baldy-locks and the two bears (and the 42 dead children)

Posted: November 24, 2010 in Christianity, Theology
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

In my frequent conversations with people who have rejected God (or at least their perception of the God of the Bible) one of the many passages of scripture they point to as a stumbling block is the account of Elisha, the two bears and the 42 kids that are killed. This ain’t Goldilocks, people. This one is brutal:

“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!’  So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the LORD. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.” 2 Kings 2:23-24 (NKJV).

The way most people read this is as follows: 1) some children make fun of Elisha for being bald, 2) he gets mad and commands two bears to attack and 3) the bears proceed to rip them limb from limb for their flippant teasing. Its seen as a horrific and disturbing demonstration of the power and anger of a God that doesn’t seem nearly as kind and loving as Christians try to portray Him. Here, God seems more like a serial killer.

So what the heck is going on with this passage? Well, as always, context is super important, history is vital and language study is imperative in understanding what happened.

Lets start with some word study first. Its very unfortunate that the King James version calls Elisha’s aggressors “little children.” The NKJV version I used says “youths” while others use “boys” or “small boys.” Due to this poor translation, the reader gets the idea that these were pre-pubescent children maybe in the age range of 6-10 that were playfully making fun of Elisha. However, this is not the case. The Hebrew phrase qatan na’ar is best translated “young men” and is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe Joseph as a 17-year old, young-adult soldiers and Abraham’s son Isaac when he was in his twenties. These weren’t kids – they were full grown, adult young men. Also, Elisha was not an old man here, lest we think he had some sort of unfair advantage. He was probably in his mid-twenties as well; a contemporary of these aggressors.

Next, lets look at what these young men were actually saying to Elisha. “Go up, you baldhead” doesn’t seem all that offensive to the casual reader. It seems like they are simply teasing or making fun of Elisha’s male pattern baldness – something we do all the time today to playfully rib our friends. The phrase “go up” was most likely a reference to Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, being taken up to heaven at the end of his life (2 Kings 2:11). This was a condescending way of not only telling Elisha they wanted him gone but that they also rejected his authority as the mouthpiece of God. It was a very effective way of saying “screw you” to God’s prophet. Next, the phrase “you baldhead” has much more meaning that we might think. There is no evidence that Elisha was bald (on the contrary, he was a young man and most likely had a full head of hair or wore a head-covering). Baldness was associated with being a disgraced leper since they were made to shave their hair. They were considered the worst of the worst – the untouchable outcasts of society. Calling Elisha a “baldhead” would be on par with today’s worst racial or anti-gay slurs.

Three more historical and contextual points I want to make: 1) The repetition in Biblical text denotes yelling since there was no original punctuation used in the writing. So the phrase “go up, you baldhead” was being yelled at Elisha. This was not “Elisha and Yahweh sitting in a tree” school-yard stuff. This was hate speech being screamed at someone. 2) We don’t know how many young men were doing this but we know at least 42 were there because that’s how many the bears killed. The text implies that some got away so its conceivable that 50 or even much more people were lying in wait for Elisha. 3) The city where this took place was known for its idolatry and rejection of God’s prophets. Elisha was not on a leisurely stroll here when he overhead children making fun of him – he was entering a area full of hate-filled people who had purposely assembled against him.

That sort of changes the perspective of the story doesn’t it? Instead of frivolous name calling by children, we see that in reality Elisha was confronted by full-grown men very capable of doing physical harm, was severely outnumbered, and was being berated by a hostile crowd that despised him.

What would you do in this situation?

Well, the Bible says that Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord. No one knows exactly what he said since its not recorded, but this passage comes to mind: “‘If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you and they will rob you of your children…” Lev 26:21-22. (NKJV) Elijah didn’t lift a finger or yell insults back. He looked to God to defend him. So God sends two bears that come out of the woods and kill 42 of the provokers. It’s a bloody mess.

Now even after discovering the true context of this incident, some may still say “but how can a loving God still kill these 42 young men for reviling/intimidating/disrespecting Elisha?” I’d submit that there are two things that justify God’s killing of the confrontational men:

1) He was defending his son. Imagine your child is walking down the street and 42+ children crowd around him and start provoking him, screaming the worst insults and slurs they can think of. Instead of trying to fight back, your child calls out for your help. Are you just going to stand there or are you going to defend your child? What if this scenario were to happen to your spouse? Be honest. I don’t know about you but I’d kick some serious butt and worry about the theological implications later.

2) He was keeping his word and carrying out the prescribed capital punishment as outlined in the scripture. We already saw the passage in Leviticus where God promised that He would do this – albeit as a last resort. Don’t think for a second that God wanted to do this. It wasn’t about avenging Elisha’s pride or hurt feelings. It was a simple matter of God’s inability to lie and His faithfulness to keep His promise. Elisha’s attackers knew the law and it would have been clear to those who were killed what would happen if they kept rejecting God. Not saying its pretty. But it is justified.

So that’s my take on the twisted story of “Baldy-locks and the Two Bears.” Not trying to sound cavalier – its a brutal passage of scripture and one that understandably causes confusion. Hopefully this sheds some light on it and shows that it cannot be used to malign the character of God, nor used against Christians as evidence contrary to their concept of a loving God. God lovingly defends His people and keeps His promises. It should also remind us how good it is to live in the dispensation of New Testament post-Jesus grace.  Thank God we Christians are not bound by the curses of the Old Testament law anymore!

Comments
  1. I really loved this!!! Elisha is one of my favorite people out of the Bible. People need to understand that God is not a play pretty, but rather a God to fear. The Bible says, “Fear God” and that we must, for the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. I really think that the moral behind the whole story is this, “If you tempt God and touch His Anointed you will be judged, if you don’t want to be dealt with harshly approach God and His Anointed with respect and humility.” You really did your homework on this and I think that it clarified a lot!
    God Bless,
    Street Minista

  2. Hey can you help me to get traffic flowing? I don’t know just how you will do it, I know that I put you in my blog roll on my page… Thank you so much!!!
    God Bless,
    ~Street Minista~

  3. Hey thank you so much bro… I really enjoy your blog and thank you so much for adding me! My prayer towards you is that God continue to use you mightily as well and that He continue to speak to you!
    God Bless,
    Street Minista

  4. Hanes says:

    I’ll respond to the last bit, since you captured my thoughts much of your post with, “Now even after discovering the true context of this incident [...]“.

    Response to 1) So god wasn’t capable of resolving the situation without violence… not exactly a roll model, eh?

    Response to 2) “Well, God promised he would slaughter people, so really he was just keeping his word about being a tyranical and maniacal jerk.” Doesn’t that make this worse? This isn’t a one-off event, this is a systemic problem with the character of Yahweh. He’s a violent child with supreme power. I assume he chose bears because it was more entertaining than just having them have heart attacks.

    It’s like Exodus 11:10. You can justify it however you want, but in the end you have to admit that Yahweh wanted to kill people. He felt it was the best way to resolve the situation (well, either that or he felt like not being perfect for a while, which is odd).

    …or the Old Testament was written bronze age nomadic warriors who had no idea what they were talking about, and just made things up that sounded good to them.

    • Jamie says:

      Hey man, thanks for commenting. Your comment was evidently tagged as spam and went to my spam filter so I didn’t see it until just now. Sorry about that!

      If you will indulge me, please read my response to Winston. I think I answered some of the points you brought up there so I’m not going to go over them again. However, I would like to address a few things you said:

      “This isn’t a one-off event, this is a systemic problem with the character of Yahweh. He’s a violent child with supreme power.”
      You’re right – God in the Old Testament is quite violent and emotional. The number one example used to describe him in Old Testament literature is as a lover who is being cheated on. Why does he act like this? Because he IS a lover being cheated on. After the fall of man He had reached out to the Hebrew nation, “married” them, made vows (the OT law) and they constantly break them and shun Him for other false gods. Finally he changes game plans and reveals himself through Jesus, who pays for their sin, opens up His heart to all mankind (not just the Jews) and ends the whole violent mess.

      Not sure if you’re married or not but if you walked in on your wife sleeping with another guy (or multiple guys!) and I recorded everything you did after you found out, I’m sure you’d do and say some things that make you look crazy. The Old Testament is a *point-in-time* view into the story of God’s pursuit of the human race. God’s environment is different now after Jesus – he is not angry anymore so we cannot use OT passage like this to forever encapsulate who God is. God revealed His character to us in the most plain and clear way through the person of Jesus. All other descriptors of who God is and what God does (including the story of Elisha and the bears) are temporary and get trumped by God as revealed through Jesus.

      I fear that many (including you) may be rejecting God based on how He acted while dealing with the Jews’ adultery against Him instead of His current rectified situation. I also encourage you to not let the failings of Christians influence how you approach God. We are an imperfect bunch – sick with sin and trying, but not always able, to be like Christ. If you’ve been hurt by Christians, I sincerely apologize and ask you to forgive us. Feel free to respond. Take Care.

      Jamie

      • Hanes says:

        Actually I didn’t discover the sick and evil god of the OT untill I tried to re-convert myself to christianity by reading the bible. Needless to say, that plan failed. The stories are just so obviously manmade.

        You say that Yahweh acts like an angry lover who’s been cheated on. I agree. He also acts like a warlord and a tyrant, and basically exactly how a bronze-age nomadic warrior clan would imagine some higher power to behave. Can’t you agree that that’s the obvious answer, even if you don’t think it’s the correct one?

        And Jesus may have been a revolutionary for his time in many ways, but even his morality isn’t something that should be set in stone. It was just one step in our ever-changing notion of what is good.

        P.S.
        Thanks for actually allowing comments that don’t agree with you; many christians (for example, youtube…) don’t do that.

        P.P.S
        I’m a little concerned that you rushed to apologise for hypothetical christians that might have hurt Winston. Surely you don’t believe that bad experiences with believers are why people lose faith. The vast majority of ex-christians are so for rational reasons, not viceral or emotional reactions.

      • Jamie says:

        Hanes,
        Glad we’re continuing the dialogue. I am always open to other points of view provided the discussion doesn’t turn into strife-filled ad hominem crap. But I’m sure we will assume the best about each other.

        I’m happy to see you were interested in possibly re-connecting to your faith but I fear many people (seeker and believer alike) seem to miss just how important the difference between the Old and New Testament sections of the Bible are. You seem to have a problem with Judaism (OT) more than Christianity (NT). The Old Testament is merely the foundation of Christianity, not the structure of it. I recently had a conversation with a Christian who was trying to follow the 10 commandments and I told him that was like walking into a beautiful, ornate building but fixing your eyes only on the floor. The Old Testament is NOT the fullest expression of who God is and what He wants – it was the revelation they had of Him at that time in spiritual history. Jesus is the fullest expression of what God is like and He trumps all other revelations of who God is.

        “He also acts ….how a bronze-age nomadic warrior clan would imagine some higher power to behave. Can’t you agree that that’s the obvious answer…”
        I will agree that its within the realm of possibility. Its certainly possible the whole thing was made up and I’m a fool. Its quite a stretch though. Go to any library in the world, and try to find any group of books which match the characteristics of the books in the Bible. Choose 66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, written on 3 different continents that share a common storyline, a common theme, and a common message. But it goes beyond the Bible which is limited in its scope. My experience tells me God exists. If you’re interested I cover that here: http://jamienunnally.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/how-do-you-know-god-exists/

        “Surely you don’t believe that bad experiences with believers are why people lose faith.”
        As someone who has given his life to helping others on their journey to find Christ, I can tell you that while there are some that reject God on an intellectual-only basis, most people reject Him because 1) they don’t understand why He allows them to experience so much pain and hurt (in my experience, I’d say about 50%) and 2) Christians have misrepresented the character of God to them by being buttholes (40%). Maybe I’m wrong but, again, just sharing my experience.

  5. Winston says:

    I’m curious. Doesn’t the bible say “Thou Shalt Not Kill”..?
    If so, then why does god exercise his ability to kill?

    Couldn’t god just teleport the 42 young men as you’ve described, to a different location, so he doesn’t bother Elisha?

    I don’t think murder and death is a necessary action if my son was amidst a group of prejudice, hate-filled people throwing insults at my own son.

    Winston

    • Jamie says:

      Winston, thanks for replying! I am certainly open to discussion on this and I welcome your questioning!

      “Doesn’t the bible say “Thou Shalt Not Kill”..?”
      The bible certainly does say Thou shalt not kill – its one of the 10 commandments. But you gotta be careful with the Hebrew language. I’m assuming you’re not a Hebrew scholar and neither am I. But Hebrew is not as simple as our English language where we have multiple words to account for slight differences in definition. In English, we say, kill (to take life), murder (to take innocent life), assassinate (to target a specific person for death), execute (to carry out a death sentence), etc. Hebrew just has “ratsach” which can mean all of the above (http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H7523&t=KJV). The Hebrew writers assumed the reader would use contextual clues to determine the exact meaning of the word. You however, are not doing this and are using the definition that best fits your intent, not the author’s intent. You will not find a Hebrew scholar that endorses the idea that this commandment instructs Jews not to take the life of anything (like an animal to eat or to carry out justice via execution). It meant to instruct the Jews not to take innocent human life and quite honestly, there is no room for argument on that.

      “If so, then why does god exercise his ability to kill?”
      God is carrying out the prescribed capital punishment he said would happen. He is just and keeps his promises and doesn’t lie. Capital punishment was very common in Jewish law.

      “Couldn’t god just teleport the 42 young men as you’ve described, to a different location, so he doesn’t bother Elisha?”
      Yes. God could also have turned them into ice cream cones so Elisha could “lick” them into oblivion, too. :) He’s God and can do whatever he wants. Except lie. You have to know your history here: The Israelites had made a covenant (legally binding contract) with God in which the stipulation was made that capital punishment was a viable punishment for certain crimes. They agreed to this. God carried out the prescribed punishment. You may not like the contract they had together (I sure am glad it doesn’t apply to me, a Christian!) but you surely must be able to see that following the tenets contractually agreed upon is just.

      “I don’t think murder and death is a necessary action if my son was amidst a group of prejudice, hate-filled people throwing insults at my own son.”
      Neither do I. I am against capital punishment and would only take another’s life if I absolutely had to to protect my family or myself in self-defense. But this story runs deeper than that doesn’t it? It also deals with the continued and willful rejection of God’s prophet. Like it or not, a penalty had already been agreed upon for this infraction and it was simply carried out.

      Winston, thanks for commenting. I’m sure you are a very intelligent guy and I encourage you not to be a recycler of anti-god propaganda like the misuse of this story in the Old Testament. This is not the best descriptor of who God is anyway. God revealed His character to us in the most plain and clear way through the person of Jesus. All other descriptors of who God is and what God does (including the story of Elisha and the bears) get trumped by God as revealed through Jesus. I know a lot of Christians can be jerks and I apologize if any Christian has ever hurt you – they didn’t do it on God’s behalf but because we are all screwed up and are in desperate need of a savior. I can tell you with certainty that God loves you unbearably and has a plan for your life. Please feel free to continue the dialogue. Take care.

      Jamie

  6. Nardo says:

    I just wanted to point out that the verse in question does not use the term “na’ar” in any of the early Hebrew versions. It uses the word “yeladim” which, like it or not, connotes children.

    Ultimately, it’s not possible to discern the true intent of the story because the text is old and ambiguous, just as it’s meaningless to speculate as to whether God “wanted” to kill those children or not.

    • Jamie says:

      Nardo, Thanks for commenting!

      I am using Strong’s concordance to determine which Hebrew words are used in this verse. Strongs uses the Masoretic text for the Old Testament, which I’m sure you know is the official Hebrew version of the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible). There may be different words used in other auxillary versions out there but the official Jewish bible does in fact use “na’ar.” Links are provided below. I’ll be happy to take a look at whatever source you would like for me to look at but I fear that straying too far from the universally accepted Hebrew text speaks of one having an agenda instead of wanting to truthfully discuss a matter. Here is my source:

      Link showing “na’ar” in the masoretic text – http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=2Ki&c=2&v=1&t=KJV#conc/23

      Link showing the definition of “na’ar” and other instances of use in the Old Testament – http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H5288&t=KJV

      Jamie

      • Nardo says:

        The Hebrew wording I described is from the Leningrad Codex which is the oldest complete Hebrew Bible and generally considered to be the most reliable Masoretic text:

        http://wlc.hebrewtanakh.com/2_kings/2.htm
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leningrad_Codex

        Which reveals the problem; regardless of which term is in the oldest fragment one can dig up, there are so many subtle ambiguities in language I don’t believe it’s intellectually honest to assert any particular meaning with certainty. You’re asserting a particular version which assuages your moral sensibilities, which is understandable, but inferring that the “youths” posed a threat is going several logical steps beyond the available evidence.

      • Nardo says:

        As an addendum to my other comment, here’s a link illustrating my point in the concordance that you are using:

        http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=2Ki&c=2&v=1&t=KJV#conc/24

        The word na’ar is used in the verse 23 (mocking of Elisha), but “Yeladim” (children) is used in describing the children’s deaths in verse 24.

      • Jamie says:

        A Couple of points:
        1) “Yeladim” can also refer to youths and was translated “young man” 7 times in the KJV: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3206&t=KJV. It was also evidently a phrase used of unbelieving Israelites, much like we today would call someone who is always complaining a “baby.” They aren’t literal babies – it has nothing to do with their real age. We just use exaggeration to explain how they are acting. The writers weren’t using these words to tell us how old they were – the Hebrew reader would understand they weren’t children. The words were employed to tell us what type of person they were. Again, its speaks to character, not age. The OT is written in the format of a story narrative like a novel, not like a history book and therefore uses lots of “turns of phrase” specific to the culture of the time. Its an aspect of the Bible that gets lost on believers and skeptics alike and causes confusion (like this).

        2) You said “…there are so many subtle ambiguities in language I don’t believe it’s intellectually honest to assert any particular meaning with certainty.”
        I agree to a degree. Yes, its tough to accurately understand a really old book written in a dead language that’s presented in a narrative style and chock-full of idioms and colloquialisms from an ancient culture. However, I believe if we approach the word without an agenda and with an open heart the Holy Spirit can help us. But if what you say is true and we simply cannot understand the Bible, then I’m sure you will join me in rebutting atheists/agnostics/skeptics who try to use this passage to damage the faith of Jews and Christians since their caustic interpretation of a malevolent god can’t be asserted either. :)

  7. carrie says:

    I ran across this while searching for the scripture about the she bears killing 42 children. All the dialogue was so educational and inspirational as you can see since it is 2am in the morning and I should be sleeping cause I got to be to work at 0638. I shall stay connected as I have recently began teaching teenagers ( Seniors 15 – 18 yo ) Sunday School. I also supervise and teach youth ( class 3-7, class 8-11 and class 12-18 ) Bible Study.

  8. Tomas says:

    Nice exposition.
    One other point that would seem to go well with your argument –
    IN the original text, it does not state that the young men were “killed”, but that they were “slashed, cut up or mauled” (most accurate translations).

    This would seem to fit in more with the purpose of the event – basically, “I WILL protect my prophet as promised, there ARE consequences to efforts to thwart my will. Now that you’ve experienced them, go and bear (no pun intended) witness to what has transpired”.

    Also – it wasn’t Elisha that defined the “curse”. Many scholars also feel that the act of “cursing” someone was simply the act of removing God’s blessing from them (the opposite). By showing their hatred for God’s message and messenger, they shunned God’s blessing and protection. The result of the removal of God’s protection was apparantly almost instantaneous – wild animals descended upon them and did bodily harm.

  9. leroy says:

    What? 42 children were killed…how can you demnted christians belive this crap and still love god?

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