There are certain verses that get pulled out whenever someone wants to talk about obscure bits of the Bible. The story of Ehud is one of them, as is the naked young man in Mark; basically anything that involves nudity or weird violence. And one of the weirdest moments of violence in the Bible is the story of Elisha and the two bears.
The context – the prophet Elijah has been taken up to heaven, leaving his successor Elisha to take up his mantle. Almost immediately he seems to establish his credentials – he purifies the stagnant water supply of Jericho before heading off to Bethel. This is when things get strange.
He’s faced with a group of kids who mock his bald head. This isn’t polite behaviour, and so Elisha calls down a curse upon his tormentors, whereupon two bears charge out of the woods and maul 42 of them.
End of story. Elisha heads off to Mount Carmel (the site of his mentor’s greatest victory) and the kids presumably think twice before dissing baldies.
The reason this story gets so much airplay is thanks to the King James Version, which describes those mocking Elisha as ‘little children’. Translated that way and the whole thing sounds less biblical and more Hunger Games.
However, translation is where the problem starts. Where the KJV talks about little children, the Hebrew actually means ‘youths’ – in several other places throughout the Bible, the same word refers to young men old enough to go to war. Meanwhile, Elisha probably wasn’t that much older than them – after all, he was working for his father when Elijah appointed him as his successor, and his ministry would go on to last over sixty years. This doesn’t really seem to be a bunch of school kids mocking an old man.
Suddenly the story starts to take on a different tone. Look at what the youths shout at Elisha – “Go on up, you baldhead!” We tend to focus on the baldhead, because let’s face it, it’s funny to see that in the Bible. But the real insult is in “Go on up”.
(Although it’s worth noting that Elijah was always considered to be hairy, so maybe there’s a personal slight going on here – “You’re no Elijah, Elisha…”)
This incident takes place not long after Elijah was taken up to heaven (at Bethel!). In other words, the youths are telling Elisha to follow his mentor and get out of there. This isn’t a personal insult aimed at Elisha’s haircut (or lack of one), it’s a pointed comment aimed at his status as a prophet; they’re not rejecting Elisha, they’re rejecting God himself and they seem to know it.
This isn’t surprising – Bethel was a centre for Golden Calf worship, established in the city a few generations earlier by a idolatrous king. You wouldn’t expect the place to be particularly welcoming to someone identifying himself as part of a tradition fundamentally opposed to worshiping other gods. With this in mind, maybe there’s more to this than an aggressive teenage street gang. Maybe there’s an element of intimidation going on here.
After all, look at how many youths the bears mauled – 42 of them. In what appears to be a nasty confrontation, the odds are not in Elisha’s favour. This isn’t about a stroppy prophet getting a bunch of children eaten by wild animals, this is something that could turn violent.
Of course, the bears attacking the youths still isn’t the non-violent response to the situation we might like to see, but the story falls within a broader context of God’s prophets being threatened by the followers of other gods, and of Israel breaking the historic covenant – in a prophecy against idolatry, Hosea refers to God acting like an angry bear. This isn’t the nasty little story some paint it as, it’s part of an ongoing conflict.
And I guess that’s a lesson we can take away from the story – when we’re dealing with the Bible, context is vital. Reading these two verses can make it look like Elisha’s a child-mauling lunatic; looked at from another angle, he’s miraculously saved from a mob of young men who seem to want him out of their city ASAP. It’s an important distinction to make…