Goldilocks and the she bears
I’ve spent a little time reading about the mauling which occurred in 2 Kings 2:23-24, though not because it was a bother to me, rather I understand how it could impact others. To me God is the all knowing, all good maker of the universe, so in the same way that I’d saw off a man’s leg so to protect him from gangrene or some other issue, God in His wisdom removes these children for reasons He isn’t obligated to reveal to me. Still for others to feel the way I already do they need the accumulated case for Christianity, they need the Kalam cosmological argument, the teleological argument, arguments from objective moral value and the historic reliability of the Gospels, but we don’t have time for that, so we have to tackle the immediate objection before all else. In so doing that I first read:
‘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. 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.’
This Bible story (found in second Kings) seems to suggest the unthinkable, that an all loving God could use wild animals to tear children apart. Funnily enough though children of a certain age love the story to bits, it’s the more sophisticated adult who shifts nervously in his chair for having to explain why such and such is happening in their Bible. Researching there are many different ways by which to understand this portion, with some seeming more justifiable to me than others, and for their being unjustified many I’d simply throw out. One such example was when someone simply made the story legend, or allegorical or somesuch, not only does this style not belong to second Kings, but moreover it’s a behavior which works like acid towards the truth of the Christian faith. For example, what if I’m uncomfortable with the idea of demonic possession, that’ll mean we have to change the Gospel narratives from historic biography (which their writers believed them to be) to fable (which they aren’t), though how odd to make something legend simply because we’re uncomfortable or flustered, that’s no way with which to decide anything.
Having that in mind let’s try examining the chapter for what it is, including what it certainly isn’t as we go along. Firstly and the most damaging hit to the whole argument is that the words which read little children in the English translation are better translated as young men in today’s culture. Without going too in depth, the words “qatan na’ar” were originally used by the writer, though use of the word na’ar was also applied to Joseph at age 17, and even Isaac between the ages of 25 and 28 when he’s said to have been offered up to God by his father Abraham as a sacrifice (the same age I am now while writing this.) Though according to the Jewish writer Rashi he was as old as 37. So in the same way that we all naturally assume that Isaac must’ve been a small child we also wrongly assume when reading about these so-called children in second Kings, we carry our mistaken ideas through to the rest of the text.
The Jewish culture actually had a habit of calling men in their twenties, thirties and even forties children or young men, as seen in Deuteronomy when it’s written that rebellious children are to be stoned. Still not being content with translation arguments I’ll outline why this is true via context. I write that because I can’t properly read Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic or Classical Greek, and chances are you can’t either, so when we use these sorts of thing nobody ever leaves properly satisfied, for which we need context. That aside, upon hearing the above many nonbelievers are quick to say ‘Stoning innocent little children! I’m shocked, shocked and disgusted by this so-called “God” of yours.’ But in spite of the word children there’s nothing childlike about these rebellious people in the original context, again this is an argument through context:
‘If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’
Just like how we have no children who are drunkards today, they had no children who were drunkards back then. These people were grown, uncontrollable men. Still if the objection is “stoning adults is wrong!” then the answer is that these adults all agreed to the terms of living within the Jewish camp. They were free to abandon the camp and join the many pagan nations which surrounded and wanted to destroy the yet unmade Jewish state, choosing instead to stay means they agreed to the various laws which were being exercised within the camp. This was similarly true for the Jews who wanted nationwide incest, beastiality or same sex marriage. We see the same in nations or states which employ capital punishment so to deter crime even in the modern world.
Back to the chapter I mentioned before, since for this gang of young men to mock the prophet’s baldness is very telling. A shaved head was symbolic of the prophetic office which God called Elisha to serve, so to make fun of his baldness wasn’t simply contempt of the man’s appearance, rather what they were attacking was the idea of the God of Israel. They were nonbelievers and idolaters of the groves and golden images that apparently littered the land in those days. Also their cries of “Go up” weren’t randomly chosen words, rather they were referring to Elijah, Elisha’s mentor who had been taken up to Heaven prior to Elisha’s ministry. So to shout “Go up baldhead” was to say “Go up to your horrid god like the last holy man did.” These clearly aren’t kids we’re reading about, they were theologically sophisticated young men! Also seeing that the passage numbers the men torn (42) it implies that the mob was actually bigger than described, so we could be speaking of anywhere up to 43 young men (or more) who’ve formed a mob so to taunt this lone man of God. Furthermore being torn doesn’t necessarily mean the men of this mob were killed. I’m sure if we were so unlucky as to see a mob of people hurling abuse at a single man we would want to see those men get their comeuppance.
Whether or not you agree entirely with the answer given above, another aspect of these sorts of objection is that even by our limited human understanding we can comprehend a context in which this event could happen at the command of a just, loving God. So if we as finite, ignorant beings who still have so much to learn can see right conduct in these commands, how much more would a God who can foretell future events see right conduct in the seemingly unthinkable?! It’s exactly because God is in so awesome a position that He can make the right choices based on any given situation, whereas we would often struggle in such cases. Although if these were little children as the King James Bible reads I’d still like to see people realise that God is the very foundation upon which goodness is built, so to react in this knee jerk manner of being morally offended by this such passage or that is to underestimate the complexity of good and evil entirely. It’s not that we can’t be good without God, rather the problem is that there is no such thing as good in a Godless universe. More on this next time.
― Tyrone Cormack