Explaining weird stuff in the Bible: The She-Bear incident

Having taught High School Scripture for a few years, I know that students are particularly eager to read strange stories.  Since there is no shortage of strange stories in the Old Testament, I happily acquiesce to their interests.  After all, when I was a kid, these stories are precisely what led me to read the Bible.  I looked all over for these stories and reveled in my knowledge of obscure Bible passages.  However, aside from the fun they offer, they also create problems.  My intention is to write on how to interpret some of these difficult passages, since they often provide interpretive trouble for the faithful.

One of my favorites is the famous she-bear incident of 2 Kings 2:23-24:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. “Go up, baldhead,” they shouted, “go up, baldhead!” 24 The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces.

Now, as fun as this passage is, what do we do with it?  I raise this question because I have often (and again recently) heard this passage defended in this way:  To insult a prophet is to insult the anointed one of the Lord, which is the same as insulting the Lord.  If you insult the Lord, it is only just to be killed, since to insult God is the worst sin, or something like that.  As valiant as these interpretive efforts are, to me they are terribly misguided.  Why should we defend a prophet for killing 42 kids for insulting him?  They are kids who were having a bit of malicious fun.  I have absolutely no tolerance and cringe when I hear people defending the killing of children because they insulted the honor of a man of God, however anointed he may have been.

As always, I believe that genre comes to our aid.  The Old Testament is filled with many genres.  Most of Genesis is myth and legend.  Exodus is a mixture of legend, myth, story, epic, etc.  There is poetry, song, proverb.  There are even three works of fictions, short fiction stories: Tobit, Judith, and Jonah.

In particular, the Deuteronomist History from Joshua to 2 Kings is otherwise known as the “Former Prophets.”  The goal of these books is not primarily historical but rather prophetic: To proclaim the word of God to the Israel of its day, particulary the word of God as found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the Shema.  That is the goal.  That is the point of the this prophetic collection of materials.  The authors and redactors announce that there is one God and he alone is to be worshiped.

Thus, if we read the story above, I think that recognizing that the main point of these stories is about Israel in the 5th century, encouraging her to be faithful to God alone, is important.  Many different kinds of stories make their way into the Former Prophets, some more historical than others.  This passage rather clearly seems to fall under the genre of fable, or morality tale.  Kind of like a fable of Aesop, the point is that Elisha was a great prophet and you shouldn’t despise prophets no matter how difficult their words are.  I could see this story passed on to children as a story about honoring prophets. 

Understanding genre allows us to sidestep the ridiculous contortions that cause people to make everything that appears like history in the Old Testament to be history as we understand it today.  This passage neither intends history as we know it, nor is necessarily even written for that purpose.  Understanding the role that oral transmission of legends and stories played in the ancient world can allow us both to have a laugh and understand something about the purpose of this story without justifying the historical Elisha for murdering children for making fun of him.

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15 Responses to Explaining weird stuff in the Bible: The She-Bear incident

  1. [...] issues separating Catholics and Protestants from each other is literalism, or the lack thereof. Here is a Jesuit opinion of the regarding a story from 2 Kings 2:23-24. It’s worth a read and a critical assessment from both sides, as I know [...]

  2. Jim McCullough says:

    Thanks, Nathan. I appreciate your confronting these passages head-on. I’ve already collected an earlier example or two of your approach (the ban, for instance). It is crucial we be able to discuss this with teens as we promote lectio as a normal part of spiritual life.

  3. What do you have to say about the bit in Exodus where God randomly decides to kill Moses, and then his wife circumsizes their son and all is good?

  4. Fr B. says:

    I agree that genre is important for reading the Bible, and that certain books (Job, Jonah, Tobit, perhaps Esther) have a literary quality that invites us to read them as stories. However, 2 Kings is written as a historical book, and the reason you offer to justify a reading as a literary creation is not the form of the book but the content. If the form is historical, the content should be read as historical.
    BTW, it goes beyond the story to say Elisha killed those boys, he cursed them but what God did with that curse is entirely God’s free choice.

  5. “2 Kings is written as a historical book.”

    I would say yes and no. I think that by saying “historical” we think history post-enlightenment, which is not what 2 Kings is at all. So in that sense, I would say that no, it is not a historical book.

    I think 2 Kings is a collection of stories, anecdotes, legends, fables, history, traditions, etc about Israel’s past all to the purpose of proclaiming the word of Deuteronomistic word of God (prophetic) to the Israel at the time of the redactor: There is one God, obedience to him is the only way forward. To that extent it is telling a story with a point. Insofar as all history is story-telling, selecting and creating a narrative, then yes, it is history. But 2 Kings is such a specific type of history it seems to me that we need to be careful.

    Ok, but that doesn’t help me. So I tell my students that God wanted to kill 42 boys? That’s not how I teach.

  6. Judith Sears says:

    The genre part I get, otherwise, it seems to me you’re making a distinction without a difference.

    1. You reject: “to insult a prophet is to insult an anointed one of the Lord, which is the same as insulting the Lord.”

    2. You accept: “the point is that Elisha was a great prophet and you shouldn’t despise prophets no matter how difficult their words are.”

    Huh? I do not see the difference between the approach you reject and the approach you advocate, except for substituting prophet for anointed – and what is a prophet if not someone who is anointed?

    The genre – it’s a fable – that I can understand. I’m not competent to argue the biblical scholarship, but to me it makes sense.

    I’ll just add – good on you for teaching Scripture to high school students.

    • I don’t reject number 1. What I meant is that you can’t use that as a reason for why God killed 42 kids, as if that explains what was so bad that death was the only just punishment. But the point of the story or fable holds either way.

      • vfoj says:

        Judith Sears is correct. Any time we (human beings) view the Bible as ordinary literature we can not know with any certainty what any passage is teaching. By the way, if we do consider it on the same level as any other work of fiction, or fables, etc. whose wisdom is ensconced in lofty sayings, then what difference does it make what the moral of the story is? Its just another saying…

        But, in reality in the story everyone has missed the fact that those cursed and then killed by the bears were not children but probably Teens. Do your homework! Someone who taught High School anything should have that one down pat!

  7. Gail F says:

    I am fascinated by some of the replies to your post. They are exactly the sort of thing that, in my earlier days, made me roll my eyes and think there was no way to take Christians seriously. I have long since learned that there are many different types of Christians and many different positions on Scripture, and I now know that it is certain approaches to Scripture that really need to be jettisoned, not Scripture or Christianity. Your explanation of this weird little story is excellent. Bears devouring 42 children? Really? People at the time did not read or write history the way we do, and they were perfectly satisfied with stories that simply conveyed a message, as well as with stories they believed actually happened. (And they also had a sense of humor — that is a funny story.) Well into recent history, people felt free to invent speeches for famous generals, etc., that conveyed the gist of what they did, and would never have thought of them as “lying” or “making things up.” We are used to news reports. The ancient world did not write or read news reports. Understanding this is not at all the same thing as refusing to believe miracles ever happened or reinterpreting everything in light of some current ideology.

    • Exactly. And yes, it is a very funny story, which is why I have my boys read it. They love it. But is also important for them to know that God doesn’t kill children for cursing.

    • Greg says:

      For those who don’t know the words “little children” translated in Hebrew is the word “na’ar” which means people under 40 years of age (King James strongs bible). Bald head may have had the meaning of “worthless fellow” (King James strongs Bible).

  8. M.P. says:

    As much as there is tendency to write off lot in Scripture as ‘story’ or genre or legend , one has to be very careful that we are not helping to erode faith !

    The Creation Evidence museum group has shown how much of what is in Book of Gen . can be supported by hard science .
    In times past , while reading the first chapter in Genesis – about presence of light before the creation of the sun , used to groan – ‘they could not get even that much right ! ‘ and thus had almost an antipathy for The Book !

    The above group claims to show how energy ( The Spirit ) moving over waters does make light !

    Once we realise that The Word is lot more true than we imagine , it becomes almost like a’hide and seek’ joyful effort to find out the truths in other passages too !

    We often discount raw evil ( thanks to presence of our our Lord ! ) but this would have been very prevalent in Old Testament times ( like in some old cultures that still practice withcraft etc : )

    In the above incident with the Prophet , at a time and in a culture where respect for elderly and esp. for prophets would have been very much the norm and a necessity , the behavior of these children border on what the Gerasene demoniac did except the former did it in willful contempt – a modern comparison could be someone doing something similar to an Islamic crowd !

    Shows how depraved these children were and they had it coming !

    When God withdraws His protection from those who call on the enemy by doing its will , then anything can happen – these children could have ran into a cave where there were she bears and ‘gets torn up ‘ !

    Only shows evil at work !

    The news about ‘Kermit Gosnell’ is may be what comes close in our own times !
    in Old Testamnet times , often when we read about God’s wrath , He is telling them how they have asked evil to come in and He has to allow same – as in case of Moses who had not shown covenantal fidelity by possibly listening to his wife and not having the children circumcised !

    ‘Satan has asked to shift you like wheat’ – Our Lord had to warn The Apostles ; God had to warn what Moses was up against too and to get the neeeded protection !

  9. Phil Swain says:

    Saying this story is fable rather than history doesn’t solve the moral issue whether God caused the death of these children. Whether it’s history or fable, God was not the cause of these deaths. We know this because we know that God does not will the death of any of his creatures. However, we also know that
    God’s creature, man, can will his seperation from God and, therefore, his own destruction by the forces of nature.

  10. mark says:

    Everything about this story had to do with the fact that Elisha had gone bald for bearing the iniquity of his people. Baldness was a curse in biblical times, according to Max Sussman-former professor emeritus of bacteriology at the medical school at Newcastle in England. The prophets of the Old Testament would bear the sins of the people upon themselves, interceding on their behalves. Elisha became bald when he bore the sin of Israel upon his head. We see this same phenomenon when God used the king of Babylon to attack Tyre. Ezekiel stated that Babylon and its soldiers bore the iniquity of Tyre on their heads, laboring against them so strenuously that “every head was made bald, and every shoulder rubbed raw.” (Ezekiel 29:18) Elisha’s head had been rubbed raw because of Israel’s sin. He was taking upon himself the curses they had accumulated on account of their Baal worship. But the prophets could only intercede for so long, because the people of Israel refused to repent and turn their hearts away from idolatry. Amos prophesied that because the people refused to give up their gods and idols, God would “turn [their] feasts into mourning, and all [their] songs into lamentation; [He would] bring sackcloth on every waist, and baldness on every head…” (Amos 3:10)

    The first sign of leprosy came with bald patches or spots on the skin where the hair would fall out and die. In the Old Testament, leprosy was a type of mortality that came through sin; once infected with it, it spread from person to person and threatened to wipe out everyone in a village. The Israelites had been infected with spiritual leprosy, and so Elisha had prayed for his nation that they would be healed from their idolatry, spiritual leprosy, and sin, but they rejected his intercession. The youth came out to ridicule, taunt, and blasphemy God by attacking God’s prophet… the youth were full of rebellion, which according to I Samuel 15:23, “rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft.” This taunt was actually a war between the unbelievers (those who represented rebellion and witchcraft) against God and His prophet, Elisha.

    Notice that there were 42 youth. Earlier, Elijah had interceded on behalf of Israel and it did not rain for 42 months, i.e., 3 1/2 years (there are 42 months in 3.5 years); now Elisha was finishing Elijah’s work. Elijah had prayed to restore rain (the water of the word) to Israel, but they were still living in idolatry, so Elisha was removing their sin by taking it upon himself, just as Jesus would later do (He who knew no sin became sin for us). The youth were cursing Elisha… even while he was interceding on behalf of them and his/their whole nation. But by attacking Elisha, they were cursing themselves (in whatsoever manner you judge, you shall be judged) and that curse of ridiculing him for being bald (because no priest or prophet was supposed to ever be bald (Leviticus 21:5), came back upon them. They didn’t know that he was bald because of their sin. Their sin returned to them from their curses and two she-bears came out of the woods and brutally attacked and probably killed the 42 youth. The sin of Israel fell upon them in the form of two beasts/bears and one youth dying for every single month Elijah and Elisha had been interceding on behalf of Israel for, which was 42 months.

    This was a story about warfare and intercession. The unbelievers attacked the faithful prophet and they brought down upon their own heads the curses of sin that Elisha’s head had been made raw by. They suffered the fate for all those those who practice rebellion and witchcraft. The beasts will turn on them in the end and they will be devoured by the curse of sin.

  11. I found the above explanation no explanation at all but commentary full of personal equivocation. Non-believers and pseudo-believers are very quick to “add” their own little interpretations to meet modern mores. It is not so much that stories in the scripture are highly or only anecdotal for some otherwise spiritual “insight,” but that these stories are usually highly compressed, void of lengthy analytical material intended to defend to the nth degree criticism coming from those who prefer to find fault to understanding the long-range implications of the scriptural references themselves.

    “Mark’s” explanation is by far the better explication (for its insight and comparative analysis) of the incident of the she-bears. The original “explanation” actually says nothing!

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