Elisha and the Bears (2 Kings 2:23-24)

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…

 

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7 thoughts on “Elisha and the Bears (2 Kings 2:23-24)

  1. Thanks for the helpful context. There is a book, “God Behaving Badly” that deals with this story in much the same way.

    This is why we need to be aware of the larger story. Smaller episodes like this don’t make any sense apart from the big picture.

    • I think that’s it entirely – you can’t read the individual narratives of the Bible without being aware of the bigger story.

      God Behaving Badly was one of my inspirations behind this post – I’m glad you mentioned it, because it deserves a shout-out!

  2. I’ve always found the story perplexing and have felt the study notes I’ve read on the passage lacking. Thanks for the explanation!

    • Yeah, I’m glad that it’s possible to piece together a more ‘acceptable’ reading of the story, just because the KJV makes it so bizarre. Simply making ‘children’ into ‘young men’ makes all the difference!

  3. So smaller children are less intrinsically wicked? I’m saddens by the fact that the kids potentially being a bit older seems to make this massacre more acceptable to you.

    This story makes the most sense as a cautionary tale to scare kids into respecting their elders, particularly those who are high-ranking members of a church. Always ask, “What makes more sense?” A loving god massacres kids for name calling. Or a religious leader comes up with a story to scare people into respecting those in his position.

  4. Well… If you are a monotheist, then would you not believe that the Deity exists within all of creation? And therefore would exist within the two bears, as well as the taunting youth, as well as the Prophet they taunt, would it not? Most of these stories are allegories, or parables, designed to impart some lesson upon the reader or listener, rather than historical accounts to be interpreted literally, although some may be both. No person alive in current physical incarnation in the material plane was around in those days to know for certain, or if we were, we do not remember.
    Personally, I don’t believe that a Deity who is the personification of Love would favor one particular group of Humans over any other. If you believe in free will, then it would only stand to reason that your actions in the moment will affect you and the world around you in moments to come. There are consequences for your actions, be they good or bad. Consider a computer program, wherein you have “if x, then y…” or “If 1, then action, if 0 then no action..” or “For Q= -100 to 100, action x, next Q…” (Sorry, It’s been a long time since I tried to write a basic program, but it was something like that.) Actions (or inactions) affect the next action, etc. Just some food for thought for y’all to chew on awhile.

  5. I was wondering what your take is on the numbers in this story. Why did the Lord send 2 she-bears? (Also, why she-bears, not male bears?) And why were 42 children or boys harmed?

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