Elisha’s She-Bears: The Power of Mothers and Judgement in the House of God

Can you lead forth a contellation in its season,
And guide the Bear with her sons?

Job 38:32

As someone keenly interested in the role of the natural world in redemptive history, I am transfixed by the Bible’s few references to bears. With the bear, we meet the fury of wicked rulers, God’s jealousy for the purity of His house, and the mighty muscle of the mother. Let’s see how.

It’s important to remember that just as with other animals in the Bible, the bear’s meaning has less to do with scientific accuracy and more to do with Hebrew cultural mythology. To God’s people, bears were seen as powerful instruments of destruction, enacted through their paws, claws and teeth.

In Daniel’s vision of the four great monarchies, the Medo-Persian empire is represented by a bear, “raised up on one side, three ribs in its mouth between its teeth” (Dan. 7:5). Elsewhere, the Bible depicts bears as growling for justice (Isa. 59:11), lying in wait like a lion in hiding (Lam. 3:10) and charging in rage like a wicked ruler over a helpless people (Prov. 28:15, Am. 5:19). Like cheetahs, wolves, vultures and eagles, bears represent the unbridled wrath of wicked rulers.

We find this meaning made fuller in Revelation 13:1-6, where John witnesses a beast who wages war using the power of the wildest of animals, the leopard, the lion and the bear. The beast’s mouth opens in arrogance and blasphemy against the name of God and His tabernacle. But see how the beast’s power is tethered, its authority to destroy limited to a symbolic period of 42 months. 

Indeed, God is ruler over the bear’s wildness, and bears enact His own holy vengeance (Hosea 13:8). More than this, in the Bible’s story of bears, it is the mother bear who carries most of this meaning. In 2 Kings 2, responding to Elisha’s curse, two she-bears emerge from the forest and tear apart 42 (!) young men who’ve mocked the prophet’s authority ( 2 Kings 2:24).

I’ve written about this before, but the details in this story deserve more attention. Yet there is no exact science to this highly symbolic imagery – let’s be careful here. For this is a moment of huge significance in this part of God’s story.

It helps to take a step back and get the lay of the land. Take a moment and read 2 Kings 2, which recounts the ebb and flow of a journey to Bethel, to Jericho, across the Jordan and back again. As Elijah and Elisha walk the first iteration of this journey, twice do the sons of the prophets tell Elisha that the Lord would take away his master.
And twice Elisha replies, “Yes, I know. Be still” (v. 3,5; see also Neh. 8:11, Ps. 4:4, Ps. 46:10).

At the heart of this journey is Elijah’s passing on the prophetic mantle to Elisha (v. 11-12). This momentous occasion prefigures the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist, who would come before the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).

Elijah’s Secession: The Chiastic Structure of 2 Kings 2

And as an immediate sign of the authority conferred to him by Elijah, Elisha lays the mantle over the waters of the Jordan (v. 14), which divide, and he crosses over. This is his first miracle, and Elisha carries on the journey in reverse, returning to Jericho (2:19-22), Canaanite city of palm trees, where he performs his second miracle, purifying the waters with salt (2 Cor. 4:7, Matt. 5:13) . This life-giving act echoes Moses’s similar sign at the waters of Marah (Ex. 15:22-26). Another sign that Elisha is a true prophet of God, from whom living water springs (Jer. 2:13, Jn 7:38).

Elisha journeys on, and all that has come before lays the groundwork for the miracle of the two mother bears, directing their vengeance against the youths who mock Elisha’s authority and even more, the sovereignty of God.

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. 
25 He went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

2 Kings 2:23-25

As I wrote in my last post about this text, in a short space of time, weak leadership had already corrupted the minds of the city’s youth. The leaders had not heeded Elisha’s twice command to be still. And these lads had now heard the spreading story of Elijah’s ascension. They had already witnessed and themselves gleefully watered the seeds of disbelief sown by the sons of the prophets. How could Elijah have ascended? And why was this weird, bald man left behind? Perhaps he imagined it all.

And the poisonous fruit of all these murmurings? Ridicule of God’s prophet, which poured out of these lads’ mouths and which would later appear in those of King Jehu’s servants as they would also mock, saying, “Why did this mad fellow come to you?” (2 Kings 9:11).

Elisha’s summoning of the two she-bears is the third miracle of his ministry, sealing his calling as a type of Christ, bearer of a double portion of the Spirit (2:9). And we must here note the place where Elisha rebukes evil workers, not at Jericho, in Canaanite territory, but at Bethel. Truly, “judgement begins in the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17).

This is sobering stuff. We learn more by looking ahead to where God again evokes the violent fury of the female bear when robbed of her young, in the words of the prophet Hosea. There, He shows us that the Creator of the universe will not accept His people’s divided devotion. Rather, for those who take His blessings yet become proud and forget their Maker, like a bear robbed of her cubs, God will attack them and rip them open. Like a lion He will devour them – a wild animal will tear them apart. (Hos. 13:4-8).

But here is where we must remember that when God makes use of the might of mothers, His love is as fiercely protective as it is holy. In 2 Samuel 17:8, Absalom’s advisor Hushai says, of King David,

“You know your father and his men;
they are fighters, and as fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs.”

This comparison, David as a mother bear, is particularly apt since, as a boy, David had defended his flocks against hungry bears (1 Sam. 17:34-37). But now, having defeated the bear, the shepherd wields the power of the mother bear, in protection of God’s people, a sign of His kingship. A sign he is fit for leadership in God’s house.

In this, we see God’s character towards those whom He calls by name, towards those He loves, fierce in his safekeeping, yet gentle among us, like a mother caring for her little children (1 Thess. 2:7). As Elisha twice told the sons of the prophets, like a weaned child with its mother, in God’s presence our soul finds calm and quiet (Psalm 131:2). In His Holy mountain, the cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox (Isa. 11:7).

Mount Carmel, where Elisha goes after his third miracle, where he makes his home.

 

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