Should Adam Have Atoned for Eve?

mountain of the LordReflecting on the nature of sin and desire in his Confessions, St. Augustine speculated that Adam sinned alongside Eve out of the bonds of natural human love. Eve was tempted by the Serpent and fell out of a lack of knowledge, but Adam knowingly chose to go down with her, since he could not bear to be parted with her. Reading Augustine’s account, we’re immediately sympathetic, recognizing the force of our bonds of love, whether married or not. My wife is “flesh of my flesh”, how would I not be drawn in with her?

Which raises an interesting question: what should Adam have done? To choose any created thing over God is idolatry. But what could he have done differently? Cut himself off from her? Let her suffer judgment alone in devotion to God? That also seems problematic for different reasons. Or maybe just difficult.

In any case, L. Michael Morales has a fascinating little excursus on the subject in his new book Who Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus.

But first, a word about the book. Leviticus is an oft-ignored book, shunted to the side in popular devotional reading and preaching largely because it appears to the book of arcane, pointless laws connected to the now-defunct sacrificial system. This is tragic because Leviticus is the heart of the first five books of the Bible and, in many ways, the heart of the story-line of the Bible.

Morales aims to open up the dense, confusing text by placing it in the broader story of the Scripture. Drawing on many of the advances in our study of the Ancient Near East as well as our undersanding of the narrative structure of Genesis, Exodus, and so forth, the sacrificial system of Leviticus stands as the answer to the question, “Who shall ascend to the Mountain of the Lord?” After our fall and expulsion from Eden and the presence of God, who will bring us back into his presence, into the House of the Lord? And how can we do so?

One of the key insights he builds on is the increasingly widespread recognition that there is a link between the Garden of Eden, the Mountain of God at Sinai, and the Tabernacle/Temple. Genesis 1-2, in differing ways, depict the creation of the world and especially the Garden as a cosmic house, the holy mountain where God himself intends to dwell. (I’ve listed 9 reasons the Garden was a Temple here).

In a sense, the two realities are mutually-informing. The Tabernacle and Temple both were to function as a renewed, miniature cosmos, with all kinds of creational imagery built into their structures. Much of the liturgy of the sacrificial system is aimed at restoring the relationship of worship and communion intended by God from the beginning. Honestly, I’m barely scratching the surface of all the various texts and theological problems this sheds light on.

Returning to the problem of Adam and Eve, one of the major takeaways from this recent Eden/Tabernacle connection is seeing the Priestly nature of Adam and the Adam-like nature of the High Priest. Humanity was created to be a priesthood within the Tabernacle of creation. The High Priest stands in the Tabernacle entering into the presence of God as a representative New Adam, of sorts, while the first Adam was an un-fallen high priest.

It is precisely here that Morales makes the suggestion that the text presents us with the possibility that Adam should have acted precisely as the priest he was, making atonement for Eve in his own self-sacrifice (181). While that can seem a bit speculative at first, Morales marshalls a number of arguments along that line, which I’ll briefly touch on.

First, Morales points out the priestly dimension to the reality of Adam and Eve’s “one-flesh” relationship. We have often missed how much of Genesis 2 points the priestly realities (gold, onyx, etc. are mentioned and just so happen to be material for the Tabernacle/Temple). Morales suggests that Adam naming the animals and recognizing that none are suitable helpers, none are ‘flesh of his flesh’, is at the heart of why it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats can take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). This is at the heart of the repetitive nature of the Levitical priesthood which only finds its fulfillment i Christ. But at that point, unfallen Adam is flesh of Eve’s flesh.

Second, the fact of the matter is that throughout the Torah the theme of sacrifice or the attempt to offer self-sacrifice by Adam-like figures is fairly frequent: Noah offering sacrifice after the ark, Abraham and Isaac, Judah’s offer to take the place of his brother Benjamin, or Moses offering himself up after the Golden Calf incident. It’s certainly not out of place in a literary sense, then, and theologically it’s certainly not (182).

Finally, there is the point we’ve already made: Adam is the “archetypal high priest” in the holy of Holies of the Garden of Eden. If not him, then who? Morales goes on to say, “arguably, the original audience would have readily seen Adam’s omission” (182). Indeed, given the fact that the Second Adam came to give himself for his bride (Eph. 5), is too wild to think this could have been an option for the First Adam?

I don’t know that I’m settled on this interpretation. I wonder about issues like Adam’s presence at the time of Eve’s temptation and sin. Or whether he was responsible for driving the Serpent from the Garden even before that. But the suggestion it’s fascinating nonetheless. I know I’ll be mulling it in the future.

In any case, I hope this has whet your appetite to pick up Morales’ book. It’s really a fantastic bit of biblical theology that’s illuminating, not only for the way you read Leviticus, but Genesis, Exodus, and the whole story-line of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Francis Turretin on Early Divine Christology

Francis-TurretinTheology is a historical practice. We’ve been reading the Bible and thinking about it for a long time. While that doesn’t entirely rule out advances, it does mean we shouldn’t be so surprised when we find that some of our modern studies (biblical, systematic, and practical) are at times only catching up or reworking old variations on a theme that’s been played throughout the history of the church. I’ve said something like this before, but I’ve been reminded of it recently with the recent works on Christology (teaching about Christ) in New Testament studies I’ve been digging into lately.

Scholars like Chris Tilling, Richard Bauckham, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Larry Hurtado, and others have bee mounting a case in that earliest Christology we have (in the New Testament documents) is a divine Christology. Unlike so many liberal scholars have thought, it’s not a matter of slow development moving from “low” to “high”, but that Paul, John, and the other apostles were already up in the nosebleed section of Christology, so to speak. They all are moving along a certain trajectory, focusing on the way the New Testament either ascribes worship to Jesus as only God should, has him doing the things only God in the OT did, receives the Name that God alone has, and so forth.

All of this reminded of Francis Turretin’s defense of the deity of the Son against the Socinian heretics in the 17th century in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Third Topic, question 28, paragraph V.:

That the Son is true God, both consubstantial and eternal with the Father, these four things ascribed to him (and belonging to God alone) invincibly prove: (1) the names of God; (2) the attributes of God; (3) the works of God; (4) the worship due to God.

And from there he goes on in precise, compact, scholastic manner to show the various names, works, attributes, and worship that are ascribe to God in the Old Testament being given to the Son in the New.

Now, of course, Turretin is not doing all of the careful work comparing the New Testament texts with parallels in 2nd Temple Judaism, nor are there extensive studies in the Greek (though he does treat a number of text-critical issues). What’s more, certain specific texts, we might want to read differently in light of recent work (like the fact the Son of Man is more of an exalted, divine title, and the Son of God, more of a royal, human, kingly one). The structure and much of the basic argumentation present in modern, New Testament studies is there all the same, though.

So, long before Richard Bauckham suggested we consider the divine identity in terms of the God-world relation, or the narrative history of God’s mighty acts, Turretin argued that the ascription of divine works to Christ (creation, redemption, etc), should be seen as proof of the deity of the Son.  Indeed, some of Turretin’s work on the issue of Christ sharing divine attributes seems to be underplayed in contemporary scene. Do a little digging in contemporary works on the 2nd Temple period and you’re well on your way to opening up a new line of inquiry in Christology.

Among other things, this is one of those reasons I’m grateful for the increasing attention certain biblical scholars and theologians are paying to the reception history and historical theology. We have nothing to lose in drawing on the exegetical and theological insights of our forebears and everything to gain.

Soli Deo Gloria

Spotting Jesus as God in 1 Corinthans 10

divine ChristologyLast year I had the privilege of studying 1 Corinthians with my college students, or, as I like to call it, “The Book of Very Hard Sermons.” Among the most difficult and rich texts to preach from is chapter 10, where Paul is wrapping up a lengthy discussion about whether church members ought to grab a bite to eat with their pagan neighbors at the local temples. While I knew the passage had fascinating and challenging implications for issues like the sacraments (10:1-5, 14-22), temptation (10:6-13), other religions (10:14-22),  and Christian liberty (10:23-32), I hadn’t fully grasped their relevance for the issue of Christology in the New Testament.

Enter Chris Tilling’s fantastic, recent work Paul’s Divine Christology. For those of you who have been reading lately, Christology has come up a bit this year, both in relation to Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ recent Jesus Monotheism and Wesley Hill’s Paul and the Trinity. Both figures have been contributing to the recent discussion initiated by Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and others around the way the New Testament authors viewed Christ as central to the “divine identity.” While Fletcher-Louis’ and Hill’s contribution have been quite stimulating, I’m so glad to have found Tilling’s work because he adds a helpful, quite expansive dimension to conversation.

To recap, Hurtado has argued that it’s clear on the basis of the “pattern of devotion”, prayer, worship, etc. witnessed in the New Testament, that Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. Bauckham has argued that Jesus is included in the divine identity in the New Testament because he is depicted as having the relationship to the world (creator, redeemer, etc) that Jewish monotheism only reserved for God. Much of the debate around their thesis then becomes an issue of whether or not you can spot similar devotional patterns of worship, or a fuzziness in monotheistic theology of 2nd Temple Jewish texts, with various intermediaries. Tilling argues that one missing dimension in the discussion is a focus on the way that Paul explicitly depicts the believer’s relationship to Christ in the same fashion that the Old Testament does that between and God.

Tilling points out, as many others have, that the distinctive feature of Jewish monotheism wasn’t primarily a metaphysic, but a covenantal relation. YWHW is Israel’s God and Israel is YHWH’s people. That’s the heart of the 10 Commandments, the covenant as a whole, and the chief confession of the people of God in the OT, the Shema (plus a verse):

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

This “relational monotheism”, the sort of relationship that has love, fidelity, devotion, and jealousy as correlates, is what it means for Israel to worship one God. So, alongside all the key texts that link Christ with statements of pre-existence, deity, creative power, and so forth, Tilling says we’ve missed the heart (or at least a key dimension) to Paul’s very divine Christology if we don’t analyze the believer’s relationship with Christ as part of the evidence.

It’s not for nothing, then, that he begins his case by using 1 Corinthians 8:1-7 to kick off his study. It contains the key verse, 8:6, in which Paul splits up the Shema to include Jesus in the confession of Israel’s God:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:5-6)

While other scholars have noted the importance of those verses (and spilled a great deal of ink doing so), Tilling points out that really, the whole section of 1 Corinthians 8-10 is framed in terms of the proper worship, love, and knowledge of God (8:1-3). Paul is challenging the Corinthian believer’s appeal to freedom and knowledge to eat idol meat, to consider the implication it has for their relationship with Christ in ways that are only suited for Israel’s God. What is need is a “relational hermeneutic” (87), to properly see the way Paul’s argument progresses.

Now, I can’t summarize or reproduce his argument here, in full, but I did want to highlight a few exegetical nuggets on along these lines.

First, there’s the rather curious line about the way going to eat Temple meat and wounding your brother’s conscience is a “sin against Christ” (8:12). At first, it seems like the point is that by sinning against your brother, you’re sinning against Christ, because you’re sinning against the body of Christ. But Tilling points out (among a number of other things), that if that’s what Paul meant, he could have said so explicitly as he does elsewhere (1 Corinthians 10:9, 22). Instead, it seems appropriate the read the relationship more directly as an example of Paul treating Christ as God. Much as David confesses that his sin with Bathsheba against Uriah is directly against God (Ps. 51), Paul’s “simple and natural reflex” was to see this sin against a brother as directly against Christ (94).

Jumping ahead to chapter 10, in his warning against idolatry, Paul cites a gnarly string of Old Testament narratives where YHWH judges the Israelites, ‘our ancestors’ in the faith (10:1-5), for various sins such as idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, testing the Lord, etc (10:6-10).  What’s fascinating about these texts where Paul says, “we must not sorely test Christ, as some of them did” (10:9), is that here, “Paul…associates the relation between Israel and YHWH in the Pentateuchal narratives with the relation between the risen Lord and believers in Corinth” (96).

Continuing on, the same relation can be seen in Paul’s warnings about drinking from the cup of Christ and the cup of demons (10:14-22). In these verses, Paul is explicitly identifying  eating meat in the pagan temples with idolatry and urging them to stay away from it (10:14). Why? Because even if there is no real “god” behind it, these meals are still communion meals, acts of “participation.” It’s an act of devotion that in the Old Testament was reserved for the Israelite and YHWH in the feasts and Temple cult. And yet, here we have Paul speaking not of the cup of “God”, but instead warning:

You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:21)

Just as the Israelites were not supposed to provoke God by worshipping other gods, Christians should not “provoke the Lord to jealousy” (10:22), by trying to have it both ways. “Koinonia with respect to Christ…becomes the expression of covenant loyalty, of monotheistic loyalty without idolatry” (100).

Again, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Tilling’s argument (I’m only halfway through the book), but as the kids say, “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” Indeed, once you get a grip on Tilling’s basic argument, it becomes rather intuitive to begin to see it all over the place in Paul. And it seems that’s rather the point. Paul’s divine Christology is not only an affair of key, isolated proof-texts (as helpful as some of those are), but rather form the warp and woof of his whole thought.

Soli Deo Gloria

Classifying Biblical Theodicies (Or, Must There Be Only One?)

lisbonEvil and theodicy are central to the storyline of the Bible. Indeed, they are central to much of the great secular and especially religious literature in history. Theodicy, for those unaware, is the term coined (or simply popularized) by Leibniz referring to the sort of rational justifications or explanations given for the co-existence of evil and God (or the gods). Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor’s massive, edited work Theodicy in the World of the Bible is a collection of essays dedicated to exploring the various sorts of theodicies on offer both in the Ancient Near Eastern texts (ranging from Sumerian, Assyrian text to 2nd Temple Jewish text) surrounding the world of the Bible as well as the biblical materials themselves (both Old and New Testaments). They do so both for historiographical as well as properly theological reasons, calling on specialists to describe, critique, and retrieve the perspectives of the ancients for reflection today.

A Typology of Theodicies

In an attempt to lend order to the various essays and perspectives, in their introduction Laato and De Moor come up with a helpful typology of the kinds of theodicies found in the texts their contributors deal with. After listing various categories, they narrow their options down to the monotheistic, non-dualist options given in the Jewish-Christian theological tradition (p. xxx):

  1. Retribution theology
  2. Educative theodicy
  3. Eschatological theodicy
  4. The mystery of theodicy
  5. Communion theodicy
  6. Human determinism

The names tend to be straightforward, but I’ll briefly give you the gist of each, but know that I’m leaving out references to a number of the texts they use in each section.

Retribution theology as a theodicy explains human suffering in terms of human responsibility and divine punishment for sin. Humans are given free will, which they are legally accountable for (per the widespread covenant theology found both in the ANE and the Biblical record), and as violators, much of the evil suffered is the result of divine retribution. Much of the theodicy given in the OT surrounding the Exile falls under this rubric, as well as the Deuteronomistic literature and vast swathes of the Wisdom texts. Disobedience results in curse, just like Leviticus and Deuteronomy warned (xxx-xxxviii).

Educative theodicy can be found in places like Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ruth, and other types of wisdom literature. In essence, suffering is allowed in the light of the righteous because through it he gains understanding he would not have had otherwise. Naomi learns God’s purposes span farther than she could know as her suffering leads to the birthline of the Davidic king. (xxxix-xlii).

Eschatological theodicy tries to justify God allowing evil by pointing ahead to either the reward of the righteous in the afterlife, or the judgment of the wicked to come. This thread is found in some of the prophetic literature such as Isaiah, Daniel, and so forth. Here, the emphasis showing that much human suffering will shown to not have been in vain. It is a theodicy of comfort, in that regard. (xlii-xlv)

The mystery of theodicy refers to the various traditions which emphasize the fact that we just don’t know what God is up to. Here, humanity’s epistemological limits are compared to the divine’s limitless, unfathomable wisdom. The book of Job and Qoheleth are taken as paradigms here, as well as Maimonedes reading of Job or the theology of 4 Ezra. Lamentations also contains texts that conform to this pattern (xlvi-xlviii).

Communion theodicy emphasizes the fact that in the midst of suffering, the afflicted may draw closer to God in the end. Psalms is a key witness here. But again, so is Job. Here Laato and De Moor also include the tradition of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, where his expiatory, redemptive suffering actually brings the nation into closer to God through reconciliation. For that reason, its hard to classify it under communion alone, because it (along with the later martyr traditions in the Maccabees) blending suffering for sin with restored relationship. Indeed, often the martyr traditions following blend educative and eschatological dimensions as well (xlvii-liv).

Finally, human determinist theodicies appeal to a certain, necessary human sinfulness or with divine determinism. Here Laato and De Moor have less material, and the Biblical material they adduce is hints in Paul and Qoheleth. It seems the biblical material about Israel’s stiff-necked nature and Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy might fit nicely here as well.

Varied Answers for Variegated Experiences

Laato and De Moor’s typology and helpful literature review points up nicely one of my major problems with certain kinds of theodicies that I see offer: too many insist that only one or two of these theodical angles are the proper answer to or explanation of suffering. Actually, it seems that in light of the fact that all of these themes are at play in the Biblical text, it’s probable that we are meant to understand them all playing a partial role in explaining the problem of evil in the Scriptures. For that reason, we should refrain from settling on just one answer, or reducing our explanations to simple, pat answers. We should also slow down from rejecting these answers as part of the Biblical analysis, as some have done, simply because it doesn’t account for a certain experience or text. Taken as a total answer it might not, but as a partial dimension, it could be very helpful.

Its undeniable that sometimes evil befalls us because of evil choices leading to suffering (both for the perpetrator and victim). Beyond that, Scripture attests that evil does often provoke God’s retribution in this life. Of course, discerning that retribution is a dicey business for those without eyes to see (as Elisha had), or lips cleansed by God’s purifying fire (as Isaiah did), so it is wise to refrain from presuming all suffering is the direct result of sin as the disciples did (John 9). From another angle, it may be that we suffer evil because God is delaying retribution and so evil will have its recompense in the next life, and undeserved suffering will be rewarded at that time as well. What’s more, it could very well be that God allows certain instances of suffering in order to teach us, or to draw us nearer to himself. Finally, as I’ve already argued, it could be that some ultimate explanation for particular evils or evil as a whole will only be unveiled at the end of all things. Mystery can coexist with the acknowledgement that there are various dimensions to the problem of evil.

The biblical corpus is multi-faceted as is its theological witness. I don’t mean that it is self-contradictory, but that it preserves a plurality of voices testifying to the various, real, dimensions of human existence in the world that need to be reckoned with and not simply flattened into each other. And that makes sense given that it’s the revelation of God and his works. God himself knows to understand the whole from his eternal, unified, singular perspective, but for finite beings such as ourselves, we need multiple angles, or lenses on the world to make sure we get a more appropriate understanding of the whole.

Let us not, then, flatten or deny that witness in search of cheap, easy answers.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Counts as a Historical Precedent for New Testament Christology?

Jesus monotheismFor the last 30 or so years (or maybe more), there’s been a running debate surrounding the nature, shape, and origins of New Testament Christology. How high or low was it really? Was Paul really working with a concept of Christ as fully divine and fully human a la Chalcedon, or did that come later as the Church reflected on the implications of what Paul and the other apostles wrote? And did Jesus think himself divine? Was that even an option for a 1st Century Jew? Where did that Christology eventually come from? Was it the influence of Greek, pagan cult, or rooted in classic, Hebrew monotheism? And are these even the right questions? (See Wesley Hill on this)

While much New Testament scholarship in the 20th century took it for granted that “high” Christology was a later development, scholars like Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Chris Tilling, N.T. Wright, and others, have recently forwarded a thesis of early “Christological Monotheism” that argues the earliest Christology we have is a divine Christology. From the beginning, Paul, John, and the other apostles believed there to be one God (YHWH) and yet, somehow, the man Jesus was central to that one God’s identity (1 Cor. 8, Phil. 2, Col. 1, John 1, etc).

This “emerging consensus” has grown in force and strength over the years, despite variations among the different proponents. Some emphasize the new pattern of reading Scripture that forced the early Christians to recognize Christ as the one who has come and done what only YHWH himself would come and do (Wright), or the fact that he is ascribed the divine Name (Bauckham), or that he receives worship in a way only suited to the Creator in Jewish monotheism (Hurtado). All the same, one thesis that most seem agreed on is that this “Christological monotheism” has no real precedent in the 2nd Temple Jewish texts of the period before Christ.

Crispin Fletcher-Louis disagrees. He does so in a recently published first work of an ambitious, projected four-volume series on the issue, Jesus Monotheism Volume 1: Christological Origins: The Emerging Consensus and Beyond. I’m only about half-way through it, but it’s already proving instructive and provocative. For those interested, in the series, Fletcher -Louis aims both to support and forward the “emerging consensus” while simultaneously critiquing and strengthening it from what he takes to be real weaknesses, due largely from a failure to consider biblical anthropology and theology.

While mostly appreciative of Bauckham and Hurtado’s work (often sharply defending them against critics such as James Dunn or James McGrath), here he says they’ve missed the mark. They say that the various designated emissaries of God such as kings, prophets, priests, nor angelic figures were ever included in the identity of the one God, nor did they receive the kind of worship that Jesus does in the New Testament. Fletcher-Louis thinks that while they are right to point out the real, sharp discontinuity with anything that’s come before in pre-Christian Judaism, their method doesn’t give proper due to the range of thinking about Messianic or medatorial figures present in the 2nd Temple texts discovered by recent scholarship (128-129).

At this point in the study, he notes two problems with their method. First, he thinks they handle key texts idiosyncratically, taking minority positions without showing their work enough. Fletcher-Louis aims to tackle that issue at length later, with case-studies in key texts (130).

Second, and this was the interesting point for me, Fletcher-Louis claims they don’t handle the notion of precedents properly with respect to NT Christology. Obviously, there is no exact precedent. There is a radical discontinuity and difference. There is no direct parallel, nor does the Old Testament explicitly demand the New Testament’s Christology (though it is not inconsistent with it). All the same, Fletcher-Louis says that Hurtado in particular “demands too much of the Jewish material for it ever to hope to gain a proper hearing as a factor in explaining the phenomenon attested in the NT” (131). In other words, Hurtado has too high a criterion for what counts as a “precedent” and so it’s obvious that he won’t find one. There won’t be a precedent for each and every part in a single figure, but given the fact that the “Christological monotheism” of the New Testament has many parts, it can be shown that many of the various parts can be found in other sources, even if the whole is not.

He uses an illustration I found particularly instructive:

The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) is generally, reckoned, to have anticipated Luther’s German Reformation with an uprising against the power of the clergy in Renaissance Florence. But the full flowering of the theologcal and ecclesial revolution was only seen several decades later the other side of the Alps in Germany (and Switzerland). Savonarola was an historical precedent for Luther, but by no means did his attempted reformation have all the elements of the theological, ecclesial, and political revolution that would spread from Germany.  For the waves of Pentecostal and Charismatic renewal and revival that have overtaken parts of the church in the twentieth century there is precedent in pietistic and popular movements, some of which were focused on visionary and “Spirit” experiences, in the medieval church. But in many ways modern Pentecostalism is theologically (and sociologically) quite peculiar to the twentieth century. Such is the stuff of historical precedent. And sometimes precedent entails a degree of historical causality…but sometimes it only offers an intriguing comparison from another, separate historical context… (131)

In the same way, it’s not that we must find a total package Christological monotheism before Christ for it to count as a precedent, but similar elements. Nor, argues Fletcher-Louis, should we be too worried that some anticipations to the Christology of the New Testament might sideline the uniqueness of Christian claims. On the contrary, the similarities are precisely what can aid us in understanding the distinctive character of Christian worship of Christ in distinction from surrounding movements and theologies in the 2nd Temple literature we find (132).

I find his point well-taken, though, it remains to be seen (at least for me) whether he actually does demonstrate the precedents, or whether he does properly safeguards against some of the parallelomania that’s prevalent in certain quarters of the NT guild. Given the case he’s made so far, though, and this write-up of his work by Andrew Wilson, I’m quite excited to see him make the attempt.

Soli Deo Gloria

Really Elisha? Bears Attacking Children? This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

bearsOne of the weirdest stories in the narratives of the Old Testament comes at the end of 2 Kings 2 with Elisha and the bears. The deal is that the prophet Elisha has just been anointed by God through his old master the prophet Elijah to succeed him after God took Elijah up to heaven in a vision of God’s holy chariot. Just prophet stuff. In any case, 2 Kings tells of a number of incidents where Elisha is confirming his role as God’s holy prophet by performing similar, miraculous works as Elijah did. As he’s going along, this weird thing happens:

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)

Now, there are several reactions you can have to this story about bears mauling youths for bald jokes. First, if you’re a teenager or something, you can think, “Sweet! Bears!” Or, as a balding man, you can think, “Well, there’s justice.” Finally, as just a normal person you can think, “Whoa. Seriously? Bears? Against children? For a bald joke? That’s fairly horrifying.” Of course, if you’re prone to trust the prophets of Scripture as being not terrible, various answers start to suggest themselves as to whether one should really take the text at face value.

For instance, you might wonder, “Are those ‘little boys’ really ‘little boys’? What if that’s a translation issue and we’re talking about a street gang or something? And is this really about a bald joke, or is something else going on here? Maybe the 3,000 year cultural gap is playing with our perceptions?” Once again, I ran across a stimulating passage in Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, shedding some contextual light on the bizarre passage.

One point I have to make before sharing, though, is that Leithart has earlier identified a key typology or resemblance in the story of Elijah and Elisha with that of Moses and Joshua. Elisha is to Elijah as Joshua is to Moses, the latter carrying on the conquest into the Holy Land after Moses leads the people out of slavery to idolatry and gives them the Law on the mountain. Alright, back to the bears:

In 2:3 and 2:5, the sons of prophets inform Elisha that “Yahweh will take your, master from over your head today”. Elijah is Elisha’s protector, guide, and “head,” and Elisha is about to lose that leadership. As Elisha’s head, Elijah enters heaven, while Elisha continues the work of his master in Israel, just as the church’s head is enthroned victorious in heaven as it suffers, serves, and overcomes on earth (Eph. 1:20-23).

This repeated statement from the sons of the prophets helps to explain the story at the end of 2 Kgs. 2, one of the most controversial passages in Scripture. The phrase “little boys” in 2:23 can mean “young men” or “subordinates.” Bethel is the site of Jeroboam I’s golden calf shrine, and the context suggests that these are not children, but “Levites” of the idolatrous shrine. Elisha’s curse is an act of warfare, a Joshua-like attack on a center of idolatry. This is reinforced by the chiastic structure of the chapter:

A removing the “head” (2:1-6)
B fifty men (2:7)
C cross Jordan: Elijah divides waters (2:8)
D Elisha requests spirit (2:9-10)
E chariot separates them (2:11a)
F Elijah by whirlwind into heaven (2: lib)
E’ Elisha sees, calls to chariot, tears clothes (2:12)
D’ mantle (2:13)
C’ divides water (2:14)
B’ fifty men (2:15-18)
A’ bald head (2:23-25)

The young men mock Elisha because his “hairy head,” his “baal of hair” (1:8), is taken from him. Perhaps he literally shaves his head in mourning over Elijah’s departure, but it is also possible that they are mocking Elisha because they assume he is unprotected without Elijah. Their taunt to Elisha to “ascend” also points back to Elijah: “You know where you can go, Elisha!” Elisha again demonstrates that he bears the spirit of Elijah, which is the Spirit of Yahweh, for he can call out bears from the forest as readily as Elijah can call out fire from heaven to consume the soldiers of Ahaziah…., as readily as Yahweh can unleash lions against disobedient prophets (1 Kgs. 13:20-25; cf. Lev. 26:22). –1 & 2 Kings, 175-176

Elisha’s opponents are not toddlers with bold mouths, then, but a large band of hostile, adult priests serving the idolatrous shrine of the Northern Temple in Israel. For myself, I believe the context of the earlier story of King Ahaziah sending out a troop of soldiers to attack and lay hands on the prophet of God, Elijah, makes it likely that this “taunt” was more than a simple act of name-calling, but an expression of hostility, spiritual warfare, and a present threat to Elisha’s person. This is not an exaggeration when considering the various, deadly fates the prophets of Israel had suffered throughout her history and even Elijah’s own generation in the time of Ahab and Jezebel.

Of course, this may not solve all the difficulty of the passage for you. I’m not sure it does for me, either. It is one more example, though, of what a willingness to sit and wrestle with the Scriptures instead of simply turning from them when they’re difficult or offensive. That’s not a recipe for accepting any and every interpretation that comes along. There are a lot of bad ones that, in an attempt to “preserve” the Scriptures, end up betraying the character of God. All the same, trusting in the character of God as revealed in Scripture will give us the interpretive resilience needed to struggle with the text long enough to win a blessing and gain new light for the path.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: As it turns out, my friend Seth T. Hahne has written on the passage in a similar and complementary way, adding some broader canonical considerations that reinforce the reading offered above.