Why Did God Send Bears to Attack a Group of Boys? (2 Kings 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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23He 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 up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two shebears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

A Shocking Incident

At the end of the second chapter of 2 Kings we read the shocking climax of the vicious she-bears. As he retraces his steps, Elisha passes through Bethel, the notorious center of false worship in Israel. At that moment, some “small boys came out of the city and jeered at him.” This is not a couple of bored children using inappropriate language to an adult—there are at least forty-two of them. The word for “small boys” can equally mean “youth,” which in the context seems to make much more sense. In all likelihood, this is not a few unruly children being disrespectful to an adult; this is a mob of hostile youths. This hostility is also reflected in their abuse. “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” is an interesting choice of language. This is not innocent teasing of a follicle-challenged stranger—for a start, Elisha’s head would have been covered, so this is a deliberate, targeted insult. And in light of the fact that Elijah was quite hairy, it becomes obvious that the youths are, in fact, denying Elisha as the true successor to Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), and therefore they are denying that he speaks the word of Yahweh. When they tell him to “Go up,” they may be telling Elisha to go up to worship Baal, and if not, they are certainly telling him to get out of town. In any case, this is clearly a rejection of the one who brings the word of Yahweh.

ESV Expository Commentary

A team of pastors and scholars walks through 6 historical books of the Old Testament, showing how they fit in with the rest of redemptive history and God’s plan for his people throughout the ages.

It is still a shock, however, when, rather than rebuking them or threatening to report them to their parents, Elisha curses them “in the name of the Lord.” Elisha does not swear at them; he announces a covenant curse, a curse like that in Leviticus 26:21–22, which reads: “If you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins. And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted.” These are covenant bears! In the matter-of-fact style that our writer seems to reserve for particularly gory incidents, we are told that “two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.” As lions dealt with prophets who would not hear Yahweh’s word (1 Kings 13:24; 20:36), so now these covenant bears deal with this latest outbreak of contempt.

Is this a shocking incident? Yes it is. As Matthew Henry says, “Let the hideous shrieks and groans of this wicked, wretched brood make our flesh tremble for the fear of God.” But this incident is also one that fits perfectly with the flow of 2 Kings 1–2, in which we see very clearly how God not only works in the darkness but will not be silenced, continuing to speak through this prophet. It is the response to this prophetic word that determines whether God’s people experience blessing or curse.

This article is by J. Gary Millar and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Chronicles (Volume 3) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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