Sunday, September 23, 2012

Elisha and the Youths (2 Kings 2:23-24)

The following quote is taken from

"Kill Brats - "From there Elisha went up to Bethel.  While he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him.  "Go up baldhead," they shouted, "go up baldhead!"  The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord.  Then two shebears came out of the woods and tore forty two of the children to pieces."  (2 Kings 2:23-24 NAB)

Let us examine the story of Elisha's journey to Bethel.  You can read the full chapter here:

            Before examining this particular story, it would be helpful to get an overview of the events that preceded it.  Elisha was a prophet who lived during the time of the split monarchies of Judah and Israel.  He was the successor to Elijah, one of the great prophets of God (1 Kings 19:19-21).  After the death of King Ahaziah of Israel, Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha witnessed it (2 Kings 2:1-12).  After that event, Elisha became God's prophet for 60 years (circa 892-832 BCE), and did many miracles.
            In this passage, Elisha was confronted by a large group of young men while he was on his way to Bethel.  It is important to understand that there have been many mistranslations in this passage: the Hebrew root word used is na'ar, which is most often used to describe a young man between the age of 12 and 30 [1][2] (see also Genesis 34:19, 41:12; 1 Kings 20:14-15).  The youths involved were not small boys; they were young men in their teens or twenties.
            The taunting that the young men gave Elisha was not just teasing.  It was a threatening act, designed to intimidate him.  The fact that 42 of them were killed by bears demonstrates how many of them there were; most likely a crowd of more than 50 ganging up on Elisha.  When they said, "Go up, you baldhead!", they were mocking him in two ways.  First, they were mocking the miracle of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind not long before.  They were challenging Elisha to "go up" as Elijah had done, suggesting that they did not believe in the miracle of Elijah's disappearance, and daring Elisha to go up in the same way that Elijah had.  Second, their taunt "baldhead" was a slur against Elisha - there are several suggested meanings, that a prophet of that time signified his/her separation to God by shaving their head, that a leper in that time period had a shaved head and was considered a despised outcast [2], or used as a general term of contempt.  In any case, their verbal attack was designed to mock Elisha and his status as God's prophet.
            Essentially, the youths were challenging Elisha's authority as a prophet, and in insulting Elisha, were insulting the God who anointed him.  Had there not been immediate and swift action against the youths, the people would have had justifiable reason to question Elisha's call to prophecy and his status as God's messenger.  God saw the youths' rebellion, disrespect and utter contempt for him, and he responded by taking their lives.  In doing so, he was issuing a clear warning to anyone who would dare mock their Creator and King, and the prophets that he sent.       
[1]  Gesenius's Lexicon, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (translated by Samuel P. Tregelles), 1847
[2] The Case For Faith, Lee Strobel, 2000.  Pgs. 122-124.