Elisha and the She-Bears
(2 Kings 2:23-25)
By Ed Vasicek
Whenever a new leader replaces a well-loved iconic legend, people have doubts. The bigger the shoes the more difficult it is to fill them. Of course, in the case of Elisha, the question was not whether he could fill Elijah’s shoes, but his cloak!
As Elijah’s disciple and servant, God would call upon Elisha to continue and exceed the ministry Elijah had carved out. Would the people of Israel respect Elisha as they had learned to respect Elijah? Would the transition be complete and speedy?
2 Kings 2 is about this transition. God would use several events to teach the people of Israel — even those who were not faithful to the Lord — to respect this new kid on the block. The account of the 42 young men torn apart by two she-bears is an important —albeit tragic— part of God’s agenda to teach the Israelites to heed Elisha.
Elijah, Elisha, and the “sons of the prophets” (the proto-type for disciples; I will use the term “disciples” for this group) had all been told that this was Elijah’s last day on earth. He would be taken up to glory alive, one day to return (Malachi 4:5).
Elisha, fond and supportive of his master, naturally wants to be at Elijah’s side during this solemn time.
The Biblical narrative format reminds us of a child’s story with repeated (“he huffed and he puffed”) incidents and language. Elijah is called to travel from one town to another, descending lower and lower until he reaches the low spot, the Jordan River.
Each time as he proceeds to the next location, Elijah tries to dissuade Elisha from following him. Each time, Elisha insists upon following his master, and each time Elijah acquiesces. Each time, Elisha is confronted by a group of disciples (“sons of the prophets”) who make sure Elisha understands what is going to happen, old news to Elisha. Each time, Elisha explains that he is aware of Elijah’s destiny, and urges the disciples to zip their lips. He wants to give Elijah the quiet, pensive time he needs.
In the last account, near the Jordan, Elijah takes his coat and touches it to the Jordan River. The waters recede. With 50 disciples left behind on the other side of the Jordan, Elijah and Elisha are alone. Elijah wants to leave his friend and replacement with a token of his support. Rather than a token gift, he gives Elisha an opportunity to request something.
Elisha asks for a double portion of the Spirit (we assume this means double the Holy Spirit’s power). Granting this request is out of Elijah’s domain, and he is not sure whether this request would be within Yahweh’s will. We assume Elijah brings the request to God in prayer (though the text does not so state). By divine inspiration, Elijah offers Elisha a sign. If he witnesses Elijah ascend into heaven, he shall have his request. If he is not privy to this event, he will not.
Elisha sees horses and chariots of fire whisk Elijah away, as though by a whirlwind. All that is left of Elijah is his coat, the same coat he had symbolically placed upon Elisha’s shoulders earlier (I Kings 19:19). Elisha takes the coat, touches it to the Jordan in the Name of the God of Elijah, and the waters part. He crosses over alone, while the 50 disciples gaze from a distance.
Elisha is now God’s prophet, Elijah’s ministry a memory. But would the people receive him? Or would they cling to the memory of Elijah, not even giving Elisha a true chance?
Unlike Elijah, who was a loner (much like John the Baptist), Elisha was a social person (more like Jesus). He is concerned with how he is perceived, so, when the disciples ask to search for Elijah, he eventually acquiesces. When they gave up searching, he essentially said, “I told you so.”
Although Elisha had been given a double portion of the Spirit, and although he had parted the Jordan and taken up Elijah’s coat, and although the disciples felt constrained to get his permission before they made a search, Elisha was still suspect. Everyone — the disciples and the (sometimes ungodly) people of Israel —had to learn to respect this new man, as they should
The tragic event of the youth and the bears is the final event in this process. Let’s begin by looking at the passage (2 Kings 2:23-25, ESV) itself:
He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.
This raises several questions.
First, “How old were these boys?”
While I conceive of these boys as delinquent adolescents, the age range is ambiguous. The Hebrew word na’ar is not very specific. According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Volume 2, p. 584), it can be translated as “boy, lad, youth, servant, attendant…also young man…”
The article continues (p.585) with this comment:
“While not all lexicographers agree, na’ar likely derives from nā’ ar…’growl.’ An Arabic cognate conveys the range ‘grunt, cry, scream, roar’… South Arabic derivative Tigre’ language of Ethiopia yields a verb: ‘instigate rebellion, noun ‘mischief, revolt,’ which sheds helpful light on the incidence of Elisha’s tormentors who were attacked by bears…the ASV translations, ‘young lads’ would be …appropriate.”
Second, what did their insults mean?
Interpreters have their differences. Some think they were mocking Elijah’s ascent up to heaven, and were telling Elisha to join him. Others add more weight to the geography. Elisha had been heading downward to the Jordan when he followed Elijah. Now he was making the return trip upward, encountering steep grades along the way, perhaps perspiring.
It is also possible that there is a double meaning, namely, “Elijah ascended up to heaven — right. Sure. And you barely climb this hill.”
Calling Elisha a “baldhead” is pretty self-explanatory. Elisha’s experience may discount the idea that a nice beard detracts from a bald head. J At least as far as these youth were concerned!
Third, did Elisha send the bears?
The text nowhere says that Elisha sent the bears to devour this “gang.” What Elisha does is to “curse them in the Name of the Lord.” In other words, he turns them over to God for appropriate discipline or judgment. He left room for God’s vengeance.
In the Torah, God had promised to discipline the people of Israel in this manner if they turned from him (as Israel had). Leviticus 26:21-22 reads:
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 did not consume 42 boys, but tore them. We assume this meant this number of boys was killed.
Fourth (conclusion), what were the results?
As a result of this sad incident, the people of Israel understood that God Himself stood squarely behind Elisha. They had better respect him!
From this point on, Elisha works no more miracles in the “Name of the God of Elijah.” He is not just Elijah’s God, but Elisha’s.
Elisha would go on to work nearly twice the number of miracles of Elijah, and become the greatest miracle worker since Moses and until Jesus. Kings, leaders, and common people would consult him. He would develop deep relationships with the “sons of the prophets” and would, in many ways, foreshadow our Lord Jesus Christ.