It features one baldhead, two bears and 42 lads, and Eli Matthewson has a theory about it.
The bible is a big old book. Much like Game of Thrones, only the truly committed have made it all the way through. Also much like Game of Thrones, we’re still waiting for the hyped-up final part. I’ll be honest: I haven’t read the whole thing. But I have read just enough to uncover the buzziest two verses you’ll find in there. Here is a small but memorable part of the story of the Prophet Elisha:
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!”
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.
Obviously, credit where credit is due: huge diversity win for the bible here. It’s a pretty men-obsessed book, but here we get two female characters, who have a major impact on the story! (Obviously it would be better if they weren’t bears, but still a win.) And yet, despite that, one can’t help but ask – what the heck is going on here?
I was raised in the church and it was a major part of my life growing up, and I’m pretty sure this story never featured in any service I attended. That said, I wasn’t the best listener, I was much more into the “moshing-at-Parachute” part of Christianity than the “hour-long-sermons-with-no jokes” part, so I may have missed it. Since leaving and becoming a member of the queer community (huge few weeks for us – the rainbow parliament and Carole Baskin!) I’ve always been struck by the way the few small verses about homosexuality have inspired hundreds and thousands of passionate sermons while others, like the one that suggests you should gather the whole town to throw stones at your daughter if she is not a virgin, don’t get so much publicity.
In these two verses 42 children receive the pretty nasty punishment of “mauling by bears” for using the not particularly creative insult “baldhead”. These 42 kids are not mentioned before this moment or ever again, and, as bad is bullying is, I just don’t think it’s bad enough that you should get immediately eaten. Given God’s reputation for answering prayers in his own, mysterious time this immediate action to support little baldhead makes it seem like he must have had a pretty good reason to punish these youths so quickly.
I’ve searched across the internet, and deeply confused my Facebook algorithm, to try and find a reasonable interpretation of this story. There isn’t one. A lot of time is spent arguing that the word “youths” could mean men up to the age of 28, but I would argue that it sounds more like they are 12 and also even 28 year-olds probably don’t deserve this. Over at Catholic.com they explain that these youths may have been running some type of illegal water cartel, and their insensitivity to male-pattern baldness was just what pushed it over the edge. They also add a theory that god thought Elisha overreacted and that’s why he was ill later in his life (a brutal move by god considering it definitely seems like he gave the bears the go-ahead).
This Jordan Peterson loving Youtuber makes an obscure comparison to the Me Too movement and uses the term “she bears” a lot. Christian blog 1517 suggests context around the location this story takes place suggests these bullies were idol-worshippers, trying to cast Christ’s prophets out of their town, and thus this is punishment for their idolatry. Christian Index cites a pretty racist-sounding comparison of these youths to “a serious public danger, quite as grave as the large youth gangs that roam the ghetto sections of our modern American cities.” None of this is good enough to me. Two bears ate over 40 kids. What are we meant to learn?
Here’s my take: I reckon this story could be a self-aware parable on the sensitivity of old, straight, white men. Perhaps instead of siding with baldhead, we are meant to observe how the ego of a powerful prophet can be so easily broken. Despite being able to perform miracles and having the all-powerful god on his side, it doesn’t take much to upset this guy. And by extension, when this straight-white-man-in-power gets upset he enlists the help of his fellow straight-white-man-in-power, God, who can’t resist pushing his emergency bear trigger right away. Maybe this is a story about how men are often actually too emotional to be given positions of power, but expect they will be able to handle it because they get too many examples of other men in power. Maybe it’s about the Todd Muller effect. Maybe?
Look, I don’t know if my interpretation is correct. In fact, it’s almost definitely not. But I also can’t see a reasonable explanation for this wild story. And so, to anyone of faith who has a legitimate defence of this buzzy part of the bible, can I say, with absolute sincerity: sound off in the comments, babes.