If you’ve ever been to youth group, you know the story.
The prophet Elisha is walking along one day, minding his own business, when a group of kids start mocking him because he is bald. Elisha, his pride wounded, curses the kids in God’s name. Immediately, two bears come out of the woods and maul the kids to death. And. . . scene.
[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!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.2 Kings 2:23-25, ESV
That’s it. We get no other explanation as to what is going on here.
Ask 100 people to make a list of the most bizarre stories in the Bible, and this one will probably be at the top of 98 of those lists.
This passage has certainly raised a litany of questions from Bible readers over the centuries, and for good reason. After all, why was Elisha so incensed by his hecklers that he reacted with such violence? Why did God allow one of his prophets to call down such a terrible curse on a bunch of young boys? Of all the wicked people Elisha could have made an example out of, why did he choose to kill a bunch of kids?
The understanding that many people seem to have settled upon is that this passage is a moral lesson for young people who mock God’s servants:
“Young people, treat your elders and pastors with respect, or you will suffer terrible consequences!”
The horrific moral and theological implications of that interpretation are many. It’s also not even close to the message the story intends to convey. So, how should we read this story?
If we attack it from three different angles, I think we will land on an interpretation that is much more theologically sound and in line with the rest of Scripture:
- Read the context.
- Explore the language.
- Reflect on how the passage reveals God’s nature.
Let’s do this together, and hopefully you will see Elisha and the two bears as much more than a quirky throwaway anecdote that inexplicably made its way into the Bible.
Context: A Broken Kingdom and an Idolatrous People
These are dark days for Israel. In 931 B.C., Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, is installed as Israel’s king. Solomon had placed a heavy tax burden on the people of Israel to fund the Temple and palace construction projects. A man named Jeroboam led a delegation of Israelites to request that Rehoboam lift his father’s tax burden. Rehoboam refused (1 Kings 12:1-15). This led to outright rebellion: 10 of Israel’s tribes defected and set up a new kingdom, this one led by Jeroboam. Rehoboam held on to the southern territory. The northern kingdom would be called Israel, and the southern kingdom would be called Judah.
Before you go thinking that Jeroboam is the righteous hero of the story, read on. Jeroboam did not want the people of the northern kingdom traveling to Jerusalem (the capital of Judah) to worship at the Temple, lest the beautiful Temple and the presence of God in it shift their allegiance back to Rehoboam. He built two altars to rival the Temple, one in Dan and one in Bethel, and instituted his own system of worship centered around two golden calf statues. Outright, shameless idolatry.
About 60 years later, after a succession of increasingly terrible Israelite kings, Ahab took over the throne and set up an altar to the trademark pagan God, Baal.
Elijah was sent to prophesy against the prophets of Baal, declaring holy war on God’s behalf against the idols that had infiltrated Israel (you might be familiar with the famous encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-40).
Elisha was Elijah’s prophetic successor. The pattern of succession between Elijah and Elisha remarkably parallels that of Moses and Joshua: in both cases, God’s presence alongside his servant is affirmed by a miraculous sign – splitting the waters of the Jordan River and crossing on dry land. But where Joshua’s task was to lead God’s people into Canaan to wage war with its inhabitants, Elisha’s task is to enter Israel and wage war against its false gods . Notably, in 2 Kings 2, Elisha is going to Bethel – the site of one of Jeroboam’s first golden calves.
The context of 2 Kings 2:23-25 gives it a little more gravity. Elisha isn’t just meandering along the road, minding his own business: he is on a mission from God to take down the system of Baal-worship that had taken hold in the northern kingdom.
Language: Clarifying the Identity of Elisha’s Adversaries
Unfortunately, the common interpretation of 2 Kings 2:23-25 is based on a very bad KJV translation of the passage:
And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him,2 Kings 2:23, KJV
The phrase translated “little children” here comes from the Hebrew, qatan na’ar – which can mean “little children”, but certainly not always, and probably not in this specific case. In the Bible, the noun na’ar (נַעַר) refers to everything from an infant to a young man, to a priest, to a soldier, to a servant .
A story about a prophet of God siccing a pair of bears on a bunch of little kids who are making fun of him might give you pause. There is good reason, if that is the case. Incidentally, that’s probably not what is going on here. Elisha’s hecklers were not little children; they were likely young, able-bodied men, and there were at least 42 of them. You can start to see the problem here. Couple that with the other connotations of the noun na’ar. Were these young men priests of Baal? Servants of those priests? Were they soldiers or guards of the king? Whatever their identity, they were there to prevent Elisha from entering Bethel.
Their insults drip with derision: “Go up, you baldhead!” Baldheadedness was seen as shameful, and it is possible that Elisha was afflicted with the dreaded receding hairline (some things never change). But their jeering command to “go up” is a more egregious insult. Elijah, Elisha’s predecessor, famously “went up” to heaven in an angelic chariot; he did not die, at least in the conventional sense (2 Kings 2:11-12). The men were calling into question Elisha’s prophetic authority by challenging him to replicate Elijah’s miraculous assumption into heaven. You might think of the soldiers who mocked Jesus: “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”
So, to summarize where we stand thus far:
- Elisha is going to Bethel on God’s behalf to dismantle the system of Baal-worship in Israel.
- He is confronted by several dozen men who stand in his way. Their exact identities are not certain, but we know their intentions are not good. Elisha is in danger; not to mention his authority as a prophet sent from God is being called into question.
What follows is a striking display of God’s supreme power over the human and spiritual forces who oppose him. The bears are not a catty, needlessly brutal retaliation: These events serve as a divine affirmation of Elisha’s ministry. He is a legitimate servant of God, and God’s presence is his protection.
Reflect: God’s Superiority, Sovereignty, and Salvation
What does this story teach us about God’s nature and character?
God’s Superiority on Display – The God of Israel is never one to back down from a challenge. Elisha’s God is the same God who put the Egyptian priests to shame as his plagues decimated Pharaoh’s people; he is the God who humiliated Goliath as he called down curses upon the Israelite army; the God who shut the mouth of Balaam; who disgraced the prophets of Baal through his servant Elijah. God is the Champion who fights for his people.
God’s Prevailing Sovereignty – Elisha’s God is the Sovereign King who commissions his people with the ultimate seal of authority: his presence. His plans will not be thwarted by any human or spiritual forces. Like Moses and Joshua before him, God’s presence with Elisha ensures success in the task he has been called to accomplish.
God’s Salvation and Protection – God is the Shepherd who walks alongside his people. He is our shelter and strength in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1-6). Those who have been called by God to do his work have an ever-present source of comfort, counsel, and protection in the face of the enemy’s schemes.
Often, the story of Elisha and the bears is taken as something of a punchline; a bizarre, quirky story that doesn’t merit a closer look. But, as you can see, it is loaded with theological truth. All it takes is a little extra study, and you’ll find that every biblical story – even the weird ones – communicates a powerful message about who God is, and how his people are called to live under his lordship.
One of the pitfalls of our 21st century Bible reading habits is the need to make every story a 3-point sermon with at least one action step. We always want the Bible to tell us to “do” or “not do” something. “Obey your elders. Pray and meditate on Scripture. Don’t cuss. Don’t lust.” There are times where that propensity to pigeonhole every Bible passage into a list of do’s and don’t’s leads to faulty interpretation. As modern readers of God’s word, we need to be aware of the times when the Bible is not asking us to do something; rather, it is calling us to be something. The story of Elisha and the bears is a good example of this. It is easy to read the story at the surface level and come to a list of don’t’s , but closer inspection reveals that the story is not about what we are supposed to do or not do; it is about who God is, and who he wants his people to be.
So, with that in mind:
Be a servant of God who goes into all situations secure in the knowledge that you have a divine calling. And with every divine calling comes a Champion who fights for you, a Sovereign King who has commissioned you, and a Shepherd who goes before you.