The Peripatetic Preacher: Elisha, the President, and the Bad News Bears

The Peripatetic Preacher: Elisha, the President, and the Bad News Bears February 4, 2020

When Bible pooh-poohers enjoy nothing better than pointing out the numerous places in Holy Writ that are strange, bizarre, or downright repulsive, the tiny tale of Elisha and the bears is prominent among their lists. It was without any doubt a most peculiar story, devoid of traditional religious talk, and hardly number one, or even number 100, on any preacher’s nightstand for future homiletical reflection. I once challenged a class of advanced preachers to bring a sermon on 2 Kings 2:23-25, and the one student who accepted my challenge did attempt such a sermon, one that I and the whole class, including the preacher, judged unpreachable in front of any known congregation. Bible despisers may find this text fodder for scriptural assault, and few can blame them for that decision.

Of course, it is easy for those of us who love the Bible, but who are also not bound to find everything in its pages to be of equal value for faith and life, can recognize that the Elisha tales are rife with folk stories, generally remembered for their statement of the prophet’s vast power, from the magic ability to float lost ax heads on the surface of pools of water to raising the son of a desperate widow from the dead. The stories were apparently too good to forget and added immeasurably to the lore and memory of the great prophet, heir of the even greater Elijah.

Though I have no intent to recover a deeper religious meaning in this small vignette, and thus recapture it for the modern pulpit, I do find in it considerable food for thought when the story is evaluated precisely as that, namely as a story. It carries a special resonance in this particular time in our American lives in the 21st century, most especially in our fractured political lives. I write this essay just after the Iowa caucuses have kicked off the seemingly interminable slog to the presidency in November, though unfortunately, due to multiple unforeseen glitches, the results of the caucuses have still not been revealed to the public. This day, Feb.4, also happens to be the day when President Trump delivers his third State of the Union address to a joint session of congress, that same congress that will, probably tomorrow, acquit the president of the two counts of impeachment brought against him by a completely divided House of Representatives. An equally divided Senate will acquit him, though several Republican Senators have said publically that they think he is guilty of the charges assessed; they still will vote No, because some say that those charges do not rise to the level of removal from office, while one even says that removal, which indeed may be justified, will so damage the country that he will still vote against it. However fractured such an argument may be, come Thursday, President Trump will still be president, and the twisted road of impeachment will end.

I will not add to the confusion of the past few months concerning impeachment by weighing in on whether Trump should be found guilty, though I am inclined to think that he has disparaged his office so egregiously for his own personal and political gain that guilt appears overwhelming to me. Putting that discussion to one side, I am more interested today in the basic character of the current occupant of the White House as it is reflected in the light of the story of Elisha and the bears. There is something very familiar about Elisha’s reaction in the tale to the ways Mr. Trump has reacted, quite publically, while he has been president. I imagine this part of Trump’s personality has long been evident, but I am only interested in what I have witnessed since his election in 2016.

“He (Elisha) went up from there to Bethel (from Jericho, according to the story that precedes this one at 2 Kings 2:19-22); while he was going on his way, some small boys came out of the city and mocked him, saying, ‘Go away, baldy; go away, baldy’” (2 Kings 2:23)! According to the context of the story, Elisha has just come from his assumption of the mantle, both physically and prophetically, of Elijah, and has proven his prowess by sweetening the waters of Jericho by means of a magic bowl of salt water (2 Kings 2:13-22). Believing himself to be the new great prophet in the land, and showing by prophetic deed that his belief is true, one can imagine that the very last thing Elisha would expect was a mob of jeering kids, pointing out that he is hair-challenged! If one is convinced that all power is in his hands, having some lesser persons laugh at one’s appearance is perhaps bound to make one furious.

Over and again, Donald Trump, convinced of his uniqueness and possessed of singular greatness of intellect and wisdom, has no patience with anyone who might question who he presents himself to be. Hence, he is always “the fittest president ever,” and the best clothed with the most carefully arranged hair-do ever seen. To be sure, the 73-year old president, is very careful with his hair, and rarely appears in public without a rather dark tanning lotion on his face, and almost never with an orange hair out of place. Anyone who might dare to question his appearance, particularly his hair, is soon an object of scorn and derision from this president.

And so it is with Elisha. There are any number of ways that a great personage might respond to the jeering attack of “small boys” (the text goes out of its way to show that these boys are decidedly small ones, not just “boys,” employing a word usually describing children under the age of ten, but they are “small boys,” an adjective making their ages rather more like five or six). Elisha might simply walk on, and not take such 1stgrade ridicule with any seriousness at all. Or, he might gently admonish them that they should not speak of their elders, and their betters, with such scorn, as adults often do with children who say things without thought. Instead, the mighty prophet does something unimaginable. “When he turned around, he saw them, and cursed them in the name of YHWH. And two she bears came out of the forest, and mauled forty-two of the boys” (2 Kings 2:24). In response to a taunt about his hair from several small boys, Elisha curses them in the name of YHWH, and two bears proceed to maul a large number of the jeering little mob.

Is Elisha so thin-skinned that he felt he needed to invoke the name of his God in a curse and on top of that to bring two powerful creatures out of the woods to teach the little squirts a lesson? It makes one wonder whether or not Elisha is fully convinced that he really is a called prophet of YHWH. Or it may be that perhaps his ego is so small that he feels he must get even for the tiniest of slights from the tiniest of persons.

Is this not precisely how our current president acts in the face of any perceived criticism. “Get mad and get even,” is his way in the world, and any number of detractors have felt the Trumpian wrath for the smallest of criticisms. “Crooked Hillary,” Shifty Schiff,” “Sleepy Joe,” and on and on, the president relishes his grade-school name games against any who dare question his actions, his motives, and his plans. He brings rhetorical bears from his forest in the attempt to maul his opponents, imagining that all who are not fully with him are in fact his enemies and must be reduced to objects of hatred and rhetorical hash. It appears all too clear to me that President Donald Trump is Elisha at Bethel, responding to any criticism with fury and disdain. One would need to peer deep into our American presidential history to discover anything like the enraged responses that Trump tweets and mouths, especially at his mass rallies, against those he deems his foes. I think it is unprecedented; there is exactly no president who exhibits the rancor and rage on display daily from this president. I find it abhorrent, unspeakable, and appalling. We do not need a scorned Elisha in our White House, but instead we need a measured, thoughtful, truly wise man or woman who is solid enough emotionally to hear criticism and disagreement without calling forth the beasts to slay them. And that, my friends, is what voting is for. No more Elishas in the White House, please!

(Images from Wikimedia Commons)


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