A few weeks ago, my husband set a challenge before me to prepare a sermon on some of the most difficult verses in all of scripture: 2 Kings 2:23-25. This is the story of how the Prophet Elisha cursed a group of boys who were mocking him with the result that two hungry bears came out of the woods and mauled the boys. My son then added another element to the challenge: I was to make at least one reference to a Sesame Street character. Here is the resulting sermon:
A Grumpy Prophet (or The Sovereignty of God)
2 Kings 2: 23-25 (New Revised Standard Version)
“He (Elisha) went from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go away bald head! Go away bald head!’ When he turned round and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.”
A topical reading of these verses is rather disturbing to say the least. A man of God cursing children – not very acceptable in today’s society. I included verse 25 for its seeming nonchalance. Elisha left afterwards, made his journey – no apology, no showing care for the kids, no retribution from the village or the parents. He simply left. How very odd. Or at least it seems that way to the modern reader. So what do we have here? Is this a bald man having a bad no-hair day? Is this just an Oscar the Grouch with supernatural power? Actually, there might be some reason to believe that is true. In this story are several threads, which, if we pull back, take the lens out of ‘zoom’, and start reading the surrounding verses, then chapters, then the entire books of Kings, this story starts to make sense.
Let’s start by moving just one or two steps back from the zoom. What happened right before this story? Well, the people of Jericho complained to him about the water, and he made their springs ‘wholesome’, a very positive thing to do – more in keeping with what you would expect from a prophet – and may be in part why the city does nothing to him after the mauling. However, the two previous events show very good reason for Elisha to be thin-skinned. Chapter 2 starts with his teacher and master prophet, Elijah, being taken up in a whirlwind with a chariot of fire into the heavens. Right before Elijah left, Elisha asked for double the amount of his spirit. After Elijah left, the company of prophets insisted on looking for him. Elisha’s answers to them very clearly show a man who is grieving: “Did I not say, ‘do not go’?” He comes across as rather grumpy about this whole business. And who isn’t grumpy when they are grieving? He is feeling abandoned and vulnerable.
If you reduce the zoom even further and look at all the Elisha stories, this one is uncharacteristic of him. Most of his miracles are positive – bringing people back to life, making food and drink safe, providing oil for a widow to earn money, feeding the masses during famine, healing people from leprosy, etc. He is clearly very powerful. Did he know that his cursing the children would have such an effect? Did he realise that he had indeed received a double portion of power? Or was it simply that the noise the children made attracted hungry bears from the woods, but Elisha’s curse was later connected in folklore to emphasise his power? Scholars know that the Syrian Brown Bear was quite a menace in that area of the world during that time. Their appearance would not be all that unusual.
And that leads on to another thread seen if you pull the zoom lens back all the way for a full panoramic view of both books of Kings. The main message of first and second Kings is this: That the God of Israel is the one true God, and He is almighty and powerful. Quite simply, The God of Israel is not to be messed with – not by great armies, not by human kings, not by prophets of false gods, and certainly not by mocking children. God is not to be made fun of; He is sovereign; He is pure power. In chapter 5 of 2 Kings, Elisha heals Naaman of leprosy by telling him to immerse himself 7 times in the Jordan river. When Naaman’s skin is restored ‘like the flesh of a young boy’, Naaman declares, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel’. That statement could actually be the thesis statement for these seemingly historical books.
So the next question is: What does this story have to do with us today? Well, to start with, if you feel God is powerless, read these two books of Kings. In them you will find one story after another of God doing mighty and awesome things – not only for Israel, but for anyone who showed Him or His people respect. The God of Israel, the God that Jesus called, “Abba, father” is almighty, sovereign, deserving of our solemn reverence.
Secondly, God often works through ordinary means. Even Namaan was incensed that Elisha didn’t even come personally to talk with him and make a dramatic display of power. Elisha simply sent a servant to say, ‘Go bathe in the river Jordan. Dunk yourself 7 times.’ And with the mocking children, Elisha doesn’t command the bears or summon fire from heaven. It was simply an uttered curse. In most of the Elisha stories, God’s power worked through common directions – ‘add flour’, ‘bathe seven times in the river’, pour the oil from this flask into several, ‘tell the people to eat’.
Lastly, although Elisha was a prophet with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he was still a human. This is one aspect of the Old Testament I adore. It is not sanitized. Even the weaknesses and failures of the heroes are included. Of course, the culture of that time period would probably not see any moral failing in cursing children who were mocking a prophet of God. Nonetheless, I take great courage from the fact that God acts through normal people – even a grumpy, grieving prophet.