From there he went up to Bethel, and while he was on the road up, some small boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go up, baldhead!” they shouted. “Go up, baldhead!” ·He turned around and looked at them; and he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. And two she-bears came out of the wood and savaged forty-two of the boys. ·From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria2nd Kings:2:23-25
In the 2 Book of Kings:2:23-25 Elisha, the prophet who succeeded Elijah is on his way to the town of Bethel from Jericho when he was set upon by youths taunting him, “Go up, baldhead!”, and they say it a second time, but most likely said it numerous times. Then Elisha curses them in the name of God and two she bears emerge from the woods and tear the 42 boys to pieces.
Some people find it hard to stomach that God would do this. Is God breaking his own moral code of thou Shalt not Kill? All these questions surface about such a story. In this post I aim to settle the score and answer some of these objections.
When reading the Bible we have to read it within the cultural times it was written in. What may be perceived as a minor insult of inferior concern to us today, may not have been 3000 years ago. In parts of the world today the Arabian culture defines winking at someone an insult, but in Ireland nobody would find it an insult at all.
Therefore, the weight of the insult for the culture and time period, really needs to be measured when we read this particular passage of the Bible. In the Old testament to expose somebody’s nakedness (in this case Elishas bald head) was seen as a grave insult. Having a baldy head was kind of similar to walking around with your mothers clothes on today. You were basically viewed as being “out-of-sync” with the rest of the society, and so became an object of scorn. It was dangerous enough of an insult that in a mob of youths such as this could turn into a frenzy and get nasty for the recipient.
The story is much more symbolic than we think. Elisha succeeding Elijah is really a recapitulation of an earlier story of Noah and Enoch. After Enoch is taken to heaven, Noah succeeds him and takes a boat full of animals through the water. Later his son Ham makes fun of him as he found him drunk and naked which incurs a curse from Noah.
Like Enoch, Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elisha succeeds him, and similar to the ark takes the animal “skins” (not animals but close), places them in the river, and crosses through the Jordan to the other side. It is then that these boys (like Ham) uncover his nakedness by shouting taunts at him about him being baldy which in turn incurs a curse from Elisha.
The boys are then devoured by the very angry bears who symbolize their angry passions. This passage shows us that we become devoured by the passion we are engaged in. It’s kind of like the person who makes fun of people for being homosexual and then ends up that way himself. He becomes an object of scorn and is now devoured by the same passions and behaviour he engaged in taunting others with.
THE NORTHERN KINGDOM
Before we delve into the passage, it’s important to get the backdrop on the world Elisha lives in. Around the year 930BC after the tyrannical reign of Solomon, his son Rehoboam takes the throne. The people headed by Jeroboam the Ephraimite, approach him and basically ask him not to rule them as hard has his father did. Rehoboam calls council and takes two advisers, his fathers old advisers and some of his high school buddies.
His fathers advisors advise him to rule gently and accept the peoples request, but his buddies advise him to rule even harder than his father. He takes the advice of his childhood buddies and so Jeroboam and half of Israel get annoyed, rebel and decide to camp up North. This split the Kingdom into two halves which was the North known as “Israel” and the south known as “Judah” ( hence Jesus coming from the line of Judah).
The people in the North invent their own religion and dynasty establishing nine dynasty’s and resorted to paganism. This is also how the sect of the Samaritans were born. It was a pretty nasty place full of disobedience and paganism towards God. Throughout the Bible we have many prophets to the North and to the South. Elijah and Elisha were prophets of the North so they had a tough time. The town Bethel in the North were Elisha is going was a pretty gruesome place.
It is out of this place that these little toerags come and they were not little children as some translations like to portray them as. They were adolescents as the Hebrew word “Na’ar” (pronounced Nah’ar) can mean a person between infancy all the way up to the end of the years of adolescent. They were a bunch of no good rowdy teenagers that probably could have murdered Elisha if they wanted, there was enough of them to do this.
We have to remember that Northern Israel was a complete godless society with little regard for the sacredness of life we uphold in the law today. Youths back then were not the cuddly ones we see today who play hopscotch and play hide and seek with their friends. There was basically no morals in them at all, and killing Elisha and discarding of the body would have been no small task.
The fact that they had reason enough to make fun of his image would tell us that they were early teens at the least. They would have probably all been a mixture of close age. The fact that the Bible says the bears devoured only 42 of them tells us there were most likely more and so formed a really big mob.
When they say “Go up, baldhead!” the “Go up,” is basically them telling Elisha they wish death upon him by going up like his predecessor Elijah did. Not only this, but they’re making fun of God by making fun of Elijah, a story of whom they most likely heard about and didn’t believe. Furthermore, they expose his nakedness and deride him for his bald appearance. A great insult in those times.
With this threat or wishing death upon him, Elisha most likely feared for his life. There’s lots the story doesn’t include because Sacred writers only focus on what they feel is important. We could assume that they were throwing rocks at him also and trying to stone him. We just don’t know. Whatever the case may be, he turns around and curses them. It was merely an act of self defense, and even then how did Elijah know bears were going to eat them? All he did was curse them in the Name of the Lord. He had no idea what was to become of that angry rebuke.
Now comes the final question. Did God break his own moral code by killing the boys or allowing them to be killed by the bears? We must remember that Gods ten commandments that includes not taking innocent life is not for Him, but me and you. There is this habit humans have which is to pull God down to our level. We think that when God takes life he does so with malice. But how God takes life and the intentions by which He does is not the same as we humans do. God is beyond the human mind filled with sin and mixed emotions. Therefore, God didn’t break any code, for he is the author life. And being the author of life also means being the taker of it too.
In the end, the young boys are to blame. They brought the punishment upon themselves. Elisha was going to be protected by God as He wants him for his purposes. What we learn from this story is that we need to be careful about how we treat Gods prophets today. We must do it with respect. We must also remember that what we sow we too shall reap. If we sow anger, we will reap it just as the youths did the angry bears who symbolized their rotten murderous state of soul.