Was Elisha Really Cruel to 'Send the Bears in' When "Children" Taunted Him?

2 Kings 2:23-24 tells us of an episode involving Elisha the Prophet which has been widely misunderstood. Let us now seek to correctly understand this episode...

In 2 Kings 2:23-24 Elisha is jeered by "children" and apparently retaliates by pronouncing a curse that kills 42 young people near Bethel. Some have been stunned that a Prophet of God could have been so insensitive and cruel as to react in this way against "children" who taunted and teased him about his baldness.

But a very close look at the passage shows that most of the assumptions regarding this incident are actually incorrect, and that other elements (admittedly not brought out in the text, although very much part of the actual situation of the time) help us to clarify this incident.

Okay, let us look at this:

23 'From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along on the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!"

24 He turned round, looked at them, and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.' (2 Kings 2:23-24, NIV).

Here are seven points which will help us to better understand this incident:

1. These were not small children!

Whilst these bears in a zoo in Amsterdam, Holland might seem cute, a bear in the wild can be a most dangerous animal. The general area of modern Israel, Lebanon and Jordan once had bears in its mountainous regions.

Some translations give the impression of little children, but happily, the NIV which I am quoting here, correctly refers to these youngsters as 'youths.' The Hebrew 'neurim qetannim' is much better rendered as 'youths' or 'young men.' From several Old Testament examples, we know that these were probably boys aged from early 'teens' to up to as much as thirty years old! The KJV is at fault here in using the expression 'little children,' but the New King James and the NIV both, more correctly, use the word 'youths.' The Moffatt Bible uses the word 'boys' which seems fair and the Amplified Bible wisely points out that these were '(maturing and accountable) boys.' As confirmation of that, a similar Hebrew expression is used to describe Joseph at the age of seventeen in Genesis 37:2!

2. Elisha was not an old man at this time.

Sometimes the picture is painted of Elisha being an elderly, impatient and somewhat cantankerous old man who simply (to use a modern expression), 'lost his rag.' But the truth is that Elisha was not even all that old when this incident occurred and went on to live over 50 more years !! Some have even suggested that he was probably not much older than the oldest of these youths (as already pointed out, these 'youths' could be anything up to 30 years of age).

3. The incident followed an astonishing miracle which the Lord performed through Elisha at Jericho! In ridiculing Elisha, these youths were actually ridiculing the Lord!

In verses 22-24 Elisha had just completed the miracle of the healing of the waters of Jericho, which had been poisoned. It was unacceptable that right after a mighty miracle had just been performed by God at the hands of Elisha some local youths should have started taunting and ridiculing him! This was an open and public insult against Elisha which was probably aimed ultimately at the Lord Whom Elisha clearly represented. So the taunt had to be dealt with decisively. The sudden arrival of the two bears who mauled forty-two youths to death would serve as an eternal reminder and warning that blasphemy against the true God and his divine plan upon this earth can be met with swift and serious consequences.

4. This was no harmless "teasing" (as it has sometimes been represented), but more likely an organised and large demonstration.

If 42 scoffing youths were mauled, how many people were in the crowd to begin with?? We cannot say but it could have been anything up to 200-500 jeering youths!! If so, this would suggest that the demonstration might have been purposely organised by the followers of Baal who possibly did not want those waters healed! Their jeering possibly implied that if Elisha were truly a great prophet of the Lord, as Elijah had been, he should also 'go up' into heaven as Elijah had done. Moreover, the expression 'baldhead' could have been an insulting reference to lepers who had to shave their heads and were considered the outcasts of society.

5. Elisha did not curse the youths because of hurt pride but because of the youth's astonishing disrespect for the Lord's servants and the Lord's actions within human history.

Those unbelievers who think they have found evidence of 'an unfair God' in this text are only able to interpret it in the perspective of an "elderly" prophet's hurt pride, but Elisha was obviously a caring and just man (as we know from other incidents in his life), but he was supremely 'God-centered' and he knew full well that this very large group of youths only jeered him as the closest they could get to jeering God Himself. They deserved their punishment.

6. Elisha - apparently - did not dictate that some of the youths should be attacked by bears, he merely pronounced judgment on them.

He probably did it in order to strike terror into any other youth gangs which might have been terrorizing the city, maybe it was a problem in that area which needed a swift realization to be brought to bear that neither Yahweh nor any of His anointed prophets were to be threatened or treated with disdain and contempt. Such dramatic action would certainly teach a powerful lesson which would not be quickly forgotten.

7. This judgment was a reminder to Israel at large of covenant obligations and responsibilities.

As others have pointed out, Elisha pronounced a curse which was not dissimilar to the covenant curse of Leviticus 26:21-22. The result gave warning of the judgment that would come on the entire nation should it persist in disobedience and apostasy (see 2 Ch 36:15-16). Thus Elisha's first acts were indicative of his ministry that would follow: God's covenant blessings would come to those who looked to him (the healing of the waters: 2 Kings 2:19-22), but God's covenant curses would fall on those who turned away from him (the slaying of the ridiculers of Elisha and the Lord Whom he served: 2 Kings 2:23-24).

'"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, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted."' (Leviticus 26: 21-22).

So, in conclusion, this was hardly the particularly nasty atrocity which Bible scoffers frequently paint it as being and the youths who were mauled by bears were plainly inexcusable and rebellious God-scoffers who were hardly 'little children' !

The incident served as a very significant warning for the future religious allegiances of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who were a significant part of God's covenant people.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.