Elisha and the She-Bears

One passage commonly cited by opponents of Christianity as an example of horrible violence in the Hebrew Scriptures involves the prophet, Elisha. As this text is generally presented by critics or others seeking to enhance its problematic nature, it involves Elisha, while traveling, being made fun of by a group of small children. In particular, they mock Elisha for being bald. In response, Elisha curses them and Yahweh sends two she-bears out of the woods. These bears then kill 42 of the children who had mocked him. The idea that God massacres children for poking fun at someone is submitted as being gratuitous and sometimes even evil.

The source of this story is a brief description of the event in 2 Kings/4 Kingdoms 2:23-25. The description above is subject to a number of problems. In the first place, it is based on a serious mistranslation of the text. In the second place, it is taken out of its context within the narrative of the succession from Elijah to Elisha of Yahweh’s chief prophet. It also misunderstands the jeering which is targeted toward Elisha. When properly translated and understood, the story of these few verses is quite a different one.

It is common not only in popular presentations of the story but even in most English translations to translate the word describing the identity of the mockers as “children,” “boys,” or “youths.” This translation renders some elements of the story confusing. For example, this would mean that Elisha encountered a small mob of more than forty-two small children coming down the road from the city of Bethel. It is difficult at best to conceive of the situation in ancient Israel which would have produced such an encounter. All of these translation suggestions focus on the age of the people here identified. The word here translated, however, is much more flexible.

The Hebrew noun here translated is na’ar (plural na’arim). This word is incredibly versatile. For example, within the Greek Old Testament tradition, the word na’ar is translated in various contexts by sixteen different Greek words. Many of these usages could be brought under the general category of “young man.” Just as “young man” can be used in a variety of ways in English, so also can the Hebrew term. Someone from childhood into their twenties could be referred to as a “young man” in English without it seeming odd. It could even be used as a pejorative in the context of putting a person behaving arrogantly back into their proper place.

One very common usage of na’ar is as a reference to a royal court official. For example, one Ziba who oversees the interests of Saul’s grandson is described as a na’ar (2 Sam/Kgdms 16:2). We are told earlier in the text that this “young man” had 15 sons (2 Sam/Kgdms 9:10). At the battle of Michmash, Jonathan, Saul’s son, brings with him his armor-bearer, who fights alongside him and helps him kill more than 20 of the enemy in hand-to-hand combat (1 Sam/Kgdms 14:1-14). This armor bearer is called a na’ar. In 2 Sam 2:12-16, a battle begins with a skirmish between twelve na’arim commanded by Avner and twelve commanded by Joab. It seems unlikely at best that these two generals watched children fight before engaging themselves. The prophet of Yahweh tells Ahab to send an army led by 232 na’arim to face Ben-Hadad king of Syria in 1 Kings/3 Kingdoms 20:13-21. This is not presented in the text as a children’s crusade. Abraham’s 318 elite men with whom he rescues lot are identified as na’arim (Gen 14:24).

Dozens of other examples from the Hebrew Scriptures could be introduced in support of this definition. Most telling, however, is several usages of the term elsewhere in the Elisha story both before and after this text. When Elisha encounters Naaman, the chief handmaiden of Naaman’s wife is identified as a na’arah, the feminine form of the noun. Elisha’s chief disciple and servant Gehazi is also identified as a na’ar, as are two other unidentified disciples of Elisha, none of whom are portrayed as children (2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 5:1-27). Elisha will later send a na’ar to anoint Jehu as king (2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 9:1-13).

A further factor has played into the misinterpretation of the identity of this group. The adjective qatan is applied to these individuals. The base meaning of this adjective is “little” or “small” and it is then understood to indicate “little children.” An examination of the usage of this adjective, however, reveals that it very often does not indicate a small size. In its most prominent usages, it indicates either youth or insignificance. This would mean that we are speaking of young na’arim or low-ranking na’arim. Based on usage throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the picture is of Elisha on the road encountering a reasonably large group of young Israelite officials, possibly low-ranking military officers.

This group encounters Elisha on the road as they are leaving the city of Bethel. Bethel was the site of one of the two primary high places established by Jeroboam the son of Nebat as a shrine for the worship of golden calves, the other being at Dan (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 12:26-30). The life of Elijah, Elisha’s mentor who had only recently been assumed into the heavenly council of God passing his prophetic mantle to Elisha, had been consumed with a conflict with the state religion as promulgated by Ahab. Ahab’s wife Jezebel had brought with her Phoenician religion centered around the worship of Baal and syncretized it with the already idolatrous worship of a version of Yahweh through the calves.

In this setting, the taunts of this group of young toughs as they came upon the prophet walking alone can be seen within this ongoing religious conflict. “Go on up” is not only a directive to go to the city, but to the high place to make a sacrifice. Refusal to participate in the Israelite civil cult had led to the murder of hundreds of prophets of Yahweh at the ends of Ahab’s forces (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 18:4). Non-compliance with the demands of this mob to engage in pagan worship would have resulted in Elisha’s death as it had for so many other prophets. The addition of the insult “baldhead” only accentuates the threatening nature of their approach.  The term used here, which is translated ‘baldhead,’ is not the usual term for baldness as is normal to aging men.  Rather, it is a term referring to those suffering from a leprous condition and therefore ceremonially impure or unclean.  It was therefore not only a term of mockery but also of religious and societal ostracism and condemnation directed at the prophet of Yahweh.

When the she-bears emerge, then, it is not to slaughter children for the impiety of making jokes at a prophet’s expense. It is not to avenge Elisha’s honor. Rather, these bears emerge to protect Elisha and to save his life from the ancient Israelite equivalent of brownshirts. While no total number is given for these young officials, that the bears maul forty-two out of their number means that it was more than this. Yahweh protects one faithful prophet when he is confronted and surrounded by a hostile pagan gang intent on forcing him to offer sacrifice to their gods or lose his life.

Within the overarching story in context, this brief story is included to show that just as Yahweh was with and protected Elijah, so also He now protects Elisha. Though those faithful to the God of Israel are fewer in number and those who serve the powers of darkness hold the power of the state and its military, the creation itself will rise up to defend the righteous. After his rescue, it is not a coincidence that he passes by Carmel, the place of Elijah’s great victory against Baal and his prophets before traveling on to Samaria, capital of the apostate northern kingdom, for the battle to continue.

8 comments:

  1. Serious question: why is it that even with the plethora of English translations we can’t seem to translate accurately nuanced, if it can even be called such, passages such as this one?

    Is it just lazy scholarship or perhaps parents want to keep it as a threat for unruly children?

    1. I think most English Biblical translators grew up with a Sunday School version of a lot of OT stories, based on a further bowdlerized reading of the King James, in their heads. Even as adult scholars, it’s hard to get those images out of their heads unless they obviously violate the text in a gross way. Most of us have this to some degree. We picture a big flame pillar coming from the sky to nuke Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel, not a lightning bolt for example. Eve is named Eve before the expulsion from Paradise and is made out of a rib taken from a small incision in Adam’s side while he’s sleeping. Examples abound.

      1. Apart from learning the original languages is there any English translation that gets anywhere close to bringing out these sort of details? I’m not going to hold my breath perhaps there is one.

        Maybe we can petition Bishop Nicholas to give you a few years sabbatical and lock you in a room until one is brought forth.

        1. There’s nothing that’s perfect. But probably the best thing for doing serious Bible study in English is to get an NET Bible, Full Notes Edition. Make sure its the Full Notes Edition. The notes do a pretty good job of making the original languages transparent for normal folks.

        2. The NET Bible Fr. Stephen recommends is also available online (with full notes) at netbible.org — good way to take a look before getting a printed copy, or to use alongside/instead of a printed copy.

  2. Awesome! Very timely too as I had just read this a few weeks ago and had a friend recently contesting the “violence” of the Old Testament, claiming that God’s first plan didn’t work and so He “had to adjust and come up with a new plan” — which I think is heretical thinking and completely counter to the narrative of the Bible. God has always had one plan, that is to dwell in the midst of His people and welcome us into His family.

    Very well done article, thank you!!

    PS – miss you on the remnant radio chat section, pray all is well with you and yours 🙂

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