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When Bears Attack

by Alyssa Robinson

And now for a Bible story that needs no introduction, 2 Kings 2:19:25:

Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it and said, “Thus says the Lord: I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.

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 away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel and then returned to Samaria.

Any questions? Of course, I’m kidding. This weird Bible story has a special place in my heart because it is the first story that truly sparked my imagination in my young faith. It was the first story I ever read that didn’t have a clear moral or something specific to learn from it. Another weird story that’s a staple in children’s Sunday schools is Noah’s Ark, but do you remember how that story ends? I bet your Sunday School teacher didn’t read this part. Check out this week’s Life + God podcast to hear more about Noah from Rev. Daniel Humbert and Rev. Doug Meyer. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

But back to bear attacks…I remember I was a 6th grader in the Trietsch youth group, led by Scott Melton at the time. We were hanging out on the couches before a Bible study started and he randomly said, “Want to hear something crazy?” He opened up 2 Kings and started reading the above verses.

I was tickled. I couldn’t stop giggling at the thought of a bunch of kids following behind a well-known prophet calling him “baldhead.” I still love the irreverence of youth. Then, I imagined Elisha throwing a grown-man temper tantrum about it and smiting the children with “she-bears.” And why did we need to specify they were she-bears? And how many small boys are we talking about? The story says the bears mauled 42 of them, so I just imagine this giant horde of children following Elisha like the pied piper making fun of his baldness. 

When I reread these verses to prepare this blog post, they still managed to get a chuckle from me. I read from a study Bible that likes to include little notes and historical facts around the stories I’m reading. Usually it tells me something about levitical laws to give context or reminds me of a connection to a future story in the Gospels. There was a little note next to this excerpt, so I was pretty excited to read what it had to say.

“Although mostly omnivorous, bears have extremely strong jaws. A black bear’s jaw has over 850 pounds per square inch (PSI) of force. It’s enough to crush a half-inch hollow steel tube. That’s nothing compared to the grizzly bear though - a male grizzly bear’s jaw has over 1250 PSI of crushing force! Elisha’s bears were probably Syrian bears, a subspecies of the brown bear.”

That’s right, bear facts. No context, no explanation, no historical connection; just bear facts. It was almost as if the writer said, “Yeah, I don’t get it either. Enjoy these bear facts.” 

What am I supposed to learn about God or about humanity in this text? This story comes out of nowhere, so it’s easy to lightly brush it off and move on. But if you spend more time with it, there’s clearly darkness in this text.  

I’ve heard some people use this text to teach about “respecting your elders,” but that doesn’t sit well with me. Children can get caught up in a moment, especially when they’re in a group. Most middle school and high school teachers can testify to how badly kids can roast you. I also don’t want to believe that God murdered a group of children because a grown man’s feelings got hurt. One writer I read as I researched actively rejected the “respecting your elders” theory and thinks that the story is actually an allegory pointing back to the Garden of Eden, representing the growing chasm between God and humanity. It's an interesting theory, but it still feels lacking to me. There’s not much evidence that there was meant to be a connection between the two stories. 

So what do we do with this? Well, if you know me you know that surface-level answers never work for me, so I started digging. There are three contextual clues I'd like to explore in this scripture:

  1. Hebrew translation
  2. Role of prophets
  3. Purpose of baldness

Hebrew Translation
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this Scripture is that this was a group of young boys. As I’ve mentioned before, young kids make mistakes all the time. Do they deserve to die? This actually might be a translation error. The Hebrew word that we have translated over time to young boys is na’ar, but in Hebrew there can be multiple meanings for one word depending on the context. Mostly na’ar is translated to young boys, but it's also translated as “official” or “servant” in 50 different Bible verses, and doesn't necessarily refer to age at all. This could mean that this wasn’t a group of young boys following Elisha, but a large group of temple officials and servants of the pagan faith. This makes the mocking start to feel a little more menacing. 

Role of Prophets
The known role of prophets in the Old Testament is the messenger of God. That’s why they’re often met with aggression because we have a tendency to shoot the messenger. Nobody likes to be told they’re doing life wrong. God specifically chooses these prophets to represent the will of God in the world and bestows power on them. When Elijah ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire (what a way to go), God bestowed the spirit of Elijah onto Elisha to continue the work. We’ve seen the same thing happen before with Moses and Aaron. So what does this mean? When you mock and persecute prophets, you are directly mocking and persecuting God. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we see God’s wrath when chosen prophets are ignored, attacked, or mocked. 

Purpose of Baldness
Male-pattern baldness is very common. Did you know it’s been around for 40,000 years? Yes, I got curious about baldness, too. So based on evolutionary research and genetic markers for male-pattern baldness, researchers estimate that these genes originated in Europe about 40,000 years ago. I digress, but the point is that baldness has been so common for so long, I read this scripture with the assumption that Elisha exhibited genetic baldness. But if you look into the cultural traditions around grief at the time, shaving your head was an act of extreme grief. It was an outward expression of inner turmoil and pain. Elijah, Elisha’s best friend and mentor, had just passed on. Elisha had a visceral reaction to Elijah’s ascension. In 2 Kings 2:12 it says, “Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them into two pieces.” I can feel his extreme grief and sorrow. Some scholars deduce that the reason Elisha’s bald head was mentioned is to emphasize that he is still grieving. And now he is being mocked for his grief. 

When we combine these three points, the story starts to read a little differently. We now see it as a mob of temple officials mocking Elisha, a man bestowed with the spirit of God, for his grief of his best friend and mentor. It’s painful to consider. It actually makes me think of the way Jesus was mocked as he carried his own cross through the city. There is darkness in this text. 

Side note: remember when I asked why they specifically called the bears that attacked, “she-bears?” I now have a new perspective on that, too. In a previous blog, “Where did the Trinity come from?” I mentioned that some Aramaic translations of the Holy Spirit describe her as female. Was the Holy Spirit moving from Elisha into bears to protect him? Was there more than mocking in store for Elisha if she hadn't intervened?

But the big question still stands, “What can we learn from this story?” As a result of my research, my understanding of these verses has completely changed. It brought me back to moments of grief in my life: my divorce, my MS diagnosis, my grandmother’s death. These are the moments that I might have dropped to my knees, torn my clothing, and shaved my head if I lived 3,000 years ago. I know the numbness and hollowness that follows grief. I've been the one crying out to God before. In my mind, Elisha's body language has completely changed as I read this story. I imagine him broken and forelorn, just trying to follow God the best he can.

Moving forward when I read this weird story, it will remind me that the Spirit is with me in my darkest moments. When I feel like I am walking through the wilderness and everyone is against me, God is with me. I am protected. I am loved.

Posted by Alyssa Robinson at 7:00 AM
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