Question: Why did God send bears to maul a group of ‘children’ who mocked the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-25)?
Quick answer: The Bible verses in question often unsettle readers because they appear to depict an overly harsh punishment by God for seemingly innocent children teasing Elisha.
However, the ‘children’ in 2 Kings 2:23-25 were most likely adolescents or young men, not small kids. Their mockery was not a benign tease but a significant act of rebellion against God and His prophetic succession. The incident and its severe repercussions emphasize the importance of revering God and His anointed messengers.
Let’s explore this for greater clarity.
Content (tap to jump to section)
- Brief overview of 2 Kings 2:23-25
- Misconceptions about the term ‘children’
- The intent to mock God
- A just response
1. Brief overview of 2 Kings 2:23-25
In 2 Kings 2:23-25, Elisha, God’s anointed prophet at that time, was heading to Bethel. On his way, he encounters a group of 42 ‘children’ from the city. They begin to mock him. Specifically, they target his baldness with their jeers. They also suggested he “go up” in a seemingly scornful reference to Elijah’s ascent to heaven. Elisha then turns to face them and pronounces a curse upon them in the name of the Lord.
Following Elisha’s declaration, two bears burst out of the nearby woods and maul the group of ‘children’. It is this part of the Biblical narrative that often unsettles readers due to the supposed harshness of the response.
2. Misconceptions about the term ‘children’
Firstly, let’s address the common misconception regarding the “small boys” or “children” mentioned in 2 Kings 2:23-25.
The crux of this confusion lies in the variances in English translations. For example, the New International Version (NIV) and the English Standard Version (ESV) describe the individuals as “boys,” whereas the New Living Translation (NLT) opts for “small boys,” and the King James Version (KJV) labels them “little children”.
For casual readers, these descriptions might suggest that Elisha severely overreacted to what seemed like innocent children merely playing – behavior that didn’t warrant a bear attack.
2.1. The fuller meaning of the original Hebrew term
However, diving deeper into the original Hebrew text clears up a lot of things. The word often thought to refer to young children is ‘נערים’ (na’arim) – which actually isn’t strictly limited to only young kids. Instead, ‘נערים’ more accurately encompasses young men or adolescents, indicating a broader age range than what the English term ‘children’ or ‘boys’ might suggest.
Here’s a video that offers a more nuanced explanation.
2.2. Other examples of the use of ‘נערים’
This interpretation is further clarified when we consider the broader application of ‘na’arim’ in the biblical context. It is a term frequently applied to individuals at different stages of youth, particularly those transitioning into adulthood.
For example, Joseph, at the time he was sold into slavery, was referred to using this term in Genesis 37:2. Bible scholars posit that he was likely to be around 17 at the time, illustrating that ‘na’arim’ can refer to someone in their late teens, rather than a young child.
In 1 Samuel 17, David is described as a ‘na’ar’ – an individual term for ‘na’arim’ – in the lead up to his encounter with Goliath. While his precise age remains unstated, he is portrayed as youthful yet possesses the vigor and prowess to engage in combat with a giant, suggesting a level of physical development not characteristic of very young children.
In essence, the terms ‘na’arim’ and its singular ‘na’ar’ extend beyond the contemporary notion of very young children. They represent a broader age category, often encompassing those entrusted with societal roles and responsibilities not typically assigned to small kids.
With this context in mind, it becomes essential to reevaluate the narrative of 2 Kings 2:23-25. The mocking ‘children’ mentioned are in all likelihood older than our contemporary understanding might initially suggest.
3. The intent to mock God
During biblical times, genuine prophets like Elisha were God’s direct spokespersons, and any mockery or disrespect towards them could be seen as a grave transgression against God Himself. This is crucial to understanding the real intent of the youths (‘na’arim’) in 2 Kings 2:23-25.
The mockery by the ‘na’arim’ of Elisha was not just a harmless case of youthful jesting. Instead, it was a direct and hostile challenge to God and His anointed representative. The term “baldhead” was also likely far more than an harmless joke about the prophet’s appearance. It carried the intent to directly disrespect Yahweh’s prophetic office and its occupant.
In addition, by telling Elisha to “go up,” the youths were also possibly making a sarcastic reference to the miraculous ascension of Elijah. This was meant to ridicule and belittle God’s chosen prophetic succession from Elijah to Elisha.
4. A just response
Taking things as a whole, we gain a far different understanding of 2 Kings 2:23-25.
The bear attack on the youths was not a mere act of random violence. Instead, it is God enacting His divine justice in response to their serious affront to His holiness. The attack abruptly ended their derisive behavior, and while it’s not clear if they actually died (i.e. the Bible doesn’t state the outcome), the severity of their actions remains clear.
In short, this entire incident serves as a humbling reminder for people to turn away from rebellion – evident in the actions of the youth – and to rightly obey and revere God as the Creator of all things. It is also a stark warning that continuously dishonoring or belittling Him could eventually lead to dire consequences.