Many years ago, I had an atheist question me on the passage in 2 Kings 2:23–24 where some little kids taunt Elisha, and he curses them and two bears come out of the woods and eat them all. I’ve sought answers to that one for a long time, and never could find a satisfactory response. That seems a bit harsh to me, and after just reading your response to the feedback question on stoning rebellious and disrespectful sons, I thought you might be able to tackle this one.
—J. T., Australia
Both non-Christians and Christians struggle with difficult passages in Scripture, just as they do with difficult situations in life, often asking, “Why would God allow/cause/do that?” It just doesn’t get the job done to say, “We’re sure He had a good reason,” nor does such a glib answer fulfill the command God gives us in 1 Peter 3:15 to be always ready to give an answer. Of course, we cannot see into the hearts of people or see the future as God sees it, so we generally need to avoid dogmatic pronouncements about the hard whys of an individual’s life (as the disciples did in John 9 when they saw a man born blind).
We should, however, examine Scripture in context and compare Scripture with Scripture to answer these hard questions. In so doing, careful attention to the whole of Scripture and to the context should keep us from either expunging the parts we don’t personally like or falsely accusing God of characteristics He doesn’t have.
In 2 Kings 2:23–24, the prophet Elisha, God’s new messenger to the corrupt nation of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), had just returned from bidding Elijah, his predecessor, farewell. God had taken Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind right before Elisha’s eyes and promised to give him a double portion of Elijah’s “spirit.” This spiritual power that Elisha sought was important, for Israel was rife with idolatry. This idolatry caused much suffering in this world and the next, idolatry that would eventually cause God’s judgment to fall on the whole nation at the hands of the vicious Assyrians.
Elisha’s job—to call the people to return to the true God and worship Him alone, to put away idolatry and all the vile practices associated with it—was important for the spiritual and physical well-being of the thousands of individuals in the nation and for the nation as a whole. He needed credibility with the king, with his fellow prophets, and with the people. He was taking on Elijah’s job now.
Elisha’s job [was] to call the people to return to the true God and worship Him alone, to put away idolatry and all the vile practices associated with it.
The odd incident recorded in verses 23–24 occurred near Bethel. Bethel was notable as one of the two centers for idolatrous worship in the Northern Kingdom. Israel’s first king, Jeroboam, had instituted idolatrous worship as a political maneuver to keep his citizens from visiting Jerusalem. Jeroboam set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:29) and ordained a program of counterfeit worship.
Eight kings and several dynasties later, Bethel had undoubtedly become a prosperous city thriving on the commerce enjoyed by being a worship/tourist center. But there remained at Bethel a remnant of God-fearing people, represented by the “sons of the prophets” described in verse 3 of the same chapter. Elisha would need the same credibility that Elijah once had in order to lead them and the people of Israel, yet they were already somewhat doubtful of him. Their concerns about this not-quite-proven prophet are seen in their distrust of his account of Elijah’s trip to heaven (2 Kings 2:16–18).
In this setting, as Elisha approached Bethel, no less than 42 “little children” came “out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head” (verse 23).
Elisha “turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord.” Then “there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them” (verse 24).
The vital question of concern to most here is the age of these “little children.” We recoil in horror at the idea of bears mauling a gaggle of preschoolers. Of course, most don’t quibble when they see a Sunday school picture of a little boy David flinging a rock at the big, bad giant, but that image of David is quite incorrect. David was already “a mighty valiant man” and “a man of war” who was “prudent in matters” and had already slain a bear and a lion himself (see 1 Samuel 16:18, 17:34–36) before anybody ever heard of Goliath.
The Hebrew words used for Elisha’s detractors include the Hebrew words qatan, na’ar, and yeled, with Strong’s number 6996 (here translated “little”), Strong’s number 5288 (the “children” of verse 23), and Strong’s number 3206 (the “children” of verse 24), respectively. Qatan means small in quantity, size, number, age, status, or importance. Thus, we see it used to describe a cake, a cloud, a room, a city, and a finger, as well as the younger daughter of marriageable age in Laban’s household and the youngest son of Jacob, Benjamin, who was a grown man; this word even describes Saul (a very tall man, but low in status) at the time God anointed him king of Israel (1 Samuel 9:2, 15:17)! Na’ar means a boy or girl, servant, or young man—it is a word that can cover a range of ages from infant to young adult. Yeled likewise means a boy, child, son, or young man—essentially, someone’s offspring.
We can already see the phrase “little child” being used...to refer to the relative youth or immaturity of grown men.
In seeing how these words are used throughout the Old Testament, we see that “little child” (qatan na’ar) is used to describe the young rebel Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:14, 17) who fled Solomon’s kingdom and married pharaoh’s sister-in-law. The combination is also used by Solomon to refer to himself when he prayed for wisdom after becoming king (1 Kings 3:7). Thus, we can already see the phrase “little child” being used by the King James translators to refer to the relative youth or immaturity of grown men.
Na’ar is also used to refer to David—the mighty man of valor described above—and all his brothers, as well as David’s son Absalom as he led a civil war, the field hands in Boaz’s fields, and a number of soldiers throughout the Old Testament. The word describes Joseph at age 17 (in Genesis 37 ), Isaac at about 25 to 28 on Mount Moriah (in Genesis 22),1 spies in Joshua, and (along with yeled) the young men who gave Rehoboam such lousy advice in 1 Kings 12.
Thus, as we ponder the translators’ word choice as well as God’s judgment, we see plenty of precedent for using “little children” to emphasize the relative youth or immaturity of the subjects. The reference to his baldness was likely an ordinary sort of insult: baldness on the back of the head, historically, “was considered a blemish among the Israelites as well as among the Romans.”2 However, when we consider the rest of the taunt these “little children” hurled at the prophet, we see evidence that they possessed a certain amount of theological understanding. Their taunt to “go up” was a reference to Elijah’s recent ride to heaven. By shouting this challenge to Elisha, they were challenging his right to follow in Elijah’s footsteps as God’s designated representative to Israel—and declaring their intention that they wanted him to meet His Maker as well. Yet if the people were to be called back to God, Elisha had to have credibility as God’s designated representative.
Some have found fault with Elisha for cursing them in the name of the Lord. First of all, this was not taking the Lord’s name in vain—notice that God responded by doing something about the situation—nor was this some vile epithet. Elisha simply made clear to them—and to all who were watching—that it was not his but God’s honor they were impugning. God ratified that position by sending two bears out of the woods to maul them.
Did they die? The Strong’s number for tare is #1234 (baqa‘). This word variously refers to the breaking open of mountains and city walls, dividing the Red Sea, splitting wood, breaking bottles, making a way through a line of soldiers, getting a group of citizens to disavow their nation, and—in a prophetic metaphor for the destruction of a nation in Hosea 13:8—tearing by wild beasts.
When we look at information on modern day bear attacks, we see that some attacks are fatal and some are not. The language of the Bible here is not specific regarding the fate of the 42. As Willmington’s Guide to the Bible puts it, “forty-two of these arrogant rebels were clawed as a divine punishment.”3 Maybe there were 42 funerals, maybe not. We simply cannot say. But one thing is sure: everyone watching and everyone who survived learned a lesson that day: God’s message is serious, and Elisha is His new messenger. The false gods popular in the nation publicly failed to protect these hoodlums from the God whose messenger they challenged.
In summary, we have plenty of internally consistent biblical evidence that the events of that day in Bethel involved an unprovoked, verbal assault by a group of young hoodlums—perhaps because they were glad to be rid of one man telling them what God said they shouldn’t do and because they didn’t want another one. They were old enough to know better, and they were challenging the credibility of God’s prophet, the only man who was there to stand up for God’s truth, bringing the word of life to a corrupt nation that had turned its back on God.