(2 Kings 2:23-24) Mauled 42 boys for saying “Baldy”?

CLAIM: The text states, “Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, ‘Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’ 24 When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number” (2 Kings 2:23-24).

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, these weren’t little boys confronting Elisha. Hebrew scholar Walter Kaiser notes that this Hebrew expression (ne’urim qẹtannim) should actually be translated “young men.” We know this because these words were used of Isaac (who was in his 20’s, Gen. 22:12), Joseph (who was 17, Gen. 37:2), and an army of men (1 Kings 20:14-15).[1] He states that this places the age of the men, anywhere from 12 to 30 years old.

Second, this was a gang of youths. There were 42 of them. When I was in high school, there was a gang of kids called “the Goons.” They would come to parties as a group, and they would terrorize the people there. In one case, they beat up a person’s father who tried to kick them out of his house! While they were young kids (e.g. high school age), there were so many of them that it felt like anarchy wherever they went, and they struck terror into anyone who saw them coming to their party. Likewise, to run into 42 tough youths on the streets of the ancient Near East would be terrifying!

Third, the term “baldhead” was a severe insult. In our modern culture, it is insulting to make fun of an older man who has lost his hair, but in many scenarios, this is a cause for laughter or even self-deprecation. However, in Israel, this was a severe insult. Isaiah said that baldness was a judgment of God on Israel (Isa. 3:17, 24). Kaiser writes, “Natural baldness was very rare in the ancient Near East. So scarce was baldness that it carried with it a suspicion of leprosy.”[2] We need to make sure that we aren’t reading the Bible in our culture’s milieu, but in theirs. A similar example might be the word “gay.” Songs from the 1950’s used this word to refer to “happiness.” But that term is not used that way today. Similarly, when we read about baldness, we need to understand the connotations that accompanied that word at the time.

Fourth, the expression “Go up!” was a severe insult. This expression was the same language used of Elijah in the beginning of the chapter to refer to him being taken up into heaven (“Elijah went up by a whirlwind”). In effect, they were telling Elisha that they wanted him to be taken away into heaven as well. They were wishing he was dead.

Fifth, Elisha didn’t harm them personally. Elisha prayed that God would come and bring a fair judgment on this gang of men.

[1] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. See 2 Kings 2:23-24.

[2] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. See 2 Kings 2:23-24.