A better way to read the bizarre story of Elisha and the bears.
Three times last year I asked a Christian audience this question: Which story in Scripture bothers you most? There are numerous candidates—the flood, the destruction of Sodom, the Passover, the conquest of Canaan—most involving large numbers of people being killed. But each time, I got the same answer: the passage about Elisha and the bears (2 Kings 2:23–25, ESV used throughout).
It is certainly a bizarre story. Elisha is heading to Bethel when a group of young lads come out of the city and jeer at him: “Go up, you baldhead!” So Elisha curses them in the Lord’s name, and two bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of them. Then Elisha heads off to Mount Carmel. As I said: bizarre.
What should we conclude? That God is happy to kill children for making a joke? That biblical prophets have no sense of humor? That, as one British newspaper columnist put it, God is the sort of deity who “feeds children to bears”?
Yet by reading the story through modern eyes, there are several elements we are likely to miss. For instance, we probably imagine a group of kindergarten boys having harmless fun. But the Hebrew word for “small boys” used in verse 23 applies to Joseph when he is 17, to Joshua when he serves in the tabernacle alongside Moses, to Abimelech’s armor-bearer, and to David as he goes to fight Goliath. Solomon calls himself a “little child” in 1 Kings 3, despite being both married and the newly crowned king of Israel. So we’re probably not talking about a bunch of 6-year-olds.
And don’t neglect the fact that these young men are coming from Bethel. In Elisha’s day, Bethel was one of two key centers of idolatry in Israel. Jeroboam had established …