23 And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. 24 And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. 2 Kings 2:23-24 (KJV)
The story of children being mauled by bears after they mocked Elisha is a bit disconcerting. It’s certainly not one to put in a bedtime storybook, is it? But is the story teaching a lesson to children, or to the next generation of leaders?
Have we been teaching this story to the wrong audience?
I was taught this story in Sunday school, but I can’t remember ever hearing it preached to adults in any context. I was told that the moral of this story was that I should never make fun of people, especially not the preacher! But is this story even about the children, or is it about Elisha? In focusing on the lesson to children, we’re perhaps missing some valuable lessons about the challenges facing a new generation of leaders, society’s perception of these challenges, and how the new leadership should respond. Consider:
New leaders will be (wrongly) asked to measure up against leaders who have gone before.
Like Elisha, we are often compared with the leadership that went before… “Go up…” they cry. “Elisha – if you were really dedicated, you could call fire down from heaven.” The truth is, Elisha’s miracles will not be near as glamorous, earth-shaking, or as notable as Elijah’s. But he will perform twice as many miracles, and his miracles will meet the deepest needs of his generation.
In spite of his success – Elisha always lived in the mighty Elijah’s shadow. Years later, he was still recognized as “He who washed the hands of Elijah”. Even in the New Testament, Elijah is mentioned 30 times to Elisha’s 1. Apparently, the comparison never stops…
New leaders will do something very different with the same anointing.
Early on in our ministry, we may try to imitate the generation before with some success – just as Elisha slaps the mantle into the Jordan river crying “Where is the God of Elijah?”. But after having proved to ourselves and a few key people that we have the goods, our ministry will look nothing like that of the generation before. Elijah’s ministry was one of proving God. Elisha’s was one of showing God’s love. Was one better, or more valuable than the other? No! I thank God for the generations before me that prepared me – that prepared my world – for what God would do with me.
The Hebrews 11 principle applies to a certain extent in every generation:
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Heb 11:39-40 (NIV)
I was handed a work in progress. I must take it a bit farther… The generation before is not perfect without me. Nor will my work be perfected without the generation that follows me.
Elisha’s first work of ministry was healing the waters of Jericho… No earth-shaking prayer. No fire from heaven – just a new bowl and some salt. (Was this the first implementation of a water softener?) The waters were decontaminated, and the land around Jericho once again became productive.
The challenges facing young leaders today are often perceived as benign
I’m not being put in jail, or burned at the stake. I don’t have King Ahab or Queen Jezebel threatening my life. I’m not battling with all of those bad, bad, false prophets. All I have to face is a bunch of children calling me bald.
Really?? Is that all this is about? Or is just the perception that we have? The English translators did this passage some injustice. But perhaps even Elisha’s contemporaries, who originally recorded the story that made its way into the Bible, did not view this as all that terrible.
“Little children” is perhaps a misleading translation. The Hebrew expression neurim qetannim is best rendered “young lads” or “young men”. These were boys from twelve to thirty years old. Other uses:
- Isaac at his sacrifice (in his 20’s?) in Genesis 22:12
- Joseph at 17 in Genesis 37:2
- Soldiers in 1 Kings 20:14-15…
Furthermore – this was not just a handful of young men. Think about how large this group had to be originally if two bears could maul 42 of them! It’s not like they were in a cage with the bear – the very size of the mob kept 42 from escaping. These young men knew about Elijah, and the miracle that had happened. Thus their cry for Elisha to “Go up”. What we are witnessing is a large group of young men – possibly akin to the gangs of our larger cities – who are very knowingly defying God and His new leader.
How should we respond to those who challenge us?
Elisha’s response is interesting… Most readers assume that his response was harsh. But we have to be careful not to read anything into this passage that is not there. Elijah did not call the bears out of the woods. What did he do?
- He turned
- He considered them
- He decided that they were nothing (he “cursed” them)
This is the meaning of the word “cursed” as found here. In means “to take lightly, or to slight”. To “diminish”.
- Heb. Kalas – to ridicule, to mock – this is what the “children” did to Elisha
- Heb. Kalal – to lessen, to regard lightly (word is often translated “take lightly” – and after the flood, the waters “abated”)… This is what Elisha did in return (cursed)
14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town… 16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Matt 10:14,16 (NIV)
So – when our challenges come (and they will)… When we are ridiculed…. What we should NOT do is react in like fashion. Trust the Lord to take care of things… Shake the dust off our feet. Listen to what people are saying, consider it carefully – but ultimately if it does not match what God is calling us to do, simply Kalal the critics. Take what they are saying lightly, and let God deal with them.