How so very dear

Joshua Cohen

  • The Flame Alphabet: A Novel by Ben Marcus
    Granta, 289 pp, £16.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84708 622 8

A prophet is wandering Samaria when he encounters a gang of children. They begin taunting him, pointing out his baldness. The prophet becomes enraged and curses them, and suddenly two female bears lumber out of the woods and maul the children, killing them. The prophet is Elisha, who inherited Elijah’s powers when the latter ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. Kings 2.23-24 is the West’s first account of ‘mocking children’ – the language is the Bible’s – and also marks the beginning of what psychologists in the 1980s called ‘the blame cycle’. The rabbis of the Talmud struggled with this story, and sought to contextualise the children’s punishment: to call the prophet ‘bald’, they said, was to accuse him of betraying Elijah’s legacy, of neglecting his priestly duties, even of spreading leprosy (baldness was thought to be an indicator of the disease). The early Christian Fathers who interpreted the tale were more concerned with establishing that even the holiest of men could be tempted by Satan. Both sets of commentators claimed that the she-bears responded to Elisha personally, not to any divine command. Neither religion was mature enough to understand that God hates children as much as he hates the rest of us.

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