A few years ago, an atheist asked me to explain II Kings 2:23-24. He said, “How can you worship a God who kills young children for just making fun of a bald man?” At that instance, I was caught off-guard since it is my first time to be asked this question.
First, let us read the verse:
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!”
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.
How about you? Can you satisfyingly explain this verse and defend your faith? I believe this is a very important topic that we need to discuss. It will not just help us defend our faith, but also increase our faith in the mercy and justice of the living God whom we serve.
In this blog post, let me give you five points on how to easily explain this difficult verse.
Point no. 1: Know the meaning of the word “youths”
King James Version use the word little children and New King James Version use the word youths. This makes it really difficult to see why God would allow children be killed by merely calling Elisha bald.
The Hebrew word for youths is na’ar. According to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, na’ar means a boy; a person from the age of infancy to adolescence; or a young man.
Judging by the reaction of Elisha, these people are old enough to know what they are doing and they can be held accountable for their actions. We can imply that these are less likely to be children, but rather teens or young adults. Thus, we see other Bible translations such as International Standard Version and Jubilee Bible that render this as young men.
Point no. 2: Examine their mockery
This group of people mocks Elisha by saying, “Go up, you baldhead”. Whether Elisha is really bald or not, it can expose the real intention and motivation of these people.
Remember in the same chapter, we can read about Elijah’s ascension. One explanation is that these people are happy that Elijah is now gone and they want Elisha to immediately follow. Another explanation is that they did not believe the report of Elisha that Elijah has already ascended; thereby, making Elisha a liar.
The mockery of Elisha can also be considered as a direct insult to God. Remember that Elisha is an anointed prophet (II Kings 2:9). He represents the way of God. By mocking Elisha, they have also mocked God.
Point no. 3: The number of the youths
In verse 24, we read that there were forty-two youths killed. So we know that this is not the normal small group of children mocking an older person. This is an organized group of people or maybe a mob that poses a great threat to Elisha. They are a group of people who gathered themselves together for the sole purpose of mocking him.
Point no. 4: There’s no word “kill” in this passage
If you read the passage again, you will not find the word kill here as what most skeptics and atheists would immediately assume. Actually, the word used here is “mauled” and not killed. The Hebrew word for mauled is baqa (baw-kah). Its meaning, according to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, is “to cleave; rend, break, rip or open, make a breach, break forth, be ready to burst, cut out, divide, hatch, and tear”. So you see, the Hebrew word here allows for a wide range of injury and not just being killed.
Point no. 5: The place is Bethel
Bethel means the house of God, however, the people there does not live up to this name. If you read I Kings 12:25-33 and II Kings 10:29, you will see that Jeroboam instituted idolatrous worship in Bethel. People in Bethel want to get rid of anyone or anything that represents God. Since Elisha is a prophet, they want him to be out of the place. We can suppose that the custom of these people is to ridicule any prophet in their place as much as possible to drive them away.
These are the five points that you can use to explain why the young children were mauled by two bears. If you read the passage, in the surface, it might sound so cruel. Nevertheless, you need to understand the deeper meaning of the passage.
So given the meaning of the youth, their mockery, intimidating number, the absence of the word kill, and the nature of the people within the town of Bethel, we can, therefore, conclude that their punishment is justified.
II Kings 2:23-24 does not show God as an angry and unjust God; but, rather it shows the mercy of God. Instead of letting these young men go on in their lives hurting themselves and others, God is merciful enough to teach them a lesson to respect God, the elderly, and essentially other people. Finally, time will come when God will directly step into the affairs of men and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).