• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, August 13, 2009

    Elisha, God and the Bears

    There's discussion amongst some of the other bibliobloggers about the story of Elisha and the She-Bears. Given that this is exactly the kind of story I'll be looking at in my Greenbelt talk "Biblical Horror Stories for Children" It was all started by David Ker who used the post as part of his Bad Boy Bible Studies series. The series viewpoint is that "Old Testament stories tell us more about humans than God. But that revelation comes in the context of a long trajectory of God’s dealings with humanity". I sort of agree with that, but the problems, for me at least, seem to come when Ker starts to apply them.

    Essentially Ker holds that "The correlation of Elisha’s curse and the youth’s misfortune is purely coincidental." The problem is, for me at least, that whilst the author never states a connection outright, it is clearly implied by the plot requirements of the story. Firstly, as Ker actually states, the author "is establishing Elisha as the inheritor of Elijah’s power". But the source of this power is meant to be God. Secondly, if this event was interpretated as being purely coincidental, it's hard to see why it was included. Imagine if the bears hadn't taken action, would the story have merited a place in the Bible? Personally, I doubt it very much indeed. The Bible is history theologised. Coincidences are of no consequence. Thirdly, the specific mention of Yahweh's name (as opposed to merely saying that Elisha cursed them) prefigures that which is to come. Fourthly, and I concede I'm not best placed to state this, but my understanding was that in the mindset of the time, coincidences such as these simply didn't exist. God was responsible. To my mind, only those who start with the presupposition that the author couldn't possibly view God as responsible for such an horrendous act can conclude that.

    Of course using the phrase "the author" raises the question of which author is intended? The person who witnessed the event? The first person to write it down? The person that wrote in the form we have in front of us? The book's final editor? Or all of those involved in the complex process of this story ending up in our Hebrew Bibles.

    I first came across this thread on Doug Chaplin's Baldy, bad boys and the big bear: a strange Bible meme. Doug broadly agrees with Ker, although unlike Ker, he never states outright that the "correlation of Elisha’s curse and the youth’s misfortune is purely coincidental". Nevertheless, none of Doug's points of "methodological reflection" really cover the implicit suggestion that Elisha’s curse motivated God to send the bears to kill the boys." As I said in his comments
    "It’s all very well saying “not everybody in the Bible is perfect or to be emulated” but when it’s implied that it’s God that does the killing then it’s another matter, surely? God’s action on Elisha’s behalf endorses, rather than opposes, his desire for vengance, which is why it’s such a troubling passage, for me at least."
    I'm already regretting the use "it's all very well" which sounds Tom-Wrightily pompous and a little angry and shrill, but I can't edit the comment. Sorry Doug.

    In Bad boys and big bad bears, Peter Kirk has a different approach. For him, Elisha "had within him the power and authority of God, with which he was able to pronounce a curse on the boys which was not mere words but had immediate effect. God answered it by sending the bears even though that was not a good thing." I think I find this answer a little more honest, but also a litle more troubling. In essence it says that God was responsible for killing the youths, even though he thought it was a bad thing. I suppose "responsible" is a bit of a slippery term. Kirk would presumably say that God delegated this power to Elisha, but Elisha abused it. I can see that point, though I'm a little unclear on how this power works (aren't we all?). The problem with it for me (assuming this never passes across God's desk prior to being actioned) is that this story is so consistent with other passages in the Hebrew Bible which portray God as the driving force for similarly brutal acts. Whilst I know chipping away at each difficult story in turn is a popular approach, after a while it just becomes clear that this is just an attempt to clear the Bible's name one step at a time.

    Douglas Mangum adopts a similar position to Peter Kirk - the timing of the bear attack was not just coincidental. His explanation is slightly different however:
    Rejecting or mocking the LORD's anointed (Elisha) was the same as rejecting or mocking Yahweh himself. That is the take-home point that I would use for a Sunday School class. Still, it is a bizarre story. I recommend you head over to read James McGrath's 11 different angles on this text. Here's my favorite.
    Given that my Greenbelt talk will be looking at how unpleasant stories get taught more in children's groups than in grown-up church, the mention of Sunday School obviously stood out. Suffice to say I'm unlikley to send my kids to that particular class. That said, if you are seeking to justify this story then it seems to me that Mangum's take is the most coherrent linking this in to other places where God punishes people for mocking him. Three questions remain for me, however, firstly the proportionality of the response. 1 insult, 42 deaths seems a bit disproportionate I suppose. Secondly, exactly how proven is it that "rejecting or mocking the LORD's anointed (Elisha) was the same as rejecting or mocking Yahweh". It seems like a big assumption to me. Why did this not happen to Jesus, or today, or to Nehemiah? Finally, as is often the case with these passages, it's the inconsistency that is a problem. I guess I just touched on that, but why is this such an isolated example? Why doesn't it happen today.

    Meanwhile, Tim Bulkeley sums up his theoretical sermon on it as "life is not fair, get over it!" in Watch out or the bears will get you!. He does apologise for the shortness of his response, but even so, seems to have overlooked the fact that the boys in question would not ever have the chance to get over it as they'd be dead.

    As Bob MacDonald sheds some fascinating light on the language of the passage but leaves aside dealing with the actual question I'll move straight onto James McGrath's roundly praised response Bad Boy Bible Study. McGrath lists "11 semi-serious and not-so-serious approaches to the text that...are worth trying out".

    My own response is to say that whilst the event was interpreted as an act of God, it was, in reality, a coincidence, the timing of which was so terrible that it stuck long in the minds of those who witnessed it, and was re-interpreted as an act of God as those who wrote and re-wrote it.

    I guess most atheists would agree with that interpretation. The more agressive atheists out there would delight in citing this passage as evidence that the Bible is inconsistent, presents an angry vicious God and is therefore made up. But even though I sometime wonder if I should really be called a Christian agnostic, I find I can't accept the Godless explanation so readily.

    For me the crucial point is that the Bible is inspired (though, as someone else in this discussion pointed out, it's not always inspirational), but that the story of God was revealed gradually from a starting point that was very far away from the truth. From an initial viewpoint whereby God was a localised deity, petty, fickle, venegeful, only on the side of his people and able to be bribed as to what to do, whereas, in reality, none of that uis true. It was a long drawn out process even to get to the point whereby Jesus could come and enough of it would stick, and the process of God's gradual self revelation is still going on.

    In terms of this specific passage the lessons for us are different for the lessons for its original audience(s). For them it spoke of God's power, his faithfulness to people (I doubt the victim's side of things would have crossed their minds), that he listens, that he is active and so on. And many of those things we can take away from it as well.

    For us though, aside from is being another small piece of a large jigsaw, there is something significant about the fact that the final version of the text omits the link between the curse and the bears' action. Not because in doing so it gets God off the hook - it doesn't and there are many other places in scripture where that link is made explicit - but because it's a gap in the text which God's light shines through. The text fails to make the crucial connection when, by it's own rules, it really should have. It's useful historical evidence of the fact that these people's knowledge of God was sorely incomplete, and indeed, it's also a reminder of the fact.

    That's doubtless a bit woolly, but I guess I see God's revelation as being very gradual and limited by what is, in my mind, a flawed humanly produced (but God inspiured text).

    To keep this relevant to Bible films, if you've not seen Don't Dis Elisha from Extreme Bible Stories, then you really should. It's very South Parkian, and all the better for it in my opinion.

    Oh an my Greenbelt talk will be 6pm on Sunday 30th August in the YMCA tent.

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    • At 5:30 pm, August 13, 2009, Anonymous Doug Chaplin said…

      Matt, I think you misunderstood me. I take it for granted that a) the storyteller intends us to see the bears sent by God b) the storyteller's theology is not ours, nor one we can endorse. My methodological reflections are really about ways we might approach the passage given those two perspectives, or responding to some of David's points.

    • At 9:39 pm, August 13, 2009, Anonymous Josiah said…

      Read Romans Chapter nine for Paul's take on the God of the Old Testament. I quite disagree with Doug if he thinks the bears weren't sent by God, partly because of those similar events you mentioned where God DID send a lion to kill (but not maul) the prophet from Judah, DID send down fire on a hundred soldiers who called Elijah a man of God, and did kill Uzzah of Kidon (1 Chronicles 13:9) when he touched the sacred covenant box to steady it. I think that the modern Church is rather spoiled if it thinks that God is so merciful as to swamp his justice. Not so: Righteousness and Justice are the very foundation of his throne, mercy is something very unusual and very special, not something to be taken for granted.

    • At 11:03 pm, August 13, 2009, Blogger Peter Kirk said…

      Thanks for the link.

      I would say that God delegated authority to Elisha, not power, and this authority is what Elisha abused. I agree in not knowing exactly how this works.

      I would suggest that from a theological perspective God did send the bears and so was responsible. And so there is no real difference from the "other passages in the Hebrew Bible which portray God as the driving force for similarly brutal acts" - when God may well again be acting in response to the brutal prayers of his people.

    • At 3:37 am, August 14, 2009, Blogger Tim Bulkeley said…

      Hey, this is fun, can I join the chorus of "Oh, you misunderstood me". I never supposed I was preaching to the boys, they were cold long before I ever started preaching ;)

      But actually I won't join that chorus, just thank you for another interesting post :)

    • At 7:15 am, August 14, 2009, Blogger David Ker said…

      I've since recanted of my "coincidence" comment. I think it was an attempt to approach the story as vaguely historical although embroidered and interpreted through the lens of the author's worldview.

      Thanks so much for the round up and your comments.

    • At 10:03 am, August 14, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for all your comments, and apologies if you've been misunderstood (not intentional). Thanks for popping by to clarify things.


    • At 5:28 pm, August 14, 2009, Blogger Bob MacDonald said…

      What a bee's nest that Ker has disturbed! I have very briefly continued my response with two more reflections beginning here following John Hobbin's rants on Spirit and violence.


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