Elisha, “Children”, and Bears Part 2

(Continued)

Third, when did this incident occur? To know the immediate context let me quote the paragraph division for 2 Kings 2 from several popular versions:

ESVNASBNIVNKJV
Elijah taken to heaven 2:1-14Elijah taken to heaven 2:1-14Elijah taken to heaven 2:1-18Elijah ascends or heaven 2:1-18
  Healing of the water 2:19-22 
Elisha succeeds Elijah 2:15-25Elisha succeeds Elijah 2:15-25Elisha is jeered 2:23-25Elisha performs miracles 2:19-25

As you can see, the timing was right after Elijah was taken to heaven, and Elisha succeeds Elijah as God’s prophet to idolatrous Israel. As a new prophet, Elisha was immediately challenged, and he had to respond to show that he was indeed God’s spokesperson and representative.

Fourth, what did the young people do? Was it simply laughing at Elisha being bald? It appears more is at stake from the details.

  • The mocking: “Go up, go up!” The repeated “go up” is the same word as “went up” in 2 Kings 2:11 in Hebrew, so scholars proposed that the youths did not believe and were scoffing at Elijah’s allegedly being taken up to heaven, presuming that he died instead, and suggesting Elisha follow his master to disappear.
    • Amplified Bible (Classic Edition): … On the way, young [maturing and accountable] boys came out of the city and mocked him and said to him, Go up [in a whirlwind], you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!
    • Expanded Bible: … On the way, some boys came out of the city and made fun of [mocked; jeered at] him. They said to him, “Go up too, you baldhead [away, baldy]! Go up too, you baldhead [away, baldy]!”
  • Baldness was associated with shame and may be linked to leprosy, which causes a person to be unclean:
    • Ezk 7:18 They will gird themselves with sackcloth and shuddering will overwhelm them, and shame will be on all faces and baldness on all their heads.
    • Lev 13:42-44 But if on the bald head or the bald forehead, there occurs a reddish-white infection, it is leprosy breaking out on his bald head or on his bald forehead. 43 Then the priest shall look at him; and if the swelling of the infection is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, like the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the body, 44 he is a leprous man, he is unclean.

Calling Elisha “baldy” was, therefore, a contemptuous ridicule, not just a harmless jest.

  • Elisha went up to Bethel and the young men came out from Bethel. They should, therefore, be facing each other. However, v24 said Elisha looked behind him and saw them, implying that either (a) he passed by them and they followed him, or (b) they chased him. Furthermore, two bears came out of the woods and tore up 42 lads of their number. Normally if bears come to attack people, the people would scatter and run away, they would not wait around to be mauled. Yet the bears tore up 42, implying that the group was larger than the number of victims, those who couldn’t get away fast enough. Commentators, therefore, conjectured that the group was more like a large youth gang coming out to give Elisha trouble, perhaps even threatening his life. How many were there? The text did not say, but Elisha was at least outnumbered 42 to 1, possibly 100 to 1 or more.

Fifth, why? Taking the who, where, when and what together, and considering word usage, historical and cultural background, and logic, I conclude that this was not a group of young boys poking fun at Elisha, but a large gang of young men out to taunt and stop him from carrying out his new mission of calling Israel to repent. The confrontation was a power encounter between idolaters and God’s prophet. This is where the theology of the prophet relative to God becomes important:

  • Ex 16:8 Moses said, “This will happen when the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening, and bread to the full in the morning; for the Lord hears your grumblings which you grumble against Him. And what are we? Your grumblings are not against us but against the Lord.”
  • 1 Sam 8:7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.
  • Lk 10:16 The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.

Moses and Samuel were God’s prophets. In rejecting them the people had rejected not just the prophets, but God whom they represented. Similarly, the young people mocked not just Elisha, but God his LORD. No wonder the punishment was so severe.

Sixth, how? Notice Elisha did not cause the bears to tear up the young people. He cursed them in the name of the LORD, and God sent the bears. This is following the penalties for disobedience of God’s commandments given earlier:

  • Lev 26:21-22 If then, you act with hostility against Me and are unwilling to obey Me, I will increase the plague on you seven times according to your sins. I will let loose among you the beasts of the field, which will bereave you of your children and destroy your cattle and reduce your number so that your roads lie deserted.

The bears were an example of the wild beasts that God said He would send. It is not as if God didn’t warn Israel. He sent prophets to them to bring them back to the Lord; though they testified against them, they would not listen (2 Chron 24:19). So they had no one to blame but themselves. I hope this clarifies your questions.

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