Biblical Elisha and YHWH butcher little boys

You baldhead!: Young Boys Bullying Prophet Elisha

By Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

In this fascinating story, we read about the great Prophet Elisha who is harassed by 42 naughty children and the reaction that he gives to that, which consequently results into something rather unpalatable to the sensible human observer. Christian missionaries often make a big fuss over supposed rules in the Shari’ah that stipulate the capital punishment for those who offend the person of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. But in this wonderful Biblical story, we see that a most gruesome punishment awaits those who insult a prophet like Elisha. So, I do not think that those Christian missionaries can hold a candle to Muslims and play the holier than thou game when it comes to blaspheming prophets of God.

The story begins thus:

“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!” (2 Kings 2:23; New International Version)

Elisha was walking to Bethel and along the way a group of youngsters, who apparently did not like him, started making fun of him and telling him to leave. But there are a couple of problems with the NIV translation of the verse. Firstly, there were 42 individuals in that group that were offending Elisha and so to say that they were just “some boys” is a major understatement. Secondly, the word “boys” is quite inaccurate, because the original Hebrew says “une’arim qetanneem” which means “little children” as the King James Version correctly translates. So, the verse should say that “many little children came out of the town and jeered at him.” We can understand why the NIV and some other translations try to cloud the narrative by inaccurately translating the text: it may well be that the intention is to downplay the seriousness of the story that may put people off. We would heartily agree that it’s wrong for a child or an adult to make fun of others, most especially prophets of God, but in this instance, we have little children, who probably did not know any better and were playing the fool with a visitor. Would you severely punish them just for that? Most reasonable people wouldn’t, but Elisha and the Biblical God most certainly did:

“When he turned around and saw them, he called God’s judgment down on them. Two female bears came out of the woods and ripped forty-two of the boys to pieces.” (2 Kings 2:24; NET Bible)

I purposefully chose to use the NET Bible translation as it perfectly captures what transpired after the little children called Elisha “baldy”. And so, just for calling Elisha a “baldy”, the prophet called on God’s judgment on them by cursing them in the name of the Lord (YHWH) and immediately God reacted by fulfilling Elisha’s curse and had two she-bears rip and tear the 42 little children to pieces. Did this most horrifying scene disturb Elisha at all? No, it did not. In fact, he simply and casually walked away as the little children were massacred in such a grotesque and gruesome way: “And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.” (2 Kings 2:25; New International Version)
We may discern the following points of morale lessons from the story of Elisha and the butchered little children.

1) The Law of Blasphemy (e.g., insulting prophets) exists in the Bible and transgressing it may result in the offender’s unimaginable grotesque death.
2) Children are fair game in Biblical Law and in the eyes of the Biblical prophets and deity.
3) The Biblical prophets and deity show no compassion or mercy for children who are just naughty.
4) When you see little children getting dismembered, mutilated and butchered, as long as they deserve it, you can just whistle away and be on your way.

This Biblical incident has not sat well with Christian readers. It is so horrible and repulsive of a story that many Christian commentators have dismissed its historicity and relegated it to the realm of myth and legend. Commenting on it, Catholic Vincentian Priest and Bible teacher Father Oscar Lukefahr writes:

“Read 2 Kings 2 for legends about Elijah and Elisha. It is unlikely that these events occurred as recorded, but they are meant to teach respect for prophets. In particular, the story about the boys and the bears may not be in keeping with our modern sensibilities, but it is just the sort of story a grandparent might relate to a naughty little boy who sasses his elders. We can hear the grandparent’s warning: “You mustn’t talk like that. Let me tell you what happened when some bad boys called the prophet Elisha a baldhead”” [1]

The story is so incredibly shocking that Father Lukefahr describes it as offensive to our “modern sensibilities”. Likewise, the Biblical scholars John Rogerson and Philip Davies chucks the Biblical account into the vortex of mythical unicorns and legendary Leprechauns whilst describing the story as unsavoury:

“This doubt is well illustrated in a good example of a cycle of prophetic legends clustering round the figures of Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 9, where we find, alongside religiously appropriate prophetic legends, like that of the Shunammite widow or Naaman, stories about poisoned soup (all in 2 Kings 4-5) and bears killing cheeky children (2 Kings 2:23-24), which appear to be legends in a fairly unrefined state (and hardly exemplary).” [2]

According to Davies, despite being in the Bible, the tale which speaks of a Prophet calling upon Yahweh’s wrath upon unruly little children that resulted in their most tragic deaths at the claws of the bears is a legend that is “fairly unrefined” and “hardly exemplary”. And so, in spite of being instructional as Father Lukefahr says and being squarely in the Bible, Davies finds it hard to accept and identifies it as non-exemplary and so off to the legendary bin it goes. How easy it is to shred and dismiss God’s word as it stands whenever it doesn’t suit their feelings! Whether it is in fact mythical and historical, the harrowing account remains securely fastened in the Bible and Christians continue to have a hard time reconciling it with their cult of love. And we should rightly mention that this is but one of many horrendous Biblical accounts that rattle the sensibilities of reasonable readers, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Notes:

[1] Lukefahr, O. (1998). A Catholic Guide to the Bible: Revised and Referenced to the Catechism. Missouri: Liguori. p. 68

[2] Rogerson, J. & Davies, P. (2005). The Old Testament World. New York: T&T Clark International. p. 133

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