Why Did Elisha Call a Bear to Maul Boys?

Contributing Writer
Why Did Elisha Call a Bear to Maul Boys?

The Bible is full of odd stories, from talking donkeys to cursing a fig tree. These images grab our attention and make us ask questions. In one such narrative, the prophet Elisha called upon a bear to come and maul boys. 

Many times, these stories have cultural context that was easily understood in that time but is strange to us thousands of years later. While obscure and violent, Elisha’s encounter with these boys teaches us about the role of Old Testament prophets, and even has principles for us today. 

Who Was Elisha the Prophet?

Elisha the prophet succeeded his mentor Elijah and continued his ministry with remarkable miracles and profound influence.

Elisha was the son of Shaphat and came from a town called Abel Meholah in the northern kingdom of Israel. His calling began when the prophet Elijah, under God’s instruction, sought him out. In 1 Kings 19:19-21, Elijah approached Elisha while he plowed with twelve yoke of oxen. Elijah threw his cloak around Elisha, which symbolized the transfer of prophetic authority. Elisha asked to say goodbye to his parents, which Elijah allowed. Then Elisha slaughtered his oxen and burned his plowing equipment, cooking the meat over the fire and eating the meat with others. Then he followed Elijah and became his servant. Burning his equipment and killing the oxen revealed a firm decision to follow Elijah in ministry, removing any chance of coming back.

Elisha served as Elijah’s attendant and apprentice, learning from him and preparing for his future role. When Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha witnessed this miraculous event and received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, as described in 2 Kings 2:9-14. This double portion signifies the inheritance of Elijah’s prophetic ministry and the empowerment to carry on his work.

Elisha’s ministry was marked by numerous miracles, showcasing God's power and affirming his prophetic authority. One of his first acts was purifying the waters of Jericho, making them safe to drink (2 Kings 2:19-22). He also helped a widow by multiplying her oil, allowing her to pay off her debts and live off the remainder (2 Kings 4:1-7). Another significant miracle was the resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37), demonstrating God's power over life and death.

Elisha’s miracles often served to aid and protect the people of Israel. He provided food during a famine by purifying a pot of stew that was poisoned (2 Kings 4:38-41) and multiplied loaves of bread to feed a hundred men (2 Kings 4:42-44). He healed Naaman, a Syrian army commander, of leprosy by instructing him to wash in the Jordan River seven times (2 Kings 5:1-19).

Elisha’s influence extended into political affairs as well. He advised the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom during their campaign against Moab (2 Kings 3:4-27) and played a key role in the anointing of Jehu as king of Israel, who was tasked with eradicating the house of Ahab and the worship of Baal (2 Kings 9).

What Is the Context for Elisha Calling a Bear?

2 Kings 1 details the end of Elijah’s ministry. King Ahab had died, and his son, Ahaziah assumes the throne. Elijah had constant conflict with Ahab due to the king’s idolatry and violence. 

King Ahaziah of Israel suffers a severe injury after falling through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria. Seeking guidance, he sends messengers to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, whether he will recover. However, the angel of the Lord instructs Elijah to intercept these messengers. Elijah rebukes them for seeking a pagan god and declares that Ahaziah will surely die because he has not sought the God of Israel. As prophesied, Ahaziah dies, and his brother Jehoram becomes king in his place.

After this, Elijah comes to the end of his ministry, and he tries to travel alone but Elisha won’t leave him. Elijah hands his cloak to Elisha, and Elisha witnesses chariots of fire descending from the sky to take Elijah to heaven. Again, the cloak symbolizes the authority of Elisha. 

Ahab had influenced the whole northern kingdom of Israel to worship idols, and the king and the people didn’t listen to or respect God’s prophets, even though Elijah continually did miracles to prove true worship. Now Elisha had the authority, a double portion according to the Bible, and he also was called to stand up for truth in a sinful and idolatrous society. 

Right after Elisha had taken up Elijah’s mantle and performed a miracle at Jericho, he traveled to Bethel. On the way, a group of boys came out and mocked him, saying, “Go on up, you baldhead!” In 2 Kings 2:23-24, it is recorded: “He 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.”

Why Did Elisha Call the Bear to Maul the Boys?

The incident where Elisha called upon bears to maul a group of boys is one of the more perplexing and controversial events in the Bible.

In context, the mockery directed at Elisha was not merely about his physical appearance but represented a broader disrespect towards God’s appointed messenger. In the context of ancient Israel, prophets were revered as God’s spokespeople. Not everyone had the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, so God anointed specific individuals to speak his messages. The role of prophet harkens back to Noah and Moses, a serious spiritual lineage. Insulting a prophet was equivalent to insulting God. In this light, the boys' jeers can be seen as a severe act of blasphemy.

Additionally, Bethel become a center of idolatry under King Jeroboam, who set up a golden calf there (1 Kings 12:28-33). Bethel means “house of God,” named so by the patriarch Jacob years ago after he had a vision there. While Jacob slept, God gave him a dream confirming the Abrahamic covenant and showing him a staircase to heaven where angelic beings traveled. Yet the Israelites had made it a place of false worship. This idolatrous backdrop highlights the spiritual rebellion pervasive in the region. The boys’ behavior reflected the community's disregard for God’s covenant, and the punishment served as a stark reminder of the consequences of such disrespect.

Our view of the story depends upon other clues. The bear mauls “forty-two” of these boys, which means there were more present. Perhaps this attack physically threatened Elisha, a mob scene. Elijah had violent encounters with soldiers and priests of Baal in Israel. The bear protects the prophet from a violent event. Also, part of God’s judgment against a land or nation would be the rise of wild beasts, a symbol of chaos ruling over them instead of order, often in response to idolatry. “They will be wasted with hunger and devoured by plague and bitter destruction; I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with the poison of serpents of the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24).

The harsh response underscores the seriousness with which God views the protection of his prophets and the maintenance of respect for divine authority. In a culture where communal values and reverence for God were paramount, this incident reinforced the necessity of honoring God’s chosen representatives.

What Can We Learn from This Story Today?

The story of Elisha calling bears to maul a group of boys in 2 Kings 2:23-24 is striking and often challenging to understand. Yet, this narrative carries several profound lessons for Christians today, emphasizing themes of respect, reverence, and the seriousness of mocking God's representatives.

One primary lesson is the importance of respecting those who serve as God’s messengers. Elisha, as a prophet, represented God’s voice and authority. The boys’ mockery wasn’t merely about Elisha’s physical appearance; it symbolized a deeper disrespect towards God. As Christians, we are reminded to honor and respect our spiritual leaders and the roles they play. Hebrews 13:17 advises, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” This respect fosters unity and harmony within the Christian community.

The severe consequence faced by the boys underscores the seriousness with which God views blasphemy and irreverence. This incident teaches us to approach our faith with a sense of reverence and awe. In today’s context, this means guarding our speech and actions to ensure they honor God and reflect our devotion. Ephesians 4:29 emphasizes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Our words should edify and reflect our respect for God and His teachings.

Elisha's reaction and the subsequent divine intervention demonstrates the importance of acknowledging God's authority. Christians are called to recognize and submit to God’s sovereignty in all aspects of life. This submission is not out of fear but out of love and reverence for a God who is just and holy. Proverbs 1:7 teaches, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Reverence for God is foundational to a wise and righteous life.

The incident also highlights the role of community values in shaping behavior. The boys' disrespect reflected the spiritual malaise in Bethel, a center of idolatry and rebellion. As Christians, we are called to cultivate communities that uphold and reinforce godly values. This involves teaching and modeling respect, love, and reverence for God. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 instructs, "These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." By instilling these values in our families and communities, we create environments that honor God.

Today, every born again believer has the Holy Spirit, and all are encouraged to speak as the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11). We face challenges and threats, as well, but God promises to protect us from evil. Romans 8:31 declares, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” When we walk with Christ through the Spirit, we can trust in God’s omnipotent protection. God empowers us to withstand and overcome any adversaries. Through faith, God’s protection surrounds and sustains his children.


Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Paul Souders

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.