The Bible is many things. It’s the Word of God, a reliable and transformational guide for life and faith, and an honest account of the Lord’s work in the ancient world. It’s a record of the past, full of miracles and fulfilled prophecies, but it’s also a window open to the future, with promises and secrets yet to be revealed. Most of all, the Bible is an invitation to know God.
On those crinkly, thin pages spanning Genesis through Revelation, God introduces himself. He’s wild and good, merciful and magnificent, and best of all, He loves us. As the story of the Bible progresses, we discover that He has a plan to save humanity from the curse of sin and death — a plan to restore our broken relationship and bring us home to Him. That plan is the gospel, and as it slowly unfolds over the course of redemptive history, we discover just how much God loves us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
In that, the Bible — every last word of it — is good news. But have you ever been embarrassed by Scripture, like it’s that crazy uncle you only see at Thanksgiving? Have you ever read a passage and thought: Why is that in here? Or maybe: That doesn’t seem like something God would do.
The thing is, the Bible itself claims that no part of Scripture can be cast aside as too obscure to matter or too weird to be true: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16; emphasis added). Not some of it. Not just the parts that make sense to us. Not just the passages that don’t make us squeamish. All of it. Every last word of the Bible.
Take, for example, a strange passage about Elisha, his baldness, obnoxious teenagers, and some female bears.
The justice of she-bears
In 2 Kings 2, there’s an incident that seems over-the-top. Elisha is making his way to Bethel when he’s accosted by dozens of kids who call him names. “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” they repeat (v. 23). So, what does Elisha do in the face of such name-calling? “He cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys” (v. 24).
It’s an odd episode, to say the least. Imagine reading the Bible alongside a spiritual seeker and coming to this passage. What would you say about it? How would you explain Elisha’s, and God’s, apparent overreaction? How does this passage jive with what we read about God’s love for sinners — not to mention children — elsewhere?
To understand what’s really going on, there are a few things to unpack. The details matter, and they’ll help us make sense of what we’re reading.
First, take note of Elisha’s destination. He’s headed to Bethel, which was one of the two cities where Jeroboam placed a golden calf for Israel to worship. In the years that followed, the place had become a notorious center of idolatry, sin and rebellion against Yahweh. That’s where the “small boys” came from (v. 23). And on that subject, it may not be quite right to think of these obnoxious prophet-teasers as squeaky children; the Hebrew words translated “small boys” can also refer to older teenagers or young men. (See 1 Kings 3:7, where Solomon, in his 20s, refers to himself using the same Hebrew words.)
What about their insult, “Go up, baldhead!”? Harmless enough, right? There are worse names one could be called. But remember who Elisha is. He’s God’s chosen mouthpiece, and he’s taken on his mentor Elijah’s mantle.
You may recall that Elisha famously asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit before Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:9–14). You may also recall that Elijah was described as “a hairy man” (2 Kings 1:8 NASB). By calling Elisha a “baldhead,” the young men are saying he’s nothing like his predecessor — “You’re no Elijah!”
Because “go up” is the same verb used to describe Elijah’s ascension to heaven, it’s possible that they were telling Elisha to join his master and leave them alone. Another possibility is that they were telling him to forget Yahweh and “go up” to the shrine at Bethel to join in the idolatry. It was an affront to a man who represented the Lord, and a slap in the face of God himself.
At Elisha’s request, God judged the young men right then and there — death by mauling for 42 of the lot. Now that we know a bit more of the event’s context, it’s obvious that these young men had already aligned themselves with false gods and rejected the goodness and mercy of Yahweh. In light of this, their swift and severe demise makes a bit more sense.
The Book breathed out by God
This story from the life of Elisha is just one strange tale among many in the Bible. Reading through it, the Bible is at times hard to decipher. There’s a lot of distance between the ancient world in which it was written and our modern lives. But if we truly believe that all of Scripture was breathed out by God, then we can’t afford to skip over the more difficult bits.
So, what do we do? We keep digging in. Keep reading, keep studying, keep researching. There’s no deadline on Bible study; it’s a lifelong pursuit. The more we dig, the more we come to understand how it all fits together. As we dig, it’s important to remember a few things:
Remember that the Holy Spirit inspired every word of Scripture.
That means that although the Bible has many human authors and was written in three languages across a span of 1,500 years, its divine Author directed the entire project. There are no contradictions, no loose ends, and no mistakes.
There may be times when it seems like you’ve uncovered an error, something that doesn’t quite add up — but that only means there’s more digging for you to do. The more time I spend studying the Bible, the more confident I am in the Holy Spirit’s work, and it’s often in the “problem passages” that I discover the most beautiful connections to God’s heart.
Remember that the Bible wasn’t written to you, but it was written for you.
What do I mean by that? Every book of the Bible was written to one or more person or group of people living in the ancient world. These people had a certain worldview, knowledge base, and culture — all of which may seem strange to us today. But the best way to understand Scripture is to read it like they would have.
To do that, we have to learn something about the world in which they lived. This background information is a bit like a key that unlocks hidden treasure. When you’re reading the Bible and come across something strange, do some research. A good study Bible or commentary is worth consulting. You may be delighted by what you find.
Even though the Bible was written for someone else, it’s still God’s gift to us. We were meant to take hold of it, believe it, and be shaped by it. As followers of Christ, it’s our book, and we get to read it, study it, memorize it, and love it for a lifetime.
Remember to keep reading.
Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture, so when you come to something you don’t quite understand, don’t let it get you down. Just keep reading, and you may just find the answers you were looking for. Because the Holy Spirit is behind the entire Bible, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Old Testament serves as essential background information for the New Testament or that the New Testament often illuminates the Old Testament, pointing us to the truth of Christ in places we might not expect to find Him.
Remember what the Bible is for.
Especially when we come to crazy weird passages, it can be easy to get caught up in the academics of Bible study. Looking up the meanings of Greek or Hebrew words, reading about the ancient world, checking out the pertinent geography — it can be a lot of work (and a lot of fun). But don’t miss the point. We read the Bible to get to know God better. If we study the whole Bible but do not meet with Him in its pages, we’ve missed the point, and we’ve wasted our time.
The gospel truth in this strange tale
Let’s take one more look at Elisha and those bears. This scene might still seem a bit harsh to our modern sensibilities, but if we squint, I believe we can see the gospel in this odd Old Testament account. Elisha was a prophet who spoke the words of the Lord. He revealed the truth about this world, our sin, and the God in heaven who loves us. Bethel was a place filled with sin and perversion, idolatry and despair, and yet that was Elisha’s destination.
This should tell us something about God’s heart. His choice to send His servant — His mouthpiece — was an act of love. And yet before Elisha even reached his destination, he was rejected. This story, then, becomes a warning to anyone who loves the darkness more than the light: For those who reject the Lord, something far worse than hungry bears awaits.
That is, of course, why Jesus came — to offer us a way of escape and give us new life. Even the Bible’s oddest and most unsettling passages point to this hope: to a cross and a Savior who loves us, pursues us, and has a grand plan for His people.
So, dig in and read all about it.
Copyright 2021 John Greco. All rights reserved.