The Drunkenness of Noah; The Mocking of Christ; Children mocking the prophet Elisha, from a Biblia Pauperum by Unknown Netherlandish artist

Unknown Netherlandish artist

The Drunkenness of Noah; The Mocking of Christ; Children mocking the prophet Elisha, from a Biblia Pauperum, c.1395–1400, Illuminated manuscript, 175 x 385 mm, The British Museum, London, Kings MS 5, fol. 15r, © The British Library Board (Kings MS 5, fol. 15r)

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Elisha and the She-Bears

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He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. (2 Kings 2:24)

This incident from the start of Elisha’s career raises many ethical issues. There seems a disproportionate mismatch between punishment and crime.

The variant interpretations of the story in the Talmud suggest that the early rabbinic thinkers were much troubled by the idea of prophet-mocking children being mangled by divinely commissioned bears. For example, Babylonian Talmud Sotah 46b–47a explains that Elisha’s mockers were not boys, but adult water-carriers from Jericho who ‘behaved like little children’.

Christian interpreters, on the other hand, were content to interpret the incident typologically. The explanation of Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (c.470–543 CE), provides a characteristic example, typical of early Christian anti-Jewish interpretations: the insults of the Jewish children prefigure the shouts of the Jews at the crucifixion of Christ (Luke 23:21). The number of boys to be killed, forty-two, was taken to signify the number of years after the death of Christ when two bears—the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus—besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, punishing the Jewish people for what Caesarius saw as their heinous crime.

As a result of such typological interpretations, the mockery of Elisha became—grimly—a standardized scene in medieval Christian art, most notably in illuminated manuscripts. In this tripartite image in the Biblia Pauperum, a large central panel shows the Jews mocking and taunting Christ, placing a crown of thorns on his head. On either side two smaller Old Testament scenes depict, on the left, the mocking of Noah’s nakedness by his son Ham and, on the right, the summoning of bears by Elisha to devour the boys—one of whom has already been half eaten. The typological parallels are made clear and irrefutable by the inclusion of biblical texts.

 

References

Ziolkowski, Eric. 2001. Evil Children in Religion, Literature, and Art (London: Palgrave), pp. 36–55


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