Bad boys and big bad bears

In his post Bad Boy Bible Study meets Ship of Fools David Ker challenged me, along with sixteen other bloggers, to outline a sermon on 2 Kings 2:23-24, the story about Elisha and the bears who killed 42 bad boys – although arguably the real bad boy in the story is Elisha:

Here are the rules:

  • You’ve been asked to teach or preach on this passage.
  • What would you say?

Simple, eh?

Well, maybe not so simple. I could decline the tag on the basis that I am not a preacher. But then I am a bit of a frustrated preacher, and so I will accept the challenge. Here is the passage, in TNIV:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

What can I say? I could muse on the significance of 42. The number of life, the universe and everything? But that’s not from the Bible, it’s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The number of humanity (6) multiplied by the number of perfection (7)? Possibly, and so indicating that the whole of humanity is perfectly cursed by God – no, that must be Alexander’s Sword exegesis. Or perhaps the only significance of 42 is that this was historically the number of boys who were torn in pieces – probably a more accurate translation of the Hebrew than “maul” (compare the same word in 2 Kings 8:12, 15:16 and Hosea 13:8, 16, all translated in TNIV “rip open”, which has perhaps tried to mitigate the violence in 2 Kings 2:24).

But there is one real sermon point I would want to take from this passage. That is about the power of a prophet’s words.

Elisha as a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit had within him the power and authority of God, with which he was able to pronounce a curse on the boys which was not mere words but had immediate effect. Similarly there is authority in our words as Spirit-filled Christians, and by that I mean all true Christians. God has given us the right to ask for anything in Jesus’ name and promised to give it to us (John 14:13-14, 15:7, 16:23, in context). Sometimes he does this even when it is not a good thing, as the Israelites who craved meat found out when they received quail which brought a plague (Numbers 11:4, 31-34). The same is true of Elisha’s curse on the boys: God answered it by sending the bears even though that was not a good thing.

So, as Christians,  we must be careful not to ask for bad things or pray curses on people, but instead we should bless them and ask for what is good.

0 thoughts on “Bad boys and big bad bears

  1. Any thoughts on the striking resemblance with Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree? There are many, many parallels between Jesus and Elisha that the Bible never explicitly draws attention (as it does to the parallels between their forebears Elijah and John).

  2. By the way, in a year’s time I can tell you how my congregation handled this. We just finished I Kings 16, and we’ll be coming back to the Elijah-Elisha cycle after Easter next year. It will not be skipped, but it might be done along with a fairly large section of text, so it might not receive more than a few minutes. People have enough questions about this that I’m sure whoever gets assigned it will at least address the questions people usually ask about it.

  3. Thanks, Peter.

    My first response is that if Elisha had in fact been filled with the Holy Spirit it would have been impossible for him to curse these children. This was more a deed of the flesh than a fruit of the Spirit.

    Jeremy, consider yourself tagged. You don’t expect us to wait a year for your take on this? And the Jesus/Elisha parallel is one I hadn’t thought of.

  4. David Ker commented :
    “My first response is that if Elisha had in fact been filled with the Holy Spirit it would have been impossible for him to curse these children. This was more a deed of the flesh than a fruit of the Spirit.”

    David,
    Your second sentence is in agreement with Peter.
    But your first sentence with its inclusion of “filled with the Holy Spirit” and assumed conclusion does not reflect biblical insight, integrity or exegesis. The one does not necessarily follow the other. Unless, of course, your understanding is that Pentecost leaves no further capacity for sin.

    It is good you have made this challenge.
    Forgive me. It was my first day back at work today after two weeks off.

  5. Pingback: Bad Boy Bible Study meets Ship of Fools | lingamish

  6. Jeremy, yes, there clearly is a parallel with Jesus and the fig tree, which like the 42 boys represents the whole of Israel. But that story doesn’t have the same moral issues. And the Elisha story would be even more morally questionable if someone tried to argue that its only real meaning is in its fulfilment by Jesus.

    Rob, I think I go with you rather than David. I know from experience as well as the Bible that people filled with the Spirit and doing great things for God can also go seriously astray. Remember Todd Bentley?

    I suppose I am arguing that the prosperity preachers have got it partly right. If true Christians ask God for financial blessing, he honours them and gives it. But, and this is where I would differ, that is not in general God’s perfect will for them – rather, it is a wrong path that he lets them take if they want to. But I really need to develop this thought more than I can in this comment.

  7. John, thanks for the link. I’m glad to see some support for my position, and not from the “name it and claim it” tendency for whom this would be commonplace. I’m not so sure about the last part of your post where you use this as an argument against pacifism, but I don’t want to get back into a discussion of that one.

    Matt Page has also linked here, in his discussion of a whole range of different responses to David’s original post.

  8. I won’t comment on your pacifism except to say, if you ever claim your Anabaptist identity that comes through all over the place, your pacifism may change from a fact of opinion to a fact of life. That would be a good thing.

  9. This blogstorm has been quite enlightening. My head is spinning from all the ideas. I’m holding tightly to my OT/NT dichotomy since to abandon it is in some way to minimize Christ’s revolution.

  10. David, on the OT/NT dichotomy thing I would look for a middle path between yours and John’s. Yes, “Christ’s revolution” had a huge effect. But I also see real parallels between the OT prophets and ourselves as Christians – people filled with the Spirit of God and with the authority to speak in his name, but also imperfect and with the tendency to abuse that authority. The big difference is that now anyone, not just a special few, can be a Spirit-filled prophet, Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:17-18.

  11. David,

    If you are listening in, I agree with Peter’s statement:

    “The big difference is that now anyone, not just a special few, can be a Spirit-filled prophet, Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:17-18.”

    People being who they are, the amount of abuse of the authority given to people with “Christ in us” is not less compared to OT times. Far from it. Sobering, but true.

    I think Christ is exactly what the New Testament says he is: the fulfillment of every jot and title of the Old; like us, furthermore, in every way except sin. He even lived with limitations of time-sensitive knowledge of various kinds, just as we do.

    It’s very important to call “sin” only those things that Christ calls “sin.” That’s plenty already.

    To go beyond that, and require people to be less ethnocentric than Jesus was, less accepting of the role of the military than he was (note how he never asks a Roman centurion to give up his profession), or, as fundamentalists like to do, require people to give up things like drinking and dancing, is to add an unbearable burden on people.

    It’s fine for there to be some people among the people of God who impose extra obligations on themselves, as the Nazirites did. But as soon as this sort of thing is enforced as a general rule, the path of sectarianism has been taken.

  12. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 45 – Bible Theme Park « The Golden Rule

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