Someone recently asked me about the short and rather shocking account at the end of 2 Kings 2 (vv. 23-25), so this is an attempt to summarize how I think this passage is to be understood, based on the insights of recent biblical scholarship. It’s one of the strangest stories in Scripture, and is rather gruesome and quite perplexing. The essence of it is this. The prophet Elisha is on his way from Jericho to Bethel and along the way he encounters some “little boys” from Bethel who mock him with the words, “Go up, you baldhead!” Elisha then proceeds to curse them in the name of the Lord, upon which two bears come out of the woods and maul forty-two of the boys.
Most Christians don’t even know this account is in their Bibles, and most who do know it’s there would rather pretend that it’s not because it’s embarrassing and confusing. Skeptics on the other hand love passages like this because they seem to portray God in an evil light, showing him to be guilty of massively disproportionate judgment on a group of toddlers who are only having a bit of mischievous fun. Can’t Elisha laugh at himself? What can possibly justify his – and God’s – response?
But here’s the issue. This view is based on a gross misunderstanding of the text. When we pay careful attention to the clues in the account, a very different picture emerges. Here are some of the most important ones, along with a summary of their significance:
- Elisha is going to Bethel, which is not just any Israelite city. Bethel is the location of the central sanctuary of apostate worship in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
- The term used to refer to these boys in v. 23 does not mean “toddlers.” Rather, it has the sense of “unmarried male who is not yet the head of his own household” – often with a royal or priestly nuance. It’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament of, for example, Joseph at the age of 17 (Gen. 37); Solomon at the beginning of his reign (1 Kings 3), and David as a youth, when he does battle with Goliath. The word used in v. 24 elsewhere refers to Rehoboam’s young counselors who were his peers. “Little boys” is likely then a disparaging way to refer to the royal/priestly young men of Bethel.
- The young men mock Elisha by telling him to “go up, you baldhead!” “Go up” is a specialized phrase loaded with religious significance. Places of worship are “high places” to which worshippers “go up.” These young men are mockingly challenging the true prophet of God to join the apostate priests in their false worship at Bethel.
When these clues are taken into account, it’s clear that this passage actually has much more in common thematically with Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) than with something we might describe as a disproportionate act of cruel judgment on innocent children. The point is that God does not take apostate worship or mockery of his prophets lightly. That’s what this text is intended to show.