My 17-year-old daughter doesn’t spend a lot of time in the church these days, but she still has a favorite Bible passage: 2 Kings 2:23-24:
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.
Taken at face value, some kids teased Elisha about being follicly challenged and he responded by cursing them in the name of God. And God – the ‘God is love’ God from 1 John 4:8 – responds by sending bears to kill the jeerers.
This is one of a number of Bible stories that I find quite vexing. I thought it might be worth taking a walk through some of them, to see what can be learned about God, or about humanity, through these WTF verses. And as things often happen, this barely-enough-material-for-a-whole-blog-post post turned quickly into a series. Some of the WTFs are instructive, and in other cases, the WTFs stand. Without further ado, let’s continue…
So getting back to Elisha the Baldy, I did a bit of research and discovered that a few nuances are missing in the NIV, which I’ve quoted above.
‘The Hebrew word can refer to children, but rather more specifically means “young men,”‘ wrote the author of this article.
And as the NIV does say, the bears mauled 42 of the boys/young men. This means there were more than 42 of them – and to be harassed in this way by more than four-dozen rowdy teenagers would be quite unnerving.
Additionally, the translation of their taunt ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ might be flawed as well. The New King James Version says they urged Elisha to ‘Go up, you baldhead!’ And the words ‘go up’ are related to the fact that this event happens just after Elisha watches Elijah, his mentor and predecessor, ‘go up’ to Heaven. The taunters are apparently suggesting he follow where Elijah has gone, so they can be rid of him as well.
‘In summary, 2 Kings 2:23-24 is not an account of God mauling young children for making fun of a bald man. Rather, it is a record of an insulting demonstration against God’s prophet by a large group of young men. Because these young people of about 20 years of age or older (the same term is used of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:7) so despised the prophet of the Lord, Elisha called upon the Lord to deal with the rebels as He saw fit. The Lord’s punishment was the mauling of 42 of them by two female bears. The penalty was clearly justified, for to ridicule Elisha was to ridicule the Lord Himself. The seriousness of the crime was indicated by the seriousness of the punishment. The appalling judgment was God’s warning to all who would scorn the prophets of the Lord.’ – a quote from the same article cited above.
I find the context about the young men/boys and ‘go up’ helpful, but the punishment for the taunt seems extremely excessive – whether you look at God as the turn-the-other-cheek Savior or the eye-for-an-eye Law-Giver. And the conclusion that the punishment was justified because God did it and we know that God is a just God, feels a lot like circular reasoning to me.
I’ll let you know if I come across anything that’s more helpful, but for now, the 2 Kings 2:23-24 WTF stands.
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We a similar level of ruthlessness and brutality on the part of Elisha’s mentor Elijah, a few pages earlier in 1 Kings 18:40:
‘Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.’
This comes right after Elijah mopped the floor with the prophets of Baal in a showdown on Mount Carmel. You’d think such a humiliating victory – including plenty of trash talk on the part of the man of God – would’ve been enough. But no. Elijah had his spiritual opponents executed. All 450 of them. These men were corrupt and wicked and misguided and evil, but they were still descendants of Adam who bore the image of the One True God. And yet, there’s no reason in the text to assume God was bothered by the action. Indeed, the text leaves room to infer that the extermination was God’s idea!
I know things were quite different in Old Testament times, but WTF. Period.
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I’ve already written at length about a couple of other big WTFs in the Bible: Paul’s exasperated exorcism of a possessed girl in Acts 16:16-18 and God’s decision to kill Aaron’s sons for unauthorized worship (of Yahweh) in Leviticus 10:1-2.
A passage I would like to look at today, though, is Deuteronomy 21:10-14:
10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
If God loves everyone, why didn’t She forbid this behavior out of hand? Why didn’t She simply tell the Israelites, ‘…if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may not take her as your wife. Her people were just defeated in war and you’ve probably just killed her husband, her father or her brothers, so she’s been through enough. There are plenty of women back in Israel, so leave her alone, you selfish jerk!’
But the way a lot of scholars read it, this passage is actually an extraordinarily humanistic instruction for the time and place in which it was written.
The purpose of the passage is to put some boundaries around what a God-fearing (but still extremely savage and barbaric, by 21st Century standards) Israelite was allowed to do when he encountered a beautiful woman among his defeated enemies.
You’ll see a slightly less barbaric outlook on slavery and how women are treated as you move forward in the Bible. That trend continues (with some notable backslides) at a painfully slow pace until the time of Jesus, when respect for the individual really begins to gather steam.
The Israelites weren’t capable of leaping to a completely gender-equal, slavery-free worldview in one jump, anymore than we are today.
So God met them where they were and helped them to take a baby step toward that ideal, as they could handle it.
And I think He is still doing that with you and with me.
Do you treat everyone you meet as though they are bearers of the divine image of the Holy God of the Universe? What baby step toward that ideal is God calling you to take today?
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OK, so we’ve mainly stayed in the Old Testament so far in our stroll through biblical WTFs. But eventually, we’ll really open Pandora’s Box and examine a few of the crazy non-sequiturs Jesus lambasted his listeners with in the parables He told in the Gospels.
But for now, peace be with you.