The Bible Says What? ‘A prophet causes a bear to kill 42 youths’
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The Bible Says What? ‘A prophet causes a bear to kill 42 youths’

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild takes a controversial topic from the Torah and applies a Reform Jewish response

A tale rarely found in books of Bible stories for children is that of Elisha and the bears.

Elisha, companion and successor to Elijah, was a miracle worker par excellence. The Book of Kings records him splitting the Jordan in order to pass through and cleansing the polluted and toxic waters of the city of Jericho.

He enables a poor woman to have an endless supply of oil in order to pay her debts, helps a Shunammite woman who had shown him hospitality to have a son, and then resurrected the boy who died suddenly.

He turned poisonous soup into nourishing broth for starving people and later fed 10 hungry people with 20 loaves of bread… and there was still food left over.  He cures Na’aman of leprosy and causes a borrowed axe that has fallen into the water to rise and be found.

Casually, rarely calling on the name of God, Elisha performs marvels, apparently just because he can. There seems to be no great prophetic agenda in his actions, though many appear to be related to healing of either individuals or communities.

But the strangest story happens when, on the way to BeitEl from Jericho, some youths come from the town and jeer, mocking his baldness. He turns around, looks at them, and curses them in the name of God.

At that moment two female bears come out of the forest and maul the lads, killing 42 of them. The text laconically reports that Elisha goes on his way to Mt Carmel and Samaria.

What is the lesson? Midrash tells us he is punished, but the Bible simply records the events. The rabbis try to explain the story in various ways – all unconvincingly – as a morality tale.

But perhaps the moral is simple: don’t mock people’s appearance – you never know what it might spark!

Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years

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