Keeping up Appearances

These readings and sermon were delivered at Underbank Chapel in Sheffield by Rev.Maud Robinson on Sunday 13th June 2021, just before she had all her hair shaved off to be sent to The Princess Trust, which makes wigs and provides them free of charge to children who have lost their hair to cancer or other illnesses. It costs about £550 to make each wig and the charity is solely supported by charitable fundraising. A call for sponsorship for Maud’s Big-Hair-Chop brought in an amazing £1,338.68 + £174.00 Gift Aid. Many thanks to Dublin Unitarians who contributed to that total.
          I was having dinner with Bill and Morag (Rev.Bill Darlison, formerly of this parish) the week before the Big Chop and idly asked him if he could think of any suitable biblical readings about hair and baldness. Without skipping a beat he said “well, there are those very curious verses at the end of the 2nd chapter of the, 2nd Book of Kings . . . Ah, what it is to have a pal with such command of biblical scholarship ! !

Song of Solomon Ch4: vl;16
1 Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
          16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

2 Kings Ch2: vll-12;23-24
11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
          12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more . . .
          23 [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”
          24 And he turned round, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

Gospel of John Ch7: v23-24 Jesus is speaking:
23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?
          24 Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.

The Song of Solomon reading: it’s easy to interpret - a celebration of beauty and sensual pleasure. I've not got much to say about it, except that it’s a terrible shame that this aspect of a full and rich spiritual life has been so side-lined by some religious people, in favour of the more austere or downright punitive aspects of the Good Book.
          The passage from 2 Kings is much more problematic, but it took me on a rollicking good ride through some attempts at interpreting it. Among other things, I read a scholarly article from The Journal of Biblical Literature.

Random aside - Academia constantly both fascinates and repels me. The forensic, minutely detailed study of obscure and arcane matters sometimes seems admirable to me, and sometimes seems utterly absurd. The more I learn about the politics, and oftentimes pressure to ‘follow the party line,’ within academia the more it sometimes seems repellent to me. A case in point - Karen Armstrong, the highly respected writer on world religions, was denied her PhD by Oxford University. Her whole PhD thesis was debunked by one of her examiners, who disagreed with her interpretation of her subject. She was failed, without the opportunity to resubmit. She appealed this decision, and several other academics agreed that she had made a well-argued case for her point of view, so the thesis should not have been failed. However, the powers-that-be at Oxford University ruled that it would call into question the academic authority of the University if a PhD decision was later overruled, and so she was not permitted to resubmit the thesis. She was not awarded a PhD. She went on to write dozens of academically acclaimed works on world religions and is a recognised authority on her subject. Anyway back to my arcane article from The Journal of Biblical Literature about the two she bears mauling 42 small boys, because they had hurled insults at the bald-headed Elisha. This incident occurs at the end of Chapter 2 of 2 Kings, Here’s a bit of context:
          In Chapter 1, Elijah gives a prophecy about the death of the king of Samaria. The king sends first one and then another troop of 50 men to tell Elijah to “Come down” to Samaria to fill him in on this prophecy. Each time, Elijah responds to the men “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you fifty.” Each time the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed the fifty. When a third troop is sent to him, he finally does go down to the king. He tells the king he’s going to die. And the king does die.
          Then comes Chapter 2, where our reading came from. Elijah is taken up into heaven by a whirlwind of fiery horses and chariots. Some other things happen in the chapter; and then come the closing verses about the baldy insults and the mauling of the 42 young boys.
          So what on earth is that all about ? ? I'm going to tell you right now that I still haven’t got a clue what it’s all about, but here’s what some others think.
          My scholarly article was by Joel Burnett, PhD (he did get his PhD!!) Professor of Hebrew Bible & Semitic Languages at a University in Texas. The main thrust of his long scholarly article is to demonstrate that the story of Elisha (junior prophet) corresponds to the story of Elijah (senior prophet) in a mirror-like fashion. And Burnett PhD reckons that this mirror-like correspondence confirms Elisha’s succession to his master, as a prophet.
          Chapters 1 & 2 describe various journeys taken by Elijah and Elisha, and this mirror-like correspondence between the stories of the two men is shown in several ways.
          • Elijah Goes Down to Bethel, then goes to Jericho, then crosses the Jordan; then he’s taken up by the fiery whirlwind. Then the mirroring starts, as Elisha recrosses the Jordan, goes to Jericho, and then at Bethel he is told by his tormentors to Go Up.

“Go Up Baldy, Go Up Baldy” is said twice, and this corresponds to Elijah being told twice to “Go Down” to the king of Samaria.
          The two bears of Elisha correspond to the two troops of men destroyed by fire at Elijah’s instigation.
          In addressing Elisha as baldhead it contrasts to the description of Elijah as hairy. This contrast suggests a challenge to Elisha’s authority, and that’s apparently why these boys deserve to be mauled by bears.
          Burnett PhD goes into great detail about the geography of the area and takes issue with Elijah and Elisha “going down to Bethel.” Apparently “going down to Bethel” is geographically incorrect and can, according to Burnett, be seen as part of a subtle yet significant anti-Bethel polemic in the passage. Bethel is seen as uniquely emblematic of disobedience to Israel’s God. Burnett suggests that this reference to going down to Bethel brings prophetic authority to the certain demise which is in store for the hated city of Bethel; and this destruction of Bethel is eventually carried out by the Hebrew king, Josiah.
          Then there’s a whole other line of argumentation, which I read from several commentators. Most translations speak about a group of small boys or children hurling abuse at Elisha. One commentator says that at Sunday school it was used as a scare story to let them know what might happen to them if they didn’t respect their elders. But now he knows better, it wasn’t children who were mauled. This is corroborated by our friend, Burnett PhD (with several pages of linguistic proofs). He writes “the group of males who confront Elisha, far from being little children, are actually young men of the royal - and perhaps priestly - establishment of Bethel.”
          Several biblical apologists contend that people who are uncomfortable with this story because of 42 children being mauled are all wrong. In fact, it’s 42 young men who are mauled and they were insulting God’s prophet, so they had it coming to them.
          Furthermore, the number 42 figures regularly in the Hebrew Bible (and of course in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) as a symbolic number of potential blessing or curse, confirming that this event was the result neither of a natural coincidence nor the prophet’s own caprice but of divine intent. Here endeth my findings about 2 Kings 2:23-34.
          There are biblical apologists who insist that every word of the bible is not only true, but literally true. What can I say?? I don't agree.
          The bible consists of a series of stories: some simple and wise and spiritually insightful; others deeply symbolic and esoteric and much more difficult to interpret. Interpretation of stories can be a rich a rewarding vein of spiritual study. I contend that not all biblical stories are of equal merit, or at least not by any interpretation which is readily available to us.
          An old testament scholar for whom I have great respect is Walter Brueggemann. He writes: “I have come to the rather simplistic notion that imagination is the capacity to image a world beyond what is obviously given. That’s the work of poets and novelists and artists—and that’s what biblical writers mostly do. I think that’s why people show up at church. They want to know whether there is any other world available than the one that we can see, which we can hardly bear.”
          There are many stories in the bible which respond well to this work of imaginative interpretation and some which just don’t.
          To bring things to a close with a more salutary passage, in our final reading Jesus counsels: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” This is not an easy thing to do, but it’s the task which we humans have, here in this crazy mixed-up life: to look for sources of good judgement and not to make instant judgements on the basis of appearances. This is hard work and often take several circles around the block before we get it right, but it’s what we’re here to do.
          I brought the service to a close - before going out to face the clippers - by regaling the congregation with a recording of the song Hair from the 1979 film version of the anti-war comedy musical Hair.

Rev.Maud Robinson
Underbank Chapel