Feeding Unruly Boys to the Bears: The Bible’s sick sense of humor.

twobearsIn our continuing discussion of the Exile’s importance in reading the Bible in historical context, I came across this example.  My friend Robert Quiring posted a question from one of his parishioners regarding 2 Kings 2:23-24:

Elisha 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.

His parishioner, for some reason, asked “What in the world do I do with this passage?”

Here’s one possibility.

The clear meaning of the text is that we have been too easy on our children.  If we want to be biblically faithful parents, we need to train some she-bears to come when we call them and apply the discipline needed:  mauling, or as another translation says, tearing the forty-two boys to bits.  Another thing we need to work on, if we would practice biblically faithful parenting, is to encourage our children to stand around and wait for the punishment they have coming instead of running away.  Obviously, if two bears are going to maul forty-two boys, the boys did not run away when the bears went after the first two; they waited their turn. It’s time we raise our boys to suppress their survival instincts and take their punishment like men.

Or, maybe we could consider that the Bible contains many different genres of stories, including gallows-humor folk tales.  Perhaps our contemporary culture’s assumption of historical accuracy in the Bible would make no sense at all to the original readers of this story. We could even read the story in its context and discern a very playful editor and writers behind this important narrative about the succession of Elijah by Elisha. They dare to be playful about a deeply important question:  When times are hard, does that mean that God has abandoned us?  Or, to put it in the specific context of the exile, the time at which most of the Old Testament was compiled, edited, transformed from oral tradition to written word, and shaped into a theological document:  When the people of God feel lost, alone, displaced, and caught in the drama of political instability, is there still a prophet in Israel?

Here’s a radical thought:  it appears that some biblical writers had a sick sense of humor.

5 thoughts on “Feeding Unruly Boys to the Bears: The Bible’s sick sense of humor.

  1. RTQ says:

    If I was a boy and some old guy told me this story, I probably would think twice before I called him baldy again. Probably. Maybe this is one of those stories meant to scare you straight – and it found its way into the Bible.

  2. Richard Bayless says:

    “Obviously, if two bears are going to maul forty-two boys, the boys did not run away when the bears went after the first two; they waited their turn” — I would be interested in a word study on “bears” but regardless, with so many supernatural events surrounding Elisha, it would be exhausting to dismiss them all. It is expected that “signs and wonders” would follow such a great prophet. Obviously, I fall on the side of the literalist.
    “Perhaps our contemporary culture’s assumption of historical accuracy in the Bible would make no sense at all to the original readers of this story.”— I would argue the opposite is a more accurate statement. Our contemporary culture’s assumption is not that the Bible is historically accurate. Ask any recent “mainline” seminarian graduate.

  3. Neill Morgan says:

    Welcome to the conversation, Richard. I want to clarify that my position is not that the Bible intends to tell an historical account but I don’t believe it–my position is that the Bible employs a variety of literary genres as instruments of proclamation. The biblical writers did not restrict themselves to historical accounts. When we encounter a story like this that has all the marks of a folk tale–humor, wild animals, and a moral for children (don’t mock a prophet), then insisting on its historicity would diminish the scope of its meaning. Insisting on historicity increases the distance between us and the biblical world, making it easier to look at the Bible as a relic of a time when God acted differently than now. There are places where the biblical writers clearly make historical claims for extraordinary events; for example, Paul and the apostles recount their experience of encountering Jesus in bodily form after his death and burial. While they each shape the story in different ways, their theological proclamation rests on the historical event. That is not the case in the story of the she-bears. Recognizing that biblical writers use different genres from one passage to another does not, for me, diminish in the least the inspiration, importance or Truth of the theological claims.

    • Richard Bayless says:

      I agree! It would be foolish to consider the whole of the bible to be written as if to be interpreted literally. You were concise and your position was very clear the first time.

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