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Go Up Baldy: The Curse of Baldness

9th June 2006

Claude Mariottini, in a post on the “Old Testament and Baldness” linked to an article from the Mail & Guardian by Nicholas Lezard on The Horror of Going Bald. As one who at forty years still has a thick, lush, head of hair, such articles don’t concern me. The article did make reference, however, to one of my favourite(?) disturbing(!) Bible stories: the story in 2Kings 2:23-25 where Elisha calls a curse down on some children who are taunting his baldness. Here is the quote from the news article:

Baldness is a curse that demands all the fortitude at one’s disposal. It is a curse not only because it looks as though something biblical has happened to your head — it is also the way it is seen as comical, both as a fact, and as an occasion for comical reaction. The Moabites, reckless high-livers who made too many incursions into Israeli territory in the Old Testament, were afflicted, according to Jeremiah, by baldness. At one point Elisha is mocked by children (“There came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald headâ€?). Later God sends a couple of she-bears from the woods and they tear 42 of the Moabites to pieces.

What I thought was odd, was the reference to the mauled children as “Moabites.” Now, perhaps I am wrong, but the context is pretty clear that the children were from Bethel, an Israelite town. While Bethel may have shifted in political ownership between the tribe of Benjamin and Ephraim, it was never Moabite. Here is the biblical passage in question:



23 He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!� 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (NRSV)

So the 42 “small boys” mauled by the bears were fellow Israelites. The biggest question surrounding this passage is “what do we make of it?” There are a number of disturbing passages in the Hebrew Bible. Many of them are horrifying illustrations of human depravity (e.g., Judges 19), which don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the deity of the Bible. But in this passage, it is God who is the implied agent behind the bears’ actions. Elisha curses the young boys “in the name of Yahweh” and then the bears go about their business.

The problematic nature of this passage has led to much exegetical gymnastics by commentators trying to make this passage less morally offensive. Many suppose the boys taunted Elisha at the instigation of their parents and that the who event was to be a prophetic warning to the inhabitants of Bethel. Others suggest the “young boys” were teenage ruffians, though the Hebrew makes this unlikely (while נער “lad” “boy” by itself may suggest adolecents, it is qualified by קטן “small,” which suggest they were on the younger end of things). Still others suggest that by taunting him to lit. “go up” they are wishing for his death (or at least his departure from this earth, perhaps similar to Elijah’s). Most of the explanations focus on the idea that when the boys taunted the prophet of Yahweh, it was tantamount to taunting God himself, and that their mauling is somehow justified. Obviously the adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” doesn’t apply to prophets! (This to me is the real problem with this passage, no matter how bad these boys were, their judgement sure seems to me to be out of proportion).

Any moral justification aside, God using animals to bring about his judgement is found elsewhere in Kings (1 Kgs 13:20–24 and 20:35–36). This is also akin to other extreme judgements in connection with the violation of the sacred (e.g., the touching of the Ark of the Covenant in 2Sam 6). Perhaps there is something in the many explanations offered about this passage. While this may be the case, I tend to think this is just one of those passages that reveal the dark side of the God of the Bible and it is better to let stand, rather than offer poor explanations to make it more morally palatable.

What do you think?

P.S. The South-Park-esque comic about this passage I mentioned in a previous post may be found here (be warned; the comic is twisted).


12 Responses to “Go Up Baldy: The Curse of Baldness”

  1. none Says:

    “This to me is the real problem with this passage, no matter how bad these boys were, their judgement sure seems to me to be out of proportion”

    You’re dealing with a holy God here not Santa Claus who in the final analysis, doesn’t care if you are naughty or nice.

  2. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Fair enough, though the boys don’t say anything about God — they just taunt Elisha. When you think of how many prophets of God were persecuted and killed in the Hebrew Bible and in many cases God did nothing (at least not right away), the notion that you can’t taunt a prophet of God seems ridiculous.

  3. None Says:

    If a prophet’s main role was to call God’s covenant people back to faithfulness to Himself and if part of the covenant was to teach one’s children covenant faithfulness (and I note the fate of disobedient children in the Sinai covenant) and that prophets were God’s spokesperson in life, action and word then the fact that little children taunt a prophet of God could indicate the extent of covenant unfaithfulness.

    The fact that the author/editor indicates that Elijah prayed but the bears devoured the kids hinting that this was God’s own judgment…

    That is how I would put it together.

    Taunting God’s prophet in this context would be indicative of thumbing your nose at God.

    (And I note too that God was quite severe in sending out the Levites to slay even their brethren, and that he was just as severe with Ananias and Sapphira etc etc. There is a pattern here throughout scripture where in each period of history, God just kind of reminds His people just who they are messing with…

  4. None Says:

    Sorry I meant Elisha.

  5. None Says:

    Apologies, one more point: is the issue here the taunt of his baldness or the fact that they asked him to “go away”. Now back to the World Cup.

  6. slaveofone Says:

    Is it wise to make anything more than speculative judgements about obviously incomplete or fragmentary narratives?

    Or maybe this event is supposed to parallel something else in the larger narrative, like, for instance, how the description of wine going out of Nabal is there to parallel David’s curse on those who “piss agains the wall”, even though “pissing aginst the wall” actually refers to Nabal despising David and his men even though they stood as a wall of defense for him.

  7. anonymous Says:

    God is perfect and holy while all people are imperfect sinners. therefore, we will never know the ways of God unless He reveals them to us.

  8. Atheist Advocate Says:

    I really don’t care if this god ever reveals his ways. What a cop-out load of crap!!!
    He is the cruelest mass murderer in the universe and I demand he turn himself in to the nearest police station where he should be judged for his atrocities!
    He is the one who laid down the laws that he can’t seem to adhere to. If he knows everything, then he is aware of this ‘citizens arrest’ and he should turn himself in. He is being charged with thousands of counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder by leading the crusades. And, Murder for hire, for giving nut jobs forty virgins for blowing people up with suicide bombs! I DEMAND JUSTICE for all the innocent people who have suffered at his hand! Turn yourself in you wacko! BTW, after the trial you will surely ‘Go up Baldy!’

  9. Concerned Says:

    I pray for your soul Athiest Advocate, I pray that you are not devoured by the true King, the Lord Of Hosts.

  10. Agagooga Says:

    “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. And, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.” – Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

  11. HeadRoaster Says:

    Atheist Advocate- you aren’t an atheist if you’re that mad at God…you’re mad at God. If you were a true atheist (Like santa and the easter bunny) you’d just giggle and find something more confusing to say.
    Concerned- he/she already knows that and it’s that attitude from other Christians that’s probably turned him/her off of God to begin with. Realize that God is a god of love…that he IS love according to his own declaration Telling someone that you are praying for them in this fashion is NOT LOVE. It is fear mongering and brow-beating, neither of which are things which the God of Abraham, Issac, or Jacob would have done.
    Agagooga- Don’t you realize that it is a record of HUMAN events?? It is a history of the wickedness that mankind has done to corrupt and brutalize himself. If the man who doesn’t study history is doomed to repeat it then the surest way to continue that corruption and brutality forever is to maintain the attitude that we shouldn’t ever admit the behaviour existed! I don’t know what world you live in, but in my world, the evening news portrays a world where your viewpoint (i take it you agree with paine) is definitely the most popular and violence, horror, and trauma are prevalent.

    about the story that started this…man, that’s hard.

  12. Zab Says:

    Sorry, dont know why the hyperlink didnt display

    http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qmeanelisha.html