by Al Maxey

Issue #129 ------- June 6, 2004
Wherever a knave is not punished,
an honest man is laughed at.

Marquis of Halifax (1633-1695)

Baldy, the Brats, and the Bears
An In-Depth Study of 2 Kings 2:23-24

"Then Elisha went up from Jericho 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." This strange account, which is recorded for us at the close of 2 Kings 2, has puzzled and troubled students and scholars of the Bible for centuries. What does it mean? What is its purpose and significance? Cicero (106-43 B.C.), in his work De Legibus, wisely observed, "The punishment shall fit the offense." Was that the case here?! Forty-two youths were mauled by two bears for mocking Elisha. That seems, at least at first glance, to be a rather extreme response to a bit of jeering. Was Elisha just having a bad day? Was he a "grumpy old man" with no sense of humor? Why didn't he just walk away from this situation and "show a nobler spirit" than this band of mocking youths? What was accomplished by cursing these lads and having a couple of bears tear them to pieces? What greater good was accomplished by this action? In what way was God glorified? These are all questions that have been pondered repeatedly over the years, and, in the end, most are still left scratching their heads in wonder.

The Background

To truly gain insight into this violent confrontation we must examine the events leading up to it. As in all interpretive endeavors, the three greatest rules one must follow are: Context, Context, Context. Thus, we must invest the time to set the scene for the shocking encounter between the "baldhead," the brats, and the bears.

Elisha (a Hebrew name meaning "God is salvation") was the son of a man named Shaphat, of the city of Abel-meholah, located in the Jordan Valley and about midway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. His family appears to have been rather wealthy, for when Elijah called him he was plowing with a yoke of oxen following eleven other teams (1 Kings 19:19). As he left his family to go with Elijah, he sacrificed the two oxen and the meat was used to feed the people who came to see him off. All of this indicates a young man of some means, even though he was still living with his parents (1 Kings 19:20-21). We also see indication of a person willing to surrender such comfortable circumstances for the rigors of following along with a noted prophet of God. There was no hesitation with Elisha; he walked away from it all to walk with God and His prophet.

The prophetic ministry of Elisha encompassed the entire last half of the 9th century B.C. (c. 850 - 800 B.C.). He was a prophet primarily in the northern kingdom of Israel, and his ministry spanned the reigns of several kings, including such noted ones as Ahab, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash. Elisha is noted for the many miracles he performed. In fact, it is said by those who have studied the matter, that no other person in the Bible performed more miracles than Elisha, with the exception of Jesus Christ. His final miracle (and the last time his name appears in the OT writings) took place after his death, and is recorded for us in 2 Kings 13:20-21. "It has been remarked that the miraculous works of Elisha are double the number performed by his predecessor, thus indicating that he had, in fact, been endowed with a double portion of the spirit of Elijah" as he had requested (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 291). "Elisha's greatest contribution to the spiritual welfare of his country may well have been as principal of the Schools of the Prophets at various centers, following in the tradition of Samuel" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 521).

Elisha's name appears for the very first time in the biblical narrative in 1 Kings 19:16, where Elijah is informed that Elisha shall be his successor. This was part of the mission God gave Elijah in order to bring him out of his great frustration over the vow of Jezebel to destroy him, from whom he had fled into the wilderness in despair. God was encouraging Elijah with the news that he was not alone; not only were there 7000 in Israel who had not bowed their knees to Baal (1 Kings 19:18), but there was a great man of faith and devotion (Elisha) who would now walk with him, and eventually assume his awesome responsibilities as prophet and leader of the prophetic schools. This would be a source of encouragement for the beleaguered Elijah, who felt he was all alone in a world of evil (1 Kings 19:10, 14).

Elisha is not mentioned again by name until 2 Kings 2:1. In this chapter we witness the whirlwind exit of Elijah from this earth (vs. 11). Prior to this event, Elisha accompanied the older prophet as he made his rounds among various prophetic schools (the "sons of the prophets"). They went to the Jordan River, crossing it on dry land as Elijah parted the waters with his mantle. After the crossing, and "as they were going along and talking, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven" (vs. 11). Elisha then took the mantle of Elijah, assuming the great responsibilities of his mentor and friend, and faithfully served the Lord God for decades to come!

The Incident

Not long after the miraculous translation of the prophet Elijah, Elisha decided to go up toward the town of Bethel, and it was at this point, just outside of Bethel, that the incident with the mocking boys and the mauling bears occurred (2 Kings 2:23-24). We need to examine the nature of the town of Bethel. What kind of place was it? We know that "the ascent is steep and long from the Jordan Valley to the highlands of Benjamin, on which Bethel stood, probably one of not less than three thousand feet" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5). Prior to the time of Elisha, Bethel had been a town associated with godly events. This location, 12 miles north of Jerusalem, was near where Abraham had pitched his tent after leaving Shechem (Genesis 12:8), and it was where he returned after his time in Egypt (Genesis 13:3). During the time of the judges of Israel, the sacred ark of the covenant was located here for a while (Judges 20:18-28). It was regarded by the people as a holy city, a place where God was to be found (1 Samuel 10:3), and was one of the three cities where Samuel sat to judge the people of Israel (1 Samuel 7:16).

Things changed dramatically for Bethel, however. After Jereboam's revolt against the house of David, he established Bethel as a center for false religion, which was to serve as a rival to the worship in Jerusalem, hopefully keeping the people within the boundaries of his own kingdom. He constructed two golden calves, "and he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan" (1 Kings 12:29). He instituted a religious feast, "in the month which he had devised in his own heart" (vs. 33), stationed priests in Bethel, and led the people in going up to Bethel, "sacrificing to the calves which he had made" (vs. 32). The prophet Hosea gave the town of Bethel, meaning "House of God," the nickname "Beth-aven," meaning "House of Iniquity" (Hosea 10:5). The prophet Amos, in very sarcastic language, urged the wayward Israelites, "come to Bethel, and transgress" (Amos 4:4). In the time of the prophet Elisha, Bethel was a location noted for its great evil, and for being a center of rebellion against God.

As Elisha came near Bethel, "young lads came out from the city and mocked him" (2 Kings 2:23, NASB). Who were these "young lads" that chose to harass the prophet that day? Translations differ in how these "lads" are characterized. In the King James Version they are called "little children," which "is an unfortunate translation, raising quite a wrong idea of the tender age of the persons spoken of" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5). However, it should be noted that most other translations aren't much better in this respect. For example --- "young boys" (Living Bible) ... "young lads" (New American Standard Bible) ... "boys" (Contemporary English Version) ... "small boys" (New American Bible, St. Joseph edition, New English Bible, Revised Standard Version). These translations are rather "unfortunate" indeed, for they leave the impression in the mind of the reader that Elisha was confronted with a group of "little children" that day, which makes the event that follows all the more despicable in the minds of many.

Perhaps the best translation of the original Hebrew phrase is found in the New International Version. It simply refers to them as "youths." "The unfortunate translation 'little children' (KJV) has given a very wrong impression of this passage. The Hebrew literally means 'young men'" (James Smith, Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, p. 466). The Hebrew words in question are (1) ketannim -- which not only signifies "small, little," but which also specifies "young" as opposed to "old," and it is so used in OT scripture, and (2) nearim (plural of na'ar), which refers to a wide range of ages from "child" to "young man." Thus, although "little children" is not technically an incorrect translation, it nevertheless assumes a limitation not warranted by the Hebrew terms themselves. More likely, given the context in which this most unusual event occurs, is that this band of mockers were much older. Ellicott's Commentary notes that little children "would not be likely to hit upon a biting sarcasm, nor to sally forth in a body to insult the prophet" (vol. 3, p. 108). "These were not, as the English text might lead us to infer, 'little children' of six or seven years of age, but rather 'young lads,' boys and young men, who had come to the age of responsibility" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5).

In the passage we are told these "youths" came out from the city and "mocked him." This was ridicule and derision that carried an extra element -- in the original language it also signified "to praise ironically" (Ellicott's Commentary, vol. 3, p. 108). Some scholars see in their taunt, "Go up," a reference to Elijah's recent ascension. Thus, they are suggesting, in "ironic praise," that Elisha should "go on up" also. In other words, "ascend like Elijah ... then we'll be rid of both of you!" "The youths' taunting, 'Go on up' was doubtless a mocking caricature of Elijah's own 'going up' into heaven" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 178). Others assume the phrase "go up" simply means they wanted him to keep traveling on the ascending road and not come into their town, where perhaps they feared he might begin preaching and prophesying against their false religious expressions.

An additional aspect of the mocking, however, was rather personal in nature. They jeered, "Go up, you baldhead!" There are several things this term "baldhead" may signify:

  1. Although Elisha was probably fairly young at this time, possibly no older than some of the youths who mocked him (after all, he would continue to serve the Lord for well over half a century following this event), nevertheless he may have been prematurely bald. Baldness was perceived by some Jews as being a sign of reproach, or even that God was extremely displeased with a person. "The Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion; the Lord will make their scalps bald" (Isaiah 3:17). It is suggested these youths were mocking Elisha, suggesting God had taken Elijah up, but had struck Elisha bald instead. "Why don't YOU go on up, Elisha?! Is it because God doesn't want you?!!"

  2. Elisha may have shaved his head as a sign of grief over the fact that he would no longer see Elijah. Such was a rather common custom at that time to show mourning. "Every head is shaved and every beard cut off. In the streets they wear sackcloth; on the roofs and in the public squares they all wail, prostrate with weeping" (Isaiah 15:2-3). "On that day the Lord God of Hosts called for weeping, for wailing, for shaven heads" (Isaiah 22:12). "Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights" (Jeremiah 7:29). "Both great and small will die in this land without burial. No lament will be made for them, nor will anyone cut himself or shave his head for them" (Jeremiah 16:6).

  3. It is also possible they mocked him as one who was perhaps perceived to be afflicted with leprosy, of which baldness was often a visible manifestation. "Baldhead" is even purported to have been a synonym for "leper" in some parts of the land at that time. Note the way the priests were directed to distinguish between "clean" baldness and "unclean" baldness in Leviticus 13:40-44.

It is interesting that this mob of malicious youths chose to jeer and mock him from behind. The biblical text says, "When he looked behind him and saw them" (2 Kings 2:24). Even though they greatly outnumbered Elisha, they were still cowardly in their affliction of this great man of God. How typical of such persons!! Those who are quick to "call names" and use harsh pejoratives against those who are godly, are just as quick to do so from a safe distance and behind their backs!! They are gutless, spineless cowards; mouthy mobs of malcontents who seem to feel "led of God" to inflict much misery upon all those they regard as "different" from themselves. Frankly, the church today could benefit greatly from a few more Spirit-sent she-bears to silence these servants of Satan!! "Levity, ridicule, and profane reviling of the pious and their ways is something on which God must always put the brand of His stern disapprobation" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5).

Many biblical scholars over the years, myself included, regard "the animus in this ridicule to be that of an intolerant religion. The jeering outburst of impiety of these young men of the city was only a symptom of the iniquity which abounded in it." (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5). The mob of mocking youths "were but the echoes and the instruments of their parents' religious malignant intolerance" (ibid). To quote a wise old wit, "If this generation is going to the dogs, it is because of the training we gave them as puppies!"

There was a long-standing religious rivalry between the cultic religion of Dan and Bethel, on the one hand, and the worship of the one, true God, on the other. This was more than an encounter between a single prophet and a band of youths, it was a confrontation between genuine worship and false worship .... and ultimately, between good and evil; God and Satan. "There is no malevolence so inveterate and ruthless as that inspired by false religion and rival sects" (ibid). Even to this day we see some of the most ruthless and godless behavior played out within the parameters of sectarianism.

When Elisha turned and beheld these mockers behind him -- "wanton young people who had not courage to attack except in the rear" (Ellicott's Commentary, vol. 3, p. 108) -- "he cursed them in the name of the Lord" (2 Kings 2:24). In other words, by God's authority (which "in the name of the Lord" signifies) he pronounced a curse upon them; this did not come from his own frustration or anger. By the way, it should be pointed out that Elisha was under divine obligation to do this!! He would have been remiss had he not spoken out against them! Under the Law of Moses, God's servants were required to pronounce a curse -- a judgment declaring God's disapproval -- upon all who disobey or dishonor Him (Deut. 27:14-26). Remember: Elisha did not call forth the bears; Elisha merely pronounced God's judgment against them for their rebellion. It was God who executed the judgment! And such judgment should not have been unknown to these people --- "If you act with hostility toward Me and are unwilling to obey Me, I will ... send wild animals against you that will deprive you of your children..." (Leviticus 26:21-22). Notice also 2 Kings 18:25 -- "And it came about at the beginning of their living there, that they did not fear the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them which killed some of them."


Forty-two of their number were attacked and mauled (2 Kings 2:24). How many got away unharmed is unknown. Whether those mauled lived or died is also unknown. One thing this tells us, however, is that the mob hounding Elisha was rather large. But then, it takes a whole herd to do the bidding of evil, whereas God's will can be accomplished with less!! One prophet and two bears faced a mob of malicious youths. When the field cleared, what was the final score?

It was an outright slaughter!! Extremely one-sided! "This frightening example of God's wrath was no doubt intended to serve as an unforgettable lesson to that new generation which was growing up in complete contempt of God and true religion" (James Smith, Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, p. 466). "A severe example may have been needed under the circumstances of the time, when a new generation was growing up in contempt of God and of religion; and the sin of these lads was not a small one, but indicated that determined bent of the will against good, and preference of evil, which is often developed early, and generally goes on from bad to worse" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 5). This is a lesson from ancient biblical history we would all do well to heed. "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7).

Reflections from Readers

From Edward Fudge in Texas:

Al, Thanks for a good summary of the data on the subject of The Authorship of Hebrews. Regarding its teaching, I offer a commentary: Our Man In Heaven: An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with a foreword by F.F. Bruce. This book is free online at:

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I appreciate your efforts and always enjoy reading Reflections. I have also read some of Leroy Garrett's work online when it was available, and Carl Ketcherside's as well. I am originally from the Independent Christian Church, and after learning some of the history of the Restoration Movement I always felt that our division was a real tragedy and that the folks in the Churches of Christ were my estranged brothers. A few years ago we moved ... and since there were not any Christian Churches nearby, and doctrinally we are almost identical to the Church of Christ anyway, we recently visited two in the area around us and found them to be warm and open. The one we have visited the most often has prayed for us and has been the most loving church people I have seen in a long time. They did not show any reaction when we told them what kind of church we were from. I think a new wind is blowing in the Churches of Christ.

I am happy to see the instrument issue move to one of preference and not a test of fellowship. Actually, I don't miss it ... the singing is so good. If the Gospel is preached, and the people love the Lord, and they love each other, then these opinion things simply don't matter. If a brother from a non-instrumental background moved into an area with no Churches of Christ, and found a Christian Church where the Gospel was preached, and love was the norm, I would hope he also would see the music issue to really be the small thing it is. There are still some legalistic folks around, I have read some of their comments on the Internet, but they are yesterday's men. I hope some of them will read your comments on CENI and rethink their mindset. With evil on the rise we have far more things to worry about than getting some pattern correct. Thanks again for your scholarly work. Your Reflections are a treat to read.

From a Reader in Nevada:

You are a great disappointment to me, Al! Just when I thought I knew everything, you come along and write this article! Ha! Seriously, this is the most definitive explanation I have ever read on the authorship of Hebrews. Very good! It seems to me that with lack of proof of authorship the legalistic mind would delete the book of Hebrews from the canon. Since my mind is not "legally" correct in spiritual matters, I shall keep Hebrews. I'm looking forward to the next Reflections.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I have an adopted son, age 40, who came to visit this weekend. He is all mixed up on religion and his belief in God and Christianity. His primary concern seems to be a lot of the legalistic rules which he feels demand fear. Obey or perish. I spent some time talking with him, emphasizing God's love, His grace and His many blessings. I told him I did not fear God. I loved Him. At one point I thought I had him converted. We were both in tears, but the moment passed, and he began to repeat his resentment of rules and fear, etc. I am praying he will consider what I have said and come to a clearer understanding of God's will. I know there are many people who have similar stories, but if you can use this to help someone, feel free.

From an Elder in Missouri:

Brother, Another job well done! I have for some time leaned toward Apollos as the author of Hebrews, but, as there is not truly definitive evidence, have chosen to leave it as you have -- Anonymous. When I refer to the book and its author, I simply say "the writer of the Book of Hebrews," or something similar. I view it as an inspired writing despite the anonymous nature, and thus have concluded that God is the author of that book just as He is the true author of all the other books, whether penned by the hand of Paul or one of his assistants, as was more often the case it would seem. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Wow! I have always noticed that the writing style of Hebrews was different than that of Paul's other letters, even in our translated English versions, but have always been told Paul was the author ... most of what I have read seemed to confirm that. To be honest, it has always puzzled me, but I was still convinced Paul was the author. I am not sure about Apollos, but it does seem clear now that Paul was not, or rather could not be, the author. Thanks for another great article, brother! Also, Happy Memorial Day!!! ... and THANK YOU for your service not only to our great country, but to our AWESOME God, as well! Keep on keepin' on!

From a Well-Known Leader/Author in Texas:

Al, when Fred Craddock, noted Disciples minister and scholar, spoke to Church of Christ ministers at ACU a few years back on Hebrews, he had a word about who the author might be. "I don't know who she was," he said. You are blessing your readers! Never grow weary in well-doing!

From a Reader in Arizona:

That was a good study on the authorship of Hebrews. I am one who, up until reading your study, thought Paul to be the author. Your presentation was convincing, and I am now leaning toward Apollos being the author, rather than Paul.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, are the "Reflections From Readers" that you publish representative of the ones you receive? If so, how do you take the numbers -- i.e., many more of encouragement than condemnation? Is it a good sign indicating that legalism is on the wane in the brotherhood, or is it that the traditionalists just don't bother with you? Do they believe it is more productive to just write up the "heretics" in the watchdog publications? I hope that it is the former! It seems to me that the brotherhood as a whole is more open to differences in opinions from the "old party line" than ever before. In my teaching, I can now address many issues in ways I could not have ten years ago! Are we going back to the way we were supposed to be from our roots?

From a Reader in Georgia:

You don't know me, but I was wandering thru your website today. I have been having a lot of problems with my marriage, and my faith was being diminished greatly because of my drug use. I have let God and myself down. My marriage is crumbling, and I am going to counseling. I hope that thru reading your book -- Down, But Not Out -- that it will give me some insight into what God has planned, and what is expected of my wife and me. I love her and my son, and I love the Lord Jesus Christ. What I am asking is -- please pray for me, and for my family, and ask the Lord to be there for us, as I know He already is.

From a Reader in Texas:

Please subscribe me to your Reflections. I stumbled across your website recently and have enjoyed it very much. I have been reading several books by Olan Hicks recently, who I thought had a much more sensible outlook on many things than the traditional Church of Christ stance. I was doing some searching via Google on Mr. Hicks, and ran across a link to your website. You seem to be largely on the same page as he is.

I am currently having an e-mail debate with my sister-in-law about instrumental music. We both grew up in the Church of Christ, but she grew up in a much more strict and legalistic congregation than I did. I am not in favor of the Church of Christ adopting instrumental music, I simply take the position that the Church of Christ doesn't have a strong enough case to be so dogmatic on a topic that is not even addressed in the New Testament at all, and is obviously approved of in the Old Testament. She obviously takes the opposing viewpoint. Thanks a lot for the good work that you do!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

I really enjoyed and appreciated your article on Hebrews. I have often wondered who wrote that wonderful letter. Hebrews and Romans are two of the most crucial, essential messages for Christians to understand. They are my two favorite books of the Bible! Hebrews 10:25 has always been used as the "go to church" scripture. To me that is a very wrong approach to that verse. I feel there is a principle involved here, NOT a law! I think there is an over-emphasis on what we do on Sunday mornings and evenings, and on Wednesday evenings. Worship is every minute, every hour. Worship is daily, moment by moment. I do feel it is important to be with other Christians as much as we can. That is an obvious principle, whether it be in an assembly or at any other time. Some look down on others and even condemn them for not being at the "church service," however. I appreciate your articles so much. I have concluded from them that you are very honest and sincere in your approach to and study of God's Word. Thank you for your efforts, and praise God for the inspiration you have given me through your Reflections.

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