One 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.