Elisha and the Bears

April 20, 2010

Welcome to a new feature: The Bible Geek ! Some of you may be familiar with my podcast with the same title. In it I seek to answer any and every question submitted to me about that ever-fascinating book. My goal is neither to defend nor to attack, but merely to elucidate the puzzles of the text that many of us have wondered about for years. I welcome your questions to be answered in writing here! They can be sent to biblegeek@centerforinquiry.net . But for this first time out, let me offer an example of a strange Bible text and its “solution.”

One of the most notorious passages in the Bible has got to be the infamous 2 Kings 2:23-25, an anecdote from the career of the prophet Elisha. The text is morally repugnant, virtually pre-moral. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the story teller that there is any problem with the tale he tells. It must get less airplay from the pulpit than almost any other portion of the Bible (with the possible exception of numerous snooze-inducing genealogies). Here it is, as rendered in the Revised Standard Version:

He 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!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria.

It is not that there is nothing for the poor preacher to say about the passage. As we will see momentarily, there is in fact much to say. It’s just that there’s nothing good , nothing edifying or uplifting, to say about it. It goes so far in the other direction that any moral lesson a preacher may try to hang on it will seem so preposterous, so far-fetched, that few will risk the embarrassment. Well, this is no sermon, so we aren’t under such constraints. Let’s see what we can say about the story of Elisha and the Bears.

First, we are to picture the prophet, the successor to the miracle-working Elijah, making his rounds like one of the circuit-riding preachers of nineteenth-century frontier America. Shortly he will pull into town and receive donations for psychic feats such as finding lost objects, giving oracles, interpreting dreams (like Samuel the seer does in 1 Samuel 9:3-12). And then on to the next hamlet. As we meet him, he is headed up hill along the road to Bethel, where there had been a shrine for centuries (Genesis 28:10-17), originally dedicated to now-forgotten (or suppressed) gods and nature sprites. A local youth gang knows to expect him, because of his regular schedule, and they go out to meet him. There must be some fifty or more of them, quite a party, since at the end we learn that forty-two of them, not all of them, perished, implying others survived to tell the tale. What exactly do they say to the chrome-domed prophet? Are they urging him on his way? “Go up to the shrine at Bethel, baldy?” It would be a strange (p)reversal of the friendly reception Jesus gets centuries later when a chorus of kids cheers his entry  into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:15).

But maybe “Go up!” refers to the rumored ascension into the sky of Elisha’s mentor Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12). Maybe these kids belong to the Bethel chapter of Camp Inquiry; they refuse to believe in Elijah’s departure into the blue, and they are mocking Elisha: “Can’t you do the same? That was bunk, and you’re a faker!” And, of course, Elisha does not disappoint them! If it’s a miracle they want to see, well, he’s got one up his sleeve! Not exactly the one they asked for, but beggars can’t be choosers. And, besides, the little creeps did “ask for it,” right? I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I have to mention another possibility, one representing an earlier stage of transmission of the story. 

Many biblical characters seem to have begun as mythic personifications of the heavenly bodies. 1 Biblical sun gods include Enoch, Isaac, Esau, Moses, Samson (whose name simply means “the sun”), Elijah, Jonah, and maybe even Jesus. Israelite moon gods include Abraham, Jacob, and Elisha. Often the stories pair them and show conflict between them, one getting the advantage of the other, but only temporarily. This motif reflects the eternal cycle of sun and moon, each dominating the sky in turn. (There’s a great Star Trek: Next Generation episode about the same thing, remember?) Well, it is no coincidence that Elijah commands the fire from heaven (2 Kings 1:10, 12), causes drought (1 Kings 17:14), rises into the heavens aboard Apollo’s fiery chariot—and has long hair (2 Kings 1:8) representing the sun’s rays. He disappears, to be replaced by Elisha, who also “goes up” and is bald . I’m guessing that what we now read as the repeated jeering of the neighborhood toughs was originally part of a ritual chant to summon forth the rising moon. The ancient Israelite nomads, being shepherds, preferred the gentle company of the moon to the blistering scrutiny of the sun, and so it was to the former that they offered the firstlings of their flocks, making sure to finish the sacrificial feast before the moon went down (Deuteronomy 16:4). But the story of the children welcoming the divine moon has been retold, like so many others, once Israel began the slow and unsteady transition toward monotheism. Gods became angels, heroes, judges, just so the stories could continue to be told. And they had to be reapplied to new purposes. One no longer dared glorify the exploits of the old gods.

As we now read it, the story of Elisha and the Bears is a prime example of a “cautionary tale,” a scare story told in order to keep the intimidated listeners in their place—as defined by their rulers. Other such biblical scare stories include that of the expulsion from Eden in Genesis chapter 3 (how dare mere mortals covet the knowledge that belongs to God—and his priests—alone?), the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 (again, it discourages inventive autonomy), Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6-11) getting zapped for steadying the Ark of the Covenant without ritual preparation (“Men, don’t let this happen to you!”), and the death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 (don’t welsh on your church pledge!). These are all religious boundary markers, warning people not to envy their betters lest God smite them, not to help themselves to the privileges inherited by the sacred aristocracy. Rene Girard explains it all so well in his seminal work Violence and the Sacred . 2 Socio-religious classes or castes constitute a stable social order, no matter how inflexible it may be, and no matter how it may curtail freedom and opportunity for individuals within it. Such order was achieved in the society’s red dawn, when the “War of All against All” (Thomas Hobbes) was finally settled, and lines were drawn to the disadvantage of the losers. Whenever the lower castes’ envy of the upper castes’ privileges threatens to boil over again, these cautionary tales will be trotted out to remind people (albeit in a somewhat disguised form) of the massive violence from which order once emerged and into which it could collapse again. Is it worth risking the return to Chaos and Old Night? Ah… maybe not.

It is obvious that our Elisha story performed this function. It warned the hearers of the prophets not to make mockery of them. Jeremiah and others warned the people not to disdain the prophetic messages lest they face the consequences of foreign invasions from which God would otherwise protect
them, but the Elisha business is slightly different: it seeks to safeguard the public standing of God’s messengers. If prophets were a laughingstock (as Catholic priests have become in the wake of the pederasty scandals), then who could be expected to heed God’s warnings through them? That’s the theological way of putting it. Sociologically, we should say the story is a means of protecting the social esteem in which prophets were held, keeping their hearers cowed—and willing to give them alms. Similarly, such cautionary tales functioned as propaganda against the competing claims of rival institutions who did not want to share power with the prophets. We can see this struggle in Amos 7:12-16; in Zechariah 13:1-7, as well as in Josephus’ claim that prophecy had ceased, leaving sacred authority to the scribes and priests—the professionals, the apparatchiks. Something similar is going on in the story of the earth swallowing Korah, a slap-down of uppity temple singers who dared request the same privileges as sacrificing priests (compare Numbers 16:1-11, 15-35 with Psalm 51:15-17). 3

When we look at the story of Elisha and the Bears, we can see its place and its function in sacred literature. That is, however, by no means to say that we have anything positive to learn from it. But neither is it difficult to think of others who would sympathize completely with the story of a mocked prophet invoking deadly violence on the blasphemers. Remember those Danish newspaper cartoons ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. Angry Muslims are still trying to assassinate the cartoonists. Welcome back to the ninth century BCE!


1 Ignaz Goldziher, Mythology among the Hebrews and its Historical Development . Trans. Russell Martineau (NY: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967), pp. 90-169.

2 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred . Trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1977).

3 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), pp. 85-88.