Elisha and the Bears
23 Elisha went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young people came out of the city. They mocked him: “Get going, Baldy! Get going, Baldy!” 24 Turning around, Elisha looked at them and cursed them in the Lord’s name. Then two bears came out of the woods and mangled forty-two of the youths. 25 From there Elisha went to Mount Carmel and then back to Samaria.
2 Kings 2:23-25 Common English Bible (CEB)
You still here? Still confused? Okay, here’s the background. Israel has split into two different kingdoms. The nation of Judah in the south, where Jerusalem is (and the temple), is sometimes good at actually following God as intended. The nation of Israel in the North hardly ever follows God. Our story takes place in the northern kingdom.
Israel is ruled by King Ahab, and he married a woman named Jezebel who influenced Ahab and Israel to worship a god named Baal. In fact, she had a habit of killing anyone who didn’t like to worship Baal.
Another thing you need to know is that there are people called prophets. God speaks to them and calls them to drop unvarnished truth bombs on people. When you are as evil and crazy as Jezebel, your truth bombs are pretty intense. A while back Elijah, Elisha’s mentor, dropped this one on her:
“The dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’ He who belongs to Ahab and dies in the city will be eaten by dogs, and he who dies in the field will be eaten by the birds of the air.'” -1 Kings 21:23-24
Needless to say, prophets are not well liked by those who don’t like their message. Much of 1 and 2 Kings is about the battle between rulers that don’t follow God and prophets that hold them accountable. And Jezebel has killed a lot of prophets…I mean a lot of prophets.
Back to the Story
So when Elijah goes up into heaven just before our passage, Elisha is now the prophet in charge. He’s wearing Elijah’s special prophet jacket and making his way to a town called Bethel (which ironically means house of God). A large group of “young people” come out and start mocking him. Some translations have this as “little children.” That is a weird (though possible, I guess) interpretation of the Hebrew word, na’ar. The word can mean anything from a little kid to a young man. Joshua is called a na’ar at 45. Let’s assume we don’t have a mauling of a bunch of little kids. Let’s assume that Elisha has run afoul of a gang of angry teenagers and young adults.
Walking alone on a road is always hazardous. Roving bands of thieves and ne’er-do-wells are a problem for travelers for millennia. But Elisha is also wearing the special jacket of a prophet of YHWH—someone who likes to tell Baal-worshipers they will be eaten by dogs. Chances are this band of youths worships Baal. Chances are this group knows that it is not only permissible, but government policy, to kill prophets of YHWH. So chances are the insults about Elisha not having any hair (so hurtful) are probably the opening volleys of what is about to be a lynching.
Bad News Bears
So now maybe it makes a little more sense why two bears (most translations say she-bears, an unnecessary but fun addition to the story) came out and mauled 42 of the youths. Elisha’s life was in danger.
But it still brings up an important idea about our God (YHWH). Our God is, despite this strange story, a God of love. But God is a God that knows that it’s in our best interest to worship him and him alone. When we worship other gods, whether it’s Baal or money or sex or safety or nationalism or a political figure…or just ourselves, it breaks the world. Let me say that again. Idolatry breaks the world. It leads to murderous monarchs who rule over murderous gangs who are all just worshiping their new god.
Therefore, God hates idolatry. If you read the Old Testament, you will read a lot of things, but one thing that comes up over and over again is that God hates idolatry. It’s destructive, and sometimes a loving God deals with destructive things destructively.
The first takeaway is for the prophets out there. Sometimes God calls us to point out brokenness to people who may not want to hear it. This is especially difficult when the brokenness you are called to point out is a common and popular belief among a society. There will be opposition, but if God has called you, God will take care of you.
That being said………..you are called to SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE. If you do it without love, you are not doing it on behalf of God. Always ask yourself in persecution, “is this because of my faith in God or because I’m being a jerk?”
Don’t be an idolater. There are lots of little gods out there calling you to follow them instead of the true God. It will mess you up, and it will cause you to mess up other people. People around you may be following other gods, but you shouldn't, even if you're the only one. Figure out what it means to “have no other gods before ME” and figure out why that is the very FIRST commandment in the 10 Commandments (and the second is “don’t make idols,” basically the same thing). This is a big deal to God. Stop right now, figure out what’s tempting you and calling your name and pray about it. The tricky part is, you can have idols that aren’t bad things, but they are bad if you worship them (clothes, health, family, safety, school, hobbies, etc.)
By far the hardest and most insidious part of looking for idols is when idols are trying to convince us that they are a part of true faith. Let me explain, it is easy to see the idols in secular society—money, power, sex, selfie culture, smartphones, convenience—even though they still pull at us.
What is harder is noticing and dealing with idolatry IN THE CHURCH—idolatry pretending to be true faith. I believe this is a much more dangerous idolatry than secular idolatry. Because if the church is busy worshiping idols, we look like idiots to the outside world when we call them to give up their idols.
Here are some of the idols I’ve noticed in the church (and when I say “the church” I don’t just mean my church, I mean the global church, but especially the American church).
The need to be right over our call to love- We often want to put our opponents in their place by mocking them or bullying them. We might post articles with titles like “girl destroys argument in one sentence” or a meme that makes an insulting comment. Any time we want to point out sin without demonstrating love we are guilty of this. This is sin. Satan wins if we do this.
Politics and Nationalism- No secular political party speaks for God. No country is favored by God. Churches on both sides of the American political spectrum and churches across the world sometimes have unspoken rules that you have to agree with the church politically and support their nation (to the detriment of others) in order to be a “real Christian.” We want to be good voters and good citizens, but ultimately we belong to a community that transcends our politics and our nation. Scripture, especially the teachings of Jesus, should shape our ideas about the world more than the world shapes our ideas about God. Let me be clear, both sides of the liberal/conservative spectrum are currently doing this to the church, but often we only notice what the other side is doing wrong. We shouldn’t bother pointing out the other side until we deal with our side first.
Let’s use these takeaways in the opposite order that I presented in them. First, we must find our own idolatries, both the temptations in the church and the temptation in secular society (and our temptations within ourselves). We must constantly deal with those, look for those, and repent of those. Then, we can speak with love and understanding to those that struggle around us, never holding ourselves on a higher plane. And no matter how frustrated or beat up you get, let God worry about the bears (if for some reason it comes to that).
Second, never underestimate the power of someone with a call from God.
Third, don’t mess with baldy....or she-bears.