And I thought last week’s story was hard to speak on.
As some of you may recall from last week, the Israelites have arrived in the Promised Land and were being lead by judges, because they didn’t have a king yet. Last week, we learned about the judge Gideon. Our story for tonight comes from Second Kings, and as you might suspect, Israel is now living under the leadership of a king. But with the king has also come prophets.
Prophets are often understood as those who predict the future. While prophets of the Bible do often speak about the future, the word prediction is problematic. It is not so much that they are predicting the future but more like they are giving a warning about how the future could be if people continue on the path that they are on. So, for example, if I were driving too fast, a prophetic word might be someone saying, “Watch out. You might get pulled over.” It isn’t predicting the future as it is a warning about what the future might hold. It might be better to think of a prophet as a messenger of God, called to speak a word from God. Tonight we meet the prophet Elisha.
Elisha is the prophet who follows in Elijah’s footsteps. Elijah’s ministry is over and so he passes on the leadership as prophet to Elisha. I think of it like a master and their apprentice. There is a transfer of knowledge and training that happens. Perhaps like a kingdom is passed down from one person to the next. Like when Queen Elizabeth passes the down throne to Prince Charles or Prince William. These opening stories are about the transferring of prophetic powers from Elijah to Elisha. And Elisha will be the prophet during the time of the next four kings of Israel.
Tonight we hear the very first two stories of the beginning of Elisha’s time as prophet. And what is amazing about these two stories is how polar opposite they are. The first story is all about showing Elisha’s prophetic power to bless. Elisha is in Jericho, where the water there has gone bad. It is causing the land to not produce any fruit, but it is also causing death and miscarriages. So Elisha, takes bowl of salt and tosses the salt into the river water, purifying it, and says, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome.” So the first thing Elisha does is bring blessing and healing to these waters so that they will no longer bring about death. But then the story turns from a scene of incredible grace and gift to a completely different story. One that is a little bit harder to swallow.
From Jericho, Elisha heads to Bethel, where somewhere along the road, he encounters a group of boys. Some have referred to them as a sort of tattooed, drug-dealing gang of teenagers. I think that just helps us not feel some bad about what about to happen. So this group of boys comes up to Elisha and says, “Go away, Baldhead. Go away, Baldhead!” Now it is unclear why they are making fun of him. It could be simply because he doesn’t have any hair. Or it could be because of what the lack of hair represented – being a prophet. A prophet’s hair was shave on top like a monk. Either way, I imagine all of us can hear the tone of voice in this playground like taunting. But then Elisha turns around and curses these youth in the name of the Lord, and as quickly as the curse came out of his mouth, out of the woods come two female mama-bears who then maul 42 of these boys.
No wonder this story is never read in church as part of the lectionary. I mean, sure, when viewed as a cartoon show, this story can be a little bit funny because these kids make fun of this man who doesn’t have any hair and then the man just completely loses his cool, overreacts and sends a bunch of bears after them and they all run off screaming. But then, all week I keep hearing about this US soldier who lost his cool and went around killing women and children in Afghanistan, and suddenly this story isn’t so funny any more. It is incredibly violent. I wanted to be like Thomas Jefferson and just cut this story right out of my bible.
So what are we going to do with this text? And what are we going to do with what seems like an extremely violent God. I mean Elisha does curse them in the name of the Lord. Now we need to be careful and not fall into the trap of simply saying, “Well this is just the Old Testament God. And now we have the New Testament God in Jesus.” They are the same God. And so what are we to do? I think we have to say both a “no” and a “yes” to this story.
Okay, so what is the “no” to this story? I think we have to say a resounding “no” towards the violence of the story. That the God in whom we confess does not warrant or support Elisha’s killing of those who have taunted or made fun of him. That this is not an appropriate response to the actions of these young boys. And I think that we also have to say no to the actions of these boys. As I kept reading this text, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an ancient version of bullying based on the way someone’s body looked. While this may seem like mild, boys-will-be-boys behavior, in the last year we all have become aware of the power of bullying as a form of violence that kills more slowly. There is the bullying that goes on via the internet and at school. So I think we have to say no to the bullying based on someone’s body that happens within this text.
So what is the “yes” that we can say to this text? Well, in the end, this story is not trying to say that what Elisha did was appropriate. It isn’t saying, “Hey everybody, next time someone makes fun of you, send some bears after them.” That’s not what this text is trying to say. Instead, it is trying to make a statement about what it means to be a prophet who speaks the word of God. Elisha is being revealed as the new prophet replacing Elijah. As a result, he illustrates an act of blessing and an act of cursing. Elisha heals the river – blessing. Elisha curses the young men – curse. Maybe this text is saying that the word of God comes to us as both blessing and curse. And I think we can affirm that.
God wants to bring about blessing and fullness of life for the whole world. But sometimes that blessing also comes with a curse. When God calls us to love our neighbor, that is good news for our neighbor. But it can be bad news for us when it reminds us that we haven’t been loving our neighbor.
When Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies during World War II, this was good news for the Jews who were in need of saving. And this was bad news for those who had enslaved them – Nazi Germany. Blessing and curse.
God calls us to care for our neighbors in Africa threatened by Malaria. So we buy mosquito nets to protect them. That is good news for the people in Africa. But bad news for the mosquitoes, who are also a part of God’s creation. Blessing and curse.
This text speaks to the Lutheran theology of saint and sinner. We, all of us, are 100% a saint. We are beloved unconditionally and are participating in the work of God out in the world. At the same time, we are also 100% sinner. Meaning that we also do things that are against God’s hope for the world. We do things that hurt other people, the environment, and the animals of the world.
Elisha is a prophet who speaks the word of God. And that word comes at times as blessing. But also at times as a curse. God wants to bring an end to death and despair in this world, so Elisha heals the river waters. But God also hates bullying and the slow death that it can bring, so Elisha curses these boys. The word of God comes as blessing and curse.