Skeptic’s Objection: “Why would God allow two bears to kill 42 children simply for saying Elisha was bald? You mean if a bunch of kids make fun of my bald head, I get to take them to the zoo and throw them in the bear cage to be ripped apart? ”
I agree that this is an unusual story and at first blush it seems morally objectionable. However, I find most such stories from the Bible make more sense when read in their cultural, literary, and linguistic context. Indeed, this is something we must do if we are serious about understanding something that was written thousands of years ago in a culture, time, and language as far removed from our own as the author(s) of Kings is. Of course, if our objective is actually to quote mine and mock something we disagree with well any topically illiterate soul can do that as is often the case when creationists quote mine evolutionary literature.
So how would we intelligently approach this text of Scripture? Let’s begin by quoting 2 Kings 2:23-24 from the most widely accepted Jewish version of the Tanakh (the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament) in the English-speaking world, the Stone Edition:
“23He went up there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young lads came out from the city and mocked him, saying to him, “Go on up Baldhead! Go on up, Baldhead!”
24 He turned around and saw them, and cursed them in the name of Hashem. Two bears then came out of the forest and tore apart forty two of the lads.” (2 Kings 2:23-24)
Let’s look at the passage more closely-
“HE WENT UP THERE TO BETHEL”: Up from where? There is a natural tendency we modern people have of artificially dividing the Bible into unrelated verses as we read it. People who wish to mock the Bible do this by quote mining while believers often do this when proof texting. However, we need to remember that every passage has a “before” and “after” within that book and a context that includes all the other Biblical books as well as the interpretive tradition of the believing community.
The “before” of this particular passage involves the beginning of Elisha’s prophetic ministry when his master Elijah was taken up in a fiery chariot (it is immaterial whether we believe this happened, it is vital if we wish to understand the larger literary narrative). Elisha’s first miracle was on the way back from the wilderness when he lifted the curse which had been on Jericho’s water supply. This story immediately precedes the story with the bears,
“19The people of the city told Elisha, “Behold, living in this city is pleasant, as my master can see, but the water is bad making the land deadly.
20 He said, “Give me a new jar and put salt in it,” and they brought it to him.
21 He went out to the source of the water and threw the salt there, and he said, “Thus said Hashem, “I have cursed this water; there shall no longer be from it death and bereavement.”
22 So the water became cured, until this day, like the word of Elisha that he had spoken.” (2 Kings 2:19-22)
So Elisha’s first miracle was a work of mercy to the people of Jericho. What happened next as he was leaving the city?
“AS HE WAS GOING UP THE ROAD, SOME YOUNG LADS CAME OUT FROM THE CITY AND MOCKED HIM, SAYING TO HIM, ‘GO ON UP, BALDHEAD! GO ON UP, BALDHEAD!’”
The first thing to note here is that the text is not speaking of small children teasing an old man. It is unfortunate that some English versions like the KJV use “children” which is used somewhat differently in our society than it was in ancient societies. The Hebrew word is often used in Scripture to refer to young unmarried men like late teens and twenties in age. In those times you weren’t really considered a man until you had started a family. As the Jewish Encyclopedia says of these “children”- “The offenders were not children, but were called so (“ne’arim”) because they lacked (“meno’arin”) all religion (Soṭah 46b).”
So these weren’t very young children, but of the age where they would run in gangs causing trouble to innocent victims. Small children don’t do that. They had to have been teens or a bit older to do it.
The actions of these fifty or so young men was not innocent child’s play. It was the action of a gang of social degenerates. What other kind of person, child or not, would run after an old man like that calling him names? Especially in a large gang like they were, that’s very, very threatening. Let the reader imagine himself in the sandals of Elisha in such a situation.
Now that we have established that this was a gang of young men numbering around at least fifty who had followed Elisha out of the city to mock him let’s take a look at what they were saying, “GO ON UP, BALDHEAD! GO ON UP, BALDHEAD!”
What does this mean?
This was most probably an organized group who had gone out to challenge Elisha. This is all the more likely when we recall that Elisha was accosted by them on the road to Bethel which had become a cult center of the anti-YHWH Baal worship. These young men would not have been pleased that a miracle working prophet of YHWH was coming into their city. Their mockery implied a malicious intent; especially when the culture of the time insisted on showing respect to their elders. Furthermore, the statement “go up you baldhead!” has cultural significance. First of all, “go up” is probably a reference to Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, ascending to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). In other words, they are stating they want Elisha gone; and since Elijah had gone on to the “next world,” the implication is they wanted Elisha dead. Also, the epithet ‘baldhead’ was one of “contempt in the ancient Near East, applied to a person even with a bushy head of hair.” * Lepers had to shave their heads, so such a statement could easily have been a deliberate and malicious insult, something dangerous in a mob that can quickly get out of hand.
Further, Elisha’s head may have been shaved in mourning for the loss of his master Elijah. There may have been a another insult in the fact that Elijah was known as a hairy man and calling Elisha bald would be to diminish and to negate him as a prophet of God.
Now we come to the prophet’s response in verse 24, “HE TURNED AROUND AND SAW THEM, AND CURSED THEM IN THE NAME OF HASHEM. TWO BEARS THEN CAME OUT OF THE FOREST AND TORE APART FORTY TWO OF THE LADS.”
The Talmud (Sotah 46b) explains that Elisha cursed them because he “saw” that they were degenerate and depraved, and he foresaw that no good would ever come out of them, Nevertheless, Elisha was later punished for treating them so harshly.
“Hashem” in this translation simply means, “The Name” and is used by pious Jews to avoid saying the Name of God, “YHWH”
It is interesting to note as well that forty two of the youths were killed. In the ancient Near East and the Bible forty two is a number associated with evil (see 2 Kings 10:14; Revelation 13:5) and so the number is used here to reinforce how bad this gang of young men were.
So what is the conclusion from allowing the text to speak to us in a manner closer to what the original audience would have understood?
When we consider the mocking words of the young men, the large gang they had assembled, their veiled threat, and the fact that Elisha was the prophet of God, He allowed them to be attacked by the bears both for the safety of His prophet and as a lesson for us not to treat sacred things with contempt.
* Jamieson, R., Fausset, A., & and Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (electronic ed.) (2 Ki 2:23). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.