23 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 away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
2 Kings 2:23-24
The first time I heard this scripture was the summer before entering Seminary. I was a counselor for Chi-Rho, (This is the name my denomination gives for middle school kids. This was the Summer Camp in my region.) One of the fellow counselors, and keynoter for the week, had just finished seminary, at the very seminary I was about to enter. He shared his newly acquired knowledge throughout the week, culminating at the Talent Show, where he had his cabin group reenact our scripture for today. No commentary. Nothing added. He read the scripture. The kids pantomimed the words. That was it. All of us were left dumbfounded. A few laughed awkwardly. He wanted to leave us with a simple message: There are bible verses we have no idea what to do with. It’s better just to leave them alone.
Apparently this had been what my ministers had done, because, up until that point, I had never heard that scripture before. Yeah, I knew who Elisha was. He was the prophet handpicked by Elijah. This would be the same Elijah who went up in a flaming chariot to heaven. The Elijah who dropped his mantle down to Elisha. This was the same Elisha who confronted the priests of Baal on top of the mountain. The same Elisha who had every last priest killed when Yahweh won the bet. Of all the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Elisha is the most hotheaded. With that context, it’s probably not that surprising this would be the prophet involved in a story where two bears maul a bunch of children.
As for the bears side of things, until that fateful talent show night, I had no idea bears had ever been mentioned in the bible. Lions, sure. Donkeys, of course. Bears? Not really on the radar. Come to find out bears are mentioned, in some form, 12 times. Two of which are in Proverbs! Really, I wanted the Elisha story to be the only story that had bears. If it did, maybe it was something added years later by some sleep deprived monks. I wanted to read the story how European bears ended up in a Middle Eastern text. No such luck. There are middle-eastern bears.
The thing is, I want to do something with the text. I don’t want to put it aside because it makes me feel uncomfortable. It is there for a reason, and I want to understand what that reason is.
But that's not really our culture right now, is it? Our culture tells us to cut off, turn off, and ignore. Don’t understand; just ostracize. If someone is saying something we don’t agree with, it’s like they are spewing poison. Only, if what a group is saying is poison, ignoring them means they are dying from that poison. Or, God forbid, we are the one who are really wrong. Not being open enough to listen to opinions counter to our own could mean we are the ones really dying from that poison.
It’s a bear. Literally it’s a couple of bears, but figuratively it’s a bear to deal with these texts. It’s easy to do nothing. If we do nothing, the texts sit in the back of our mind, a reminder of what’s in the bible, of what we can’t deal with. What do we do? Let me break this apart for you.
Here is my theology:
I believe there is something beyond this realm of existence. You might wonder why I start here. We are at the point in our culture this needs to be our starting point. We believe something exists or it doesn’t. Our reality is the end all, be all, or it isn’t.
I believe God is part of that existence. There is some sort of Creator for this existence we call life. Maybe the design took trillions of years, but I believe it’s a design.
I believe God acted in the world, and communicated how we should treat ourselves, one another, and God. I believe those actions and precepts so positively affected a people, they wrote the events and precepts down. When I read the bible, I’m trying to understand the original God event. What really happened 2,000-6,000 years ago? This is why I use secondary sources. This is why I want to know how others interpreted the event. This is why I want to know the archeological and cultural understanding of the words.
No, I don’t see the bible as literally the Word of God, because seeing the bible literally turns the bible into a thick concrete wall. To quote God talking about the ocean in the book of Job: ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther.’ To use my own words, “Nothing to see here. You’ve got the story right here. No need looking any deeper.” /s
The bible is a resource, not a foundation. Christ is the foundation. I once described building a faith on top of the bible is like building a house on top of a house. It might be possible, but it’s precarious at best. Use the bible to build on the foundation of Christ.
Now, if you think I’ve chosen to talk about the bible instead of a bunch of boys getting mauled by a couple of bears, you’d be wrong. Now is where I bring it back around. Do I believe the event in 2 Kings could have happened? Sure. Is it possible a few boys criticized a prophet? (It was criticism by the way. People from that area rarely went bald. It was not a genetic trait for the early Hebrew people. Therefore, it was disrespectful to call someone bald whether they were or not.) So, was it possible a few boys criticized Elisha? Yeah, of course. Is it also possible a couple of momma bears attacked a bunch of boys? Well, not even going outside the bible there are scriptures about the danger of being around momma bears. Momma bears are fierce. They will viciously attack anyone or anything that could possibly get near their cubs. Yeah, I think it is very possible. Literally, do I believe God sent momma bears to attack the boys because they called the prophet bald? No. I don’t.
If I was sitting in the pews right now, this is what I’d be thinking. “Pastor! You just had us sit through ten minutes of dialogue just to tell us you don’t believe it?! What was the point?” The point. Now let me get to that.
Yeah, I believe both Elisha being called bald, and the boys being mauled could have happened. Yes, I believe it wasn’t God directly sending bears to maul disobedient boys. The obvious question becomes, what do we do with this scripture? Yeah, you could take what I’ve already said, and learn a little about the context. Sure. If you want to take it deeper, learn something about how the Israelites saw God.
The two events appeared connected for them because they saw God like a protective parent. God called Elisha as a prophet. Sure, he was the most hotheaded prophet of the bunch, but he was still called. It wasn’t the strong and dangerous lions that came to attack the boys. Instead, it was the protective momma bears. Elisha belonged to God, and as the Israelites saw it, God was protecting Elisha as a mother bear would protect her cubs. That’s a strong and reassuring image. God is our protective momma bear. There was no way we could have seen that if we just decided to push the scripture aside because it was uncomfortable.
I’m Facebook friends with someone I’ve known since middle school, Randall Self. With the Supreme Court ruling and the Charleston Shooting still fresh in our memory he’s had Facebook friends say things he’s in complete disagreement. Whether or not you agree about the side he’s on, listen to his words regarding what he is going to do about it:
Ok, so I have a few people arguing that same sex marriage is wrong. My initial reaction is to unfriend, unfollow, shun and scorn these individuals but I've decided against it.
Theologically speaking, we can’t cut out biblical passages we disagree with, because we don’t learn anything doing that. Socially speaking, we shouldn’t ostracize our friends and colleagues for believing something different from us because doing so puts us in an intellectual vacuum, and no one learns anything. I’ve heard some very hurtful things in the name of protecting ones faith over the past few weeks. Things said with venom but painted over with “God’s love.”
It’s too easy to hit “unfriend” and move on. We do it online, and we do it in real life. We do it to each other and we do it to our bible. When others and our scripture gets uncomfortable, that’s when we need to push into it with Christian love. That’s when we need to ask one another the tough questions. If we do that, if we really begin engaging one another again… God is there too.