Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Elisha, Bears, and the Killing of Children: 2 Kings 2.23-25

* Notes from a Bible study on 2 Kings 2.23-25.  Part of a series on Tough Topics and Texts in the Bible.

Elisha, Bears, and the Killing of Children
2 Kings 2.23-25
23 And he went up from thence unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. 24 And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. 25 And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria. –KJV

1.     This passage has been used to call God’s character and word into question. 

a.     Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899)

“I find in this Bible that there was an old gentlemen a little short of the article of hair.  And as he was going through the town a number of little children cried out to him, ‘Go up, though (sic) baldhead!’  And this man of God turned and cursed them… And two bears came out of the woods and tore in pieces forty-two children!  How did the bears get there?  Elisha could not control the bears.  Nobody could control the bears in that way.  Now, just think of an infinite God making a shining star having his attention attracted by hearing some children saying to an old gentlemen, Go up, thou baldhead!  And then speaking to his secretary or somebody else, ‘Bring in a couple of bears now!’  What a magnificent God.  What would the devil have done under these circumstances?...  You hate a God like that.  I do; I despise him.”[1]

b.     Modern comic rendition[2]

2.     Some short stories… with pictures

a.     A woman sits down on a bus after work.

b.     People tear down a wall.

c.      These “short stories” have significant “back stories” that fill out the meaning and importance of the actions involved.  The “picture” gives us some indication of the significance of the event.  The same is true for 2 Kings 2.23-25.

3.     Some of the “back story” surrounding 2 Kings 2.23-25

a.     Northern Kingdom: Israel

                                               i.     Near Jehoram’s reign (c. 851-840)

                                              ii.     Time of apostasy from the Lord—false worship

                                            iii.     Elijah—Elisha’s “mentor”—is gone and off the scene after being taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2.11-12)

b.     Specific geography

                                               i.     Going from Jericho to Bethel: about a 20 mile journey

1.     Jericho: 1300 feet below level of Mediterranean Sea

2.     Bethel: 2000 feet above level of Mediterranean Sea

                                              ii.     Bethel: major center of idolatry

1.     Jeroboam (c. 927-906) set up cities of Bethel and Dan as alternative worship sites when kingdom was divided after Solomon.  He didn’t want people traveling from N. Kingdom back into Jerusalem to worship.  He set up golden calves in both Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12.27-33—see esp. vv. 28-29)

2.     Elisha is traveling into an apostate region that rejects true worship of Yahweh and his representatives

4.     Specific details of the narrative

a.     The KJV’s rendering of “little children” is incorrect.  These were adolescent males between 12-30 years old.

                                               i.     “’Little children’ is an unfortunate translation.  The Hebrew expression neurim qetannim is best rendered ‘young lads’ or ‘younger men.’  From numerous examples where ages are specified in the Old Testament, we know that these were boys from twelve to thirty years old.  One of these words described Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties.  It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old.  In fact, the same word described army men in 1 Kings 20:14-15.

“If someone objects, yes, but the word qetannim (which is translated ‘little’ in some versions) makes the difference in this context, I will answer that it is best translated ‘young,’ not ‘little.’  Furthermore, these words have a good deal of elasticity to them.  For example, Samuel asked Jesse, ‘Are these all your children [neurim]?’ But Jess replied, ‘There is still the youngest [qatan].’  But David was old enough to keep sheep and fight a giant soon after (1 Sam 16:11-12).”[3]

                                              ii.     Richard Messner agrees with this assessment and adds that qatan is also used of Jacob (Genesis 27.42) when he was about 27 years old and also used of Othniel (Judges 1.13), Caleb’s younger brother, who was old enough to storm and capture the city of Kirjath-sepher.[4]

                                            iii.     “These persons were old enough to know what they were doing, and cannot be excused for their vicious behavior on the grounds that they were under-aged.”[5]

b.     Elisha was not old—he was probably the same age as they were!

                                               i.     Event happened shortly after Elijah’s translation

                                              ii.     Elisha lived nearly 60 years after this[6]

c.      Insults: “baldhead” and “go up”

                                               i.     “baldhead”: a term of scorn in OT (Isaiah 3.17, 24)

“Natural baldness was very rare in the ancient Near East.  So scarce was baldness that it carried with it a suspicion of leprosy.”[7]

                                              ii.     “go up”: a contemptuous reference to the translation of Elijah

“News of the translation of Elijah traveled fast by word of mouth along the caravan routes.  When the report reached Bethel, there was only contemptuous disbelief.  The fact that Elijah, the old troublemaker, was taken up into heaven was just too good to be true.  With him out of their way they could continue with their false and iniquitous worship.

“Then, who should suddenly appear coming up the road to Bethel but Elisha.  Elijah’s mantle was in plain view, indicating that the spirit of Elijah was now resting upon Elisha.  The young men of the city immediately sensed that if Elisha would be just as troublesome as his master.  If only he would ‘go up’ where Elijah was—and stay there.  God’s man is always a thorn in the side of the devil’s crowd.  Is it any wonder, then, that these young ruffians went forth to meet Elisha with sneer and contempt?  They wanted to get rid of him and all such who disturbed their ways of sin.”[8]

                                            iii.     This was a rejection of Elisha’s prophetic ministry and the God whom Elisha served—they were attacking God’s prophet.

d.     A large crowd of young men coming out to threaten Elisha

                                               i.     “Another indication this was a premeditated assault is found in the number of persons ‘torn’ by the bears.  If two angry she-bears attacked a crowd of young people today so that forty-two of them were injured and some perhaps killed, how many would there have been in the crowd at the beginning?  For it is only logical to assume that the moment the bears appeared there would be a scrambling in all directions.  It would be no exaggeration to say that two escaped for every one that was hurt, which would make the crowd of renegades who followed Elisha number at least one hundred at the beginning.  Why were there so many?  Because this was a planned reception for Elisha.”[9]

                                              ii.     “A careful study of this incident in context shows that it was far more serious than a ‘mild personal offense.’  It was a situation of serious public danger, quite as grave as the large youth gangs that roam the ghetto sections of our modern American cities.”[10]

                                            iii.     Imagine a scenario today:  A United States ambassador in a hostile country surrounded by a mob of angry young men shouting, “Death to America!”

e.     Elisha pronounces God’s judgment but he doesn’t ask for this specific punishment

“It was not Elisha who brought the bears, but a holy, righteous God.  God had warned, but the people paid no heed—so judgment fell.  One can easily see now that this was not the revenge of an angry prophet, but rather the punishment of a righteous judge.”[11]

f.      This judgment was in accordance with God’s law which had been known in Israel.

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.
         -- Leviticus 26.21-22

g.     This was to be a sign—a mirco-judgment—so as to avoid the coming macro-judgment on the nation as a whole.

“The savagery of wild animals was brutal enough, but it was mild compared to the legendary cruelty of the Assyrians who would appear to complete God’s judgment in 722 B.C.  The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack and the increasingly severe divine judgments that followed it.  But instead of turning back to God, Israel, as would Judah in a later day, ‘mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy’ (2 Chron 36:16).”[12]

h.     Were the young men killed?  Perhaps but not necessarily.

                                               i.     English translations

1.     KJV: “tare”
2.     NASB: “tore up”
3.     ESV: “tore”
4.     NIV/NRSV: “mauled”

                                              ii.     Hebrew word used in verse 24: baqa

1.     “break open, rip, tear”; does not mean “killed” or “devoured”
2.     Used for chopping wood (Genesis 22.3), ripping garments (Joshua 9.13), and an egg hatching (Isaiah 34.15)
3.     2 Kings 3.26: men breaking through an army

                                            iii.     Could have meant that the 42 young men were chased off by the bears with varying degrees of injury.

                                            iv.     Extended note: some possible conjectures

“Depictions and videos of this event look more like a Terminator movie than what the Bible reports, liberally spraying blood and body parts all over the place. But there are three major points against this.
“The first is that, as noted in the film, the bears were Syrian brown bears who would weigh a mere 400 pounds. That’s only 800 pounds of bear versus 5040 pounds (at least 42 x 120 lb) of human – who unlike bears, can lift rocks, cudgels, etc.
“Second, the only word used to describe what the bears did is the Hebrew baqa.This word does not mean “killed” or “devoured” or anything of that sort. It means to “break open” and is used for chopping wood (Gen. 22:3), ripping garments (Josh. 9:13), or even an egg hatching (Is. 34:15). In several places it refers to water splitting open or cutting through earth.
“In 2 Kings 3:26 is refer to men “breaking through” an army, so it could mean that 42 of the group were chased off by the bears. But if it does refer to some injury by the bears, we have to decide how severe that could have been with some reasoned fact-finding.
“Once again, the fact of there being at least 42 must be considered. Humans are not fast; the typical speed of a running human is perhaps 15 MPH. In contrast, Syrian brown bears can move faster than other bears. As one zoo website puts it:
“In spite of their size, Syrian Brown Bears have a great deal of strength, deceptive speed (some have been clocked at speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour!), and are legendary for their stamina. They are capable of running at full speed for miles at a time without stopping.
“However, even though this bear can run twice as fast as a human, this sort of speed is not going to enable two of them to catch 42 humans and injure them! The irony of this in Skeptical portrayals is that the more bloody the punishment they have the bears delivering, the less time they have to catch more victims, and the more absurd the Skeptical portrayal becomes! There’s also the fact that this is a desert climate with plenty of room to run – the “wood” here would have been more like a thicket (just look for pictures of this area today to see what I mean), with some trees, but generally thin on the ground.
For this reason, I have shown that there is only one serious way that 42 could have been injured – and that’s if they fought back. Why? There could be many reasons. One that wouldn’t occur to us is that bears are, well – edible! And a roving pack of vagrants could make a good meal out of them. They could also make use of their furs for blankets or clothes, and use their teeth for tools or jewelry, and their bones for soup – the same way other native peoples use bears.
“A second reason is more obscure to us: Those who stood up to the bears and were injured would receive the honor due to one within their group who had stepped to the plate on the defensive. Remember that Roman gladiators fought wild beasts to achieve honor and fame. The same principles of honor held in ancient Israel. (By the way, I am aware that "play dead" and not "run" is the best advice for avoiding injury from a bear, but I doubt people in Elisha's time knew this -- and it would have been considered dishonorable behavior even if it were known.)
“With that in mind, what sort of injuries were done? Given the chaos and the number of people involved, most probably suffered scratches from the bears’ claws – which could be as little as a minor scratch to a major gash. From what I can gather, bears do not normally view humans as prey, so injuries from teeth would be less likely.”[13]

5.     Resources

a.     Tekton Education and Apologetic Ministry has a good page and video on this:

b.     Richard G. Messner, “Elisha and the Bears” Grace Journal 3 (1962), 14.  Available online: 

c.      Christian Think Tank has a good summary of the issues:

     [1] Quoted in Richard G. Messner, “Elisha and the Bears” Grace Journal 3 (1962), 14.  Available online: 
     [3] Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 232-233.
     [4] Messner, “Elisha and the Bears,” 17.  Messner also mentions that these two words also appear together in 1 Samuel 20.35 and 1 Kings 11.17.  See also 1 Kings 3.7—both terms used by Solomon after becoming king.
     [5] Messner, “Elisha and the Bears,” 17.
     [6] “While Elijah’s ministry had lasted less than a decade, Elisha’s extended at least fifty-five years, through the reigns of Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash.”  Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 233.
     [7] Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 233.
     [8] Messner, “Elisha and the Bears,” 19.
     [9] Messner, “Elisha and the Bears,” 21.
     [10] Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), 205.
     [11] Messner, “Elisha and the Bears,” 21.
     [12] Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 233-234.
     [13] “Elisha and the Two Bears—Supplement,” Tekton Education and Apologetic Ministry (n.d.; n.p.)—all bold-face added.  Available online: