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What’s Up with Elisha and the Bears?

Question:

What is going on in 2 Kings 2:23-24? Did Elisha really cause forty-two children to be massacred by bears?

Answer:

[H]e went out to the spring and threw salt into it, saying, “Thus says the LORD: I have purified this water. Never again shall death or sterility come from it.” And the water has stayed pure even to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some little boys came out of the city and jeered at him: “Go away, baldy; go away, baldy!”

The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces (2 Kgs. 2:21-24).

Jewish tradition has a few interpretations of this passage.

First of all, the famed Jewish Rabbi Rashi points out that what we translate as “little boys” had more than just that meaning.  It was also a word that would be used to refer to those without mitzvot (without moral conscience) and thus could refer to any immoral person.

Before the incident where Elisha is mocked by the young men, he had performed a miracle purifying the water in Jericho. A strand of Jewish tradition has claimed that these young men from Beth-el had been making a business out of bringing good water into Jericho and by purifying the water there the prophet had destroyed their business. Their “water cartel” could no longer take advantage of the situation, so they descended upon Elisha.  

So if we reset our thinking on the passage, what we see is essentially a gang of criminals descend upon a holy man taunting him and attempting to intimidate him. They tell him to “go away” or “go up.” This is the same word that is used to describe Elijah being taken up to heaven. By telling Elisha to “go away” or “go up,” the wording is not simply telling him to leave their presence but to leave this world!  If more than forty members of a youth gang surrounded you and told you they thought you should not be in this world, I think you’d take that as a definite threat to your safety and life.

They were cursed for their hatred of God and their greed and disregard for their fellow countrymen. Judaism considers taking advantage of another’s unfortunate situation (such as charging exorbitant prices for water to people desperate for water) to be a grave sin. As such, this would have been viewed as a just punishment for these price gougers who held hatred for what is good and holy.

Another strand of Jewish tradition, while accepting the above story, considered Elisha’s reaction to the water cartel to be an overreaction and held that God did indeed punish Elisha for his actions. The Talmud (Sotah, 47a) states that the illnesses that plagued Elisha throughout his life (2 Kgs. 13:14-20) were punishment for his tendency to overreact (see also 2 Kgs. 5:26-27).

Another Jewish tradition from the Talmud views the story as an allegory. This strand believes that the verses mean that the youth were cut off from Israel for their crimes against their countrymen. They were essentially abandoned to the wilderness, similar to early American colonial expulsions from towns and settlements.

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