Is 2 Kings 2:23-24 Immoral?
Some skeptics complain about 2 Kings 2:23-24 because God causes bears to maul “children”, thus an immoral act. Let’s look at the passage.
2 Kings 2:23-24
“From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.”
The first thing that must be taken into account is the age of these youths. Most skeptics point to the King James Version’s rendering of this passage to answer this crucial question.
“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.”
According to the KJV, these youths were mere children who should have been given a lot of leeway.
However, if one looks closely, this was a poor translation on the KJV’s part. The Hebrew used for the youths, neurim qetannim is best rendered ‘young lads’ or “young men.” This term is used in several Old Testament passages.
One of these usages describes Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties. It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old. Other usages include 1 Samuel 20:35, 1 Kings 3:7, and 1 Kings 11:17. In fact, it’s even used to describe soldiers’ in 1 Kings 20:14-15.
It’s clear from these passages that the youths mentioned in 2 Kings 2:23-24 were not small children that were irresponsible and immature and shouldn’t have been harshly punished; this passage describes youths that could have been 30 years old!
The second thing to consider is the amount of youths in this group that was jeering Elisha.
It says in the passage that the two bears mauled 42 of them. It does not say that the two bears mauled and killed all of the youths. This must mean that there were more than 42. It’s a safe guess that there were at least 50 youths in this group.
Recapping, there was a group of at least fifty 12-30 year old youths mocking a profit. This is the interesting part with these youths.
Why would young men be walking through a town in such large numbers? In the Ancient Near East, every family member was required to make a contribution in order to help the family survive. The unity of the family was absolutely crucial to their survival. This is why the Old Testament deals very harshly with rebellious and lazy children who will not work or listen to their parents.
So now, why where these young men banded together in such large groups, and why weren’t they at home contributing to the wellbeing of their own families? I think the answer is clear, given the historical context.
It’s a good hypothesis that they were a gang of rovers who survived on their own, probably by robbing others of their lives and property. They certainly didn’t own their own farms or hunted for game.
In this time, there was no welfare, no food stamps, and no insurance. If your money was stolen, or your food supply was raided, that could very well lead to the starvation of yourself and your family.
Robbery and thievery were far more serious crimes in the Ancient Near East than today.
It is also to be noted that this incident took place between Jericho and Bethel, a center on anti Yahweh worship.
Recapping again, Elisha was taunted by a group of young men from 12-30 years of age, and were likely members of a gang that robbed people of their lives and property.
Now that we’ve established the age, approximate number, and the activities this group of youths engaged in, let’s look at Elisha’s place in this passage.
Why was he bald? Baldness was not in fashion at the time of this passage. When a man was bald, it meant that he was mourning the death of someone close to him.
This lines up with the passages prior to this. Elijah, his master, had recently died and was taken into heaven as described in 2 Kings 2:11-12:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.”
Tearing apart your clothes was also a customary sign of sorrow, as demonstrated in Genesis 37:34, 2 Samuel 13:31, and Isaiah 31:11.
So, Elisha was mourning the death of his master, Elijah. This is why he was bald, and why he tore his clothes earlier in 2 Kings.
Finally, we will examine what the teasing of Elisha really was. Was it just harmless jeering at a man’s bald head? No. Not at all.
Most skeptics don’t note when the youths say “Go on up, baldy. Go on up.”
The significance of this portion is not to be underestimated. When they said “Go on up”, this was a sarcastic reference to Elijah’s ascension, a suggestion that the event is doubted and that it is a charge that Elisha actually murdered his master and that his mourning is a sham.
Let’s do a final recap: A broken and mourning Elisha was on his way to Bethel, when a gang of at least 50 young men who were likely members of a gang that made their living from robbing people of their lives and property, in a center of anti Yahweh worship mocked him, and sarcastically referred to Elijah’s ascension and suggested that a prophet of God murdered his master and that his mourning is a sham. In response, Elisha called down divine judgment upon this robbing and murdering gang, and God responded by sending 2 bears to maul some of them.
In light of the historical context, God’s judgment upon these young men was very fair.
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