01 May A Bald Man, Two Bears, and Forty-two “Children”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #6
It’s been awhile since the last installment of this series (lots more to come), but this one should be fairly straightforward. 2 Kings 2:23–24 tells of the prophet Elisha calling a curse down upon a group of “children” (KJV), “youths” (NIV), “boys,” (NRSV/ESV), or “lads” (NASB), resulting in two bears (she-bears, if you must) mauling forty two of them. Here’s the passage:
וַיַּעַל מִשָּׁם בֵּית־אֵל וְהוּא עֹלֶה בַדֶּרֶךְ וּנְעָרִים קְטַנִּים יָצְאוּ מִן־הָעִיר וַיִּתְקַלְּסוּ־בוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ עֲלֵה קֵרֵחַ עֲלֵה קֵרֵחַ׃
וַיִּפֶן אַחֲרָיו וַיִּרְאֵם וַיְקַלְלֵם בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה וַתֵּצֶאנָה שְׁתַּיִם דֻּבִּים מִן־הַיַּעַר וַתְּבַקַּעְנָה מֵהֶם אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנֵי יְלָדִים׃
“And [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel. While he was on his way, young juveniles* came out from the city and mocked him, saying, ‘Go up, bald-head! Go up, bald-head!’ When he turned back and saw them, he cursed them in the name of YHWH. Then two female bears came out from the forest and mauled forty two of those juveniles.”
* The Hebrew word underlying what I have translated “juveniles” is notoriously difficult to translate in this context. The word can mean “child,” “servant,” “young man,” or several other possibilities, depending on the context. For example, it is used of the “young man” Absalom (1 Sam 18:5) and a group of 400 Amalekite warriors 1 Sam 30:17. The generally agreed meaning is that it is used of a young man (& can include females in the plural) who is not yet betrothed, setting the range from a mere boy to a young warrior. This passage uses the additional adjective “little” or “young” in the first case, which may tilt the meaning more towards the “children” end of the spectrum, but it’s certainly not clear. I’ve chosen the somewhat clunky “juveniles” to reflect this range, though the translation is admittedly less than ideal.
A Difficult Passage
This passage has disturbed many a reader, bringing up the question of how a prophet of YHWH could call a deadly curse down upon a group of kids for taunting him about something as insignificant as baldness. The following video is an outstanding (and, frankly, hilarious) example of this sort of misgiving (WARNING: a couple bits of language might be offensive for some):
The video actually depicts the “youths” at the older end of the spectrum (given younger kids, it would look even worse), but the basic sentiment is still there: as one of the video characters declares, “this seems like a disproportionate response” to insulting Elisha’s lack of hair.
Are Bald People Just Temperamental?
The first thing to dismiss is that this was an older man who reacted badly to taunts about his male pattern balding. According to 2 Kings, this event immediately followed Elisha taking over for Elijah; Elisha was still quite a young man at this point in the story, living about 60 years after this event (through the reigns of four more kings and into a fifth’s reign: Ahaziah, Joram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, & Jehoash/Joash). He wasn’t exactly an old monk as portrayed in the video, probably coming closer to the age of the older “children” in the group taunting him than to their parents. As an aside, given Elisha’s young age (and the possibility that his head would have been covered anyway), it isn’t clear the reference is to male-pattern baldness. It is just as likely that (were he actually bald) that his baldness was the result of the fulfillment of a vow before YHWH (which would make sense in the time immediately following Elijah’s departure). Some have also suggested that “baldy” was a reference to lepers or other outcasts who had to shave their heads. Either way, the baldness referenced in the passage is neither clear nor is it especially important.
Secondly, the emphasis in the passage isn’t Elisha’s baldness or that the juveniles bring it up—it’s that the youth of Bethel reject and scorn YHWH’s prophet (signaling a rejection of God himself). The problem is that, rather than receiving the prophet, they tell him to “go up”—the exact word (עלה) used to describe Elijah’s departure to heaven twelve verses earlier. That is, they tell him to stay away, that they wanted nothing to do with him or his God, that he should go join Elijah in heaven if he was really such a powerful prophet. That they call him “baldy,” though perhaps disrespectful, was not the cause of the cursing.
On that front, it is not insignificant that this event happens just outside Bethel, one of the two state-sponsored centers of idolatry (Dan being the other), complete with a golden calf set up by Jeroboam after the kingdoms divided. Bethel had been the center of another prophetic confrontation before—in 1 Kings 13, an unnamed young prophet cursed the altar of Bethel and its priests, with a sign performed when Jeroboam’s arm withered when he ordered the prophet siezed. A generation after Elisha, Bethel would again be the center of prophetic controversy, when Amos declared his prophecy against Israel (which we have in the book of Amos) in Bethel, cursing Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, declaring, “Thus says YHWH, ‘Your wife will become a whore in the city, your sons and daughters will fall by the sword, your land will be divided up by a measuring line, and you yourself will die upon unclean soil'” (Amos 7:10–17).
In addition, if forty two of these young comedians were mauled by the bears, exactly how many are we to assume were actually present for this scene of mockery? When a pair of large wild bears run out of the woods and begin wreaking havoc, people tend to scatter rather quickly. In my experience, such large groups of people rarely form accidentally; from the numbers involved, the implication is that this is an organized public demonstration against Elisha and his God. Bethel’s rejection of YHWH—reflected in these youngsters’ hostile behavior towards the prophet—is what leads Elisha to curse these youthful hooligans “in the name of the Lord.”
The Key Point for Understanding the Passage
In fact, like Amos after him, Elisha’s curse appears to be a repetition of (part of) the curse for rejecting YHWH in the covenant from Sinai:
“If then you act with hostility and are unwilling to hear/obey me … I will send the wild beasts among you and bereave you of your children” (Lev 26:22–23).
This is of course exactly what happens in this case, suggesting that the knowledgeable reader should immediately know what curse Elisha invoked—a curse directly from the Israelite covenant. Much is made about the blessings contained in the covenant and the many blessings promised by God, but many interpreters seem to forget the other side of the equation—disobedience calls forth awful curses. That Elisha’s curse brings about swift comeuppance is no less a sign of his authority as a prophet and representative of the covenant (and thus the truth of his protests against idolatry) than Elijah’s victorious confrontation on Carmel had been.
Recall that in his first act as Elijah’s successor, Elisha had just miraculously purified the accursed, polluted water of Jericho, bringing blessing to those who received YHWH; this second act serves as a sign of God’s continued judgment upon covenant-breakers. Such a visible sign of judgment serves—just as Elijah’s drought and victory on Carmel (complete with the slaughter of 450 false prophets)—as a sign of YHWH’s reality and his covenantal claim upon Israel. In addition, given the fact that Elijah had been sought by the king and threatened with death by the queen, this kind of mockery and aggressive behavior serves as a threat—and as with Elijah before him, it becomes immediately clear that YHWH himself will look after the safety of his prophet(s), much to the disadvantage of their opponents.
God Will Not Be Mocked, So Don’t Taunt a Prophet of YHWH (Even if he is bald)
So, Elisha’s curse is not simply a case of a temperamental guy getting bit touchy about his appearance and calling down curses upon a group of kids for drawing attention to his baldness. Rather, it is a prophetic sign—at the very beginning of his service as God’s spokesperson—of YHWH’s displeasure at Israel’s covenantal disobedience, a warning that, without repentance, the other curses stipulated in the covenant were soon to come.
Granted, modern sensibilities tend to be at odds with any sort of divine retribution—”How dare God kill anyone!” (Then again, a rather high percentage of people tend to die at the end of their lives anyway, suggesting it’s just a matter of when God chooses to “kill.”) This tends to be even more the case when involving children. But such a complaint involves more of a problem with the essential worldview reflected in the Bible at large; this is by no means a problematic passage if one is willing to take the worldview reflected in the text and accept God’s authority as judge.
It is also important to note that God is the one who defends himself/his prophet here—no human being is taking into his/her own hands to defend God or himself against others in a violent manner. Elisha’s curse simply marks yet another occasion in which Israel’s rejection of God results in receiving the curses of the covenant, yet another milestone on the downward path towards the final, most serious of covenantal curses promised for disobedience—being scattered among the nations in exile.