Rotten Cherries: Elisha and the Two Bears

Editorial note: Believers like to cherry-pick favorite quotes from their religious texts, often ones they’ve heard from others, when they haven’t even read their scriptures for themselves. This is the first of an ongoing series wherein I’ll be sharing some of the less comfortable passages in the other 99% of their holy books.

You’ve all heard the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but have you heard the short, surreal biblical tale of Elisha and the Two Bears? Here it is:

“And he went up 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.”

“And he went thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.” 2 Kings 2:23-25, King James translation

That’s the whole story. The Bible doesn’t mention anything about it again, later in the book. Really, what else is there to say after this?

So, to recap: The prophet Elisha came to the town of Bethel. Kids came out to him, taunted him about his baldness, and told him to go away. In response, Elisha called down upon them a curse from God. God’s curse miraculously brought forth two bears from the woods. These bears mauled forty-two children. Then Elisha nonchalantly continued on his way.

Don’t take my word for it that this is really in the Bible. Go see for yourself.

In case this needs to be said: Elisha was considered a righteous man, and this was not a transgression from righteousness. Indeed, the miracle of the bears slaughtering the youths could not have happened without God channeling his power and making it so.

Because. God. Approved.

It’s popular for apologists to justify this by purposely mistranslating to “young men,” and then spinning this story so that it was a gang of adult hoodlums harassing Elisha, the prophet of God, as an act of rebellion against God (which would still not justify the response, in my estimation). They will tell you that the ancient Hebrew word translated into English here as “children” was “na’ar” — which could mean a “youth” up to as much as 30 years old. What they won’t tell you is that “na’ar” is modified by “ketan” (“little”) into the compound word “na’ar-ketan” in the text, which does, indeed, mean “little children” — not young adults.

While this particular apologetic is a combination of reading what’s simply not there and distorting what is, one can hardly blame apologists for this. They realize the big problem here: they have to reconcile a loving and just God with the actions He takes in the story to massacre seemingly innocent little kids over practically nothing.

As is often the case, the problem of reconciling fairness, justice, and goodness, with God’s actions in the Bible, leads apologists to get a little too creative with their readings.

To my view, Elisha’s and God’s actions in this tale are unjustifiable. Even if I believed in the God of the Bible, this is one of many examples of why I would deem this God unworthy of worship. If you are a believer, it is incumbent upon you to take a frank look at God’s action here, and wrestle with the issue of justness  for yourself.

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