Atheists love to embarrass Christians with a snide reference to the story of Elisha setting two bears upon some helpless children. What nobody, even Christians, seem to get is the “Covenant significance” of all the players in the story, harking back to Moses. The prophets were, after all, God’s “repo men.”
God often retells history in a new way to make a point. God, the Author of the story, also confers meaning upon things as He goes. So, to make sense of this atrocity, not only must we be able to recognize the shape of this story as a familiar object, but also recognize the significance of the characters and places.
One approach to dealing with the apparent brutality has been to question the age of these “children.” In his Brazos commentary on the books of Kings, Peter Leithart suggests that these “young lads” were actually interns at the local temple of Baal. Bethel, the location of the massacre, was also the location of one of the golden calves installed by Jeroboam, so it was a center of idolatry. However, despite the fact that this demonstrates guilt on the part of the city, it does not explain why the children were slain at Elisha’s hand.
The chain of events of which this account is a part concerns offspring. Children are the future. A culture with no children has no future (something which Western culture is about to learn). Offspring died when Israel left Egypt, and offspring died when Israel arrived in Canaan. And we should remember that the firstborn of Egypt died to avenge the slaughter of Hebrew infants by Pharaoh eighty years earlier. When Israel entered the Land, all her male offspring born in the wilderness over the past four decades were circumcised, that is, symbolically “cut off,” genealogically speaking. This had to happen before Israel offered Jericho as a whole burnt offering, a firstfruits, to God. All flesh was destroyed, including the infants (another fact that ignorant atheists like to hurl at us).
Here in Kings, however, there is a reversal. Under the ministry of Elisha, we have sons of Israel destroyed by wild beasts, and the wombs of the women in Jericho, once poisoned by a well, now healed by the prophet. What could this turnabout mean? The point is that ultimately God is no respecter of persons. Believing Gentiles (which is what Abraham was prior to his circumcision) would have their place in history, and unbelieving Israelites would be cut off.
Moreover, the two beasts in this event prefigure the devouring of Israel and Judah by Assyria and Babylon. The structure of the passage follows the architecture of the Tabernacle, which puts the word of the prophet in the place of the Ark of the Covenant, on the move out in the field, and the two bears as its flanking cherubim, the two witnesses. It is an earthly version of the flaming chariot of God, carried by heavenly beasts, executing the curses upon those who have broken the Covenant and blessing those, like Rahab, who have believed. This story is a re-enactment of the family histories of the sons of Judah, Perez and Zerah.
It also prefigures the final cutting off in AD 66-70: Jerusalem encircled by a Roman ditch and wall (circumcised), her children cut off, as Jesus predicted, and all her genealogical records destroyed with the burning of the Temple. This was, in part, a judgment upon the Herods for the massacre of the infants by Herod the Great, but the judgment itself was brought down by their murder of the apostles and prophets, the true sons of God.
Judaism had become not only a new Jericho, but also a great Jezebel, and Jesus warned the Gentile churches against the same sins: “Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and
I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:22-23).
Jesus was simply reiterating the curses of the Mosaic Covenant against those who would take the name of the Lord upon themselves (swear the Covenant oath) in vain. Under Joshua, the Lord would slowly drive the beasts from the Land. If He did it too suddenly, the Land would become desolate (Exodus 23:29). But if the children of Israel were disobedient, this slow victory
would be reversed: “And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted” (Leviticus 26:22).
The bears and the children have a Covenantal significance conferred upon them in the Torah. You can analyze the bears; you can do an autopsy on the children, but the Bible will not open itself to the minds of rebels. It is one thing for atheists to be ignorant of the Bible, but quite another for Christians.
Mike Bull is author, most recently, of The Shape of Galatians.