As a man who has been balding noticeably, at least to me, since about my mid-20’s, and from a family where male pattern baldness is the usual pattern, the passage in 2 Kings 2:23-24 strikes me rather personally: “Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.” But while this story certainly has some personal relevance, it also provokes a lot of questions. One of the most obvious questions, of course, is whether it is acceptable for Christians to curse others, as Elisha (clearly a man of God) cursed the at least forty-two teens or young men who were mocking him. In examining this passage, and the larger questions that it provokes, we will follow a familiar method . First we will look at the larger context to see what this passage is really saying. Then, we will look at a comparable passage that is often viewed in conjunction with this one, where David was cursed by Shimei during the rebellion of Absalom, and finally we will look at the relevance of cursing for Christians by looking at a couple of comparable New Testament passages, before commenting on whether, and in what circumstances, it would be acceptable for a Christian to curse anyone.
First, let us look at the context of this statement. Even more than most passages of the Bible properly understanding this passage requires a lot of context, namely, the entirety of 2 Kings 2. So, with that said, let us look at 2 Kings 2:1-25 with several interrelated questions in mind: What was the situation that Elisha was facing with these young men? What were the young men saying or doing that led Elisha to curse them? Was Elisha justified under any grounds in cursing them as he did? Let us begin:
“And it came to pass, when the Lord was about to take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal. Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, please, for the Lord has sent me on to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” So they went down to Bethel. Now the sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that the Lord will take away your master from over you today?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent!” Then Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here, please, for the Lord has sent me on to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” So they came to Jericho. Now the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the Lord will take away your master from over you today?” So he answered, “Yes, I know; keep silent!” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, please, for the Lord has sent me on to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” So the two of them went on. And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went and stood facing them at a distance, while the two of them stood by the Jordan. Now Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the water; and it was divided this way and that, so that the two of them crossed over on dry ground. And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, and said, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the water, it was divided this way and that; and Elisha crossed over.
Now when the sons of the prophets who were from Jericho saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him, and bowed to the ground before him. 16 Then they said to him, “Look now, there are fifty strong men with your servants. Please let them go and search for your master, lest perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has taken him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send anyone.” But when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, “Send them!” Therefore they sent fifty men, and they searched for three days but did not find him. And when they came back to him, for he had stayed in Jericho, he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?” Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Please notice, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the ground barren.” And he said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went out to the source of the water, and cast in the salt there, and said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘I have healed this water; from it there shall be no more death or barrenness.’” So the water remains healed to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke.
Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. Then he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.”
This chapter as a whole divides nicely into three passages, providing a great deal of context to what is said in verses 23 and 24 near the end. First, the author of 2 Kings 2, probably drawing from the writings of Elisha himself or the records of the sons of the prophets in Jericho and Bethel, gives a lengthy discussion about how Elijah was removed via a whirlwind. About this much can and has been said , and I do not wish to repeat those comments at length here. What is of note, though, is that God took Elijah up into the first heaven, namely the atmosphere, to be deposited elsewhere to continue his ministry before dying a natural death, and that Elisha asked for and received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit so that he could succeed as God’s leading prophet to Israel after Elijah. Both of these elements of context are absolutely critical in understanding the context of 2 Kings 2:23-24 with the young men being mauled by two female bears, so it would be worthwhile to remember them. After the sons of the prophets send out a failed mission to locate Elijah, understanding (correctly) that he has been taken somewhere else but not being able to reach that place, Elisha performs a miracle and begins his prophetic ministry.
It is at this point that a group of teens and young men come up to mock him. The word na’ar used here refers to the young men being rowdy and disorderly, a mob, and it referred to people between the ages of thirteen and thirty or so , when someone was considered fully adult. Elisha’s age is hard to know for sure, but he was both already balding, and young enough to live for about fifty more years, so it is likely that he too would have been a young man perhaps at his oldest in his late 20’s or early 30’s, if he lived a very long life into his 80’s. While we would think of a group of forty or more children as a nuisance, a group of 40 rowdy teens and young adults is a much more frightening scene. This is especially true because they were not merely making fun of Elisha for being bald (something that people understandably take rather personally), but because they were mocking God. Why did they tell him to go up? The context demonstrates that they did so because they had likely heard that Elijah had gone up, and were taunting Elisha to leave them to their heathen worship just as Elijah had left (via supernatural assistance). It was not the mere personal attack against Elisha that led to the curse, but rather the fact that the teens and young men were insulting God’s work, and insulting Elisha in his divinely ordained office as the leading prophet to Israel and the heir of Elijah’s prophetic ministry. As a result, Elisha called down a curse on the blasphemous youth, and they were attacked by some she bears.
This is one artist’s conception of the attack of the she bears on the youth of Bethel .
Having seen, then, a clear case that the cursing that Elisha gave was warranted based on the threat to him that these young people posed, and their attacking of God and not merely him personally, let us therefore turn to the next matter, the issue of comparables. Fortunately, in this case, a comparable came readily cited from the person who asked me if what Elisha did was acceptable in cursing the 42 (or more) youth. In this particular case, the comparable that was selected was the cursing of David by Shimei while he fled Jerusalem during the initial stages of the uprising of Absalom. As was the case with 2 Kings 2, some context is worthwhile. This incident is part of a much longer story, too long to discuss in its full glory here, but let us cite the context for the relevant portions of scripture that deal with Shimei and the results of his ill-advised cursing of David.
First, we have Shimei cursing David in 2 Samuel 16:5-14: “Now when King David came to Bahurim, there was a man from the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei the son of Gera, coming from there. He came out, cursing continuously as he came. And he threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David. And all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. Also Shimei said thus when he cursed: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue! The Lord has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. So now you are caught in your own evil, because you are a bloodthirsty man!” Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Please, let me go over and take off his head!” But the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” And David said to Abishai and all his servants, “See how my son who came from my own body seeks my life. How much more now may this Benjamite? Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the Lord has ordered him. It may be that the Lord will look on my affliction, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing this day.” And as David and his men went along the road, Shimei went along the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went, threw stones at him and kicked up dust. Now the king and all the people who were with him became weary; so they refreshed themselves there.”
Second, we have Shimei’s backpedaling when David returns from battle in victory, in 2 Samuel 19:18b-23: “Now Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king when he had crossed the Jordan. Then he said to the king, “Do not let my lord impute iniquity to me, or remember what wrong your servant did on the day that my lord the king left Jerusalem, that the king should take it to heart. For I, your servant, know that I have sinned. Therefore here I am, the first to come today of all the house of Joseph to go down to meet my lord the king.” But Abishai the son of Zeruiah answered and said, “Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed?” And David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should be adversaries to me today? Shall any man be put to death today in Israel? For do I not know that today I am king over Israel?” Therefore the king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” And the king swore to him.””
Finally, let us look at the death of Shimei, talked about in 1 Kings 2:8-9, which reads: ““And see, you have with you Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite from Bahurim, who cursed me with a malicious curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim. But he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by the Lord, saying, ‘I will not put you to death with the sword.’ Now therefore, do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man and know what you ought to do to him; but bring his gray hair down to the grave with blood.”” Let us also look at the execution of that judgment in 2 Kings 2:36-46: “Then the king sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, “Build yourself a house in Jerusalem and dwell there, and do not go out from there anywhere. For it shall be, on the day you go out and cross the Brook Kidron, know for certain you shall surely die; your blood shall be on your own head.” And Shimei said to the king, “The saying is good. As my lord the king has said, so your servant will do.” So Shimei dwelt in Jerusalem many days. Now it happened at the end of three years, that two slaves of Shimei ran away to Achish the son of Maachah, king of Gath. And they told Shimei, saying, “Look, your slaves are in Gath!” So Shimei arose, saddled his donkey, and went to Achish at Gath to seek his slaves. And Shimei went and brought his slaves from Gath. And Solomon was told that Shimei had gone from Jerusalem to Gath and had come back. Then the king sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, “Did I not make you swear by the Lord, and warn you, saying, ‘Know for certain that on the day you go out and travel anywhere, you shall surely die’? And you said to me, ‘The word I have heard is good.’ Why then have you not kept the oath of the Lord and the commandment that I gave you?” The king said moreover to Shimei, “You know, as your heart acknowledges, all the wickedness that you did to my father David; therefore the Lord will return your wickedness on your own head. But King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the Lord forever.” So the king commanded Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he went out and struck him down, and he died. Thus the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.”
Although a lot could be said about this passage, let us stick to the relevant subject of whether Shimei was justified in his cursing of David, and if not, what was different about Shimei’s situation than Elisha’s explored earlier. It is clear from an examination of these passages that Shimei’s cursing of David was spectacularly unwise, that it wound up leading to a delayed death sentence, and that God clearly did not approve of his actions. What accounts for the difference? For one, Elisha was a consecrated prophet of God, serving a legitimate mission, and his curse was on the ungodly. On the other hand, Shimei was a self-appointed prophet, and a false prophet at that, because God’s wrath did not come upon David in his battle with Absalom as he had proclaimed, and because David was God’s anointed king through Samuel. Furthermore, David’s reply to the curse was gentle and gracious, at least initially, in that he recognized the revolt of Absalom came about because of his failures as a father and his adultery with Bathsheba. In fact, David was probably spiritually sensitive enough after repentance to realize that the revolt fulfilled the judgment given by Nathan the prophet in 2 Samuel 12. So, at least initially, David recognized that Shimei’s cursing, even if discouraging, was not entirely unwarranted. That said, Shimei was extremely unwise in cursing David without a clear and divinely given prophetic warrant, and the end result was that his contempt for God’s anointed king led him to be killed by the sword before dying of old age. Clearly, that is a warning to us that we should not curse frivolously.
Having looked at two particularly noteworthy examples of cursing in the Hebrew scriptures, and seeing how it would be possible (if unwise) to pit these two examples against each other, let us see if we can find any examples in the New Testament that would demonstrate whether and in what circumstances it would be acceptable for a Christian to curse someone. The first example in the New Testament that comes to mind as being particularly relevant is Jesus cursing the fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22, which reads as follows: “Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.””
Again, much could be said about this particular passage, but in the interests of staying focused on the point, let us note that Jesus Christ’s cursing of the fig tree was of immense symbolic importance. Jesus Christ was near the time of His crucifixion, and His survey of Judea and Galilee’s spiritual state was near an end. Although He had taught and healed for several years, just like the fig tree on the road there was no fruit of repentance among the leadership of contemporary Second Temple Judaism. In placing judgment on the fig tree for a lack of fruit, Jesus was placing a prophetic judgment, which would be fulfilled in 70AD, upon the corrupt leadership of the temple establishment. They had been weighed and measured and found wanting, and their doom was sure. Again, though, let us note that here Jesus Christ was pronouncing a curse in His prophetic office, and was doing so, at least symbolically, against evildoers who had abused their offices and brought the name and reputation of God into disrepute as a result of their corruption. And, let us also note, that Jesus Christ certainly had the authority to place a curse on those who were corrupt thieves and crooks in His house.
The final example of a justified biblical curse comes from Paul and Barnabas’ ministry in Cyprus in Acts 13:6-12: “Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.” And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”” Here again we have a case of a justified curse, this time of blindness, and here again it is in the context of Paul’s preaching in the office of an apostle to an evildoer who is blaspheming God’s ways.
So, let us summarize the examination of the comparables concerning the legitimacy of curses. In all cases where a curse is warranted, the curse is given by someone serving in a divinely ordained office (prophet, apostle, for example) to someone who is committing evil and blaspheming the name and reputation of God. For a curse to be legitimately given, it must come both from someone who has the official standing to pronounce judgment and it must also be directed at someone whose conduct is worthy of that judgment. Furthermore, the cursing is not done for mere personal slights, but for those whose mocking and blasphemy seeks to hinder the work of God and not merely our own private business. If we wish to follow the example of the Bible, we would see that the legitimate use of curses is a very small set of circumstances by which God works preliminary judgment on those who seek to hinder His work as a way of demonstrating His power as well as the legitimacy of His servants in some sort of office of service to Him and to His people. Let us repeat this point, to make it more plain: a biblically legitimate curse comes from someone in a recognized position of service to God and is directed at those who are flagrantly hindering the work of God. They are not to be used for mere personal pique, but only on those deeds that attack the name and reputation of God. This is true for other, similar, examples of curses that have not been discussed here in any detail, for example, the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, where their deception threatened the reputation of God’s church for generosity and sincerity of heart, and so it was dealt with dramatically.
How, then are we to treat those who curse us and show hostility to us in our personal lives, assuming we have no divine office and we are dealing merely with personal issues? The Bible’s word on this is clear–difficult, to be sure, but clear. First, let us look at what Matthew 5:43-48 has to say: ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”” Let us then see what Romans 12:9-21 has to say: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In short, unless we are given a particular prophetic mission from God, and are cursing only in light of that mission towards those flagrant evildoers who are hindering His work, we are to bless our enemies and not curse them. Do we have enough of the love of God within us to do that? If not, we know where to go to ask for it, so whether we are baldheads or not, let us come boldly before God’s throne and ask for help in showing love to our enemies better. We can never use enough of such help.
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 The picture, along with a different interpretation of this passage, can be found here: