I wouldn’t soon forget that Sunday School lesson. The artwork told the whole story. There stood a prophet with a rapidly receding hairline, teeth gritted, his arm waving menacingly. Before him was a group of boys, just about old enough for T-ball, writhing on the blood-splattered ground as two she-bears gnawed and tore at their limbs.
The moral of the Bible story from 2 Kings 2:23-25 was this: pay honor to your elders, your church leaders, or you too might suffer a similar fate from the God who will not be mocked—or let his prophets be mocked.
As I reflect on this story some 40-odd years later, it seems I’ve spent just as much of my life unlearning bad biblical interpretation as I’ve spent learning good interpretation. What has come to my aid are three indispensable tools:  Knowledge of the original languages (in this case, Hebrew);  understanding where smaller stories fit within the larger biblical story; and  something the rabbis called ma‘aseh avot siman l’vanim (“the actions of the fathers are a sign for the sons”).
Let me use each of these to retell this story in a way that explodes the ridiculous interpretation I learned in Sunday School, and piece that rubble back together into an interpretation that accords with the rest of Scripture.
The Hebrew Does Not Say “Little Children” Were Mauled by Bears
As much as I love much of the language of the King James Version, the translators really botched this one (as do many modern translations). When Elisha drew near to Bethel, and a group of people mocked him, many versions say these were “little children” (KJV), “boys” (NIV), or “small boys” (ESV). The Hebrew phrase is a combination of the noun na‘ar and the adjective qatan. What do these mean?
The word na‘ar, which is often rendered as children/boys, has a broad range of meaning. It can denote everyone from baby Moses (Exod. 2:6) to fully-grown Absalom (2 Sam. 14:21). A na‘ar can also designate a servant (Gen. 22:3), armor-bearer (Judges 9:54), king’s official (2 Kings 19:6), and—significantly for us—a priest (1 Sam. 2:17).
The Hebrew adjective, qatan, means small, little, or young. The question is: how young? This same Hebrew combination, na‘ar qatan, is used to describe a mature rebel named Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:17). Likewise, when Solomon takes the throne at about the age of twenty, he describes himself as a na‘ar qaton (1 Kings 3:7). Obviously, he and Hadad were not elementary-aged, little boys!
Thus, at a bare minimum, we can say it’s highly unlikely the people who mocked Elisha were “little children” or “small boys.” It’s much more probable that [a] these were young men and [b] they were called na’ar not in reference to their sex (male) but their office (servants).
How Does This Small Story Fit Within the Big Story?
If you want to understand a Bible story, pay careful attention to geography. This story takes place at Bethel. At this time, Bethel had become one of the two main worship centers for the northern kingdom. And not just “worship” but rebellious, covenant-breaking, idolatrous worship. Jeroboam founded Dan (in the north) and Bethel (in the south) as his kingdom’s two alternatives to Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:25-33). He set up golden calves at these sites, ordained non-Aaronic priests, changed the time of the festivals, and Baal worship soon reigned supreme.
Bethel became basically one big uplifted middle finger to everything Moses had commanded.
When God’s prophet approached this idolatrous city, the young men mocked him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” Not only were they ridiculing his lack of hair (which, in the Old Testament, was often associated with a skin disease), they were telling him to go away, fly away, be gone from this life, like his predecessor Elijah had done. Keep in mind that, right before this, Elijah had “gone up” to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2).
This small story is part of the bigger story of the ongoing war between God and his worship, and false gods and their worship. Elisha represented the one, these mocking young men the other. In other words, this is a small battle in the ongoing war between light and darkness, orthodoxy and idolatry, God and gods. It has as much to do with Elisha’s bald head as the Exodus has to do with gathering straw for Pharaoh. Both are minor details in the major drama.
The Deeds of Joshua Were the Pattern for Elisha
When the rabbis said maaseh avot siman l’vanim (“the actions of the fathers are a sign for the sons”), they meant what God did for and with the fathers of old, he would repeat in future generations. In this story, Elisha is repeating the pattern established by Joshua. How so?
After the death of Moses, Joshua took over leadership of Israel, left the wilderness, miraculously crossed the Jordan on dry ground, and led Israel in a campaign to destroy the idolaters of Canaan. Likewise, after the departure of Elijah, Elisha takes over the prophetic office, leaves the wilderness, repeats the miracle of crossing the Jordan on dry ground (2 Kings 2:14), and enters the land to go to war with idolaters at the city of Bethel.
Also, just as God used hornets (Exod. 23:28; Josh. 24:12) to attack the original idolaters in Canaan, so he used two female bears to attack these new idolaters in his land. Elisha pronounced a curse upon them, and that curse took the form of tooth and claw.
One more thing: I mentioned above that na‘ar is often a title for official, steward, servant, or priest. Because this happened at Bethel, I suspect these were forty-two priestly servants attached to that city’s idolatrous shrine. They mocked and ridiculed Elisha because he opposed everything they and their god stood for.
Wrapping Up: A Lamb Not a Bear
This memorable story, far from being a moralistic tale about honoring elders or preachers, is a brief glimpse into the age-old war that began in a garden and ended at an empty tomb. Bears may play a significant role here, but the real animal in this overarching story is a serpent. His slithering and slandering tongue was inside the mouths of these mockers. The god whom they served, Baal, was just a mask for Satan. And their fate was a preview of the serpent’s eventual fate. Except it wouldn’t be a bear that mauled this serpent, but a lamb—the Lamb of God—who would take him down. That Lamb’s victory is for Elisha, and for all of us, who live in his resurrection kingdom that will have no end.