Have you ever been asked to cite your favorite bible verse? Rozann Carter has. But, in throwing out the conversation stopper that is 2 Kings 2:23-25, she has discovered that there is more to that passage than meets the eye... or descends from the woods. Rozann reminds us not to miss the forest for the she-bears.
A reading from the Second Book of Kings.
“From there, Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. ‘Go up, baldhead,’ they shouted, ‘go up, baldhead!’ The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces. From there, he went to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria.”
The Word of the Lord.
Wait a minute.
The Word of the Lord? Our Lord? How is this series of verses—featuring the comical insult “baldhead,” a holy prophet cursing small children for a seemingly innocuous affront to his physical appearance, a pack of rabid she-bears, and a final return to casual, whistling normalcy strolling through the surrounding lands of Mount Carmel— how is this a valid passage in the written account of salvation history? How did it get past centuries of scribes and canon-compilers? What could God possibly have been attempting to convey in this pericope, hidden within the otherwise coherent text of Second Kings? Ah, but there it is. 2 Kings 2: 23-25— a legitimate verse in sacred canon, compiled and propagated under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This is one of several biblical passages that are not readily resourced when seeking handy proof texts for God’s goodness. These verses maintain an air of mystery, inciting interpretation and re-interpretation from biblical scholars and casual readers, often in an attempt to make them palatable to our sensibilities regarding the Divine. How could this divine action fit into what we know about God?
To be sure, scripture often (in fact, almost always) contains far more than meets the eye. Father Barron has offered numerous commentaries on the fact that the texts of the Bible are not always meant to be received within a fundamentalist/literalist perspective. The books and passages are part of a library of literary genres and should be unpacked as such. Above all, they must be approached not with a juvenile demand to be fed with certitude and immediate edification, but with the humble willingness to seek out the meaning at the time when the ink was wet and to glean applicable insights from the original context.
The study and exegesis of Scripture, like any worthwhile intellectual pursuit, calls for seriousness and discipline, but it is not without reward. Biblical scholarship and conscientious exegesis yields applicable truths for the spiritual life in every age. Themes related to Elisha’s role as prophet, to the Lord’s commissioning of this prophet to carry his message to an idolatrous land, to the messenger’s baldness, to the stark consequences of mocking the Divine and placing oneself outside of his protection all can be identified, interpreted and re-applied to the next generation of biblical readers. But the question remains: despite symbolic, analogical explanations, why would God convey a series of truths regarding fidelity by means of she-bears tearing ornery young boys to pieces?
We fumble over various attempts at dismissing, leveling, smoothing over the prickly parts and de-mystifying the mysterious, employing our analogical skills in order to squeeze the message into the narrow framework of our certain understanding. We start with what we grasp and work backward, and while this is the default mode for scholarship, to approach the Bible with the goal of moving toward an ever-greater number of quantifiable bits of understanding, we lose the great possibility of gaining vision, of encountering the Great Mystery that cannot be grasped or known. By moving in this way, we forfeit the beauty and transformative power of being a humble receptacle for the mystery of divinity.
Flannery O’Connor, in her short essay entitled “The Fiction Writer & His Country,” speaks about the task of the fiction writer, especially the Christian fiction writer, in presenting a concept that will encompass the reader in transformative mystery:
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
2 Kings 2:23-25 could well be the prototype of O’Conner’s discourse on method, a prototype that speaks across time to an audience incapable of recognizing “repugnant distortions” of life-as-intended, whose mocking children and angry she-bears stand as “large and startling figures,” shocking the reader into an understanding of the importance of fidelity and right relationship vis-à-vis the mysterious Lord who reveals himself as he chooses.
Flannery O’Connor intuits correctly that the revelation of the scriptures cannot be reduced to a set of graspable principles. That reduction produces “a soggy, formless, and sentimental literature, one that will provide a sense of spiritual purpose for those who connect the spirit with romanticism and a sense of joy for those who confuse virtue with satisfaction.”
If Divinity’s collision with humanity is anything, it is certainly not romanticism and mere satisfaction. Our spiritual purpose is never properly understood separate from our humble submission to the unknowable God—on His terms. If we need she-bears to reveal this peculiarity, let them be called out of the woods.
Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. (If there are "large and startling figures" and/or misplaced italics on this webpage, it is her doing. Don't judge, she is channeling Flannery.)