02 October 2009

The Bad-News Bears: A guest post from Brucker

Me with the *other* King of kings.I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that I like Steve Wells. I have a personal theory about the way people interact with each other, and it's very telling when you see the way people interact in particular on the Internet. You see, if somebody outspoken disagrees with you, it's easier to dismiss them as a jerk if you don't really know them. The Internet gives us access to millions upon millions of potential jerks, but it gets more difficult to turn someone into a jerk if you've taken the time to know them a little better.

Now, Steve and I are hardly bosom buddies, but we've e-mailed each other and commented on each other's sites enough that I'd like to think we have a certain mutual respect for each other as people, without agreeing much in the slightest on theology. One thing that I do know about Steve is that one of his favorite Bible verses is 2Kings 2:23-24.

"And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them." (King James Version)

Only you can prevent the wrath of Almighty God!That may not be exactly a secret though, as he's blogged on it several times, the October 1st entry being a recycling of a post from 2007 as he implied. However, two days before I started my blog, on July 26, 2005, Steve wrote me an e-mail ending with: "I’d like to know a bit more about you and get a better idea of how you would respond [to the SAB]. How about sending me an example? I’d prefer something challenging, like say 2 Kings 2:23-24." So I could tell right away that Steve was a smart guy who knew how to cut to the heart of the matter, and I must admit, while I still have this e-mail, I thus also have record that I had no response.

"Are there any Bible believers that are not bothered by this story?" Steve asks. I can't answer for all Bible-believers, but yeah, I for one am bothered by it. There are issues in the Bible that don't have easy answers, and I agree heartily with Steve that it's easier to focus on why perceived contradictions are not contradictions than to deal with perceived cruelty. And when it comes to perceived cruelty, this passage takes the cake.

But that's the Old Testament...No, I'm kidding. There are a lot of easy cop-outs like that one could take. Actually, looking into this verse, I was amused to find that even one translation of the Bible incorporated some of the (potential) cop-outs into its wording.

"He went up from Jericho to Bethel. On the way, young [maturing and accountable] boys came out of the city and mocked him and said to him, Go up [in a whirlwind], you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!" (v.23, Amplified Bible)

For those not familiar with the Amplified, it tends to insert [in-line comments] to clarify terms, but frankly, I think they're stretching here.

But it's a good segue into the usual explanations. Some people have argued that the "little children" were really young men or teenagers, but aside from the fact that the Hebrew (n'arim q'tannim) doesn't support this (although it allows such an interpretation, as the same noun is used of Joseph in Egypt when he may have been as old as 39), it honestly makes little difference to most people. Is it really less cruel to kill 42 "young men" than "little children"? All other things being equal, I don't think this helps much.

Although I hope it wouldn’t come to that!Yet there is one more thing to say about this. Even if one assumes that these were indeed young children, how intimidating would it be to be accosted by a crowd of (at least) 42 kids who were clearly hostile to you? Have you ever considered how many five-year-olds you could take in a fight? If that linked site is to be believed, I myself couldn't handle more than 23, and as far as I can determine, even the toughest fighter can't take more than about 40. It's not completely unreasonable to assume that Elisha felt threatened, or perhaps was genuinely threatened. After all, do you think 42 boys just stood there and let the bears attack them? If the bears caught 42, how many do you suppose there were in total? My guess would be at least 100. Whatever the age of this group accosting Elisha, they weren't just a few kids sitting around, but were some sort of semi-organized mob. Many have suggested that this was some sort of Israeli street gang, a suggestion I find very believable.

The second inserted note in the Amplified Bible points to something that is likely very important about the story, although the Hebrew definitely doesn't support it in such a direct fashion. In context, it is very likely that the issue was not mainly a matter of taunting over baldness, but that these kids were saying effectively that now that the prophet Elijah was gone (see earlier in the chapter), they wish Elisha would go away, too. If so, this is probably key to the story. These kids, knowing full well that the great prophet Elijah had been taken up into Heaven in a miraculous fashion, mocked not only Elisha by their statement, but the great prophet Elijah and the God that both of them served.

Sticks and stones...Being involved in amateur apologetics for so many years, I've noticed a few interesting things about the Bible, you might guess. There is something that I've noticed about a handful of the more shocking verses in the Bible that I just realized has application here. In Numbers 15:32-36, a man is stoned to death for gathering kindling on the sabbath. In Joshua 7, the whole nation gets punished and one man's entire family is put to death for taking a few items from the city of Jericho. In 2Samuel 6, a man is struck down by God for touching the Ark fo the Covenant. And to not leave the New Testament out, in Acts 5, a man and his wife are struck dead for telling a white lie (not for stealing, see v. 4). These verses have something in common with each other, and with the verse in question here. They all occurred near the beginning of a new phase in God's work with the nation of Israel. When God starts something, like the nation of Israel, the conquest of Canaan, formalized religious practice in a newly-established kingdom, or a worldwide Church, He has this tendency (like it or not) to deal decisively with problems right out of the gate in order to send the message, "I'm serious about this. Really serious." This was the beginning of Elisha's ministry, and God wanted to let people know that this was not a man to be taken lightly, as he would be speaking on behalf of God. (Yes, essentially, I'm saying that however cruel you may consider God to be, at least He's consistently so.)

So what does it all add up to? An unruly mob of kids with no respect for authority gang up on a known prophet of God, and get punished for it. (Some have pointed out that the passage doesn't say that the kids were killed, but getting mauled by a bear even a little bit is serious stuff.) It served a purpose in punishing these kids for their lack of respect, punishing their parents indirectly for not controlling their kids and teaching them to respect authority, and letting Israel as a whole know that God expected his prophet to be treated with due respect. Sure, maybe one can think of other ways to have dealt with them, but the fact that this is shocking and violent is, in many ways, the very point of the story. Like the image above appropriated from Cracked magazine, it's outrageous, but hopefully you get it.

There's a message that is pretty consistent throughout the Bible that non-believers don't tend to get: from a spiritual perspective, mocking God is potentially as serious as--no make that far more serious than getting mauled by a bear. Clearly, that's not an easy answer, but in a very real sense, that's the only answer that makes any sense of this passage. I can totally understand that a non-believer would find that hard to swallow, and I respect that. Does the fact that I happen to believe that make me just another fundie jerk from the Internet? I suppose just like the passage itself, that's for you to judge for yourself.

58 comments:

Tony said...

Very unconvincing apologetics. You say Elisha might have been physically accosted by up to 100 young boys but it doesn't read this way at all. The standard kid group dynamic involves one or two ringleaders who may be somewhat culpable and several hangers on who really aren't.

Here's how it really happened. Some village somewhere in the Levant suffers a terrible tragedy involving wildlife. The village peasants try to reconcile these events by attaching some vague moral/supernatural justification for it. Over generations, the stories get twisted. Somehow it winds up in the bible.

I'm sure that this story has tragic origins.

Brucker said...

As I said, we all have our own ways of looking at these things.

I just wonder how 42 kids get mauled by bears under perfectly normal circumstances.

Steve Wells said...

I enjoyed you post, Brucker. Thanks.

I am especially intrigued by your idea that there may have been 100 or more boys in the Elisha Tea Party. I don't think I've ever heard that one before. But that idea has some problems.

I live in Idaho and we've got lots of bears, both black and brown. And we worry quite a bit about them (at least I know I do) when we take a walk in the woods. Sometimes we sing or wear bells to let them know we are coming. And we try to travel in groups, keeping our children with us at all times.

The reason we do these things is that bears, even brown bears, don't attack loud groups of adults. It just doesn't happen. A few adults or a half dozen children are in danger if they surprise a mother bear with her cub, but there is no record of any bear attacking and killing a large group of any kind.

So if there were of 42 or 100 little children, they would be in no danger from bears, as long as they stayed together. And if it was a rowdy gang of adolescents or adults (like apologists often claim), any bear within hearing distance would have been long gone.

There's another problem with the story from biological point of view. Brown bears are mostly solitary animals. Adult females don't hang out together. And they don't attack loud gangs of 100 or so boys or young men. (There's no record of any more than three people being killed in a single bear attack.)

Not that there weren't bears in the region at the time. There probably were. Ursus arctos syriacus (the Syrian Brown Bear) was probably around then. But it would have behaved much like any other brown bear and stayed the hell away from a vicious gang of 100 murderous thieves (as Brendan likes to call them).

So from a biological point of view, the story is extremely implausible. But maybe God created the bears on the spot just to rip apart the 42 children. He gave them characteristics that ordinary bears just don't have -- just so he could kill the little buggers in the most painful way he could think of at the time. Now that could be. He's the type.

busterggi said...

Personally I think your god is an oversentive drama queen & prick.

Did you see the movie Ghost Rider?

A few dozen cops open up on Ghost Rider with every kind of firearm they've got but of course it can't harm him. Is Ghost Rider as insecure as Yahweh? Does he use his great powers to kill the cops for insulting him? No, he just steps forward, looks at them, extends his arm & waves his index finger at them to indicate 'don't do that'.

Its pretty sad that a comic book character is more secure & understanding than your god.

Brucker said...

As to the behavior of bears, (and I'm not at all surprised that this is not normal ursine behavior) I thought we were all operating under the assumption that this was some form of divine retribution. Thus what is normal for bears is unimportant, since if the story contained it, it wouldn't be noteworthy. Imagine:

"And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she bears came not forth out of the wood for fear of the multitude, and everyone went home for lunch."

We'd have to find something else to argue about.

Steve Wells said...

I'm not arguing here, Brucker, I'm trying to understand what you believe happened in this story.

From your response I gather that you think these were special bears that God somehow manipulated to tear up the offenders? Did he use regular Syrian Brown Bears or did he make his own bears from scratch? If they were regular bears, did manipulate them with remote control like a child's toy?

I know you don't know, but what do you think? It's your story, fucked up though it is; you're the one who believes it. (I think it's complete bullshit.) So since you believe it, I'd like you to explain how you think it happened.

twillight said...

The test gave me 28 kids, and I found a combination of 38 kids. Don't know what is the allowed maximum, but maybe someone is interrested. Also I bet Elija had a staff, unlike those who fill out the test.

Now I heard this in more basic levels, and I'm curious how kids turned into grown-ups, mocking into selforganised mob and such. The text clearly (at least no version I could lay my hands on) indicates those.

If you ask me the biggest problems here are these:
- nothing indicates that the Lord exists - or was present in the story at least - at all. So the "they threatened not the prophet but Yahwe" (and Jehova is invulnerable, no?) and the "the most terrible thing you can do is to mock God" arguments are just not valid.
- nothing indicates that the kids knew who they met with. Elija was a cast-out prophet because of the bad relation between him and the king, and there was no mass-communication to make known every self-proclaimed prophet. So the "they were threatening God's choosen man" argument do not stands.
- what the kids actually did, was asking verbaly the bald man who they never met before to go away. So the "they were threatening with violence", "it was an act of self-defense" and "they were a mob for lynching" argument do not stands.
- "there were 100 men there": what'd be more laughable than that? If I have a 100 men army (from a village??? What do you think about those village's size?) we beat the shit out of two bears in no time. You can kick 25 5yearsold alone by the test, but my 100 men can kick 2 bears ass in no minute if we're a "selforganised lynching mob" of your description.
- no matter what, an omni-being shouldn't ever do massacres. Restrain them, calm them down, imprison them - but what the bloodshead for?
- kids don't have religion. They can not comprehend what a "god(ess)" is for a religious person. You can't blame kids, no matter what. They are kids, so just run away if all else fails.


The most terrible apologetic answer was I ever heard though was not included here: Elija('s god) didn't punished the kids, but they parents who didn't educated them well enough.

matt311 said...

I still think it's a terrible story, no matter the rationale applied. [b]Bruckner[/b], you seem intelligent, but I've been reading the Bible since I was a little kid (yes, even the obscure passages), so I know what I'm talking about.

Brian_E said...

A very interesting read Brucker! I enjoy and appreciate your attitude toward such subjects. You provide the best explanation you can for it, but don't expect us to swallow that pill. What a breath of fresh air to read such honest and humble apologetics! This kind of Christianity I can live with in this world.

Brucker said...

Steve Wells: From your response I gather that you think these were special bears that God somehow manipulated to tear up the offenders?

Yeah, I think that's the point. Elisha pronounces a curse, the bears show up. It seems reasonable that one followed from the other, otherwise why put it in the Bible? That being the case, there was something supernatural about these bears and/or their behavior. Beyond that would be speculation based on nothing but guesswork.

twilight: You can kick 25 5yearsold alone by the test, but my 100 men can kick 2 bears ass in no minute if we're a "selforganised lynching mob" of your description.

But if you'd read what I said there, I never denied they were kids. Besides, as I said above, we're talking something supernatural about these bears. Maybe Wells is right, and God really does hate the number 42?

twilight: The most terrible apologetic answer was I ever heard though was not included here: Elija('s god) didn't punished the kids, but they parents who didn't educated them well enough.

Ha ha ha! You apparently didn't read my answer close enough; it's in the second-to-last paragraph.

matt311: ...I've been reading the Bible since I was a little kid (yes, even the obscure passages), so I know what I'm talking about.

What difference does it make how long you've been reading it? I've been reading it (well, Old Testament, at least) since I was a little kid, too. If I'm older than you, does that mean I'm better-qualified to explain it?

Brian_E: You provide the best explanation you can for it, but don't expect us to swallow that pill.

Surely not. One of the other things I've noticed from doing amateur apologetics for years is that there are some things that you simply can't convince some people of no matter what. (And that certainly includes Christians, as I'm sure most people know!) As I told Wells in an e-mail recently, I'm working on a tough essay to explain why I think Christians should be evolutionists, and why evolutionists should be at the very least deists. I expect to convince very nearly zero people of my thesis, but I try to write what I believe to be truth.

Tony said...

Exaggeration, my dear brucker.

Steve Wells said...

OK, so the bad-news bears weren't ordinary bears. God either specially created them on the spot to get the job done or he forced ordinary bears to do things they don't ordinarily do.

You say that you've noticed that God tends to behave especially badly (like stone and burn to death an entire family for something that only the father did) whenever he's about to start something new. But why would God do that? Why would God do something especially evil to mark the beginning of something that's supposed to be good?

Oh yeah, I see. You say that God does this to show that he's serious. But it doesn't show that he's serious, Burcker. It shows that he's evil. Seriously evil.

In any case, I don't see any indication of that. God is, as you put it, consistently cruel throughout scripture. God killed people at least 90 times in the Bible. Are you saying that he did each of these killings to mark "the beginning of a new phase" in his work?

And you say that the bad-news bears killing "served a purpose in punishing these kids for their lack of respect, punishing their parents indirectly for not controlling their kids and teaching them to respect authority, and letting Israel as a whole know that God expected his prophet to be treated with due respect." So you think it was a good thing for God to do. It gave the children and their parents their proper punishment and showed everyone else how important it is to respect authority. You think it was a wonderful thing for God to do.

But I don't believe you believe that, Brucker. I think you're just pretending to believe it. And you're not even fooling yourself anymore.

twillight said...

Brucker: the last of my paragraph was edited the way to show it isn't a reply on your posts, but an alternative apologetic "answer" what I heard of, and what is more stiupid then your try.

எழில் said...

There are umpteen instances in Bible that this god changes some one's opinion or mind. He appears to many people just like that. Why cant he appears in this place or make the Elisha invisible to the bothering kids? Why kill the kids?

Sure beats me.

A killing should have a justification. Even in the ancient epics of the humans such as Homer or Ramayana or Mahabharata, killing of infants, women and aged is prohibited. Anyone who transgresses this code is severly punished. This code is present in the current tribal societies as well. This is well documented by the anthropologists.

Somehow this evil practice of killing infants, women is not only tolerated but even given a divine sanction in this tribal collection called the Bible.

Tony said...

Let's assume god exists and that he wants to send a message to everyone by killing some kids. I imagine that death by bear mauling would be a pretty bad way to go. Surely if you're omnipotent you can kill kids with less pain and still get your message across.

Erp said...

How do rabid bears act?

Not that I'm looking for a realistic explanation for a legend, but, rabid animals (other than bats) are generally known for losing their normal fear of humans.

busterggi said...

Well Tony, i think a thunderous voice from the sky shouting "Hey kids, cut the crap!" would probably have been enough to stop them without any killing at all.

But where's the fun for Yahweh in that?

Brucker said...

Steve Wells: Why would God do something especially evil to mark the beginning of something that's supposed to be good?

Because, as I have implied in various ways in various places, "good" and "evil" are often comparative terms. I'm not generally a moral relativist, but like most people, I tend to see that it would be morally acceptable to lie in order to save a life, for example. The Bible has a fairly consistent message as to what was considered mortally serious in Israel: murder, certain kinds of illicit sexual practices, and false religion. I'm arguing that this instance falls under the third category, albeit just barely.

There's an interesting aspect to the baldness thing that I didn't comment on, because I it's speculation on my part. It was not unheard of for Israelite men to shave their heads to indicate that they had taken a vow to serve God. All of the commentaries I read on this passage pointed out that Elisha was not an old man, but rather was probably in his twenties. What none of them seemed to note is that if someone that young was bald, it was probably because he had shaved his head, which very likely meant he was giving an outward sign of his devotion to God. Thus the mocking of the kids was once again, not just a mocking of Elisha individually, but a mocking of Elijah, a mocking of God, and a mocking of the act of devoting oneself to God.

Steve Wells: God killed people at least 90 times in the Bible. Are you saying that he did each of these killings to mark "the beginning of a new phase" in his work?

No, I'm saying several of the most surprisingly harsh instances of God's wrath seem to coincide with inflection points in Israel's history. There are certainly a number of very shocking things in the Bible that just happened in the course of time with no particular historical significance.

Steve Wells: You think it was a wonderful thing for God to do.

I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear: no, I think it's terrible. What I'm saying is that apparently there are instances where God feels He has to be terrible in order to make a point. When evil happens, bad stuff results, and sometimes the bad stuff includes the wrath of God.

எழில்: There are umpteen instances in Bible that this god changes some one's opinion or mind.

I'm not aware of any instances in the Bible where God simply forces someone to change their mind, although He certainly has times in history where He brings signs and wonders in order to influence people. Sometimes these signs seem cruel; possibly they really are cruel! (It's a matter of opinion.)

Tony: Surely if you're omnipotent you can kill kids with less pain and still get your message across.

It is strange in a number of ways. I was talking with a friend of mine at church yesterday about this passage, and he said that while he was aware of the passage, he'd always wondered if there was something symbolic about two she-bears. I told him I couldn't think of anything, nor had I found any suggestion in my research. I'll readily admit that I don't know why God chose to use this specific method, and it's weird. Like you, I could surely think of a dozen ways to supernaturally kill (or otherwise chastise) 42 kids that would be far less gruesome. Then again, maybe the cruelty was part of the point? I admittedly don't know.

Erp: Not that I'm looking for a realistic explanation for a legend, but, rabid animals (other than bats) are generally known for losing their normal fear of humans.

Or... Proverbs 17:12? (NIV: "Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly.") Maybe the fact that they are female bears is meaningful?

எழில் said...

I'm not aware of any instances in the Bible where God simply forces someone to change their mind, although He certainly has times in history where He brings signs and wonders in order to influence people. Sometimes these signs seem cruel; possibly they really are cruel! (It's a matter of opinion.)//

But he could harden the heart of Pharoah ?

http://bible.cc/exodus/9-12.htm

But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said to Moses.

Brucker said...

எழில்: But he could harden the heart of Pharoah ?

Sure, but my view on the matter is not that God made Pharaoh that way, but that God strengthened Pharaoh's resolve.

As a matter of unrelated curiosity, my word verification for this comment was "bearas". For some reason, I find that funny.

Steve Wells said...

Brucker,

When I said (in reference to the bad-news bears incident) that "you think it was a wonderful thing for God to do," you denied that and said "it was terrible."

So which was it, Brucker? Was it right (and wonderful) or wrong (and terrible) for him to sent the bears?

Steve Wells said...

Brucker and எழில்:

God also hardened the hears of all the kings in God's last killing (38th) so "that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly ... as the LORD commanded Moses.

Since God hardens hearts so that he can kill people, maybe he put the words in the boys mouths so that he could send bears to rip them apart. He's the type. No wonder believers love him so much.

Brucker said...

Steve Wells: So which was it, Brucker? Was it right (and wonderful) or wrong (and terrible) for him to sent the bears?

It was right and terrible. I don't think that's so difficult an idea to understand.

For instance, a few years back, I had my appendix taken out. It cost a lot of money, I had to stay overnight in the hospital and a doctor had to cut open my body, leaving three small scars. It was not fun. In fact, while not anywhere near the level of being mauled by a bear, I'd say it was terrible, but it saved my life, so it was the right thing to do.

The fact is, there are a lot of things that are right and terrible, and if you really thought about it, you could probably come up with things that were (oddly enough) wrong but wonderful.

Steve Wells: Since God hardens hearts so that he can kill people, maybe he put the words in the boys mouths so that he could send bears to rip them apart.

That's an odd idea, but also entirely possible. If God had decided it was time to deal with an issue in Bethel, He may very well have tweaked the situation.

Steve Wells said...

Brucker,

So it is right to kill children in a cruel way as long as it's for a good purpose (like discouraging people from insulting a prophet).

Would it be OK to fly planes into buildings if if some of the people in the building (or their country) insulted a prophet (like Muhammad or Elisha)? That would be right and terrible, too. Just like the bad-news bears massacre and your appendix operation.

Steve Wells said...

Hey Brucker, sorry to bother you again, but I have another question.

Do you think that all 42 (or 100 as you suggested) cried out "Go away, baldy" (or words to that effect) together in unison? That's pretty hard to arrange.

Or did just one or two say those words, but God sent the bears to kill them all anyway?

I guess it doesn't matter that much though, does it? Whatever God does in the Bible is just alright with you.

Brucker said...

So it is right to kill children in a cruel way as long as it's for a good purpose (like discouraging people from insulting a prophet).

You know, one of the big reasons I've never been worried about your list of God's killings is that from a theological perspective, it's not really at all troubling that God kills people. Everyone dies eventually, and in the face of eternity, you're going to spend far more time in the afterlife than here on earth anyway. (On a side note, this theological stance informs my view that while abortion is a bad thing, I don't think it's because it hurts the embryo; but that's another matter I don't want to get into.)

Cruelty is the issue that remains to be addressed, though. Getting mauled by bears can't be pleasant. Unfortunately, I don't have a good answer for this, other than to say that while I think these are kids, I do think they were old enough to be responsible for their own actions to some extent. And of course as a Christian, I have to assume God knows what He's doing.

Would it be OK to fly planes into buildings if if some of the people in the building (or their country) insulted a prophet (like Muhammad or Elisha)?

I certainly wouldn't advocate such an action, but I have two things to say about this question. First, as I'm sure both I and other Christians have said many times before, there is a difference between God killing people and people killing people, and it's a matter of authority. If my a man kills my children, I don't have the right to avenge meyself on him, but our judicial system has the right to do so. How much moreso does an omniscient God have the right to avenge wrongdoing?

Secondly, and more subtle, it's clear that you are referencing the events of 9/11/2001, and while I do not think the terrorists on that day were in the right, I confess that I would not say that violence is never the proper response to any situation. I think that individuals have not just the right, but even the duty to stand up to oppressive governments. If that meant flying planes into buildings, then I hope those who feel the need to make such extreme statements would do so in a manner to spare innocent lives as much as possible.

Do you think that all 42 (or 100 as you suggested) cried out "Go away, baldy" (or words to that effect) together in unison? That's pretty hard to arrange.

My guess would be that they all said it (or some subtle variation thereof), but probably not in unison.

Steve Wells said...

Brucker,

You know, one of the big reasons I've never been worried about your list of God's killings is that from a theological perspective, it's not really at all troubling that God kills people.

So God can kill people for any reason any way he likes and it doesn't bother you at all, because you look at it from "a theological perspective." He can send bears to rip apart children for saying "go away, baldy", burn people to death for complaining, bury them alive for pretty much no reason at all.
And it's OK because you've got your theological blinders on.

Cruelty is a good thing when God does it. When God is cruel you aren't bothered by it, you celebrate it. Hell, you worship it.

Brucker said...

So God can kill people for any reason any way he likes and it doesn't bother you at all, because you look at it from "a theological perspective."

Any reason, yes. Any way, no. Now, of course it's better if there is a clear reason that can be seen, but when there isn't? I don't know, and I'm not sure what you're looking for from me in response.

Steve Wells said...

I'm not sure what you're looking for from me in response.

I'm not sure either, Brucker. I guess it just comes down to your choice of Gods. There are thousands to choose from, some naughty and some nice, but each with the same amount of evidence for their existence. Zero. Yet you choose to believe in one that would send a couple bears to rip apart 42 boys for making fun of a prophet's bald head (along with more than 1000 other cruel deeds).

Brucker said...

Okay, here's a crazy idea: Let me guest-post again, and I'll address your full-length cruelty list. I think it's an exaggeration, and I'd be happy to give an opinion as to the extent.

Steve Wells said...

That sounds like fun, Brucker.

Send it to me.

Dave B said...

Hi Steve, Brucker, et al. I participated in Steve’s original 2 Kings 2:23 posting, and just now discovered this new thread. Good stuff. This story was a catalyst that began my journey away from Christianity nearly 10 years ago I got a knot in my chest when I was reading this story to my then small children from one of the Bible story books for children.

Not much to add here, but Brucker made a statement that brought that all back. Brucker said, “…from a theological perspective, it's not really at all troubling that God kills people.”

A fascinating statement that pretty much sums up (to me anyway) why I now detest religion. In worshipping a murdering tyrant, Brucker, you have simply lost your humanity.

The non-believers here (and on every religious blog I participate in) are the ones expressing compassion for their fellow human beings. Christians, on the other hand, spend considerable time with cognitive dissonance and must continuously justify in their minds why a loving omniscient omnipotent creator would knowingly create a world where he would murder his own creation, including his own son.

It is sick.

Brucker said...

Well, Dave B, you've got a point, but I'd hope you might see mine. We all die anyway, so is it so wrong for God to kill, seeing as He has the long view?

But you've also hit on something that is the most shocking thing about Christianity, not despiteof, but because of its fundamentality: The murder of God's own Son.

It is sick, and that's the point.

Steve Wells said...

Burcker,

You know, one of the big reasons I've never been worried about your list of God's killings is that from a theological perspective, it's not really at all troubling that God kills people.

Then you're either a liar, lunatic, or a lousy apologist.

God's killings are "not at all troubling" unless you believe that cruelty is wrong or that God is good. But I guess neither of these ideas are a part of your "theological perspective."

But you've also hit on something that is the most shocking thing about Christianity, not despite of, but because of its fundamentality: The murder of God's own Son.

It is sick, and that's the point.


Well, at least I agree with you there, Brucker. Your religion is sick. Any God who who would murder his own son shouldn't be trusted by anyone.

Steve Wells said...

So which is it, Brucker?

Are God's killings "not at all troubling" to you because you believe cruelty is good or because you believe that God is evil?

Brucker said...

I don't think killing is cruel per se, because everyone dies. The manner in which someone is killed may be cruel or unfair, yes, but the mere fact of dying is not in itself remarkable.

Steve Wells said...

That's not what I asked you, Brucker.

I didn't ask if killing is cruel. I asked if you think cruelty is good. Do you? Is anything cruel to you? How about burning people to death?

I suppose you'll say that it's OK if God burns people to death. After all, "everyone dies." Is it OK if he burns them forever after they're dead? After all, everyone feels pain now and then.

You don't seem like a lunatic and you're not a lousy apologist. And I am having a really hard time believing you when you say that you've "never been worried about your list of God's killings."

The reason you pretend not to be bothered is that you have no answer for the cruel and disgusting behavior of a God that is supposed to be good. So you sweep it under the rug of your "theological perspective" and hope that no one will see it there.

Well, I see it, Brucker. And it's a mess under there.

Brucker said...

What you asked me was (as worded) a multiple-choice question for which I rejected both options. Cruelty is not good, nor is God evil. I think the place where we disconnect more often than not is in the fact that cruelty is a matter of opinion.

I will readily admit that that is not always the case. There are instances of what appear to be cruelty in the Bible on the part of God that I cannot explain away. Sometimes that's where faith comes in. Call it a cop-out if you must, and I'll take it.

Burning people forever after they've died, however? I have made my perspective on that matter as clear as I can. God gives people a choice, and honors that choice despite the natural consequences.

I don't see it as sweeping it under a rug, though. Perhaps sweeping it into a corner, but one where I refuse to cover it up. That's why I appreciate you despite the fact that your intentions are in many ways the exact opposite of my own: someone needs to shine a light in that ugly, dusty corner and ask hard questions.

I see it too. I just see the rest of the floor as well.

Steve Wells said...

So, Brucker, do you think it's cruel to burn people to death? (It would be nice to get a "yes" or "no" answer on this before you start hiding it with your "theological perspective.")

I read your justification of Hell. You have a knack for making nasty things sound almost nice.

You say that "the real issue is having enough information to understand to some extent the nature of God, and refusing to acknowledge Him." Well, I have enough information. But I could no more "acknowledge" the existence of the God of the Bible than I could acknowledge the truth of astrology or the fair and balanced nature of Fox News -- which from your (nasty) theological perspective means that I deserve to be tormented (nicely) forever in Hell.

Are you as unconcerned with truth as you are untroubled by cruelty?

Steve Wells said...

Shoot Brucker! I was hoping you'd explain why burning people to death isn't "really at all troubling" when you look at it from a "theological perspective."

Maybe you'd like to do a guest post on it? How about explaining why God's 15th killing doesn't trouble you?

Are there any other believers that would like to do a guest post on this? Let me know.

Brucker said...

Sorry, I was taking some time to consider whether I really had anything useful to add to the conversation. Truthfully, I'm not sure I do at this point, but I guess I should answer you anyway.

Burning people to death does seem rather cruel, yes. Really, so does stoning for that matter, which is a much more common method of killing Biblical miscreants, isn't it? Both are troubling, and there's no need to deny it.

The only thing that I think I could say in defense of that sort of thing is that these punishments are meant to be not only punitive, but preventive.

Steve Wells said...

Thanks, Brucker.

So burning people to death seems cruel to you, and it is troubling to you that God burned people to death in the Bible.

But I thought you said that God's killings aren't at all troubling to you since you view them from a theological perspective. Which is it?

And what's with the "miscreants" stuff? God killed every Egyptian firstborn child in his tenth Egyptian plague. Were all those children miscreants?

I think God's killings trouble you plenty, Brucker. That's why you and other apologists are reluctant to address them.

Brucker said...

It's death itself that doesn't bother me; the manner of killing may be a different matter. Burning hurts, but it only hurts a live person. Once they die, there is no longer any pain. There is no evidence that the Egyptian firstborns were burned, nor that they suffered in any way. The ones who suffered that plague were the parents, Egyptians who were complacent while the Hebrews were held in slavery for over 400 years, and their own children were drowned in the Nile.

Then again, you were the one who felt it was wrong for the Hebrew midwives to lie to save the lives of Hebrew boys, right?

Steve Wells said...

I see, Brucker.

You're OK with God burning people to death because the pain only lasts a little while and after the "miscreants" die they don't suffer anymore. (Unless God decides to punish them forever after they die, which you're also OK with. After all, they're miscreants.)

And everything's fair game with children. God can kill them any way he likes. After all, it's not them that he's punishing; it's their parents. Fair is fair.

And I didn't say it was wrong for the Hebrew midwives to lie. I said God rewarded them for lying (which he did).

I suppose God might do the same to you. If he existed, that is.

Brucker said...

I guess I should have taken your advice and gone for the simple answer. Am I okay with burning? No.

Burning hurts, dying doesn't.

Steve Wells said...

Brucker,

OK. So you think burning people to death is cruel.

How then do you deal with the times in the Bible when God burns people to death or when he commands others to do so? Is it always wrong to be cruel or is it OK in certain circumstances (like when God does it or commands others to do it)?

How do you avoid concluding that the God of the Bible is cruel, and, therefore, not good?

Brucker said...

Ever heard the phrase "You've got to be cruel to be kind"? While burning to death is pretty far up the cruel scale (and so is bear-mauling) there's truth to it. There are a lot of arguably cruel ways that people are killed in the Bible, but it's not arbitrary.

God says, "Don't {fill in the blank}, or you'll be stoned to death." Don't want to be stoned to death? Then don't do whatever it was God said not to do. And God tells people to act in certain ways not because He enjoys seeing people stoned/burned/mauled to death, but because He wants them to avoid things that will hurt them and their society.

We can argue this back and forth as long as you want, but we each know we're not likely to disabuse the other of his opinion.

Steve Wells said...

Oh, I see. You think it's OK to be cruel. You've got to be cruel to be kind, and all that.

You think it's OK to stone or burn people to death. It's OK for God to do it; it's OK for you to do it if God tells you to.

That's enough for me. Your heart has been completely hardened by the God of the Bible. You have no morals left at all.

Brucker said...

Read my responses however you want, Steve; I obviously have no way of making you do otherwise.

Steve Wells said...

Is there another way to read your responses, Brucker?

But maybe I have misread them. I'll try rephrasing the question.

Do you think it is wrong to burn or stone people to death?

Paul said...

Ok I have a major problem here with the "filling in of grey areas" with wild guesses that attempt to justify a horrific (and weird) massacre. If we are going to analyse these things we really need to stick to the facts of what is written, not just dream up bits to help soften the blow. We cant just guess that as many as 100 kids may have been involved, or postulate on whether kids might actually mean adults - it doesnt say any of that. Why dont we make it even more "forgivable". Lets say the kids were stamping on images of the Pope as well - I mean come on! Chants of "Go up you bald head" sounds like a pretty tame angry mob to me, get yourself down to any football ground any day of the week and youll hear much bigger crowds shouting worse things at individuals than that! I really think that discussing the ins and outs of such blatant nonsense has its limits and as regardless of whether this actually happened or not, it comes down to one simple question:
Is it Ok to slay people who dont agree with you?
Thats a simple question with a yes or no answer. God may be offended by people who deny him, Elisah might be offended by people who draw attention to his slaphead. I personally am offended by people who look for divine meaning in ancient nonsense and dont see the hypocrisy in claiming that a story about prepubsecents being slaughtered by wildlife is actually a message of divine love! Id take this more seriously if you claimed you heard it when spinning a Beatles record backwards!

Brucker said...

Man, now you're making me nostalgic. Ah, the good old days of turntables and playing music backwards. Did you ever play "Purple Rain" backwards? Good stuff, although I always was partial to playing 33s on 45 and turning every record into a Chipmunks album.

Back to the point, though... I don't think I am making "wild guesses", although you may of course disagree. I'd like to think I'm making educated guesses based on larger context. The story does not outright say that there were more than 42 in the crowd, nor does it say that they were actually adults. What it also doesn't say is that they were "prepubescents", that Elisha was "offended", nor even (explicitly) that God was involved in any way. But like stories in any work of literature, you read what's there and try to infer what is not there.

Is it okay to slay people who don't agree with you? I'd say no, but don't read that this is what happened here.

Paul said...

Brucker
What is what happened here then? Is it Ok to slay people who call you baldy? Is it Ok to slay people who dont believe in God? Is it Ok to slay anybody via the medium of she-bear or otherwise?
As for the reading between the lines, this is the classical biblical interpretation which is what I find a extremely difficult to justify. You might call it an educated guess, but a scientist would call it baseless speculation, a historian would call the whole thing an untrustworthy secondary source and a Muslim would call it blasphy. Is your educated guess based on a profound knowledge of the ecology of bears? The sociology of group dynamics? Or an extensive study of the stigma associated with baldness in a cultural context in societies of the biblical Holy Land? Educated guesses have to be educated, otherwise they are just guesses. I could guess for example that were 50,000 people in that crowd, that at least half of them were carrying weapons and that in fact the bears were bald too and just acting in self defence. They were later killed and barbecued afterwards and the whole town praised God for such a feast. You see there is a difference between an educated guess and a guess. Guesses have no basis other than a vague plausibility. I am sure you can understand that when you try to apply this sort of "guess" to modern day moral issues (such as whether you can kill people who dont share your religious beliefs) then the potential for problems are enormous!
Nobody in their right mind would go so far as to describe the events portrayed in this frankly ridiculous story (because lets face it, it is ridiculous!) as either moral, or as some kind of baseline instruction manual on how to be a good person.
You see the point I am trying to make is that there is absolutely no harm in speculating on a work of fiction. Whether Pinocchio is a social comment on puppet adoption or whether Peter Pan had pubic hair may be entertaining discussions, but nobody is making the leap to apply the results of the "educated guesses" used in those cases to real life scenarios, and anybody who attempted to would probably get the short shrift that they deserve. What you are doing is claiming that this is the word of God, the highest law, then using a 21st Century attitude to speculate on the moral message behind a 3000 or more year old bear attack! Is that sillier than talking about Peter Pan´s pubes? As facetious as I am being here, its a serious issue, people fly aeroplanes into buildings based on this same attitude. (of course I am not suggesting that you would by any stretch of the imagination, I am however saying that permitting this kind of "reading between the lines" when it comes to Holy Books enables people to do that kind of thing!)
Its also interesting you say that it doesnt mention Gods involvement here. Is it fair to say that the non-involvement of God in events here means that we should cease to look for divine meaning in this horrible little tale? Lets just say killing people is wrong, people being killed by bears never constitutes "being cruel to be kind" and bald people really shouldnt be surprised if a crowd of kids decides to poke fun at them (Im bald myself so I speak from experience - there is never a bear around when you need them these days!).
Otherwise lets start debating the possible social message behind that guy who got bit in the face by a bear on Polish telly? (Its actually a very funny video if youre not the one with the bears jaws wrapped around your head!). At least we have eye witnesses there!
Salutti
P

Brucker said...

I can't figure out why I'm liking your responses so much. Maybe it's because you seem to be admitting in your verbosity that dealing with things like this is far from simple. Whether you're a Bible believer or not, when you approach this story and try to figure out what's going on, what it means, and what the moral implications are, you have to make some assumptions, and with the sketchy detail given, it's likely that different people will make different assumptions (probably ones that support their own viewpoint, natch).

You do point out something that's important, though, although I don't think you mean it the way I am going to run with it. I don't think this is a moral tale. Certainly we're not meant to take away from this that when we do God's work, we should use bears to silence our detractors. The humorous "Don't fuck with God or bears will eat you" message is just humor, and not meant by anyone to be taken seriously. I hope!) So what are we to take from it? Frankly, I don't fully know, nor do I think this is a "good" story. The fact that it's mentioned in the Bible indicates that God was probably involved, and there was a moral issue involved, but sure, I'm only speculating as to what it was. My only defense is that what I speculate is not completely unthinkable.

Paul said...

Brucker
You almost get what I am trying to say. In fact its not that dealing with this kind of thing is far from simple. It is that looking for things that arent there is a waste of time. The only reason that we think that there HAS to be a message behind this is because we are assuming there must be because it is in the Bible. If we remove the assumption (because it is an assumption that you even make yourself in your message!) that the Bible is the word of God, then BINGO all the difficulties disappear. Its only difficult because we are asking the wrong question. Imagine for example if Galileo had allowed himself to be restrained by religious claptrap (and they tried their best to bully him into thinking their way too!). Can we not learn the lessons of the past?
Its just a horrible little story! Then there is no need to justify mass killing as merciful any more than you have to try to justify what Freddy Krueger does! Its just pointless, frequently silly, and often nonsensical drivel.
This stuff was written by ancient scribes to be read by ancient communities with an ancient understanding of the way the world works. The message for me is clear FEAR GOD. Believe in him or die a horrible death on earth and suffer for eternity in hell. That is a message that is repeated throughout the old testament - its invariable, reaches new levels of horribleness each time, and the only thing that outstrips the horribleness of it all is the silliness of it. I can understand why these things might frighten a Mesopotamian goat herder in 5AD but a person with a high school in the 21st Century really should be seeing through it! Its purpose was to scare people into believing in God. The need to do that being because the actual evidence for the existence of God is so flimsy that anybody with a modicum of rationality wouldnt need more than about 3 nanoseconds to dismiss it as a load of rubbish.
Its funny that you bring up the Kids Dont fuck with God or bears will eat you message as humour! THAT IS EXACTLY THE MESSAGE THAT THE HUMAN BEINGS BEHIND THIS STORY WANTED TO CONVEY!!
You are obviously a smart guy, and from your messages you seem like a nice guy too. It is just incredibly strange to me that you cant see that this explanation is BY FAR the most plausible one, in fact of all the explanations offered it is THE ONLY plausible one. It is the only one that doesnt require magical beings, bears with attitude problems, bald-headed prophets with the ability to ask favours from those same magical beings etc. It is even stranger that based on the flawed assumption that omnipotent beings simply MUST be behind all this, that you would then seek to find something positive in what would be, if it actually happened, a horrendous occurrence. I mean be honest, how would you react if a Muslim started to tell you that 9/11 was a good thing because the people in the towers didnt love their God. Its loopy nonsense no matter which side it comes from!
What you speculate is in fact completely unthinkable, because the very fact that an omnipotent God is behind all this makes it that way. It then takes the leap into surreality when killing people becomes a good thing when God does it, and outright silliness when grown adults spend their Sundays discussing this stuff and trying to figure out ways that they can convince themselves that all this means that they are really good people and are going to heaven as a result.
Laters
P

agema-makedonin said...

If God has the plan for eternity, there is no reasonable concept to explain why he is bothering with this finit world, other than the concept Sadism.

All the cruelty that he allegedly did (I would rather argue that it is a product of sick human mind) is a moment in eternity, so why bother doing it, when he has the blue pring for such a alleged glorious eternety?

He should kill us all (he already about to do this and plans to do it again), create other pupets as he did, grant them no free will, and play with them eternally. All should worship him, and he will never have the need to be jaelous again (Exodus 34:14).

That all ofcourse, if he is a omnipotent.

Biblical God is only a evolving concept of God that served various needs of sadistic nomad people of Izrael, that is all there it is to it.

Brucker said...

Coming back and reading this now nearly two years after the fact, Paul makes a statement in his last comment that in some ways cuts right to the heart of the matter, but in other ways misses the point. Paul writes:

"If we remove the assumption (because it is an assumption that you even make yourself in your message!) that the Bible is the word of God, then BINGO all the difficulties disappear."

The way in which this misses the point has a lot to do with the raison d'être of this very blog. When you get down to it, Steve Wells certainly doesn't believe that the Bible is the word of God, so why does he bother? For him, and of course many other Bible skeptics, studying the Bible has value because he knows that somewhere around one-third of the world's population *does* believe this, and if you want to deal with such people, it can sometimes be useful to meet them on their own territory, so to speak.

With that thought in place, the next thing that is vital in understanding the Bible from the point of view of a believer is that you have to more or less pretend for the sake of argument that God exists, and in some way has inspired this set of books to be written. I briefly mentioned that fact at the beginning of my own blog, because in understanding what the writers of these books are getting at, you have to at least accept that they intended their writings to be taken that way.

If you click that link, you'll see that I drew a parallel to science fiction. If you watch the movie The Terminator and say, "Well, this is stupid; there's no such thing as cyborgs and time travel!" you're missing the point that within the (fictional) world Sarah Connor lives, they do exist. You may consider the Bible fiction, but you won't understand it unless you take it on its own terms.

LanceThruster said...

God should have instantly grown some kick-ass hair on Elisha's head, and had the hair of the mouthy kids fall out (or turn to snakes that bite them or something).

Seems like this God character is not very good at "poetic justice."