(2 Kings 2:23-25) Did God Kill Children as a Result of Elisha’s Curse?
“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. And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.” (2 Kings 2:23-25)
Understandably, this incident surely raises some eyebrows as we consider God and His character of love. How is it that Elisha cursed these young children “in the name of the LORD” which resulted in forty-two of them being torn apart?
God Killed Little Children?
First, let’s consider the fact that these “little children” were not necessarily under the age of twelve. Understandably, this may be a moot point to some, but to others the question arises whether it was a cruel thing for forty-two little children to be destroyed simply for mocking Elisha’s baldheadedness. The accusation of course is that God is a severe blood-thirsty tyrant no matter the age of the so-called “victim” of God’s vengeful wrath.
The Hebrew phrase translated as “little children” here in the King James Version is קָטָן (qatan) נַעַר (naar) which carries the meaning of “small boys, young men, youth.” In 1 Kings 3:7 Solomon says, “And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child (qatan naar).” Some suggest that Solomon was in his mid-twenties while an ancient book called, Apostolical Constitutions II (Ed. Lagarde 14, 17) suggest that he may have been as young as twelve: “Solomon was King of Israel when twelve years old.” Other places in Scripture seem to indicate that qatan naar refers to “young men” (1 Samuel 20:35; 1 Kings 11:17). In John Gills’ Exposition of the Bible, he says:
“The word for ‘children’ is used of persons of thirty or forty years of age; and though these are said to be ‘little’, they were so well grown as to be able to go forth out of the city of themselves, without any to guide them, or to take care of them; and were of an age capable not only of taking notice of Elijah's baldness, but knew him to be a prophet, and were able to distinguish between good and evil; and, from a malignant spirit in them, mocked at him as such, and at the assumption of Elijah; which they had knowledge of, and to whom, taught by their idolatrous parents, they had an aversion.”
And Adam Clarke writes:
“But were they little children? for here the strength of the objection lies. Now I suppose the objection means children from four to seven or eight years old; for so we use the word: but the original, נערים קטנים nearim ketannim [alternate spelling of qatan naar], may mean young men, for קטן katon signifies to be young, in opposition to old, and is so translated in various places in our Bible; and נער naar signifies, not only a child, but a young man, a servant, or even a soldier, or one fit to go out to battle; and is so translated in a multitude of places in our common English version. I shall mention but a few, because they are sufficiently decisive: Isaac was called נער naar when twenty-eight years old, Genesis 21:5-12; and Joseph was so called when he was thirty-nine, Genesis 41:12. Add to these 1 Kings 20:14 : ‘And Ahab said, By whom [shall the Assyrians be delivered into my hand?] And he said, Thus saith the Lord, by the Young Men, בנערי benaarey, of the princes of the provinces.’ That these were soldiers, probably militia, or a selection from the militia, which served as a bodyguard to Ahab, the event sufficiently declares; and the persons that mocked Elisha were perfectly accountable for their conduct.” (Clarke's Commentary on the Whole Bible, words in first bracket my own)
So, the use of the word “little children” does not suggest they were at an age of unaccountability. They were most likely a local gang of young teenagers in the town of Bethel which had become a place centered in idolatry and immorality (1 Kings 22:51-53; 2 Kings 1:2). Albert Barnes also notes, “The persons really punished were, not so much the children, as the wicked parents, whose mouth-pieces the children were, and who justly lost the gift of offspring of which they had shown themselves unworthy.”
Another thing to briefly look at before we move on is if they were even killed by the bears or just mauled. There are several translations that use the word “maul” instead. The word “maul” means “an attack by an animal causing serious injury.” The Hebrew word is בָּקַע (baqa) which Strong’s Concordance defines as: “to cleave, break open or through.” So, it is quite possible that they were not killed but severely injured.
But whether they were small children, killed or severely injured, how do we explain God’s character in dealing with this situation?
What “in the name of the LORD” Means
Let’s now discuss Elisha’s curse “in the name of the LORD.” There have been numerous wars and killings “in the name of the LORD” that God has never condoned. Jesus once said:
“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor Me.” (John 16:2, 3)
However, in Elisha’s case his cursing was within the boundaries of God’s righteousness; “for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). In our article entitled What is God’s Wrath? we learn that God’s wrath is far different than the way man exercises wrath. The phrase “in the name of the LORD” is telling us that Elisha’s curse was in harmony with the “name” (character) of the LORD. The book of Exodus tells us what “the name of the LORD: is:
“And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him (Moses) there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)
When someone proclaims the name of the LORD, it is not simply to know how to pronounce His name correctly. God’s “name” is to be understood as His “character.”
God’s name is:
- The LORD [Jehovah], The LORD [Jehovah] God
- Abundant in goodness and truth
- Keeping mercy for thousands
- Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin
- Will by no means clear. The words “the guilty” are supplied by translators. God clears no one. This means He will not remove the natural consequences of sin. Instead, He …
- Visits (observes/oversees) the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. This means He will allow those who do not repent to reap what they themselves have sown. He oversees and permits events to play out (snowball effect) throughout the third and fourth generations, thus allowing sin to destroy sin.
There is nothing “in the name of the LORD” that says anything about God zapping with lightning bolts those who mock Him, cutting off the heads of those who irritate Him, nor burning alive those who whom He has run out of patience with. These character traits are simply NOT “in the name (character) of the LORD.”
So, how does Elisha’s curse fit in here? Our text in question says the children “mocked” Elisha. The Hebrew word for “mocked” is קָלַס (qalas). Interestingly, when Elisha “cursed” the children, the Hebrew word that is used is קָלַל (qalal) which is in the same word-family as qalas. So, whatever Elisha was doing here, he was mirroring back the children’s mocking upon them. He was not acting out in retaliation or unrighteousness, stooping down to the children’s wicked level. Proverbs 24:29 says, “Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me.” Instead, this cursing is known as a reflected curse as can be seen by God’s description to Abraham when He said:
“And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2, 3)
Clearly, God is not going against His own character. The curse which comes from others is simply reflected onto their own heads.
“Then I prayed, ‘Hear us, our God, for we are being mocked. May their scoffing fall back on their own heads, and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land!.’” (Nehemiah 4:4; New Living Translation)
“The trouble they make for others backfires on them. The violence they plan falls on their own heads.” (Psalm 7:16; New Living Translation)
The passage in question says Elisha cursed them “in the name of the LORD.” Whatever Elisha was doing, he was doing it in complete alignment with God’s righteous name, which is always “merciful, gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” He was not clearing them of their unrepented iniquity but permitting the results of what they themselves had sown according to their own evil choices. More on this in a bit.
“Bless, and Curse Not”
Jesus, Paul, and James add some more indirect context to our question when discussing the topic of cursing:
“But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.” (Luke 6:27, 28)
Here Jesus shows that blessing those who curse (or mock) you is the righteous thing to do. In fact, in verse 35 He says this is exactly how God acts:
“But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”
“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.” (Romans 12:14)
Here, Paul says not to curse others. How does this harmonize with Elisha’s curse “in the name of the LORD”?
“Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” (James 3:10, 11)
James says blessing and cursing should never come out of the same mouth. Again, how can we harmonize these things? After all, didn’t Jesus curse the fig tree?
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
“And when He (Jesus) saw a fig tree in the way, He came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever. And presently the fig tree withered away.” (Matthew 21:19, 20)
The example of the fig tree is very important as a symbol of judgment. Jesus might have commanded His disciples to cut down the fig tree with axes and sword. He might have broken off all its branches and burned it with fire. He might have opened the earth and swallowed it. But He simply spoke to it and the water in the tree was removed causing the tree to wither. Water is a symbol of the Spirit:
“In the last day, that great day of the Feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive …” (John 7:37-39)
The water was withdrawn from the tree showing us how the Spirit of God is withdrawn from the sinner. In this example we have a demonstration of the judgment of God in His Son. This acted parable shows you how God destroys; He withdraws His Spirit which has been persistently rejected by the sinner and allows the sinner to destroy themselves.
That barren tree, flaunting its pretentious foliage in the very face of Christ, was a symbol of the nation of Israel as they rejected His Spirit.
“Why then is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they hold fast deceit, they refuse to return … I will surely consume them, saith the LORD: there shall be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things that I have given them shall pass away from them.” (Jeremiah 8:5, 13)
“I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the firstripe in the fig tree at her first time: but they went to Baalpeor, and separated themselves unto that shame; and their abominations were according as they loved.” (Hosea 9:10)
After Jesus spoke those words concerning the living water and His Spirit, there was a great division among the people:
“When they heard these words, some in the crowd were saying, ‘This really is the Prophet,’ while others were saying, ‘This is the Messiah!’ But some were saying, ‘The Messiah doesn’t come from Galilee, does He? Doesn’t the Scripture say that the Messiah is from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of Him. Some of them were wanting to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him.” (John 7:40-44, International Standard Version)
In cursing the fig tree, the Savior desired to make plain to His disciples the cause and the certainty of Israel’s doom. Notice Jesus’ words carefully, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever." The word, “let” means “to permit.” Jesus Himself was not strangling the life from the tree out of violent anger, He was merely permitting it to die on its own by the withdrawal of His sustaining life-giving presence. This was to show Israel their future if they continued to reject His life-giving Spirit.
In the book of Jeremiah, we read:
“Be thou instructed, O Jerusalem, lest My soul depart from thee; lest I make thee desolate, a land not inhabited.” (Jeremiah 6:8)
When God’s soul (or Spirit) departs from Jerusalem, the only result is a “desolate” land; “a land not inhabited.”
Because they were rejecting Jesus when He was here on earth, Israel was not bearing the fruits of righteousness. Jesus warned them of their impending doom:
“Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner [speaking of Himself]: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” (Matthew 21:42, 43)
“I (Jesus) am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without Me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” (John 15:1-7)
Jesus then echoes the prophecy in Jeremiah we read earlier by saying:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Look, your house is left to you desolate.” (Matthew 23:37, 38; Berean Study Bible)
The Connection Between the
Nation of Israel and the Curse Upon the Children
Now, why on earth am I going on and on about the nation of Israel? We read in our text in question that Elisha had traveled into “Bethel” (2 Kings 2:23). Bethel (now known as Beitin) is a small village in Israel that lay 12 Roman miles north of Jerusalem. As mentioned earlier, although “Bethel” means “House of God”, it became a place centered in idolatry and immorality. In Bethel, King Jeroboam had changed the days and months for the sacred Festivals to days and months “devised of his own heart” and set up altars for calf worship (1 Kings 12:32, 33).
The gang of boys harassed Elisha, telling him to leave Bethel. Elisha, filled with the Spirit of God, “went from thence to mount Carmel” (verse 25). This was how Elisha’s curse came to fruition, he simply left, withdrawing the Spirit of God from them.
After Adam sinned in the Garden, God says, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Genesis 3:17,18). The New Living Translation says it more accurately: “the ground is cursed because of you.” In saying, “thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee”, God was not cursing the ground Himself out of anger, He was just reiterating the curse caused by Adam’s sin. The same goes for Jesus when He said, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever.” He was simply reiterating the curse caused by the nation of Israel themselves. Look what God says in the book of Hosea:
“I (God) will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps, and will rend [tare] the caul of their heart, and there will I devour them like a lion: the wild beast shall tear them. O Isreal, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thine help.” (Hosea 13:8, 9)
God said He would meet Israel “as a bear” and “tare” them. This is the same Hebrew word found in our text in question – baqa. Verse 9 tells us how God was going to do this: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself.” God was simply going to “let” (permit) Israel to reject Him as their true King and withdraw His Spirit (His protective presence). This would result in Israel’s SELF-DESTRUCTION. In fact, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) brings out the truth that it was not God who came down to destroy Israel, but that He would permit “the Assyrians” to destroy them as a “she-bear”:
“I (God) will meet them by the way of the Assyrians, as a she-bear excited, and I will rend [tare] the caul of their heart, and the lions' whelps of the thicket shall devour them there; the wild beasts of the field shall rend [tare] them in pieces.”
So, just as two “she-bears” tore the children (2 Kings 2:24), the Assyrians would tare Israel apart “as a she-bear excited.” Again, let it be emphasized that all this destruction is being acted out as God PERMITS it to happen. He is NOT the cause. The curse of Elisha upon the children was a reiteration of the curse they had precipitated upon themselves.
Ezra tells us that God had sent His messengers and prophets to His people multiple times, not to condemn them, but “because He had compassion on His people” but the people “mocked” them and “scoffed at His prophets”:
“And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, on the aged or the weak; He gave them all into his hand.” (2 Chronicles 36:16, 17, New King James Version)
Notice yet again how “the wrath of the Lord” is described. God’s wrath was executed by giving His people over into the hands of the king of the Chaldeans who “killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, on the aged or the weak.” They had refused God’s loving compassion, so they were left with the king of the Chaldeans who had “no compassion.”
Out of His compassion for His people, God sent Elisha to Bethel, but they rejected it. Out of respect for their free-will, compassion was then removed, and they were given over to the she-bears who had no compassion.
Did God Send the Bears?
In the passage above in 2 Chronicles it says, “Therefore He (God) brought against them the king of the Chaldeans.” This again is defined at God giving them over into the king’s hand. God had been protecting them from the Chaldeans who wanted to destroy them all along. When Israel refused His protection, God tearfully gave them over to their destroyers.
We find a similar incident when the Israelites began to fear that God had led them out into the wilderness to kill them:
“And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:4-6)
As a result of their murmuring, Moses tells us that “the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people.” But did God really round up a den of poisonous snakes to kill them? In Deuteronomy 8 Moses tells the people:
“Beware that thou forget not the LORD thy God … Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water …” (Deuteronomy 8:11, 15)
The fiery serpents were already in the land and God had been protecting His people from them until His protection was not welcomed. We refuse God’s protection when we refuse His compassionate warnings and walk out from under His protective hedge:
“He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.” (Ecclesiastes 10:8)
Likewise, the local Bethel gang had been protected by God from the she-bears in the woods until they willfully refused God’s compassionate warnings and thus walked out from under His protective hedge. This breaking of the hedge resulted in the natural consequence of the she-bears’ attack upon them; for we have seen that curses are natural consequences of man’s choices to depart from God thus forfeiting His protection.
Notice how Adam Clarke describes one possible scenario as to why the she-bears attacked the young men:
“But is it not possible that these forty-two were a set of unlucky young men, who had been employed in the wood, destroying the whelps of these same she-bears, who now pursued them, and tore them to pieces [or severely injured them], for the injury they had done? … The mention of She-bears gives some color to the above conjecture; and, probably, at the time when these young fellows insulted the prophet, the bears might be tracing the footsteps of the murderers of their young, and thus came upon them in the midst of their insults, God's providence ordering these occurrences so as to make this natural effect appear as a Divine cause.” (Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, words in brackets my own)
However it occurred, we know that God is not the instigator of violence and destruction. Throughout Scripture it speaks of God hardening hearts (Exodus 7:3), sending evil spirits (1 Samuel 16:14), destroying lives (Genesis 6:7; 1 Corinthians 3:17) and sending strong delusions (2 Thessalonians 2:11). These are all idiomatic Hebrew expressions where God is said to “do” that which He simply “permits” to be done.
Source/Channel in Elisha and Jesus
As we look at Scripture, we can see a parallel in the ministry of Elisha and the ministry of Jesus. Just as Elijah came before Elisha, John the Baptist came before Jesus. In the New Testament, John the Baptist is likened to the prophet Elijah:
“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 11:13-15)
Not that John was Elijah reincarnated, but that “He (John) will also go before Him (Jesus) in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). Since John is likened to Elijah, then Jesus must be likened to Elisha who came after Elijah. Elijah worked few miracles while Elisha worked many miracles. There’s no record of John working any miracles, but we know Jesus worked many. It’s a perfect divine pattern.
We can see that Jesus cleansing the temple is paralleled by Elisha cursing the young boys. Therefore, Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple is a magnification of Elisha cursing the boys.1 The physical temple of God represented that every created being, from angel to mankind, was to be a spiritual temple (dwelling place) for God (Acts 17:24; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16). The temple in Jerusalem, filled with the tumult of unholy traffic at the time of Christ represented the temple of the human heart, defiled with sin. When Jesus cleansed the temple He was announcing His mission to cleanse the heart from the defilement of sin; from earthly desires, and the selfish lusts and habits that corrupt the soul.
In the parallel, the young boys who were mocking Elisha represent a temple that is defiled. Through the display of cleansing the temple, Jesus manifested an authority that stayed with the people through the rest of His life. In the same way, Elisha had gained a sense of authority after the mauling of the bears. In the minds of fallen man, kingly authority is manifested through strength and violence, thus it is written: “With the pure You (God) will show Yourself pure; And with the devious You (God) will show Yourself shrewd” (Psalm 18:26). In other words, God permits devious men to perceive Him as devious in order to meet them where they are at. If it were not for this incident, Elisha’s redemptive and healing work would have been halted. However, after this tragic incident Elisha had no further trouble in his mission. For fifty years he passed through the town of Bethel, and no one ever mocked him or made light of his qualifications as a prophet of God. What a tragedy that (from the fallen standpoint) this was required to gain respect and authority! In one sense it was an authority gained through fear and not love, but such is the cost of meeting fallen man where they are.
1 For a detailed explanation of Jesus cleansing the temple, see the article entitled: Didn’t Jesus Show Violence and Anger When He Kicked the Moneychangers Out of the Temple?