Bible Text: 2 Kings 2:13-25, 2 Chronicles 36:15-21 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Wait…That’s in the Bible? | Well, Happy New Year and God’s Blessings to one and all! I hope that these first few days of 2020 have been promising for you, filled with new memories of love and grace. And while I would love to focus solely on this idea of the untapped potential for greatness for this new year, I think we also need to acknowledge that in the first few days of this decade, we have been witness to some very troubling things.
From the fires that are ravaging Australia to the question of are we seeing the beginnings of World War Three, it has by no means been a quiet or calm start to 2020. And when we look at all that lays ahead, this is going to be a very busy year. There is an election for President coming up, as well as to fill other political positions throughout our country. Our denomination is potentially moving towards a decision or resolution on our future together or apart as Methodists. A very, very busy year indeed.
But those are going to come and happen in whatever ways that they will. For this moment together right now, I would like us to turn back to our study of Scripture and our focus of worshipping a loving, merciful, and grace-filled God. So, let me turn us in that direction and bring us back to our sermon time.
For the next three weeks, assuming nothing catastrophic occurs, we will be doing a new sermon series I have written called, “Wait…That’s in the Bible?” where we are going to explore some of the stories and histories recorded in Scripture that we may be less familiar with, or maybe have never even heard before! I have come across some of these passages while reading through the Bible.
I try to read the entire Bible from cover-to-cover over each year. If you have never tried it, I highly recommend it and can even help you with a reading plan. There are many available online, and I even have some software that can generate custom ones. I have also found by doing this, just like rereading your favorite book, you can find things you may have missed before or things that speak to you now different than they used to because of how your life has changed or how your faith has grown.
Today we are going to be engaging with the story we heard in our reading from Second Kings, chapter two about the prophet Elisha. This story is one of those that when I have shared it with people, I always see their jaw hit the floor and a combined look of confusion and horror. Let’s go through the second half again after Elisha succeeds Elijah as the prophet of the Lord, shall we?
We start with Elisha performing a miracle of making the water of a city, believed to be Jericho based on the text, good again so that it can be drunk and used to cultivate food and such. From there, he leaves and heads off to Bethel. And this is when the trouble starts. Scripture tells us, “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!’ When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the wood and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.”
Fun stuff, huh? A couple of kids make fun of Elisha for having male pattern baldness, and they get mauled by two female bears. That sounds justified right? Atheists tend to quote and use this story to try and trip up Christians about if God exists, and if so, what kind of supreme being is this God. I mean, how could a loving God, because that’s how we talk about God as Christians, but how could a loving God send two bears to maul a bunch of kids for making fun of someone for being bald? It seems kind of extreme, doesn’t it?
Well, let’s start digging because obviously a lot is going on here and maybe there is more to this story that we are not aware of. According to Paul House, as shared in the New American Commentary, “Some young boys from Bethel come out of the town to mock and jeer at the prophet. These boys parallel the soldiers in 1 Kings 1:9-12 who order Elijah to come with them, for both groups seem to lack respect for the prophets’ authority and position.”
He goes on to say that “the specific insult cast at Elijah is, ‘Go on up, you baldhead,’ a phrase that may refer to some physical marking Elisha took on as a prophet rather than to a literal baldness. If this was the case, the insult was directed specifically at Elisha as a prophet and therefore at the Lord whom he represented. The jeering ‘Go on up!’ may be a reference to Elijah’s translation, with the sense of ‘Go away like Elijah,’ perhaps spoken in ‘contemptuous disbelief.’”
House goes on offer that “some commentators think this story was originally meant ‘to frighten the young into respect for their reverend elders,’ while others believe the account is legendary and represents the worst notions of certain prophetic circles.” Still, others argue that “the account demonstrates Elisha’s ‘effective use of the name of YHWH’ and his role as new ‘father’ of the prophets. It is also true that the scornful have discovered Elisha is no more to be trifled with than Elijah was.”
My research offered a further discussion on this punishment for “the children.” Some scholars point out that this was likely not the first time a prophet was mocked by the children or youth of Bethel as there was a school for prophets there, and the children would constantly harass them, hoping they would leave Bethel. Because of this, they further argue that the punishment was fitting of the crime as it was not a first-time offense, and in other circumstances, would have included throwing rocks and sticks, not just words at the prophets.
Then others point out that the Hebrew text does not indicate just how old these children or youth were. Some argue that based on the words used here versus in other passages, they were most likely youths between thirteen and fifteen years old. Others argue an age range of eight up to mid-twenties as some groups considered anyone who didn’t own property and not holding other power or position in society as still being a youth or at least on the same level. They point out that because of their ages, this wasn’t just a group of preschool kids joking around with someone. And again, therefore justified.
Thomas Constable also offers that “As Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel several dozen youths (young men, not children) confronted him. Perhaps they were young false prophets of Baal. Their jeering, recorded in the slang of their day, implied that if Elisha were a great prophet of the Lord, as Elijah was, he should go on up into heaven as Elijah reportedly had done. The epithet baldhead may allude to lepers who had to shave their heads and were considered detestable outcasts. Or it may simply have been a form of scorn, for baldness was undesirable.
Since it was customary for men to cover their heads, the young men probably could not tell if Elisha was bald or not. They regarded God’s prophet with contempt.” This idea again seems to offer that the punishment was warranted and fair.
Gleason Archer attempts to put everything in perspective when he describes this large roving band of teenagers as “a serious public danger, quite as grave as the large youth gangs that roam the ghetto sections of our modern American cities.” Further, the Apologetics Study Bible argues that “The Hebrew phrase for ‘small boys’ refers to adolescents from 12 to 30 years old. It is unlikely that these youths were younger than 12 years old.” And, contrary to the caricature and assumption of many readers, Elisha was a young man, most likely in his mid-twenties, though bald, so his safety and well-being were potentially being threatened here.
Other scholars offer that “The message was a corrective message to address current attitudes and behavior that if heeded would ward off worse sins and greater judgment. The gang was shocked and silenced when mauled (not necessarily killed) by the bears, and their parents and community were warned to repent of their sins (reflected in their children) and obey God before worse judgments befell them!” Walter Kaiser writes how the eventual fall of Israel “would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack.” But they did not.
But this still raises the question for many, don’t we believe that God is loving and forgiving? Is the God of the Old Testament not the same as the God of the New Testament? Where are God’s love, forgiveness, and grace in this story? Are there other perspectives we need to examine?
Well, I can also share that some claim that this whole story did not occur. Not made up in the sense that someone might say the whole Bible is made up, but rather this particular interaction itself was made up in the time of Elisha as a way to keep people in line and refrain from mocking God’s prophets. It was known that people shouldn’t mock God’s prophets, but this story would give some teeth to that command. It would offer that there are real consequences for disobeying God’s commands and not showing respect to God and God’s messengers.
Or others believe this was a situation of convenient, or from other points of view, a situation of unfortunate timing. This theory proposes that the youth just happened to put themselves in-between the bears and their cubs, not noticing as they were so focused on making fun of Elisha. That would make this more a lesson on paying attention to your surroundings than one of respecting God.
But again, where is the mercy and grace? Where is the God of love and forgiveness? How do we as Christians who claim a belief in a God that loved the whole world enough to send God’s son to SAVE the world, NOT JUDGE it, how do we reconcile all of this?
Is it as simple as God was fairly passing judgment on a group of young adults who should have known better than to reject God and God’s prophet, as this would be in line with the context of that time in the world? Context is important after all. Things that were acceptable at one point in history are not always held to continue to be acceptable over time. Could this be an instance of what was recorded was done so in a way that was seen as acceptable at that time?
But then what about Jesus talking about forgiving our enemies, turning the other cheek? Does God not practice what God teaches? What gives? How are we supposed to work with this? Well? Come on, pastor! Tell us!! What’s the answer? There has to be an answer!!
Well…I don’t really have an answer, to be honest. This situation is one of those things in Scripture that we can understand in many, many different ways. You could make the argument that these people should have known better. You could make the argument that this is a made-up story to scare people into respecting authority. You could make the argument that context is all that matters here and this was another way that God held the people of Israel accountable to the covenant that they had with God, just like the exile would later be.
You could make any of those arguments and countless more. But the truth is, because of so many outside influences and factors, we cannot say anything with complete confidence. Who wrote this, why they choose to include it, who was there, if it happened, and all of that make this a section that is hard to wrestle with. And that’s okay.
Scripture and faith are not always easy. Some things are confusing, and some things seem to contradict others. What I think is more important is that we take the time to examine and explore Scripture. Rather than ignore passages like these, we should take the time and study them. We may not always end up with perfect solutions and answers and may often end up with more questions than answers.
But as John Wesley would point out, for us to grow in relationship with God, for us to progress in our faith and God’s grace, we need to continue to engage Scripture in our lives. If we just cherry-pick the parts of Scripture we like or agree with or think we understand and ignore the rest, we can miss out on a lot about how we relate to God. We always need to work to understand the context of the passages we read and take the context and other factors into consideration in our studying. But we cannot simply ignore it.
Do not be afraid of what you might find in the Bible. Some of it may not make sense. Some of it may seem mean or angry or even hateful. But again, the context makes a big difference in helping to understand Scripture and what was going on in the world at that time. Go, read your Bibles. Find stories that are strange. Find stories that are challenging. And then share them. Through this, we may all grow deeper in our faith and understanding of God. Amen.