And he [Elisha] 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.
(II Kings 2:23-24, King James Version)
These two verses relate one of the most obscene stories I have come across in the Bible, on a number of levels. In this story, Elisha is walking into the city of Bethel. He is accosted on his way into the city by a crowd of children who tease or harass him (depending on how one wants to interpret the passage), saying “Go up thou bald head, go up thou bald head.” Elisha turns back upon the mocking children and curses them in the name of the LORD. In response, the LORD sends two she-bears charging out of the nearby forest to rip apart 42 of the children.
To place this scene in some perspective, an average school classroom today holds more than 42 children. The description of the children in II Kings differs only slightly between translations. The New International Version and The Living Bible render them “some youths” and “a gang of youths” respectively, in an attempt to soften the blow of the story. However, the King James Version, which calls them “little children,” is the closest in accuracy in this particular case. The original Hebrew word translated “little children” is na’ar, a word that denotes a boy between infancy and adolescence. This word is not isolated in the text, being qualified by the Hebrew word qatan, meaning “small” or “diminutive,” as in age or importance.
But it does not much matter if the mockers in this story are little children or mature gang members. According to the story, God sent two bears to rip 42 young people to shreds for the “crime” of calling Elisha “bald head.” Imagine the parents of these children arriving on the scene to make an attempt at identifying the pieces of their child from the pieces of other children in this 42-child mass of carnage. If my reader is grossed out, I have proven my point. This is a story contained in one of the most revered books of all time, a story that would be widely considered highly objectionable by most people if it was found anywhere else (for instance, this could not be shown on television, and any faithful and realistic film depiction would warrant an R-rating or worse).
The few Christians who are familiar with this story resort to their usual apologetic contortions in trying to justify the violent excessiveness on display in this passage. A common argument is the one hinted at above, wherein the apologist attempts to make a case that the “little children” of the KJV and most other versions is a poor translation, that these children were actually a group of teenagers and young adults who were threatening Elisha with physical harm. This is highly unusual coming from people who claim to take the Bible literally, because this reading is nowhere to be found in the text.
This story in II Kings is reminiscent of a threat levied by God in Leviticus 26:22: “I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children . . .” Why should God punish innocent children as a means of punishing parents?