Really Elisha? Bears Attacking Children? This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

bearsOne of the weirdest stories in the narratives of the Old Testament comes at the end of 2 Kings 2 with Elisha and the bears. The deal is that the prophet Elisha has just been anointed by God through his old master the prophet Elijah to succeed him after God took Elijah up to heaven in a vision of God’s holy chariot. Just prophet stuff. In any case, 2 Kings tells of a number of incidents where Elisha is confirming his role as God’s holy prophet by performing similar, miraculous works as Elijah did. As he’s going along, this weird thing happens:

He 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. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)

Now, there are several reactions you can have to this story about bears mauling youths for bald jokes. First, if you’re a teenager or something, you can think, “Sweet! Bears!” Or, as a balding man, you can think, “Well, there’s justice.” Finally, as just a normal person you can think, “Whoa. Seriously? Bears? Against children? For a bald joke? That’s fairly horrifying.” Of course, if you’re prone to trust the prophets of Scripture as being not terrible, various answers start to suggest themselves as to whether one should really take the text at face value.

For instance, you might wonder, “Are those ‘little boys’ really ‘little boys’? What if that’s a translation issue and we’re talking about a street gang or something? And is this really about a bald joke, or is something else going on here? Maybe the 3,000 year cultural gap is playing with our perceptions?” Once again, I ran across a stimulating passage in Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, shedding some contextual light on the bizarre passage.

One point I have to make before sharing, though, is that Leithart has earlier identified a key typology or resemblance in the story of Elijah and Elisha with that of Moses and Joshua. Elisha is to Elijah as Joshua is to Moses, the latter carrying on the conquest into the Holy Land after Moses leads the people out of slavery to idolatry and gives them the Law on the mountain. Alright, back to the bears:

In 2:3 and 2:5, the sons of prophets inform Elisha that “Yahweh will take your, master from over your head today”. Elijah is Elisha’s protector, guide, and “head,” and Elisha is about to lose that leadership. As Elisha’s head, Elijah enters heaven, while Elisha continues the work of his master in Israel, just as the church’s head is enthroned victorious in heaven as it suffers, serves, and overcomes on earth (Eph. 1:20-23).

This repeated statement from the sons of the prophets helps to explain the story at the end of 2 Kgs. 2, one of the most controversial passages in Scripture. The phrase “little boys” in 2:23 can mean “young men” or “subordinates.” Bethel is the site of Jeroboam I’s golden calf shrine, and the context suggests that these are not children, but “Levites” of the idolatrous shrine. Elisha’s curse is an act of warfare, a Joshua-like attack on a center of idolatry. This is reinforced by the chiastic structure of the chapter:

A removing the “head” (2:1-6)
B fifty men (2:7)
C cross Jordan: Elijah divides waters (2:8)
D Elisha requests spirit (2:9-10)
E chariot separates them (2:11a)
F Elijah by whirlwind into heaven (2: lib)
E’ Elisha sees, calls to chariot, tears clothes (2:12)
D’ mantle (2:13)
C’ divides water (2:14)
B’ fifty men (2:15-18)
A’ bald head (2:23-25)

The young men mock Elisha because his “hairy head,” his “baal of hair” (1:8), is taken from him. Perhaps he literally shaves his head in mourning over Elijah’s departure, but it is also possible that they are mocking Elisha because they assume he is unprotected without Elijah. Their taunt to Elisha to “ascend” also points back to Elijah: “You know where you can go, Elisha!” Elisha again demonstrates that he bears the spirit of Elijah, which is the Spirit of Yahweh, for he can call out bears from the forest as readily as Elijah can call out fire from heaven to consume the soldiers of Ahaziah…., as readily as Yahweh can unleash lions against disobedient prophets (1 Kgs. 13:20-25; cf. Lev. 26:22). –1 & 2 Kings, 175-176

Elisha’s opponents are not toddlers with bold mouths, then, but a large band of hostile, adult priests serving the idolatrous shrine of the Northern Temple in Israel. For myself, I believe the context of the earlier story of King Ahaziah sending out a troop of soldiers to attack and lay hands on the prophet of God, Elijah, makes it likely that this “taunt” was more than a simple act of name-calling, but an expression of hostility, spiritual warfare, and a present threat to Elisha’s person. This is not an exaggeration when considering the various, deadly fates the prophets of Israel had suffered throughout her history and even Elijah’s own generation in the time of Ahab and Jezebel.

Of course, this may not solve all the difficulty of the passage for you. I’m not sure it does for me, either. It is one more example, though, of what a willingness to sit and wrestle with the Scriptures instead of simply turning from them when they’re difficult or offensive. That’s not a recipe for accepting any and every interpretation that comes along. There are a lot of bad ones that, in an attempt to “preserve” the Scriptures, end up betraying the character of God. All the same, trusting in the character of God as revealed in Scripture will give us the interpretive resilience needed to struggle with the text long enough to win a blessing and gain new light for the path.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: As it turns out, my friend Seth T. Hahne has written on the passage in a similar and complementary way, adding some broader canonical considerations that reinforce the reading offered above.

21 thoughts on “Really Elisha? Bears Attacking Children? This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

  1. Another example of using the schema of interpretation called the law of two or three witnesses that establishes a matter. This is found in two corollaries. Corollary one has ONE witness with a negative credibility and Corollary two has TWO or THREE or more WITNESSES with a positive credibility establishing a TRUTH (multiple witnesses necessary for ONE MATTER), a DOCTRINE, or a JUDGMENT (whether of a truth doctrine or some issue in matters of law).

    The concept is based on the eyewitness of two eyes where each eye takes up a bit of a different picture than the other, even to the point of contradiction. The brain has to interpret this differing views and is torqued to the point of presenting to the person a three dimensional perspective of what is going before him. The same is with scriptures which are not “stories” but eyewitness testimonies (unless in a form of a proverb) that can be of persons looking out at their environment or by prophets looking forward in time. Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and even John seem to understand both the corollaries so it is no small thing too mundane to overlook as important. The idea is for folk to BELIEVE what the DOCTRINE is or the JUDGMENT or the TRUTH. We have only one attribute today outside of the word that assists our credibility, and in fact is held in place of credibility and revelatory gifts given finally discontinued in the first century (though scheduled to pick up again after the church age after the rapture and before the millennial kingdom is revealed on earth) and that is AGAPE or unconditional love that continues to this day in ONLY believers, who are true to Christ.

    To wrestle with the difficult verses and come up with a positive truth or doctrine, being a teachable thing, according to the still extant gift of discerning of spirits (now days the words found in scripture in that Jesus says, My words are SPIRIT and they are LIFE) the gift of teaching and pastoring, is admirable when understanding the value of context and searching out other scriptures and didactic styles that the Hebrews use in their literature instead of poking at one verse seemingly absurd or even contradictory to common sense morality or more often than not a more righteous than God Himself arrogation.

    Thanks for the exposition.

  2. First off, as an avid student of the Old Testament, I am always happy to see people taking the time to wrestle with these difficult OT texts. So it makes me happy to see you doing that! I have enjoyed a lot of your blog posts before, but since this happens to be a pet issue of mine, I am going to go ahead and jump in for the first time.

    This is, of course, one of those classic difficult texts, and the idea that these were not little kids but menacing adolescents or something is argued by several scholars. However, it is definitely wrong for a couple reasons:

    1) While it is true that the word for “boys” here, “naʕar,” can mean a young boy, a young man, or a servant of any age, dependent on context, it is modified here by “small, ” “qāṭān.” “Naʕar” may be a spectrum, but it seems to me that when modified by “small,” it must refer to the younger end of the spectrum. After all, what would we be meant to think of if we translated the phrase “small young men?” How are they small? The best explanation is that here, “naʕar” means “boy” in the sense of “child.”

    2) The same children are referred to by the noun “yeled” in v. 24. Now this noun almost always designates very young children. While this noun too can mean a young man in some contexts (often where the youth of a young man is emphasized), it more usually refers to children.

    3) We should probably read this story against the background of Leviticus 26:22, where one of the covenant curses is that wild beasts will attack the children of the Israelites (see also Deut 32:24-25). Leithart is right to bring up Bethel’s idolatrous associations, but misses the fact that wild animals attacking *children* is actually the sort of judgment we might expect upon such a wicked city.

    4) It is not uncommon in the book of Kings for harsh punishment to be meted out for minor offenses. Think of the man of God in chapter 13 who is killed by a lion, even though his disobedience seems reasonable given the lie the second prophet tells. Or the son of a prophet who is destined to be killed (again by a lion), just for refusing to hit someone (1 Kings 20:35-43). What these passages, together with 2 Kings 2, have in common (other than the punishment always being meted out by wild beasts) is that in each case the sin involves insufficient respect for the prophet/prophetic word. I think these passages seemed harsh to their original audience as well. I think the point being communicated here is the extreme danger of deviating even slightly from the prophetic word. The very harshness of the passages is meant to make us sit up and say, “Wow, I guess God takes his Word very seriously, much more seriously than I do.” It is especially important to remember that these stories occur in the context of competing false prophets, who also claimed to bring the Word of Yahweh. Ultimately, the fact that Israel was not sufficiently careful to listen to the true prophets of Yahweh lead to catastrophe for the nation. These harsh moments along the way were meant to be warnings that could have prevented this.

    What about the theodicy question though? Well, that is still difficult, but I don’t see that we gain much by trying to edit the children out of the story here. We would still have God’s threat of curses resulting in the death of small children in Leviticus 26:22 and Deuteronomy 32:25 to deal with. And the infamous Psalm 137:9. For that matter, this whole issue is raised simply by the doctrine of original sin: after all, if you say that all children are culpable for Adam’s sin, and thus deserving of divine wrath, but you have a problem with this story, you might want to go back a little bit and think about what “deserving of divine wrath” really means, because this is just the practical outworking of it.

    I don’t have an easy answer to that question. God’s judgment seems overly-harsh to me too sometimes. But since I am convinced that Scripture teaches these things, I usually assume that the problem is with me. And maybe it is ok to be horrified by God sometimes… God is perfectly just in his wrath, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his wrath is something we will ever be totally comfortable with.

    – Jamie Duguid

  3. Elijah, the Bears, and the “Bad Boys of Bethel”

    Before the link to the essay on this story (which affirms again that neither teens nor mere name-calling were in-play here), we have to keep Scripture’s definitions of reality in the front of all analysis. Further, our analysis has to not only keep Scripture’s pesky definitions on the tip of our tongue but also we must note, and employ, the tie-ins to Leviticus, 2 Chronicles, and Jonah in the excerpt copied further down (after 1 – 8 here).

    Such pesky definitions are things which Skeptics, who typically cannot digest whole books nor the high word-counts of *meta*-narratives, seem unable to fit into their straw man arguments:

    [1] Note the location: the Law of Moses – the Ministry of Death (according to God’s definition of reality) – void of any power to beget life (according to God’s definition of reality), only able to restrain death (according to God’s definition of reality).

    [2] Note the Law – in which the God Who hates love’s fragmentations vis-à-vis “divorce” not only allows divorce but also regulates divorce. (That is Law in relation to God’s Will for Mankind according to God’s definition of said landscapes). (Let the Skeptic wrap his head around that.)

    [3] Note the Law – Quid pro quo. Rain, crops, and peace for obedience. Drought, hunger, and violence otherwise.

    [4] No Grace comes by Moses (Law). No life comes by Moses (Law). Only that Taskmaster of Death’s Ministry. According to God’s definition of reality.

    [5] 1 – 4 are neither Wholeness nor Moral Excellence, which only come in and by Christ. Rather, 1 – 4, and now 1 – 5, sum to Covenant Theology all of which falls short of God’s future Covenant with and on and by Himself which is yet to come up ahead in Christ.

    [6] The same OT which defines reality by 1 – 5 speaks of a Far Greater yet to come, up ahead, still to instantiate within time and physicality. Yeah, this is in part similar to [5] but the metaphysical implications penetrate to the bitter ends of all truth claims – particularly as such relates to that ominously auspicious set of “ontological definitions”” forced upon us vis-à-vis Genesis 3’s Protoevangelium as such obtains in and by John 3’s instantiation of “…… the God who is glorified by sacrificing Himself for creation and not by sacrificing creation for Himself…..” (Fischer)

    [7] 1 – 7 here is how God and Scripture define the ontological landscape of the OT and of Moral Excellence and of Wholeness and of the unavoidable darkness outside of Eden within the pains of Man’s Privation.

    [8] Post Script: Skeptics who refuse to define their arguments against Christianity by using Christianity’s *actual* truth predicates are simply mounting an argument against a set of Non-Christian truth claims and therefore (mistakenly) think that they are (successfully) arguing against Christianity. The Christian is not obligated to respond to arguments against Non-Christian premises and claims. A polite “shrug” may be called for in such cases assuming watching the paint dry on the wall fails to be more intellectually stimulating.

    The following is the excerpt from an essay on the Life and Times of Elisha and of course the essay itself is longer. Clearly something very different than screaming teens was going on (Etc.). And, on top of that, the Skeptic who refuses to bring in this particular excerpt’s tie-in to Jonah (and so on with the rest of scripture) in defining the analysis of the OT ontological statements about God and reality is arguing against (at best) a one-verse or one-paragraph straw man void of 1 – 8 above. And as we can easily demonstrate with, you know, facts, any Skeptic who fashions an argument which is void of 1 – 8 has forfeited the intellectual right to be heard as he is arguing against a *Non*-Christian set of claims. The one verse straw man and the one paragraph straw man (and so on) need not apply, the key word being *meta*-narrative:

    Before anyone gets too worked up about this incident, they should seriously consider several other biblical texts in relation to what is reported in our text:

    In the Law, God warned His people that if they refused to obey Him, He would send wild animals against them, and their children:

    21 “‘If you walk in hostility against me and are not willing to obey me, I will increase your affliction seven times according to your sins. 22 I will send against you the animal of the field and it will bereave you of your children, annihilate your cattle, and diminish your population, and your roads will become deserted” (Leviticus 26: 21-22).

    Later on, God’s judgment came upon His people because they rejected and ridiculed His prophets:

    15 The LORD God of their ancestors continually warned them through his messengers, for he felt compassion for his people and his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his warnings, and ridiculed his prophets. Finally the LORD got angry at his people and there was no one who could prevent his judgment (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).

    Do we really think that God indiscriminately pours out his wrath on “innocent little children”? It was Jonah who lacked compassion toward the innocent, and God who refused to punish those who were not yet accountable for their actions (who “did not know their right hand from their left”):

    10 The LORD said, “You have compassion for the plant, something that you have not worked over nor made to grow, a thing that lasted a night and perished after a night. 11 Now should not I have compassion for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right from their left, besides many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11, emphasis mine).

  4. I have also heard it explained that “baldy” was a reference to his private parts and was a direct assault on his Jewishness / circumcision. Kinda like a modern day perjorative of calling someone a D head – only in those days the insult was much more offensive.

  5. Regarding appeals to Psalms 137 in this or in any other context:

    From “Reflections on the Psalms”by C.S. Lewis:

    Frist meanings:

    “……What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense. But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not………”

    And then of course onto and into second meanings:

    “……..I must now turn to something far more difficult. Hitherto we have been trying to read the Psalms as we suppose— or I suppose— their poets meant them to be read. But this of course is not the way in which they have chiefly been used by Christians. They have been believed to contain a second or hidden meaning, an “allegorical” sense, concerned with the central truths of Christianity, with the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and with the Redemption of man. All the Old Testament has been treated in the same way. The full significance of what the writers are saying is, on this view, apparent only in the light of events which happened after they were dead……”

    And from the earlier link at

    “Do we really think that God indiscriminately pours out his wrath on “innocent little children”? It was Jonah who lacked compassion toward the innocent, and God who refused to punish those who were not yet accountable for their actions (who “did not know their right hand from their left”):

    10 The LORD said, “You have compassion for the plant, something that you have not worked over nor made to grow, a thing that lasted a night and perished after a night. 11 Now should not I have compassion for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right from their left, besides many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11, emphasis mine).”

    We must do the hard work of defining the OT’s ontological landscape by defining all lines vis-à-vis the wider canopy of Scripture’s entire metanarrative. It is a peculiar reality that Scripture both affirms God’s hatred for divorce even as Scripture affirms God’s permitting divorce and also regulating various steps amid divorce inside of the Law, in Moses, which Scripture defines as the Ministry of Death. To just “stop” inside of the Law, to just “stop” inside of the Psalms, and to jettison the obvious implications of C.S. Lewis’ statements upon any and all analysis – to jettison the Psalms wherein the child is deemed fashioned by God from the womb onward – to employ bits and quarters and fragments and thirds and halves and never the Seamless Whole – and also – to leave one’s analysis void of the extreme ontic-definitions of Man and of God’s full and final decree which are forced upon us by Genesis 3’s Protoevangelium and of such in and by Christ is to misperceive reality, to misinterpret the entirety of those uncanny interfaces between The Adamic and the immutable love of the Triune God.

  6. Pingback: Jamie Duguid on Elisha and the She-Bears (II Kings 2) | James' Ramblings
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  8. This attempt to explain the story of Elisha and the bears in such a way as to make it more palatable is nonsense.

    For example, the author claims that “The phrase ‘little boys’ in 2:23 can mean ‘young men’ or ‘subordinates.’ Bethel is the site of Jeroboam I’s golden calf shrine, and the context suggests that these are not children.” The phrase is “na’arim qatanim,” and while “na’ar” can refer to an adolescent (possibly even up to the age of manhood), modifying it with “qatanim” makes it clear that these were children, not young men from a “street gang.”

    Next, the claim that “the context suggests that these are not children, but ‘Levites’ of the idolatrous shrine” is complete fantasy; there is nothing in the context to back up that assertion (and Hebrew certainly has the vocabulary to say they were idolatrous ‘Levites’ were that what the author wished to say). To transform the “children” into “a large band of hostile, adult priests serving the idolatrous shrine of the Northern Temple in Israel” is completely unsustainable, and it is not clear why anyone would try to do so.

    Furthermore, look at the verse again: “Then he *went up* from there to Bethel; and as he was *going up* the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, ‘*Go up*, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!’” (2 Kings 2:23). If you look at how “go up” is used in this verse, there is nothing to suggest that the children were making any reference to Elijah’s ascent rather than just saying, in effect, “Keep going. Move along there.”

    Even the suggestion that “Perhaps he literally shaves his head in mourning over Elijah’s departure” is problematic in light of Deuteronomy 14:1.

    This whole thing is a mess, then. We need to stop trying to tone down accounts of the wrath of God in the Bible in order to make them acceptable to skeptics.

  9. There’s no need to tone anything down. Rather, the *agenda* is that of simply seeking, and finding, a more robust exegesis than is afforded by unsophisticated and mistaken premises all while allowing Scripture as a whole to define terms along the way. Thus avoiding the difficulties of incoherent one-verse theologies (like “Slavery was once morally good according to God, yes, -Cause-Da-Bible”). And so on. As previously alluded to.

  10. Interesting. I do have a question though: 2 Kgs 2:23 doesn’t just call them n∂’ar, which could be interpreted either as boy or as servant; it also calls them k∂tanniym, meaning “small” or “young.” That makes me hesitate from calling them “adult priests.” They may be priests—idolatrous servants of Baal. But if they were adult priests, why would the text call them k∂tanniym?

  11. I just reread and saw that Leithart thinks that k∂tanniym in 2 Kgs 2:23 means that these are “subordinate” servants. That’s a possible reading, I guess. Katan often means “small” or “young” though, and the only other place where katan modified na’ar is 1 Kgs 11:17, where it clearly means “young child.” So I’d still have hesitations.

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  13. I’m blessed to be the one to untie this theological knot that has stained GOD’s flawless reputation to so many. . .
    > Remember, Elijah’s exalted clout with GOD was passed to Elisha (Just as Jesus passed HIS anointing to Peter). Both of these recipients, Peter & Elisha, are mere mortals as we are, however unlike us they have been entrusted with the power of GOD! Therefore, Elisha’s cursing the mockers was sole cause of their deaths, GOD HAD NOTHIN TO DO WITH IT!!!
    (I can untie more theological knots than this)

  14. Pingback: Elisha, She-Bears, and the Cursing of Children? | Veracity
  15. Pingback: Stranger Things from the Bible: Elisha and the Bears - Bret Hammond

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