3.2.12 Bear: Strength
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.12
“Bear” with me: I’m about to repeat myself (or at least, repeat Isaiah). The bear is another of those formerly ferocious beasts whose character will be transformed when Christ reigns upon the earth: “The cow and the bear shall graze; Their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 11:7) Unlike wolves, lions, and leopards, bears are omnivorous. What does a bear eat? Anything it wants. But in this world, they don’t normally “graze” like cattle. Like the lion eating straw, this prospect reveals some fundamental changes about how our biosphere will operate once the Messiah assumes His rightful place on the throne of the earth.
According to the Animal Planet website, “Most bears eat anything they can find: berries, nuts, honey and fruit as well as mice, gophers, fish, birds, eggs or carrion. In the spring they feed on protein-rich fare such as insects, larvae, fresh grass, seeds, roots and fresh plant buds. Occasionally, if the food situation is bad, they are forced to make do with bark. Fish are skillfully catapulted out of the water with a swipe of the paw. Some bears become such gourmets that they sample only a morsel of the freshly caught source of protein, leaving the remains for other animals. Yet bears are renowned for having a ravenous appetite. To avoid losing weight, bears have to eat large amounts of plant foods which are not particularly high in energy. In the summer months, for example, a brown bear requires around 10 kilograms of food a day. In the fall, bears in colder regions feed mainly on calorie-rich nuts, acorns and berries until they have acquired a thick layer of fat, constituting up to a third of their body weight. These reserves of fat are all they have to live on during hibernation in their winter den—during which time they can lose over half their weight.”
If bears were the size of bunny rabbits, of course, their diets would be greatly restricted. The reason a bear eats “anything it wants” is that it’s big enough and strong enough to kill anything it can catch. Bears can grow to enormous sizes. Polar bears and brown bears (including grizzlies and Kodiak bears) are the largest species, sometimes growing to over two thousand pounds and twelve feet long. Although eight bear species range across all of North America, Europe, and Asia (with a few varieties inhabiting South America and Africa as well), the only predator known to prey on adult bears successfully are tigers—leaving them more or less unopposed throughout most of their habitat.
I probably wouldn’t have considered bears a scriptural symbol in the usual sense (sometimes an animal is just an animal), but for one usage in a vision shown to Daniel. We’ve already seen two other animals in this series, all of whom are prophetic symbols for great gentile world powers that would impact the course of Israel’s history (thereby making them significant players in the unfolding of the Messianic saga). First on the list was the lion (one with eagle’s wings), representing Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The second was described thus: “And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’” (Daniel 7:5) This “bear” would turn out to be Medo-Persia, the alliance that took Babylon without firing a shot (more or less) in 539 BC, as the overconfident regent, Belshazzar, drank himself under the table in celebration of the “fact” that the Medes would never get over his impregnable city wall. (They didn’t, as it turned out—they diverted the Euphrates River and marched under the wall, opening the city gates and admitting their army.) The tale, told from God’s point of view, is related in Daniel 5. The reason the “bear” in his vision was seen “raised up on one side” is that eventually, the Persians would exert hegemony over their partners, the Medes.
In Daniel’s vision, the progression of ferocious beasts representing the succession of gentile “superpowers” lists four nations. The third, the one that brought down the mighty “bear” of Persia, is the namer—the swift and deadly jungle cat. I found it a fascinating statistic that the only animal in the world that preys on bears is the tiger—a sort of super-leopard. Not coincidentally, the Caspian Tiger, extinct since the 1970s, was once common in Asia Minor, territory conquered early in the career of Alexander the Great.
The fourth beast, Rome, the nation that supplanted the Grecian system, was so scary the prophet had no living animal with which to compare it. It was described as “a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.” (Daniel 7:7) Although Rome as an empire eventually crumbled of its own weight—its corruption and pride—the “fourth beast” still has some life left in it. The “ten horns” hint at a yet-to-be revealed final permutation of this creature, one that will have a large and unenviable role to play in the inevitable conclusion of gentile power upon the earth. Led by a character known as the Antichrist, it will be the last gentile world power to dominate the affairs of Israel before the advent of the reigning Messiah.
It’s a page out of “Survival 101”: don’t get between a mother bear and what she’s intent on protecting—her cubs. The same is true of getting between a holy God and someone He has invested with His mantle of service. There’s a fascinating incident illustrating this—one of those times when the reality and its symbolic shadow become practically indistinguishable. This happened shortly after the “rapture” of Elijah, witnessed by his protégé and apprentice, Elisha. After staying in nearby Jericho just long enough to miraculously heal their poisoned water supply, Elisha left to return home. “He 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 up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!’ And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.” (II Kings 2:23-24) “Small boys?” Hardly. Although the Hebrew words allow for such a translation, considering the context (they were unsupervised, roving about in an unruly mob outside the city, causing trouble and mocking their elders) the text also logically supports a translation more like, “insignificant (qutan—lesser, i.e., pertaining to being of low status) young men (na’ar—teenager, older adolescent, or servant; again, of lower social status). Later, they’re called “boys,” (yeled) perhaps better translated “youths,” which the Dictionary of Biblical Languages says can mean “one of a group.” These days, we’d call these youngsters a street gang.
What was the essence of their taunt against God’s prophet? They had heard that Elisha had witnessed the rapturous ascension of his master Elijah, and they were daring him to depart the scene in a similar fashion: “Go up!” (The added jeer, calling him “baldy,” was merely mean-spirited mockery, meant to show pointless disrespect to someone who should have been receiving their honor and deference. Sound familiar?) And what of Elisha’s “curse”? The word here is one we’ve seen before—qalal (translated “to be swift” in reference to leopards). Elisha may or may not have “cursed” them in the sense of calling upon God to kick their impertinent little butts. He could merely have distained them, treated them with the contempt they so richly deserved, or esteemed them not worthy of his attention. Again, the word allows either conclusion. But the effect of the “curse” was that Yahweh regarded His servant Elisha as a mother bear regards her threatened cubs: He defended in no uncertain terms what was precious to Him. Ironically, He used two she-bears to get the job done, mauling forty-two of the ill-mannered youths. We are not told if there were even more of them that the bears couldn’t catch, but any way you slice it, forty-two isn’t a party—it’s a riot.
There are turning out to be a plethora of prophetic land mines buried in this short little passage. I’m the first to admit that I may be seeing something that just isn’t here, but consider this: (1) The mob was mocking the idea that Elisha’s former mentor had been “raptured.” At the same time, they obviously despised the God who had arranged Elijah’s spectacular exit. Could this gang of clueless, classless morons be prophetic of the world’s skeptics following the rapture of the church? When those left behind begin to realize what has happened, when they begin to repent and finally open the door to Christ (the invitation of Revelation 3:18-20), the cynics will be shouting, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” Or something similarly rude and ill-informed. Elisha is therefore analogous to the belatedly repentant neo-believers of the Church of Laodicea.
(2) What is the significance of Elisha’s baldness? The prophet himself was probably just “folically challenged,” providing a cheap shot for his would-be tormentors. But baldness carries with it some potentially significant symbolic baggage. Not only did people sometimes shave their heads in times of great distress or mourning, Nazarites invariably shaved their heads when taking their vows, since cutting their hair during their period of consecration was forbidden. The prophet Micah describes why Israel, and indeed the whole world, has reason to consecrate itself like a Nazarite, or failing that, to shave its collective head in mourning: “Behold, Yahweh is coming out of His place, and will come down and tread upon the high places [i.e., the centers of worship and power] of the earth. And the mountains will melt under Him, and the valleys will split open, like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a steep place….” Micah wrote in anticipation of the Assyrian invasion of Israel—in the same timeframe as Isaiah, about 740 BC. As bad as the Assyrian onslaught was, no mountains were melted, nor valleys split. But subsequent prophecy makes it clear that during the Last Days, these will be more than mere poetic exaggerations: they’ll be terrifyingly real. So the prophet makes his recommendation: “Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair, for the children of your delight. Make yourselves as bald as the eagle, for they shall go from you into exile.” (Micah 1:3-4, 16) In other words, either consecrate yourself to Yahweh and His Messiah, or prepare to mourn for a dying earth. That’s precisely what the post-rapture believers will be doing. But the unbelieving world will mock them for their contrition—for being “bald.”
(3) The neo-Laodicean believers, for their part, will “treat with contempt” the taunts of their tormentors. They will not be swayed from their newfound faith, even if it costs them their lives—and we all know how lethal and volatile mobs can be. But even from the grave, they will “curse them in the name of Yahweh,” just as Elisha did. Their words—actually, pleas for vengeance—are prophetically recorded in the fifth seal judgment: Revelation 6:10.
(4) How many “youths” were attacked and mauled by the she-bears? Forty-two, not coincidentally the same number of months that the satanically empowered Antichrist will exercise unrestricted dominion over mankind—a period of time known as the Great Tribulation, during which an unprecedented series of plagues will be visited upon the earth.
(5) Why are there two angry she-bears in the story? It’s because God will authorize two witnesses to operate during the Great Tribulation. “They [the nations, the gentiles] will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days [i.e., forty-two months], clothed in sackcloth.” (Revelation 11:2-3) They will prophesy? Let’s be more specific: “They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.” (Revelation 11:6) These two “witnesses” are analogous to Elisha’s two she-bears, and they’re sent for roughly the same reason: to maul those who align themselves against Yahweh and attack His people.
(6) There’s one more parallel. Remember what Elisha was doing just before his encounter with the iron-age street gang? He was healing the water supply of the city of Jericho—a city that (for several reasons) seems to be symbolic of the rapture. One of the things the two she-bears—excuse me, the two witnesses of Revelation 11—will do is to mess with the world’s drinking water supplies. If not calling for drought, they’ll be turning the water into blood—for forty-two of the longest months in history. (Their “ministry” seems to coincide perfectly with the actions of the angels of the seven bowl judgments. Apparently, the two witnesses call the tune, and the angels rosin up the bow.) The point is that those who were previously raptured—represented by the city of Jericho—got to drink living water, from which “there shall be no more death or barrenness.” (II Kings 2:21) But those who persecute Yahweh’s (belatedly repentant) people after the rapture will be subjected to thirst, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.
The she-bears who came to Elisha’s defense in response to his “curse in the name of Yahweh” acted in unrestrained rage, as if they had seen their cubs being attacked. This is not the only time in scripture that this metaphor of a mother bear’s unrepressed protective ferocity was employed. In the wake of David’s sin with Bathsheba, his son Absalom for a short time seized the throne of Israel, forcing David out. While David himself (aware of his own culpability in the matter) was reticent to defend himself against the usurper, he was of no mind to roll over and play dead, either. So Hushai, one of Absalom’s counselors (but actually, a servant of David’s—it’s complicated) warned the arrogant prince against attacking his father hastily with a small force. This move had been recommended by the crafty Ahithophel, another of Absalom’s counselors, and it actually might have finished off David and his loyalists quickly. But Absalom instead heeded Hushai’s admonition to use caution: “Hushai said, ‘You know that your father and his men are mighty men, and that they are enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field.’” (II Samuel 17:8) Hushai counseled Absalom to take the time to gather a huge army to go out against David, but the counselor’s real plan was to buy the King some time so he could escape across the Jordan into the wilderness.
It was a sucker play: Absalom’s unwieldy army was forced to traipse all over Gilead chasing David’s illusive band, stretching their supply lines thinner and thinner until they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory—and until General Joab managed to murder Absalom, against David’s wishes. It was all a ruse: the repentant David wasn’t as angry as a mother bear robbed of her cubs, but that didn’t change the fact that any normal man would have been justifiably enraged. After all, Absalom had stolen what was rightfully David’s—the throne of Israel. For his part, David was humble and contrite before Yahweh, willing to endure whatever chastisement His God deemed appropriate, including taking his throne, or even his life.
Can you too smell the Messianic echoes in all of this? David (a prophetic stand-in for the coming Christ) was the rightful king of Israel (read: mankind). However, because of sin (forget for the sake of the illustration whose sin it was), his throne—and even his life—were forfeit. Absalom the usurper (symbolic of man’s rebellion against Yahweh) rejected God’s anointed and placed himself on the throne in his stead. He even slept with his father’s concubines in order to show the world that he had declared himself “master of his fate and captain of his soul.” This, of course, is a thinly veiled euphemism for forcing the powerless of the world to submit—it’s the common ploy of religions throughout time, up to and including the most insidious religion of them all, secular humanism.
David (read: the Messiah) was selflessly willing to let his son Absalom (rebellious man) make his own choices about whom to place on the throne of his life. But that wasn’t good enough for Absalom: in his paranoia, he wouldn’t feel “free” until he had slain the one to whom he owed everything—a goal that entailed slaughtering all of the King’s followers as well (that’s us believers, I’m afraid). That is the counsel of Satan, a role played by Ahithophel (whose name, revealingly enough, means “brother of folly.”) But the Holy Spirit, whose part is played by Hushai (whose name means “hasty”), has given us enough time (and insight) to flee swiftly with our King to the wilderness, out of the reach of Absalom. Thus it is that we find ourselves pilgrims in a barren and inhospitable land as we follow our Messiah. But we still find this an infinitely better situation than living in the promised land under the thumb of a violent usurper—even a really good looking one with a swell-sounding name like “father of peace” (which is what “Absalom” means). I’m sure he would have been on the short list for the Nobel peace prize; that’s just the way the world works.
Perhaps the most fascinating facet of this analogy is the subtle duel between two Messianic metaphors—David and Joab. Their respective names tell the tale: David means “love,” and Joab means “Yahweh is father.” We are being told (in admittedly understated terms) of the struggle (so to speak) in Yahshua’s dual personality—mercy versus justice. Love and mercy wish to spare the life of the rebellious Absalom, while the just, responsible nature of Yahweh our Father demands that his sins be met with punishment befitting the crime. Justice and mercy exist in God’s nature in perfect balance, but it is instructive to observe the order in which they are addressed. In this story, Joab slays Absalom: justice has prevailed first (see II Samuel 18). But that’s not the end of the story. In I Kings 2:28-35, we read that Solomon ordered the execution of Joab—not, however, for the killing of Absalom (who really did have it coming, despite David’s pleas for mercy) but for the murders of Abner and Amasa, two men “more righteous and better” than Joab, according to Solomon. But even this wasn’t Solomon’s unilateral decision: I Kings 2:5-6 make it clear that David authorized Joab’s judgment—subject to the wisdom Yahweh had given Solomon. So in the end, David’s desire for mercy was vindicated through the application of justice. And Joab, like his victim Absalom, learned the hard lesson that David—i.e., “love”—could be “enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field.”
A variation on this theme is presented by the prophet Hosea. In this case, the “bear” is Yahweh Himself, and the object of His fury is Israel: “I [Yahweh] will fall upon them [Israel] like a bear robbed of her cubs. I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open. He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against Me, against your Helper.” (Hosea 13:8-9) Jeremiah sees the same issue, but from Israel’s point of view: “He [Yahweh] is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding. He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces. He has made me desolate.” (Lamentations 3:10-11) Why all of this violence? In general, of course, the answer is Israel’s (and later, Judah’s) refusal to heed the Instructions Yahweh had given the nation under Moses—the consequences of which were listed plainly in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
But there’s another side to this symbol. He describes Himself as a “bear robbed of her cubs.” Who are these “cubs” Yahweh is so intent on protecting? He isn’t talking about the Torah itself, for He subsequently made it clear that its precepts were meant only as symbols of a larger reality—He doesn’t care about them at all if we’re performing them outside of the context of His love and His plan for our reconciliation (see for example, Isaiah 1:12-15). No, Yahweh’s “cubs” are people who rely upon Him for their life, their being, their salvation, their entire existence. We cubs know we’re helpless on our own, unable to protect or provide for ourselves. Nobody attacks the Mama Grizzly, of course. Her cubs, however, may seem vulnerable to foolish but hungry wolves.
David was one such “bear cub.” We just read how David was forced to flee in the wake of Absalom’s coup. He writes of his plight—and of his salvation—in a Psalm: “O Yahweh, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me. Many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.” Yes, the wolves were circling, making menacing growly noises. “But you, O Yahweh, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.” Like a cub squealing in alarm, “I cried aloud to Yahweh, and He answered me from His holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for Yahweh sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O Yahweh! Save me, O my God! For You strike all my enemies on the cheek.” That sounds suspiciously like the angry swipe of a bear’s paw. “You break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to Yahweh. Your blessing be on Your people!” (Psalm 3) Anyone relying on Yahweh alone for their blessings is regarded by God as a cub under His protection. I can think of no safer place to be.
A mama grizzly is not known for her propensity to be reasonable when you are perceived as being a threat to her cubs. But if she decides on her own that she was mistaken about your intentions, she’ll stop chasing you (or so I’m told). But Solomon, no doubt tongue in cheek, declared that there is something even more dangerous than a she-bear in “protect” mode: “Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly.” (Proverbs 17:12) Bears may get angry and aggressive, but at least they’re logical. A fool refuses to see the truth. The term (Hebrew: kesil) has nothing to do with one’s lack of native intelligence, but rather to obstinacy, insolence, or rebellion—the propensity to make wrong choices based solely on stubborn willful ignorance. They say that insanity is repeating the same action over and over again in hopes of obtaining a different result. The fool in his folly doesn’t even notice the results—he merely pursues a course of action based on his philosophical proclivities, regardless of the evidence against its efficacy. Unfortunately, most governments today are run by fools, not lunatics.
One final “bear” scenario: “And Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine [Goliath] to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.” We too work for our Father. Our job, like David’s, is to protect the innocent and weak from the strong and aggressive. “And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.” If the bears of this world relinquish their prey, well and good. If not, we are to risk whatever is necessary to protect God’s flock. “Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.’ And David said, ‘Yahweh who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.’ And Saul said to David, ‘Go, and Yahweh be with you!’” (I Samuel 17:33-37) As strong as the “bears” of this world are, they are no match for Yahweh—and we His servants wield His power, if only we’ll allow the Holy Spirit to operate through us.
(First published 2014)