Bald Jokes, Biblical Authority, and Calling off the Bears

One of the more disturbing narratives in the Bible appears in 2 Kings 2:23-25, the confrontation between Elisha and the boys. As the prophet leaves Jericho, a group of kids shout, "Go away, baldy! Go away, baldy!" In response, Elisha faces down the youths and curses them in the name of the LORD. Subsequently, two she-bears emerge from the woods to "maul" (literally "tear apart") 42 boys. Because of his power as a "man of God," Elisha can apparently call forth divine vengeance on the ill-fated lads.

Many interpreters defend this story as a stark, but beneficial warning about respecting one's elders. Some argue that Elisha appropriately punishes the boys' rude behavior as a warning to others. Even if the punishment is extreme, the underlying lesson is to fear the prophet and remain faithful to God. Many commentators, especially those with an "inerrantist" view of Scripture, claim that any interpretation questioning the actions of Elisha and the value of this story is sinful.

Yet this is a disturbing prophetic legend, not historically reliable, and the primary actions are indefensible. On what planet is it appropriate for a grown man of faith to call down a mortal curse upon young boys, invoking divine wrath upon harmless pranksters? Arguments that the boys constitute an unruly mob or that they are older, more dangerous twenty-somethings represent desperate attempts to justify the merciless slaughter of children (claims that the story is satirical are more convincing). I coach the basketball team of my 11 year-old son and can attest that these kinds of sarcastic remarks are timeless, even among good kids.

Those arguing for the enduring value of every word of the Bible fail to recognize that this "infallible" position undermines the very texts they seek to defend. When believers seek to justify or offer some half-baked spiritual interpretation of the events in this particular story, they give fuel to non-believers seeking to belittle and lampoon. It is a slippery, dangerous, interpretive slope to claim that this violent confrontation in 2 Kings holds the same value as the majestic creation account in Genesis 1, the call of Moses in Exodus, Psalm 23, or the Sermon on the Mount. Faithful witness requires careful discernment, and in many instances rigid apologetics does far more harm than good. Moreover, Christians cannot dismiss this story as indicative of the "God of vengeance" in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, while the Deity we meet in the New Testament is a "God of love." There is plenty of violent imagery in the New Testament, but that is a topic for another day.

In some cases, we might actually have to read against the grain of such a text. I believe it is helpful to invert the traditional interpretation and question Elisha's actions in this particular narrative (he performs wonderful acts of healing in other places). Because of his thin skin, impatience, and angry response, he unleashes bears on these poor boys. Perhaps there is a lesson here about forbearance with children and acceptance of the aging process.

In a sense, we have unleashed bears in our time, and this brings me to Donald Trump. His inability to withstand criticism and kneejerk tendency to belittle anyone who disagrees with him through name-calling, misogyny, religious bigotry, and race-baiting that is eerily reminiscent of George Wallace have poisoned our political discourse. Certain actions at his rallies represent full-blown examples of what can happen when malice triumphs over kindness. Yet Trump represents the bears that have already been unleashed in our culture, through a decline of civility in our communities, political polarization, and all-too frequent shouting matches and bullying on social media.

If we wrestle more honestly with troubling passages (there is a rich heritage of this within Judaism), the Bible can help us reclaim what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." This story involving Elisha and the young boys marks a problematic, violent text. And yet other passages provide us with a template for faithful living, perhaps none more eloquent than the words of the prophet Micah: "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). There is much at stake in privileging the latter passage over the former, as we seek to call off the bears and reclaim mutual trust in a nation and world that desperately need it. This pursuit requires not blind faith, but faithful discernment of what we find in the Bible.