Elisha and the 42 Children

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 the Lord. 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.

2 Kings 2:23-25

Taken at face value, this seems excessive. I mean it was just a bunch of kids just acting like kids, right? And yet Elisha the prophet thought it was appropriate to kill them all just because his feelings were hurt. In fact, in cursing them in the name of the Lord, it was ultimately God who sent the two bears. Most people will see this as unjust killing which further illustrates that God is evil and capricious. But is that in fact the case in this scenario? Was Elisha (and ultimately God) just in his actions against these innocent kids who were just acting like kids? That is the objection I will be dealing with in this blog post.

First, the Hebrew word used for children in this text is also used for young men. The Hebrew word used for “children,” is also used to describe Joseph in Genesis 37:2, who was 17 years old at the time, and refers to army men in 1 Kings 20:14-15. In addition it was used to describe the baby Moses in Exodus 2:6 but that’s the only time it refers to a baby. At other times it refers to a servant of unknown age. Instead of children, it’s more appropriate to say mature adolescents or young men.

Second, The Hebrew word for “little” is the word most critics hang onto in order to justify the view that these are actually children. While the word will frequently refer to size, it also refers to quality of significance. For example: It is used to compare the moon to the sun (Genesis 1:6); it refers to insignificant legal cases (Exodus 18:26); as well as “lesser” weights (Deuteronomy 25:13). It is also used to mean “young” when referring to persons who are obviously old enough to be mature (such as those surrounding Lot’s house and demanding to rape the visitors, Gen. 19:11).

Third, there was over 42 young men taunting Elisha. Does that not seem like an odd scenario? It seems rather odd that a crowd of over 42 young men only banded together for the sole purpose of insulting someone. Could it be that this crowd of young men could actually mean physical harm after their insults? I don’t see why it wouldn’t. Unfortunately we don’t know exactly how many young men. We know its over 42 but out of of how many people? 42 out of 50? 42 out of 100? 42 out of 500? There’s no evidence that these young men were innocent and only intended to insult God’s prophet after which they peacefully left. Also there’s no evidence that these young men were intending to rob/beat/kill Elisha after their insults as well. So if the critic is going to just assume that they are innocent young men only intending to insult and then peacefully leave why should I not assume that they were intending to harm Elisha? I don’t know. God knows though. And He thought it was an appropriate to act to protect Elisha.

Fourth, there is not enough biblical evidence to suggests that the crowd of over 42 young men were actually killed. There are two main points I want to make in this area:

Point 1: These were most likely Syrian Brown bears. These bears would typically weigh between 400-500lbs. For a comparison, female American black bears weigh between 150-300 lbs. and female American Grizzly bears weigh 290-440 lbs. The point is that 42 young men being injured or killed from just two of these bears is hard to imagine unless the crowd of men fought back instead of running away, seeking safety.

Point 2: The Hebrew word that was used to describe the action the two bears did to the 42 men does not mean “killed,” “devoured,” or anything similar. It means to “break open” which is used for chopping wood (Genesis 22:3), ripping garments (Joshua 9:13), an egg hatching (Isaiah 34:15), or breaking through an army (2 Kings 3:26). The use in this passage in 2 Kings could possibly be a way of saying that the bears scattered the young men, not that they killed them.

Fifth, it’s important to keep in mind that it wasn’t Elisha who is responsible for the injuries or deaths (if there were any) of the 42 young, aggressive men, it was God who was responsible. God is the creator, designer, and sustainer of the universe. His very nature is the standard of holiness, righteousness, and justice. And He is ultimately the very source of all life. If He wants to take your life, He has the right and authority to do such an action whether directly or indirectly and for whatever reason He deems necessary. It’s important not to think of God as a super-powerful human being but an all-knowing and all-powerful being who keeps the universe in being by his sovereign will. For God, it is not murder or killing when he takes someone from this life. He’s merely moving you from one plane of existence to another plane of existence…and no matter how much we might not like that, God, as the source of life, has the authority to do that and we do not.

Maybe these were not 42 innocent little kids. They were more likely a crowd of over 42 young men who wanted to do more than just insult God’s prophet and then peacefully leave. In showing aggression toward Elisha, God acted to protect his prophet. Even if deaths or injuries occurred, there is nothing evil and unjust in what God or Elisha did in this scenario.

Notes: I owe some of my insights on this tough passage to this article:
http://www.tektonics.org/film/elisha2bears.html

Photo Credit: © Antonioguillem / Adobe Stock