The Boys Killed by Bears (OR: Elisha’s “Bald” Head?)

2 Kings 2:23-24 is one of those OT stories that stand out after you read it. This is the episode where some youth mock Elisha’s “bald head” and are killed by two bears. This is one of the hard texts of the Bible for sure! I appreciate how the story is explained in the book, Hard Sayings of the Bible. Here’s a big excerpt of the explanation:

The way many read this text, a mild personal offense by some innocent little children was turned into a federal case by a crotchety old prophet as short on hair as he was on humor. Put in its sharpest form, the complaint goes: How can I believe in a God who would send bears to devour little children for innocently teasing an old man whose appearance probably was unusual even for that day?

At first reading, it appears the prophet chanced on guileless children merrily playing on the outskirts of Bethel. Seeing this strange-looking man, they began to chant in merriment, “Go on up, you baldhead! Go on up, you baldhead!” Instead of viewing the situation for what it was, the old prophet became enraged (as some would tell the story), whirled around and, with eyes flashing anger, shouted a curse in the name of the Lord.

But this is a false reconstruction of the event. The problem begins with the two Hebrew words for “little children,” as many older translations term the youths. If we are to untangle this puzzling incident, the age and accountability level of these children must take first priority. “Little children” is an unfortunate translation. The Hebrew expression e˓ûrîm qẹtannîm is best rendered “young lads” or “young men.” From numerous examples where ages are specified in the Old Testament, we know that these were boys from twelve to thirty years old. One of these words described Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties. It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old. In fact, the same word described army men in 1 Kings 20:14–15…

…But was Elisha an old man short on patience and a sense of humor? This charge is also distorted, for Elisha can hardly have been more than twenty-five when this incident happened. He lived nearly sixty years after this, since it seems to have taken place shortly after Elijah’s translation into heaven. Some would place Elijah’s translation around 860 b.c. and Elisha’s death around 795 b.c. While Elijah’s ministry had lasted less than a decade, Elisha’s extended at least fifty-five years, through the reigns of Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash.

Did Elisha lose his temper? What was so wrong in calling him a “baldhead,” even if he might not have been bald, being less than thirty?

The word baldhead was a term of scorn in the Old Testament (Is 3:17, 24). Natural baldness was very rare in the ancient Near East. So scarce was baldness that it carried with it a suspicion of leprosy.

Whether Elisha was prematurely bald or not, it is clear that the epithet was used in utter contempt, as a word of insult marking him as despicable.

But since it is highly improbable that Elisha was prematurely bald, the insult was aimed not so much at the prophet as at the God who had sent him. The point is clear from the other phrase. “Go on up,” they clamored. “Go on up!” These were not topographical references to the uphill grade of the Bethel road. Instead, the youths were alluding to Elijah’s translation to heaven. This they did not believe or acknowledge as God’s work in their midst. To put it in modern terms, they jeered, “Blast off! Blast off! You go too. Get out of here. We are tired of both of you.” These Bethel ruffians used the same Hebrew verb used at the beginning of the second chapter of 2 Kings to describe the taking up of Elijah into heaven. The connection cannot be missed.

Apparently, news of Elijah’s ascension to glory traveled near and far but was greeted with contemptuous disbelief by many, including this youthful mob. The attack was on God, not his prophet.

Elisha uses no profanity in placing a curse on these young men. He merely cited the law of God, which the inhabitants of Bethel knew well. Moses had taught, “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” (Lev 26:21–22).

Elisha did not abuse these young men, nor did he revile them; he was content to leave the work of judging to God. He pronounced a judgment on them and asked God to carry out the action which he had promised when his name, his cause and his word were under attack. No doubt these young men only reflected what they heard at the dinner table each evening as the population went further and further away from God.

The savagery of wild animals was brutal enough, but it was mild compared to the legendary cruelty of the Assyrians who would appear to complete God’s judgment in 722 b.c. The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack and the increasingly severe divine judgments that followed it. But instead of turning back to God, Israel, as would Judah in a later day, “mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chron 36:16).

Instead of demonstrating unleashed cruelty, the bear attack shows God trying repeatedly to bring his people back to himself through smaller judgments until the people’s sin is too great and judgment must come full force.

Kaiser, Walter C; ed. etc. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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