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.

Mayors and Prophets: Both Servants of the Lord in Tricky Times

kingsAhab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.

What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.

In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:

As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.

1 & 2 Kings, 133-134

Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.

And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?

Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.

In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.

Texts like this are obviously relevant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descent of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.

For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria