What is the point of the story of Elisha, the 42 youths, and the bears?


I do not quite understand the story in II Kings 2:23-25. What is the point there? Is it okay for a prophet to curse somebody in the name of the Lord? How about other believers of God? Can they curse somebody in the name of the Lord? According to the Bible, will those children in the story be saved or lost?


"Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, "Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!" So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the LORD. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths" (II Kings 2:23-24).

The setting of this event takes place shortly after Elisha witnesses Elijah being taken up to heaven by God in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11-12). As God had stated, Elisha became Elijah's replacement as a prophet of God (I Kings 19:16). Miracles began to happen at Elisha's hand. Striking the Jordan with his cloak, he divided the water and crossed over (II Kings 2:14). Going by Jericho, the people there asked if something could be done about the bad water supply. Throwing salt into spring, it became pure (II Kings 2:19-22). These events did not happen in isolation. People were aware of the miracles. Thus, when Elisha heads toward Bethel, the youths demonstrate that they knew about Elijah being taken to heaven because they taunt that Elisha should go up as well.

In regards to the youths, the phrase being used, unearim qotanim in the Hebrew, doesn't necessarily refer to eight or nine-year-old boys as you might suppose. Qaton, the root word of qotanim, has a range of meanings in comparing two things from small (as opposed to large when referring to things), insignificant (as opposed to important), or young (as opposed to old). The dividing line isn't under consideration between the contrasts. It isn't like anything under 19 inches is small. Qaton is used when one item is the smallest of the set. Or if you were talking about a set of children, qaton applied to the youngest of the descendants. Na'ar, the root of unearim, can refer to anything from a male infant up to a young man of marriageable age. For example, Joseph was a na'ar at the age of seventeen (Genesis 37:2) and was still na'ar at the age of thirty (Genesis 41:12,46). Even young soldiers can be na'ar (Joshua 6:23). Combined, the phrase likely refers to young men who are not yet fully grown. How far from adulthood we don't know, but it can refer to a gang of adolescent boys.

The location is also important. Bethel was one of the cities Jeroboam had made into a center for his idolatrous worship. "For the saying which he cried out by the word of the LORD against the altar in Bethel, and against all the shrines on the high places which are in the cities of Samaria, will surely come to pass" (I Kings 13:32). The people in this region had no love for true prophets of God. It isn't surprising that their children picked up their disdain.

The taunt of "bald head" can refer to the fact that Elisha was older and thus bald, but it also carries a secondary meaning of being "empty-headed" or stupid. The record says that these young men mocked, disparaged, scorned, or ridiculed Elisha. They were disparaging him as a prophet. We must also keep in mind that it was 42 young men (at least) mocking one traveler.

Elisha turned back to face his detractors and he pronounced a curse in the name of the Lord. The phrase "in the name of" means with the approval or authority. (See "All in a Name" for more details.) Elisha is not speaking on his own behalf, he was speaking on behalf of the Lord and with the Lord's approval.

The word translated "curse" comes from the Hebrew word qalelem, the root word is qalal. It means "to be small" or "to be light," as in weight or significance. The Lord told Nineveh that they were vile in His sight in Nahum 1:14 ("vile" is the translation of qalal). It might have been the capital of the largest and oldest empire in the world, but God saw them as insignificant. Job saw himself as vile (qalal) after meeting with God (Job 40:4). David didn't think he was worthy enough to marry a king's daughter (I Samuel 18:23). That is why cursing (qalal) God was such a severe offense. "Then you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the LORD, he shall be put to death'" (Leviticus 24:15-16).

And that is what the word "curse" really means. It means to treat something with contempt or to consider it insignificant. Michal thought David's dancing to be contemptible and David responded, "And I will be even more undignified than this, and will be humble in my own sight. But as for the maidservants of whom you have spoken, by them I will be held in honor" (II Samuel 6:22). So, Elisha turned back to the youths and told them they were contemptible and insignificant. They weren't just mocking an old traveler, they were mocking a representative of God, and these boys knew it.

We aren't told exactly what words he used. He was telling them that they weren't as big as they thought they were in God's sight. I doubt that Elisha knew what would happen next. But remember that he spoke on behalf of God, in the Lord's name, as one of God's prophets. Two female bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys. Female bears are particularly dangerous when they believe their cubs are in danger (Proverbs 17:12; Hosea 13:8). God used the two female bears to punish a gang of youths who were mocking Him through His representative. This wasn't Elisha's doing; he couldn't have arranged for this to happen, but God did arrange it and He had a good reason for doing it.


Thank you so much for your detailed answer to my question. You really know the Bible well, which is quite helpful in understanding the Bible. I plan to read all your answers to questions, which are posted on the web site for the La Vista Church of Christ. I really learned a lot from you and will learn more.

Thank you again for your help.

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