Elisha and his maulin’ bears

While looking up passages and materials for a prelude to a “OT god vs NT god” event I will be running at my church, I came across the Elisha and bears passage. From a social-science perspective it struck me as fascinating: I wanted to know what factors played into the obvious honor challenge, and how it could be that a fairly large group of people could have grouped together for what seemed to be the sole purpose of mocking Elisha. Please read this as a reflective post. Note too that I am writing another version of this with expansion on some unclear points.

Before I continue I should post some comments about methodology. I find that these are required since most people do not have familiarity with socio-cultural exegesis. In response to someone who read my post as an apologist straining to justify atrocities an outdated text written by ignorant primitives, I wrote,

I’m actually not arguing that it is “justified”… nor am I focusing on using bears per se. Rather I am attempting to do a close reading of the text, using ethnographic material to provide interpretive trajectories, and seeing where that takes us. If you look at the end of my post I provide no conclusion but actually try to think critically about what I’ve gone through. My main interest in exploring this passage was in terms of a social-science perspective. I would like to be mistaken in my reading since that invites me to learn more. When it comes to moral justification I think one should include discussion of a standard or philosophy, which I have not done. I also do not, as someone implied, try to demonstrate that this narrative is “historically accurate.”

Let us continue.

Among other things, I looked at Glen Miller’s piece which put down some insightful comments (cf. Holding’s article here). However I was not really satisfied with some of the comments. Miller did not discuss anything relating to the processes by which a mocking group could form, except for a reference to gangs from Gleason Archer (!), and he also did not discuss gossip networks which I suspected to be quite key in understanding the incident. In Holding’s article he cites Callahan as saying there is “nothing in the actual story to justify” Archer’s gang reference, and Holding’s reply points to the necessary reciprocial group relations required for survival, suggesting that they were essentially bandits. I think Archer is somewhat correct although quite lacking, and I don’t think Holding’s explanation of bandits is the best one for the mocking group although it certainly gives insight. (Why would bandits stop to mock?)

As you might have guessed I’d like to explore those topics here. I’m not going to cite much so you’ll have to ask for references. To the passage:

From [Jericho] Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
(2 Kn 2:23-25, NIV)

Here again are the two questions I had:
– What factors played into the honor-challenge?
– How could a fairly large group of people form with the apparently sole intent to mock?

Let’s start with the honor-challenge. First, Elisha appears to be travelling. He is not inside a city when this happens, but he may be nearing or entering Bethel. I am going to assume for now that Holding’s banditry explanation is wrong and I’ll argue that later. I think that the group of people are coming out of Bethel. That means he is close enough for gossip to spread and people to be gathered. This sets the stage for a typical honor-challenge situation since it requires a very public arena. The crowd, too, as I will argue, is definitely larger than the number of people attacked/killed, and it would not be unsurprising to find that the majority of males of Bethel were present. (Why males? Public space as well as males being the upholders of family honor. Family honor seems to be mostly a intra-village issue but for reasons I’ll explore later, it seems that people would temporarily set aside specific intra-village issues to defend the inter-village reputation. The importance of village reputation would have been understood.)

A couple textual elements help focus the challenge. In the opening verses of ch.2, Elisha is granted Elijah’s prophetic office. We see “the prophets” sort of pestering Elisha, asking if he knows his master is going to be taken away. Elisha claims to know (insider status) but tells them–or asks them?–not to say it. Honor, again, is a profoundly public issue. Labels are “easily” given and Elisha’s reply may be guarding against any new nickname relating to being taken up. Imagine: Elisha, servant of the one who was taken up (i.e. not here).

Elisha also was referred to as “our lord” at Jericho and acted in Elijah’s god’s name. We have then two aspects to help us locate Elisha’s honor rating: he ‘inherited’ his master Elijah’s reputation and prophetic office, and he more or less gained clients for Elijah’s god.

Now, I may have missed something between 1 Kings 12and 2 Kings 2,but in 1 Kings 12-13we find that Bethel is turned into a city of cult worship (btw: no derogatory connotations attached to “cult” as I use it):

Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.” After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. . . He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.
(1 Kings 12:26-29, 32-33)

I include the mention of the festival because, well, to be really simplistic, festivals order time. If anyone has been reading modern Catholic theology or grew up in a traditional Orthodox setting they can probably appreciate the reality-shaping powers of time-ordering events far better than the rest of us liturgically deprived Prots.

In addition to the festival the other thing to note is that the gods that Jerobam set up are not equivalent to Elijah’s god. We see, then, the sort of total reality-ordering aspects that would put Bethel at odds with Elisha: time, religion, and politics are ordered in a different way. And since family is what encompasses these three aspects, we may quite safely say that Jerobam’s changes effected a new reality in Bethel (and Dan).

This amplifies points 3-5 made by Miller, and is why I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of men from Bethel were present at Elisha’s mocking. Elisha, a prophet of another god who just increased his honor at Jericho, would be a threat to the new reality. I will further amplify this reading in a moment.

As for the specific honor-challenge, I think the first part does refer to Elijah’s ascension. Someone suggested to me that they may have been challenging him to sacrifice to their gods, but no argument was given and I don’t know how one could argue for that interpretation. Note that prophets from Bethel and Jericho seemed to know about it and even the specific “taken up” aspect (2 Kn 2:16): news spreads.

Speaking of which I want to explore gossip networks a little. Don’t worry I’m not going to hit you with five pages of ethnographic material.

A gossip network is the set of connections between some population through which information travels and evaluative judgments are made. Or to put it another way, it has multiple functions with the main function being the re/shaping and strengthening of the community’s moral code. Let’s look at some Spanish terms from an Andalusian village:

1. criticar. to criticize. rough equiv of Eng term ‘gossip’
2. rajar. to cut. with a clear intention to harm
3. darle la lengua. to tongue lash. a sustained campaign of vilification
4. cuchichear. to whisper. uninformed talk
5. murmurar. to murmur. informed talk
6. chismorear. to speak of trifles. harmless exchange of info
7. paliquear. to chatter or talk idly of nothing. often with sexual undertones
8. cortar el traje. to cut the cloth. idle talk without malice–entertainment
9. charlar. to chat. a euphemism for criticar
10. hablar occulto. to speak secretly. secret talk about those in power
11. contar. to tell. to betray a confidence; hence the worse form of gossip

We can see, then, many different kinds of words for different forms of gossip. Rohrbaugh listed a fairly large mass from both Testaments (see Social-Scientific Models for Interpreting the BIble). Now, the “go on up” reference quite clearly falls under number 7, as Elisha was indubitably a highly attractive man who was so accosted by infatuated male youth that….. uhhh nevermind.

Initially we may taken the honor-challenge to be described by #2, but I think there’s a good case to be made for #3 as well. I think the variety of terms relating to different forms of gossip must be paired with a good structural understanding, but for now let’s just take it as suggestive of the consciousness of communication that honor-shame groups would have. We are also conscious of gossip but not commonly in a way that could threaten another person’s standing in the community and therefore livelihood. But analogies to our own context can be explored later.

Now, I found a story about a mocking group that, when combined about things we know about ancient travel and security, offers some good interpretive trajectories. And that story is the vito of 1930. This comes from Julian Pitt-Rivers’ The people of Sierra, which is more or less an ethnography about a rural Spanish village. A vito is basically “an aggressive outburst of ridicule”.

A fellow called Jacinto el Conte was on the receiving end of one such vito. His initial offense was two-fold. The more significant one was deserting his wife and children; the other offense was setting up a house with an unmarried woman, one that already had a bad reputation. In response to this dual offense, over two hundred people from his village came. What is especially significant about this crowd is that it wasn’t simply young men that came. Married men also showed up, further demonstrating the pervasive displeasure of the village. The crowd sang lewd and insulting songs, rang bells, and blew horns. It was a mock fest. (Please understand that the songs are an especially shameful form of insult because they are more memorable: the shame endures!)

Jacinto defied the village’s censure by calling in the Civil Guard to dispell the group. The Guard came and arrested many people, but the people kept coming. They escalated the fest by bringing a large bell, one that required two men to carry. The Guard took away the bell. The people kept coming. The Guard eventually gave up, and the people took that as a victory, reenergizing the fest.

Jacinto attempted to dissuade the mockers by moving farther away from the village, but still the people kept coming. In fact people from another nearby village began to come. Among the other things they did, they baked mud figures with horns, and put them in places where Jacinto would find them during the day. They also wired his door shut, stuck a shotgun through the window hatch and sang songs into the house. This vito went on for three months until Jacinto died of a heart attack. So goes the most famous vito of 1930.

Pitt-Rivers offers five characteristics of the vito:

1. It is done in response to a direct challenge to the group’s moral code. (In this case, deserting his wife and children and setting up a house with an unmarried woman with a bad reputation.)
2. It can be habitual. (They knew where Jacinto lived.)
3. It is an aggressive outburst of ridicule. (Often these songs are as personal as possible.)
4. There is typically no violence attached. (There need not be: the whole event is very shaming.)
5. It is typically done under the cover of night. (Typically the mockers would be young men, who would be interested in concealing their identities as well as keeping themselves safe.)

Pitt-Rivers also tells of other mock fests that resolve peacefully or were not serious to begin with. Still, the collective action and violent potential of the 1930 vito makes for a better comparative case. Taking this mock fest as a model, let’s look back to Elisha and see what interpretive trajectories there are.

Elisha occupies a prophetic office of a god that differs from the one in Bethel. He had just dispelled the curse at Jericho in the name of Elijah’s god. Therefore Elisha constitutes a direct challenge to the group’s moral code: they will not suffer this prophet. In response to his coming, word spreads around the village and a crowd is formed. (In some respects it is like an alternative ending of the parable of the prodigal: the village gathers to shame and even kill the son.)

In the vito, the Civil Guard was called in to dispell the group. They arrested some but not all. This greatly amplifies Miller’s point #5: if 42 were attacked/killed, there must have been a far greater amount of people to begin with.

The act of calling in the Civil Guard was an act of defiance, of rejecting the village’s judgment. Clearly Elisha does the same with his curse. Given the pol/rel context, the village of Bethel was also challenging the reality and power of Elijah’s god. According to 2 Kings, they received memorable evidence.

This reading, I think, is better than Holding’s banditry explanation. Bethel, ‘ruled’ by another god, collectively challenges Elisha. Holding asks, “why were they not at home contributing to the corporate survival of their own families?” The interpretive trajectory that answers his question is that they were, actually, contributing to group survival by running this prophet-threat into a nothingness of shame.

Let’s return to the gang reference by Archer (Miller’s point #6). In the vito, the Civil Guard was called in, indicating a functional external controller of civil order. This sort of external agent did not exist, and Elisha facing up to a hostile city was indeed in trouble. It would not be guaranteed that his death would have resulted in retribution from anyone, and indeed with a challenge to his god’s power, his death would easily be taken as evidence that his god indeed was not powerful.

I think there are issues with the readings I have offered. One of them is that in 2 Kings 2,Elijah and Elisha go to Bethel and are not (at least it is not recorded) accosted. For whatever reason, the prophets at Bethel go to Elisha (NOT his master!). I am curious to know if there is significance in the line, “The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha” as opposed to “The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha”–the first could mean that they came out of the city (= into area not bounded by the group) and the second simply that they went to ask him. One explanation is that the prophets at Bethel held functional respect for Elijah, who after all had defeated prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. The prophets of Bethel were not (?) present for Elijah’s ascension or Elisha’s ‘inheritance’ of the prophetic office, only the prophets of Jericho were (cf. vv.4-18).

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