I’m going to respond to the challenge by writing a homily. Most commonly I do not speak from a written text except when I’m working against limited time. So if I present a homily it will generally be from a written text. I’m imagining the congregation of my home church as the audience.
A few years ago I was teaching a class on the Old Testament and we came to the command in Deuteronomy 18:21-28 which mandates that the parents of a son who is recalcitrant and refuses correction he should be brought to elders at the gate and should be stoned to death.
I expected that people would view this with horror and it was to lead into a discussion of dealing with difficult laws in the Bible. As it turned out a number of people exclaimed “Yes!”
As we discussed it turned out, not surprisingly, that nobody really wanted any teenagers–that’s the group they thought of in connection with this text–to die. They just thought there should be more discipline. Somebody ought to do something!
They had discounted the text before they had even read it, failing to notice that it wasn’t about disciplining, but rather about terminating the child.
You may be wondering just why I would start my discussion of a difficult text by citing another difficult text. But the story illustrates how we work around things that happen in the Bible, and then when someone points out the details and we’re shocked. That class started with the Deuteronomy passage as a sort of general admonition to discipline one’s children, and came to the point where they were ready to ask just why such a harsh law should be used.
Something similar happens with our story for today. Someone reads the story and then admonishes children, young people, or the whole congregation to respect their elders, pastors, or perhaps prophets.
But if you’re a Sunday School teacher who is doing that, be assured that somewhere out there is a child, or an adult for that matter, who is wondering how having 42 children mauled by bears is a proportional or just punishment for taunting even a prophet.
I’d like to suggest three phases in a simplified plan for learning from a Bible story.
The first is …
Hear the Story
Let’s ask ourselves just how we might not be hearing this story.
First, we make assumptions about the children that are involved. The Hebrew phrase used does indicate that they are not adults or probably even young adults. But in pictures I often see them portrayed as toddlers or preschoolers. Similarly we teach the story sometimes to fairly young children who may well assume we’re talking about them.
There’s nothing in the text, for example, to exclude the idea that this was a gang of teenage boys with sticks, stones, and maybe even spears who were not only taunting Elisha, but were threatening him. In that case, Elijah might have responded vigorously to the taunting in order to preempt more serious trouble.
But I’m not going to use that as an “explanation” of the story because, quite simply, the text doesn’t tell us that either. It tells us nothing about a threat. It simply speaks of taunting and of Elisha’s response.
But let’s look further. It’s interesting that Elisha doesn’t call for the bears. He simply curses them in the name of the Lord. Is he angry? We don’t know. What thoughts went through his mind? We don’t know. They taunted him and he cursed them.
After he curses them, two she-bears come out and maul them, though again the Hebrew might well be translated more vigorously than “maul.” I note here again that the text doesn’t say that God summoned the bears. That’s an interesting point. There are places where God specifically summons some means of destruction, but here the connection is not made explicit.
Can we assume the connection? I suspect we are supposed to do so, but it is not made explicit.
So what does the story actually say?
I would suggest that we need to hear the story in the context of the conflict going on in Israel. Elijah has faced many dangers in his life, and has now passed on his authority to Elisha. I wonder if Elisha wasn’t thinking more of his authority as a prophet in Elijah’s place than about any personal danger.
The action establishes his authority, his connection to God, and his power. Elijah prevented the rain; Elisha called for the she bears. Even if he didn’t do so explicitly, that’s the impression the story leaves.
The story isn’t about discipline, self-defense, or punishment. It’s about authority, in this case the prophet’s authority from God in the midst of the religious conflict between the worship of Baal and Yahweh, God of Israel.
So what’s the moral of the story? That’s one of the most dangerous questions to ask! It implies first that a story must have a moral, and second that there must be only one moral. In fact, a story can be told for many reasons. One we sometimes don’t think of is that it may simply be that the story tells us what happened.
I recall a story that my mother used to tell titled “Jimmy and the Atheist.” In it, an atheist rescues Jimmy from a fire and then adopts him. As it stood, it was a story about the man’s love for Jimmy and Jimmy’s influence that brings about the conversion of the atheist. Stop the story earlier, before the conversion, however, and suddenly it’s a story about not judging people and how an atheist could be the most giving person in the town.
Stories are a most flexible means of communication, but at the same time they put more of the load of thinking onto the reader or hearer.
Thus we come to the next stage …
Enter the Story
What do I mean by this? I mean that the reader looks at the story without judging. Just look at the people who are in the story, how they behave, and try to see it from their point of view. We already have a basis on which to do this from our hearing of the story.
Why is this important? Because we tend not to learn from people and events when we stand over them in judgment.
When we look at the story and ask whether Elisha should have cursed the boys in the name of the Lord we often miss the opportunity to check on our own attitudes and actions. We know that 42 boys were mauled, but we don’t know how many there were.
Now be honest! How would you react to more than 40 young people coming toward you and taunting you? Would you be angry? Would you “curse them in the name of the Lord?”
The fact is that for many of us, it’s likely that the only thing lacking for us to play Elisha’s role is, well, the power. We do the cursing, but we’re fortunate that God doesn’t send two she bears each time we do.
If you don’t believe me, wait for the next time someone cuts you off on the interstate …
There’s another factor to remember here. In the ancient world, words were thought to have power. Cursing someone was a form of assault. This attitude probably lies behind another difficult Bible passage, Exodus 21:17 that says that someone who curses father or mother should die.
Applied today, that would be quite a population control measure!
But think of this from Elisha’s point of view. He’s the successor to a prophet who has stirred up many enemies. He needs to establish himself. He has work to do, and he also believes that curses might have power. At the least they must be challenged.
What would you do?
There’s something else that entering the story will help you to do. It will help you get out of the bad guy / good guy mode of thinking. The problem is that Elijah looks quite a lot like a “real guy” in this story. For the circumstances his reaction seems normal.
The Bible presents few flawless heroes. Even the greatest in Hebrew scripture, Moses, has his flaws. When he strikes the rock after he’s told to speak to it, he disobeys God, but notice that God responds miraculously even to a disobedient Moses (Numbers 20:10-13).
There is a time to look at heroes as heroes and see them in shining armor, so to speak. There are other times when it is important to see heroes as human beings with flaws. In Exodus 2:14, for example, we are told that Moses was afraid when he realized the king knew of his actions in killing an Egyptian. In Hebrews 11:27 we are told that he left Egypt, “not fearing the wrath of the King.” What’s the difference? It’s simply two perspectives on a hero.
So then we have the final stage …
Grow from the Story
If you have heard what the story actually says, and have entered into the story without judging the people, then you will be prepared to grow from what the characters can teach you. You may have wondered about my suggestion that you don’t judge the characters. There comes a time for judgment. Once you understand, once you recognize your own similar weaknesses as well as your strengths, it is time to do some judgment.
You judge what you should do and how you should live.
There are many things I hear in this story.
- It is important for God’s messengers to get respect.
- Words really do matter. I may not lean toward the same view as the ancients, but we may well be taking words too lightly in the modern world.
- It’s easy to react in anger when my authority or safety is threatened.
- Actions can have consequences beyond what I intend. Elisha didn’t say, “I want two she bears to rip up 42 of these boys. ” He just cursed them. Then came the she bears. Is it possible that Elisha was surprised?
Elisha was a real guy. He had real weaknesses and real strengths. He acted as he saw best.
You may be wondering how I could skip the big question: What about God? Why would God take the action that he did?
But you see, I think the answer lies in the same place. God works through real people, real guys and real gals. In order to do that, God often works more our way than his.
What would the results have been if Elisha cursed and nothing happened?
I can ask the same thing about my life and God. How many of my messes does God have to clean up?
God could, of course, choose to work through less real people. It would be much less messy than it is. But he hasn’t chosen to do it that way. He’s chosen to work with us flaws and all.
You may be thinking that this method leaves a lot of room for error. I certainly do! But that is another aspect of the way God works, giving us the opportunity to think and learn and gain experience, rather than bringing us under tight control so our errors don’t mess up the works.
There is one little test I’d like to suggest to help us stay on track. I call it the hanging test. In Matthew 22:34-40 Jesus gives the two laws of love. Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. He says the entire law and the prophets hang on these two.
And while I quote these from Jesus, he quotes them from the Hebrew scriptures. I suggest that the lesson you take from these stories will show the most growth if it hangs nicely on the two hooks Jesus provided.
Real people, real stories, real God.
Will I really learn?
That would be about 15 minutes if I resisted the temptation to expand, which I rarely do. But still, I should get them out in less than 20 minutes. Lots of questions are left, but I think that’s a good feature in a homily.