent.
In pouring the oil, the widow literally experiences an experience of surplus emerging from that of scarcity, that tiny measure of oil. It is analogous to the original miracle of Chanukah in which a single day’s oil lasted for eight full days. The multi-vocal symbolism of oil combines elements of nurturing, soothing, healing, illumination and the sacred all of which provide the underpinning of the psychological treatment of depression
Depression is sometimes part of an even more serious disorder of bipolar condition in which depressive episodes alternate with manic ones. in this case, the cooperation between sons and mother suggests a firm balance was achieved between the vessels and the pouring of the oil, between the renewed resources and their containment. Had the mother had too much oil or the sons too few jars, then the psyche would be in danger of an overflow of manic energies not under ego control. On the other hand, had some containers remained unfilled, a sense of unfulfilled potential and emotional constriction would result.
Finally, the woman, who is not called by name in the Biblical text, returns to Elisha now called “the man of God”. The distinction between the designation of Elisha his role as a divine mediator, as opposed his personal name, I believe, represents a dramatic shift in the widow’s transference relationship with Elisha. At the outset, she turned to him as a “referral” from her dead husband. At this point Elisha is an idealized healer, deeply connected to the realm of the Self. Even though it is the woman (and her two sons) who have done the work, she experiences Elisha as a divine healer and miracle worker. Elisha does not identify with the idealizing transference but responds in a down-to-earth manner, revealing one further aspect of oil.
Elisha’s advice is now simple and straightforward: “Go and sell the oil, pay off the creditors and you and your sons can live on the remainder.” Practically, the oil is a useful financial commodity which provide the liberating possibility of debt relief. As a symbolic conclusion to the story, the specific meaning of the creditors is not clear. Psychodynamically, it may correspond to an inner sense of indebtedness and/or an overdrawn libido. The therapeutic process, in any case, allows her with the resources to pay off the debt and emerge from a paralyzing sense of despair. Elisha, the divine healer, has given the women renewed life. It cannot be a coincident that in the very next narrative, Elisha literally revives a dead child (II Kings 4:32-38), bring another mother new hope. Later on, he turns a poisonous soup edible and cures “leprosy” which rendered people in a state of social death. He also finds a lost ax in the river waters symbolic of his knowledge of underwaters of the unconscious. Elisha, the man of God has learned to bring new life to the “dead”, those who experience the death like symptoms of severe depression.
The psychological treatment of severe depression remains a challenge for therapists,
The story of Elisha and the widow provides a guide for how this challenge might be met.