Violence in the Elijah and Elisha Stories

A few weeks ago, Ryan preached on the incredible story about the “contest” between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. If there is anything Elijah is known for it is this—mocking the false prophets as they flail about and even cut themselves trying to get their god’s attention, and then rebuilding the altar of the Lord, soaking the offering it in water, and then calling down fire from heaven that consumed even the very stones of the altar. “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back!” (v. 37) Awesome. Simply awesome.

And then something else happens.

“And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there” (v. 40).

The following Monday, when we got together as pastors to discuss how things went at our various campuses, one of us commented how, when Ryan read this part of the chapter, he heard a voice behind him whisper, “He killed them? What the heck?” Indeed.

Nor is this the only instance of violence that we encounter in the stories about Elijah and Elisha, even aside from that which is expected in Israel’s wars with Aram (Syria) and Moab. Two other episodes deserve special mention. The first is when Elijah calls down more fire from heaven to destroy two regimens of fifty men sent by the wayward king Ahaziah. The other is when forty-two youths are mauled by she-bears after hurling insults at Elisha. Not exactly Sunday School classics.

The Old Testament can be very violent (for that matter, so can the New!). What are we supposed to do with that? We can’t ignore it, we can’t not address it, and we can’t explain it away as “only a story.” “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). This means that at least two things are true of the entire Old Testament, including its violent passages: (1) it is breathed out by God and (2) it is profitable for the things listed here by Paul. So it is incumbent upon us to try to properly understand even the violent parts of the Bible, especially as they relate to more palatable concepts such as God’s love and compassion. We can’t close our eyes and hope they’ll go away, and if we actually engage this issue, we might just come away with a deeper understanding of God.

At the outset, we need to acknowledge the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive passages in the Bible. Descriptive passages simply describe events. Prescriptive passages, on the other hand, either implicitly or explicitly direct us to “go and do likewise.” When the Bible records instances of violence or otherwise immoral behavior, it is often merely telling us what happened, and often employs subtle (or not so subtle) ways of condemning those actions. Whenever someone claims that a given passage is recommending similar actions to the reader, strong justification must be given, especially when more straightforward passages condemn such behavior. This is always helpful, no matter what part of Scripture we are reading.

Now on to the violence.

This Is Not What Christians Should Do (and no, that’s not cherry-picking)

It is not uncommon for Christians to be accused of cherry-picking the Bible—focusing on the parts we like and avoiding those that we don’t. I’ll be the first to admit that this definitely goes on a lot in the church, especially among those of us who don’t consistently read through our Bibles. This results in a lopsided view of God and a faith that is ill-equipped to stand up to challenges and personal struggles. So let’s get it out of the way: We all need to cherry-pick less.

But are we cherry-picking when we follow the loving pattern of Jesus and the early church, rather than violent examples in the Old Testament, such as Elijah at Mount Carmel and Elisha at Bethel? (This is not to say that there are not loving parts in the Old Testament, or wrathful parts in the New.) Not at all, because the Bible itself teaches a distinction between what God was doing in the Old Testament and what he is doing in the New. Jesus’ disciples are not bound by the Old Covenant, or by the law that governed God’s people under it. When Christians eat shellfish, get tattoos, and grow cucumbers alongside asparagus and Carolina Reaper peppers, we are not doing so simply because we have chosen to ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like.

To the contrary, the reason why we do not observe these laws, or deal with idolatry the way Israel did (when it chose to deal with it), is because the Bible itself teaches us that Christians are no longer under the jurisdiction of the Law of Moses—the law that provided moral guidance for ancient Israel between twelve and fourteen hundred years before the coming of Christ. This law, which was the ethical standard for the Old Covenant, was given to govern a specific people, at a specific time, under specific circumstances, at a specific point in God’s overall plan of redemption—all of which are different than our own. According to the New Testament, Christians are under the New Covenant in Christ (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:5–6, Heb 7:22). The Old Covenant law, therefore, is not the Christian’s master; Jesus is. This is why Paul can stand as “not being myself under the law” (that is, the law of Moses), “but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:20–21). This is also why the early church, faced with the question of whether to require Gentile converts to submit to the law of Moses, had the freedom to conclude that doing so would be “putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” To the contrary, Peter contended, “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:5, 10–11).[1]

The New Covenant is “not like the covenant that [the Lord] made with [Israel’s] forefathers on the day when [he] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer 31:32). As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13; Rom 11:27). There is a legitimate biblical difference between the ethic required by those in Jesus’ kingdom and that which was required of the ancient Israelites.

Much more could be said about the relationship between Old Testament law and the Christian. For example, none of this means that Old Testament laws, such as the Ten Commandments, have no relevance for the Christian life. The principles that lie behind the letter of the law are relevant for all of God’s people at all times. Our task with these laws is to discern these principles and to let them inform our conduct in light of the coming of Christ. My point here is simply to state that it would actually be unbiblical for Christians to engage in the kind of violence found in the Old Testament laws and stories, because God’s mission for the church is different than it was for Israel. As the church, we are not a political entity with an earthly king, requiring our spiritual leaders to use military force to defend and preserve our religious life. We aren’t called to inhabit a land, but are rather called out from every land. And, unlike Israel, our spiritual well-being doesn’t stand or fall on the religious policies of any particular government.

The Importance of the First and Second Commandments

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exod 20:3–6).

How important is it for God’s people to follow these first two commandments? The way you answer this question will greatly impact what you make of the violence in the Old Testament. If you feel that the abandonment of the Lord for the worship of other gods is no big deal, then you will probably think that punishing someone for it is a gross overreaction. The problem is that, according to the Bible, following these commandments is a really big deal.

And this is really the point of the Elijah and Elisha stories. Although Israel had struggled with the worship of false gods since its inception, it is during the reign of King Ahab that this really got out of hand. Ahab had formed a marriage alliance with the city of Sidon by marrying Jezebel, a Baal-worshiping Phoenician princess, who proceeded to make Baalism Israel’s state religion, building a temple to her god in Samaria and killing all of the Lord’s prophets in the kingdom (1 Kgs 16:31–32; 18:4). In a land where the king’s primary responsibility was to be a student of God’s law (the Torah), fearing God and leading his people in doing the same (Deut 17:18–20; 1 Kgs 11:37–39), Ahab effectively outlawed covenant faithfulness to the Lord throughout his domain. And even when he appears to have had a change of heart, his lack of resolve led him to recapitulate to the will of his wife (1 Kgs 18:41–19:3). Reading further into the Old Testament, we see that Israel’s consistent unfaithfulness eventually led the entire nation to utter destruction at the hands of the invading Assyrian forces. Reflecting on the tragic history of the northern kingdom of Israel, 2 Kings 17:7–23 makes it abundantly clear that Ahab’s decisions (and his indecision) are what caused their ultimate downfall. Verses 14–18 are instructive:

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped and served all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.

At the time of the Elijah and Elisha stories, this had not yet happened. But, knowing the eventual downfall that would come as the result of the policies begun by Ahab and Jezebel, God raised up prophets who would challenge the powerful and call the nation back to repentance. When Elijah arrives on the scene at Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18, there are 850 false prophets who “ate at Jezebel’s table” (v. 19). This is the religious establishment that spoke to her and her husband the “words” of Baal and Asherah. Not only does this mean that they led the people into idolatrous worship, but they also encouraged Israel’s monarchy to pursue a religion that was free from the moral standards of justice and righteousness demanded by the Lord; Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21 is but one example of this. The immorality and injustice encouraged by Baalism is further evident from the connections between the two made in passages like Jeremiah 7:8–9, from a slightly later time period, which mentions stealing, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, and offerings to Baal all in one breath. There is even evidence that Baal worship in Israel included human sacrifice. Consider the Lord’s indictment in Jeremiah 19:5, that his people had “built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind” (see also 2 Kgs 17:17, cited above). And so, when Elijah puts the 450 prophets of Baal to the sword after the Lord sends fire from heaven, we must understand that it is against this that he stands in opposition. As the events that follow make clear, it wasn’t enough simply to make a point. The influence of the prophets of Baal had to be entirely rooted out.

Another violent story takes place in 2 Kings 1. Ahab has died and his son Ahaziah has ascended to the throne. The big question we’re supposed to be asking is whether the young king will turn to the Lord or continue in his father’s foolish footsteps. The answer becomes evident when, after suffering a life-threatening accident, Ahaziah sends messengers to inquire after the Philistine god Baal-zebub.[2]When the messengers are sent back by Elijah with nothing but a prophetic announcement of the king’s impending death, Ahaziah begins sending soldiers out in groups of fifty to order Elijah to come before the king to answer for his words. The first two groups, issuing orders to Elijah in the name of the king (note v. 11, lit. “thus says the king”), are consumed by fire from heaven (cf. Mount Carmel). Only the third is spared, because its commander humbles himself and bows before the prophet, acknowledging Elijah’s authority over both him and the king who sent him. The message is clear: The messenger bears the authority of the one who sent him, and it is the Lord who commands the king, not the other way around. This is true, even when the Lord’s messenger is outnumbered fifty to one.

This sets the stage for the infamous story about Elisha’s cursing of the young men in the brief but shocking story of 2 Kings 2:23–25. Here, Elisha, having just succeeded Elijah as the head of the northern prophets, encounters a group of young men,[3]coming from the city of Bethel, who jeer at him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” Elisha then curses them in the name of the Lord, and two she-bears come and maul forty-two of them. Let’s get it out of the way: This is a strange story.

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that the story at this point is about the transfer of prophetic authority from Elijah to Elisha. Would he be recognized as the mouthpiece of God, sent to opposing his people’s idolatry and evil, as Elijah did before him? The prophets of Jericho understand this, as they announce, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” But do the people recognize it? This is why so much of what Elisha precedes to do mirrors Elijah’s ministry so closely.

At the beginning of Elisha’s tenure as the head of the prophets, Ahaziah has died, and his brother Jehoram reigns in his place. Just as we wondered if Ahaziah would do away with Ahab’s idolatry (which he did not), so we must now ask the same question of the new king. Second Kings 3:2 (the story immediately following “Elisha and the bears”) tells us that “he put away the pillar of Baal that his father [Ahab] had made.” While that’s a good thing, our hopes are then humbled by the very next verse: “Nevertheless, he clung to the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin, he did not depart from it.” This refers to the idolatrous worship shrines in the cities of Dan and Bethel that were established by the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam. These were built for the express purpose of rivaling the true temple in Jerusalem, were centered around the worship of golden claves, run by non-Levitical priests, and celebrated a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month to correspond to (replace?) the legitimate Feast of Booths on the seventh (1 Kings 12:25–33). All of the northern kings prior to Ahab (with the exception of the short-lived Elah and the illegitimate Transjordanian Tibni) are said to have done evil in the sight of the Lord by leading their people to worship at these shrines.[4]In sum, although Jehoram made some effort to bring Baal down a few pegs in his pantheon of pagan deities, he picked up exactly where his idolatrous predecessors had left off. There is still a great need for Elisha and the prophets.

After retracing Elijah’s (and Joshua’s) steps from the Jordan River and to Jericho, Elisha then makes his way to Bethel. However, whereas Elijah was met by a company of prophets near the questionable city, Elisha is confronted by a rabble of young men, who proceed to mock him, calling out, “Go up! Go up!” Go up where? This is Bethel, the city of Jeroboam’s golden calf; the city that comes to be known throughout the history of the northern kingdom as a den of idolatry; the city of which Hosea would soon observe: “The inhabitants of Samaria tremble for the calf of Beth-aven. Its people mourn for it, and so do its idolatrous priests—those who rejoiced over it and its glory—for it has departed from them” (Hos 10:5).[5]

It is also easy to downplay the insult, because baldness has different connotations in our culture than it had in theirs. Consider some other passages in which the same language is used:

“Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty. Your men shall fall by the sword and your mighty men in battle. And her gates shall lament and mourn; empty, she shall sit on the ground” (Isaiah 3:24–26).

“On every head is baldness; every beard is shorn; in the streets they wear sackcloth; on the housetops and in the squares everyone wails and melts in tears” (Isaiah 15:2b–3).

“In that day the Lord GOD of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12).

“Both great and small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them or cut himself or make himself bald for them” (Jeremiah 16:6).

“Baldness has come upon Gaza; Ashkelon has perished. O remnant of their valley, how long will you gash yourselves?” (Jeremiah 47:5).

“They put on sackcloth, and horror covers them. Shame is on all faces, and baldness on all their heads” (Ezekiel 7:18).

In fact, with the exception of a few ritual texts about leprosy in Leviticus 13, every single mention of “baldness” in the Old Testament connects it to mourning and the most bitter sorrow (see also Lev 21:5; Deut 14:1; Eze 27:31; 29:18; Amos 8:10; Mic 1:16).

So just what are these young men saying to Elisha? First, they are shouting to him to “go up” to Bethel, which is known, by this point in the Bible’s storyline, as a den of iniquity and idolatrous worship. And second, they are mocking the death of Elijah, the foremost prophet of the Lord in the northern kingdom—indeed, the leader of all the prophets of his day. And remember, the key point of these stories is to make clear that Elisha, as the Lord’s prophet, bears the authority of God himself—to believe, receive, and respect a prophet is to believe, receive, and respect God. These young men know this; everyone at that time knew this. We have a hard time seeing it, because we are products of our own time, not theirs.

And so, Elisha curses them, and two bears come and maul forty-two of them. (Think about how many of them there must have been for forty-two to fall victim to two bears! Notice too that we are not told that the bears killed them.) To see this, as many do, as a response to a youthful jest about male-pattern baldness is a gross misreading of the text, and requires the reader to completely divorce this short episode from everything going on in the context. This event served to show the nation of Israel that Elisha was a true prophet of the Lord, and that he had the power to curse and to bless in God’s name. Immediately before this, he blesses Jericho, a city that had been cursed since ancient times by none other than Joshua himself (Josh 6:26; 1 Kgs 16:34). Now, he shows the opposite. And lest we think that God’s cursing and blessing is a small thing, let’s remember that, as we have already seen, in 1 and 2 Kings, this was a matter of life and death—famines, and wars, and pestilence. Eventually, the entire nation would face exile because of it.

The Heart of the Biblical Story

In the previous section, I offered some thoughts on the importance of maintaining true worship in ancient Israel. Accordingly, most of my observations had to do with the tragic results of allowing Baalism and other forms of false worship to gain a foothold among God’s covenant people. I’ve done this largely as an attempt to put into perspective the importance of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha’s ministries in humanitarian terms: When God’s people fail to worship him, disaster ensues. But it is crucial to realize that this is not the only, or even the most important, angle on why it was critical for Israel to hear and believe her prophets. The real reason—the reason that puts all other reasons in perspective—is that God’s purpose in human history is to glorify himself through the salvation of lost sinners. In the New Testament, this is revealed through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in the Old it is revealed in the promises of Israel’s covenant, which pointed forward to Jesus. God is just in judging sin, and he is gracious when he forgives.

In other words, the Bible handles subject matter that is far greater than worldly comfort and happiness, and even life itself. At stake are the eternal destinies of human beings, and, even more importantly, the glory of God. If this is not seen, then our ability to deal thoroughly and honestly with the big questions surrounding violence in the Bible will always come up short. This is why, despite our best efforts to point to injustice and oppression as the major consequences of the northern kingdom’s faithlessness, such arguments will never fully appeal to the Bible’s critics, who are usually unwilling to evaluate the biblical narrative from any perspective aside from secular humanism.

The stories we have considered here contain the killing of 450 false prophets, fire consuming 100 soldiers, and 42 young men mauled by bears. This is a lot of bloodshed, but we probably wouldn’t find it particularly troubling if we read that the same numbers died by the edge of the sword, in a fire, and as a result of bear attacks in some given year. Why not? Because more “normal,” less “religiously-motivated” deaths are less tragic? And does not God allow, and indeed bring about, the death of every human being in the course of history? If God is not unjust to take the lives of human beings under other circumstances, why is he unjust to take these ones under these?

Furthermore, part of coming to grips with the gospel of Christ is understanding that we are all sinners, deserving of God’s wrath. Why should be surprised when we see concrete historical examples of God judging sin? If the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), why should it be shocking when we see death come as a result of sin? It is more than a little ironic that Christians who believe in hell (whatever hell entails) look back upon stories of God causing physical death as strange. While it is always a good thing to see other human beings with love and to genuinely hope for their repentance and salvation, the other side of the coin is that we can’t hold other people to different standards than those to which we hold ourselves. The moment we do that—the moment when we stop seeing other people as accountable to God for their sin—is the moment when we will lose sight of the urgency of the gospel. True compassion does not cover up sin; true compassion brings others to deal with sin through repentance and faith in Christ. In meditating on these passages this week, I have found myself grateful for the grace of God that I was not mauled by bears or consumed by fire from heaven for my own sin. In fact, when I was a young man, I was little different than the forty-two who confronted Elisha on that day; I mocked God and those whom he brought in my life to love me and to minister to me; and the Lord would not have been unjust, had he poured out his justice and wrath against me. Grace, by its very definition, requires this—it is God’s undeserved favor. Let us not sing the glories of his grace with our fingers crossed. Sin is sin. And none of us deserve the saving love of our holy God.

There are some aspects of our faith, therefore, that the secular mind will never accept. If there is no God, then we have not sinned against him. If we have not sinned against him, then we are not liable to his judgment, and we don’t need him, or anyone else, to save us. It therefore doesn’t matter what we worship, and a rejection of a prophet means little more than the rejection of a newspaper columnist, or a talking head on television. Someone with presuppositions like those will only ever be able to evaluate the violence in the Bible on a scale of nice to not-so-nice; they criticize it “from the outside,” not sympathetically and on its own terms. But if the Bible is true, then there is nothing more important than to turn to the Lord and be saved, and to worship him in Spirit and in truth.

 

[1]The conclusions of this “Jerusalem Council” was to require the Gentiles to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, blood, what has been strangled, and from fornication (Acts 15:28–29). Although the reason these four things were chosen is debated, the most likely explanation is that they reflect the stipulations of Leviticus 17–18 for Gentiles living within ancient Israel. See Richard J. Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church” in The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting (The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting 4; ed. Richard J. Bauckham; Exeter: Paternoster; 1995), 459–60; James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Epworth Commentaries; London: Epworth, 1996),204; Eckhard J. Schnaebel, Paul and the Early Church (Early Christian Mission 2; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 1015–19.

[2]This would have been a local manifestation of Baal, similar to Baal-peor (Deut 4:3; Hos 9:10) or Baal-berith (Judg 8:33). Interestingly, “Baal-zebub” literally means, “Lord of flies.” This is likely a purposeful pejorative deformation of another name, possibly Baal-zebul (“the lord is exalted”). A similar example to this in the Hebrew Bible is Ish-bosheth, whose name literally means, “man of shame,” which was probably originally Ish-baal (the Hebrew equivalent of Phoenician Ethbaal, the father of Jezebel), with the name of the detested deity in the latter being changed to the word shame in the former. Consider also the names Mephi-bosheth and Mephi-baal.

[3]The age of these individuals is difficult to discern. Defenders of the text are fond of pointing out that the Hebrew term that is used of them, neʿārîm(“lads,” plural of naʿar), is ambiguous, and is used of Joseph when he was both seventeen (Gen 37:2) and thirty-nine (41:12), Absalom when he rebelled against his father (2 Sam 14:21; 18:5) and even with reference to men of military age (e.g., 1 Kgs 20:14–19), to cite just a few examples. This observation, however, carries little relevance here, since these people are called not just “lads” (neʿārîm), but “young lads” (neʿārîm qeṭannîm). The only true parallels for this expression are in 1 Kings 3:7, 11:17, 2 Kings 5:14, Isaiah 11:6, and possibly 1 Samuel 16:11–12. Given the lack of certainty, it is better to refrain from making much of their alleged age. All we know is that they were young.

[4]Nadab (1 Kings 15:25–26); Baasha (15:33–34; 16:1–2); Zimri (16:19–20); Omri (16:25–26).

[5]Notice once again the mocking way that Hosea renames Bethel, which means “house of God,” to Beth-aven, which means “house of iniquity.” See note 2.