I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that I like Steve Wells. I have a personal theory about the way people interact with each other, and it's very telling when you see the way people interact in particular on the Internet. You see, if somebody outspoken disagrees with you, it's easier to dismiss them as a jerk if you don't really know them. The Internet gives us access to millions upon millions of potential jerks, but it gets more difficult to turn someone into a jerk if you've taken the time to know them a little better.
Now, Steve and I are hardly bosom buddies, but we've e-mailed each other and commented on each other's sites enough that I'd like to think we have a certain mutual respect for each other as people, without agreeing much in the slightest on theology. One thing that I do know about Steve is that one of his favorite Bible verses is 2Kings 2:23-24.
"And he went up from thence unto Bethel: 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. 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." (King James Version)
That may not be exactly a secret though, as he's blogged on it several times, the October 1st entry being a recycling of a post from 2007 as he implied. However, two days before I started my blog, on July 26, 2005, Steve wrote me an e-mail ending with: "I’d like to know a bit more about you and get a better idea of how you would respond [to the SAB]. How about sending me an example? I’d prefer something challenging, like say 2 Kings 2:23-24." So I could tell right away that Steve was a smart guy who knew how to cut to the heart of the matter, and I must admit, while I still have this e-mail, I thus also have record that I had no response.
"Are there any Bible believers that are not bothered by this story?" Steve asks. I can't answer for all Bible-believers, but yeah, I for one am bothered by it. There are issues in the Bible that don't have easy answers, and I agree heartily with Steve that it's easier to focus on why perceived contradictions are not contradictions than to deal with perceived cruelty. And when it comes to perceived cruelty, this passage takes the cake.
But that's the Old Testament...No, I'm kidding. There are a lot of easy cop-outs like that one could take. Actually, looking into this verse, I was amused to find that even one translation of the Bible incorporated some of the (potential) cop-outs into its wording.
"He went up from Jericho to Bethel. On the way, young [maturing and accountable] boys came out of the city and mocked him and said to him, Go up [in a whirlwind], you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!" (v.23, Amplified Bible)
For those not familiar with the Amplified, it tends to insert [in-line comments] to clarify terms, but frankly, I think they're stretching here.
But it's a good segue into the usual explanations. Some people have argued that the "little children" were really young men or teenagers, but aside from the fact that the Hebrew (n'arim q'tannim) doesn't support this (although it allows such an interpretation, as the same noun is used of Joseph in Egypt when he may have been as old as 39), it honestly makes little difference to most people. Is it really less cruel to kill 42 "young men" than "little children"? All other things being equal, I don't think this helps much.
Yet there is one more thing to say about this. Even if one assumes that these were indeed young children, how intimidating would it be to be accosted by a crowd of (at least) 42 kids who were clearly hostile to you? Have you ever considered how many five-year-olds you could take in a fight? If that linked site is to be believed, I myself couldn't handle more than 23, and as far as I can determine, even the toughest fighter can't take more than about 40. It's not completely unreasonable to assume that Elisha felt threatened, or perhaps was genuinely threatened. After all, do you think 42 boys just stood there and let the bears attack them? If the bears caught 42, how many do you suppose there were in total? My guess would be at least 100. Whatever the age of this group accosting Elisha, they weren't just a few kids sitting around, but were some sort of semi-organized mob. Many have suggested that this was some sort of Israeli street gang, a suggestion I find very believable.
The second inserted note in the Amplified Bible points to something that is likely very important about the story, although the Hebrew definitely doesn't support it in such a direct fashion. In context, it is very likely that the issue was not mainly a matter of taunting over baldness, but that these kids were saying effectively that now that the prophet Elijah was gone (see earlier in the chapter), they wish Elisha would go away, too. If so, this is probably key to the story. These kids, knowing full well that the great prophet Elijah had been taken up into Heaven in a miraculous fashion, mocked not only Elisha by their statement, but the great prophet Elijah and the God that both of them served.
Being involved in amateur apologetics for so many years, I've noticed a few interesting things about the Bible, you might guess. There is something that I've noticed about a handful of the more shocking verses in the Bible that I just realized has application here. In Numbers 15:32-36, a man is stoned to death for gathering kindling on the sabbath. In Joshua 7, the whole nation gets punished and one man's entire family is put to death for taking a few items from the city of Jericho. In 2Samuel 6, a man is struck down by God for touching the Ark fo the Covenant. And to not leave the New Testament out, in Acts 5, a man and his wife are struck dead for telling a white lie (not for stealing, see v. 4). These verses have something in common with each other, and with the verse in question here. They all occurred near the beginning of a new phase in God's work with the nation of Israel. When God starts something, like the nation of Israel, the conquest of Canaan, formalized religious practice in a newly-established kingdom, or a worldwide Church, He has this tendency (like it or not) to deal decisively with problems right out of the gate in order to send the message, "I'm serious about this. Really serious." This was the beginning of Elisha's ministry, and God wanted to let people know that this was not a man to be taken lightly, as he would be speaking on behalf of God. (Yes, essentially, I'm saying that however cruel you may consider God to be, at least He's consistently so.)
So what does it all add up to? An unruly mob of kids with no respect for authority gang up on a known prophet of God, and get punished for it. (Some have pointed out that the passage doesn't say that the kids were killed, but getting mauled by a bear even a little bit is serious stuff.) It served a purpose in punishing these kids for their lack of respect, punishing their parents indirectly for not controlling their kids and teaching them to respect authority, and letting Israel as a whole know that God expected his prophet to be treated with due respect. Sure, maybe one can think of other ways to have dealt with them, but the fact that this is shocking and violent is, in many ways, the very point of the story. Like the image above appropriated from Cracked magazine, it's outrageous, but hopefully you get it.
There's a message that is pretty consistent throughout the Bible that non-believers don't tend to get: from a spiritual perspective, mocking God is potentially as serious as--no make that far more serious than getting mauled by a bear. Clearly, that's not an easy answer, but in a very real sense, that's the only answer that makes any sense of this passage. I can totally understand that a non-believer would find that hard to swallow, and I respect that. Does the fact that I happen to believe that make me just another fundie jerk from the Internet? I suppose just like the passage itself, that's for you to judge for yourself.