STQ: Old Testament Stories

This morning my Seminary class discussed 2 Kings 2. At the end of that chapter are the following verses:

And [Elisha] went up from thence unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. Let me summarize: Some youth mock the prophet for his bald head, he curses them, and a couple of bears rip them apart.

What is the lesson here? The Institute Student Manual quotes a Bible commentary by Adam Clarke (?), which states:

But is it not possible that these forty-two were a set of unlucky young men, who had been employed in the wood, destroying the whelps of these same she-bears, who now pursued them, and tore them to pieces, for the injury they had done? … [T]he bears might be tracing the footsteps of the murderers of their young, and thus came upon them in the midst of their insults, God’s providence ordering these occurrences so as to make this natural effect appear as a Divine cause. If the conjecture be correct, the bears were prepared by their loss to execute the curse of the prophet, and God’s justice guided them to the spot to punish the iniquity that had just been committed.

As I have said before, I am not making this up.

One big problem (or is it an opportunity?) with teaching the Old Testament is that it is filled with bizarre stories like this. And unlike this story, which seems almost cartoonish, some of the stories are disturbingly realistic. For example, last week I was supposed to cover the rape of Tamnar by Amnon, her brother. (2 Samuel 13-14) After pondering this overnight, I decided simply to skip it because I saw no redeeming value in these chapters.

Which leads to my Seminary Thought Question: How are we to understand the notion that “the Bible [is] the word of God as far as it is translated correctly” in light of stories like these?

25 comments for “STQ: Old Testament Stories

  1. Grasshopper
    February 18, 2004 at 12:28 am

    Maybe we are supposed to figure out that the word of God is something other than we had supposed.

  2. February 18, 2004 at 8:48 am

    An old friend of mine, whose male-pattern baldness set in at an early age, used to read the Elisha story at the beginning of some of his classes, without comment. I think it made him feel good.

    As for your STQ: I think it means that we should recognize, as Grashopper implied, that the “word of God” includes lots of different things–accurate reporting as well as faith-promoting rumor, divine edicts as well as late-night theological bull sessions, humble counsel as well as visionary excess. I don’t think that necessarily obliges us to try to separate the “wheat” from the “chaff” in the scriptures–while careful reading (both critical and sympathetic) is, I think, both good and appropriate, too much attention to the hermeneutics of one’s own reading can quickly become an end in itself. Rather, I think we should keep in mind that the “fact” of scriptures, our revelatory and covenantal relationship with them, is greater than the sum of all their content or parts.

  3. Kristine
    February 18, 2004 at 10:04 am

    My father always quotes I.A. Richards, who said something like “a book is a machine for thinking with.” I have some issues with this statement, but my father’s application of it to scripture reading is helpful–the scriptures make a space for us to contemplate the divine.
    Perhaps part of the reason for the inclusion of the “ugly” stories is to teach us that God is in the parts of human life that we don’t like or understand, as well as in the parts that seem beautiful and uplifting.

  4. February 18, 2004 at 10:09 am

    Excellent statement Kristine. I like that thought–that “God is in the parts of human life that we don’t like or understand, as well as in the parts that seem beautiful and uplifting.” Cursed is he who sees not God’s hand in all things. Making sense of it, is another matter, but realizing His hand in all things may place us upon the path toward understanding.

  5. greenfrog
    February 18, 2004 at 11:29 am

    It is stories like the hairless prophet and the bears that have caused me to reconsider the divinity of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

  6. February 18, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    Here is what I told my Sunday School class a couple of years ago: This is one of those difficult Bible passages where there is so much distance between ancient times and our own and so much possibility of textual change that it is very hard to know what is going on. There are several possible explanations, though perhaps none of them is satisfactory to us: All commentators agree that the “little children” were really young men. One authority has said that the Hebrew word used here means they were “bare of Divine commandments,” in other words, they didn’t practice their religion. Some suggest that “bald head” was an obscene remark, making fun of the fact that prophet was circumcised. Others say that the prophets may have shaved their heads (like some medieval monks did) as a mark of their office. In that case, the young men are making fun of Elisha as a prophet. Still others suggest that the young men are comparing Elisha (who is bald, and baldness was considered a disgrace) with Elijah (who was hairy). We may also understand “go up” to mean “If you’re Elijah’s successor as prophet, prove it by going up as he did.” However we interpret this passage, it is clear that these young men are questioning Elisha’s status as prophet.

    However, that doesn’t explain what happens to the young men. Often, when we hear people tell the story, we hear them say that the bear killed the young men. However, notice that the verse does not say she killed them. In the end, however, this is one of the stories that many of us will have to “put on the shelf” as something we don’t understand.

  7. Ben
    February 18, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    Actually, there’s an excellent BYU Studies article on this that does a good job of contextualizing it without resorting to stretched readings or interpretations. We discussed it last week in Institute.
    Fred Woods, ” Elisha and the Children: The Question of Accepting Prophetic Succession” BYU Studies 32:3 (1992),

    It’s on Gospelink, but is garbled and cuts off midparagraph on the first page.

  8. February 18, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Jim and Ben,

    Great comments. Thanks. I read the abstract of the BYU Studies of the article, and it looks interesting.

    My general approach to the Old Testament is to glean what I can and ignore the rest, which is still a substantial portion of the whole. Having taught various sections of the Old Testament over the years, I am slowly building up knowledge (“line upon line …”). I appreciate your contributions to that still-meager store.

    My STQ was motivated by a sense that many stories in the Old Testament simply aren’t worth reading. But when I see information like this, it gives me pause and reminds me to be slower to judgment.

    Still, could two bears really kill 42 young men? I mean, how fast do you have to be to get away while the bears are preoccupied with others? Maybe Jim’s suggestion is right; the young men were not killed. Perhaps the bears just scratched them. ;-)

  9. greenfrog
    February 19, 2004 at 12:28 am

    Everyone has her own limits to belief, but this story (and Balaam’s talking donkey) is beyond the limits of my credulity. To my ear, this sounds like nothing more (or less) than one of those stories that people tell to scare kids into doing what they’re told — if you don’t clean your room, the Boogieman is going to get you. If you make fun of the prophet, he’ll curse you, and bears will eat you up.

    I’m not suggesting that I have any real knowledge of what happened (if anything) that gave rise to the story. I don’t. But this one just strikes me as a bit too much like other fables for me to pay a lot of attention to apologia that try to make sense of it.

    I like Grasshopper’s suggestion that perhaps it is a useful part of the canon to remind us that scripture and the Word of God is not necessarily identical with factually reliable accounts, but rather is something quite a bit more than that.

  10. February 19, 2004 at 12:56 am

    greenfrog, Were you around for the Balaam’s Ass discussion? See here:

    Seems like a long time ago now. Lots of water has run under this blog since then. Or something …

  11. Kaimi
    February 19, 2004 at 11:31 am

    Exactly true, Gordon. The Old Testament is full of wierd stories that seem out of step with modern ideas (the bears, Balaam, Tamar and her bizarre incestuous relationships, and so forth).

  12. Nate Oman
    February 19, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    I really don’t understand why everyone is troubled by Balaam’s Ass! I happen to believe in angels, gold-plates, (some) seer stones, carpenters who get resurrected and a host of other wild and crazy things.

    Talking donkeys are nothin’!

  13. greenfrog
    February 19, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    For those who (choose to?) believe in such stories’ historicity, is it the inclusion of the story in the compilation of the Bible that leads to belief or something else?

    When I read about Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, I tend to think to myself: “Hmmm. I’ve never seen a giant blue ox, and I’ve never experienced anything in my life that suggests that there are such things as giant blue oxen, so I will not choose to conduct myself as though such a story were factually true.” When I read about a talking donkey (Eddie Murphy’s voice: “I’m not just a talkin’ donkey. I’m a flyin’, talkin’ donkey!”) my reaction is much as it is when I read of Babe.

    On what criteria should I make judgments about where to invest my faith?

  14. Julie in Austin
    February 20, 2004 at 6:15 pm


    Here is my official attitude about the seemingly unbelievable in the Bible:

    I believe that God could have done any of these things (let’s see, if you can raise the dead, getting someone out of a whale after three days should be a piece of cake . . .), however, I don’t know either way whether any of these show-stoppers (Jonah, all animals on ark, talking donkey, etc. etc.) actually happened. And it doesn’t matter. The moral of the story is never ‘this actually happened’ (unless, maybe the story is the Resurrection or the First Vision). The moral is otherwise independent of the historicity.

    So, to answer your question, the place to invest your faith is in the moral of the story.


    P.S.–I have a sneaking suspicion that when we finally get to find out what *really* happened, we’ll be wowed that some of these classics really did, and amazed at some of the ones that we take for granted as historical that never, technically, happened.

  15. Ben
    February 21, 2004 at 11:45 am

    The difference between Shrek (or Babe and the Ox) and the Bible is that the bible makes a claim of historicity (though not innerrancy). Of course, how much we believe that claim (overall or in particular passages) is dependant on our own epistemology. I frequently offer my Institute class multiple viewpoints on the same question to illustrate these approaches, and to get them to examine their own assumptions and belief structures. Feor example, with God smiting Uzzah in that ark incident. 1) “It’s in the Bible, so it must have happened and happened more or less how it’s portrayed. We just have to broaden our minds to include all of God’s actions into our understanding.” (This ascribes more authority to the bible than to our understanding, but borders on inerrancy, which I don’t accept. On the other hand, (false) expectations/assumptions play a large role in determining what people choose to believe. IT frequently happens that people leave the church because of some incident or other in Church history, and they say “well, a true prophet would never do x.” How do they know what a true prophet is? Are they one? Do they know one? Did Gd revelat it to them? No, culturally embedded assumptions.)
    2)”It happened, but the author is writing from the ANE perspective (e.g. non-revelatory) that anything that happens happens because God caused it. Thus, if Uzzah touched the ark (technically he’s killed for touching the ark, not steadying it) and died, the cultural worldview of the author is what gives us the causality of the event. Uzzah did x, Uzzah died quickly after, therefore God kill Uzzah because he did x.” I believe that much of the OT is written from teh perspective of the author, who interprets events for us and gives us causality, similar to what Mormon/Moroni do in the BoM. Then the inspiration of the author/editor is what’s in question.
    3) Commonly expressed. “I don’t believe God would really do such a thing. Therefore, it couldn’t have really happened that way.”

    Most of our assumptions about what God/a prophet/etc. would or would not do are unconsciously inherited from our modern culture assumptions and personal experiences. These assumptions (and experiences, if you believe the text at all) are not shared by the OT or NT peoples.

    Thus, I believe in a flood, but a limited flood. I don’t know whether Balaam’s donkey *actually* spoke to him, but I’m not going to discount it just because I’ve never encountered one. I believe God *can* do anything, but that’s not the same as *did* he, or *will* he. I tend to take these difficult texts on a case by case basis, and that’s how I believe they should be approached- on grounds of context, framework, etc.

  16. Julie in Austin
    February 21, 2004 at 4:41 pm


    I’d like for you to comment a little more on your statement that the Bible makes the claim of historicity. How? Where? To use an example that I am sure you are familiar with, some scholars think that Jonah is a satire. In that case, the book doesn’t make a claim to historicity–it is imposed from outside. To what evidence would you point in Jonah or any other OT text to support your position?

  17. February 26, 2004 at 7:52 pm

    Why not just take the story for what it is, and learn to fear the Lord from it? I think it’s pretty sad, and revealing, when you read stories like these and bail by doubting their authenticity. Yahweh, the Lord, has done some pretty terrifying things, all through the Bible!

    “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God” (Hebrews 10:31)

    “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” 2 (Timothy 3:16)

  18. Ben
    February 26, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    Just for sake of argument, Aaron, why should we “just take it for what it is” ?
    Without using Bible references:)

  19. February 28, 2004 at 7:40 am

    Just as it is written: a historical narrative.

    P.S. Webmaster: the JavaScript on these pages is acting funky in Netscape/Mozilla/Firebird/Firefox.

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  23. Anonymous
    November 27, 2004 at 7:41 am
  24. Anonymous
    January 1, 2005 at 11:13 pm
  25. Rod
    September 13, 2005 at 2:00 am

    This story has some context. In the next story, Elisha brings a dead child back to life.

    First the prophet calls on the Lord to kill the living; then the same prophet calls on the same Lord to bring the dead to life.

    So, the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

    Was there a reason to kill the 42? Was there a reason to bring the dead child back to life? Not really. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Life is not something we earn or deserve. Every breath we take is a free gift. Life is something the Lord bestows on us…or takes away.

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