[This is a work of fiction, from my God-Talk Club series. – added 11:42 central time]
Small talk was dying down and everyone had their drinks. Mark had a question:
“I’ve been given an assignment,”1 he said to the group, and I’d like your thoughts.
“What is it?” asked Mandy.
“We’re supposed to write a 10 minute homily on 2 Kings 3:23-24.”
“Ten minutes? That’s going to cramp your style. You can’t tell them everything you’ve learned in your seminary classes.” Mandy was laughing as she said it, and Mark took it in good humor. He really did like to put his whole seminary training into each homily.
“Ten minutes,” echoed Jerry. “You can’t really get to the meat of a scripture in that period of time.
“I didn’t know you Presbyterians had long sermons. I thought you generally had about 20 minute homilies,” said Mandy.
“Not at my church. It’s more like 30-40 minutes, and sometimes we get more in the pastor’s Sunday School class.”
“Oh, you learn something new every day,” said Mandy. “But we should get back to Mark. What are your questions?”
“Well,” said Mark and paused. He felt like he knew what he’d hear from each person and was almost afraid to start. “It’s such a violent story. Elisha seems to get offended and so he slaughters a bunch of kids. Where’s the moral in that?”
Justine, Mandy, and Jerry started talking at once, then started to apologize to each other.
Over the confusion, Bob Norman cut in. “OK, I’ll bite. What is this story of the she-bears?”
“You don’t know that one?” exclaimed Mac. “That’s a skeptical staple. A Christian says ‘God is love’ and you say ‘But what about the she bears?’ I’m going to have to revoke your skeptic’s license.”
Bob was working on getting used to Mac. He was a science teacher, an atheist, and quite convinced, but he had been raised in a conventionally religious home, one where he didn’t see church all that often. Until he had gotten together with the God-Talk Club he hadn’t argued religion that much. He just didn’t believe.
Mac, on the other hand, seemed to think that the purpose of skeptics was to argue with Christians. She knew more about Christianity than most Christians.
“So what is the story?” asked Bob, looking at Mac.
“Well, this prophet named Elisha was walking along, and some children started taunting him about being bald. So he cursed them and called some she bears to maul them. The bears got 42 of them.”
Jerry cut in, “Well, not precisely. How about we read the text as it’s written?”
Jerry pulled out his Bible and read:
(23) He went 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 up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” (24) And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. — 2 Kings 2:23-24 (ESV)
“OK,” asked Bob, “so why are they telling this guy to go up? And is this Elisha you’re talking about?”
“Well Elijah had just been taken up into heaven, so the boys were suggesting that Elisha do the same thing,” said Jerry.
“But I don’t believe that anyone can go up to heaven,” said Bob.
“Why don’t we discuss the story based on what the people who wrote it believed?” asked Mandy. She barely cut off Jerry who had been about to argue the point. He again thought about how hard it was for him to take Mandy seriously because of the way she behaved, yet she had these flashes of wisdom.
“Maybe the boys didn’t believe that Elijah had ascended either,” said Mark. “They might have been suggesting that Elisha was lying. Elisha was the only witness, after all.”
“That’s quite possible,” said Mandy.
“But it doesn’t help us much in understanding the story,” said Jerry. Whatever their reasons they were taunting God’s prophet.”
“So Justine,” said Bob, turning to look her right in the eye. “What would you do if some children in your congregation were taunting you?”
“Well, it would depend on what they were doing,” she answered. “If they’re just joking, I’d laugh and go on. If they’re threatening me, I’m going to deal with it. Worst case, I might call the police. I’ve had some teenagers who needed police intervention. I don’t like it, but it happens.”
“But you wouldn’t curse them, or, in the absence of readily available she-bears, you wouldn’t release the dogs on them,” said Mac decisively, as though she thought she had just won a point.
“Precisely,” said Bob.
“But Justine isn’t a prophet,” said Jerry.
“So? She’s a pastor. Isn’t that close enough?” asked Bob.
“I hardly think so. Elisha was the greatest prophet of his time. It would be more like taunting the president,” said Jerry.
“But the secret service doesn’t shoot adults who taunt the president, much less children,” said Bob.
“Supposing a teenager–and these boys could be teenagers–was carrying a handgun and waved it at the president. Then what would happen?” asked Jerry.
“It’s quite possible that the secret service might shoot the teenager. But there’s no indication these children were carrying guns, or swords or spears,” said Bob again.
“But there’s nothing that says they didn’t either. They might have been very threatening.” Now Jerry looked like he was making a point.
“But wouldn’t that be adding something to the text?” asked Mark.
“Well, we’re adding to the text whether we assume they’re little children or teenagers, and whether we assume they had no weapons or lots of them. It doesn’t give us those details,” said Jerry.
“So shouldn’t we deal with the text as it is?” asked Justine. “It seems to say that taunting the prophet was enough provocation, and that God responded to Elijah’s curse by sending the she-bears. I don’t particularly like it, but that’s what it says.”
“Well, actually, I don’t think so,” said Mandy. Everyone started looking right at her. “The text doesn’t tell us whether Elisha’s action was justified. It just tell us that it happened.”
“So is it possible that Elisha might not be doing the right thing here?” asked Mark.
“I think so. I think Elisha was tired and angry and so he cursed the children.” Mandy had that “mother concludes and has made the point to the children” look she got from time to time. The fact that she was sprawled carelessly sideways across an easy chair detracted from the effect.
“So why would God honor his angry request?” asked Jerry.
Mandy considered for a moment. “Because he was God’s prophet. What would happen if he cursed someone and nothing happened? God has to go hunting for a new prophet!”
“I really don’t think that’s an appropriate way to speak about a prophet. Surely a prophet wouldn’t do wrong in a situation like this,” said Jerry.
“Elijah made mistakes. Moses made mistakes. David was a man after God’s own heart and he committed adultery and then murdered someone to cover it up. What makes you think Bible characters always do right?” said Mandy.
“But in all those cases we have a clear indication that what they did was wrong. Not here,” replied Jerry.
“Well, from my point of view that makes God look even worse. He will kill forty-two children in order to keep his prophet respectable,” said Bob. Mac nodded.
“But God can do anything he wants! We don’t have the right to judge God’s actions,” said Jerry.
“So when you say, ‘God is love’ is that your considered judgment, or are you just repeating what God told you to say?” asked Mac.
“I know that God is love,” said Jerry.
“But how do you know? Can you know that God is love without looking at God’s actions and deciding, ‘Those are loving actions?'” asked Mac.
“I think she’s got a point,” said Mandy. “After all, we testify to God’s love and to the things God has done for us. Have we not looked at God’s action and said, ‘That is love’?”
“But we wouldn’t even know what love was if God didn’t tell us!” said Jerry.
“Well, I agree with Jerry,” said Justine. “God has the right to do what he wants. So I think there must be something there that those children or teenagers did to deserve what happened to them. If God did it, it must be right, and it says right there [she pointed to Jerry’s Bible] that God did it!”
“I’ve got to agree with Jerry as well. It seems that you [he looked at Mandy] and Mark want to have the story in your Bible but you don’t want to accept what it really says.” Bob looked at Jerry. “Not that I agree with you about anything else!”
“I would never even think it,” said Jerry dryly.
“I have to disagree. You’ve both decided what the story must mean. There are many other statements about morality in the Bible. I think that if we are told elsewhere that an action is wrong, we are not forced to conclude that a person who does that in a story is right. That was complicated,” said Mandy, and grinned.
“But then you are saying that God did something wrong,” said Jerry, and Bob and Mac both nodded.
“I’m saying that God worked with people as they were. You can’t always have ideal actions when you’re not dealing with ideal people.”
“There I agree with you, Mandy,” said Justine. “I don’t really have a problem with this story, but God does work with us where we are.”
“I think I like Mandy’s explanation,” said Mark. I wonder if I can say it in 10 minutes? I’m inclined to give all the explanations and let people choose.”
1The real-world source of this question is not a professor at my imaginary seminary but David Ker at his Lingamish blog. I already responded in a real-world sense on my Participatory Bible Study blog.