Wow. Who saw that coming in the story? In our summer series of exploring Hebrew Scriptures, we are taking a slight detour from the lectionary, but these verses are actually exactly what follows last week’s Scripture. (The lectionary makes suggestions of what Scripture to read weekly; today’s Scripture isn’t included in the lectionary at any point. Wonder why…)
I chose them on the recommendation of Gail. She mentioned the story of the bears mauling young boys and asked that I address it one Sunday. When I looked up where in the Bible that was located - lo and behold! - it was directly after the verses we just read last week.
So, perfect timing. Here we are with undrinkable water and 42 “young boys” being attacked by 2 bears.
I decided to include the Scripture right before it as well - about Elisha making the water drinkable again because, believe it or not, the two scenes have a similar theme. Though, we’ll focus on the second half of the story mainly.
The second half of this story does make great material for every bald-headed youth leader out there (great threat: call me bald one more time and I’ll sic God’s bears on you!). When hearing this story completely out of context, however, we can completely get the wrong message.
We could think…
-how horrible that children were gruesomely killed
-the young boys didn’t know better - they were being annoying teenagers, perhaps! (no offense to our lovely teenagers here who are angels)
-what teenager doesn’t call an older man “baldy” at some point?
-what kind of god would need to teach a lesson in such a violent way!
-Elisha & God are totally overacting
If I learned nothing else in divinity school, I learned to always look at the greater context.
So, let’s set the scene.
In these verses, “Elisha...had just returned from bidding Elijah...farewell. God had taken Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind right before Elisha’s eyes and promised to give him a double portion of Elijah’s “spirit.” This spiritual power that Elisha sought was important, for Israel was [full of] idolatry. This idolatry caused much suffering in this world and the next, idolatry that would eventually cause God’s judgment to fall on the whole nation at the hands of the vicious Assyrians.
Elisha’s job—to call the people to return to the true God and worship [God] alone, to put away idolatry and all the vile practices associated with it—was important for the spiritual and physical well-being of the thousands of individuals in the nation and for the nation as a whole. He needed credibility with the king, with his fellow prophets, and with the people. He was taking on Elijah’s job now.” (Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, https://answersingenesis.org/bible-questions/elisha-little-children-and-the-bears/)
He had picked up Elijah’s mantle.
If we remember our lesson from Elijah two weeks ago, it sounds to me like Elisha could use a nap and a snack. Elisha was the newbie in a job position that not a lot of people were excited about in the first place. So, he didn’t automatically have the street cred that he needed.
The author of 2 Kings knows this about the prophet’s story and made sure to include not one, but two back-to-back stories on how Elisha’s authority is challenged and proven. First, the people try convincing him that the city is fine and don’t need him….well, except for the undrinkable water. Which he fixes. Second, some “young boys” give him a hard time going down the street, and the next thing we know God sends some bears to maul them! Seems like God is on Elisha’s side.
But these stories, without further digging, can lead to some strong, legitimate questions that lead to a rabbit hole of theological questions:
What God would send bears to maul children? Did they die?
Why does God seem so violent in Hebrew Scriptures?
Is the “OT” God the same as the “NT” God?
Is God evolving?
What does that mean for God today?!
Is God of the Bible even relevant for us today?
And the rabbit hole continues….
So, let’s dig further into this second story about the bears and hopefully stave off a descent into the rabbit hole.
First, the words used that are translated as “little children” or “young boys,” depending on the translation you’re reading, can mean a variety of things in the Scripture. Just as our modern English langauge has words with multiple meanings (for instance, a crane can be a bird or a heavy piece of machinery that lifts large objects), so does the Hebrew language.
The words translated as “young boys” in Hebrew can mean “small in quantity, size, number, age, status, or importance… In seeing how these words are used throughout the Old Testament, we see that “little child” (qatan na’ar) is used to describe the young rebel Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:14, 17) who fled Solomon’s kingdom and married pharaoh’s sister-in-law. The combination is also used by Solomon to refer to himself when he prayed for wisdom after becoming king (1 Kings 3:7). ...The word describes Joseph at age 17 (in Genesis 37 ), Isaac at about 25 to 28 on Mount Moriah (in Genesis 22),1 spies in Joshua, and (along with yeled) the young men who gave Rehoboam such lousy advice in 1 Kings 12...Thus, we can already see the phrase “little child” being used...to refer to the relative youth or immaturity of grown men.” (Mitchell)
And, did these males die? Again, with the wording used, we don’t know. We don’t know if they just chased off the scene, given a fair warning, or if they were killed by these bears...or somewhere in between.
What we do know is that it’s very likely we are not reading about a group of 10 year old boys. It could’ve been a group of 20-some year olds caught up in the idolatry of the city and not yet having gained any wisdom.
Second, what is so significant about them saying “Keep going, baldy! Keep going!”
Remember how Elijah had just left the scene? He had been swept up to heaven. “Their taunt to “go up” was a reference to Elijah’s recent ride to heaven. By shouting this challenge to Elisha, they were challenging his right to follow in Elijah’s footsteps as God’s designated representative to Israel—and declaring their intention that they wanted him to meet His Maker as well.” (Mitchell)
And what about “baldy?” “The reference to his baldness was likely an ordinary sort of insult: baldness on the back of the head, historically, “was considered a blemish among the Israelites as well as among the Romans.”2 (Mitchell)
Their statement packed more meaning than just a sarcastic jab at an elder. It was an insult meant to challenge his authority as God’s anointed.
Mitchell states, “...when we consider the rest of the taunt these “little children” hurled at the prophet, we see evidence that they possessed a certain amount of theological understanding. ...Yet if the people were to be called back to God, Elisha had to have credibility as God’s designated representative...one thing is sure: everyone watching and everyone who survived learned a lesson that day: God’s message is serious, and Elisha is His new messenger.”
Coupled with the first half of these verses, we can gather from this selection that the author of 2 Kings was making sure Elisha’s authority as God’s messenger was established.
It was told in such a way that would be understood by the people of that day. They understood the need of drinkable water (this was before the days of water filtration) and they understood the natural world to be very closely tied with God (perhaps a lesson that would be good for us to revisit).
Whether 2 bears actually mauled 42 males, I don’t know. Whether it happened in direct correlation to calling Elisha “baldy,” I don’t know. I do know, though, the importance of recognizing the authority of God’s message in this world.
What do we do with this story? Can we learn anything from it that applies to our lives today? Do we think that it’s possible bears may attack us if we disrespect a person God anoints to do a job?
More importantly, do we ever resist God’s messages? Do we ever find ourselves wanting to push aside messages that tell us to stop worshiping idols of consumerism, personal fame, pleasure, or anything that replaces God in our lives?
I dare say we have all found ourselves in this position. We have all essentially said “I’m fine here….except for this water, which is really important to me, can you just fix this and be on your way?”
I do not mean for this to place any shame on us, but for us to realize and recognize the ways that we, too, try to not hear God’s leading in our lives. When we don’t seek out those fruits of the Spirit mentioned last week - love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, self-control - then there are results (or consequences) that will show in our lives. It may not be bears coming out from the trees, but it may be loss of friendships (if we aren’t loving and patient) or it may be loss of health (if we don’t use self-control in eating and drinking).
We aren’t that different from the people who lived during Elisha’s time. My hope for myself, for you, for us as a community is that we are wise enough to listen to the warnings and the godly messages around us.
Scripture: 2 Kings 2:15-25