A while back, a friend from church asked me to help her understand why God would have sent a bear to tear 42 children apart as recounted in the Old Testament account of the life of the prophet Elisha. After she had received my answer to this question joyfully, I thought it might be useful to post my answer to this question here. Other apologists will say that though the Bible describes them as children and mentions no physical threats, these “children” were the equivalent of a modern “street gang” who were torn apart because they were going to injure the prophet. While this is an interesting speculation, my answer to the question is much different.
In order to understand my answer, there are two principles that must be understood from the Scripture:
- Even the most righteous of the Old Testament prophets were sinners who deserve to die and need the grace of Jesus Christ.
- God delegates his authority to men He sends as Prophets and they have so much power that even their bones can bring people back to life.
Keeping these two principles in mind, a highly satisfying explanation of this story becomes possible.
A Rational Faith Section 7.7.3 The Great Sin of Elisha
During the history of the nation of Israel, God sent many prophets to lead the people after he sent Moses. Of course, these other prophets were just as sinful as Moses was and committed many sins in their own right. One striking example is seen in the story of the prophet Elisha:
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.
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)
Now, of course, the appropriate Christian response to a bunch of children calling you bald is to turn the other cheek and forgive them. Elisha, however, does not know the character of Christ and curses the children and they are torn apart by a bear. Elisha clearly misuses his prophetic powers in this instance and learns a tremendous lesson in these verses. Later in his life, Elisha shows that he learned his lesson when a group of men is sent to kill him:
Therefore sent he thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about.
And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?
And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.
And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.
And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed unto the LORD, and said, Smite this people, I pray thee, with blindness. And he smote them with blindness according to the word of Elisha.
And Elisha said unto them, This is not the way, neither is this the city: follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek. But he led them to Samaria.
And it came to pass, when they were come into Samaria, that Elisha said, LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see. And the LORD opened their eyes, and they saw; and, behold, they were in the midst of Samaria.
And the king of Israel said unto Elisha, when he saw them, My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them?
And he answered, Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master. (2 Kings 6:14- 22)
In the contrast between these two events in Elisha’s life, we see a process of growth and development that is impossible according to traditional Christianity. When he first becomes a prophet, Elisha misuses his prophetic authority and slaughters forty two children for making fun of him. Later in his life, he spares a group of men who were sent to kill him. According to traditional Christian theology, the prophets were perfectly righteous and holy like Jesus Christ and they could never have learned from a previous sin. A correct interpretation of the Bible, however, requires recognizing the sin and subsequent growth of the prophet Elisha demonstrated in these verses.