Taking Another Look At Elisha And The “Children”

(More Bible Studies Available At www.marktabata.com)

It is written:

2 Kings 2:23-24-Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24  So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the LORD. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

Critics of the Bible often claim that Elisha cursed some joking children for making a foolish insult against him, and that this led to their being mauled.

Is this true?

Recently, Paul Copan wrote an excellent new study examine alleged attacks made on the Bible. Let’s notice several facts that he points out regarding this situation.

First, the word translated here as “youths” can be easily interpreted as referencing small children when that is not the meaning at all.

Copan notes:

““But They’re Just Kids!” The narrator uses two words for “youths”: nearim (2 Kings 2: 23) and yeladim (v. 24). Without much more context, we might get the impression that they were like little kids on the playground calling someone names. But are these just a bunch of small kids saying insulting things? First, these terms can—and here do—refer to young adults, not simply elementary-school-aged children. The book of Kings emphasizes this. Earlier in 1 Kings 12: 8, King Rehoboam foolishly listened to the advice of his contemporaries (yeladim) rather than the wise, experienced elders. The term nearim is also used in 1 Kings 20: 13–15, where it refers to young men capable of fighting in battle. In fact, various translations render this word as “young men” (NASB), “junior officers” (NIV), and “servants” (ESV). Second, one of these same words is used of David. He was the “youngest” (naar qaton) of his family (1 Sam. 16: 11). Indeed, when seeking to anoint a new king, the prophet Samuel looked at Jesse’s other “children” (hannearim), among whom was the strong, warrior-like Eliab (vv. 6–7). And later in that chapter David is called a “mighty man of valor, a warrior” (v. 18). In fact, this “young man” had already killed a lion and a bear before he killed Goliath (cf. 1 Sam. 17: 37). The term naar is also used of Joseph as a seventeen-year-old (Gen. 37: 2). Basically, this term can refer to an unmarried male who is not yet head of a household. 4 Third, not only can the term yelad refer to young adult (unmarried) males, but it may have an additional connection to a young man belonging to a royal house. This is the sole term used in 1 Kings 12 to refer to King Rehoboam’s young advisors (vv. 8, 10)—that is, “young adult males, usually with royal associations.” 5 In 2 Kings 2, these young royals confronted Elisha. They, “far from being little children, are young men of the royal and perhaps priestly establishment at Bethel.” 6 Fourth, the same number of young men killed—forty-two—appears in 2 Kings 10: there are forty-two young men from the royal house of Omri whom Jehu slaughters (10: 14). This number is symbolically connected to the concept of potential blessing or curse from God. That is, this connection indicates that this two-bear attack was the result not of a cranky prophet’s curses but rather of divine intent. 7” (Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?: Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments, 114-115 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

Word studies of this kind can prove very beneficial! I remember not long ago having a Bible study with someone about the faith of Isaac in being a willing sacrifice to Abraham (Genesis 22). My friend did not understand that Isaac was an adult when the events of Genesis 22 took place, and concluded that Isaac was just a child. “After all,”he said, “the Bible calls Isaac a ‘lad’ in Genesis 22:5.”

And it does!

Then we did a word study on that word translated as “lad” and discovered that often times in the Bible it was used to reference to adults! In fact, almost every example of this word in Genesis has reference to “lads” that are well into their adulthood!

For example:

Genesis 18:7-And Abraham ran to the herd, took a tender and good calf, gave it to a young man, and he hastened to prepare it.

Genesis 19:4-Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house.

Genesis 34:19-So the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he delighted in Jacob’s daughter. He was more honorable than all the household of his father.

Genesis 37:2-This is the history of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers. And the lad was with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to his father.

Genesis 41:12-Now there was a young Hebrew man with us there, a servant of the captain of the guard. And we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us; to each man he interpreted according to his own dream.

Genesis 43:8-Then Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones.

Genesis 44:22-And we said to my lord, ‘The lad cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’

In the same way that the “lad” Isaac was an adult, so the “youths”that accosted Elisha were adults as well.

Second, the place where Elisha had this encounter was in Bethel, a well-known center of idolatry and worship of pagan gods at that time. When we take this into account, we see that the life of the Prophet was actually being threatened by these young thugs.

“First, these youths mocked Elisha and showed disdain for his prophetic status. As Bethel was a center of idolatry, these young men represented treasonous covenant-breaking and a refusal to listen to God’s prophets. Note the contrast here with the earlier grateful reception of Elisha at Jericho. 8 There, the school of prophets bowed themselves before Elisha and declared of him, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2: 15). As a result, he brought healing to them (v. 21). Compare this to the harm that came to these young men of Bethel.” (Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?: Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments, 115 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

Others have concurred with this point of Copan.

“First of all, this was no minor offense, for these young men held God’s prophet in contempt. Since the prophet was God’s mouthpiece piece to His people, God Himself was being most wickedly insulted in the person of His prophet. Second, these were not small, innocent children. They were wicked young men, comparable to a modern street gang. Hence, the life of the prophet was endangered by their number, the nature of their sin, and their obvious disrespect for authority. Third, Elisha’s action was designed to strike tear in the hearts of any other such gang members. If these voting gang members were not afraid to mock a venerable man of God such as Elisha, then they would have been a threat to the lives of all God’s people. Fourth, some commentators note that their statements were designed to challenge Elisha’s claim to be a prophet. They were essentially saying, “If you are a man of God, why don’t you go oil up to heaven like Elijah did?” The term “baldhead” might be a reference to the fact that lepers shaved their heads. Such a comment would indicate that these young men looked upon Elisha as it detestable outcast.” (Norman L. Geisler & Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, 2384-2391 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

When we carefully examine the Bible text, we see once again that the claims of the critics of God’s Word are unjustified. Indeed, those who attack the Bible the most are the ones who study it the least.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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