The Strangest Story in the Bible (message for February 15th, 2015)

Scripture:  2nd Kings 2:23-25

                I always get a little sad when I find out that people do not like history.  Since I had studied and been licensed to be a history teacher, I actually find that out quite a bit.  I think every single time I have ever mentioned that fact about myself to a group of teenagers, there is a chorus of groans and comments of “I hate history, it’s boring.”   That is unfortunate, because if someone does not like history there is a good chance it is because they had a bad teacher.  The study of history is our attempt to understand the true story of humanity, and our story is anything but boring.   Some history teachers have done the subject a great disservice by making it all about memorizing dates and lists of names.   Knowing a basic chronology of history is important, and having an idea of who’s who is not a bad idea;  However, the most important questions of history are not who and when.   The most important question the study of history should be concerned with is “Why?”   It is only when we understand why something happens that we can truly learn from it.   It is the why questions that really lead me to liking history.   I enjoy the individual stories as well, but seeing how it all fits together and what the events of our past can teach us about who we are now, is what history is all about to me.    What makes me even sadder is when people say they think the Bible is boring.  The Bible may be hard to read because it comes from a different era and was originally written in different languages.  The Bible may be a bit confusing because it mentions names of places that have no context for us.   The bible can be challenging because sometimes what we read does not fit our preconceived notions of who God is or how God works.   The Bible could be considered all of those things, but it should not be considered boring.   I would argue that anyone who thinks the bible is boring, has not truly tried to read it.  The bible has too many bizarre, weird, and crazy stories in it to be considered boring.

            This morning’s scripture is certainly one of those stories.   In fact, at first glance this just may be the strangest story in the Bible.    There is a good chance that some of you have never heard this bible story before, and those of you familiar with it might have ranked it as one of the scriptures least likely to be preached on.   This story can be a head scratcher.  It appears as if Elisha, a prophet of God, gets mad about being made fun of.  He then retaliates in a horrific way that seems to abuse the power that God has bestowed upon him. We find ourselves asking, why is something so odd, so morbid, and seemingly so petty and capricious in the bible at all?  Despite the bizarreness of the scripture, it is still part of the inspired word of God.  All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.   That is true for this strange little story as well.  I believe that from this incident recorded in scripture we can learn more about God, our faith, and ourselves.  

            At first glance this scripture seems both odd and horrifying.   However, there is a lot going on under the hood, of this scripture that should be considered.  As read, the most uncomfortable part of this passage is the fact that it ends with the violent death of 42 small boys.   As it is, language is tricky business to begin with.  When it comes to translating between languages that have very little in common and have radically different cultural backgrounds, getting the exact meaning across is quite a challenge.   When it comes to this passage many biblical scholars going all the way back to even John Wesley, are in agreement that small boys is probably not the best translation.   The phrase young men, better communicates the people involved in this scripture.  Specifically it refers to men who are of age to fight.  The word used implies adolescents who were just at the age where they could be conscripted into the army, but they were not of age to begin raising their own families.   These people who came to insult Elisha were not children who were saying the darndest things by pointing out Elisha’s lack of hair.  These were people who knew what they were doing and were making a conscious effort to do it.   The fact that these people were adolescents still does not change the severity of the punishment.  It does make the victims of the mauling seem a little less innocent, but mauling by bear still seems to be an excessive punishment for calling someone bald.   

            This leads us to peel back another layer and look a bit deeper.  As we already stated, forty-two is a big number.  It was not like there were 42 young men who just happened to be standing around when Elisha walked by.  This was not a random crowd, it was a posse that had been specifically organized to intimidate and harass Elisha.  Moreover, the scripture says that forty two were mauled, it does not say how many there were.  If forty two were mauled, there were probably more.  It was not like the young men sat around waiting for the bears to get them.  When the bears attacked, the ones who were injured were the ones who did not run away or who foolishly tried to fight back.  

The crowd that met Elisha on the road knew who he was, and knew that he was a prophet from God.   During this time, the region around Bethel was the center of the idolatrous calf worship.  While the scripture does not state it, one can make the fairly educated guess that these young men came to dissuade Elisha from coming further because they had already turned their back on God to worship idols.  They came to communicate that Elisha, as a prophet of God, was not welcome.  Furthermore, they came in a group large enough to be threatening. 

            The final piece to this story that needs to be considered, is the odd insult “baldhead”.   As I am painfully aware, baldness is a genetic trait that is unavoidable.  There is a lot of evidence though, that in this region during this era, baldness was uncommon.   The trait was just as prevalent among the ancient near Middle Eastern people as it is in The American genome. Like many ancient cultures, ancient Israel was a culture with a strong sense of honor and shame.  While it could not be helped, just to be naturally bald was a small mark of shame.       However, baldness was also used to purposely shame someone.  For example, lepers, who were ceremonially unclean, were required to keep their heads shaved.   Baldness was also used as a punishment when someone preformed a transgression in a community.   Baldness was a visual way to mark them, shun them, and put shame upon them.  This meant that the insult, baldhead did not even have to be used to refer to someone who was bald.  In the ancient middle east, to call someone baldhead was one of the ultimate insults.  They were proclaiming Elisha to be without honor and completely shameful.  To put it another way, to call someone baldhead in the ancient middle east, well those are fightin’ words.   The intended insults goes deeper than just trying to rile Elisha up.  Remember, these young men knew that Elisha was prophet of God, and in fact prophet was Elisha’s primary vocation.   A prophet, a messenger of God, is who Elisha was.  They were not just insulting Elisha, they were by extension insulting God. 

            Given all of this background, what Elisha does next is interesting.  Given the way that he had just been insulted, the appropriate cultural response would have been for him to seek vengeance and retribution for his challenged honor.   As far as the culture was concerned, Elisha was well with in his right to respond, violently if need be.   So how does he respond?  He prays.  In the name of God, he curses them.  That is all he does.  Elisha did not conjure the bears.  He did not even ask for the death of his persecutors.  Instead, he leaves it in God’s hands.  Remember, these forty two young men had also insulted God, and Elisha leaves it up to God.   These young men had turned their back on God for idols, insulted God, and sinned against Elisha.   In response to these grave offenses God responds with bears.        

            Why did God send bears?  I don’t know.   Was mauling an appropriate response to their transgressions?  I don’t know.  However, I think there are two points we can take to this whole, bizarre story.  The first, is that we can follow the example of Elisha.   Throughout our lives, we will be wronged by people.  Sometimes these wrongs are small slights that we need to learn to just let go of, like when somoene rudlely and intentionally cuts us off in traffic.  Other times though, we are wronged more severly.  We can be very hurt by people in very deep and harmful ways.  In those times,  we seek revenge.   We twist the golden rule from “treat others as we want to be treated” to “treat others the way they have treated us.”   Perhaps in your life you have walked the road of vengence to learn that it only leads to cold and empty places.  Revenge and retribituion never satisfy what we thought they would satisfy.  We do not feel the way we thought we would at the end of it, we just feel cold and hollow.  Elisha did not go down that road.  He released his desire for vengence to God, and trusted that God would act justly.  One of the major take aways we can take from this scripture is not take vengence but leave judgement to God.  As  Deuteronomy states, and then is quoted in both Romans and Hebrews “It is mine to avenge says the Lord.”

            As Christians, this is an important lesson for us to learn.  Every Sunday morning we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”   When it comes to forgiving others, Jesus did not give us much wiggle room.  On the subject he taught, in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  We are suppose to practice the same forgiveness we receive by forgiving others.   If we hold on to a desire for revenge, if our heart darkly yurns for getting even, then there can not be forgiveness.   Our first step to forigiving others is surrendering our desire for vengence.   We have to follow Elisha’s example here and give up our desire to settle the score, because only once we let go of that desire can we begin to forgive. 

            The second point we can take away from this scripture is that our words matter!   Elisha prayed a curse,  Elsiha prayed for justice, and it happened in about the most grizzly way possible.  Elisha did not take the very human response to take revenge, but he prayed a very human prayer that was fueled by vengence.   God does hear our prayers, and what we pray matters.  How might this incident with the bears have been different, if Elisha prayed the prayer that Jesus prayed, “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do” ?  Unfortuantly, vengence is a driving motivator in the world, but Jesus offered us a better way.  A way where we extend the same mercy we receive from God to others.  A way where a desire for love  transcends a desire for justice.  When someone wrongs us, when someone grievously sins against us we can choose to pray for justice, we can choose to pray for vengence.  Or we can choose to pray for forgiveness.    We can pray that God would change our hearts first.   We can then pray that God does not deal with those who have wronged us, but we can pray that God shows that person a better way.  We can pray that the people who have angered us, wronged us, upset us, or have done true evil towards us, would know the all surpassing love of God.   We can pray that God will change their hearts and turn them to them.  Instead of praying  that we be avenged, let’s follow Jesus’ example in this one and instead pray that our enemies be blessed.   

            The story from this morning’s scripture is a strange one.  It is a story that communicates God’s justice in action.  Yet it is also a story that illustrates the profound need we have of the cross, of forgiveness.  When we are wronged in life, may we follow Elisha’s example and let go our need for revenge.  However, we will then face the choice to revenge or forigve.  In those instnaces may we choose the way of Jesus, and show love by praying for those who act as if they hate us.  May we  forgive as we have been forgiven.  May we be those kind of Christians.