Did God Send Bears to Maul Children?

This is a common misconception that has been addressed a great many times. I’m not going to say anything revolutionary here. But this misunderstanding mostly arises from the King James Version translation, which reads:

23 And he went up from 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. 24 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.

2 Kings 2:23-24, KJV (emphasis added)

There are essentially 4 words in question. “little”, the first “children”, “tare”, and the second “children”.

But before we look at those, let’s get some context.

Remember that this is the rogue kingdom of Israel, under the Godless rule of Jeroboam’s descendants. And when he originally split from the kingdom of Judah he set up shrines — complete with golden calves — in Dan and Bethel. So, Elisha arrives in Bethel, a primary worship centre for Israel and that is the location of the event.

Next take note of what they chant at Elisha; “Go up, thou bald head”. They say it twice. So the question becomes go up where? Well, not so long ago Elisha was with his mentor, Elijah, when a chariot of fire came to take Elijah away up to heaven. I actually think context provides all the needed answers. It was common when expressing grief in the Old Testament to tare one’s clothing and shave the head. So then, what these “little children” are saying to Elisha is “Why don’t you go away like your mentor did?” Stop mourning that disappearing act and disappear with him instead!

So we see that the attack is not really about Elisha, but God. Near one of the worship capitals for rogue Israel these “little children” are telling Elisha that he AND his mentor AND his God can go back to wherever they came from because they are not welcome there. And this while Elisha is performing miracles all over and trying to call people back to the one true God… hmm… this seems quite a familiar scenario!

With that context, I think we can agree that a gaggle of toddlers was probably not this spiritually, geographically, and culturally aware. And so let’s take a look at our four contentious words.

“little” — This exact same Hebrew word is used by Solomon to describe himself taking the throne at around twenty years old in 1 Kings 3:7. It is also used to describe Saul when he was anointed as king in 1 Samuel 9:2. So “little”, then, is a relative term. One could be as old as 20 or at tall as Saul!

“children” (the first one) — This word is used of Joseph at age ~17 in Genesis 37 and of Isaac at 25+ years old in Genesis 22! Again, the term “children” seems also to be quite relative… now we’re looking at “children” as old as 28!

“tare” — broken, cut, ripped, burst, divided, split… yeah… they dead.

“children” (the second one) — This word can mean a male child of any age from infancy to the age of majority. Or it could refer to one member of a group, “children of God”, “children of Israel”, “children of wrath”, etc. So this could simply mean that the bear attacked 42 members of the aforementioned group. Again, we need not understand this as preschoolers.

So I think when we look at the context and the range of possible translations of the words, it’s fairly easy to make the case than some cocky young MEN decided to mock God and the messenger who sent them, then received the reward for their mockery. I’m not saying it’s nice. But I am saying that if you want to play stupid games, you can win stupid prizes.

Don’t play stupid games.

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