Question: Why would Elisha have two she-bears maul 42 children?

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Question: Why would Elisha have two she-bears maul 42 children?

The text is making a lot of rhetorical points that go unnoticed without additional context

2 Kings has a short pericope that reads as follows:

23 ¶ And he went up from thence unto Beth-el: 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 bald head; go up, thou bald head.

24 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 tare forty and two children of them.

25 And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.[1]

Some people have become concerned with this. Why would God kill innocent children who were just trying to have fun? How could Elisha be so cruel?

The text has a lot more going on that goes unnoticed without additional context. The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible offers the following commentary on these verses:

. 23–25: The episode of the cursing of the boys of Bethel who jeered at the prophet seems shocking to modern readers. For the ancient reader it demonstrated that it was dangerous to behave disrespectfully toward a man of God. 24: The narrator does not tell the content of Elisha’s curse, and whether or not he intended to kill the boys. Forty-two boys, “forty-two” is a number sometimes associated with death: Jehu kills forty-two victims (10.14), and the Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions forty-two judges of the dead.[2]

Also, the epithet ‘baldhead’ was one of “contempt in the East, applied to a person even with a bushy head of hair.”[3] Lepers had to shave their heads, so such a statement could easily have been a deliberate and malicious insult--something dangerous in a mob that can quickly get out of hand.[4]

The phrase “go up” likely was a reference to Elijah, Elisha’s mentor, being taken up to Heaven earlier in 2 Kings chapter 2:11-12. These youths were sarcastically taunting and insulting the Lord’s prophet by telling him to repeat Elijah’s translation.[5]

In summary we have:

a) A symbolic representation for death, indicating that there may be more symbolism being used behind the text.

b) Clear condemnation and mocking of the prophet, using culturally charged epithets to disparage the prophet.

c) No indication from the narrator as to what Elisha’s curse actually was. No indication as to whether he wanted this to happen.

d) A clear hint as to what the author’s intent was for the story: to teach ancient readers respect for the prophet.


Notes

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “2 Kings 2: 23-25” <https://www.lds.org/scriptures/ot/2-kgs/2.24?lang=eng#23> (accessed 25 December 2018)
  2. Thomas Romer, Commentary on 2 Kings; “The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible” (ed.) Michael Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins (Oxford University Press: London, England 2010) 536
  3. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A., & and Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (electronic ed.) (2 Ki 2:23). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  4. Matthew Slick “Why did God kill 42 lads merely for saying Elisha was bald?” (carm.org). Since this article is found on the CARM website, and since the website contains a number of critical articles, and FairMormon policy is to not link to critical sites, readers are encouraged to search the title in their browsers if they wish to read the full article.
  5. Got Questions “Why did the Prophet Elisha curse the “youths” for making fun of his baldness (2 Kings 2:23-24)?” <https://www.gotquestions.org/Elisha-baldhead.html> (accessed 25 December 2018)