The prophet Elisha was walking down the road toward Bethel when he was confronted by some little children who teased him by making fun of his baldness. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they taunted. "Go on up, you baldhead!" He reacted by cursing them in the name of God. Then, in a stunning act of retribution, two bears suddenly emerged from the woods and mauled forty-two of them. 12
"Now, Dr. Geisler, you insisted that God is not capricious," I said. "But that sounds like an outrageous response to a minor and silly offense. Mauling forty-two innocent little children just because they poked fun of some bald guy is awfully severe."
Geisler was well-acquainted with the issue. "The presupposition of your question is wrong," Geisler replied. "These were not small innocent children."
Having anticipated his response, I pulled out a photocopy of the passage and thrust it in his direction. "Yes, they were," I retorted. "Look right there," I said, pointing to the words. "It says 'little children."'
Geisler glanced briefly at the page, immediately recognizing its source. "Unfortunately, the King James Version has a misleading translation there," he said. "Scholars have established that the original Hebrew is best translated 'young men.' The New International Version renders the word 'youths.' As best we can tell, this was a violent mob of dangerous teenagers, comparable to a modern street gang. The life of the prophet was in danger by the sheer number of them-if forty-two were mauled, who knows how many were threatening him in total?"
"Threatening him?" I asked. "Give me a break! They were just making fun of his baldness."
"When you understand the context, you'll see that this was much more serious than that," Geisler replied. "Commentators have noted that their taunts were intended to challenge Elisha's claim to be a prophet. Essentially, they were saying, 'If you're a man of God, why don't you go up to heaven like the prophet Elijah did?' Apparently, they were mocking the earlier work of God in taking Elijah to heaven. They were contemptuous in their disbelief over what God had done through both of these prophets.
"And their remarks about Elisha being bald were most likely a reference to the fact that lepers in those days shaved their heads. So they were assailing Elisha-a man of dignity and authority as a prophet of God-as a detestable and despicable outcast. They were casting a slur on not only his character, but on God's, since he was God's representative."
"Still," I said, "isn't that a rather minor offense?"
"Not in the context of those days," he said. "Elisha justifiably felt threatened by the gang. His life was in danger. They were, in effect, attacking him and God. This was a kind of preemptory strike to put fear in the hearts of anyone else who would do this, because this could be a dangerous precedent. If a menacing mob of teenagers got away with this and God didn't come to the defense of his prophet, just think of the negative effect that would have on society. It could open the door to further attacks on prophets and consequently a disregard for the urgent message they were trying to bring from God.
"In fact, as one commentator said, 'Instead of demonstrating unleashed cruelty, the bear attack shows God trying repeatedly to bring his people back to himself through smaller judgments until the people's sin is too great and judgment must come full force The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack."13
"Last of all," Geisler added, "I'd say once again that we have to consider the sovereignty of God. It wasn't Elisha who took their lives; it was the God who created them who let the bears loose. And if he created life, he has every right to take it away. The attack of this gang on the prophet revealed their true attitudes toward God, and it's always a perilous path that leads to destruction when you defiantly curse and stubbornly oppose God."
I folded the photocopy of the passage. "Then it's a misreading of the original text to see these as mere children," I said.
"That's right," he said. "The Hebrew that was used to describe them indicates they were most likely between the ages of twelve and thirty. In fact, one of the same Hebrew words is used elsewhere to describe men in the army." As you can see, when everything is put into perspective, you get a much different picture than was originally supposed."
By now, Geisler's answers had deflated much of the case against God's character by bringing some balance and context to understanding his apparent intent in these controversial episodes. While these passages were still sticking points, seeing the other side did make it easier to give God the benefit of the doubt, especially in light of the preponderance of other evidence for his compassion and love.
There was also, however, a related matter about God's character that concerns many people these days: how he has dealt with animals. Why did he create a world where predators constantly stalk prey and where violent death is an integral part of life? And more fundamentally, doesn't that reveal something disturbing about his attitude?
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