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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Elisha and the bears: A Scary Story as a Scare Story?

Thought-provoking article by the Center for Inquiry.  Melachim Beth, Perek 2 (Kings II chapter 2) contains a most gory and disturbing story, featuring the mystical figure Elisha.

 Mechon Mamre translates it as follows:

23 And he (Elisha - ed) 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 baldhead; go up, thou baldhead.' 24 And he looked behind him and saw them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them. 25 And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.

Some extracts from the CFI post:

“It is not that there is nothing for the poor preacher to say about the passage. As we will see momentarily, there is in fact much to say. It’s just that there’s nothing good , nothing edifying or uplifting, to say about it. It goes so far in the other direction that any moral lesson a preacher may try to hang on it will seem so preposterous, so far-fetched, that few will risk the embarrassment.”

Indeed, so why did they include this horrific story in the Bible?

As we now read it, the story of Elisha and the Bears is a prime example of a “cautionary tale,” a scare story told in order to keep the intimidated listeners in their place—as defined by their rulers. Other such biblical scare stories include that of the expulsion from Eden in Genesis chapter 3 (how dare mere mortals covet the knowledge that belongs to God—and his priests—alone?), the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 (again, it discourages inventive autonomy), Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6-11) getting zapped for steadying the Ark of the Covenant without ritual preparation (“Men, don’t let this happen to you!”)…

I think the author forgot the Korach story here, by the way.  It concludes:

 These are all religious boundary markers, warning people not to envy their betters lest God smite them, not to help themselves to the privileges inherited by the sacred aristocracy. ..

…Whenever the lower castes’ envy of the upper castes’ privileges threatens to boil over again, these cautionary tales will be trotted out to remind people (albeit in a somewhat disguised form) of the massive violence from which order once emerged and into which it could collapse again. Is it worth risking the return to Chaos and Old Night? Ah… maybe not.

I nevertheless wonder how the apologetic rationalized this story away…


  1. > I nevertheless wonder how the apologetic rationalized this story away

    The kids had it coming. Who are you to question a Navi? ;)

    Also, it doesn't say "children," it says "youths." Think inner-city teenage gangs. If a gang started taunting you, a rampaging bear would be real handy.

    As long as we're being apologetic.

  2. Don't some of the commentators actually criticize Elisha for overreacting? Still, even if you blame Elisha, it doesn't really get God off the hook for sending the bears.

  3. G3: Are you the other half of a MPD JP? ;)

    Anonymous: I surely hope they criticized him! And while they were at it, they could also bash Him.

  4. The story is fully consistent with the traditional Jewish concept of God. Every sin is punished and the punishment is always big.


  5. I always thought that kids under 20 are no bar onshin? Besides, was this a crime punishable by death? Get real, JP!

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  7. "I always thought that kids under 20 are no bar onshin?"

    This may not have been an actual punishment.

    Death before age twenty is to teach the parents and ancestors. Between age thirteen and twenty, death is for the benefit of the child. Hashem himself has prevented future errors, and left the child innocent and righteous. This is not considered a punishment at all, for the main life remains for the world-to-come.


    "was this a crime punishable by death"

    Ridiculing a Torah scholar probably would be. It doesn't take much:


    Shabbath 31b


  8. JP: I think that the likes of Aish can just be really happy not to have you do kiruv seminars. What happened to that good ol' deracheiha darchei noam, 13 middos, being mishtatef midas hadin and midas horachamim?

    If kids are killed in order to teach their parents a lesson and if women are made to die during childbirth because they were not careful enough separating challah, and all rationalizations go in the direction of the made-up phantasy of 'second life, don't be surprised that the likes of me prefer to live a life where God is not an incredible sunnuvabitch.

  9. You would reject God in any case.

    If I would tell you that God is love, giving, peace, flowers, etc etc, (which I think is the evangelical Christian idea) you'd scream "What about Auschwitz?"

    If I tell you that God is jealous, angry and vengeful then you'll scream "Well, I refuse to accept an evil dictator like that - some sort of cosmic bully!"

    Bottom line - you want you're porn, your whores and your coke and whatever anyone says you'll reject God.

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  11. You still didn't answer my question. If the Torah would be true, I would've never gotten myself into the agony of living a double life. Not sure if you will understand, because you are just jealous of people who can do with their lives what they want.

    Now decide: either he is a sunnuvabitch or loving and kind or a mixture of the two.

  12. This is a new one to me "The Proof from Hypocrisy: Since I am a Hypocrite, There Is No God". Do you know what a "non sequitur" is?

    You know very well that thousands of people are and for millenia have been happily Torah observant. Judaism merely requires moderation.


  13. I don't think moderation is the problem. True or not true is. How do you know if people have been happily observant hundreds of years ago? Perhaps they just didn't have an alternative since the only other option until a few hundred years ago was converting. Besides, they didn't have the tools yet to prove that fundy OJ is wrong, now we do.

  14. "True or not true is"

    It's true.

    "the only other option until a few hundred years ago was converting"

    Same thing today. You've converted to atheism.

    "they didn't have the tools yet to prove that fundy OJ is wrong, now we do"

    Such as? Please provide one convincing proof that God does not exist and/or that evolution created us.

  15. JP: I did not 'convert' to Atheism. I disagree with you that atheism is a belief system; to me and many other it just means living without religion. Better term would perhaps be non-theism. Let's agree to disagree.

    And BTW: Who says I don't believe in (a) God?

    Proofs against OJ (no need to provide proof against God as I am not claiming to be an atheist): Eat your heart out!

    - http://sites.google.com/site/otdresources/topics
    - http://sites.google.com/site/otdresources/contradictions-in-tenach

  16. "I disagree with you that atheism is a belief system"

    Atheism is comprehensive enough to be called a religion.

    There is an Atheist Alliance International http://www.atheistalliance.org/ complete with all sorts of activities, awards, conventions, publications, etc. There is no "People Who Don't Believe in Leprechauns Alliance International". See the difference?

    I think the issues in those websites have been dealt with by the Biblical commentaries (start with Rashi) and also on my blog.


    On the other hand, atheism is clearly an evil cult.


  17. How do you define religion, JP?

    Rashi often does not provide satisfactory answers either. Example: http://sites.google.com/site/otdresources/contradictions-in-tenach/did-michal-have-children.

    Again, you accuse me being an atheist without knowing if it is true, so it makes your point well...pointless.