Thursday, May 19, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Prophet Elisha and the She-Bears

Relief from the Arch of Titus

Question: "What’s going on with the she-bears Elisha called up when he cursed the 42 “youths” (more likely young adults) in 2 Kings 2:23-25? Why was it two she-bears?"

It is correct that the impression that these were toddlers is a false impression, and it should be noted that the Prophet Elisha is not said to have called for the bears to attack the children, but rather to curse them. And it may well be that he was pronouncing the curses of the Covenant for those who disobey:
"And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate" (Leviticus 26:21-22).
For more on the background of this story, see "Question...wasn't Elisha very cruel when he sent those bears against those little kids who were teasing him about being bald?"

But to answer the question regarding the meaning of the two she-bears, St. Caesarius of Arles has a very interesting explanation:
"Now according to the letter, dearly beloved, we are to believe, as mentioned above, that blessed Elisha was aroused with God's zeal to correct the people, rather than moved by unwholesome anger, when he permitted the Jewish children to be torn to pieces. His purpose was not revenge but their amendment, and in this fact, too, the passion of our Lord and Savior was plainly prefigured. Just as those undisciplined children shouted to blessed Elisha, "Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead," so at the time of the passion the insane Jews with impious words shouted to Christ the true Elisha, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" What does "Go up, you baldhead" mean except: Ascend the cross on the site of Calvary? Notice further, brothers, that just as under Elisha forty-two boys were killed, so forty-two years after the passion of our Lord two bears came, Vespasian and Titus, and besieged Jerusalem. Also consider, brothers, that the siege of Jerusalem took place on the Paschal solemnity. Thus, by the just judgment of God the Jews who had assembled from all the provinces suffered the punishment they deserved, on the very days on which they had hung the true Elisha, our Lord and Savior, on the cross. Indeed, at that time, that is, in the forty-second year after the passion of our Lord, the Jews as if driven by the hand of God assembled in Jerusalem according to their custom to celebrate the Passover. We read in history that three million Jews were gathered in Jerusalem; eleven hundred thousand of them are read to have been destroyed by the sword of hunger, and one hundred thousand young men were led to Rome in triumph. For two years that city was besieged, and so great was the number of the dead who were cast out of the city that their bodies equaled the height of the walls. This destruction was prefigured by those two bears that are said to have torn to pieces forty-two boys for deriding blessed Elisha. Then was fulfilled what the prophet had said, "The boar from the forest lays it waste, and the beasts of the field feed on it [Psalm 79:14 [80:13]],"for as was indicated, after forty-two years that wicked nation received what it deserved from the two bears, Vespasian and Titus" (Sermon 127:2)  quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. V: 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Marco Conti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 149f).