Seriously God: Your holy men have nothing better to do than to call down your divine wrath on a group of carefree, playground loving, their whole cute lives ahead of them infants?! But of course, we don’t think that’s what happened: we wrote the card that made a better story. Sorry.
This is not a story about a bunch of little kids making fun of a prophet because he is bald, the prophet getting pissed, and God sending a pair of bears to maul them. That doesn’t even make sense. Why the hell would a group of little kids run up to Elisha and telling him to go away because he’s bald? Wouldn’t a prophet have compassion on a group of little kids simply acting like little kids? Wouldn’t the prophet curse the parents instead of the kids, just like you shoot evil looks at parents unable to control unruly kids in the supermarket aisle?
When critiquing the evil of this passage, most people are used to the King James Version:
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.
Some other translations identifying the ones who mocked the prophet Elisha as “boys” (NIV), “small boys” (ESV), and even “young lads” (NASB), but most are unaware that these translations made a specific decision on a difficult passage, because in the Hebrew there is no specific age attached to the identity of the mockers. We know their gender is male and that they are not elders in the community. Otherwise, we actually are not told how old they are.
The Hebrew says Elisha was approached by nə’arim qətannim. These are the words in contention. While qatan can be translated to mean “little,” it often has the nuance of something being “not important” compared to something else, to be “insignificant.” Similarly, na’ar is translated as “young man” or “servant” the vast majority of the times it appears in the Bible. Thus translations like the New King James Version uses “youths” for this passage and the Jubilee Bible presents both “young men” and “servants” in its translation.
We believe the International Standard Version (and a whole host of commentary writers and scholars who do their own translations, but what sort of a nerd reads those?) have the most appropriate translation of the passage:
Later, Elisha left there to go up to Bethel, and as he was traveling along the road, some insignificant young men came from the city and started mocking him.
This translation fits the context of the passage.
When the mockers tell Elisha him to “go up” (’alah) they are alluding to when the prophet Elijah— Elisha’s mentor— went up (’alah) in the chariot of fire in vs. 11. These insignificant young men aren’t making fun of Elisha because he’s bald; they are challenging Elisha’s power as a prophet of the Most High God.
At best their taunts are saying, “if you’re so great, ascend like Elijah did!” At worst, “we don’t want people who speak for God among us: ascend to heaven like Elijah did!” Either way their words are an assault on God, not Elisha’s baldness (but throwing the baldness in there was a dick move).
Think we’re full of more crap than usual? Read through all of chapter 2: When Elisha knows that Elijah will be leaving him, he asked that his divine power be passed on to him (vs.9-10) . After Elijah “goes up” (vs. 11-12)we are met with multiple stories showing the transfer of that power to Elisha (vs. 13-22). This is immediately followed by a direct challenge of this power by the group young men.
Let’s also not forget the numbers we do have: 42. This is not a small group: it’s a mob. Imagine being surrounded by 42 guys between the ages of 13 and 20 who are screaming in your face, taunting your bald head, and blaspheming against your God: how safe do you feel? (On the other hand, how safe would you feel surrounded by a group of 42 kindergartners? Seriously, how many could you take in a fight?
We should also take into consideration that we do not have the content of Elisha’s curse: he may not have specifically asked for she-bears to maul them, he might have called for bunnies. The passage only says He cursed them in the name of the LORD (vs. 24), and since the insult was to God, God took care of them His way.
Perhaps the things we say about God and those who attempt to do God’s will matter.
Perhaps there are real and metaphoric bears waiting for us to run our damn mouths one too many times.
But what do we know: we made this game and you probably think we’re going to Hell.