Difficult Bible Passages: 2 Kings 2:23-25

This is a passage that bothers many people. Some find it to be quite appalling in fact. As Peter Leithart remarks, it is “one of the most controversial passages in Scripture.” The problem is this: it seems that a prophet had some kids punished – if not killed – for just being kids and making a few wisecracks.

Or so it seems. But let’s begin by running with the actual passage:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.

So what are we to make of Elisha’s curse on these boys? Was he just being a grumpy old man resorting to overkill? Was he so hate-filled and intolerant that he is not able to take a bit of jesting? Many think that the prophet overreacted, and this was not a very godly or loving thing to do.

Well, a number of things can be said about all this, so let me raise seven important points that must be borne in mind. First, consider the context. We first learn about Elisha in 1 Kings 19. There we find the Lord telling Elijah to “anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet” (v. 16).

The first 18 verses of 2 Kings 2 speak of how Elijah’s anointing as prophet is transferred to Elisha, and how Elijah is taken up to heaven. Verses 19-22 record his first miracle: the curing of the water. All this leads up to the story of Elisha and the youth.

Second, consider where this action took place. Bethel was a place of idolatry and rebellion. Leithart reminds us that Bethel was the site of Jeroboam I’s golden calf shrine (1 Kings 12). As Iain Provan remarks: “For the authors of Kings, Bethel is a city that provides the focal point of Israel’s apostasy (cf. 1 Kgs. 12:25-13:34). It is no surprise to find the children adopting a disrespectful attitude towards a prophet.”

Third, consider who actually were being cursed here. Were they in fact mere children? The Hebrew phrase in question may be a bit more elastic than some of our English translations would indicate. As Paul House notes, it can “refer to youths from twelve to thirty years old (cf. 1 Sam 16:11-12; 2 Sam 14:21; 18:5), i.e., old enough to show respect for God’s prophet.”

And this may well have been a gang of young thugs threatening his very safety – “comparable to a modern street gang” as Geisler and Howe put it. And note that some were mauled, so there may well have been more than 42 of them. Such a large group of potentially menacing young people was a genuine threat indeed.

Fourth, bear in mind the nature of divine blessings and divine curses. Both were promised to the nation of Israel by YWHW in places like Deuteronomy 27-28 and Leviticus 26. God sends both, depending on how the people act: blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.

Comments Paul House: “This punishment comes as a punishment of the Lord, in whose name the curse was offered (cf. Lev 26:21-22). The youths were typical of a nation that ‘mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets’ (2 Chr 36:16).”

Dale Ralph Davis is worth quoting at length here:

We must size up these bears correctly. They were covenant bears. The covenant curse of Leviticus 26:22 (‘I will let loose the wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children’) explains the episode. Covenant infidelity (hatred of Yahweh’s representative and, perhaps, persisting in Bethel’s perverse worship) has brought the covenant curse. . . . Here is not an irritable prophet but a judging God.

He goes on to remind us that both Elisha and Elijah brought words of grace (vv. 19-22) and judgment (vv. 23-25). Says Davis: “The two go together: Yahweh’s word can bring both healing (v. 21) and harm (v. 24), either deliverance (vv. 19-22) or disaster (vv. 23-24). In these two vignettes one sees the double-edged word of God at work in both grace (Jericho) and judgment (Bethel) among his people.

Fifth, to insult or reject God’s prophet is to insult or reject God. This was not just a personal insult that Elisha is responding to, it is ultimately an insult of Yahweh who commissioned Elisha. This is part explains the reference to “baldy”. Says Lissa Wray Beal:

The taunt is not merely childish mocking of ‘male-pattern baldness,’ and its darker intent suggests the mockers are not merely children. . . . Here Elisha’s baldness is held up derisively in contrast to Elijah’s hairiness (1:8); he is not Elijah, and they mock the succession that has occurred. . . . While the sons of the prophets and the city of Jericho honoured Elijah’s spirit within YHWH’s new prophet, the men of Bethel do not. Their denigration calls down a curse upon them; its immediate execution further affirms YHWH’s prophet.

Sixth, we have to note what the text does and does not say. It actually does not say that the 42 were killed – it just says they were mauled. As Russell Dilday comments, “The Hebrew word translated ‘mauled’ might indicate less serious injuries. The ultimate outcome of the miracle was to break up the gang, frighten the offenders and the entire village, and punish them not so much for insulting Elisha as for their impiety.”

Seventh, I mentioned above that Elisha seems like a ‘grumpy old man’. But in fact, he may have been rather young. As Walter Kaiser comments, after piecing together the biblical dates and data: “But was Elisha an old man short on patience and a sense of humour? This charge is also distorted, for Elisha can hardly have been more than twenty-five when this incident happened.”

Let me wrap this up with two concluding quotes. August Konkel says this: “The taunting of the young men should not be viewed as immature juvenile activity. (2:23). . . . The mauling of the youthful mob is not vindictive anger on behalf of Elisha but divine judgment for culpable denial of the divine purpose. The bears are no less divinely appointed than the whale that swallowed Jonah.”

And as Walter Kaiser says, “Instead of demonstrating unleashed cruelty, the bear attack shows God trying repeatedly to bring his people back to himself through smaller judgments until the people’s sin is too great and judgment must come full force.”

[1140 words]

11 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: 2 Kings 2:23-25”

  1. Bill –
    As a 40 year veteran of baldness, this is one of my favourite Bible passages.
    Go Elisha !!

  2. J C Ryle has a wonderful children’s address on this. Yes, a children’s talk.
    Do they do this today? Perhaps now O K to refer prophets etc. as “baldy”. The “Go up” refers to Elijah.

  3. Yes it seems like Elisha called the curse but God called the bears. Maybe Elisha was just as shocked? Yet God knows what they would fairly deserve.

    All the same, I agree he may have feared for his life especially against so many.

    I note the NET translation goes for killings rather than just injuries. Even so, in essence these youths are essentially rejecting God’s appointment, and ruling over their lives. They don’t want a prophet to spoil their selfish sinful life. So once again it points to our limited appreciation for the horror of rejecting God, and God’s merciful judgement (he didn’t destroy all of Bethel, he didn’t kill all the youths, and in fact he probably just injured and scattered the youths, giving them an opportunity to repent).

  4. We had a prayer time before school at Sar’s this morning and had breakfast too, thanks Sar and her dad for letting us do that. We discussed what you said here Mr Muehlenberg and it was interesting what each of us thought and contributed from our different church teachings and time as Christian’s, Alice the newest Christian was appalled when she read the passage from Sar’s bible Millie and me (Molly) were confused as to what to think Kate and Sarah both thought it had little to do with Elisha as he only used words which were to ask god to intervene and Sar added that even though it was the old testament period it would have been understood gods will would be done and not necessarily Elisha’s. I really enjoyed our time together and reading what an expert in this stuff had to say so thank you Mr Muehlenberg. We are going to pray for a few minutes’ before going to school, Sar will need our prayer as Millie and Kate are putting her hair in a birds nest style and Miss may have a go at her for having an inappropriate hair arrangement not that it will bother Sar.

    Molly, Millie, Alice, Kate and Sarah.

  5. Hmm, it seems like my young padawan Sarah and her buddies are multiplying like rabbits. In your next comment I will expect to see at least 20 names attached to it!

  6. Nice. Here’s another one..
    Eighth: Don’t get it wrong when God is moving in force. Elijah’s ascent was a stunning act of God, and when God’s power is present the stakes go up. Consider Ananias and Saphira dropping dead for trying to trick the church in the middle of heavy duty Holy Spirit activity, Uzzah being struck down for carelessly grabbing the Ark of the Covenant, the guy being stoned for picking up firewood right when the instructions were being given, Herod being eaten by worms for receiving worship right as the early church was red hot praying, evangelizing, healing and teaching. When God is doing big stuff – be extra careful!
    Love this gem from Acts… “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people”. Bit different today. The church is not red hot so nothing dramatic happens.

  7. That was explained very well. God may have been merciful in this situation by just giving a warning against this bad town.

  8. Nathan K, I was interested in your reference to the NET. As far as I’m aware, please correct me if I’m wrong, the NET dates to 1996. In studying Gen 1:1 and 1:27 I found that the liberal translations of those verses all post-date 1970 despite the liberal compromise ideas supported being accepted in liberal theological colleges 50+ years earlier. My conclusion was that Bible translators are the last people to compromise with the meaning of God’s word, but they too are fallible like all of us. When I checked the NET in Genesis, I found that it was accurate at Gen 1:1 but liberal at Gen.1:27.
    So whenever we come across different opinions re the meaning of scripture, it always pays to go back to a reliable interlinear Bible and check the actual Hebrew or Greek.

    Christians need to follow the apologetic approach of Muslims, who usually say that the Qur’an is only in Arabic and that translations are simply NOT the Qur’an. In the same way the Bible was written in Hebrew & Greek, and no English translation is perfect.

  9. First, Bill, thanks so much for explaining this difficult passage(s). I admit I never quite understood what the deal was. I must admit there are times when I am confronted with some little darlings who sorely test what might sadly be in abundance in my heart, as surely if I didn’t bite my tongue I might release my thoughts via my mouth.

    I’m sorely tempted to join that Padawan bunch of ladies because they sound like they are a real hoot. And to Phil Manley, bless you, brother. My poor husband had a beautiful mane but time and genes are swiftly robbing him of it. It’s a tough row to hoe initially, isn’t it?

    Again, thanks, Bill, and thanks also for the much-needed-at-times humour that you and some of your regular commentators make here. I really appreciate it, as we believers are most assuredly faced with some really rough issues these days. God bless!

  10. A few years ago, after scouring the internet for many months for any background information I can find about this story, I came across some old Jewish stories which tried to give some explanation about what happened. I have since misplaced the sources and I have no idea if the following explanation is valid or not. But I offer it because it makes so much sense to me.

    It has to do with trying to explain the motivation for the large group of youth threatening Elisha. I’m not saying that the motivation which Bill supplies for the reason why the youth acted the way they did against Elisha is not valid or true… but only that there might be an additional layer of motivation for the actions of the youth.

    In the Bible, it says that the people of the city said to Elisha that even though their town is well situated, the water (the spring it used) was bad and the land is unproductive. So Elisha heals the water and made it pure. Well… how many people lived in the town? How many people were dependent on the water to drink and survive? Verse 21 says that after Elisha heals the water, never again will the water cause death. So the water apparently was bad enough to cause death. But people still need to drink water and it had come from somewhere.

    Not knowing the geography nor all the springs situation in that area, it nonetheless would seem that good water had to somehow be transported from other areas in order for the people in the town to have good water to drink. And the distance of the good water had to be far enough away from the town so that the the land around city was also unproductive.

    But what were the people of the city doing for good drinking water in the meantime? The old Jewish stories which I had come across, explained that the good drinking water was transported by youth… strong young men/teenagers. I have no doubt that the people of the city probably paid a good wage for these young men/teenagers to haul the water from distant springs, to their town.

    And then in an instant, Elisha heals the water which effectively eliminated their “jobs” and took away the handsome wages they were making.

    That would seem to be another layer of motivation and reason for the youth to threaten Elisha.

    Anyway, Like I said, I don’t if the story is true, but it sure makes perfect sense. God Bless.

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