Holy Chutzpah – Elisha

Holy Chutzpah – Elisha

Holy Chutzpah – Elisha.

“Elisha left Jericho and went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, a group of boys from the town began mocking and making fun of him. “Go on up, baldy!” they chanted. “Go on up, baldy!” Elisha then turned around and looked at them, and he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of them.” (2 Kings 2:33-35).

Chutzpah (hoots-pah) is a Yiddish word that long ago entered English usage. It is from the Hebrew word, “hutspah,” which means insolent or audacious. Chutzpah is a neutral word that can be either positive or negative. Chutzpah can be righteous or unrighteous, holy or unholy. It is an idea difficult to define, so there are a lot of synonyms for it, especially in the biblical sense: spiritual audacity; brazen gall; tenacious stubbornness; headstrong persistence; outrageous guts; shameless nerve; feisty assertiveness; brazen impudence; unyielding boldness; courageous spine; expectant defiance. The Holy Scriptures, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are overflowing with examples of holy chutzpah. One wonders not only if it’s a job requirement for saints and prophets, but also a faith requirement for all believers. In fact, God seems to love chutzpah in us when it is based on our ultimate trust in Him and His character, our unselfish motives, our yearning for justice and mercy. Chutzpah in front of others becomes holy when it is done in obedience to the Lord and is an outworking of our faith in Him. As Rabbi Schulweiss once said, “Spiritual audacity toward God finds a place of honor in Jewish religious thought.” The rabbis of old have always insisted that chutzpah is a valid expression of faith. Just a quick glimpse at the Gospels reveals that Jesus and His followers fully embraced the ancient Jewish ethic of holy chutzpah. When Jesus saw chutzpah in action, He usually said things like, “Great is your faith!” Maybe Christian scholar Dr. Brad Young said it best. “True faith requires bold perseverance. Sometimes it is expressed by brazen impudence. Faith can be defined as chutzpah. Persevere with unyielding tenacity.” (Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian).

Elisha was handpicked by Yahweh to be the replacement for Elijah as a prophet to Israel. His ministry occurred around 800 BC, only 150 years after David, and he was a prophet for 55 years, through four kings of Israel. Elijah did as he was told and selected Elisha, and he was Elisha’s mentor for seven to eight years. After that time of discipleship  in the ways of being Yahweh’s prophet, Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery whirlwind of chariot and horses. And Elisha was left on his own to carry on the prophetic tradition. Fortunately, Elisha was more than up to the task. He had asked Elijah for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit before Elijah was taken up to heaven, and that proved to be the case. Elisha was involved with everything to do with Israel… religious reform, politics, military campaigns, palace intrigues, and performing remarkably practical miracles. Elisha ended up working twice the number of miracles as Elijah, and so Elisha was one of the greatest miracle workers in the Hebrew Bible. Elisha was a man of great spiritual strength and integrity, and he seemed to have boundless energy. Everywhere one looked in Israel, there was Elisha, the prophet of Yahweh. Elisha was always ready to show some chutzpah for Yahweh.

Elisha was the kindest miracle worker one could hope for. He cared for the practical needs of ordinary people in their daily lives. As he came upon needy people in his journeys, he was used of God to meet those needs. One study Bible mentions that there were at least eighteen encounters between Elisha and people in some type of need, and Elisha each time demonstrated powerful and caring help to those people. Some of his ordinary miracles were… He purified the drinking water for the people of Jericho; He multiplied the amount of a widow’s supply of oil so she could pay her debts and keep her sons from being sold into debtor’s slavery; he purified a poisonous stew so a group of prophets could eat it safely; he found a group of 100 prophets who didn’t have enough food to eat, so he multiplied loaves of bread for them till all were satisfied; he raised a child to life; he healed a man of leprosy. Elisha’s kindness knew no bounds.

Elisha might have been a model of compassionate chutzpah in many cases, but there was one incident that at first glance doesn’t look all that righteous. In fact, Elisha ended up looking quite foolish and needlessly vengeful, not only to the people of his day but also to readers of the Hebrew Bible nowadays. “… Elisha then turned around and looked at them, and he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of them.” (2 Kings 2:33-35).

Upon the first reading of this rather strange incident, one could forgive Frederick Buechner’s rather humorous understanding of it. “It is not the most edifying story in the Old Testament, but there are perhaps some lessons to be learned from it even so. The Lord does not call everyone to be Mister Rogers, for instance, and there is no need to try making a fool out of a prophet because sooner or later he will probably make one out of himself.”  (Peculiar Treasures).  What was Elisha thinking? Was he just having a bad day? But calling on some bears to maul some kids? And why did the Lord seem to be going along with this travesty, since this was all done “in the name of the Lord“?

As it turns out, this incident is much more complicated than it looks. Elisha was walking near a town called Bethel. It is ironic that the name means “House of God,” because it was the established center in Israel for idolatry and cultic worship. A golden bull was placed in the town to worship, and there were plenty of pagan prophets living in the town to encourage this idolatry. Bethel was on the southern edge of Israel, only a few miles from Jerusalem, yet it had developed into a strong anti-Yahweh sentiment in the town. Bethel was the national center of the bull-cult, harkening back to Mt. Sinai and Moses. The people of Bethel had thus grown to hate prophets of Yahweh, and did what they could to keep the town free from their presence, and from being under their influence. Elisha was not surrounded by a little Boy Scout troop in Bethel. This was a gang of at least 42 young men (or older boys), who were putting pressure on Elisha to leave Bethel, to “go on” up the road and out of their town. The other translation of those taunts “Go on up!” was that they were referring to the well known whirlwind of Elijah. Probably everyone knew of Elijah’s miraculous departure with the fiery chariot and horses. And so the jeering boys would have meant, Why don’t you blast off just like your friend Elijah! Why don’t you just go on up to heaven like him and leave us alone! This gang of toughs surrounded Elisha and showed their hatred of him and his God Yahweh, telling them to get out of town. They were not simply throwing out childish taunts, they were bullying and intimidating Elisha, telling him to leave Bethel and take his God with him. So Elisha essentially said, I will not do as you say without God’s  judgment. I will not just volunteer to leave Bethel and remove the presence of Yahweh without a fight. And then, in the name of Yahweh, out came the bears.

By throwing this curse at those teenage boys, Elisha highlighted what God had warned in the Torah, “If you remain hostile to me and refuse to listen to me… I will send wild animals against you and they will rob you of your children.” (Lev. 26:21-22). Evidently, the Lord wanted to send a wake-up call to the people of Bethel by using Elisha’s natural chutzpah, and by supporting Elisha’s decision to respond to those blasphemous young people. All in all, Elisha’s life ended up being a prophetic example of St. Paul’s observation, “Notice how God is both kind and severe.” (Romans 11:22). We see both kindness and severity in the biblical chutzpah of Elisha.