Elisha, She-Bears, and the Cursing of Children?

This is up there near the top of “Weird Stories of the Bible,” when the prophet Elisha curses a group of young boys, who taunt him. But does this image really correspond to the message that the Scriptural writer is intending to convey?

I was totally dumbstruck, a moment I will never forget. I was doing youth ministry, when a high school student asked me about the weird incident of Elisha and the She-Bears, found in 2 Kings 2:23-25. What is that all about?

I had never seen the passage before, and it left me speechless:

23 He [Elisha] 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!”24 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. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

What is going on in this passage? I will be honest: Having never read that before, I had no clue how to respond. Over seven years in Bible-teaching churches had never prepared me for that question (Why do most churches skip over these difficult passages????).

Skeptics use these verses to mock the morality of the Bible. It is hard not to blame them, from a quick, surface reading of the text. It sounds like God is sanctioning, even inflicting, violent child abuse.

But this high school student who quizzed me about this passage was not at all trying to ridicule the Bible. It was a honest question. This teenager was sincerely confused… and I was stumped.

I could have simply said, “Well, that is in the Old Testament. No need to worry.” But I knew better.

So, what is the Bible really talking about here? Could there be more going on, than what a plain-text, isolated reading of the text indicates?

A theologian who writes frequently for First Things magazine, Peter Leithart, highlights the work of Keith Bodner, that gives a more nuanced, and greatly more compelling answer as to how to interpret this difficult text in the Bible. In short, the story of Elisha and She-Bears is really an event with satirical theological-political commentary, criticizing the apostatizing of Israel’s leadership, by their sanctioning of idolatry at Bethel. A careful reading of other biblical texts gives us the clues needed to fully unpack this story (see 1 Kings 12:1-15, 2 Kings 1:8, 1 Kings 14:21, 1 Kings 13:24, 2 Kings 8:12, for additional context).

In this interpretation, the “small boys” in this passage, really are not children at all. Instead, they are a band of idolatrous priests that threaten Elisha, and the true worship of God the prophet represents. The author uses the language of “small boys,” not to historically chronicle their age, but rather to criticize the immaturity of these rebellious priests.

The critique of Elisha’s “baldness?” Well, this is not really about a loss of hair, but rather the loss of losing his mentor Elijah, as a spiritual covering.

This explanation may not completely remove for you the scandal that this passage raises. Understood, but the shock value maybe the point. Passages in the Bible that sound just plain weird, might be clues that more is going on than what can be picked up by a surface reading. As I wrote about in my review of Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible, perhaps the problem with the Old Testament, is not with the Old Testament itself, but in how we interpret it.

Additional Resources:

Gospel Coalition blogger, Derek Rishmawy has an older post highlighting Peter Leithart’s own commentary on this passage, from Leithart’s 1 & 2 Kings commentary. For some other, informed takes on the same story, I would recommend either the following segment of Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast (Heiser is an Old Testament scholar, for Logos Bible Software, who wrote many of the notes for the FaithLife Study Bible, and author of the groundbreaking book, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible), or a sermon by Dr. Peter Williams (Williams is a textual critical scholar at the University of Cambridge, and Tyndale House, in England, and a translator for the English Standard Version of the Bible), or the detailed analysis from the “uber-intellectual” Alastair Roberts, MereFidelity podcaster and blogger. Dr. Heiser’s treatment is just audio, with no video. But one of Dr. Heiser’s key themes is that if it is weird, it is probably important. This passage surely qualifies. The Dr. Williams’ video is from a talk he gave at, what I think is, Park Street Church in Boston (Williams takes a more traditional view of the “young boys”, summarized in a series of Tweets). Alastair Roberts’ video is from his YouTube Question & Answer channel. All three scholars offer great resources on other topics, I might add!:

 

 

 

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Elisha, She-Bears, and the Cursing of Children?

  • Bruce Layfield

    Another apologist making far flung excuses for the tyranny of their abusive god. The god you believe in was invented by wrathful men in barbaric times. Realize truth and study science, not faith.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Hi, Bruce,

      Thank you for commenting at Veracity. Based on your criticism, I get the sense that you are not very impressed with the Christian claim in a loving, gracious God.

      So, I can understand that my meager attempts to try to examine one particular difficult passage will not be persuasive. But for the record, a lot of the evidence that points towards the political satire interpretation, which I discuss in the blog article, being advanced by Keith Bodner, is based on recent advances in scholarship, that have only surfaced within recent years. Our knowledge about the period of Second Temple Judaism, that informs Bodner’s more nuanced reading of the Elisha story, is based on archaeological and historical discoveries in Ancient Near East studies, that simply were not available to previous generations of Bible interpreters. We have science to thank for that, so perhaps we might have some common ground here??

      Consider this: It was not too long ago that Darwin’s theory of human origins was dismissed, in wholesale, as making “far flung excuses” for atheism.

      Like

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