Bad Boy Bible Study

David Ker tagged me with a creative meme. In a recent post, he discussed how Christians might make sense of, and preach on, the story in 2 Kings 2:23-24:

“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!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07600312868663460988 J. K. Gayle

    hilarious! This post is as good as Frederick Crews's The Pooh Perplex – and his Postmodern Pooh – which are also about bears and texts and reading and criticism, sort of.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05115370166754797529 Mark Goodacre

    Fantastic. Now you are just competing with yourself for biblioblog post of the month!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03232781356086767207 AIGBusted

    Here's one idea for interpretation:In the gay community, a bear is a hairy man. Maybe God sent two hairy gay men out of the woods and they 'malled' the children: Took them to a mall and talked about how not to hurt people's feelings over a smoothy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    JK, are you familiar with the article "New Directions in Pooh Studies"? If not, you'd enjoy it.AIG, I think they were "she-bears". But that doesn't count against your overall mall hypothesis, and indeed may lend it support. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07600312868663460988 J. K. Gayle

    James, Hadn't seen it at all – Thank you! You're right – it's an enjoyable hoot: New Directions in Pooh Studies!

  • http://mattdabbs.wordpress.com/ mattdabbs

    My roommate in grad school and I wrote a parody of "Days of Elija" called "Days of Elisha" about those crazy stories in the Bible. Here is it with links included:These are the days of Elisha,Sending out bears to kill men.And these are the days of that naughty,Bathsheba, bathing, seducing David.And these are the days of Hosea.He had to marry a whore.These are the days of your servant, Jonah,who won't be the voice of the Lord.Chorus:Behold they come, lots of bears with claws.Woman on the roof, taking her clothes off.Hosea's kids, lots of awful names.Jonah's in a whale, it's all insane!These are the days of Methusaleh,When am I going to die?And these are the days of that strong man,Samson, he lost his hair and his eyes.And these are the days of Isaiah,God told me to lay in the buff.And these are the days of Moses', kids,Mom, why'd you cutt off my stuff?Chorus

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    And I didn't know it was available online – thanks for sharing the link!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03232781356086767207 AIGBusted

    James: AIG, I think they were "she-bears". But that doesn't count against your overall mall hypothesis, and indeed may lend it support. :)Me: Well I think the "she" in "she-bears" just indicates that these were highly effeminent hairy gay men.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    This story is starting to make so much more sense to me now…

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,applause ! This post was great fun. It´s definitely on par with the Pooh article.

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    Oddly, James, I refer to this same story in a post I'm writing that was inspired by your post on doubt a few days back.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13140007604009678479 David Ker

    Love it. And the "Days of Elisha" is terrific.I'm definitely 7 and 9 with a dash of most of the others thrown in for good flavor.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    The what-right-do-you-have approach: Given that your moral system is based on your picking and choosing what you want to believe out of the Bible, and thus are your own foundation for any moral authority, what was objectively wrong with this, even if Elisha did actively want bears to kill (which he didn't necessarily; he merely cursed them) a bunch of children (which is probably untrue – these were probably teenagers) who were innocently singing a cutesy song (which they weren't – they were referring to Elijah's apparent death and thus wishing death also upon Elisha)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Ah Rhology, thanks for making me think of one I missed…The "interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture" approach. This verse says that Elisha, a man of God, cursed the youth who accosted him. But the Bible elsewhere says that a person of God should bless and not curse. Therefore, the story about Elisha clearly doesn't really mean what it seems to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Or maybe it's BOTH, depending on the situation.I guess we could call your approach the False-Dilemma approach?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I can't believe I didn't include a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy entry, with the 42 youth symbolizing the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything…

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    Rhology -I can understand your appeal to the technicality that Elisha didn't specifically request that bears show up and maul the non-adult humans that could plausibly have been children or young teens, but I'm not following your claim that the youth were wishing death on Elisha. Are you interpreting "go on up" as a death wish? If so, what are you basing that on? Just curious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Jay,Well, I'm just pointing out that Elisha didn't specifically call death upon them. But even if he had, we are in no position to make moral/immoral judgments on something like that. Obviously HE didn't cause the bears to come out of the woods. It's pretty probable that God did that. And God's character is the very definition of good, which is why all these "we can be better than Scripture" or "we can rise above Scripture" or "but we know better now" claims that Dr McGrath and other liberals make are so specious. Anyway, the answer is, like virtually always, to read the context. 2 Kings 1 – Elijah and Elisha go up on the mountain and a group of people are with them for a time. Then they both go up alone. Elijah "goes on up" in the chariot. Elisha comes down alone; it would appear that Elijah died on the mountain. Then these young thugs yell at him to go on up (and die) too. If a bunch of teens were yelling that they wish I were dead, I'd probably interpret it as more of a threat than anything. Peace,Rhology

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13676859074652475474 Tim Chesterton

    Matt – love the 'Days of Elisha' – is it okay to share it around?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13395635409427347613 Peter Kirk

    Wonderful! Before reading this, I went for your "(10) The delegated authority approach", but started off with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

  • Daniel

    "(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"made me laugh out loud….. excellent post….

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    Ah, Rhology. It seems you're engaging in, dare I say it, some selective interpretation.A couple of points -Cursing someone in the Bible is uniformly a bad thing. When Elisha cursed the youth, it's pretty clear that the intent was closer to "Lord, lay some of your Godly smack down on these little hooligans and show them not to mess with your prophet" than "Dear Lord, please show these impressionable and misguided youngsters the error of their ways by visiting them with sunshine and puppies." Elisha wanted harm to come to them. Whether he specifically wanted bears or would have been happy with, say, a bunch of hungry ferrets is immaterial. Now, your claim that because God called out the bears, the action is, by definition, good, is the specious argument here. You want to stake out the position that God = good. That necessarily implies that if God does something (for any reason), it's good. That implies that if we do the same thing that God does under comparable circumstances, it's perforce good. Therefore if some kids make fun of me and I unleash (or cause to be unleashed) some bears on them, I've done a good thing. Really, Rhology? Really? This looks suspiciously like you're torturing the meaning of the word "good" so that you can avoid having to concede that the OT version of God was a pretty ruthless and bloodthirsty one. (And, by the way, if you want to get picky, "youth" is more likely to refer to smaller kids than teens, since older kids would have been more likely to be productively engaged in adult work than roaming the streets tweaking the sensitivities of bald guys. In any case, even if they were teens/young adults, getting mauled by bears is still an over-the-top punishment for teasing someone.)Now as to your death threat angle, even it you're right (and I have my doubts – the term "jeered" doesn't seem to connote any physical threat or death wish), there's still a huge disconnect between bratty kids shouting threats and having them mauled by bears. What you've done here is classic. You've encountered a Biblical story that in any plain, literal reading reflects very poorly on your concept of God. In order to come to terms with that, you've selectively interpreted ambiguities in the story (e.g. Elisha's specific intent when he cursed the youth, the possible age range of people who could plausibly be called "youth", the possible but by no means clear threat of the youth to Elisha) in as favorable a light possible to support the view you want them to support. The funny thing here is that the cherry picking and interpretive gymnastics you're using here are every bit as significant, if not moreso, as the liberal interpretations that you accuse James and others of. The only difference is that James and the other liberal/progressive folks aren't making their excursions from the purely literal interpretation of the texts in the same direction that you are. By the way, the way I interpret this particular story is that it's simply intended to unambiguously illustrate that the mantle of prophetic authority on Earth had passed from Elijah to Elisha by establishing that Elisha now had an open channel to God.

  • http://mattdabbs.wordpress.com/ mattdabbs

    Tim,My policy is use whatever is helpful to you just don't take credit (not that I think you or anyone else would). I am glad you enjoyed it! I have to give credit to Paul McMullen who wrote the song with me. That song came together in under 30 minutes.One thing I didn't include was the refrain at the end. In the original song "Days of Elijah" it has the refrain "There's no god like Jehovah" over and over again. Charles Kiser chimed into our parody with "Bathsheba take your clothes off…Bathsheba take your clothes off…" I thought that was hilarious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17011346264727684917 John Hobbins

    Very nice, James.Like Peter Kirk, I independently chose (10), the delegated authority approach. http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2009/08/the-power-to-kill-and-restore-to-life.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Hi Jay,I think you might have misunderstood me a bit. I said I still don't see a problem if Elisha did intend for bears to maul the thugs, but you seem to think I'm embarrassed by that distinct possibility. I'm not; I simply invite you to show why that's immoral. Like when you say:You've encountered a Biblical story that in any plain, literal reading reflects very poorly on your concept of God. Not all, I don't think it reflects poorly on Him and I don't grant that. I instead invite you to present your standard for judging good vs bad and we'll go from there.That necessarily implies that if God does something (for any reason), it's good. Correct. That's a necessary presupposition for defining anything as objectively good or bad. I'd love to see your alternative foundation for objective morality. That implies that if we do the same thing that God does under comparable circumstances, it's perforce good. What's your logic for that? Not at all – God has commanded us to act certain ways; THAT'S our obligation, not to copy God in EVERYthing. We copy Him where He told us to. He has responsibilities, prerogatives, and powers we don't have, like the power to see everything and read all thoughts and see the exhaustive future. We don't. In any case, even if they were teens/young adults, getting mauled by bears is still an over-the-top punishment for teasing someone. 1) As I explained, they were wishing death on a known prophet of the Lord.2) How do you know it was over the top? What is your standard for judging?there's still a huge disconnect between bratty kids shouting threats and having them mauled by bears. 1) You haven't done any exegesis of the text to overturn mine and show that it was *just* "bratty kids shouting threats". 2) Besides, God never takes all that kindly to having His prophets, His spokesmen, mocked and threatened. It's tantamount to challenging God's own authority, much like Genesis 9 describes murder as an attack on the image of God Himself. On the other hand, your final analysis seems to be very strong, so kudos for that. It just doesn't go far enough.Peace,Rhology

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    (Part 1 of 2)Rhology -I think you might have misunderstood me a bit. I said I still don't see a problem if Elisha did intend for bears to maul the thugs, but you seem to think I'm embarrassed by that distinct possibility. I'm not; I simply invite you to show why that's immoral.Like when you say:You've encountered a Biblical story that in any plain, literal reading reflects very poorly on your concept of God.Not all, I don't think it reflects poorly on Him and I don't grant that. I instead invite you to present your standard for judging good vs bad and we'll go from there.Thanks, but no. You're not going to turn this into a discussion of my standard of judging good and bad. This is all about you, kiddo. Let's put some bounds on this right at the start.Your typical modus operandi is to dodge away from directly addressing your own points and to try to turn the discussion back on whomever you're talking to. You do it (often) with James here, you've done it with me on my blog, you did it with Abbie at ERV, and you've probably done it elsewhere. You'll then make some noise about the other party not wanting to “advance the discussion”, where “advance the discussion” in Rhology-world means “agree with everything I say based on the strength of my assertions.” You'll also probably cite yourself as a primary source. Eventually, your interlocutor will decide that they have better things to do than continue pounding their head on the table, and they'll cease interacting with you, at which point you'll go off somewhere and declare victory. No, what we're doing here is trying to get to the bottom of your rather unorthodox notions of good and bad, as evidenced by your equivocation regarding this little throwaway story about youth-mauling bears in 2 Kings. Stay on point, Rhology. That necessarily implies that if God does something (for any reason), it's good.Correct. That's a necessary presupposition for defining anything as objectively good or bad. I'd love to see your alternative foundation for objective morality.“Objective” is the operative term here. If there is an objective morality, then a “moral” act is always moral, regardless of the circumstances of observation. That's what the word means. That implies that if we do the same thing that God does under comparable circumstances, it's perforce good.What's your logic for that? Not at all – God has commanded us to act certain ways; THAT'S our obligation, not to copy God in EVERYthing. We copy Him where He told us to. He has responsibilities, prerogatives, and powers we don't have, like the power to see everything and read all thoughts and see the exhaustive future. We don't.Rhology, if the act is objectively good, then it's good. Period. Whether it's God that does it, or me, or you, or that guy over there, it's still good. Otherwise it's no longer objective, but subjective, and your claims about some objective morality go “poof”. You can't have it both ways. And the cop-out excuse that we don't have all the same prerogatives and such as God is irrelevant – if there are conditions in place that make God's execution of some action morally different than our execution of the same action, then morality is unavoidably conditional. All of your rhetorical protestations aside, that's how it is.

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    (Part 2 of 2)Rhology -In any case, even if they were teens/young adults, getting mauled by bears is still an over-the-top punishment for teasing someone.1) As I explained, they were wishing death on a known prophet of the Lord.2) How do you know it was over the top? What is your standard for judging?1) ”Jeering” does not connote a threat. It means taunting or teasing. It's linguistic torture to turn “jeer” into “wishing death”. You've got no warrant to do so, other than that you need there to be some sort of threat to Elisha so that you can justify the punishment. 2) You are, at this point, saying that mauling by bears is an appropriate punishment for teasing. Or jeering. And don't pull the “objective morality” bit here – it doesn't work. (And, by the way, the death penalty for teasing would be over the top in any western legal system that you would probably argue is based on the Ten Commandments. ) there's still a huge disconnect between bratty kids shouting threats and having them mauled by bears.1) You haven't done any exegesis of the text to overturn mine and show that it was *just* "bratty kids shouting threats".2) Besides, God never takes all that kindly to having His prophets, His spokesmen, mocked and threatened. It's tantamount to challenging God's own authority, much like Genesis 9 describes murder as an attack on the image of God Himself.You didn't do any exegesis either. What you did was eisegesis – you read your own biases into the text. Now, the text in question gives you absolutely no reason to read a valid threat into the jeering. Mocking, sure. For baldness. For which a bunch of youth (and it's really irrelevant whether they were young kids or, as you claim with no particularly clear justification, older kids) were, in the story, mauled by bears. You can continue to claim that such a punishment was justified or “good” or whatever, but at this point I don't consider your claims to have much validity. On the other hand, your final analysis seems to be very strong, so kudos for that. It just doesn't go far enough.I could go a little farther and state that I have no particularly good reason to think that the story even happened, and that it's nothing more than a literary creation of the 6th Century BC author. Out of respect for our host, James, I don't intend to spend any more time debating a six-sentence throwaway passage from the Bible in a thread that James pretty clearly intended to be a light and humorous sidebar. There are more interesting things to discuss.(James – my apologies for the length here. I really didn't intend to write a comment so long that I ran afoul of the 4096 character limit…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Jay,You're not going to turn this into a discussion of my standard of judging good and bad. This is all about you, kiddo. Fine, but on my worldview, moral good and bad are determined by the standard of the God of the Bible. So since you're casting the terms of the debate as MY worldview, then we don't have anything else to talk about.Let me know if you change your mind.if the act is objectively good, then it's good. Period. You say it's all about me, but then you incorporate YOUR views into the issue. You're talking out of both sides of your mouth.And this is not at all what the Bible tells us about God. My views, remember? Besides, do you send your child to time-out or sthg for stealing cookies? But your friend comes over and swipes a couple of Oreos; do you send HIM to time-out? 1) ”Jeering” does not connote a threat. I've already explained the events. Make your case.You didn't do any exegesis either. What you did was eisegesis – you read your own biases into the text. Assertion noted. Now all you need is an argument.Talk to you later.Peace,Rhology

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    (Again, I’m going to have to split my response to get around the comment length limit.)Rhology -The irony of you squirming around trying to make the Bible say something it doesn't while I push on you to take the words at their face value is not lost on me. Since you seem bound and determined to avoid any substantive discussion and seem to prefer arguing your points (such as they are) by bald assertion, I guess I’ll have to do your homework for you. Now, in the 17 (give or take a couple) of translations of 2 Kings that I looked into, including the NETS version at UPenn, the overwhelming majority use terms like “small children”, “little kids”, or “small boys” to refer to the jeerers of Elisha. To wit:From NETS: (2 Kings is 4 Reigns in the NETS translation).23 And he went up from there to Baithel, and while he was going up on the way, small children also came out of the city and jeered at him and said to him, “Go up, baldhead! Go up!” 24 And he turned aside after them and saw them and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And behold, two bears came out of the wood and tore open forty-two children of them. From The Message: (I really don’t like The Message. The dumbed down language is just awful.)23 Another time, Elisha was on his way to Bethel and some little kids came out from the town and taunted him, "What's up, old baldhead! Out of our way, skinhead!" 24 Elisha turned, took one look at them, and cursed them in the name of God. Two bears charged out of the underbrush and knocked them about, ripping them limb from limb—forty-two children in all! I love this! It reads like a caption for a Scary Bible Stories coloring book. You'd need extra red crayons.The only version that even comes close to supporting your interpretation is The Amplified Bible, which includes a footnote: 23 He went up from Jericho to Bethel. On the way, young [maturing and accountable] boys came out of the city and mocked him and said to him, Go up [in a whirlwind], you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead! 24 And he turned around and looked at them and called a curse down on them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and ripped up forty-two of the boys. Footnotes: 2 Kings 2:23 This incident has long been misunderstood because the Hebrew word "naar" was translated "little boys." That these characteristic juvenile delinquents were old enough to be fully accountable is obvious from the use of the word elsewhere. For example, it was used by David of his son Solomon and translated "young and inexperienced," when Solomon was a father (I Chron. 22:5; cf. I Kings 14:21 and II Chron. 9:30 ). It was used of Joseph when he was seventeen (Gen. 37:2). In fact, not less than seventy times in the King James Version this word "naar" is translated "young man" or "young men." (Continued in next comment)

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    What does this really give you? Well, it supports the notion that the Hebrew word in question could be used in other contexts to refer to older people. It still leaves you with the (not insignificant) issue that multiple translators, working independently, render the term in this context to mean children. (Now, there’s an article at Bible.org written by a guy named J. Hampton Keathley, III. He makes essentially the same case that you do. In fact, there are enough similarities in the way he presents the material and the way that you present the material that I can’t help but wonder if you didn’t Google “Elisha bears youth” when James posted his article and crib from the first article you found that looked good.) Anyway, had you started off this discussion pointing to some sort of commentary like this, we’d be having a slightly different sort of dialogue here. (Note – I’m giving you a point here.)The issue that I mentioned is a crucial one. You’ve got to explain why, since the translators obviously knew of the alternative usages of the term, why did they elect to render it as they did? Normally, the answer to this is that something in the text, or within the likely context in which the text was written, gives the translator a clue as to which rendering makes more sense. If you want to use a different translation of a word, you’ve got to make a case for it, and that case has to be stronger than “it makes the passage softer.” You haven’t made that case, nor does Keathley. (Before you try to dismiss the context as relevant, I'd point out that you'd want to know whether someone who told you he was an engineer was an applied scientist or a train driver before you got in the cab of a locomotive with him.)It’s likewise with “jeering” – the only version that comes close to supporting your claim about the youth wishing death on Elisha is The Amplified Bible, and even then it’s ambiguous (for the same reason that telling someone to go jump in the lake is ambiguous). The other sources use “taunt” or “mock”, and don’t give us any reason to interpret such an action as physically threatening. Once again, you’ve got to explain why translators consistently select the words they do rather than words that would alter the tone of the passage, and once again you haven’t.So, at the end of all this, it appears that your interpretation of the passage in question isn’t terribly well-supported.Now, the meaty part of this is the discussion of good and bad. You keep asserting that you’re views on good and bad are determined by the standard of the God of the Bible. You want to be able to claim that whatever God does is, by definition, good, but you seem to be very uncomfortable with the implications of that because you keep trying to wriggle away from it. When you talk about God having prerogatives and insights that we don’t, you’re looking for an escape route. When you ask about kids stealing cookies, you’re looking for an escape route. But the fact of the matter is that if you’re going to either imply or explicitly claim that God is the source of some objective, ultimate standard of good and that anything God does is, perforce, good, you can’t start carving out exceptions and caveats without compromising the meanings of terms such as “objective”, “subjective”, “conditional”, “situational”, “good” and “bad”. That’s not my opinion, unless you think that I have some influence on how the English speaking world derives consensus on the definitions of words. All you’ve really done here, in the final analysis, is claim that anything that God does is good because you believe the Bible tells you that this is the case. When pushed on why you believe that the Bible is correct on that, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see you give an explanation that ultimately collapses into “because the Bible says so”, at which point you’ve closed the circle. I think we’re done.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Hi Jay,I don't know whence you get the idea that I'm "squirming". I've instead invited you on multiple occasions to tell me if this was a morally bad thing, and if so, on what basis? And since God was in control of the bears, and God is the definition of good, the bears tearing the juvenile delinquents apart was a good thing. God has the right to kill any sinner whenever He wants. It's by His mercy that we draw each breath, actually; we don't deserve anythg good from Him.it supports the notion that the Hebrew word in question could be used in other contexts to refer to older people Precisely. Thank you. With or w/o doing homework (which I've already done in the past to know about this word), I was right. Again, not that it matters to my main point, but to a smaller one.multiple translators Haha, and you cited The Message. You crack me up, man. What matters is the meaning in Hebrew, as I'm sure you're aware. Again, I've already explained the surrounding context. You continue to refuse to interact with it, so there's little left to be said here.(Note – I’m giving you a point here.)Noted.since the translators obviously knew of the alternative usages of the term, why did they elect to render it as they did? I would ask them.You want to be able to claim that whatever God does is, by definition, good, but you seem to be very uncomfortable with the implications of that because you keep trying to wriggle away from it. You're projecting onto me. I'm not uncomfy at all with the implication. God has every right to kill anyone whenever He wants. If you're looking for some "reprehensible" instance of God putting 3-year-olds to death or something, there are plenty of better places in the Bible to go. But you'd still have the task of informing us all about your standard for telling good and bad apart.That’s not my opinion, unless you think that I have some influence on how the English speaking world derives consensus on the definitions of words. 1) "Consensus" is meaningless w/o supporting facts. Where's your argument?2) Maybe you could ask me to clarify what I mean if you don't understand when I say "objective". You didn't ask, but here's what I mean.claim that anything that God does is good because you believe the Bible tells you that this is the case. Precisely. That is my fundamental presupposition. Perhaps you'd be so kind as to answer the question I've now posed you at least 3 times – account for your moral standard.And yes, we are done if you refuse to actually engage the topic at hand.Peace,Rhology

  • Anonymous

    It's just amazing to watch people try to excuse this kind of violent retribution as somehow self defense against some kind of gang of “thugs”. Sorry, this just isn’t in the Bible. The two Hebrew words together are quite reasonably translated as “little children” by the KJV. Young’s Literal Translation puts it clearly as “little youths”. The point is that this story reflects the primitive, war-like mentality of the writers of the Hebrew Bible, but would not be truly illustrative of a perfectly good deity. The Bible is clear that Yahweh is a “man of war” who is vindictive and vengeful on a consistent basis. Having little youths torn apart for taunting a prophet of Yahweh is not out of character at all. Christian apologists are capable of twisting scripture almost out of recognition in order to defend their faith and there is no exception here. I’ve had many a conversation where Christians will defend as morally correct the murder of gay men due to nothing more than the laws of Yahweh decreeing it under ancient Hebrew law. I’m glad people like Paul Farrell have had the courage to illustrate what’s really in the “holy book”. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth checking out. The story of Elisha and the Bears isn’t close to the worst. When you put them all together, you’re forced to really think about what you’ve been sold from the pulpit for the last two thousand years.

  • Anonymous

    Rhology, I’d like to know how you judge these things as ‘good’. You say others can’t judge them as immoral but I don’t see you using a standard by which to judge such actions as good. In the final analysis its YOU personally who has decided that mauling to death 42 little youths is morally good. It’s YOU who personally decided that ordering the murder of gay people was just fine at one time. Where’s your “standard” that shows that is good. And if your standard is simply “the bible is right” then tell me what Yahweh could have done in the Bible that was so horrific that you would question his moral character. If you can’t come up with anything, then you are guilty of circular reasoning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Hi Anonymous,I wasn't excusing anything. What I am saying is that God has the right and prerogative to put any sinner to death at any time, b/c sin's penalty is death. It's by God's mercy that we live every second we live.The point is that this story reflects the primitive, war-like mentality of the writers of the Hebrew Bible, but would not be truly illustrative of a perfectly good deity. Prove that this would not be illustrative of a perfectly good deity. By what standard do you judge?I’ve had many a conversation where Christians will defend as morally correct the murder of gay men due to nothing more than the laws of Yahweh decreeing it under ancient Hebrew law. As if "Christians" with whom you've talked and their misunderstandings of OT Law are to be our basis for rejecting the Bible! They didn't understand the role of the OT Law, or the application. Next time you talk to one, point them here.When you put them all together, you’re forced to really think about what you’ve been sold from the pulpit for the last two thousand years. Unless you have a faithful pastor who preaches all of it. Or you have the guts to actually read it for yourself and ask yourself critical questions, like the ones I'm asking you now, such as where you, a mere man, get off passing judgment on God.Another (or the same) Anonymous,I don't judge them as good OR bad. I *recognise* them as bad by comparison with the fixed standard of God's righteousness.Others can't judge them as immoral until they provide a standard by which they can judge, THEN we can talk about whether that standard is reasonable or sufficient. But if you can't even get past Step 1…And if your standard is simply “the bible is right” then tell me what Yahweh could have done in the Bible that was so horrific that you would question his moral character. I don't really understand the question. "Could have done" doesn't apply to a fixed and well-known document like the Bible. It's not like the content is going to change.But to take the spirit of the badly-stated hypothetical, nothing would make me question His moral character. Why? B/c I've found no other sufficient objective moral standard by which I could label anything "good" or "bad". If you have an alternative, by all means, propose away and we'll talk.Peace,Rhology

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Rhology, thanks for the reply to those who addressed you anonymously. As for me, I still don't see how you can say that you judge what is in the stories by God's absolute standard, and then when asked what God's absolute standard is, point to the text(s) in question. It seems to me potentially circular, or at least as arbitrary as any of the other approaches that you dismiss for "not offering a ground for absolute morality". At best, it defers the issue to an earlier presupposition, namely your assumption that the Bible gives us access to God's absolute moral standard, rather than ancient Israel's beliefs about God's moral standard.All that being said, even if it turned out to be the case that your worldview allows one to believe in absolute morality in a coherent way, that still wouldn't constitute proof that there is absolute morality, much less that the specific texts and/or beliefs about God that you appeal to are the right ones for grounding absolute morality. If it turns out that all those who have objected to you are really just saying "I find this story objectionable from the purely subjective standpoint of my individual moral intuition", how would you go about trying to persuade them not only that your viewpoint allows for absolute morality, but that there really is such a thing as absolute morality? As I've said before, simply saying that "God's view of X is that it is immoral" seems to be a statement of what is, and still doesn't get us to ought.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Hi Dr McGrath!You're welcome. One wishes anonymous posters would at least post under a name so we could tell them apart. Ain't gonna happen, I fear.I still don't see how you can say that you judge what is in the stories by God's absolute standard, and then when asked what God's absolute standard is, point to the text(s) in question. Well, I don't think I'm pointing back to the psg in 2 Kings and saying, "See? God is good. Says so right there!" I mean, it *doesn't* say so right there, haha. Says so elsewhere. There's plenty of testimony to the effect of God's immutability, transcendence, and ultimacy in the Bible. That's what I'm alluding to.It seems to me potentially circular…it defers the issue to an earlier presupposition, namely your assumption that the Bible gives us access to God's absolute moral standard Actually, I'd agree – it IS circular. But not viciously so, b/c when we're talking about ultimate standards like this and presuppositions, it's all going to be circular. The question then becomes about the nature and consistency and sufficiency of the ultimate standard. For example, many atheists like to use "empathy" as the basis for morality. But that is insufficient in its circularity, mostly b/c empathy in itself carries no moral obligation, no 'ought'-ness. And it provides no guidance at all b/c everyone wants different things, so my empathy leads me to act 100% differently than Jeffrey Dahmer's. your worldview allows one to believe in absolute morality in a coherent way, that still wouldn't constitute proof that there is absolute morality True. Wow, we agree again! :-) It's a good day. Three things in response:1) This is mostly an internal critique on my part performed on the worldview of critics, not really an apologetic for my position.2) I keep asking for an alternative way to understand morality and account for it, and no alternative has ever stood up to scrutiny. So I'm still waiting for the real challenger.3) These critics, who demonstrably have no reason to "be nice", yet live "nice" lives though they have no reason to. And what does that add up to? Usually their ethic is an almost exact imitation of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Why is that? They have no morality of their own, and so they borrow from the true worldview just where they need to and then throw rocks at it the rest of the time. It's total depravity in full display. (And yes, I've been there myself in the past; I used to be an atheist. I thank God for saving me out of it.)you are really just saying "I find this story objectionable from the purely subjective standpoint of my individual moral intuition", how would you go about trying to persuade them not only that your viewpoint allows for absolute morality, but that there really is such a thing as absolute morality? Mostly I start by pointing them to the fundamental absurdity of a worldview without objective morality. Here's an example.simply saying that "God's view of X is that it is immoral" seems to be a statement of what is, and still doesn't get us to ought. If you think about it enough, it does get there. 1) We're obligated by a universal law to act in way X and eschew way non-X.2) If we disobey, we're unfailingly punished, with a horrible punishment.3) Way X is objectively good. Way non-X is objectively bad.4) The penalty for our wholesale disobedience cost the life of the most innocent and best man who ever lived – Jesus. It doesn't get any more 'ought'-y than that. Peace,Rhology

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Just a quick question with regard to your last point. It might be possible, if one accepts your argument and presuppositions, to claim that it is objectively true that God will punish people who have done X. But it doesn't seem to me that that is the same thing as saying "X is objectively wrong".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15643595412184843553 Jason Hughes

    "Usually their ethic is an almost exact imitation of the Judeo-Christian ethic."Would someone with better writing skills than I please correct Rho?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    This isn't intended as a correction (sorry Jason!) but as a question: If we examine and compare societies around the world with a strong Christian heritage of this or that sort, and others with a very different heritage, might we not find that the ethical assumptions and instincts of religious believers and the non-religious in most human societies share many of the same ethical assumptions and instincts? If so, that might suggest that the reason has something to do with biology rather than any particular ideology and its influence. Not all Christians would have a problem with that – traditions that have explored concepts like natural law and conscience might in fact be encouraged to find that there is an "objective morality" encoded in creation, as it were. But that might at the same time suggest that objective morality seems that way because we are hard-wired to treat our moral convictions in that way, and such a viewpoint is also compatible with non-religious viewpoints.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Dr McGrath,Well, that's why I made it a list. I wasn't equating "you will be punished" with "this is objectively wrong". Rather, the two work hand in hand (with the other points) to create, if you will, the 'ought'-value. And my point is not that the ethics will be similar in diff societies. Although, generally, they are – one protects one's babies rather than eating them, in general. One usually thinks it's not OK to murder one's neighbor for no cause at all. One usually thinks it's wrong to steal one's neighbor's wife. Etc. That doesn't mean no one does that, but whether it carries shame attached, or whether one has to reduce one's neighbor to sub-human status before committing the deed, etc. But these modern Western skeptics who like to post in comboxes, they usually DO hold pretty close to the Judeo-Xtian ethic. So I have to ask: Why? But that might at the same time suggest that objective morality seems that way because we are hard-wired to treat our moral convictions in that way Let's say I grant that. Where's the 'ought'?

  • Roger

    Hi Rhology, Sorry, I was using “anonymous” because I’m not sure how to get a name beside my post. Anyway, some points of observation about your responses:Rhology: “Prove that this would not be illustrative of a perfectly good deity. By what standard do you judge?”By my understanding of human suffering. I don’t see why I need more. Rhology: “They didn't understand the role of the OT Law, or the application. Next time you talk to one, point them here.”Sorry, Rho, this isn’t good enough. I read your article and it basically says that back then it was a theorcracy so therefore killing homosexuals was ok. I don’t see how that makes the murder of gay people the right thing to do. How is this argument different from the argument the Taliban would make? They could easily make the same argument that they are a theocracy and truly following the precepts of their god. Further, from the article:““No explicit condemnation exists until the Mosaic Law (though it was obviously known to be wicked before), and the punishment is execution.”But how do you know homosexuality is wicked? Do you have any rational argument for this or do you only have “the Bible says do”?Rhology: “I don't judge them as good OR bad. I *recognise* them as bad by comparison with the fixed standard of God's righteousness”Oh no you don’t. This is a semantic trick. I could just as easily say that I “recognize” homosexuality as a natural occurrence in human nature and therefore under no circumstances would it be morally correct to murder them. And all you’ve done here is claim that you “recognize” that Yahweh’s laws are correct. But you are ascribing to yourself divine powers that you don’t have. You are only choosing to say that the moral laws of the Bible are correct. Muslims could just as easily say that genital mutilation is condoned in the Hadith, therefore they don’t “decide” this is correct, but they “recognize” that Allah has given his approval of this barbarous practice. You can’t have it both ways. Rhology: “But to take the spirit of the badly-stated hypothetical, nothing would make me question His moral character. Why? B/c I've found no other sufficient objective moral standard by which I could label anything "good" or "bad". If you have an alternative, by all means, propose away and we'll talk..”Actually it wasn’t “badly-stated”. Going by the positions you have taken, then if Yahweh ordered child sacrifice, this would be morally correct because everything he does is good. And before you say that if this was in the Bible you wouldn’t be a Christian, remember ordering the murder of gay people and the slaughter of babies and children IS in there and even that doesn’t stop you.Ultimately it’s YOU and YOU alone who as made the judgment and determination that the precepts of the Bible are morally correct. You have not been visited by a god and have not had the world explained to you by a god. You’re in the same boat as the rest of us and have made the decision that at one time it was morally correct to murder gay people. That’s your own personal assessment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Hi Roger,Thanks for getting a name on there! :-) By my understanding of human suffering. I don’t see why I need more. I dispute that human suffering is obviously a moral evil. Now, prove me wrong.I read your article and it basically says that back then it was a theorcracy so therefore killing homosexuals was ok. Well, close. It was a theocracy under the direct command of God. Theoretically, God could (I'm not sure how, but I'm sure He could think of something) reveal that everyone is obligated to kill homosexuals now, and it would be morally right. Now, He's not going to do that b/c the New Testament is His complete revelation, but I'm just saying – God is the standard, not what you, a bunch of people, or I think.How is this argument different from the argument the Taliban would make? Well, the Taliban are an evil gov't b/c they do not worship God nor acknowledge His lordship.But if you're looking at Romans 13, they have the right to make certain laws as they see fit. If they want to execute homosexuals, that's their prerogative. Now, if I lived in Afgh, I'd protect homosexuals and tell them about Jesus and tell them to repent, but the Taliban was the gov't.They could easily make the same argument that they are a theocracy and truly following the precepts of their god. Well, sure, but their god is a false one. And that makes a pretty big difference.But how do you know homosexuality is wicked? Do you have any rational argument for this or do you only have “the Bible says do”? God has said so, numerous times. I'd like you to explain, since you said this, to explain what rational argument would be stronger than the word of an omniscient Being Who never lies. (See Hebrews 6:13.) I could just as easily say that I “recognize” homosexuality as a natural occurrence in human nature and therefore under no circumstances would it be morally correct to murder them. You've made a category error. What about its being a natural occurrence carries any moral value? Muslims could just as easily say that genital mutilation is condoned in the Hadith, therefore they don’t “decide” this is correct, but they “recognize” that Allah has given his approval of this barbarous practice. You can’t have it both ways. I don't have it both ways. If Allah were God, then the story would be very different. But, he's not, so… it's not.Going by the positions you have taken, then if Yahweh ordered child sacrifice, this would be morally correct because everything he does is good. Correct. And all you've said in response is, "Well, that would entail suffering, and [I feel] suffering is bad." But I don't accept Roger-as-moral-standard. Maybe you could enlighten us all.You have not been visited by a god and have not had the world explained to you by a god. Prove it.Peace,Rhology

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Rhology, I think you've hit on the crux of why I find your views unpersuasive. You said that you can't think of how God might reveal today that he wants homosexuals killed, and yet you are certain that this was clearly revealed by God in the past (and presumably you also believe it was revealed that Christians today should not do this).It seems to me that you are ignoring the fact that just as there would be debates if someone claimed to speak for God today (and you clearly dispute even the claims some, i.e. Muslims, who claim to worship the same God that Jews and Christians worship), so too there were disputes about what to regard as Scripture down the centuries in both Christianity and Judaism. My own views are shaped by the fact that I don't think one can have greater certainty that God revealed himself in the past than we could have in the case of divine revelation in the present. If claims of miracles and the like which are made in the present are not beyond doubt, how can we hope that the evidence for miracles supposedly confirming divine revelation in the past could have greater certainty?The word verification, BTW, was "pastor". Miracle?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Dr McGrath,Well, that touches on questions of revelation and meta-revelation. But I think that it will become clearer if you spend some time thinking about how God has revealed Himself to diff groups of ppl over time.There were some debates, yes, but not all that many, really. Surely you're not going to suggest à la Dan Brown that some big Council, backed by an emperor, strongarmed the Canon into existence? There's a reason why a Canon formed in the way it did. Debates, sure, but not huge ones. Or at least not until the 16th cent when the Co of Trent decided to add the DeuteroCanonicals.I don't think one can have greater certainty that God revealed himself in the past than we could have in the case of divine revelation in the present. I'd say that's b/c you haven't sufficiently considered the consequences for epistemology if God has not spoken clearly.Peace,Rhology

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I just argued against Dan Brown in my class today, interestingly enough. The issue is that the process of canon formation is messier, not more straightforward, than Brown imagines. The Book of Revelation was still being debated in the 9th century, when the Patriarch of Constantinople still didn't include it in his list of canonical works. It was a process which involved a core of works that were universally accepted relatively quickly and an extensive ongoing debate about a handful of specific texts.Please don't try to argue again that God must have spoken clearly, otherwise we can't be absolutely certain about anything. Even if that's true, it doesn't prove that God has spoken clearly, just that it could have been advantageous if he had.My point remains. You don't have any clear idea of how God would reveal something today, but you're sure God did so in the past. I still find that problematic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    I guess questionable messiness is in the eye of the beholder. Sure, a few ppl didn't add this book here or there, but the fact that they stand out a bit tells me alot.But good for you for powdering Brown. He's pretty laughable in his passive-aggressive pretentiousness.I remain convinced of my proposition about God and His communication. If He hasn't spoken clearly and my point is correct (which it is), the fact that you ARE communicating should lead one to the right conclusion. If you choose to stand on the Christian stage and deny Christianity while borrowing Christian bases for epistemology, that's your problem. But don't you claim to be a Christian, anyway? What's your beef with my position?You don't have any clear idea of how God would reveal something today Only b/c He's already done sufficient revealing for what He says He wants to accomplish. B/c of what He's already said, there's no reason to expect any other similar revelation until the Parousia.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    They stand out with the benefit of hindsight, but the Eastern churches largely agreed, for the first half a millenium of Christianity's existence, on not accepting Revelation. Because it was accepted so late, it's the only book in the New Testament that doesn't feature liturgically.Your claim that we should not expect further revelation is dubious for two reasons. First, unless God revealed what should be in the Bible (it doesn't come with a table of contents), then presumably we'd have inerrant texts but no way of knowing for sure which ones they are. Second, the Bible mentions prophets in Corinth and elsewhere whose words were not recorded, and there's no reason to think that the early Christians expected prophecy and thus revelation to cease before the eschaton.But I return to my point. How do you know when and where God has spoken clearly?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    The Canon is an artifact of revelation. God revealed some books, not all books, and so I see no reason to think He wouldn't also guide His people to come to an understanding of what those books are. He apparently decided to do that in a subtle, gradual way. there's no reason to think that the early Christians expected prophecy and thus revelation to cease before the eschaton. There's plenty of reason. The prophets you mention were still in operation during times of inscripturation, while spectacular gifts like that were still being given. But apostle is listed as a spiritual gift, and there aren't any more apostles! Nor are there any prophets – nobody gets prophecies right 100% of the time, which is the standard. Nobody's going around healing ppl with 100% success rate like the apostles and Jesus. Paul commits the Ephesian elders to "God and the word of His grace" in Acts 20, not to prophets or ongoing revelation.Paul tells Timothy to hold fast to…the Scripture in 2 Tim 3:16, surrounding that with references to how bad it's going to get for true blvrs and especially pastors like Timothy. No reference to prophets. In fact, NOwhere in the NT do we find any referral to ongoing prophecy. Also, many ppl (though I'm not necessarily among them) believe the reference to the perfect that comes and at whose coming the imperfect disappears in 1 Cor 13 is a reference to prophecies and tongues passing away when the NT is given. Anyway, I've already told you. God speaks clearly in His Word. I know that b/c of the impossibility of the contrary, b/c of the testimony of the Holy Spirit in my spirit, b/c of the evidences of its inspiration, b/c of Christ's commissioning of the apostles, and b/c of the attesting miracles surrounding their ministry.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I'd like to see you try to make an even halfway persuasive case that in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul alluded vaguely, using the designation "that which is perfect", to a collection of writings including the one he was then dictating. It is a common viewpoint, but has no justification whatsoever in the text, or in anything other than the desire to eliminate any need to deal with the messiness or prophecy in the present.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    You'd probably have to ask someone who thinks the charge sticks. I specifically said I didn't find it all that persuasive, and instead made other points.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    No prophet gets things right 100% of the time.Just extrapolate from present-day experience to the past, and you've arrived at my position! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Did Jesus get things 100% right?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    It is far from obvious that his predictions were right 100% of the time. If one is not committed to his always having been right in advance, then things like the prediction that some standing there would not taste death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power, that that generation would not pass away until it saw the fulfillment of all he predicted (although Mark 13 is arguably a literary construct, and so this relates less to the historical Jesus than to Jesus as depicted in Mark), that all twelve of his disciples would sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel, all seem problematic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00160881512505096044 Mike Bull

    GollyJust came across this old post. No offense, but it seems to me you guys are making light of things you don't really understand. I have some potential answers to some things raised in both the post and the comments:On Elisha:http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/04/08/elishas-short-fuse/On "That Which Is Perfect":http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/08/31/that-which-is-perfect/On the disciples' twelve thrones":http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/04/10/twelve-thrones/Hope these are helpful or at least interesting.CheersMike Bull


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