For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied II Kings 2. In it, Elijah is carried off to heaven, Elisha succeeds Elijah after receiving a double portion of his spirit, Elisha heals the bitter waters of Jericho, and Elisha curses forty-two children from Bethel, who are telling him to “Go up, baldy.” The result is that two she-bears come out of the woods and maul them.
The story of Elisha and the she-bears disturbs many people. Nowadays, Christian apologists argue that the word used for the boys in the Hebrew text, na-ar, can refer to young men. The Nelson Study Bible states:
The noun na’ar always refers to males but can include different ages. It can refer to anyone from an infant (Ex. 2:6) to a young boy (Gen. 22:5) to soldiers (1 Kin. 20:17-20). It sometimes denotes a household servant (1 Sam. 9:3) or a royal official (19:6).
But II Kings 2:23 doesn’t just say that ne-arim were calling Elisha a baldhead. It says that ne-arim qetanim—small youths—were doing this. Why would the text say that they were small, if its goal was to portray them as young men?
I’m not overly adept at BibleWorks searches, but I found three places where the term na’ar qatan is used: I Kings 3:7; 11:17; and II Kings 5:14. In I Kings 3:7, Solomon calls himself a na’ar qatan and states that he needs God to grant him wisdom. There are Christian apologists who point to this passage and contend that this is proof that na’ar qatan can refer to a young man, for Solomon was not a little child. But, in my humble opinion, Solomon isn’t saying that he’s literally a na’ar qatan, but rather that he feels like a na’ar qatan, for he deems himself inadequate and immature for the Israelite monarchy and needs wisdom in order to rule effectively.
I Kings 11:17 says that Hadad was a na’ar qatan when Joab slaughtered males in Edom. Hadad fled with his father and his father’s servants to Egypt. And II Kings 5:14 states that Naaman’s flesh became like that of a na’ar qatan when he was healed of leprosy.
I find it interesting that, when I look at ancient Christian exegesis, I see the supposition that these were children who mocked Elisha. Ephrem the Syrian (fourth century C.E.) and Augustine (fourth-fifth centuries C.E.) said that these children’s parents either put their kids up to the mockery, or they raised their kids to lack reverence for the things of God. Either way, these Christian thinkers maintain, God was punishing these kids’ parents by sending bears against the kids.
Rashi, a eleventh century Jewish commentator who often reflects rabbinic exegesis, holds that these were young men, but not really on the basis of the word na’ar. He states that they were empty, which the translation at Chabad.org takes to mean that they lacked experience in observing God’s commandments. They were children in the sense that they were spiritually immature, in short. And, according to Rashi, they actually had a reason for their grievance against Elisha: their job was to bring sweet water to Jericho when its water was bitter. Once Elisha healed Jericho’s waters, they were out of a job.
I read various things today about the story of Elisha and the she-bears: the young people were making fun of Elijah’s ascent into heaven, which was why they were telling Elisha to “go up”; that baldness was a disgrace (Isaiah 3:17, 24), so the youths were really dissing Elisha when they called him a baldhead; that these Bethelites didn’t want Elisha to go to Bethel, for they knew that he wouldn’t like the sanctuary there (see I Kings 12-13). Some say that these youths should have treated Elisha with more respect, especially after he had demonstrated God’s kindness and power by healing the waters of Jericho. Instead, they chose to make light of God’s prophet.
Ellen White, a founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, makes the following point in Prophets and Kings:
Had Elisha allowed the mockery to pass unnoticed, he would have continued to be ridiculed and reviled by the rabble, and his mission to instruct and save in a time of grave national peril might have been defeated. This one instance of terrible severity was sufficient to command respect throughout his life. For fifty years he went in and out of the gate of Bethel, and to and fro in the land, from city to city, passing through crowds of idle, rude, dissolute youth; but none mocked him or made light of his qualifications as the prophet of the Most High.
Similarly, Bible scholar Walter Bruegemann states: The incident puts Israel on notice. This Elisha is dangerous and is not to be trifled with, not by small boys, not by kings, not by anybody, for he has the spirit of Elijah.
Maybe Elisha needed the respect of the people in order to do God’s work, and that’s why he sent bears in the LORD’s name to maul those who mocked him. Not all prophets felt a need to avenge themselves against mockers, however. Jesus put up with scorners throughout his ministry and on the cross. He won the respect of many through his miracles and the power of his teachings, not by sending bears against his detractors (though one Christian preacher, Caesarius of Arles, said that the bears in II Kings 2 represented the Romans, whom God sent to punish the nation of Israel for mocking and rejecting Christ). Are different strategies appropriate for different times? If so, how can the Bible guide us, when its rules are not absolutely valid for every time, place, and situation? Or are there rules guiding which principle applies when?
I read something interesting about Elisha, but I’m not sure what the source was: the point was that Elisha was actually more social than Elijah was. Elijah didn’t interact with kings that much. He came along to rebuke them, and then he left. When he helped someone, it was a woman who wasn’t even an Israelite, but a Phoenician. Elisha, by contrast, performs miracles that help Israelites and a Syrian. He interacts with kings—of Israel and Syria. Elijah was like John the Baptist, boldly exhorting people to repent and threatening them with God’s wrath. Elisha was more like Jesus, celebrating God and bringing God’s love and healing to people—except for that incident with the she-bears.
Yet, Elijah benefited Israel. I was astonished to read a similar comment on II Kings 2:12—“Father, father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen”—in the writings of conservative pastor John MacArthur, Rashi the Jewish exegete, and Yale scholar Robert Wilson. According to all three of these interpreters, the likelihood exists that Elisha is referring to Elijah as the chariots of Israel and the horsemen, for Elijah did far more for Israel’s defence than did her chariots. Elijah brought Israel and Ahab back to God, which influenced God to bless his people, at least while they were being faithful. Prophets show both love and wrath. In both cases, they are moved by some righteous standard and have the well-being of their people at heart—even if skeptics may contend that they could have used less fatal means to accomplish their goals.