Editor’s note: Throughout the month of May we will explore hard/weird/confusing/hilarious passages or verses in the Bible and try to make sense of them (or try to model how you make sense of them) to better understand God and the stories contained in scripture.
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him,”Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 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 youths.25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria… (2 Kings 2:23-25)
Knowing and loving God can be tough.
I mean, that’s obviously the understatement of the past…all of human history. It goes without saying that God is unlike any Person we’ve ever known, largely because God is so willing to be misunderstood. Scripture is filled with reminders of God’s goodness, compassion, grace, wisdom, and love (among other things). But Scripture is also filled with stories that make God look downright awful.
Further complicating all of this is that, if we accept the premise that God exists and is a higher Being/Power who is inherently beyond our comprehension, we will have to accept some seeming contradictions. We will have to accept that God can be both good and dangerous at the same time.
Enter Elisha, some young boys from a town called Bethel, and well, eventually, two bears.
Now at first reading, this is not only a confusing story about God, it’s admittedly kind of hilarious. Just the word “baldhead” is funny in and of itself, and more so that Elisha would be be so upset about it that he’d ask God to send bears to maul them. I mean, who does that?
But what this passage shows why it’s important to read the Bible with a commentary. Or at the very least, to google how theologians have interpreted it.
First some backstory. Elijah, who was a great and powerful prophet (you know, called down fire from heaven on a completely drenched altar and such), is taken up to God, but not before giving Elisha double his power. Elisha is now the prophet of God and as such one of his first acts is to heal the polluted water in Jericho.
When Elijah was taken up to God, he and Elisha had just come from Bethel. So it is not out of the realm of belief that the people in that city would have heard about the healing of the waters by the time Elisha reached Bethel. That puts our scene into context.
Even just a cursory google search showed that the original Hebrew was not referring to the taunting of little boys, but to the mockery of youths who knew what they were doing. According to the Jamieson, Fausset-Brown Commentary the term “baldhead” would have been a major insult to anyone. The Pulpit Commentary points out that
“Baldness was sometimes produced by leprosy, and then made a man unclean (Leviticus 13:42-44); but the boys probably flouted the mere natural defect, in which there was no “uncleanness” (Leviticus 13:40, 41), but which they regarded as a fit subject for ridicule. Their sin was disrespect towards old age, combined, perhaps, with disrespect for the prophetical order, to which they may have known from his dress that Elisha belonged.”
Likewise, some commentators have interpreted “Go on up” to be a reference to Elijah, meaning “go there too.” It was an insult for the youth of the city to tell a prophet of the Lord to leave.
It helps also to bear in mind (pun!) that Bethel was ground zero for idol worship. After the kingdom of Israel was split into Israel and Judah, Jeroboam the king of Israel, set up idols in the form of calves in Bethel and Dan. Bethel, which means “House of God” now was the official, state-sponsored home to an idol. Think about how egregious this is for a moment. In this city where the Ark of the Covenant was once kept, idolatry was so rampant that even the youth of the city were opposed to the presence of God’s prophet.
Let me be clear: I don’t at all think that being mauled by a bear is a good thing. It is not something to celebrate. It’s not something to ask God to do. I certainly struggle with understanding this. But in light of the people’s rampant idolatry and outright rebellion against God, I can see that this is not an arbitrary act of a capricious God. God is a healer. God is a jealous God who loves the people of Israel and wants their hearts. Not because God is an egomaniac who needs people’s love, but because we become what we worship. Psalm 115 describes not just the futility of idolatry, but how dehumanizing it is for those who engage in it.
I don’t think that God desires to bring about pain or destruction or suffering to humanity. But I do think that we reap the consequences of our actions and choices. Here we see a city that has turned so far away from God. The “House of God” is thoroughly inhospitable and unwelcoming to God and God’s prophets. This is a problem.
But it still makes me feel like I’m making excuses for God you know?
So beyond commentary, I have to look at the character of God. God is jealous–God’s name is “Jealous.” God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving sin, wickedness, and rebellion.” (Exodus 34:6-7a) But if you keep reading the rest of verse 7, you see that God also draws a boundary. The English Standard Version translates it this way, “but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In other words, if you don’t turn back to a God who is willing to forgive, there will be consequences.
When I cross boundaries in relationships, I don’t expect the person I’ve wronged to visit wrath and judgment on me. This is partly because that person who I sinned against is also a guilty party (maybe not in that instance though). None of us are without sin. We have no leg to stand on when it comes to meting out punishment. We can only offer grace and forgiveness and hope that it’s extended toward us… and that somehow things will be made right.
God however, being God, is obviously different. God might do things we don’t understand, things that seem contrary to character…but God never acts out of sin. God acts after showing a great deal of patience and knowing all the elements of the story, past, present, and future. God has the right to pass judgment because our disobedience, our rebellion, our turning from God’s ways and the way the world should be, wreak real havoc in the world. The people who were worshiping idols weren’t making Israel a more just place to live. That was largely why both Elijah and Elisha were so hated in Israel–because he spoke against the unjust and evil practices that were going on there.
Still that doesn’t give me much comfort. Sure, I can get that God is God and I am not and I will have to accept mystery. But isn’t it kind of an unequal fight? God is so much more powerful than me. I am human and can’t help myself. Where is the grace?
This is when I have to read a story like this one through the lens of the cross. God is patient and and according to 2 Peter 3:9 doesn’t want anyone to perish, but rather to turn back to the Divine. God, who by nature is eternal and cannot perish, chooses to humiliate Godself and put on our perishable flesh, to live and die as one of us, in Jesus. Jesus bears even worse humiliation and mockery and rejection than Elisha both, in solidarity with us and in place of us. Jesus bears even worse violence in his body than or these young men, though he was innocent. His dying words offer forgiveness instead of judgment, as the relationship between God and Jesus is torn apart on the cross.
That God would allow such violence to be done to the Eternal is a mystery. But that God would allow it to be done in our place, offering forgiveness of our sins once and for all despite our idolatry and rebellion? No this is not a tame, safe God. But this is a very good God.
What are some hard passages of scripture for you? Do you think it’s possible to see God’s goodness even in those challenging places? How do you approach those hard passages?
Do you believe that God is angry, vengeful, and capricious? If so, why?
Loving God, we don’t know how to pray as we ought; teach us to pray. Scripture tells us that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness, that you are a good and righteous God. But we confess that we don’t always see that. We confess the sorrow, injustice, suffering, and evil in this world and often in our own lives, keeps us from seeing you clearly. Would you please forgive us for not giving you the benefit of the doubt? Would you help us to see you in your goodness, even through the hard and challenging parts of our lives and the difficult parts of scripture? Please help us to love you well today and to receive your love for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.