In 2 Kings 2:23, a group of boys jeers Elisha. Various English translations render this "young boys", "young lads", "boys", "small boys". What kind of range does the Hebrew word behind this group of people have? Likely how old were those jeering Elisha?

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The word נַעַר (na’ar), here translated "boy," has a broad range of meaning. It can refer to infants all the way up to adolescence. However, קטנ (qatan meaning "small"), used with it, limits the age.

The exact phrase, "small boys" appears in the following verses (all from the NET Bible):

  • 1 Sam 20:35 The next morning Jonathan, along with a young servant, went out to the field to meet David.
  • 1 Kings 3:7 Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in my father David’s place, even though I am only a young man and am inexperienced. (Solomon is speaking with hyperbole here)
  • 1 Kings 11:17 Hadad, who was only a small boy at the time, escaped with some of his father’s Edomite servants and headed for Egypt.
  • 2 Kings 5:14 ...His skin became as smooth as a young child’s and he was healed.
  • Isa 11:6 ...as a small child leads them along.

The actual taunt is קֵרֵ֖חַ which is only found elsewhere in Leviticus 13:40, a passage dealing with how to determine if a man has, or has been healed from leprosy. So what is said to Elisha is probably not a simple "name calling" but one which implies he has, or has recovered from leprosy. If it is to say he has leprosy, then Elisha has failed to identify himself by announcing to the others he is "unclean" (cf. Leviticus 13:45).

na'ar and yeled
There are two terms used to describe the individuals involved, נַעַר na'ar and יֶלֶד yeled.

Most English translation fail to distinguish between the two:

23 Then he went up from there unto Bethel, and as he was going up by the way, the young men {or servants} of the city came forth and mocked him, saying, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.
ויעל משם בית־אל והוא עלה בדרך ונערים קטנים יצאו מן־העיר ויתקלסו־בו ויאמרו לו עלה קרח עלה קרח

24 And he turned back and looked on them and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two bears came forth out of the forest and tore apart forty-two young men of them. (JUB)
ויפן אחריו ויראם ויקללם בשם יהוה ותצאנה שתים דבים מן־היער ותבקענה מהם ארבעים ושני ילדים

Even the Jubliee 2000 translation which adds the note na'ar might be "servants" (hence, "young" or "insignificant"1servants) renders both na'ar and yeled as "young men."2

If the text is taken literally, the group which comes out to taunt Elisha is made up of both na'ar and yeled. The na'ar are those who vocalize the taunt and the yeled are those killed3by the bears. In this case, there is a question as to why those who spoke were not killed.

Contrasted with na'ar, yeled encompasses a much wider age range:

6 Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” 7 And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” 8 But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men (הַיְלָדִים֙) who had grown up with him and stood before him. (1 Kings 12 ESV)

Rehoboam took the advice of the yeled "who had grown up with him." Since Rehoboam became king when he was 41-years old (cf. 1 Kings 14:21), these were not "young" men: they were adults. The use of yeled is not describing age, but the lack of maturity. In other words, Rehoboam rejected the advice of the elders and followed the advice of the immature yeled.

When the taunt to Elisha is read in the light of Rehoboam's response which resulted in the division of the nation, then the yeled who are killed by the bears were those who advised the na'ar how to taunt Elisha, and like those yeled who had grown up with Rehoboam, they were adults who had acted like children.

Elisha's response can then be seen in a better light. Adults instructed children to taunt him using language implying he was unclean. Elisha called a curse and YHVH responded by sending two bears to kill those (adults) who were responsible for instructing children what to say.

1. As in the ISV. The word in question is קָטָן which can mean young or insignificant; it the adjective used to describe the na'ar.
2. The LXX notes the distinction by identifying the first as παιδάρια μικρὰ and the second as παῗδας.
3. Or mauled.

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