(Originally posted Feb 2009, updated Dec 2014)
Today’s text is from 2 Kings 2 (Book 2, Chapter 2, that is, for you heathens), verses 23-25.
Just three silly little verses, all told, among the millions in the Hebrew and Christian testaments, but possibly one of the most telling in terms of understanding the cultural world of the Israelites/Hebrews.*
First, a bit of background.
This fascinating chapter of Jewish history is part of what is known as The Elisha Cycle. Elisha, by the way, is not to be confused with Elijah.
[Elisha was a Biblical prophet, also known as Eliseus in some translations. Elisha became the attendant of Elijah (1 Kings 19:16-19), and after Elijah was taken up in a fiery chariot into the whirlwind, his disciple was accepted as the leader of the sons of the prophets. He possessed, according to his own request, “a double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, whatever that means.]
Here’s the gist of the story. Feel free to look it up for yourself.
Elisha has walked from Jericho (described by the locals as a town pleasant to live in but with foul water and suffering from miscarriages) to Bethel**, just north of Jerusalem, when some small boys start taunting him about his baldness: “Go up, baldhead!” Elisha gets mad, turns around and curses the kids in the name of the Lord (Yahweh). Two she-bears come out of the woods and tear the 42 kids into pieces. The chapter then simply closes with this line: “From there he went on to Mount Carmel and then returned to Samaria.”
A couple side notes before we reveal the key to this odd passage.
First: “Go up, baldhead” (or “Baldie”) would appear to be a reference to Elijah’s recent ascent to heaven, as though to say that Elisha should follow suit and get the heck out of Dodge by whatever means available.
Second: A translation called The Book — a plain-English version based on The Living Bible — refers to the taunters as “a gang of young men” while Catholic translations say “little boys” or “small boys.” The Hebrew naar seems to be capable of being rendered various ways in different contexts, though it doesn’t affect our current interpretation of the tale.
Finally, one Catholic version simply says “bears” without giving gender.
A fascinating footnote in the Catholic edition says that Elisha’s curse was not the effect of passion or revenge, but rather his “zeal for religion.”
Boy, talk about some fancy exegetic dancing!
The Catholic footnote gloss continues, saying that God thus “punished the inhabitants of Bethel (the chief seat of calf worship) who had trained their children in a prejudice against the true religion and its ministers.”
Nevertheless, the idea of having she-bears tear 42 kids apart seems rather harsh, even by Old Testament standards!
Considering the at-times figurative, exaggerative, wishful or simply poetic expressions of the Hebrew testament, one wonders if the meaning of this passage somehow got lost as it passed down the generations and tortuous path of translations from 9th century BCE Semitic tradition to Greek to English.
A different look at the map of Palestine of the time with a simple line drawn and a bit of understanding of the historical context may help us unravel the cryptic message of the ancients.
Note that Bethel falls on the north side of the Israel/Judah line — the wrong side, as we’ll see.
The Israelites (that is, descendants of Jacob on either side of the line, not yet called “Jews”) were very protective of their beliefs and customs and, having warred incessantly with the Canaanites who had pre-existed in the lands, and possibly conquered many of their cities, were very sensitive to infidels espousing polytheistic beliefs. The town of Bethel, once conquered by Joshua and his army after coming out of the Egyptian captivity, had turned back to idol worshipping. The southern Israelites were perhaps mocked or had lost tribal members through marriage or re-conquest and saw the Bethel-ites as a continuing threat.
Now, I’m not sure how the prophets of Moses dressed or kept their appearance, but it may have been like seeing a modern Hasidic Jew walking down the street…very obvious and very open to taunting by neighborhood toughs. And since the town itself was thought to have fomented Israelite-taunting and perhaps even attacked wandering Joshua-followers, Elisha’s curse was a figurative way of verbally smiting these infidels.
We know, for instance, that whenever the Israelites won a series of battles, they credited God (Elohim or Yahweh, depending on whether you were in the north kingdom or the south) for supporting their righteous cause. And when they were themselves defeated or sent into slavery (as seemed to happen on a regular basis), it was because the people had fallen away from God. Thus the prophets were often going on rants about how the people had displeased God and warned of the calamities sure to ensue.
Therefore, the story can be reframed something like: “A curse on your backsliding infidel town and its descendants, not on my own account but because by taunting me, you taunt the very foundation of our belief in our God.”
So the storyteller’s use of “young men” is a figurative way of denouncing not only the townsfolk but the fruit of their loins — as though to say, “nothing good can come from such a place.”
As the map shows, Jerusalem and Bethel fell on opposing sides of the Israel/Judah split when the kingdom broke into two, during or after the time of Solomon. Since the division into northern and southern domains is one of the key historical conditions governing so much of how the Hebrew bible was constructed, it could be that Elisha’s curse on Bethel was a sort of coded denunciation of the northern kingdom (Israel), which was thought (by the tribes of Judah) to have fallen into idolatry and degenerate worship practices. Of course the northern kindom tribes may have thought the same of the southern kingdom.
The “bear” may simply be a dramatic trope, much as we might say, “I could eat a horse.” However, my guess is that “she-bear” was a deliberate attempt to invoke an image of the ferocity of a mother protecting her young. The mythic metaphor would thus be that of Yahweh protecting His people by destroying a generation of idolatrous backsliders. Much as Moses found the people regressing to idol worship (the golden calf) while he was up on the mountain getting the first set of tablets and let loose his scorn, so too, now Yahweh is figuratively unleashing his fury at those who fall away from Him.
Remember that the prophets of the Hebrew testaments were not so much what we now think of a prophet — someone who predicts the future — as figures who warned the people of the dire consequences of falling away from Yahweh. That is, they predicted bad things that were bound to happen as they observed the abominations being practiced by the chosen people whenever His back was turned.
As a rule of thumb, whenever you see some crazy Semitic tale, it’s good to look for the basis in that historical north/south split of the kingdom at the root. It’s like hearing the history of the U.S. being told simultaneously by someone from the Confederacy and someone from the Union. Except that in the case of the Torah and subsequent prophetic writings, both sides get their say, often interpolated side by side in the same chapters. (And you wondered why there seems to be so much repetition in the scriptures!)
[And thus, when Genesis was being composed some time between 950 and 500 BCE, we find the ‘J’ and ‘E’ authors seeming to fight to get their little digs in and their politicized northern/southern interpretations of creation incorporated into what would become the Torah. These weren’t resolved until Redactor (“R”) came along and reconciled the J, E, P and D traditions into an integrated text, perhaps around 450 BCE.]
Oh…why 42 kids***? I have no flippin’ idea. I’m open to suggestions (other than as Douglas Adams has said, that it’s “the funniest of the two-digit numbers,” or that it was the baseball jersey number of Jackie Robinson.)
*According to the Jewish Encyclopedia the terms “Hebrews” and “Israelites” usually describe the same people, stating that they were called Hebrews before the conquest of the Land of Canaan and Israelites afterwards. In the Hebrew scriptures (aka “The Old Testament”) the term ‘Hebrew’ is normally used by Israelites when speaking of themselves to foreigners, or is used by foreigners when speaking about Israelites (the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham.)
**Bethel [Heb. “house of God”]. Although it temporarily harbored the Ark of the Covenant. Bethel lost its preeminence as a Jewish shrine to Jerusalem; in 1 Kings, Jeroboam’s attempt to establish Bethel as a rival religious capital failed. Bethel thereafter became increasingly associated with heathen worship—hence the denunciations by Amos and by Hosea, who called it Beth-aven [house of wickedness].
***The number 42 is cited in the Babylonian Talmud, compiled some 900 years after the period of the writing of Kings, as the “Forty-Two Lettered Name” ascribed to God. However, the commentary suggests that it is “entrusted only to him who is pious, meek, middle-aged, free from bad temper, sober, and not insistent on his rights.”
**** Much as I hate to knock the competition, Answers In Genesis, has a predictably lame and unresolved non-answer: “Maybe there were 42 funerals, maybe not. We simply cannot say. But one thing is sure: everyone watching and everyone who survived learned a lesson that day: God’s message is serious, and Elisha is His new messenger.”
Essentially, “Non-Answers in Genesis” chalks it up to an unprovoked verbal assault by a group of young hoodlums with Elisha simply taking care of business.