Question: "Why did the Israelites buy dove droppings for five shekels of silver (2 Kings 6:25)?"

Answer: In the 2 Kings account of the Aramean (or Syrian) siege against Samaria, we read a disturbing reference that people of Israel were afflicted by astronomical inflation rates, having to buy “dove droppings for five shekels of silver” (2 Kings 6:25, NKJV).

The context is warfare. After failing to have victory in conquest against Israel, Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, attacked Samaria (the territory and a city in between the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel). The siege of the city exacerbated a famine in Samaria that became so severe that “a donkey’s head sold for eighty pieces of silver, and a cup of dove’s dung sold for five pieces of silver” (2 Kings 6:25, NLT). The “quarter of a cab” of dove’s droppings (NIV) was the equivalent of a pint. It appears that these items were bought for food, as the famine was so severe, even though donkeys were unclean animals. Eating donkeys’ heads and doves’ droppings was not normal procedure. But the situation was so dire that the people of Samaria not only ate these things but paid dearly for them.

The context adds a horrifying account of cannibalism. A woman agreed with another that they would cook and eat her son one day, and the following day the women would eat the other son. After the first day, and the first woman’s son was killed and eaten, the second woman broke the agreement and refused to give up her own son (2 Kings 6:26–30). Amid such atrocities, dove droppings begin to seem more appetizing.

There is some question as to whether the dove droppings were literal dung or a name given to a type of worthless vegetable matter made of certain parts of pea, lentil, or bean plants. In ordinary times, no one ate such stuff. The vegetable interpretation is what the NIV chooses, saying that the people bought “a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels.” Either way—distasteful vegetables or actual manure—what was ordinarily a cut-rate food now commanded a hefty price.

Even as the people of Samaria were buying dove droppings for five shekels of silver, the prophet Elisha proclaimed a quick deliverance: by the next day, at the gates of Samaria, a measure of fine flour would cost only a shekel and two measures of barley only a shekel (2 Kings 7:1). An officer of the king standing nearby said to Elisha, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?” (2 Kings 7:2).

But Elisha’s prophecy came true. Later that night four lepers sneaked into the camp of the Arameans to find food (2 Kings 7:4–5), and they discovered no one there. The camp was abandoned. God had caused a great terror to come upon the army of the Arameans, as they imagined they heard chariots and a mighty army coming to destroy them (2 Kings 7:6). They had fled for their lives, leaving their possessions, including all the food (2 Kings 7:7). The lepers returned to tell the people of Samaria (2 Kings 7:9–14). The people then plundered the camp, and there was suddenly a glut of food. The word of God that came through Elisha was fulfilled. A measure of fine flour was sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley were sold for a shekel (2 Kings 7:16).

Throughout the Old Testament are accounts of Israel being attacked and God delivering by miraculous means. The plight of Samaria was an awful one, characterized by hyper-inflation and worse. Even in that very dark situation, God showed that He had not abandoned the people and they could find their deliverance in Him.