Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bears and the Glory of God

A friend of mine (who is probably reading this post), and who is an admitted agnostic, and who has the most dry (and refreshing) sense of humor in the history of humor, recently referenced the following passage on his facebook profile:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears (“she bears” in the King James Version) came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
2 Kings 2:23-25

As you might have guessed, this gives me something to write about. And with the help of God Almighty, I will strive with all of my being to offer words with an appropriate combination of grace and truth.

Truly, this is a passage that would make anyone curious; whether a lifelong devout Christian or an outspoken unbeliever. Two bears jumped out of the woods and mauled 42 children for calling a man a name?? Really? Where was God? What kind of loving God is that? Children?? Not to mention the fact that we feel guilty ourselves because when we first read it, it conjures up a good chuckle. And it shouldn’t be funny – children being mauled, I mean.

To be fair, we should dig into the passage a little, and begin to see that words like “baldhead”, “youths”, “LORD”, and even “bears” does not mean what it would first appear. And, to repeat a phrase I used to summarize the nature of the popular book, The Shack, let me say again, in reference to our culture in general, that God is more holy, we are more sinful, the Bible is more preeminent, and the cross is more central (and shocking and appalling and glorious), than we could ever possibly imagine. I think this passage, among other things, makes us realize this concept in a way that alters our perspective more towards Christ, and helps us understand reality a lot better than if we never had read it. In other words, this passage (like the entire Bible) is true, and helpful – but only if we understand what it really says and what it really means, in the larger context of 2 Kings, the Old Testament, the entire Bible, and the eternal story and history of redemption.

So what in the heck does this passage mean? Well, for starters, nothing by itself. It finds itself though, at the beginning of the Second Book of Kings, tracing the stories of the Prophets Elijah and Elisha and the history of both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, before their final conquest. As was common in the Old Testament, God is speaking through Prophets who urge the people to turn away from idols and repent, much as we need to do even today. For us, not idols in the form of figurines or golden animals or abstract deities, but more likely in the form of materialism, wealth, and the American dream. We are crazy to think this passage, the Old Testament, and the entire Bible is not shockingly relevant to our lives. Anyway, Elijah was a great Prophet at this time, and was widely recognized as having the Spirit of the LORD. Chapter 2 in 2 Kings starts out with the miraculous event where Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind with the company of chariots and horses of fire, among several witnesses. You may recall that a scene like this does not happen again until the Ascension of Jesus Christ. Elisha, then, becomes the successor to Elijah as a Prophet and spokesperson for God, and he from the beginning of his commission is seen to also possess the Spirit of the LORD. Right before the strange passage in question, Elisha heals, or purifies, the water in the city saving many from death and increasing the productivity of the land.

The passage in question is the second miracle performed by Elisha, this time, as opposed to one of blessing to the needy, it is one of judgment to those who disrespect the one true God.

For the record, when you start to look at passages like this, it is really remarkable how much meaning and significance is packed in such few words of text. It is not boring. If you’re reading this while watching TV or perhaps working on a spreadsheet, I would wager that it is much more fulfilling and exciting than those things. My concern that this is boring and few are reading it is small compared to my confidence that God speaks through His word to the everlasting joy of His people. I’m humbled to think that may be happening right now.

To explain the bears and the mauling, I’ll let commentator Dr. Thomas Constable help me: “Bethel was a center of idolatry in Israel, one of the golden calf sites. Evidently Elisha's approach triggered a mass demonstration against him by many young men. The Hebrew word na'ar translated "lads" in 2:23 describes young men, not boys, in many other places in the Old Testament. "Baldhead" was and is a term of disrespect. The idolaters challenged Elisha to "go up" to heaven as Elijah had done if Elisha could. These youths were typical of a nation that "mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at his prophets" (2 Chron. 36:16). Not motivated by personal pride but by a desire for God's glory, Elisha pronounced God's curse on them for their disrespect for His prophet and Himself. As before, God used wild animals to judge the rebels (1 Kings 13:24). Wild bears were common in ancient Israel. These early miracles identified Elisha as God's spokesman who possessed His power to bless or to curse.”

So “baldhead” does not simply mean a man with no hair, “youths” do not simply mean young, innocent children, “LORD” does not mean anything less than the one true God, and “bears” do not mean just animals, but a force of nature used by God for righteous judgment. Does that help?
The miracle of blessing was especially significant because it was not only a physical miracle of healing and restoration to the people and the land, but also it served as spiritual refreshment and fertility to a people who were suffering from apostasy, or the turning away from God (which was common). I’ll let Dr. Thomas Constable help me with the exposition here also: “Elisha was a new vessel in God's hand similar to the new jar he requested. Salt seemed like the worst thing to add to brackish water to make it pure just as return to Yahweh must have appeared to be a backward step to many idolatrous Israelites. Nevertheless since salt is what God ordered it was effective. The use of salt may have symbolized a break with the past since this is what rubbing certain sacrifices with salt to sanctify them indicated. Yahweh, not Baal, could restore blessing and fertility to His people.” Elisha’s first miracle was one of blessing to the needy and humble.

The second miracle of judgment was especially significant not only because it snuffed out rebellious young men, but also because it showed the holiness of God, which the people mocked and undermined repeatedly; it showed the sinfulness of man, who after just witnessing the wonder and amazement of God himself calling Elijah into heaven with the dramatic scene of chariots, horses, and fire, moments later mocked the scene itself and disrespected a man of God, and jeered at him; it showed the necessity of something permanent to solve the endless rebellion of people and daily trading of the glory of God for “images”, and opened the door another crack to reveal the eternal plan of redemption. Elisha’s second miracle was one of judgment to the proud and arrogant people who disrespect and reject God Almighty.

So how does all this Bible talk translate into our world today and how can a story of bears mauling children possibly help me better understand reality? Well, put yourself in the shoes of the people of Israel at that time. Who do you more closely identify with? Perhaps you identify with the men of the city, who humbly strive to be productive in the land for the benefit of the people. You enthusiastically and faithfully carry out your work during the day, perhaps in meetings and at a computer, or with your hands, working hard to feed and provide for your family. And when you notice a need, you don’t automatically assume it will be fulfilled, but humbly ask for help. Maybe it’s a financially tight situation or a loved one who is sick, and you see that people are suffering and the land is unproductive. God is waiting to give you grace in such situations. He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Or if you are honest with yourself, you might more closely identify with the young men, who after witnessing the glory of God, through nature, or a miracle, or through the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as you learned in Sunday school growing up, you trade that glory away, seek worldly things, suppress the truth, and might even mock those who proclaim it. You may not use the word “baldhead”, but maybe in your mind you jeer at those who speak about and for God. You resist the kind and gentle conversation in the break room at work, or you stubbornly doubt the impact and significance and necessity of God in your life, and turn away from the people He has put right in front of you who just want to heal your water and make you productive. Ready or not, and bears or no bears, God is preparing to incinerate those who deny His Son Jesus Christ, and trade His glory for temporal, selfish, fleeting pleasures. He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

So, this passage is relevant for us and it helps us understand reality because we are all either like the men of the city who humbly ask for help and healing from a condition we can not remedy ourselves, or we are like the young men, who scorn and deny and jeer and mock God by our actions or preoccupation with the things of this world, and because of our stubbornness and unrepentant heart we are storing up wrath for ourselves for the day of wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed. We approach the one true God of the universe with either humility or pride, and He will respond to us accordingly, and in either case will prove himself good and righteous and His glory will be revealed to the utmost. My reaction to this realization of reality is, to quote John Newton in Amazing Grace, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clear: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Nice blog. Where I saw sketch comedy, you showed me a parable about pride vs. humility. Well done.

Your exegesis was both provocative and edifying, and I agree with you wholeheartedly on the point that scripture can be easily misread. One must always consider how the denotation relates to the connotation.

When approaching any sacred text, I'd like to think the obvious question is, "What does it say?" The crucial follow-up, of course, is, "What does it mean?"