I am in a Bible Study group that meets on-line each week. Every now and then, I write a follow-up to our discussion. This is one of those follow-ups. We studied 2 Kings 2: 19-25.
This section of scripture describes Elisha’s involvement with two cities, the first Jericho (verses 19-22) and the second Bethel (verses 23-25). It is Elisha’s involvement with Bethel that usually holds the attention of most readers of this section. Here are the Bethel verses in the King James Version:
24And he [Elisha] went up from thence [Jericho] unto Bethel: and as he was going up 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.
25And 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.
26And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.
As a child, I remember hearing this scripture read in church. It seemed pretty severe then, children cursed by God’s prophet for mocking him and then getting eaten by she-bears. It seems pretty severe now. Over the years, I have heard people cite this section of scripture as evidence that the God of the OT is not the God whom we meet in the NT or that this is scripture that can be disregarded as some sort of fable. The other night, however, we took a closer look at the Bethel verses and the earlier Jericho verses.
OT scripture is important to Christians. Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3: 14-17 on the subject:
14But as for you [Timothy], continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and 15how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)
The scriptures to which Paul immediately refers are those in the OT. Looking at our scripture in 2 Kings, one might well ask how the account of Elisha’s cursing of little children with such terrible consequences is particularly useful. Consider first, however, the translation of the Bethel verses in the KJV.
It turns out that the Hebrew word that the KJV translates “children” (na’ar) can also be translated “boy, lad, youth, servant, attendant”, according to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (“the Wordbook”). For example, the New American Standard Version translates verse 23 of 2 Kings 2 in part: “[A]s he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city . . . “ Maybe the KJV’s reference to those who go after Elisha as “little children” is not accurate.
Consider further: The two she-bears mauled (NIV) or tore up (NASB) “forty-two of the boys” (ESV). If the two she-bears could get to 42 of the gang, how much larger must the entire group have been?
But what about the KJV describing the gang as “little” children or the NASB referring to “young lads”? Although the Hebrew word for little (qatan or qaton) can mean “little in years”, it can also refer to “insignificant” or “small” in the small-minded sense or “low in rank.”
The Wordbook, in its citation to qatan, includes this comment:
Elisha [is] being taunted . . . by young lads (perhaps teenage ruffians) (II Kings 2:23) who as members of covenant families ought to have been taught God’s law whereby cursing his servant was tantamount to cursing him and rightly punishable by death.
Instead of thinking “little children”, think of a mob of teenagers in excess of 42 who might well have been threatening the life of the Lord’s prophet. It puts a little different slant on the matter.
We also need to examine the historical context of the Bethel verses as well. What was happening in that city during Elisha’s time? You may recall that “Bethel” is translated “House of the Lord”, as Jacob named that place. However, by Elisha’s time it was part of the apostate Northern Kingdom, and the worship of the Lord there may have been profoundly compromised by a syncretic worship of the golden calf, despite the presence of the “sons of prophets” to whom vs. 15 of 2 King 2 refers.
The Bethel verses refer to God’s judgment, obviously. As I mentioned, this is the God that many picture when they consider the OT. But we need to view the matter of divine judgment in the Bethel verses in light of the verses about Elisha in Jericho (vss. 10-22) that immediately precede the Bethel verses. In the Jericho verses, we find not the ruined city that God through Joshua and the children of Israel destroyed several hundred years earlier. Instead, we find a new city, recently rebuilt by King Ahab’s architect and developer, Heil the Bethelite (1 Kings 16:34).
As you may recall, old Jericho – or its ruins – had been under the Lord’s special curse since the walls came tumbling down. Joshua delivered that curse as described in Joshua 6:26. The Lord said that the city was not to be rebuilt. Heil, as the builder of the new city, suffered the particular consequences of his dismissal of that curse. But now there now was a new city, a city that was “well situated” (NIV), according to what the men of that city said to Elisha. Even so, the curse remained because, as those men also said, “the water is bad.” It made the land “unfruitful”, that is, the water carried “death and miscarriage”.
This sounds like more judgment from the OT God.
Except the Jericho verses are not about judgment. They are about restoration and redemption. We read that Elisha, while in Jericho, went to the spring from which the bad water flowed. Through him, the Lord “healed” the water and “healed it to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.” We have not dead water but living water newly here in the OT, showing a God who will bless and forgive and heal. Furthermore, his blessing will not be on the basis of any merit on the part of the land or the people, but because of God’s mercy and grace. If one wishes to speak about God and his judgment, one must also speak about his redeeming love for us.
Thus, Jesus said to the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria:
Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. [John 4: 13 – 14]
The Lord of the OT is the same as the Lord of the NT: the same Lord yesterday, today, and forever, “slow to anger and abounding in mercy” (Psalm 103:8).