What’s With the Story of Elisha and the Bears?
One of the strangest stories in the Old Testament comes at the end of 2 Kings 2 with Elisha, the bears and 42 children. After God took the prophet Elijah up to heaven in a chariot, Elisha became his successor and received a double portion of Elijah’s anointing. Just your typical prophet stuff, no big deal. Shortly afterward, as he’s strolling along, this bizarre incident 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)
The YouTube channel “The Thinking Atheist” made a classic video depicting this whole bloody episode that’s included in the video down below:
While I appreciate the humor, I’m not sure this story is quite the horror show that skeptics made it out to be. This cartoon version doesn’t stay true to the original story. And I’m not so sure God is approving Elisha’s actions here, no more than he approved the behavior of another man he anointed: Samson.
Is “small children” the right translation?
Let’s (ahem) comb through the issues here. (Warning, more puns are ahead) OK, so for starters, was it really a pack of 42 kids that the bears mauled? As much as I like the ESV, “small boys” isn’t necessarily the most accurate translation here. And the venerable King James Version does even worse when it translates the phrase “small children”. The actual Hebrew phrase is a combo of the noun na’ar and the adjective qatan. What do these words mean?
Na’ar, which is often translated as children/boys, has a wide range of meanings. Various people are described by the term, ranging from baby Moses (Ex. 2:6) to a fully-grown Absalom (2 Sam. 14:21). Na’ar can also refer to a servant (Gen. 22:3), armor-bearer (Judges 9:54), a king’s official (2 Kings 19:6), or even a priest (1 Sam. 2:17). Keep the latter term in mind as we go along.
Small, little, or young is the meaning of the Hebrew adjective qatan. But how young? The same Hebrew combination, na’ar qatan, is used to describe Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:17), who was a full-grown man. Similarly, when Solomon takes the throne at about twenty-one, he is described as a na’ar qaton (1 Kings 3:7). The 42 here were clearly not grade school aged boys!
At a bare minimum (lame pun intended) we can say it’s very improbable that the people who mocked Elisha were “small boys.” It’s much more probable that they were young men and it’s possible that they were called na’ar not in relation to their gender but their office as priests or servants.
Innocent little boys?
And that leads me to my next point. The story takes place at Bethel, one of the two main worship centers for the northern kingdom of Israel. And by worship I don’t mean the proper kind of worship. King Jeroboam founded Dan in the north and Bethel in the south as his kingdom’s alternatives to Jerusalem. He set up golden calves at these sites, ordained non-Aaronic priests, and changed the time of the festivals. The people worshiped Baal and other gods there. It was pretty much anti-Yahweh in every way.
When God’s prophet reached this pagan city, the young men mocked him, saying, “Fly up in a whirlwind, you bald-head!” They were saying they wish he’d blast off like Elijah. They were sick of both of these prophets that threatened their evil and idolatrous way of life.
If you read the earlier context of the earlier story, King Ahaziah sent out a troop of soldiers to attack and arrest Elijah. This makes it likely that this was more than some snotty-nosed kids making fun of a bald guy who had no sense of humor. This was an expression of extreme hostility, spiritual warfare, and possibly even a present threat to Elisha’s life. After all, 42 against 1 is hardly a fair fight. Prophets lived a rough life during Elisha’s time. They were often mocked, despised, persecuted, tortured and killed.
When Elisha curses them, he’s not shouting profanity at them. Perhaps he cited Moses’ law, which the inhabitants of Bethel ought to have known. Leviticus 26:21–22 says “If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me…I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children.”
Furthermore, the text doesn’t suggest the boys’ deaths, it just states they were mauled or torn. If these youths were killed, the text could’ve made that clear. Just a few chapters earlier, in 1 Kings 13.24, 20.26, 2 separate incidents are recorded of lion attacks. In both instances the text makes it obvious that the victim wasn’t just mauled but killed. The attack here was certainly violent but it’s not necessarily evident that it was fatal. But still, this curse still seems harsh. He could have just struck them with temporary blindness like he does with the Syrians in 2 Kings 6. So what do we make of this severity?
Divine authority can be abused
Well, the text doesn’t necessarily cite this as the shiniest moment in Elisha’s career, it’s just recording it. It’s difficult to imagine Jesus acting this way. Rather Jesus taught self-sacrificial love for his enemies and demonstrated it on the cross. If Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature as the author of Hebrews says, then I doubt he’d give Elisha a pat on the back for cursing these enemies. So what’s going on here?
While I have some disagreements with Greg Boyd’s book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, he proposes an interesting thesis that spiritual power can be misused. Boyd argues from Scripture that whenever God gives someone divine power, he genuinely transfers it to them. To some degree, God places his divine power under the control of their own power. The agent can use it well or abuse it. Think about it for a moment. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days, the devil tempted him to abuse his divine authority. He tells him to turn stones into bread, and to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple to prove himself.
When he was arrested in Gethsemane, Jesus says he could call twelve legions of angels to rescue him, but he chooses to submit to the Father’s will and be crucified. (Matthew 26:52) The Gospel writers make it abundantly clear that Jesus could have misused his power in ways that were contrary to the Father’s will. However, it is assumed that his Father would have still honored that misuse.
Additionally, elsewhere in the OT we see that for good or for bad, power conferred by God is real power. In the book of Judges, Samson was anointed by God’s Spirit and did many things that clearly God didn’t endorse. In Numbers, Moses is told to speak to the rock and water would flow out to supply Israel with fresh drinking water. Rather than using the power God gave him correctly, Moses was angry with the people for complaining and indignantly struck the rock with his staff. Water still came out, but it was because of this act of rebellion that Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land. (Numbers 20:11)
When Jesus was mistreated by the Samaritans in Luke 9, Jesus’ disciples James and John suggested that they call fire down from heaven on the people like Elijah did. Rather than giving them a gold star, Jesus rebuked them. Despite God’s honoring of Elijah’s power, Jesus calls his disciples to embody a better way. (Luke 9:51–55)
Not the horror show skeptics make it out to be
So to sum up, 2 bears didn’t devour 42 little kids for calling Elisha Homer Simpson or Dr. Phil. A group of young, idolatrous priests or servants were harassing a prophet. Because of that, some were mauled but it’s unclear how many of them died, if any. This curse came from Elisha. God honored the divine given authority he gave his prophet but he wasn’t necessarily endorsing his actions. Jesus died for his enemies. When he was being mocked on the cross, he said “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) He could have called 12 legions of angels to protect himself, but he didn’t. And he is the exact imprint of what God is like. Elisha acted much differently, but God still honored it.
I understand this answer might not satisfy everyone, but I don’t think the passage is unbearably immoral as some critics make it out to be, bad pun intended. The Thinking Atheist is offering us a ridiculous interpretation that we don’t have to unthinkingly accept.
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on March 11, 2022.