2 Kings 2:23From there Elisha went up to Bethel. 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!” 24He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.

They seem to be just misbehaving naughty lads making fun of the prophet but God's hand was heavy on them. In any case, God is the sovereign God.

  • 2
    Touch not mine anointed, saith the Lord - and do my prophets no harm. [I Chronicles 16:22 and Psalm 105:15 , KJV]. Elisha did not have the personal power to make bears do anything. All Elisha did was to curse the children. What followed was beyond his capacity to expedite. What the prophet was doing - in the name of the Lord - the children were mocking, sarcastically : "go up .. go up !"
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 13:10
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    The Hebrew word doesn't only mean children, but also include young men. Think of the British word "lad". If 42 lads all came at you at once, you might feel threatened or angry too.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 13:54
  • 1
    @curiousdannii The Hebrew is וּנְעָרִ֤ים קְטַנִּים֙ Biblehub (Strong 5288, 6996) the first word being 'young' or 'little' and the second word being 'lads' or 'youths'.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 14:58
  • The Lord also says: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them."(Dt. 32:35). Cursing in the name of Lord without God's sanction is NOT of God. It is not their prerogative nor arbitrary.
    – Sam
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 3:17
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    I don't have an answer, but none of the current answers address the strange fact that only 2 bears were able to maul 42 youths in an open area. Did they just stand there and wait for their turn? Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 15:28

6 Answers 6


All these answers are good. I'd like to add another point: Calling him "bald-head". Scripture implies, especially when we read I Corinthians 11, that hair is indicative of authority. Notice this takes place immediately after Elisha takes up Elijah's mantle. I would suggest that by calling him "bald" these young men were calling Elisha a fraud, an imposter without divine authority. A serious charge to level against a prophet of Israel.

Getting mauled by bears pretty much settled the question.

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    A man who is bald is clean. Lev 13:40,41
    – David
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 13:33
  • 2
    @David Contextually that passage is talking about leprosy. Baldness does not generally indicate cleanliness... the passage is saying baldness does not necessarily mean leprosy. In the context of Elisha, the youths were mocking him -- for what, being clean? Nonsense. They were mocking him by calling him a fake.
    – Iconoclast
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 13:44

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.

Why Bears?

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).[6] 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


The best answer I have found for this is linked below. Why I like it—it looks to the historical Jewish teachings of this Jewish passage (I think we as Christians do a terrible job acknowledging that the Old Testament is, in fact, Jewish. We often like to interpret things through our Western lens. Let’s remember, the first Christians were Jewish. Jesus admonished those that did not listen to those that taught from the seat of Moses. He condemned their actions, but NOT their authority to teach. We must remember this when grappling with the OT. God revealed these scriptures to the Jews first, thus we owe it to the correct order of things to not disregard our Jewish heritage as adopted children into God’s chosen people).

Also, do not disregard this answer because the link is from a Catholic website. The website is Catholic (which I also am—a convert from evangelicalism), but the answer is directly from Jewish Rabbinical teaching through the ages.

First of all, the famed Jewish Rabbi Rashi points out that what we translate as “little boys” had more than just that meaning. It was also a word that would be used to refer to those without mitzvot (without moral conscience) and thus could refer to any immoral person.

Before the incident where Elisha is mocked by the young men, he had performed a miracle purifying the water in Jericho. A strand of Jewish tradition has claimed that these young men from Beth-el had been making a business out of bringing good water into Jericho and by purifying the water there the prophet had destroyed their business. Their “water cartel” could no longer take advantage of the situation, so they descended upon Elisha.

So if we reset our thinking on the passage, what we see is essentially a gang of criminals descend upon a holy man taunting him and attempting to intimidate him. They tell him to “go away” or “go up.” This is the same word that is used to describe Elijah being taken up to heaven. By telling Elisha to “go away” or “go up,” the wording is not simply telling him to leave their presence but to leave this world! If more than forty members of a youth gang surrounded you and told you they thought you should not be in this world, I think you’d take that as a definite threat to your safety and life.

They were cursed for their hatred of God and their greed and disregard for their fellow countrymen. Judaism considers taking advantage of another’s unfortunate situation (such as charging exorbitant prices for water to people desperate for water) to be a grave sin. As such, this would have been viewed as a just punishment for these price gougers who held hatred for what is good and holy.

Another strand of Jewish tradition, while accepting the above story, considered Elisha’s reaction to the water cartel to be an overreaction and held that God did indeed punish Elisha for his actions. The Talmud (Sotah, 47a) states that the illnesses that plagued Elisha throughout his life (2 Kgs. 13:14-20) were punishment for his tendency to overreact (see also 2 Kgs. 5:26-27).

Another Jewish tradition from the Talmud views the story as an allegory. This strand believes that the verses mean that the youth were cut off from Israel for their crimes against their countrymen. They were essentially abandoned to the wilderness, similar to early American colonial expulsions from towns and settlements.

What's Up with Elisha and the Bears? | Catholic Answers

  • Welcome to Bible Hermeneutics SE and thank you for your contribution. Could you summarize the article so when others looking for answers can see what you are referencing. Also, when you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 15:30
  • Hi Michael, welcome to the site and thank you for sharing--I was going to ask the same question as agarza, could you add a quick summary of the article to your post? People of all beliefs are welcome on this site, glad to have you. Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 18:18

So now, like old Electra, this comedy has come, hoping she can find, somewhere in here, spectators as intelligent. If she sees her brother’s hair, she’ll recognize it.(40) 720 Consider how my play shows natural restraint. First, she doesn't have stitched leather dangling down, with a thick red knob, to make the children giggle.(41) She hasn’t mocked bald men or danced some drunken reel. ARISTOPHANES CLOUDS Translated by Ian Johnston Vancouver Island University Nanaimo, British Columbia Canada First published 2008 Revised slightly and reformatted 2017, 2020.

In Rhetoric, Comedy and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds Daphne O'Regan, Oxford University Press US 1992, page 6, "The Clouds" can be considered the world's first extant "comedy of ideas".

"The Clouds" was first produced in the drama festival in Athens—the City Dionysia—in 423 BC, where it placed third in the competition.

According to Martin Noth's thesis, the book 2 Kings was written near the end of the 7th to 6th century BC. Perdue, xxvii.

And for this reason men and boys 890 should side with me. And we advise bald men to join with us and strive for victory, since if I win, at tables and at festivals [770] every man will say, “Here, take this to that bald man, give this bald man a sweet dessert, and don’t hold back from a man whose forehead matches our noble poet’s balding skull.”(63) Aristophanes frequently makes fun of his own baldness. ARISTOPHANES PEACE Translated by Ian Johnston Vancouver Island University Nanaimo, British Columbia Canada (First published 2010, revised 2017)

The non-Jewish world of that time mocked the bald ones, who were considered clean by the Torah. The number 42 appears associated with immoral people in Num. 35:6; 2 Ki. 2:24; 10:14. Users Iconoclast, Davi, Michael Brown and Vincent Wong portrayed well some nuances of the context of the time.


Elisha cursed the boys because he felt they should show respect to him as God's prophet. In other words, he was angry. A more interesting question implied by the OP is whether his curse was justified. To this I would answer "possibly not."

There is a precedent for a prophet of God acting unwisely by letting his anger get the best of him. I believe this was the case when Moses, instead of speaking to the Rock as God directly in Numbers 20, struck the Rock twice in anger at the people.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock, where he said to them, “Just listen, you rebels! Are we to produce water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then, raising his hand, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff, and water came out in abundance, and the community and their livestock drank. 12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: Because you did not have confidence in me, to acknowledge my holiness before the Israelites, therefore you shall not lead this assembly into the land I have given them.

Whatever the reason for Elisha's curse, one has to wonder if it was uttered in accordance with God's will, and what the outcome might have been if he had instead prayed: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

  • This Q. is quite simple and therefore elicits a simple A., which you have now given. Nice reference to Moses' action. Interesting last paragraph. + 1. No need for thanks here, unless you want to add something. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 22:26

Did we forget that he may have also been grieving as well? What he did was not right but when something is going on unbeknownst to us it makes us act irrational or act out. Not saying Elisha was possessed but when we don't deal with grief the correct way we can become destructive to everyone around us and even ourselves which is why people end up taking their life after someone near and dear passes when they never had the chance or didn't grieve. In grief he cursed death upon others. Was Elisha also not possibly lost, upset and there was no explanation for what he just saw. Let's not forget that people were not listening to him. I'm under the conclusion that he kept it all in. He told the men not to go and didn't explain why not to go. The searched for 3 days and came up empty handed. Elisha then angrily said, "I told you not to go!" The Bible says they shamed Elisha into letting them go search so there definitely was some possible guilt, hurt and shame there. It's like he spiraled out of control for being asked to be left alone and they pulled the scab off a wound by reminding him of Elijah's death.

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