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.