2 Kings 2:23-25
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. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.
Good morning! Today is the second week of our Weird Bible sermon series, and I can’t think of a more fitting series for this strange time in our country. This is just a weird year, isn’t it? I will always remember 2020 as the year we had four months of April and almost a full week of Tuesday. It is the year when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, stepped back from their Royal duties and moved to the US. And did you hear that in the great town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky this week Wilbur the French Bulldog was elected as Mayor with an overwhelming 13,143 votes?
There’s no getting around it, 2020 has been weird. And as we discussed last week, that’s okay—us Christians are used to weird. There are a bunch of weird stories in the Bible…like the one where Samson lost his strength because Delilah cut his hair, or the one where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were throw into a fiery pit but didn’t burn! Or how about the time that Jesus made a coin appear in a fish’s mouth so that Peter could pay their taxes? If we really wanted to, I think we could make this sermon series stretch for a full year instead of just 4 weeks.
Last week, we tackled the story of Hangry Jesus and the fig tree. We saw Jesus get angry at a tree for not having fruit on it and cursing that poor tree so that it immediately withered and died. In that story we found the message that even Jesus had bad days, and that we could learn how to handle our own bad days by following his example.
The text for this week’s sermon is from 2 Kings, chapter 2. In it, the prophet Elisha is accosted by some kids who make fun of him for being bald. They yell at him, “Go away, bald head! Go away, bald head!” So, he does what any rational human being would do in this situation, he curses them in the name of Yahweh. Presumably, this curse causes two bears to come out of the woods and kill (or at least seriously injure) 42 of the children. I’ve never been taunted for being bald before, but it seems to me that this is an overreaction.
If we believe the text, Elisha does not bat an eye at any of this. He calmly continues his journey and nothing more is said about the victims of the bear attack. This is just a little blip in Elisha’s trek from Bethel to Mount Carmel, hardly worth mentioning.
This story is not found in the lectionary. There aren’t many pastors (at least in progressive churches like ours) that would choose to preach a sermon on this text. And that’s because—it’s terrible! After the long week that we have all had, I have to admit that on Friday afternoon I was cursing myself for picking this text! Luckily, I am not a prophet, so my curse didn’t work– no she-bears came out of nowhere to attack me.
While it would be much easier to skip over this story than it is to confront it head on like we are doing this morning, we can’t deny that it is in our scriptures. Since it is in our scriptures, that means that it had significance to our spiritual ancestors. But, why? And what does that mean for us today? Can we find God in this text? Is there anything redeemable in this story of 42 children being torn apart by bears because they called someone bald?
To answer these questions, we should first look at the context of this scripture. It happens at the beginning of Elisha’s ministry as a prophet of the Lord. In the verses preceding it, the great prophet Elijah is taken away to Heaven in a fiery chariot and Elisha is blessed with his prophetic gifts.
Then, Elisha performs 2 miracles. First, he parts the Jordan river, so that he can cross it. Then he purifies a tainted water supply for the people of Jericho so that they can have clean drinking water. In a few short verses, Elisha shows that he is a Holy Prophet of the Lord, just like Elijah was.
It’s directly after these miracles that Elisha was confronted by the pack of children. He’s just established that he is a Prophet of the Lord, and now he is being taunted and disrespected. That’s a problem! In his commentary on this text, Rev. Robert Price, Pastor and Professor of Religion, says:
As we now read it, the story of Elisha and the Bears is a prime example of a “cautionary tale,” a scare story told in order to keep the intimidated listeners in their place… Other such biblical scare stories include that of the expulsion from Eden in Genesis chapter 3… and the death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. These are all religious boundary markers or warnings…
It is obvious that our Elisha story performed this function. It warned the hearers of the prophets not to make mockery of them. Jeremiah and others warned the people not to disdain the prophetic messages lest they face the consequences of foreign invasions from which God would otherwise protect them, but the Elisha business is slightly different: it seeks to safeguard the public standing of God’s messengers. If prophets were a laughingstock, then who could be expected to heed God’s warnings through them?”
This explanation of the text makes sense to me. First, scripture establishes that Elijah has moved on and passed his mantle to Elisha, then it establishes that Elisha is a Holy Prophet, then it uses this morning’s scripture to teach that prophets should be respected and if they aren’t treated with respect then there will be dire consequences. Most likely the first hearers of this story would have understood it in the same way we understand the story of the boy who cried wolf or King Midas and his golden touch today.
The lesson in the story for the ancient Israelites was that God works through prophets, and those prophets should be respected. They should be listened to and their instructions should be followed because they were messengers for God. When read in this context, I can understand why this story was told and then written down and included in our religious texts. But does it still have something to say to us today? Can we still learn something about God or our faith from it?
I think so. I think that just as it was a cautionary tale to the ancient Israelites, it can be the same for us today. But I think the lesson is different, because we need a different one. I think the lesson in this story for us is that we cannot take scripture at face value, we need to investigate it. It is important to learn the history, the context, and the intention behind scriptures so that we can understand why they were written and we don’t misuse them today.
If we take the story of Elisha and the bears literally and apply it to our modern context, we see a vengeful God that punishes children with extreme violence. We could use it to condone brutality against people who don’t believe what we believe, or maybe even justify child abuse against kids who are misbehaving. But if we take the time to learn what it meant to the people it was written for, we understand that it is not a stand-alone story that can be applied to our modern culture.
The lesson for us today is that we should take the Bible seriously, and that means that we should not take everything in it literally. Bishop Kenneth L. Carder puts it this way:
“Literalism tends to rob the Bible of its depth, beauty, mystery, and imagination. Taking it literally means you don’t have to probe its meaning because the meaning is self-evident (” the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” or “it means exactly what it says”).
Literalism can be an avoidance mechanism against the deeper meaning. Focusing on the details of whether a great fish really swallowed Jonah distracts from the harder truth of the story: God loves our enemies as much as God loves us!
Or, reading the first two chapters of Genesis as factual accounts of how creation came into existence enables us to avoid the question why and our role as participants in the ongoing nurturing of the earth.”
With modern eyes, this story of Elisha and the Bears is weird. It doesn’t make sense. It seems cruel and violent and repulsive—because for our culture, it is. We can’t apply this scripture to teach us how we should punish children today, or how faith leaders should be treated, or what pastors should do if they are questioned. It doesn’t hold the same lessons for us that it did for the culture it was written for. But, it can remind us that we have a responsibility to take religious texts seriously so that we don’t use them in harmful and inappropriate ways today.
Bishop Carder ended his article by saying the final test of how seriously we take the Bible is shown in the character it forms in us. He asks us to consider:
“Is the Bible —
- shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the true Word of God?
- expanding our capacity to love, including those deemed the “other” or “enemy”?
- deepening our commitment to and practice of compassion and justice?
- increasing our faith, hope, and courage to live God’s vision of a healed, just, and reconciled creation?
If the answer is “no,” we aren’t taking the Bible seriously, even if we literally “believe every word it says.”
As we continue to walk this spiritual path together, may our answer be yes. Amen.