“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 came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.”
Although it would be fun to take this completely seriously, I think it would be even more fun to, well, have some fun with it. And so rather than try to compose a single sermon, I’m going to list some semi-serious and not-so-serious approaches to the text that I think are worth trying out:
(1) The allegorical approach: This is a well-established classic way of dealing with problem texts. The children who insult you are the negative thoughts that draw attention to your own shortcomings; the bears are the positive thoughts which you have the authority to bring to combat the negative thoughts that plague you.
(2) The rationalistic approach: For Liberals, another option is to find some sort of naturalistic, rationalistic explanation. Elisha was known to be part of a school of prophets, and was headed there when the youth insulted him. Elisha sent two of the school’s hit men to deal with the youth. They then circulated a cover story that the youth had been attacked by bears.
(3) The rabbinic Christianity approach: My own Liberal Protestant Christian faith is perhaps closest to the position of Reform Judaism, but one great thing about the Rabbinic tradition is that such an approach is not completely marginalized because of the conversational and playful approach to the text. And so offer a Talmudic-Midrashic commentary in which a number of possibilities are explored. Suggest alternative readings, such as playing on the similarity between Hebrew words for bear and slow or sluggish. Then discuss how, if they were sluggish, they could have mauled the youths. Then discuss how many of the youth were drunk and thus were slowed in their responses, and only the “bad boys” among them who were thus overly intoxicated could not get away from their sluggish attackers. Explore possibilities and a variety of interpretations; don’t pronounce any one of them as “the right interpretation”.
(4) The history-of-religions approach: The final redactor of this text has given it a monotheistic spin, obscuring the fact that Elisha invoked two female warrior deities to punish the youths who accosted him.
(5) The end-of-the-world Republican antichrist approach: Take a Strong’s Concordance. Note that the Hebrew word for bear is dov. Note too that ‘d’ and ‘r’ are very similar in Hebrew and sometimes confused. And then make a YouTube video arguing that the reference here was to (Karl) Rove and the harm he caused, prophecied millenia earlier.
(6) The Morton Smith Secret Book of Kings Approach: Discover a lost manuscript in which a secret ancient Israelite Gnostic group is said to have had an expanded copy of 2 Kings, in which one finds phrases like “naked man with naked bear”. Then have someone else suggest that the manuscript is a forgery, a major clue being the reference to baldness, which is too close to your own lack of hair to be coincidental.
(7) The Marcionite Approach: The evil God of the Old Testament sent bears to maul people. God the Father of Jesus would not send down fire from heaven to destroy those who rejected Jesus and his followers.
(8) The gangstas in the hood approach: The youth were a gang, armed with knives. Elisha only cursed them. The bears did the rest – in self defense. You see, the bears had a gang too, and the boys were on their turf.
(9) The dispensationalist approach: God used to send bears in response to prophets cursing their enemies. That was then, this is now. Accept the Bible’s inerrant authority, but never curse your attackers with bears, because you are in the New Covenant era.
(10) The delegated authority approach: God delegated to his spokespeople power to perform miracles. Sometimes they misused it. And so Elisha can be both a “man of God” and a “bad boy”. Aren’t we all a little bit of both at times?
(11) The fill in the gaps approach: Elisha not only cursed the youth but smeared them with honey, knowing that there were bears in those woods. He later repented of having done such a horrible thing. He had been having a really bad day.
I won’t tag anyone specific, but please do post a comment with a link if you try to elaborate on these or other sermon possibilities somewhere in the blogosphere!