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Monday, 4 February 2013

"I Can't Believe Because (1)" - God allowed 42 boys to be mauled by bears

"I can't believe because of the harsh stories in the Old Testament"
No doubt there are some difficult stories in the Bible, and this one, in 2 Kings 2, is often held up as one of the toughest. Here it is in the NIV translation:

"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria."

On the surface of things there are three big problems with this story:
  1. The offence seems so small - boys mocking a man
  2. The judgement seems so disproportionate - a mauling for a mockery
  3. God therefore seems harsh, since the judgement came from him, called down by Elisha (who also appears harsh)
How do we explain such a story? 

Attitude to the text
First, a thing or two about attitude to text.

(1) Friend or foe?
I remember reading Lance Armstrong's biography long before he 'fessed up. His arrogance (an opinon recently justified)  quickly put me off and from that point onwards I was not friendly - or neutral - towards the book. How you read this story will depend in part whether you are hostile to the text (the Bible) before you begin. If you are hostile, you'll not make any real efforts to understand. 

(2) Whose standard?
A second factor which will shape our attitude to the text: do we think the standards of our day are the right ones? If we assume that our attitudes and mores are right, then we will judge the text from our standpoint. What if our attitudes are actually wrong? What if we allow the text to judge us and our mores? What if, in fact, that is exactly what we are meant to do: stand corrected?

(3) Are we judging from a safe (and rare) historical bubble?
It is extremely easy to judge other nations from the comfort of a country in which there are policemen, wealth, health and justice. We look at the unfolding violence of the 'Arab Spring' and think that put in the same situation we wouldn't do the same sorts of things. But that is to forget the safe bubble we enjoy in the West and from which we observe the world. Most of the world, for most of history (both past and I would predict future) has experienced violence and brutality, without 'police' or 'justice' as the norm. From such a standpoint, violence is the norm. This does not justify violence, but it does help us to see how easily we tend to judge any form of physical violence or punishment harshly.

Observations that put the story in context
Let us assume we want to understand the story with no axe to grind. Here are some observations that will help us:

(1) Elisha lived in a unique 'theocracy' - we don't. Elisha lived in a unique time and situation. He lived in a theocracy, in which God and state were intimately entwined. This temporary situation, which resulted in a prophet calling down judgement on idolatrous fellow citizens was temporary, and since Christ has come this era is gone. (Indeed it was limited even in the Old Testament: as often as not, God used peoples and nations outside of Israel to punish Israel, rather than the other way round - for example, the exile(s)). 

(2) The Bible's revelation of God is progressive. We are not to read off this event everything about the character of God. Some aspects, such as his justice are taught (see later). But not until the birth and life of Jesus Christ do we see what God is really like, in all his glorious fullness. So an event like this can never be set in isolation.....

(3)...most of Elisha's miracles are doing good for the poorest of his world. The character of God is revealed, if you like, by summing up all of the miracles God did through Elisha. You soon realise that God is overwhelmingly good - and especially to the weakest and poorest in his world.

(4) Elisha's age respected adults. There was a specific command to respect older people: ‘Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord" says Leviticus 19:32, for example. These lads were out of order in their own culture. What they did may seem nothing to us but it was regarded as outrageous in that culture (as indeed it would still be in many Eastern cultures: it's only in the West we have come to accept disrespect of the young towards the old).

(5) Elisha was God's mouthpiece. A prophet was a mouthpiece of God and to show him dishonour was to dishonour the one who sent him. These lads were disrespecting the God of Elisha....

(6)..... Elisha was in the centre of a religious culture that had rejected God. Bethel was at the centre of a rebellious pagan Jewish culture which had deliberately turned its back on God. Many years previously the north (called Israel) had broken away from the south (called Judah) and established its own false worship, centring at Bethel. When we understand this, we see why these lads mocked Elisha in the first place: probably because they heard such mocking in their own homes: most probably their families hated the God of Elisha. When I was in Kenya recently, we stopped beside a road, and a "mad woman" came to the car to beg. Little boys without any provocation spat on her. Why? Because, no doubt in their homes, she had been spoken evil of. These boys were reflecting their town's attitude to God and his spokesman.

Observations on the story itself
Let's look at the story again.

"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria."

Note the following:

(1) The boys are not little kids. The word used refers to people between 12 and 30 able to discern right and wrong, and considered mature.  

(2) There are a whole lot of them. Can you imagine a gang of at least 42 lads setting on one older man? This is a big marauding gang of taunters. Who knows where the jeers would have led? Elisha's murder?

(3) There is no indication that the lads were killed, only mauled. There are words for kill in Hebrew, but this is not one of them. No doubt these lads were badly hurt by the she bears, but there is no reason to believe that they were killed. 

(4) The boys were insulting Elisha and God. Elijah (Elisha's predecessor) had just gone up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and the lads knowing this, seem to have taunting him in two ways. (i) "you too go back to heaven and get out of here" (ii) "you're a baldy." They were dishonouring Elisha personally and dishonouring God by telling God's prophet to go back to God.

(5) Elisha leaves the judgement to God. Elisha calls down a curse, but leaves the working out of that curse to providence. Who is to say that these boys in their focused taunts towards Elisha failed  to notice the presence of some (mother?) bears (with young?) and put themselves in this dangerous position by their neglect.  

(6) God is righteous. What if the God in heaven is a just God - as well as gracious and merciful? What if these lads deserved punishment for their outrageous behaviour? What if they had insulted their local prince: now scale that up to the Creator of the Universe. These were not children who were ignorant of God, they knew full well that there was a God in heaven and who Elisha was. 

Observations that critique our culture
What if this text works the other way round, and is designed to critique our own Western comfortable culture, like this:

(1) This text questions our obsession with physical well-being. Why can't we handle any kinds of physical punishments? Because we live in such soft physical conditions, where every material bodily comfort is ours for the asking or buying, we struggle with any punishment that involves the body. But perhaps, as Nature (creation) warns us against fire, heights and sharp items with immediate physical pain, we need to revisit the value of physical pain as punishment. For sure, a smack is often the quickest way to teach a child.  One day, when poverty and disease has removed the thin veneer of Western civilization and we experience revolution, war and bloodshed on our streets, as most people in most of the history of the world experience, and there is not enough room in our prisons, or enough money to build more of them, perhaps then we shall see that sometimes in history nothing but physical punishment can restrain wicked behaviour. Perhaps then we will be glad for policemen who carry big sticks and use them effectively to quash gangs that unchecked would raid our homes that night. Who is to say what this mob of boys would have done to their next victim had they not been stopped here?

(2) This text challenges lost inter-generational respect - and every other kind of respect with it.  We are surprised that lads insulting a man is regarded as so wrong. But perhaps respect for those older than us is a good element of human manners and behaviour. For one practical thing, it protects the physically weak older person. In a democratic culture where everyone is on the same level, we have lost the respect that universally had been paid to the elderly, and to those in authority (whether we agree with them or not). But perhaps it is we, not them who are in error. 

(3) This text challenges our lost fear of God: we no longer believe in the Majesty, Holiness and Righteousness of God. That's the big issue in this story. If we believed in the righteousness and majesty of God, we would be cut to the quick about any insult to him or his spokesman, great or small, and we should probably be wondering why God did not send upon them (and their parents) fire and brimstone, not some incy wincy  bears......   

... in which case we might be saying that this story is not one of harsh brutality, but of the kind mercy of God to a city who were here given warning which might have prevented them from greater judgement to come (if only they had listened, they may have avoided the Exile), and were spared greater judgement had they killed God's spokesperson. 

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