Elijah had carried a prophetic mantle and now it was his time to leave the earth. It was clear to all that Elijah was soon to depart. So Elijah asked his protege, Elisha, what he could do for him. Elisha asked for a double-anointing that had been upon Elijah. And while Elijah said it was a hard thing to do, the LORD granted that to Elisha.
Previously when the two of them had gone to cross the Jordan, more than likely when it was in flood stage, Elijah had rolled up his cloak and struck the waters. The waters had parted and the two of them crossed on dry ground. Now as Elisha had freshly received his double portioned anointing when Elijah was taken up to heaven, Elisha did the same thing. He struck the waters and they separated. It was at this point that others began to see that Elisha had been given Elijah’s mantle.
The first thing he did was answer a complaint about the water. The people of the city told him that the water was bad and the land unfruitful. So Elisha performed a miracle in which he poured salt into the water and it was healed. The water was cleansed and once again became viable to the people.
And then there’s that strange story. Elisha went to up to Bethel and some boys came out and harrassed him, “Go up, baldy! Go up, baldy!” (1 Kings 2:23). Elisha turned and cursed them and two female bears came out of the woods and mauled and killed 42 of them.
Are these little boys or children or what in the world is going on here? Is he starting his ministry with the death of 42 children?
There are a few issues that get lost in translation. The first is the word for “children.” It can mean “young person” which can be youth or young early aged adults. The more likely translation is that the “youth” here are young people, perhaps in their 20’s.
It’s also important to know that this wasn’t just a small pack of young men and women. If 42 were killed it meant that there were at least significantly more than that. This was a demonstration, a protest, and it wasn’t just mockery of young people.
Third they were telling him to “Go up” much like his predecessor Elijah. This was in a sense saying we don’t want you and we reject you as God’s prophet. Much like Ahaziah in the time, they were rejecting God by showing contempt for him.
This is not Elisha calling down fire upon a bunch of obnoxious little children. Rather it is a full on protest and rejection of God and his chosen man, showing him great contempt for who he was and who he represented. It also very well may have been a deadly confrontation.
Israel was God’s covenant people. They were not an ordinary nation or an ordinary people. And they were violating the covenant they had made with God. If Elisha had done nothing, they might have killed him. But even if they hadn’t, he would have started his ministry with no fear of the LORD upon him or among the people of Israel. It would have been disastrous for all.
When there is no fear of God in the land it is a dangerous thing, especially when it is among God’s people.