There is an episode in the time of the Divided Kingdom which causes some discomfort among the sensitive and those looking for errors in the Old Testament; a prophet of God causes some children to be eaten by wild animals. This, to us, may seem excessively vengeful, petty even. After all, they are only children.

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

There has been some work done to try to remove this particular stain on God’s reputation and to rehabilitate the passage so that the “boys” are young noblemen of an accountable age, political enemies of the prophet of God who came up from their rivals in the South to decry the actions of their king. I’m not entirely sure this is appropriate; virtually all English Translations render the Hebrew word “boys”. One Jewish commentary I consulted said that the word meant “people empty of the commandments”. It further elaborated that some taught that “baldy” did not refer to Elisha’s failing follicles but rather a waterless state in that godless region.

Regardless, I think the simplest and best answer is this: God saw this punishment as appropriate and proportional for the sin. It is not about the bad temper of this mean old prophet against some children or even about the unchecked rage of an Almighty who loves to maim and kill and rain fire from the sky.

Bethel is the home of one of the two Golden Calves of Jeroboam; it is the center of unsanctioned and unsanctified worship, a symbol of the great spiritual sins that the Northern Kingdom continued to carry on with, even until the exile in Babylon. The culture, the very fabric of that society was such that even young men (of whatever age) felt that chasing after the prophet of God and mocking him was a fun and acceptable pastime.

The bears don’t just kill some boys, they cut off the future of the families who mock God. It’s a clear message to these people who were once part of the Chosen People. Turn your back on God and he will turn away from you.

Ethan Kirl