Background – the anointing of Elisha the prophet

Elijah the prophet, as his ministry drew on, was given divine direction in the appointment of his successor. The record is in 1 Kings 9:16: “Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah shalt thou appoint to be prophet in thy room.” He acted promptly to obey Yahweh in this matter: “So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat… and Elijah passed by him, and cast his mantle upon him” (19:19). Being enveloped by the mantle, an indicator of Elijah’s priestly office, Elisha was quick in positive response – “Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him” (1 Kings 19:21).

The record of 2 Kings 2 brings us to the completion of Elijah’s ministry and with it the conclusion of Elisha’s “apprenticeship.” Elisha stays tenaciously by Elijah’s side as they travel down from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho and finally to the bank of the river Jordan (2 Kings 2:1-7). The final miracle of Elijah as he smote the Jordan with his mantle was duplicated by the “new” prophet as Elisha, who “took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him” likewise smote the waters, which parted to enable his return. The question, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14) had now been answered and the answer was clear—He was with Elisha, as He had been with Elijah. There was indeed a new prophet in Israel to act on behalf of Israel’s God.

So the waters were healed

After Elisha crossed back over the Jordan to Jericho he was met by a group of “the sons of the prophets” who not only declared: “The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha” but they “bowed themselves to the ground before him” (2:15). This was a proper acknowledgement of one chosen by Yahweh for this onerous responsibility. But they foolishly pressed upon the prophet the services of fifty young men to search for Elijah. The fruitless search, over three days brought no credit to them.

The men of the city of Jericho now sought Elisha’s help. The spring serving their village produced water that was unsuitable and ineffective for irrigating their crops. So is all flesh when the living water of the word is not active in their lives, no fruit will be produced. Elisha again demonstrated the power of God: “Thus saith Yahweh, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land” (2:19-22).

Go up, thou bald head

So the prophet, being attested as such by two miracles, now left Jericho to make his way up through the hills of Judah. As he neared Bethel, which in those days was the centre for idolatrous calf-worship, a large group of young toughs came out to deride his mission and his position as Yahweh’s prophet. Though the AV calls them “little children” (v23) they seem to be of the same stamp as those “certain lewd fellows of the baser sort” encountered by Paul at Thessalonica (Acts 17:5).

The NIV internet heads this section in 2 Kings 2 as “Elisha is jeered” and translates: “As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” The Hebrew term translated “children” in this record is used for children but also accommodates a range of ages up to mature warriors. It is used of Abraham’s grown servants, described as “young men” in Genesis 22:3; of the mature Joseph, described as a “young man” in Genesis 41:12, and of Ahab’s soldiers in 1 Kings 20:14,15,17,19.

This crowd was a large mob of young men who, emerging from the calf-worshipping city of Bethel, stood as one against the prophet of God.They called out for him to “go up”; the same word is used in relation to Elijah, who had vanished—unable to be found by diligent search. Some commentators suggest they would not have known of the circumstances of Elijah’s ascension, but that is difficult to accept. Surely some of the fifty searchers, or travellers on that road would have passed through Bethel, and it defies belief that that dramatic story had not been quickly spread.The simple reality is that these fellows wanted Elisha to also disappear, and they were deriding the prophet of Yahweh.

Two she bears out of the wood

When Elisha addressed them “he turned back” (2 Kings 2:24). They had approached him from behind in the cowardly manner of such ruffians and Elisha “cursed them in the name of Yahweh”.

Their punishment for treating Yahweh and his prophet with such disdain came in the form of two she bears out of the forest who mauled forty two of their number. The fact of these bears being identified as “she bears” perhaps is to indicate that this group had interfered with their cubs. “I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps,” Yahweh declared through Hosea (Hos 13:8) and so He did with these men. Elisha didn’t call on God to destroy these youths; he simply pronounced a curse upon them in God’s name. It was God Himself who heard Elisha’s words and demonstrated His power and presence as the true God of Israel through the work of His servant Elisha. He was warning the idolaters in Bethel not to trifle with His prophets and that message would surely have spread quickly through the land.

The cursing of the youths was met by the cursing of Elisha. It may be that the curse he uttered in God’s name was akin to that of Leviticus 26:21-22: “And if ye walk contrary unto me [note Elisha was walking in the way] and will not hearken unto me;

I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate.” The Law had warned them about losing their children to wild beasts if they persisted in idolatry. God was true to His word, then, in bringing upon them the threatened punishment.

Some have suggested it was wrong, even “evil” for Yahweh to inflict such punishment. It is mildly amusing to note that atheists, while denying God exists, happily reserve the right to define how God (if He did exist) ought to “behave”. God does not brutalise little children, but He is prepared to reward brazen idolatry and open hostility to His ways by judging the ungodly. He is sovereign over all the earth and can and will judge those who defy Him as he did these sneering young men. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”