On Elisha, Bears and Bullying

In light of recent tragedies, I wanted to comment once again on the issue of violence in the Bible. On the whole, I tend to view Biblical violence, done in the Name of God, as a series of object lessons about how the God revealed in Jesus Christ does NOT want God's Name to be used, and how systemic violence can rot the core out of a society.

First of all, there are episodes of horrendous violence done in God's Name. Think of Joshua and the Israelites wiping out entire cities in Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal for God. When we read these stories and then look telescopically across the trajectory of Scripture, I think we must ask ourselves: Do these violent actions create the society of justice, compassion, and peace that God repeatedly asks for?

And the answer is no. Across Scripture, we see many examples of cultures that fall into violence, injustice, and oppression, often while citing religious justification. Yet, in every case, whether done in "God's Name" or not, we find that violence begets more violence, injustice gives birth to more injustice, and oppression leads to more oppression. In every case, it spirals out of control, until the whole culture implodes from within, while often being invaded from outside as well. Thus, these stories give us a sad object lesson: Societies that use God as a justification for hatred and violence wind up being destroyed by monster they create.

There is also a parallel read of these stories of divinely sanctioned human violence. This is that these cultures had become so corrupt that God allowed their invasion and destruction as a kind of amputation to cut off their dead and dying social structures, so they could not keep on poisoning the larger civilization. That is to say, if the Biblical descriptions are anywhere near accurate, both the culture of Canaan before the Israelite invasion, as well as the culture of Israel and Judah centuries after the invasions, had become horrible places that were unable to support healthy human life. The accepted rule of the day was repeated abuse of women, children, the elderly, the poor, the marginalized, and basically anyone not belonging to the gang of the local ruler (i.e. warlord). And without a massive destruction of the social structures, and replacement of their oppressive "norms", the systemic cycle of abuse would just keep going. So, God allowed their implosion, invasion, and destruction.

So, a broad read of Scripture seems to show me that God does not want God's Name used as a justification for violence, oppression and genocide. It shows me that those who do use God for such a justification are sowing seeds for the eventual implosion and destruction of their own culture, because of the insidious infection of hatred and oppression it creates. And it shows me that God does allow the merciful destruction of civilizations that are so sick and malignant that they must be cut off and rebuilt from the ground up.

So much for Biblical violence, done by human agents, in God's Name.

But what about the Scripture passages where there seems to be a direct act of Divine Violence visited upon people, apart from direct human agency, in a supernatural, or at least highly improbable, way?

I'm not prepared to make broad interpretations of those themes across Scripture. Perhaps some of these stories are symbolic descriptions of God's destruction of evil spiritual realities and oppressive social systems (I think that is largely what is going on in the visions of Isaiah and Revelation). Perhaps other stories are ancient people mis-interpreting natural disasters as a direct act of God's wrath (one might think of the ancient flood stories here). And perhaps in some of these stories, God is actually getting rid of especially heinous, hateful, malignant people in an extraordinary way, so we can learn from their pathology. These stories need to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis before I could draw any broad themes.

In this case, I would like to focus on one story of supernatural Divine Violence that can alternately be seen as hilarious or heinous. It is a story that, depending on how it is told, could be put on a sketch comedy show, or could be a damning piece of evidence in a courtroom scene where God's goodness is put on trial. This is the story of Elisha calling down God's wrath upon a group of 42 "youth" in the form of two angry bears, found in 2 Kings 2.23–24.

And just so that what I am about to say has a clear basis in how scholars actually translate this text, I want to quote three different translations:

New American Standard: A Conservative, High-Reading Level Translation

[23] Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” [24] When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.

New International Version: A Moderate, Mid-Reading Level Translation

[23] 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!” [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 boys. 

Common English Bible: A Mainline, Low-Reading Level Translation

[23] Elisha went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young people came out of the city. They mocked him: “Get going, Baldy! Get going, Baldy!” [24] Turning around, Elisha looked at them and cursed them in the LORD’s name. Then two bears came out of the woods and mangled forty-two of the youths.

A few notes on the actual meaning of the Hebrew text are in order before I make any generalizations:

First of all, we must note that Elisha was at least an older adult, if not what we might consider "elderly", at this time. He already had a distinguished, apparently multi-decade, career as the assistant to Elijah. He later lives with a widow without a hint of sexual impropriety (2Ki 4). This is something that would have been considered scandalous if he was of marriageable age (i.e. young adult to mid-life). And he was old enough to be bald. So, what we have is an old man walking a road alone, when he is suddenly mocked and jeered by a crowd. Keep that in mind.

Second, what type of people are doing the mocking and jeering? There are two terms translated here. In verse 23 we have na'ar (נַעַר) which can signify a young male, from the age of childhood up to the age of young adulthood. The word na'ar in this verse is supplemented by the adjective for "small", which is qaton (קטן). Small has a very wide range of meanings, from physically small, to small in age (young), to a more metaphorical sense of small in importance or small in moral character.

So we have a group of "na'ar qaton", or "small lads". This combination term "small lads" can likewise have a range of semantic meaning, from literal "little boys", to a metaphorical reference to lesser servants, or even adult males as "little men" (cf. usage in 1Sa 20:35; 1Ki 3:7; 11:17; 2Ki 2.23; 5:14; Isa 11:6).

In verse 24, this same group, after they flee, is referred to a group of "yaled" (ילד). This word, likewise has a range of semantic meaning, from literal babies or young children, to a metaphorical way of speaking about adults who are acting childish. Similar to how we might say to an adult who is whining "stop being a baby!". We know that these cannot be literal babies or small children, because they are at least considered "na'ar" in the previous verse. And if we are looking for more clues about their age, that leads us to the next question.

Third, how many were there? According to the story, 42 of these young people were mauled. That is a large number. And unless every single person doing the mocking stayed still during the bear attack, we have to assume there were some from among the crowd who ran away and escaped the mauling. So, in all probability, the story is referencing a group of more than a hundred people, gathered outside of the city, who are intentionally mocking an old man.

Unless the people surrounding Bethel were prone to allowing all their young children to live outside of the city walls "Lord of the Flies" style, we must assume that these young people were on the older, metaphorical range of semantic meaning for both "na'ar qaton" and "yeled". What this text pretty clearly points us to, in a metaphorical way, is that there was a large gang of rogue young men, probably made up of adolescents and young adults, who roamed outside of the city as bandits, and probably made their living by robbing and pillaging travelers who were going to the local commercial hub of Bethel to trade. Gangs of bandits like this, preying on travelers and merchants, are common in ancient literature from all cultures, including that of the ancient near east [for instance click here].

Finally, what happened to them? The text intentionally does not use the word "killed" or "destroyed" to describe their fate. Instead, it says the two bears "mauled" them. The hebrew is baka (בקע), meaning to cleave or split open, and in this case, to get ripped up by two bears. Now, might there have been life threatening injuries sustained here? Of course. But, for the most part, the wording would signify instead what Texans might call "a good ass-whuppin". So, we have a group of "little men" who have fun bullying and taunting the elderly, who are sent running away, screaming like "little babies", after they are thrashed by the bears.

What does all this mean?

Well, for me, it is pretty clear we have an ornery elderly prophet, walking alone on a long road, who is suddenly bullied by a group of over a hundred young thugs. And like most mob actions, you never quite know when the whole thing is going to erupt in violence. So, in fear the elderly man curses the young bandits in the name of God, right before they are about to attack him. To everyone's surprise, God actually answers the curse on this occasion, and sends (or providentially allows) two bears to protect the solitary elderly man from mob violence. And in a very memorable way.

It was not enough for God to protect the elderly. God did it with flair. And perhaps also with a dark sense of humor.

The moral of the story? It seems that in this case, God protected the most vulnerable person from the hateful and powerful. God seems to be against rogue mob violence. God seems to be on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable. God does not seem to like bullies: People who use their power and vigor and numbers to intentionally harm others. That is something we would do well to remember as we debate social policy in our world today.

If I were to push the issue further, I might ask of this story: Is violence ever necessary, and if so, what is the justification of using violence? There are extreme cases where no peaceful or rational methods will stop a powerful, unjust oppressor from harming the innocent and the vulnerable. For those who have the power to stop the oppressor, the question then becomes which is the greater evil and which is the lesser evil: Is it worse to do nothing and allow violence to be done to the vulnerable, or to do violence against unjust human beings and stop their oppression?

Clearly, on the basis of this story, violence is sometimes the lesser evil to protect the vulnerable. I believe this is a principle that is generalizable across Scripture, drawing on Old Testament prophetic texts about defending the vulnerable, as well as New Testament texts such as Romans 13 and 1Peter 2. Thus, we come to the principle of "defensive violence": If all other peaceful, rational options have been tried and failed, it is the lesser evil to protect the vulnerable by harming their oppressors.

Thus, there is a place in a just society for "bears": Police and armed forces who defend the needy and vulnerable from injustice and violence. Yet, their defensive actions must not be done in God's Name. For God "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live" (Eze 33.11). Violence is only justified as the lesser evil in the face of a greater evil. And if that "defensive violence" takes a turn toward oppressing other vulnerable parties (such as non-combatants), it is no longer justifiable on ANY grounds. So if violence is ever said to be justified in someone's name, it is not in the name of God, but rather in the name of the oppressed, who are being defended for God's sake.

Yet, questions of the legitimate use of violence are never the final question to be asked. Violence, as we have shown, is at best a lesser evil to protect the vulnerable, and at worst a blatant rejection of God's will. Without a God of healing who can redeem the world from our hopeless cycles of systemic violence and oppression, there literally is no hope. And that is why the trajectory of the Bible begins with a good Creation, and moves through Elijah and the young thugs and all the other stories of violence and evil, until it ultimately points us to the God who became embodied in Jesus. It is finally this God Incarnate, crucified, and risen again, who brings resolution to the problems raised by Scriptures such as 2Kings 2.23-24.

I know this meditation has gone far beyond the pale of what is being considered in this passage about one elderly man, two angry bears, and 42 young bandits. But if it is truly Scripture, then that is what it should do: Point us beyond itself.

No wonder Douglas Adams said the meaning of life is 42.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.