We had a series of chapel sermons entitled “You Asked for It.” One of the student suggested topics was 2 Kg 2:23-25, which speaks of Elisha cursing those who mocked him and their subsequent mauling by two bears. I initially suspected that this was meant as a joke, but there is a serious point to the passage. Below is a much condensed version of the sermon:
Context is extremely important in the process of interpretation. That context can be immediate (the passages on either side), intermediate (the entire book) or the rest of the Bible. The passage in question mentions Bethel, which is a very important location. It had been named by Jacob when he encountered God (Gn 28:10-22) who and said that it was the House “Beth” of God “El.” Many years later it become a center of idol worship under King Jeroboam of Israel. He placed a golden calf at Bethel and said that this was the god that had delivered them from slavery in Egypt (1 Kg 12:26-30). This provides a bit of the larger and intermediate context.
The immediate context is the second chapter of 2 Kings. This chapter itself has three parts: Elijah is taken up (2:1-18). This is the only place in Scripture where we see the office of prophets being directly being passed from one generation to the next. In this chapter Elijah and his successor, Elisha cross the Jordan on dry ground (2:8). This is reminiscent of both the Israelites crossing the sea as they left Egypt (Ex 14:13-31) and also their entry into the land of Canaan days in the days of Joshua (Josh 3:9-17). After they cross, Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind (2 Kg 2:11-12). In his first act as a prophet, Elisha uses Elijah’s cloak and crosses the Jordan (2:13-14). It was clear to all observers that Elisha was God’s choice to succeed Elijah.
After crossing the Jordan, Elisha travels to Jericho where he is welcomed. However, the city has a problem: their water supply is unhealthy. Elisha heals the water and it became wholesome (2:21-22). Notice that the people town had called him “lord.” This is a sign of their respect.
So far, we have Elisha being confirmed as the prophetic successor to Elijah and also a confirmation of one of two sides of the message of the prophets. The prophets were God’s messengers reminding the people that they had entered into a covenant with God. One part of the covenant was the blessings for obedience (see Lev 26:1-13; Deut 28:1-14). When the people of Jericho welcomed God’s prophet and treated him with respect, God gives Elisha the ability to cure their water problem. This is clearly a blessing for them.
The other side of the message of the prophets was a reminder that their agreement with God also contained covenant curses when they disobeyed God (Lev 26:14-39; Deut 28:15-68). In fact, Lev 26:22 specifically mentions that God would send wild animals against the Israelites when they broke the covenant. What we see in 2 Kg 2:23-25 is an example of the covenant curses in action.
The choice is whether to be like the people of Jericho who honoured God prophet, or the young men of Bethel who mocked him. In setting the covenant before the people, Moses encouraged the people to choose life rather than death (Deut 30:19-20). This choice is one that we must make as well.