Making sense of Elisha and the bears

Making sense of Elisha and the bears

I don’t have a lot of hair, which means that this short episode in 2 Kings 4 catches my eye:

23 He [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!” 24 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 Ki. 2:23-24 ESV)

My children do make fun of my baldness; I have heard most bald jokes and have had my head rubbed a lot of times. I have yet to call bears down upon them.

But I have to admit that this passage is odd. It seems unreasonable. After all, we all know that children can be mean, but this seems unnecessarily harsh.

To understand this passage, like is true so often, we need to understand some context.

Firstly, we need to know something about Bethel. While this town had its origins in being the place Jacob dreamt of a ladder into heaven, that was a long time ago. It was more famous now for being the site of one of the two golden calves Jeroboam set up for people to worship. This would be a place that benefitted from the many people coming to worship another god; there was no place for the true God here. What we see the boys express would be the view of the wider culture of Bethel.

Secondly, it would be reasonable to assume that the baldness is not only a personal issue for Elisha but a mark of the prophets of that time. By the way the boys act here, it seems that you could identify a prophet through a bald hairstyle. Perhaps something like medieval monks? We don’t know the details, and cannot be 100% sure, but it fits with the passage. It is clear that the boys are mocking Elisha not just because he is bald but because he is a prophet. They are calling on the prophet to go up, to keep walking, not to go to Bethel.

Thirdly, we should note the contrast with the episode immediately before this one. In that episode, the men of Jericho sought out Elisha for help, and he helped them. We see two episodes here with two attitudes to the prophet of God, one positive and one negative. And the outcomes are also one positive and one negative.

We should also notice some things that the text tells us.

We should notice that these boys were in a large pack and sought out Elisha to taunt him. How large? Well, the 42 that were mauled were only part of the pack. This is no small affair with a few ruffians but a large mob of children mocking God’s prophet. 

We should notice that the bears come down after Elisha’s curse. God controls nature, including the animals. This use of animals fulfils a verse in Leviticus 26:21-22 which says that one curse on unfaithful people would be wild beasts bereaving them of their children. This is no angry, unreasonable outburst from Elisha due to vanity. This is a reasonable response from God to the mocking of his prophet, a response promised centuries earlier.

What shall we do with this odd passage?

It doesn’t mean we should take offence if someone mocks us for our faith. That we should act against them in some way. No, we are not prophets, and we are not Jesus. We should be saddened by people mocking the true God, sure, but we must leave the judgement to God.

One way to apply this is to note that both blessing and judgement hinge on our response to God’s representative. That sounds like the gospel, doesn’t it? Our eternal state depends on how we respond to Jesus. Those who come to Jesus are welcomed and saved, those who mock are judged and excluded. Jesus is the key. We need to point people to Jesus, not to following a set of rules or being religious enough.

Another helpful way to apply this passage is to remember that our modern cultures are not that different from the ancient world. Most around us mock the true God. They think it safe for they think the true God is not real or not powerful. They are incorrect. We know God is real despite what others say and think. Trust in the true God. He is there, he has saved us, and he will not be mocked.