Three times last year I asked a Christian audience this question: Which story in Scripture bothers you most? There are numerous candidates—the flood, the destruction of Sodom, the Passover, the conquest of Canaan—most involving large numbers of people being killed. But each time, I got the same answer: the passage about Elisha and the bears (2 Kings 2:23–25, ESV used throughout).

It is certainly a bizarre story. Elisha is heading to Bethel when a group of young lads come out of the city and jeer at him: “Go up, you baldhead!” So Elisha curses them in the Lord’s name, and two bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of them. Then Elisha heads off to Mount Carmel. As I said: bizarre.

What should we conclude? That God is happy to kill children for making a joke? That biblical prophets have no sense of humor? That, as one British newspaper columnist put it, God is the sort of deity who “feeds children to bears”?

Yet by reading the story through modern eyes, there are several elements we are likely to miss. For instance, we probably imagine a group of kindergarten boys having harmless fun. But the Hebrew word for “small boys” used in verse 23 applies to Joseph when he is 17, to Joshua when he serves in the tabernacle alongside Moses, to Abimelech’s armor-bearer, and to David as he goes to fight Goliath. Solomon calls himself a “little child” in 1 Kings 3, despite being both married and the newly crowned king of Israel. So we’re probably not talking about a bunch of 6-year-olds.

And don’t neglect the fact that these young men are coming from Bethel. In Elisha’s day, Bethel was one of two key centers of idolatry in Israel. Jeroboam had established golden calf worship there (1 Kings 12:26–29), and the whole story of 1 Kings and 2 Kings unfolds beneath God’s promise to wipe Bethel’s altar off the face of the earth (1 Kings 13:1–10). Young men coming out of Bethel and immediately taunting the Lord’s prophet are likely associated with the city’s idolatrous shrine. In other words, this is not a story about little kids having playground banter. This is a story about the clash between true and false gods, and true and false prophets.

Even the mocking phrase itself—“Go up, you baldhead!”—is loaded with meaning. This story comes immediately after Elijah, Elisha’s mentor, goes up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11), which the prophets described as having his “master”—in other words, his “head”—taken away from him (2:3). So these young men are not really jeering at Elisha’s receding hairline. They are taunting him for being prophetically impotent. His mentor has “gone up,” his “head” has been stripped away, and he might as well “go up” himself.

The final detail we may pass over is Elisha heading for Mount Carmel. Remember, Elijah began his ministry by demonstrating control over water (in drought), confronting and defeating false prophets at Mount Carmel (through fire), and releasing healing to the land (in rain). Elisha, likewise, begins his ministry by demonstrating control over water (2:14), releasing healing to the land (2:21–22), confronting and defeating false prophets (by means of bears), and then going to Mount Carmel. So Elisha’s bears are like Elijah’s fire. As readers, we are supposed to see these connections and think: “the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2:15).

We are also supposed to think something else: Elijah is like John the Baptist, the fiery desert prophet who calls for repentance and confronts the wicked king. And Elisha foreshadows Jesus: the provider of miraculous food and water, the healer of lepers and raiser of the dead, and the one whose death leads to life for others. Jesus, like Elisha (and Joshua), has a name that means “Yahweh/God is salvation,” and starts his ministry at the river Jordan, newly commissioned by his predecessor. He faces immediate opposition and has to overcome his foes with unconventional weapons. Joshua fights Jericho with trumpets. Elisha fights idolatrous priests with bears. Jesus fights the Devil with Scripture. God’s purposes prevail.

It’s still a strange story. Reading it in context won’t change that. But we’re better off reading it through the lens of Elijah’s battle with Baal-worship, and Jesus’ battle with Satan, rather than seeing a humorless assault on a kindergarten. God’s messengers love jokes. Idolatry, not so much.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author most recently of The Life We Never Expected (Crossway). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.

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Spirited Life
Spirited Life is a collision between biblical reflection and charismatic practice, aiming to make people happier in God.
Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King's Church London and author most recently of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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