There are several black bear hides in my living room, since I much enjoy hunting the species. I’ve never had a bear come after me; nor have I ever tried to irritate one. In fact, when hunting, my preference is that the bear not know I’m there.

We’ve all heard the aphorism, “Don’t poke the bear.” That means it’s not wise to needlessly stir up something that may end up hurting you, or causing more trouble than you want. After all, who (without a death-wish) would sneak up on a sleeping bear and give it a sharp poke with a short stick? Bears have an abundance of claws, fangs, brute strength, and potential bad attitude. So, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the smart thing to do would be to poke a bear.

Remember that incredible vignette at the end of 2 Kings 2? Shortly after he inherited the job of being God’s prophet, Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel. Somewhere along that road an awful thing happened when “some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!’” (v. 23, ESV). Elisha stopped, turned to face the disrespectful youths, and “cursed them in the name of the Lord” (v. 24). Then “two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys” (v. 24).

That’s what happened, and that’s all we know about it. The account cannot be cross-referenced to another Scripture that provides more information. Jesus never mentioned it (that we know of), nor did any New Testament writer. The Bible’s brevity astonishes. We have questions aplenty, but God is content to let the story stand on such sparse detail. God’s prophet was disrespected. A curse was made in God’s name. With two raging bears, God “tore forty-two of the boys.” That is a lot of violence and death. And, if it doesn’t sit well with our 21st-century American sensibilities, God still wanted it written down so we could learn something. It may be our modern sensibilities need adjustment.

Given what happened, it’s likely these were not innocent little kids who just didn’t know better, taking a break from hide-and-seek to laugh at a funny looking old man as he passed by. According to Paul House, the Hebrew could cover ages “from twelve to thirty years old” (New American Commentary on 1, 2 Kings, p. 260). Don’t forget that God’s law taught, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32).

It’s quite possible that their taunt, “Go up, you baldhead,” was mocking the claim that Elijah had actually been taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11; cf. House, ibid.). If so, they were challenging Elisha to leave as Elijah had done. Perhaps it is the same mentality that would later taunt Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, then come down from the cross and we’ll believe you.”

Rather than reading these as a gang of cute little five and six-year-olds who make fun of an older man and then get mauled to death, a better picture may be that we’re reading about a blasphemous mob of teenage or twenty-something-year-old young men who treat God’s prophet—and, thus, God himself—with utter contempt. They poked the bear, figuratively, and got to reap what they sowed in the form of two real bears which emerged from the woods on a rampage. It’s worth remembering that this area, near Bethel, was an epicenter of Israelite paganism in the northern kingdom. The wicked King Jeroboam had made a golden calf in Bethel for Israelites to worship (1 Kings 12:28-29).

After the harrowing event, Elisha is not stricken with grief as he tries to comfort mourning kinfolk of the boys. In point of fact, the text doesn’t indicate that he stuck around to encourage anyone or even explain to authorities what had happened. The very next verse states, matter-of-factly, “From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria” (v. 25). And so the chapter ends.

Notice how one suffering Bible writer describes God: “He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces…” (Lam. 3:10-11a). And, God talks of what he will do to those who forget him: “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). Sounds severe, doesn’t it? Sin is serious, and God is holy. The sooner I learn that, the better.

It’s a lesson America should learn, lest she end up like a godless gang near Bethel so long ago. You don’t trample the things of God. You don’t laugh at what is holy. You don’t treat God’s people with contempt. You don’t put God to the test. You don’t poke the bear. “But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:16).

-Weylan Deaver, TBC Online Instructor