11 February 2008

Bear With Me

I was delighted to read a Crooked Timber post a couple of months back that sang the praises of the Cracked list of 'The 9 Most Badass Bible Verses', not least for how Scott McLemee at CT insists that the tale of Elisha and the Bears should be far higher up the list than a lowly eighth place. I don't know if you know the story, but in case you don't, here's the tale according to the King James Bible, just to give it a bit of gravitas. The reference, in case you don't believe me, is 2 Kings 2.23-25.
And he went up from thence unto Bethel, and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.
Cracked, I'm sure you'll be glad to read, sees this as a solution to many of our current social ills.
Christians are constantly asking for prayer in schools to help get today’s kids in line, but we beg to differ. We need bears in schools. If every teacher had the power to summon a pair of child-maiming grizzly avengers, you can bet that schoolchildren nowadays would be the most well-behaved, polite children, ever. It’s a simple choice: listen to the biology lesson, or get first-hand knowledge of the digestive system of Ursus horribilis.

It should be pointed out that even after his death, Elisha continued to kick ass. 2 Kings 13.20-21 tells us that when a dead body was thrown into his tomb and touched Elisha’s bones, it sprang back to life. It’s unknown whether Elisha had this power in life, as well as death, but we like to think he did and that he had the habit of killing his victims with bears, resurrecting them, and then promptly re-summoning the bears to kill them, again. He’d just repeat the whole thing over and over until he got bored.
I first came across this story years ago, in a beautifully graphic one-page adaptation by Brian Bolland in Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament, a book that introduced me to quite a few of the Old Testament passages that tend not to be read at mass.
 I have to admit that it amused me massively at the time, and even now it rather bemuses me. For starters, this is almost the only reference to bears in the entire Bible; they're referred to in a proverbial sense on two or three occasions, but other than that they only figure when David is telling Saul that it's worth giving him a shot against Goliath, as he's had plenty of practice defending his sheep against lions and bears. That's 1 Samuel 17.34-6, if you're interested.

It certainly seems odd to have bears appearing out of nowhere to slaughter children, even by the standards of the Old Testament. What's this about? Surely there's more going on in this passage than meets the eye? Does the old notion of the Four Senses of Scripture help here?

Well, oddly, yes, even on the literal level, on which the three 'spiritual' senses depend.

For starters, the passage can't be taken out of context. Perhaps fifty years earlier, Jeroboam, the ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, had established Golden Calf cuts at Bethel and Dan, the two extremities of his kingdom, and had encouraged his subjects to sacrifice to these idols rather than to Yahweh at the Temple in Jerusalem. Bethel, then, needs to be seen as the headquarters of a heretical cult in opposition to Yahweh, whose prophet Elisha was, as had been his master Elijah.

Read properly, then, Elisha was walking to Bethel and was accosted on the road by a large crowd of youths. Yes, youths, not 'little children'. It seems that the Hebrew term neurim qetannim means 'young men', rather than 'young boys', and throughout the Old Testament is used to refer to males aged anything from twelve to thirty years old. Actually, I'm not even convinced that Elisha would have been much older than them, despite the 'bald head' reference: he'd been adopted as a son by Elijah only seven or eight years earlier, and appears to have lived for another sixty years or so.

So what we've got then is the newly anointed prophet of Yahweh heading towards the headquarters of a rival cult, getting approached by a huge gang of young males, all shouting at him and jeering him. It's difficult to tell whether their jeers should be regarded as threatening or contemptuous, but they seem to relate to how they'd surely have heard stories of Elisha's master Elijah having been 'taken up' to Heaven. Were they challenging Elisha to emulate his master? Or did they simply think that Elijah had died and that this story was made up, in which case they were basically telling Elisha he might as well kill himself? Who knows? Still, whatever they meant, they were surely insulting not just Elisha but Yahweh too, and so Elisha curses them, in the name of Yahweh, and two bear suddenly appear from the forest and lay into the youths, savaging forty-two of them -- we have no idea how big the crowd supposedly was, but it's telling that we're not told the bears savaged all of them, or whether the youths that were savaged died of their wounds.

Right, so even on the literal level it seems the story's a little bit more sophisticated than it appears at first glance.

With that in mind, it's not too different to see how it can be interpreted in a moral sense in terms of the dignity of prophets and the respect due to those who act on behalf of God, and I'm also inclined to see in the jeers of the youths a foreshadowing of how Christ himself will later be mocked. If they're to be understood as challenging Elisha to emulate Elijah in being taken up to Heaven, they surely point towards those who mocked Jesus on the cross, and even towards Satan's tempting of Our Lord in the wilderness.

Look, I'm not saying that makes it easy to swallow, just that there's more going on here than initially meets the eye.

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