Elisha and the Two Bears -- Supplement
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See film here.

This story has a lot of complexity to it that’s hidden beneath contexts the original readers would have taken for granted, but which we have forgotten. Let’s go through the issues a bit at a time, in the same order as our YT vid.

Why do we assume Elisha was old in this story? I’ve seen many pictures and YT videos by Skeptics and each one depicted Elisha as an old man.

The assumption seems to be, mean + bald = old. “Mean” remains to be seen, but as for “old” that cannot be supported. Elisha is first mentioned in 1 Kings 19 in the time of Jehu, who was to later be a king of Israel (841-14), but before Jehu was anointed king. This is at the time of Ahab (874-853) in a story just before the end of his reign. Since he was not married and still worked for his father, he would have had to have been between 13-16 when he met Elijah. This would be the normal age when a young man was apprenticed as well.

This event with the bears occurred just after the death of Ahaziah, king of Israel (853-52). So at that time he could have been no more than 20. He dies in 2 Kings 13, in the time of Joash, king of Israel (798-782). So if we do the math, there’s at least sixty years in Elisha’s life after this event.

So why was he bald?

These are the possibilities:

  • He really was bald. Natural baldness was rare in this time and culture. The common artificial causes that exacerbate baldness -- wearing tight hats that cut off circulation in the scalp, modern medications -- did not as yet exist, though it did appear among the slave/labor class who worked under harsh conditions (which supports the point that it was shameful). Some may suggest that because it has a genetic component in some persons, it is impossible that it was uncommon, but that neglects the obvious point that the lower lifespans of the day meant few people reached the age of premature balding -- and those who did were typically wealthy and therefore had high honor ratings. If purely natural baldness was that common, and accepted as a natural part of aging, then it is impossible that it could have been considered shameful. (It was held in such high disregard that Caligula, according to Suetonius, made it a crime to look at him from above when he started showing signs of it.)

    Additionally, the timeline shows that Elisha was very young -- much younger than the age of premature balding, save under exceptionally rare conditions. Thus the only reason he would be bald would be because he was in mourning for Elijah, who had just been taken away by God. If that was the case, then the mockery was extremely offensive, like making fun of someone crying at a funeral. (It is a counsel of desperation to suggest that because the text does not specifically say Elisha shaved his head, this means he did not: Readers of a high context text would know that head-shaving was the normal response of a mourner.)

  • He wasn’t bald. If this was the case, then the taunters were identifying Elisha with someone who was – like a leper, an outcast from society.

Either way, the insult is more than just making fun of a bald head. One of the hidden premises in the argument that the taunters were just making fun of Elisha's baldness (as we might make fun of it today) is that ancient people were aware that "male pattern baldness" was a normal phenomenon that has a reasonable explanation. That simply is not the case. For them, you were bald either because 1) you were mourning; 2) you were a slave who had worked under harsh conditions; 3) you were sick and therefore ritually unclean (a leper), or 4) you lacked virility and power. Any one of these turns the taunts of Elisha into something seriously negative, and there is no option for "innocent teasing".

It should also be kept in mind that as the prophet in Elijah’s place, Elisha was an official broker of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. He represented what for many people would be order and security in a highly chaotic world. Insulting him was almost to the level of insulting God, for Elisha represented God to the people.

The second part of the insult makes this even more clear. “Go on up” can allude to nothing but Elijah’s ascension into heaven. It can hardly mean something like "go on up the road" since that was what Elisha was in the process of doing already. Why this was chosen as a point of mockery is not clear, but there are three possibilities:

  • Elisha is being told to ascend the way Elijah did, meaing either “get lost” (and is therefore a rejection of his brokerage of God’s covenant, and again, a strong rejection of God) or else…
  • … this is a challenge of honor demanding the Elisha prove himself by showing his power. I tend to think it is the latter, because the calling forth of the bears amounted to such a display under the terms of God’s covenant (see below).
  • It could also mean that they think his mourning is a sham and that he actually murdered Elijah. But I don’t think this is likely.

A final point to consider is that Elisha had just finished doing a miracle of mercy for the city of Jericho nearby, by making the water there drinkable again. In this day before water was readily available, a new source of water brought life and hope to a city that had otherwise been barren and under severe hardship. To be mocked in such a way after such an act of mercy indicates a severe lack of gratitude by his attackers and a lack of concern for the lives of others. It also means that it is absurd to suggest that these taunters had no idea who Elisha was and thought they were mocking an anonymous stranger. Every sign points to them knowing he is and what he represents; positing convenient ignorance of events critical to the survival of the nearby community is simply a desperate counsel of those looking to make excuses against the story.

Why do we think the taunters were small children? One video I saw did have them as young adults, but most pictures and videos have them as very small children as young as 4. (To make matters worse, even the ones done with art show them – and Elisha – to be Caucasians, which is something else I fixed.)

Two sets of words are what cause the confusion:

”Little children” in 2:23 – but this makes no sense at all, not only because of their behavior (see more below) but because of the way the words are used elsewhere. “Children” is na’ar, and in other places it is overwhelmingly rendered as “young men”. It refers to Isaac at a time when he was at least in his early 20s (Gen. 22:12), Joseph in Gen. 37:2 when he was around 17, and refers to army men in 1 Kings 20:14-15. It also refers to baby Moses in Ex. 2:6, but that is the one time it refers to a baby; at other times it refers to someone who is a servant of indeterminate age. So na’ar by weight of usage favors much older, mature taunters.

”Little” (qatan) is the word most critics hang on to in order to turn these taunters into small children. However, that won’t do either. While it does refer frequently to size, it also refers to quality of significance: It is to compare the moon to the sun (“lesser” light, Gen. 1:6) and to refer to insignificant legal cases (Ex. 18:26) and “lesser” weights (Deut. 25:13). It is also used to mean “young” when referring to persons who are obviously old enough to be mature (such as those surrounding Lot’s house and demanding to rape the visitors, Gen. 19:11). So this word tells us nothing in itself about the taunters’ ages.

Other uses of the word as it refers to persons:

  • Gen. 9:24 -- used to describe Ham as Noah's "younger" son. Since Ham was obviously fairly mature at this time (old enough to mock Noah's inebriated, naked state, and was also married), it's pretty clear that the word is (as indicated) able to be used comparatively and doesn't mean simply a small person (unless Ham was a midget). It is used the same way of Jacob in Gen. 27:15, where he is clearly not a child, and of Rahcel in Gen. 29 where she is of marriageable age. Likewise Othniel in Judges 1:13/3:9, Michal in 1 Samuel 14:49, David in 1 Samuel 16:11, and so on.
  • One verse where it is taken to mean a very small child is 1 Samuel 20:35, "And it came to pass in the morning, that Jonathan went out into the field at the time appointed with David, and a little lad with him." Here it is used, as in 2 Kings, with na'ar -- see below on this.

In all of this I am not saying it is never used of a little child or to indicate small size. It is used, for example, of the coat given to the very young Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:19. What I am saying is that it doesn't tell the story by itself.

In all probability, it is used here to refer to them as vagrants (see below) with no social status. The phrase is used in other places, but none is unequivocal in meaning a small child. 2 Kings 5:1 comes closest, as it says Namaan;'s leprous flesh was healed to become like that of a "little child", but this does assume that Namaan was not particuarly old; if he was an older man, then his flesh could have become like that of a 20 year old. Other usages, like 1 Kings 3:7, in which Solomon humbly refers to himself, could mean "small child" but contextually could also make sense as referring to social insignificance, to a low honor rating. Likewise, 1 Samuel 20:35 is just as well taken to mean a humble, insignificant servant, but there's no context to tell us which can be preferred; it could also be comparative (eg, the lad was younger than Jonathan). Of course, small children would have a low honor rating anyway, which is why the phrase is often equivocal.) The phrase is used of Hadad in 1 Kings 11:17, but just two verses later, Hadad is given an Egyptian princess as a wife, so he couldn't possibly be too young or small!

That leaves one more word: “children” in v. 42, which is yaled. One critic, Tim Callahan, derisively notes an explanation that this was a group akin to a modern street gang, saying, "Presumably the gangs of Elisha's day would have whipped by in hot chariots discharging arrows." There is, he says, "nothing in the actual story to justify" this explanation.

Well, I know quite a bit more about the social context of this story than Callahan does, and the explnanation is indeed on the mark. Chariots and arrows? No - but let's try things like robbery and banditry (remember the Good Samaritan story?) and perhaps theft of animals from farmsteads -- no mere prank, the latter, in this day and age, but a very serious offense that could lead to the starvation of a family of innocents.

The key here is the concept of corporate survival: In this day and age, every family member was required to make a contribution in order to help the family survive - for in this day, there were no social services, no welfare checks, no supermarkets to stock up from in case your pantry was raided.

The question then becomes, why were these yaled banded together in such large numbers, and then, why were they not at home contributing to the corporate survival of their own families?

That they were banded together in such large numbers suggests rather that they were indeed a gang of rovers who survived on their own, probably by robbing others of their lives and property -- they certainly did not own their own farms or go hunting for game.

It is a mark of desperation to suggest that they were banded together just for this occassion and were otherwise normal, home-loving innocents. Those who offer this counsel are simply at a loss to otherwise erase the obvious implications of their being together, and their behavior, in the context of the Bible's social setting, special pleading for some exceptional circumstance (after the manner of Johnnie Cochran and his Colombian drug lords thesis) that will save their interpretation of this passage. If saying, "you don't know what they did otherwise" is a good argument, then I can just as readily argue the same thing to suggest that under other circumstances theese "children" were violent political rebels (as indeed, many young children are in some war-torn countrues today) who regularly murdered honest citizens in their spare time. I have no evidence for this -- and the critics have no evidence that these taunters were normally well-behaved.

Not enough emphasis is placed on the fact that there were at least 42 there, either: If 42 were mauled, how many people were in the crowd to begin with? 50? 100? 400? If these yaled were travelling in groups of 42 or more, mocking respectable adults and even a well-known man of God, we cannot begin to imagine what violence they might have inflicted on helpless everyday people who had no way to defend themselves. And that includes Elisha – anyone who doesn’t think all this mocking was a prelude to physical harm isn’t taking a realistic look at the story.

What’s with the curse?

The “curse” was most likely a recitation of Lev 26:21-22:

If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted.

This was part of the covenant of Israel that promised blessing for obedience but such curses as these for disobedience. So notice as well that it is conditional – it was a warning to the taunters to cease their mockery or the curse would come upon them.

Weren’t they killed?

Depictions and videos of this event look more like a Terminator movie than what the Bible reports, liberally spraying blood and body parts all over the place. But there are three major points against this.

The first is that, as noted in the film, the bears were Syrian brown bears who would weigh a mere 400 pounds. That’s only 800 pounds of bear versus 5040 pounds (at least 42 x 120 lb) of human – who unlike bears, can lift rocks, cudgels, etc.

Second, the only word used to describe what the bears did is the Hebrew baqa.This word does not mean “killed” or “devoured” or anything of that sort. It means to “break open” and is used for chopping wood (Gen. 22:3), ripping garments (Josh. 9:13), or even an egg hatching (Is. 34:15). In several places it refers to water splitting open or cutting through earth.

In 2 Kings 3:26 is refer to men “breaking through” an army, so it could mean that 42 of the group were chased off by the bears. But if it does refer to some injury by the bears, we have to decide how severe that could have been with some reasoned fact-finding.

Once again, the fact of there being at least 42 must be considered. Humans are not fast; the typical speed of a running human is perhaps 15 MPH. In contrast, Syrian brown bears can move faster than other bears. As one zoo website puts it:

In spite of their size, Syrian Brown Bears have a great deal of strength, deceptive speed (some have been clocked at speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour!), and are legendary for their stamina. They are capable of running at full speed for miles at a time without stopping.

However, even though this bear can run twice as fast as a human, this sort of speed is not going to enable two of them to catch 42 humans and injure them! The irony of this in Skeptical portrayals is that the more bloody the punishment they have the bears delivering, the less time they have to catch more victims, and the more absurd the Skeptical portrayal becomes! There’s also the fact that this is a desert climate with plenty of room to run – the “wood” here would have been more like a thicket (just look for pictures of this area today to see what I mean), with some trees, but generally thin on the ground.

For this reason, I have shown that there is only one serious way that 42 could have been injured – and that’s if they fought back. Why? There could be many reasons. One that wouldn’t occur to us is that bears are, well – edible! And a roving pack of vagrants could make a good meal out of them. They could also make use of their furs for blankets or clothes, and use their teeth for tools or jewelry, and their bones for soup – the same way other native peoples use bears.

A second reason is more obscure to us: Those who stood up to the bears and were injured would receive the honor due to one within their group who had stepped to the plate on the defensive. Remember that Roman gladiators fought wild beasts to achieve honor and fame. The same principles of honor held in ancient Israel. (By the way, I am aware that "play dead" and not "run" is the best advice for avoiding injury from a bear, but I doubt people in Elisha's time knew this -- and it would have been considered dishonorable behavior even if it were known.)

With that in mind, what sort of injuries were done? Given the chaos and the number of people involved, most probably suffered scratches from the bears’ claws – which could be as little as a minor scratch to a major gash. From what I can gather, bears do not normally view humans as prey, so injuries from teeth would be less likely. I also noted that a site by a bear attack survivor (link below) had this recommendation:

If the bear mauls you continuously, despite yourself being passive, you may have to fight back. Try using any available weapon - a knife, rock, fist - and concentrate on hitting the bear’s head, eyes and nostrils.

Note that this recommendation seems to assume that the camper is alone – certainly not with at least 42 friends! So in the end, the degree of seriousness of their injuries would have to be faulted to their own decision to react aggressively. Given 42 and more people, the scenario that fits the evidence is the majority getting away with little in the way of injury and a tiny handful getting anything more serious. And, despite Skeptic portrayals, no deaths. (Given that only 45 people were killed in one century by bears, in Canada and Alaska, out of the whole of bear encounters in those areas, that none were killed out of 42 in one instance is hardly a fantasy.)

Here is even more information that may have relevance to our points. Alhtough it is about grizzlies, it is hard to see that Syrian bears would be worse than this:

Often times grizzly bears will essentially ignore people until a person enters into a bear's "personal space". Even groups as large as 100 people have been ignored by grizzly bears until one of the group gets too close. Most bears are timid enough to flee a possible encounter if they sense the presence of something or someone soon enough to leave the area undetected. On the other hand, when a bear is surprised, the bear may see you as a threat, forcing an immediate response.

A person who runs when frightened by a bear may trigger a chase response. One bear will even chase another if it runs. Bears that stand their ground when confronted by other bears usually aren’t attacked, and bears that behave submissively have a lower incidence of being attacked as well. A grizzly bear rarely wants to kill a human. Considering the damage a grizzly is capable of inflicting on a human, wounds resulting from bear attacks are often nothing more than superficial bites, scrapes, and lacerations. The evidence is very clear that grizzlies do no t try to kill a human as a result of a close encounter, they simply try to remove a perceived threat. The injuries that occur are more a function of what the human does to resist, rather than what the bear is capable of doing. Of course, a grizzly entering a tent represents a predatory event which is behaviorally very different than a close encounter situation.

Finally, though it is a different story, here’s an explanation on the closing sticks and stones interlude.

Bear Safety site

You can discuss this more here.