I found the explanation from Daniel Hoffman useful. Let me copy and paste his full article below. The text has rich insight so it is best to keep it in full. The link of his original article in knowingscripture.com is given at the bottom.
By Daniel Hoffman July 7, 2020
The prophet Elisha is odd. He pops up in 1 Kings 19:19-21 as the protégé of Elijah, but he then remains invisible until 2 Kings 2 when Elijah is carried into heaven and Elisha takes up his mantle. Elisha then becomes the center of attention, and for about eight chapters we follow him through a series of miracles. Several are bizarre, some seem almost trivial, but one is notorious: the story of the boys and bears. The story—more like an anecdote—is strange, and rather unsettling. It is also quite short. Here is the whole thing:
And he went up from there to Beth-El, and he was going up on the way, and small youths went out from the city, and they jeered at him. And they said to him, “Go up, baldy! Go up, baldy!” And he turned around, and he saw them, and he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. And two bears went out from the woods, and they tore up of them forty-two of the boys. And he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria (2 Kings 2:23-25, my translation).
The first instinct of modern readers might be to laugh, because it seems almost cartoonish. But really, it is a troubling story. Troubling that a prophet seems so petty, and troubling that God then seems to honor that apparent pettiness in so gruesome a fashion. But the story is supposed to be unsettling. Perhaps, though, we can consider some points that will help us put the story in a proper light.
Where Is This? Gilgal, Jericho, Bethel, and the Jordan
First, consider the geography. In 2 Kings 2:1, Elijah and Elisha, master and apprentice, are headed out from Gilgal on a final prophetic circuit (cf. 1 Samuel 7:16). From Gilgal, they will go as far as Bethel, and then to Jericho, and then to the Jordan.
Gilgal is where Joshua and the Israelites who entered Canaan set up memorial stones of their Jordan crossing (Joshua 4:19-24), and the Jordan River is Elijah and Elisha’s ultimate destination. They will cross it together, exiting Canaan, and then Elisha will re-enter Canaan crossing back alone (2 Kings 2:14). So Elisha enters the Promised Land as a new Joshua, clothed with the Spirit. Then, just like Joshua, he will head for Jericho and then Bethel (2 Kings 2:15-23).1
But when Elisha goes to Jericho, the walls do not come tumbling down. Instead, the men of Jericho receive Elisha and recognize him as the new anointed of the Lord (2 Kings 2:15). Not so at Bethel, near which our story actually takes place.
Bethel, literally “Beth-El” (בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל), the House of God, was a place of special significance and sanctity even before Joshua’s conquest. It was where God revealed himself to Jacob and where Jacob anointed a pillar and dedicated himself to Yahweh (Genesis 28:10-22). It is also a place that in the northern kingdom of Israel had become a particularly scandalous center of idolatry. Bethel was one of the locations where the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam, set up golden calves in rivalry to the Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 12:25-33). This idolatry continued into Elisha’s time, as all the northern kings followed in Jeroboam’s wicked ways.
So, what we have is a new Joshua entering Canaan and approaching a center of idolatry at Bethel. In a sense it is even worse now than it was in Joshua’s time, because the city is now doubly apostate, having apostatized once from Jacob’s original dedication of it in Genesis, and now again under Israel’s wicked kings. In this light, Elisha’s calling down a curse makes sense.
When Is This?
Second, when does this happen? Probably within days of Elisha taking Elijah’s place. When Elijah is taken up, Elisha goes to Jericho and stays there for three days while some men of the city go and search for Elijah (2 Kings 2:15-18). They do not find him. Elisha cleanses the city’s water supply and then heads to Bethel (2 Kings 2:19-23). So this is the very beginning of Elisha’s ministry. Established as the new prophet, Elisha begins his ministry both with a sign of blessing (healing Jericho’s water) and then of judgment (the bears). So in this general sense, the curse/blessing serve to establish Elisha’s office and endowment.
Notice here that Elisha foreshadows Jesus, especially the pattern in the gospel of John. After being anointed at the Jordan by John the Baptist (John 1:32-34)—and John the Baptist of course is like Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8 and Matthew 3:4; also Matthew 11:14)—Jesus, clothed with the Spirit, goes out performing signs. In the gospel of John his first two signs are changing water into wine (John 2:1-11), as Elisha purified the water of Jericho, and then pronouncing judgment on the temple, the house of God (John 2:13-22), just as Elisha brought judgment to God’s corrupted “house of God” at Bethel.
But, Destroying Children?
We should also clarify a false conception we might have of what actually happened at Bethel. The common impression is of a crotchety prophet on the one hand, and a horde of schoolchildren on the other. But is this the case?
The terms used in the story are נְעָרִ֤ים קְטַנִּים֙ (nearim qetanim, v. 23) translated in the ESV as “small boys” and יְלָדִֽים (yeladim, v. 24), translated in the ESV as “boys.” Both terms can include little children, but both also have a wider field of possible meaning. For example, the first term (נְעָרִ֤ים) is used in Genesis 14:24 to describe men old enough to go with Abram on a military expedition and in Genesis 34:19 for a man old enough to seek marriage with Jacob’s daughter. The word is even used of the spies who went to Rahab in Jericho (Joshua 6:23). Granted, the adjective קְטַנִּים֙ probably does indicate that these youths of Bethel were somewhat younger than fully grown men, but they need not have been kindergartners. Likewise, the second term (יְלָדִֽים) is used of Joseph in Genesis 37:30, who we are told was seventeen at the time (37:2) and for King Rehoboam’s counselors in 1 Kings 12:10-14. In general, both terms often simply indicate someone under the authority of another, either parents or masters, and so children are obviously included here, but the terms also describe people we would consider to be young adults.
Likely then, these “youths” of Bethel (if that is where they are from; see footnote 2 below) were at least adolescents, some maybe as old as 19 or 20. And while it is not stated, we might also be meant to assume that these were not simply village children, but acolytes or stewards of the idolatrous Bethel shrine. Within the narrative context these youths may be intended to contrast with the “sons of the prophets”—those disciples of Elijah and Elisha who we meet earlier in the very chapter (2 Kings 2:3).
And what of the old prophet himself? Well, he was not old. Elisha had succeeded Elijah by the time of Jehoram, Ahab’s son, and toward the end of Jehoshaphat of Judah’s reign (1 Kings 3:1), which was around 850 B.C., and he died during the reign of king Joash, who’s reign began about 800 B.C. So Elisha’s ministry seems to have spanned roughly five decades minimum, and if we assume he lived to a typical old age of 75 or 80 years, he likely was not older than 30 at the time of our story, and probably in his twenties. So we do not have a grumpy old man versus third-graders. A young man against other, slightly younger men, is more probably what is described.
Making Fun of His Bald Head?
What of the actual taunt? The youths call Elisha “baldy” (קֵרֵ֖חַ). Elisha may have actually been bald. Or he may have shaved his head in mourning for Elijah, his spiritual father. So were they just mocking his appearance? Or more seriously, were they mocking his grief? There is reason to think that there was more to it than either of these. Their jeering was actually a challenge.
If these youths are indeed associated with idolatrous worship, there is probably an echo of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20ff, where Elijah mocks them (1 Kings 18:27) and challenges them to a show off power between the gods.
But we can be more certain and specific. It is interesting to note that in the chapter just before Elisha and the bears, in one of the final episodes of Elijah’s life in which he meets the messengers of king Ahaziah, Elijah is described as literally a “lord of hair” (אִישׁ בַּ֣עַל שֵׂעָ֔ר), or as the NASB has it, “a hairy man” (1 Kings 1:8). Elijah is also described as Elisha’s “master” (2 Kings 2:3, 5). The Hebrew word for master here is rosh (רֹאשׁ), which is “head”—a physical head on a body—but as with the English “head” it can also have the sense of “chief” or “master.” When Elijah was taken up into heaven, Elisha lost his master. In the words of the text, Elisha lost his hairy head.
As Elijah’s successor, Elisha’s own power and authority was now up for testing. The youths’ taunt, if we can paraphrase it, was something like, “Hey, your master is gone, how powerful are you now without him? Why don’t you ‘go up’ like he did?” The verb “go up” (עלה) after all is the same word used to Elijah’s ascension (2 Kings 2:1).
The sons of the prophets at Bethel and Jericho knew of Elijah’s ascension to heaven (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 15), and word would have reached the false priests at Bethel’s idolatrous shrine. So when Elisha came near, they taunted him and challenged his office and his anointing as prophet of Yahweh. The presumption of the youths and their blaspheming the Holy Spirit brought down judgment upon them. It was not petty, and it was not trivial.
Samson’s anointing was tied to his hair. When the Philistines cut it, his strength left him, but his hair began to regrow and at the end of his life the Spirit came upon him again in a show of strength when the Philistines taunted him (Judges 16). Elisha also may have lost his hairy head, but like Samson the Spirit still clothes him, and God’s enemies are judged.
One of the curses described in Leviticus 26 as judgment upon Israel’s covenant breaking is this:
And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted (Leviticus 26:22).
Wild beasts bereaving them of children. This is what happened to the people of Bethel. Interestingly, in the earlier story about the water of Jericho, the water is described as making the land “unfruitful,” which is literally the word “bereaved,” same as in Leviticus 26:22 (שׁכל). When Elisha heals the water he declares that it will no longer cause miscarriage (2 Kings 2:21). The incident at Bethel thus contrasts directly with the blessing and healing given to Jericho. Taken together, the stories of Jericho and Bethel indicate the opposite consequences of receiving or rejecting the bearer of God’s word and Spirit. Blessing or curse is at stake, specifically here in one of the archetypal blessing and curse alternatives of the Old Covenant: the giving of offspring, and the loss of them.
In coming years, the prophet Hosea would denounce the continuing idolatry of the northern kingdom. It seems that bears mauling forty-two of Bethel’s youths was not warning enough, because God would say through Hosea soon after:
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs;
I will tear open their breast,
and there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild beast would rip them open (Hosea 13:8).
The disturbing act of judgment through Elisha was a warning, and God was patient to give Israel many more decades before they were destroyed and scattered completely by the Assyrians.
So is the story funny, or embarrassing? The fact is, the story does not reflect poorly either on God or on his prophet. Instead, it reflects poorly on those who despise God’s word and the ones carrying his Spirit.
Elisha and the Bears