I have often talked about being careful about how we understand scripture, and this week is no different. It is Transfiguration Sunday, but this year we will be focusing on the Elijah/Elisha passage instead of the gospel passage.
One important thing to understand when approaching any of the Elijah/Elisha stories is the concept of genre. Yes, scripture has genres. Different parts of scripture are meant to be read differently. There is poetry, law, history, wisdom, theology, letters, and so much more in scripture. One of the biggest problems we have with modern understandings of scripture is the fact that we read it as though it should all be heard the same way—some sort of deeply reverent, solemn, historical, factual reading. This is actually a huge problem for us! This flattens out the depths of scripture and greatly reduces the meaning. Frankly, it is one of the more abusive things we can do with scripture.
So what does this have to do with Elijah and Elisha? Well, these stories are often completely misunderstood because of how we have flattened out the depths of scripture. Though the Elijah series shows up in Kings, what we call the “history books,” we need to understand that this genre of history is very different from the modern understanding of history. If we read these as modern history, we are forced to see Elijah as a brutal and nasty man—he massacres 400 prophets of Baal, he calls down heavenly fire on 150 of the kings men, and oh yeah, the part of the passage that we are not reading this week features a bunch of kids teasing Elisha for being bald and Elisha’s response is to call two she bears out of the woods to devour all the children of the village. Bet you didn’t know that one was there, did ya?!?
What do we do with stories like these? Well, if we understand that this genre of scripture is more like a comic book or Sunday morning comic strip, these problems resolve themselves. You see, there are different depths of truth than just what is factually or historically accurate. Sometimes truth is about the lessons and morals, and yes, even humor that speak to depths of truth that facts can’t touch. We have to remember that the first readers of these stories, weren’t actually readers at all! These were stories that were passed around campfires, and told to children as they prepared for bed. Not only that, but many of these stories were being told to children who had been exiled from their home lands and were living in harsh conditions in foreign lands. What kind of stories need to be told to kids in these conditions? Stories of powerful characters who are filled with the Spirit of God, that remind them that the nasty reality they live in is not the end of the story. Think about our own world. Is it any coincidence that in the years following 9/11 there were so many comic book movies that were re-launched? We got a new Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Avengers, etc. We needed heroes. Just like the Israelites needed them after the exile. That speaks to deep levels of truth that facts and history can only hint at. It teaches us a great deal about ourselves, and it also teaches us a great deal about the nature of God. God raises people up when we need them the most—which is exactly what our passage is about this week, but we’ll hear more about that on Sunday.
These are stories that have great meaning, but perhaps questionable historical accuracy. That isn’t a problem for us because there are more important truths than history or facts.