Thursday, August 25, 2011

Elisha and the Killer Bears (II Kings 2:24)

What happened to children who made fun of Elisha’s bald head? Bears ate them (II Kings 2:24)

Elisha was involved in a graphic incident at Bethel in which the prophet’s curse led to the death of his critics (II Kings 2:23-24). The story seems out of character for Elisha who had just completed a mercy mission in Jericho (II Kings 2:15-22) and went to Bethel not to curse, but to bless. Bethel had a history of idolatry as King Jeroboam had promoted pagan worship there (I Kings 12:28-33). Elisha arrived to criticism from a group of youth and cursed the offending parties, 42 of whom were subsequently devoured by bears (II Kings 2:23-24). This troublesome text has often been viewed as a cautionary tale to not harm God’s anointed (Psalm 105:15).

This short horror story has evoked images like the one above from New Zealand caricaturist Graham Williamson and nonbelievers have often cited this atrocity as reason to reject the faith. Not surprisingly, apologists have attempted to soften the story. The mitigating circumstances used to cushion the text include posing that the victims were not children, that their criticism of Elisha had little to do with his bald head and that the bears likely only mauled rather than ate the children.

The age of the bears’ victims is debated. The wording “little children” comes from the King James Version (II Kings 2:23). The standard refutation of this understanding is exemplified by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (b. 1933):

“Little children” is an unfortunate translation. The Hebrew expression ne‘urîm qeţannîm 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...these are young men ages between twelve and thirty (Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 232).
Ancient Jewish society did consider a male to be a young lad until he reached the age of thirty and the cases Kaiser cites of the use of the Hebrew na’ar (“lads”) are accurate but in this text, the adjective quatan (“small”) is added to na’ar . In response, Kaiser cites the case of David being described by similar terms when he was old enough to serve as a shepherd (I Samuel 16:11-12). Kaiser’s argument is not conclusive as evidenced by the various translations of the text. While different translations make the age of the victims seem slightly different, they all affirm that the victims were younger. The text is alternately rendered “small boys” (ESV, HCSB, NRSV, RSV), “boys” (CEV, NIV, NLT), “young lads” (ASV, NASB), “youths” (NKJV), and “little kids” (MSG). The real issue regarding the age is that of innocense.

Because of the youth of the adversaries and their numeric advantage, Norman Geisler (b. 1932) defends the prophet by attacking the youths: “As best we can tell, this was a violent mob of dangerous teenagers, comparable to a modern street gang (Lee Strobel [b.1952], The Case for Faith, 123).” It has also been speculated that this group was associated with prophets of Ba’al making the text parallel Elijah’s triumph on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:16-40). Coincidentally, Mount Carmel was Elisha’s next destination (II Kings 2:25).

Was the prophet in danger? Even if he was, is the punishment not severe? How does the age of the children effect your reading of the passage? Does your interpretation change if you picture the Hitler Youth instead of elementary school students? Does God ever ordain the killing of children?

The divisive issue was not Elisha’s hairstyle. The prophet is mocked with the refrain “Go up, you baldhead (II Kings 2:23 NASB)”. The command “go up” both mocked the ascension of Elijah (II Kings 2:1-12) and instructed the prophet to leave the premises. The juvenile epithet “you bald head” was then added. Given that prophets’ heads were covered it is doubtful they knew whether or not Elisha was bald. Baldness was rare in the Ancient Near East and could have been associated with leprosy (Isaiah 3:17, 24).

F.W. Krummacher (1796-1868) expounds:

Baldness was regarded by the lower orders as a kind of disgrace; for as it was one of the usual consequences of leprosy, so it was accounted a sign of personal and mental degradation. Hence, in using this opprobrious epithet, the young profligates had a most malicious intention (Krummacher, Elisha, A Prophet For Our Times, 13).
The prophet’s credibility, not alopecia, was the real issue. Their mocking strategically attacked both God’s message and the messenger.

In response, Elisha cursed his detractors “in the name of the LORD” which resulted in two she-bears emerging from the woods to maul 42 youths (II Kings 2:24 NASB). The Hebrew for “cursed” (qalal) does not entail being laced with profanity. It has been speculated that Elisha pronounced a curse similar to the covenant curse of Leviticus 26:21-22. Elisha neither summoned the bears nor called for the youths’ deaths. He merely pronounced judgment on the demonstrators and God decided the form of the response.

Did Elisha intend for the youths to die? What should Elisha have done? What would you have done had you been surrounded by a horde of mockers?

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (b. 1933) sees mercy in the text:

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 BC. The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack and the increasingly sever 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” (II Chronicles 36:16). (Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 233-34)
While this provides a positive slant on this text, a lot of harm could be done and has been done using this same rationale (Read: The Inquisition).

Even taking the most tame version of the story - a prophet’s ministry was in peril (not a hypersensitive image conscience leader) by a gang of miscreants (not preschoolers) who were mauled (not eaten) by bears - the story is problematic and God appears harsh.

The passage does not bear any resemblance to the teachings of Jesus. How should a Christian handle this text? Why was the misdeed of the youths punished so severely when others in Scripture were not? Is there a moral to this story? Why is this passage included in the Scriptures? Is it simply a cautionary tale?

“We’re all born bald, Baby!” - Telly Savalas (1922-1994)


  1. This is hands down my favorite Bible story. Another favorite is when God kills Onan for ejaculating on the ground instead of inside his dead brother's wife's vagina. Good times.

  2. According to the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Egyptian men never became bald. The reason for this was that, as children, the Ancient Egyptian males had their heads shaved, and their scalps were continually exposed to the health-giving rays of the sun.