For many years I’ve heard people complain about God and the Bible because it contains stories like grouchy old men sending bears to attack annoying little children. These people pretend to be intellectuals and biblical critics, but clearly, barely know enough about the Bible to mention out-of-context stories; so, please indulge me while I try to straighten out a few of the grossly-overlooked facts in this specific "bear-trap" of a story.
The story is found in 2 Kings 2:23-25. Elisha is traveling through Bethel, when a gang of young men come out of the city and begin following him down the road, jeering. He, in self-defense, curses them in the name of God, and two bears come from the woods and maul forty-two of them. (You can read the actual text here.)
First of all, this story isn’t about little boys. The Hebrew words are very clear. These were teenagers who were taunting Elisha, which perfectly fits the immature language used, “Go away, baldy!” And this was not a small handful of teens; this was a huge gang of at least forty-two that followed him out of town. Everyone knows how dangerous gangs like this can become because of their immaturity and high hormones. They can quickly escalate from having a little fun to vandalism and physical assault. Elisha was simply walking down the road, trying to get to his next appointment and not doing anything to provoke them. And, no doubt, he tried to avoid them, but they probably surrounded him, blocking his exit. Also, from the placement of the story in Elisha's ministry timeline, it's clear this event took place very early in his itinerant ministry because he was still traveling alone. He learned quickly here that this wasn’t a wise practice, and after this incident, he always traveled with an assistant.
This brings us to our second fact; this wasn’t a well respected Jewish community with some well-mannered little Jewish children, or the sons of cultured Jews who worshiped a holy God. These people didn’t believe in Jehovah God and were mocking the story they had heard about Elijah’s recent translation to heaven. (2 Kings 2:1-13) These young men were the sons of idolaters who practiced horrible acts of debauchery in the name of worship. Their most prominent idols were Baal and Asherah. These two gods were supposedly husband and wife, so their followers used sex as an act of worshiping them. It’s easy to see the demonic influence on this community; these young men had grown up hearing embellished stories about the sexual exploits which took place between their fathers and religious prostitutes. They lived in a world with little moral boundaries and did whatever they wished without restraint. The environment would be similar for a traveler finding himself alone on the unfamiliar back streets of a slum in a large city surrounded by a gang of forty or fifty young men. It would be a terribly dangerous situation that could end in any number of scenarios, including mugging, robbery, and rape.
The third fact we must consider was the unusual behavior of Elisha in this situation. He was known throughout his ministry for his gentle character. In comparison with his predecessor Elijah, he was like the gentle rain which follows the thunder and lightning. The way Elisha behaved in this story is completely out of character for him. So, the reader must ask why he reacted the way he did. It’s obvious he felt his life was in danger. We can debate whether he mad the correct choice or not, but put yourself in his shoes. What would you do if you thought a large gang of uncontrolled young men were about to molest you? The Bible doesn’t tell us if they were carrying any weapons, but most gangs do; and having traveled in Israel, I’m well aware of the abundance of rocks that could have been used to attack him. In fact, stoning is still common in that area of the world. It’s easy for us to condemn Elisha for being afraid from the security of our environment, but he clearly didn’t have the option of escape. He was trapped by these rowdy young men who were threatening his life. He responded as almost any person would and did what he could to save himself. Why else would he curse them? He never cursed anyone else. The obvious conclusion is he believed he was in serious danger.
I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface in writing about this specific story, but I can say that the older I grow, the more my sentiments are with the "baldy." If fact, after reviewing the story, I’m surprised that the young men got off so lightly with only a few bear scratches.