October 7th, 2016

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Elisha and the Bears: A Parable for The Unexpected Power To Harm

Some may be familiar with the story of Elisha, the student and successor to Elijah. There is a short reference to a disturbing incident that is one of the most misunderstood parables in the Bible -- the story of Elisha and the bears. (I shall follow the Rabbinic dictum that the incident with the bears did not literally happen but was a prophetic vision, but this works just as well if we hold that the story is literally true) (or, if you don't believe in the veracity of the Bible, that the author intends the text as actual part of the timeline and not as a vision).

The text on this is extremely terse, which is common to the Biblical style. In fact, it takes a mere two sentences in the text. Kings 2 Chapter 2 v. 23-24. To quote in full:

23. And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Beth-el; and as he was going up by the way, there came forth children* out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him: 'Go up, thou baldhead; go up, thou baldhead.' 24. And he [Elisha] 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.

*the Hebrew word "Na'arim" (singular=na'ar) is hard to translate to get the right connotation wrt age. It can mean anything from young children to early teenage years (e.g., Gen. 21:12, where the teenage Ishamel is refered to as a "na'ar).

That seems rather grusome and disproportionate, especiall when view as a pure translation without either textual or cultural context. Below, I give an explanation that ties into the idea of the season of repentance and understanding that our ungaurded speech, even when provoked, may unintentionally cause others terrible harm. Hence we must work to control our temper, gaurd our conduct and our speech, and always bear in mind the potential unintended harm we may do if we act in careless anger.

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In our age of social media in particular, we can see again the power of speech. We can use social media to help people. We can use it to make people feel miserable, calling forth with our words mobs of Internet trolls to rend people apart (whether we mean to summon a mob or not, our words have power). We can use social media to try to educate or even to rebuke in a useful way. And we can use social media to try to coerce others to do what we think is right -- whether they actually agree with us or not. We are all potentially Elijah on Mt Carmel, or Elisha purifying the spring of Jericho. But we are all also, if we do not use our power wisely, Elisha and the bears.