It only takes a single verse to turn my world on its head. Let's start with the previous verse, to set the stage. From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. "Get out of here, baldy!" they said. "Get out of here, baldy!" He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24, NIV)
This account bothers me on a number of levels.
As an American, I take free of speech seriously. The old, "I don't agree with you but I will defend to the death your right to say it. I guess freedom of speech didn't exist in ancient Israel--at least not where God's honor and that of his prophets were concerned.
Also, we live in a culture which takes the rights of children seriously, as we should. Government steps in an removes children from their homes when they believe the children are being abused. Death is never, never will be, a punishment for any crimes committed by children.
The age of the boys is unclear. The Message describes them as "little kids." KJV calls them "little children." I don't think we're talking about teenage hoodlums who could be considered adults in some countries.
Of course, the boys' behavior offends me as well. Forty-two of them--let me say that again. FORTY-TWO hit on a single man. I assume Elisha was past the prime of life, since he was bald (one commentator said that might have other implications, because most men kept their heads covered.).
So, 42 kids were a small army that, apart from divine intervention, could probably kill Elisha.
And making fun of his baldness. Kids are unbelievably cruel, always have been apparently. I can just imagine a bunch of 9-10 year olds boys thinking this was the height of humor. But still . . . in our society, we would expect Elisha to ignore the taunts.
This feels the most like an example set by God at the beginning of a new act in the human drama.
The Bible has several of these uncomfortable encounters:
- Two of Aaron's sons were killed for offering strange fire right after the tabernacle was dedicated.
- A man died for touching the ark of the Covenant at the beginning of David's reign (the kingdom period)
- Here, 42 boys died for taunting Elisha--towards the beginning of the period of the prophets.
- In the New Testament, Annanias and Sapphira both die for lying about the money they held back--at the beginning of the church.
Does that feel like a pattern to you? Each time, God wanted to earmark the change as sacred, holy. He took extreme measures to set apart the movement.
Except for the man touching the ark, the people killed had chosen to sin. In the case of the boys, given a mob mentality, I wonder if they would have stoned Elisha. They did tell him to "go away" (some translations say, "go up," perhaps telling him to follow Elijah to heaven.)
So, these weren't innocent bystanders God chose to zap.
Another factor: Perhaps Americans don't hold children accountable enough. Centuries before Elisha, Solomon had said "Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right." (Proverbs 20:11)
Ezekiel points out that a child doesn't die for his father's sin--or a father for his son's. So, these children chose to sin all on their own. Their environment didn't help. They lived in Bethel, idolatry central in the northern kingdom, where the golden calves were worshipped.
If I see these boys as a biblical version of Lord of the Flies, I find it easier to accept.
If I attribute it to God setting apart Elisha and the prophets who came after him as holy, I find it easier to accept.
But it still makes me uneasy.