From there Elisha went. some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. “Go up baldhead,” they shouted, “go up baldhead!” The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two shebears came out of the woods and tore forty two of the children to pieces. (2 Kings 2:23-24 NAB)
Ne’arim often does mean “boys” - it can also refer to youths, & even to adults. As for “little”, qatan also means “insignificant”. So they could have been “insignificant youths”.
What are they doing in the story ? Ne’arim also means “retainers”. In the Baal poems unearthed at Ugarit after 1929, Baal has “retainers” or “lads” called Gapn and Ugr, Field and Vine (unless Ugr is the patron of Ugarit; but that suggestions upsets the parallelism of the usual identification). Baal - the god Hadad - is a weather-god, and a leading member of the Ugaritic pantheon; he was a very important god in the area North & South of Israel-Judah.
The relevance of all this to the text is, that Elijah is constantly represented in 1 Kings 18 & the following chapters as defeating Baal at his own game; even in taking a chariot of fire - because Baal was called “Rider” [of the heavens]. The ne’arim of the text seem to be a demythologised version of Baal’s heavenly retainers, called “insignificant” to “rub in” the weakness of their own god, who has been defeated at every turn by Elijah, who has just gone up in a chariot of his own.
As for the bears: bears out of the woods were threatened against Judah; to have them tear up the followers of Baal seems fair enough, by the standards of those times.
The purpose of the story, as of the other stories in the Elijah-cycle, seems to be polemical; the OT authors had many different ways of pouring scorn on gods they did not care for, and telling stories that ridicule & belittle a god (and anything to do with him) is one of them. Another, is to alter names - from Mephibaal, to Mephibosheth, say. (Bosheth = “shame”). And there are others.
As to the morals in this story - we can’t expect anyone before Christ to have Christian ethics. They had their own ethics, which at many points are not ours; as is to be expected. Besides, the humane approach taken for granted by many who find this and similar episodes in the Bible morally repugnant, is itself rather recent: 200 years ago, a man could be hanged in England for stealing a sheep; over 200 crimes were capital. Things are called inhumane today that ten years ago were taken for granted; or still are.
Hope that helps.
Anything on the number 42?
The author includes the number of boys killed. I assume that it must have had some significance otherwise a large group of boys would seem descriptive eneogh.
Haydock Bible says, Cursed them. This curse, which was followed by so visible a judgment of God, was not the effect of passion, or of a desire of revenging himself; but of zeal for religion, which was insulted by these boys, in the person of the prophet, and of a divine inspiration; God being determined to punish in this manner the inhabitants of Bethel, (the chief seat of the calf-worship) who had trained up their children in a prejudice against the true religion and its ministers. (Challoner) — The boys themselves were not so little as not to be aware of the insult they were offering to a minister of the God of Juda; and probably they acted thus out of hatred to him, at the instigation of their idolatrous parents. (Sanctius) (Calmet) — Lord. He called on him (Menochius) to revenge his own cause, (Haydock) “that the people might learn to take care of their souls, by the fear of death.” (St. Augustine) (Du Hamel)
Tertullian said, The Creator, let loose bears against children, in order to avenge His prophet Elisha, who had been mocked by them. This antithesis is impudent enough, since it throws together things so different as infants and children, an age still innocent, and one already capable of discretion—able to mock, if not to blaspheme. As therefore God is a just God, He spared not impious children, exacting as He does honour for every time of life, and especially, of course, from youth.
A story (fable) intended to emphasize the authority and importance of the prophets. No need to take it literally.
But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land.
*]Jam 5:17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.
[/LIST]These, of course, are much later texts; so they are not of any immediate use for interpreting Kings.
IOW - I don’t know the answer to your question :). I would guess (that’s all it is, a guess) that there is some connection between forty-two ne’arim and many (forty-two ?) months of lack of rain. The number may simply be stylised, and mean no more than “a large number”. The text is not reportage, that much seems clear. It’s a literary construction; which is not to say that it does not record a real incident involving Elisha.
AFAICS, it has a literary relation to the episodes in which Elijah destroys the prophets of Baal and destroys the fifties of soldiers sent after him: perhaps so as to underscore Elisha’s credentials as a prophet of the God of Israel.
Maybe I’m thinking too hard :o Hope that is some use, anyway.
Michael Thank you. You may not have the answer but what you gave inspires possibilites in my mind. I definitely sense a connection to the prophets of Baal who bloodied themselves in supplication only to be slaughtered by Elija’s sword. I’m filing it under ‘ponder’ 42 rebellious boys slaughtered by a bear in my heart.