Bears Mauling “Little Children” in II Kings 2

There’s a rather obscure objection, but one I’ve heard raised, about the Bible in II Kings 2. After God takes Elijah up to Heaven in a sign of approval of his prophetic ministry, his successor Elisha is traveling to Bethel. Verses 23-24 in the KJV: “And as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city and mocked him and said unto him, ‘Go up thou baldhead. Go up thou baldhead.’ And he turned back and looked on them and cursed them in the name of the LORD, and there came forth two she-bears out of the wood and tore forty and two children of them.” Now, any atheist worth his salt knows that this is petty of Elisha and unfathomably cruel of God (I speak as a man) to curse little children and send bears to attack them, so let’s do a little case study.

In the first place, we might not need to have this discussion at all. It could be that the KJV translation is not particularly accurate in this case. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) The Hebrew word can mean children, but it is used elsewhere in Kings to denote Ben-Hadad’s troops (I Kings 20:17-20). In Samuel, it’s used for Kish’s domestic servant who accompanies Saul (I Samuel 9:3). I think the idea is more of someone in subordinate status rather than necessarily a Kindergartener. It’s like when a British officer refers to “my brave boys” or “my lads” when his troops are all grown men or when we call a waiter garcon(French for “boy”). The connotation of this word, however, is that that subordinate is not acting very subordinate, as here. It’s quite possible that the 42 “little children” in question are a gang of young ruffians out looking for trouble.

But when we consider the rest of Elisha’s life, do we see a primitive barbarian who we would expect to do something so obscene and frightful as to curse a toddler? Far from it! Kings tells two stories, one for Elijah and one for Elisha, of the prophets pleading with God for the resurrection of their hostess’s sons, which is granted. In Elijah’s case, this is after God has provided for a foreign widow and her son and brought her to faith in the God of Israel. In Elisha’s case, it’s after he’s prayed to God for his hostess to have a son when it looks like her husband is too old to sire one. Elisha, in addition to cursing the “children,” is willing to cleanse Syria’s best general of leprosy, in spite of the danger that might cause to Israel to restore him to the prime of life. When the Syrians send raiders to kill him and they are blinded by God, Elisha takes them to Samaria to have them captured, but then he refuses to allow the King of Israel to slaughter his prisoners of war. When someone loses an expensive iron axe head he has borrowed, Elisha retrieves it from the water. He weeps when he foresees the bloody judgment Hazael is going to bring on Israel. One of the recurring themes in Kings is condemnation of child sacrifice, and Elisha would definitely have agreed with that denunciation. He himself appears to have had a very caring personality.

So, what happened here? Was Elisha still so stressed about losing his beloved mentor or so vain about his baldness that he just snapped? Well, the one thing Elijah and Elisha were not gentle and understanding about was rebellion against God, which this clearly was. God had shown His almost unparalleled approval of Elijah by sparing him the pains of death, and these “children” were laughing it to scorn. This act of judgment is an object lesson in the fate of all mockers of God’s truth who don’t repent. We only think it’s overly harsh if we don’t take defiance of God when He warns us for our own good seriously. Moreover, this action demonstrates Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s place of prophethood, which was obviously intended to support his credibility before a very skeptical Israel.

One rather vexing controversy in Christianity is what happens in God’s justice to children who don’t have fully developed moral compasses. Does God send children to Hell? Well, the Bible isn’t absolutely clear on this, but here’s what we do know. The children are born sinners. They are not blank slates society makes a stain on. David, when he feels the weight of the most crushing guilt in his life, traces his evil nature back to the womb. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). The Bible is clear that Adam passed on a sinful nature to all of his posterity. If this seems unfair, Paul explains that Adam was our representative in Eden. Since he was created as a morally perfect being and fell anyway, we must accept that all of us would have done as our representative did, so we are all under the curse. After all, would God make a representative in a perfect world who didn’t perfectly represent us?

On the other hand, Isaiah does make a reference in one of his prophecies to, “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (7:16). It seems that God in His justice does take into account children’s less developed moral compasses. Also, when David’s newborn son with Bathsheba dies as judgment on his horrendous sin, David reassures himself, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). The traditional Reformed interpretation is that, when God takes the life of a child, it is because He intends to take their soul to Heaven. Certainly, there is no Biblical reason for parents of children who have died before they were old enough to have faith in Christ to think they will never see their children again because they are in Hell. After all, Ecclesiastes 6 refers to stillborn children having rest.

Whatever age the “children” here are, they clearly don’t have that excuse. They apparently are old enough to appreciate that all people die and express skepticism and downright scorn that anyone should go straight to Heaven without dying because they have served the Lord faithfully. So much for wide-eyed innocent babes.

What we have here is not an egregious act of barbarism on the part of the prophet, but a just punishment for rejecting God’s loving words of warning. We don’t actually know how old the “children” were or whether they were really children at all. One thing we do know is that the punishment for their rejection of a miracle was not unjust on the part of God, who wants His messengers taken very seriously when they speak His words.