Yesterday, Derek Rishmawy posted some comments about the troubling story in II Kings 2 about God sending she-bears to maul young people who were mocking the prophet Elisha. Jamie Duguid left an informative comment under Derek’s post about that story, from a different perspective. Among other topics, Jamie was disagreeing with the conservative Christian argument that the young people in the story were young adults rather than children, and he was also placing the story within the context of other passages in the Hebrew Bible.
Here is his comment:
First off, as an avid student of the Old Testament, I am always happy to see people taking the time to wrestle with these difficult OT texts. So it makes me happy to see you doing that! I have enjoyed a lot of your blog posts before, but since this happens to be a pet issue of mine, I am going to go ahead and jump in for the first time.
This is, of course, one of those classic difficult texts, and the idea that these were not little kids but menacing adolescents or something is argued by several scholars. However, it is definitely wrong for a couple reasons:
1) While it is true that the word for “boys” here, “naʕar,” can mean a young boy, a young man, or a servant of any age, dependent on context, it is modified here by “small, ” “qāṭān.” “Naʕar” may be a spectrum, but it seems to me that when modified by “small,” it must refer to the younger end of the spectrum. After all, what would we be meant to think of if we translated the phrase “small young men?” How are they small? The best explanation is that here, “naʕar” means “boy” in the sense of “child.”
2) The same children are referred to by the noun “yeled” in v. 24. Now this noun almost always designates very young children. While this noun too can mean a young man in some contexts (often where the youth of a young man is emphasized), it more usually refers to children.
3) We should probably read this story against the background of Leviticus 26:22, where one of the covenant curses is that wild beasts will attack the children of the Israelites (see also Deut 32:24-25). Leithart is right to bring up Bethel’s idolatrous associations, but misses the fact that wild animals attacking *children* is actually the sort of judgment we might expect upon such a wicked city.
4) It is not uncommon in the book of Kings for harsh punishment to be meted out for minor offenses. Think of the man of God in chapter 13 who is killed by a lion, even though his disobedience seems reasonable given the lie the second prophet tells. Or the son of a prophet who is destined to be killed (again by a lion), just for refusing to hit someone (1 Kings 20:35-43). What these passages, together with 2 Kings 2, have in common (other than the punishment always being meted out by wild beasts) is that in each case the sin involves insufficient respect for the prophet/prophetic word. I think these passages seemed harsh to their original audience as well. I think the point being communicated here is the extreme danger of deviating even slightly from the prophetic word. The very harshness of the passages is meant to make us sit up and say, “Wow, I guess God takes his Word very seriously, much more seriously than I do.” It is especially important to remember that these stories occur in the context of competing false prophets, who also claimed to bring the Word of Yahweh. Ultimately, the fact that Israel was not sufficiently careful to listen to the true prophets of Yahweh lead to catastrophe for the nation. These harsh moments along the way were meant to be warnings that could have prevented this.
What about the theodicy question though? Well, that is still difficult, but I don’t see that we gain much by trying to edit the children out of the story here. We would still have God’s threat of curses resulting in the death of small children in Leviticus 26:22 and Deuteronomy 32:25 to deal with. And the infamous Psalm 137:9. For that matter, this whole issue is raised simply by the doctrine of original sin: after all, if you say that all children are culpable for Adam’s sin, and thus deserving of divine wrath, but you have a problem with this story, you might want to go back a little bit and think about what “deserving of divine wrath” really means, because this is just the practical outworking of it.
I don’t have an easy answer to that question. God’s judgment seems overly-harsh to me too sometimes. But since I am convinced that Scripture teaches these things, I usually assume that the problem is with me. And maybe it is ok to be horrified by God sometimes… God is perfectly just in his wrath, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his wrath is something we will ever be totally comfortable with.
James here again. You may also be interested in this post that I wrote a while back about II Kings 2.