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There are many verses in the Bible that atheists, agnostics, skeptics and Bible critics utilize to validate their assertion that God is a God of cruelty, injustice, and hate. To illustrate the point, I am going to use one of their favorites: 2 Kings 2:23-24. It is one of those passages where errors, fallacies, faulty translations, and misinterpretations, make it difficult for some to accept that our God is a God of justice and love. These two verses relate the episode where the prophet Elisha curses a mob of youngsters who were insulting him. God sent two furious she-bears that mauled 42 of them. The unbelievers love the King James Version (KJV) where the verses textually read:
“23Elisha went up from Bethel, and while he was going up on the way some children came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’ 24And 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 children.”
In these two verses, the unbelievers think they have found evidence of a cruel, sadistic, and ruthless God, who complied with His prophet’s wishes. To discredit the Bible, their critics present this passage as if the attack of the bears was a disproportionate punishment from the Lord to kill toddlers who were innocently mocking an elderly man because he was bald. Their interpretation describes a senile, impatient prophet, who unjustifiably retaliates by pronouncing a curse that kills 42 children because his pride has been hurt. They tell us that Elisha propitiated the killing of these 42 toddlers for doing what children do; having fun at the expense of his baldness. They would like for you to picture God and Elisha happily watching children being devoured by hungry she-bears.
Of course, it wasn’t like that at all. It isn’t believable that God would cause two bears to massacre a group of children for making fun of a man for being bald. The unbelievers’ nasty atrocity described in their interpretation of this passage is as far away from reality as it could be. The point of their erroneous version of the story is that if they were God, they wouldn’t have sent wild animals to kill children for just taunting an elderly and impatient old man. In other words, they are making their readers believe that they are better than God and that the punishment does not fit the crime. Furthermore, Elisha’s curse, and God’s reaction, are not justified.
A close look at the verses, shows that most of the assumptions regarding this incident are incorrect. To begin with, there is a faulty translation. This version of the Bible (KJV) translates the Hebrew word na’ar as children, which is a poor definition of the word. The explicit meaning of the Hebrew word “na’ar,” is that of “a male who has not yet formed a family.” It was regularly applied to servants and soldiers. It could be applied to children in some cases, but it is erroneously used in this one. The same word, na’ar, is used to describe Joseph at the age of seventeen in Genesis 37:2, and at 39 in Genesis 41:12. Then, it is utilized again in 2 Samuel 14:21 to tell us about Absalom when he was 29, and in 1 Kings 3:7 to picture Solomon at 29.
For comparison, let’s take a look at the translation from NASB (New American Standard Bible), which is more precise:
“23Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, ‘Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’ 24When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.”
Happily, the NASB which I am quoting here, correctly refers to these youngsters as “young lads,” which changes the meaning of the verses. Now, let’s examine the passage’s context to find out what really happened. The real story in no way supports the claims of the skeptics.
The first question that comes to mind is: What was Elisha doing in Bethel? His mission in Bethel was to stand against Baalism, and teach the Word. He was there to get Bethel’s population of apostates and idolaters out of the life of sin and depravation they were immersed in. The prophet had just performed the miracle of healing the drinking waters of Jericho that had been poisoned (2 Kings 2:20-22}. From there, he goes to Bethel, to minister to people who were living an existence of idolatry and apostasy. He had a special interest in liberating the youth who were inspired by Satan, and indoctrinated by Baal’s priests. Bible critics ignore the history of Bethel’s followers of Baal, and their treatment of God’s people, prior to the arrival of Elisha. In spite of its name (“Bethel” means “house of God”), most Bethelites were faithful to Baal. For many years, the city was one of two centers of worship for this pagan idol. Hosea, who ministered to the city after Elisha died, called it a “city of great wickedness” (Hosea 10:15). These Baal worshipers were regularly performing homosexual acts and other deviant forms of sexual practices, and sacrificed babies to their pagan god by burning them alive.
Almost immediately after arriving at Bethel, the prophet was surrounded by an aggressive mob of juvenile followers of Baal, perhaps hundreds, publicly insulting him. Although the skeptics would like for you to believe these were very young and unaccountable toddlers, they were not innocent children. To figure how ridiculous the skeptics’ interpretation is, try to picture hundreds of 4-year-olds following the prophet, and mocking him. From both the proper translation of the word, and the context, they were, most probably, young men in their late teens, even adults up to 30 years of age. They were youthful men, and they operated as a gang. Similarly, Elisha was not an old man when this incident occurred. He was of the same age as his attackers. Biblical evidence indicates that he lived more than 50 years after the events at Bethel.
Following up on the context, the “children” described on the KJV were members of a powerful mob that could have killed the prophet. This was a crowd of young men, possibly students of the false prophets or idolatrous priests who were instructed to manifest their antagonism to Elisha’s showing his prophetic powers. So, a large mob, perhaps hundreds, of aggressive followers of Baal, were confronting God's prophet, insulting him. This mob of youngsters attacked the prophet when he was yet tired from a long trip. The 42 mobsters that were mauled by she-bears were more than toddlers; they were God-scoffers. Their orders were to stop Elisha from entering the city, or getting him out of it. These mobsters were instructed to show contempt for God by doing it to Elisha.
Continuing the event’s logic, what is the possible explanation for a gang of youthful lads to start a protest against Elisha right after a miracle of the magnitude of the one performed by the prophet at Jericho? The essence of the verses contained in 2 Kings 2:23-24 is that Elisha, an instrument of God, was taunted and ridiculed by a large gang of “young lads.” By purposely surrounding Elisha, these trainees of Baal intentionally demonstrated they were prepared to use force against a defenseless prophet of God. This demonstration was organized and executed by followers of Baal for getting the prophet as far away as possible from Bethel. They were intent on forcing him out of town, following instructions from their trainers, the Baal’s priests. The prophet’s life could have been in danger. It isn’t difficult to understand these lads’ behavior if you consider that they were inspired by Satan, indoctrinated by Baal’s priests, and under training to become one of them. These adolescents were attacking not just Elisha, the man, but they were also attacking his upcoming message. Regardless of the prophet’s personality, or his physical appearance, he was God’s man with a mission to spread God’s teachings. He was representing the Lord’s ideals; as a result, their insults were aimed at the Creator. We can conclude, then, that they were mocking God, or rejecting what He was trying to do through His messenger. After the astonishing miracle which the Lord performed through Elisha at Jericho, Satan was intent on eliminating his worst enemy. The devil was characteristically attacking the messenger and the message. He had to protect his territory.
These attacks did not surprise Elisha. On the contrary, he was probably expecting them. Leaders have always had to deal with disrespect. However, the greatest disrespect here is in relation to God. This is why God decided to show them there was a price to pay for their threats and disrespect. This punishment was a result of God’s just ire and frustration. God wanted to show the Bethelites that Elisha must be taken seriously. Although he was battling followers of Baal, he went there to bless, not to curse.
Now, let’s take a look at the expression: “Go up, you baldhead.” This exhortation has two conscious aims on it, both intentionally misinterpreted by the unbelievers. It denotes belittling the prophet, making him valueless in the eyes of their followers. “Go up”… “go up,” does not mean to climb or go up the road, it signifies “ascend” as you claim Elijah did. Their loud jeering implied that if Elisha was as good of a prophet as Elijah, he should “go up” to heaven as he did. Their mocking of the prophet is a sarcastic reference to Elijah’s ascension into heaven (2 Kings 2:11-12). “Baldhead,” the epithet they used to describe the prophet, has nothing to do with his physical appearance or with making fun of baldness. The expression doesn’t mean a lot today, but back then was a very offensive term utilized to scorn Elisha by assimilating him to lepers, who were mandated to shave their heads.
Another question would be how many lads were in the crowd? If you consider that the bears running after them mauled 42, it is reasonable to estimate a mob of at least 200 scoffing youths. This was not a small group of harmless children making fun of a bald man. Rather, it was a large demonstration of young men who assembled for mocking, perhaps murdering, a prophet of God. Elisha saw himself surrounded by a large number of mobsters, defenseless, sure that he was going to die. The prophet realized his life was threatened and called upon the only one who could save him from a certain death. He asked the Lord to protect him from a gang of hostile lads ready to end his life. We cannot say with certainty that Elisha’s life was in danger by these young lads because the Bible does not tell us. What we can do is speculate that these Satan’s inspired youth attacked a defenseless prophet in such a way that he saw his life coming to an end. Fearing death, the prophet called upon the Most High, and the Lord answered by sending bears to scare them, to teach them a lesson. As a result, two female bears came out of the woods and mauled them. I would imagine these young men running for their lives. Only 42 of them were overran by the bears and got mauled, not killed. The Bible doesn’t tell us how he cursed the young men. There is no way to know the content of Elisha’s prayer, but there is nothing to indicate that he called the bears to show up and maul the youngsters. The truth is that he didn’t do it because his pride was hurt. He probably said something like, “God, please, deal with them according to what they are doing.” He just asked God to protect his life, which was about to end at the hands of the mobsters. Sending the bears to scare and disperse the mob had the intention of saving the prophet’s life while teaching a lesson about the covenant obligations of the Bethelites. While trying to do it, the bears mauled 42 of possibly hundreds of attackers, most of whom ran to safety, unharmed.
It should be clear that God just wanted them to know the consequences of their disobedience and apostasy. God’s sending the female bears to scare the young lads sent by Baal’s priests appall the critics of the Bible, but they fail to consider Bethel’s apostasy, idolatry, and sacrificing of children by burning. The unbelievers fail to consider what would have been the fate of the prophet if God did not send the she-bears to scare the followers of Baal. God saved the prophet by the intervention of the bears. This is just a case of self-defense from a man who wasn’t bellicose at all. On the contrary, Bible evidence suggests Elisha was a fair, decent, and peaceful man. It is important to note that the prophet’s reaction was very human. In other circumstances, he might have ignored their actions, but he was surrounded. He couldn’t turn and run, much less argue with them or run after them. He did what his predecessor, Elijah, did. He saw these hardened young lads so rebellious and unresponsive to corrections that he simply turned them over to the Lord. He acted in accordance to the Scriptures; he put the situation in the Lord’s hands by calling for His help. Without compromising his message, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Please note that he did not send the bears; God did. By ordering the scare of these followers of Baal, God’s punishment precisely matched their crime. The intensity of God’s punishment was directly linked with the degree of the followers of Baal’s cruelty. Their behavioral depravation, intentional despising of a messenger of God, and possibly murdering him, made them candidates for God’s severe punishment. The intensity of God’s punishment was directly linked with the degree of the followers of Baal’s offenses.
I believe we have shown that Elisha had to defend himself from a mob of aggressive youngsters ready to cause real harm to the Lord’s servant. Elisha was obviously a fair and just man, as evidenced from his actions, but he knew that the mob who tried to kill him was really trying to kill God. His intention was to demonstrate that trying to harm one of God’s prophets would not go unpunished. Any intent to harm the prophet was considered a direct offense to harm God. Elisha’s appeal to his God caused a decisive action by the Lord. The sending of the two she-bears to disperse the mob ended up mauling forty-two youths. It was a reminder that attacking God’s message, and messenger, would not go without serious consequences. You would think this would strike the fear of God into the hearts of the entire area for years to come. But no—they continued their idolatrous ways, and the prophets of Baal kept on doing their diabolic works for many years more.
By now, it should be evident that God does not hate children. He is a just God that punishes the sins of mankind. I hope you understand that the Lord wants to warn you that if you disobey his rules, your punishment will be certain. It will happen when you face him on your passing towards eternity. The Bible will not make you a good person, but it will guide you to become the best you can be. To succeed, you have to do the job yourself by working on it every day.