Don’t tease this guy for being bald….or else!

January 31, 2012

The Old Testament has many passages that are read by critics of the Christian religion as harsh and clear examples of why the Bible should not be considered divinely inspired. One example is 2 Kings 2:23-25.

2 Kings 2:23-25   From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!”  He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.  And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.

This passage is quite disturbing for many critics of the religion, and even many Christians are taken aback when they read it. What is the meaning of it?  One reason that this passage is difficult is because God actually doesn’t tell Elisha to do what he did. Therefore we can ask: was it right for Elisha to do this?

I love how the ancient Hebrews wrote the narratives. They tell wonderful stories but use terse language that we rarely use in our narratives today (although Ernest Hemingway’s style clearly follows this pattern). With the terse nature of the text, we see that often the narrator does not pass judgment on the actions. People will do good or evil without the narrator saying “that was a bad thing” or “and that was a good thing”. We are instead left asking “was that right or not”. In some cases, we learn later in the text that it was wrong. For example, Jacob taking four wives (or two wives and two concubines) in Genesis is not noted as either good or evil by the narrator. But as we read, we learn that it was a mistake. We see the turmoil in the family. We see the wives fighting and the jealousy among the children and the favoritism from the father. And we see how this leads to much trouble for Jacob as his life unfolds. The Hebrew author trusted that we were smart enough readers to pick up on this.

That brings us back to 2 Kings 2. What is the Hebrew author trying to say? Did Elisha act justly or was his action evil? The fact that he did it and the narrator didn’t comment doesn’t answer the question. And so, we need to try to be the smart readers that the author expects us to be. As with all the authors of the Old Testament, the author is an expert in the Law of Moses. Educated Hebrews and scribes would often have to memorize the entire first five books of the Bible that contain the law given on Mt Sinai to Moses. Exodus 21:24 tells us that punishment for crimes need to be proportional to the offense. If someone puts out someone’s eye, the punishment cannot be to completely blind them. If someone cuts off another’s hand, their punishment cannot be to lose both hands. And so, it cannot be just to respond to mere teasing with a bloody killing. That would violate Exodus 21:24. We can be sure that this was not the less on that author of 2 Kings was trying to teach.

So, what should we take away from the narrative? As I read the passage, I think there are three possible answers to the question.

1)      They were teenagers who were threatening his life. Imagine being in a very dangerous neighborhood and suddenly being surrounded by a large group of teens who are mocking you. Your emotions would not be simply anger at the mocking (which you may not mind at all) but fear for your life. Plenty of violence is done at the hands of children. Perhaps Elisha’s response of allowing God to decide by only cursing instead of personally acting out violence was the best possible response to a scary situation. There is context to suggest this, by the way, as this was a region (Bethel) that had been at the focal point of Elisha’s criticism and the boys were in large numbers (the bears killed 42). This is possible because na’ar is the word used for boys here which can be translated ‘young man’. The only challenge with this is that the word is qualified with ‘qatan’ meaning “little” which leads many translators to translate this “little boys” rather than teens. But the context at least makes it a possibility that the youth were a threat. Context is important by the way; context is needed to understand any story. Take a random passage out of Lord of the Rings and try to understand what is going on and whether motivations are good or not and let me know how that works.

2)      It was God’s judgment not Elijah’s. The second possible explanation is that the curse of Elisha was not the effective action that caused the bears to come. The text does not say that Elisha had the power to bring bears and it is possible that these deaths were a sign from God not from Elisha and that God was doing it as a judgment on Bethel and as a warning to listen to his prophets. This, again, is within God’s rights and justice to do because God loans life and we all know that he will call that loan at some point during the 100 years or so that we might have at a maximum.

3)      Elijah was wrong. The third possible explanation is that Elisha was wrong. Almost every prophet and leader of the Old Testament (and many from the New Testament) had major character flaws. King David committed murder and adultery. Solomon committed idolatry. Moses refused to honor God. Etc Etc. The Hebrew writers were not afraid to show the flaws of the protagonists. Sometimes (as we see with David) the flaws are profound. Perhaps Elisha did a bad thing in this act that is either to be judged in the remainder of his life or in the final judgment.

One final note: It is important to “let God be God” and recognize that if God is infinite and we are finite there will be things that God does that we will never fully understand and that true faith is recognizing that he is good and to trust that his purposes are true. With that noted, I have found that most of the supposedly problematic passages are actually not saying what critics think they are saying. This is one more example of this truth.

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