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!