“Elohim, it would be good if you gave me some clouds this afternoon.”
No clouds came.
Well, no man could order Yahweh around anyway.
Elisha was a sixth generation potter and his family had a reputation of excellence throughout Judah. The mark of his family meant that the pot was a good one. Elisha knew that a reputation like that was hard to get and easy to lose, so he jealously guarded it. Rachael often told him he was too picky with his pottery and that they could make more money if he wasn’t so particular.
But being particular was his way. His father had been meticulous with his pots and had demanded that excellence from Elisha from a very early age. The tradition had stuck and now Elisha was every bit as hard on his own sons to do good work.
He lifted the lump of clay out and set it on the pottery wheel. Wait, too little. It is easy to take some away but adding more is harder. He took another fistful of clay and added it to the lump.
The men of Jerusalem don’t respect the difficulty of pottery. They respect a warrior or priest or even a farmer, but they don’t give much respect to a potter. They think it is easy unless they get a flawed pot and suddenly a potter’s job is important. Well, at least important enough to chide him for his failure.
Elisha wasn’t chided often. He was much harsher with himself than any other man could be of him. He took very personal responsibility for the clay in front of him. The clay was a representation of him. If communicated what sort of man he was. Sometimes he would see his own work in the marketplace or the temple and would smile. His work was reflecting him well.
Not everyone could spot a good piece of work, but Elisha could. The best work really was his.
As he worked the clay deftly with practiced fingers, it slipped smoothly into whatever shape he wanted. Maybe he should make a large bowl now. Yes, this lump of clay would make a fine bowl.
A sound in front of him awoke him from his reverie.
“Good morning Elisha.”
Elisha jumped slightly and nearly marred his work. Looking up he saw Jeremiah the Priest.
“Good morning Jeremiah,” he said, trying to look unsurprised, “Does the temple require some pottery today?”
“No, your work is good and all of your bowls and water vessels seem to last forever. Elohim truly blesses your work.” Jeremiah said, looking somewhat distracted.
“How can I help you Rabbi?”
“Well,” he said with some obvious discomfort, “I have a strange request for you. Would you permit me to watch you work today? I have a special assignment and I’m told you can help me.”
Special assignment? What is he talking about? Elisha wondered to himself if maybe Jeremiah was trying to spy for one of Elisha’s many competitors. They were always trying to learn his secrets. But Jeremiah had been a friend for years and as a priest, he had no reason to be a spy. Elohim knows that Jeremiah has enough enemies as it is. He doesn’t need more.
Elisha pondered whether he could even tell a priest ,”No.” The temple was an important customer of his and also he felt like his offering to Yahweh was his fine craftmanship that is used in worship. Besides, Jeremiah would never violate a trust like that. He is a Yahweh fearing man.
“Yes, Rabbi, you may stay and watch. Please don’t speak while I work. I need to concentrate.”
Jeremiah went to sit to Elisha’s right side and sat to watch him work. Elisha glanced over at how close he was sitting to a water jar that was almost ready to be placed in the oven. This was a little too close for Elisha’s comfort, but he didn’t say anything.
With everything still again, Elisha began to work. The soft smooth clay slipping gently over his fingers. The muddy smell that always permeated his shop filled Elisha’s nostrils. He worked the clay into a cylinder and willed it to become a bowl. His hands knew how to work as Elisha delighted in the work. When Yahweh made the world, this must have been how he felt. The firmament giving in before his magnificent fingers and forming the ground.
It was this feeling of being a creator that filled Elisha with the most delight. What a privilege to be able to take something as meaningless as dirt and to use the skill given by Yahweh to turn it into something useful, even something beautiful. It was not lost on Elisha that man was made from dirt too. What a privilege.
Wait, what’s that? Something hard had brushed by Elisha’s thumb. He waited a moment.
There it is again. There is a small rock in this clay!
Anger and frustration filled Elisha. He drove his pointer finger into the clay and snatched the offending stone out. Pinched between his two fingers, he hurled the stone out the open doorway. Looking down at the deformed bowl with a deep gouge, he grabbed the whole lump and lifted it and smashed it onto the spinning wheel.
It was then that he realized he had lost his temper right in front of a priest, a prophet no less.
Does Yahweh punish those who lose their temper in front of a prophet?
Elisha looked sheepishly at Jeremiah. The prophet was sitting quietly, as if expecting something else to happen. He looked almost impatient.
“It’s fine Elisha. Please, keep going.”
The old man began to work with the lump of clay again. How had he let this happen? He knew better than to have a stone in his clay. Maybe he was losing his touch. Maybe it was time for him to pass the business onto his sons.
While he thought his hand began to work. This time it was not a bowl, but a water jar he would make. He had a rule that if he had to start over, then he would make that clay into something truly special. As if redeeming the clay made it more valuable, more precious.
Yes, this will be a lovely water jar. I will inscribe flowers into it. It will be unique and a delight to the eyes.
“Elisha, tell me something. Why is it that you were angry?”
“Rabbi, I am ashamed to have done that in front of you.”
Jeremiah waved the apology aside and indicated for Elisha to answer the question.
“Well, Rabbi, I love the pottery. It is so beautiful. This lump of clay is not beautiful but my vision for it is exceedingly lovely. If it resists me, I become angry because it should do as I say. I know what it can be and what it should do, it should submit to me. I know it is silly. The clay is just dirt, but I feel like it is either working with me to become something wonderful or working against me to become something ugly.”
“Why didn’t you throw that clay away?” Jeremiah asked.
“I have a rule Rabbi, that if I have to rework clay, I make it into something very special. Somehow redeeming it makes it very special. My best works, the ones that truly delight my soul, are the ones that I have broken and remade. Most of the works in the temple are remade. They stand as a testament to my failure and also to my success.”
While he spoke, Elisha’s hands finished a truly remarkable water jar. It was difficult to say why it was special, but to anyone who saw it, it clearly was. Somehow the love and passion Elisha felt drifted into his fingers and into the clay.
Jeremiah suddenly sat more upright, almost as if he were at attention. His gaze was distant, as if he were listening to another far away voice.
“Rabbi, I…” but Jeremiah silenced Elisha with a waved of his hand.
“Thank you Elisha, I must go at once” the prophet said hastily.
With that, Jeremiah bolted out the door. The bewildered old man was left with his lovely water jar.
“Well, just leave then” Elisha muttered. He picked up the water jar and placed it gently on the shelf to dry. He preferred to be alone with the pottery anyway.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. Jeremiah 18:1-5
The image above is courtesy of Walt Stoneburner and is used with permission