This is one of the stories in the old testament that tends to get left out of sunday school story time. I got to hear it when I was in the 8th grade though because I decided to tease my teacher for his baldness. He told me to cut it out or I might get attacked by a she bear.
Naturally I didn’t know what a she bear was, I found out it was simply King James for female bear. This is a reference to an old testament story where Elisha was taunted by youths in Bethel for being bald. He cursed them in the name of the Lord and they were attacked and torn to shreds.
‘Then he [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord . Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. He went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. ‘ 2 Kings 2:23-25 NASB
I was not prepared to read that passage at all. At the time it actually brought me to tears. My poor teacher tried to contextualize it for me the best that he could. He pointed out that the text probably isn’t about very young children, and that it was a grave sin to speak ill of a prophet of God. My teacher wasn’t willing to say that speaking ill of a prophet always deserved such a punishment. He placed it only in that time and place and assumed other things must have been happening that we don’t know about.
Why? I don’t know. I didn’t speak to my teacher any further about the topic and just kinda carried it with me for a while.
The teaching I grew up with was that God is always loving. Not a great deal of care was placed into how exactly love is defined. Generally, the practice was to define love in whatever terms it meant to you personally and then view God on those terms. Love was this squishy word that kinda meant whatever you want it to. Thus in practice your god was this squishy idea who is whoever you want him to be. My god certainly would never send bears to eat someone just because they called a guy bald! I had an idol and I didn’t know that was what I was actually dealing with. The bible had profaned my idol and I was upset.
God is Holy and perfect, and the Bible defines his Wrath as a stemming from his Holiness. Sin is not a minor thing to a Holy God. Just because mean words to a Prophet of God is not something we consider to be that bad doesn’t mean it’s equally nothing to God. He views sin through his eyes not ours, and accordingly punishes sin according to his degree of measurement. If you don’t see what those youths did as deserving of being mauled by a bear then that only reveals how warped and sinful your thinking is.
Maybe they were covered under the old testament sacramental system and had received faith from God. Maybe they are in heaven right now. I don’t know, this passage doesn’t give those kinds of details. However what we do see is Christological typology. Jesus does tell us to look for him in the old testament.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” John 5:39 NASB
“Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” Luke 24:27 NASB
What I see from that perspective is that these kids sinned. And that sin is greater in the eyes of God than it is in mine. It is so great a sin that it deserves eternal torment in hell. What we see is that God judges them with having their flesh torn apart just as one day he would do to his own son for our sake.
The clearest way the Love of God has ever been expressed is in what he did for us on the cross. He bore the wrath, having his flesh torn apart for our sins. Instead of us suffering as we deserve Jesus has suffered for us, and this old testament event is given to us to show us what we deserve, and what punishment has been taken for us by Christ.