Two Stories of Elisha   Leave a comment

Above:  Bears Destroy the Mocking Children

Image in the Public Domain





2 Kings 2:19-25


With all your might love your Maker,

and do not forsake his ministers.

–Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 7:30, Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition (2002)


A spiritual mentor of mine in the 1990s has continued to influence me.  Whenever Gene analyzed any Bible story, he did so based on the question,

What is really going on here?

One barrier to determining what is really going on here is thinking differently than the people who originally told the stories.  I do not propose to forsake science and other categories of knowledge–far from it!  The ignorance of ancients should not limit the intellectual horizons of anyone who has a pulse.  However, I, as one trained in history, seek to crawl inside the heads of dead people, so to speak.  Then, maybe, I can learn what the text says, what is really going on.

I focus on the story of Elisha and the spring first.  Competing scientific theories offer to explain the problem with that spring.  One theory points to the existence of radioactive springs in the region of Jericho.    This is a geological explanation; water passes through radioactive rock strata.  The water, therefore, becomes radioactive.  Sterility is one side effect of drinking the water.  A competing theory points to the presence of freshwater snails in come springs in the region.  The snails carry a disease that causes high rates of infant mortality.

Regardless of the natural scientific explanation of the problem with the spring, one ought to ponder the difference between the mindset that seeks to explain the problem and the mindset from which the Biblical text emerged.  Ancient Hebrews cared more about the question, “Who?” than the question, “Why?”  A modern, scientific, rationalistic mindset points to the logical problem of making water drinkable by adding salt to it.  I sympathize with that modern, scientific, rationalistic mindset.  I also know that this mindset was alien to the tradition that repeated this story.  The ancient Hebrew mindset assumed that God made the spring water drinkable via Elisha.  That was enough, in that context and from that perspective.   Also in context, the reference to a new dish indicated a magical ritual to symbolize a complete break with the past–with the curse of Joshua (Joshua 6:26), to be precise.

2 Kings 2:23-25 is a disturbing story.  As much as I discourage insulting people for being bald, I disapprove more of the ideas that Elisha cursed rude children and that God sent two bears to maul them.  A note in The Jewish Study Bible indicates that the story emphasizes the importance of treating the man of God with respect.

So, what is really going on here?  The story tells us that Elisha, en route to Mount Carmel (from 1 Kings 18), had full prophetic authority.  Elisha’s ministry offered, in the words of Choon-Leong Seow, writing in Volume III (1999) of The New Interpreter’s Bible,

the possibility of blessings or curses, life or death.

God, acting through Elisha, blessed and worked for life in verses 19-22 and cursed and caused death in verses 23-25.  Elisha called upon God.  God had the power to decide how to act then to act.  Elisha had no control over God.

Nobody controls God.  Fine.  I accept that.  I take comfort in that.  I still reject the suggestion that God sent bears to mangle children.  Then again, I think differently than those who told this story originally.  Their perspectives do not define my point of view.





Posted October 28, 2020 by neatnik2009 in 1 Kings 18, 2 Kings 2, Joshua 6

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