This incident usually comes up questioning the morality of God, or of his prophets. The problem is the stark contrast between what appears to be overreaction of Elisha, and God, to simple jeering by little children, and the Christian way of behaviour taught in the New Testament; particularly the way Christ behaved when mocked.
“mauled the little children”
First let’s look at the incident on the road from Jericho to Bethel in a modern translation:
23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-24 ESV)
From that it is clear that we are talking about “small boys”, “little children”. The Hebrew adjective qatan, young, is the same used of Benjamin in Genesis, and suggests that we are talking about what today would be schoolboys, not youths in early 20s. Likewise the Hebrew verb for “tear” baqa`, does mean what the ESV says, “tear”, not just “maul” as seen by parallel uses in 2 Kings 8:12 and Hosea 13:8. This is not simply the two she-bears “breaking up the crowd” like modern police, or mauling the small boys. The number 42 clearly implies casualties, either 42 dead or at least 42 severely wounded. This was a major and extreme incident that would be remembered in the town for generations and be spread throughout the Northern and Southern kingdoms as – in modern terms – ‘front page news’. As indeed it is remembered, being recorded in 2 Kings 2 as the first encounter of the first work of Elisha’s ministry, after having established his role with the prophets by healing the spring at Jericho.
“Elisha looked back…”
Some commentators have remarked that this incident is out of character for Elisha, who, some say, is less confrontational than his master and predecessor Elijah. But perhaps that is exactly the point, placing this incident here as the first public act of Elisha, makes a clear statement to Jews in both kingdoms that Elisha was fully Elijah’s successor, empowered, and God is not mocked. It cannot be minimized by saying that “God did this not Elisha”. Although that statement is obviously true in the technical sense that God not Elisha brought the bears out the wood. But from the narrative, it is clear that Elisha knowingly caused this. It’s easy to imagine how it started. The road from Jericho eastwards to Bethel is the same road that Elisha had travelled westward Bethel to Jericho a few days earlier with his master Elijah:
3 And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” (2 Kings 2:3-5 ESV)
This road, like all of the Northern Kingdom, would in effect be hostile territory to Elijah and his disciples. Yet there is no sign that anyone dared come out of a town on the way and mock Elijah. Elijah’s call of fire down on the prophets of Baal (Northern Kingdom Jews remember, not Gentiles) would still be fresh in the memory of the local people. But then with news beginning to spread that Elijah has mysteriously vanished, and even his disciples have given up looking for him, the implication given by the geographical symmetry in this chapter is that Baal-worshipping towns and villages in the area were emboldened by the disappearance of Elijah.
And then who should appear on the road but the vanished prophet’s assistant, on his own, having lost his master. What happened next may be related to Elisha wearing the cloak of Elijah, if there was some distinguishing colour or pattern.
It is easy enough to imagine that it would only take one Baal-worshipping adult to start, ‘hah, look at him now’, as Elisha continued past the town for the boys to be emboldened, and follow this pathetic lone figure draped in his lost master’s cloak. Then, inevitably, one bolder than the rest would be the first to imitate their Baal-sympathetic parents and mock him. This is how mobs, even schoolboy mobs, start. The fact that the crowd of boys and adults had grown to at least 42, and perhaps two or three times that number, shows that Elisha had initially exercised some patience or ignored it.
But, knowing that mockery of him was also mockery of his master Elijah and of God, Elisha lost his patience and turned round. From the narrative we can visualize him staring at this growing and increasingly confident crowd of boys, probably looking too casting a scowl at the townsfolk watching and approving at a distance, and then Elisha “cursed them in the name of YHWH”. From that moment the die was already cast that something nasty was immediately going to happen. It could have been snakes, hailstones, leprosy, and in the event it was the summoning of two she-bears that until Elisha’s curse had been quietly minding their own business in the woods and avoiding humans. These bears then burst out of the woods, berserk, and targeted the children, not the prophet.
Stark contrast with Christ
Overall it has to be said this it is a fairly small punishment from God in the entire narrative of Old Testament history. But even allowing for the fact that these small boys were – from geographic context – from a Baal-worshipping town (or at least people antipathetic to Elijah and the prophets), and baiting the man now wearing Elijah’s cloak in the first week of his ministry, Elisha’s curse on the boys does not show the Christlike spirit of the New Testament.
The prophets too were flesh and blood, this is part of the honesty of the Bible. It is possible that just as no one ever mocked Elisha again, Elisha too in some ways learned from this incident in his first week. However shocked modern readers are by this incident they are probably less shocked than the people living in Israel were when it happened. It is a shocking incident, and one of the most clear from the ministries of any of the long list of prophets who followed in the line of Elijah that God is not mocked.
But against that the Old Testament also looks forward to man who is not like us, not like the all too human patriarchs and prophets of Israel, but an entirely different kind of man:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)