Feeding Unruly Boys to the Bears: The Bible’s sick sense of humor.

twobearsIn our continuing discussion of the Exile’s importance in reading the Bible in historical context, I came across this example.  My friend Robert Quiring posted a question from one of his parishioners regarding 2 Kings 2:23-24:

Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

His parishioner, for some reason, asked “What in the world do I do with this passage?”

Here’s one possibility.

The clear meaning of the text is that we have been too easy on our children.  If we want to be biblically faithful parents, we need to train some she-bears to come when we call them and apply the discipline needed:  mauling, or as another translation says, tearing the forty-two boys to bits.  Another thing we need to work on, if we would practice biblically faithful parenting, is to encourage our children to stand around and wait for the punishment they have coming instead of running away.  Obviously, if two bears are going to maul forty-two boys, the boys did not run away when the bears went after the first two; they waited their turn. It’s time we raise our boys to suppress their survival instincts and take their punishment like men.

Or, maybe we could consider that the Bible contains many different genres of stories, including gallows-humor folk tales.  Perhaps our contemporary culture’s assumption of historical accuracy in the Bible would make no sense at all to the original readers of this story. We could even read the story in its context and discern a very playful editor and writers behind this important narrative about the succession of Elijah by Elisha. They dare to be playful about a deeply important question:  When times are hard, does that mean that God has abandoned us?  Or, to put it in the specific context of the exile, the time at which most of the Old Testament was compiled, edited, transformed from oral tradition to written word, and shaped into a theological document:  When the people of God feel lost, alone, displaced, and caught in the drama of political instability, is there still a prophet in Israel?

Here’s a radical thought:  it appears that some biblical writers had a sick sense of humor.

Getting Kicked Out of Your Home

You are sitting in a worship service trying to shed the feeling of discomfort you have carried all week: a relationship gone wrong; a job you have grown to hate, some sense that this is not the life I want. I belong somewhere else.

3589329865_79936367f1You hear Scripture read. They are just words, words you have heard before without feeling anything. But today, in your sense of displacement, the ancient story or psalm resonates. Deep calls to deep and you feel as if the person who wrote those words more than 2,000 years ago had read your mind and your text messages.

If you have ever experienced that profound sense of connection with the Scripture during your own time of emotional turmoil, there is good reason. Almost all of Scripture emerged from the experience of a displaced people.

I will go so far as to say that without a clear understanding of the emotional and faith crisis that crashed down on the people of Israel with their exile to Babylon, we cannot understand the Bible at all. This brief 67 year period, from 605 B.C. to 538 B.C., generated the process of thinking, writing, gathering, and editing the lion’s share of the Old Testament. Almost every word of Jewish and Christian Scripture, Old Testament and New, tells its story on a stage with the exile in Babylon as a backdrop. Even the parts of the Bible that originated before the exile where shaped and edited during, or shortly after, the Babylonian exile.

The Babylonian exile permeates the text of the entire Old Testament. In Psalm 137, we find one of the explicit descriptions of the exile, or captivity in Babylon:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

This psalm reflects the emotional experience of Babylonian captivity, and in the next line  the psalmist poses an important theological question:

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? 

Keeping in mind the exile experience while reading the Old Testament helps us understand a struggle that may seem quite foreign to contemporary Christians. In the theology of the ancient world, different gods ruled over different lands. The nation of Israel tied itself to the land they believed God had promised them. While Israel grew into the confession that there is one God only, one Creator of everything, the more primitive view of specific gods for different plots of land still clings to the biblical text. Consider, for instance, the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). After the prophet Elisha makes it clear to Naaman that his healing of a skin disease has come from the God of Israel, Naaman says,

please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.

Naaman has been converted, but he still does not quite get the concept of a God who can be worshiped without kneeling on the mule-load of earth he would transport everywhere he went in order to take God with him.

Questions:   In your own life, do you have an exile story, i.e., a story of displacement and restoration, whether geographic or emotional?  If so, in what way, if any, does the Bible inform your own exile experience?

Next post:  Exile, continued . . .

Cheaper Than A Seminary Education! Faster Than A Masters’ Degree!

Trisha, a high school teacher who had been honored, recognized, and praised for her prowess as a teacher of American history, agreed to lead a small group of adults who wanted to read the entire Bible over the course of three years.  Trisha had grown up in the church.  She had heard and read the Bible since she was very young.  She knew where to find particular stories and could recite by heart several psalms and a large portion of the sermon on the mount and other sayings of Jesus.

“What I cannot do,” she told me, “is figure out the context of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  When I assign a document for my students to read in American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, I can describe to them the events and conflicts that led up to the writing of that document.  I can describe to them the colonial culture and the literary style Jefferson adopted.”  She held up her well-worn Bible and said.  “I know what this says, but I often have no idea why it says what it does.”

I led Trisha down the hall to the church library where we have shelves and shelves of commentaries on each book of the Bible.  “Almost everything you want to know about the Bible, you can find here in one of these commentaries.”

IMG_2912Trisha frowned.  “If I start reading now, given the pace that biblical commentaries are being published, I’ll only be three years behind after my first week.”

I allowed as to how she was right.

“What I need,” Trisha said, “Is a concise book on context.  I want a list and a brief description of the major historical events, the major cultural differences, and the literary genres of the Bible.  That would give me something to grab hold of when I stumble across some obscure passage of Scripture we have never understood before.”

While I could find excellent commentaries on particular books of the Bible, several books on history, a few on culture, and books on particular genres of the Bible (the parables of Jesus, the Psalms, and the epistles of Paul, for instance) I could find no concise guide to biblical context for small group Bible study leaders.

IMG_2913

So, here it is.

Over the next nine or ten weeks, I will post 18 (give or take a few) blog entries on the basic historical, cultural, and literary elements of biblical context.  Many of you know more about it than I do, so feel free to chime in and correct my errors, add missing essential information, or tell a story that is apropos to the subject.

I’m a pastor, not an academic, so I’m not likely to use academic jargon; if I do, call me on it.  I am writing for small group Bible study leaders, both lay and clergy, who need an easy-to-understand handbook.  I value your thoughtful comments and they will shape the content of the final product.  At the end of our 18 weeks, I will post an e-book, (free to you, dear readers) with a clear and simple description of the basic contextual elements that seminary-trained clergy use in preparing to teach or preach the Bible.  And, it is much cheaper than a seminary education.  Like I said, it will be free to you.

There are, of course, many more than six elements in each category; but, with my purpose being to create a concise handbook, I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped historical events, cultural differences, and literary genres into broader categories and left out some that would be added in a more detailed study.

Whether you are a leader of a small group Bible study, or you want to read the Bible on your own with deeper understanding, I hope this blog will provide you with contextual landmarks to help you find your way.

Next post: Six essential historical events behind the Bible’s formation–the Most Important One–What would you pick?  My choice is Babylonian Exile; the floor is open for your nominations!