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No. 67: Suffer the Little Children

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 67
November, 1994
Copyright 1994, Biblical Horizons

The story of Elisha’s cursing of 42 "little children" (KJV) in 2 Kings 2:23-25 is a perennial problem passage. Matthew Henry treats the story as a moral lesson on the level of Aesop’s Fables: "God must be glorified as a righteous God, that hates sin, and will reckon for it, even in little children. Let the hideous shrieks and groans of this wicked wretched brood make our flesh tremble for fear of God. Let little children be afraid of speaking wicked words, for God notices what they say." Not a bad moral lesson, that. But is it the point of this passage?

For the most part, the best that has been done is to say that the 42 were "young lads," old enough to know that the prophet deserved honor and therefore culpable for their mockery. Others highlight the seriousness of the sin; T. R. Hobbs compares mockery of the Lord’s prophet to touching the ark, both apparently minor transgressions that are severely punished (2 Kings [Word Biblical Commentary #13; Waco, TX: Word, 1985]). Still, one is left unsatisfied, both because of the brutality of slaughtering 42 children, and because it seems so odd that the Spirit would choose to record such an event in the first place. Perhaps we are to learn, as Augustine did, that human feeling and the justice of God are two different things.

In his taped lectures on Kings, James Jordan has provided a more satisfactory interpretation of the passage. Jordan points out the exodus-conquest pattern of 2 Kings 1-2. Elijah and Elisha leave the land (through the parted waters of Jordan, just as Israel left Egypt through the Red Sea), Elijah ascends and cannot be found (like Moses), and Elisha returns as Elijah’s successor (again through the parted Jordan, just as Israel entered Canaan). Elisha is clearly presented as a new Joshua, who enters the land to heal it and to purge it of Canaanites. He meets the "young lads" at Bethel, a center of the golden calf cult (1 Ki. 12:25-33). Jordan suggests that the "lads" are priests or at least assistants to the priests who serve the shrine at Bethel. Cursing the 42 "lads" is part of the new Joshua’s conquest of the land.

Jordan’s interpretation is supported by the fact that na`ar ("boy") sometimes carries the connotation of "official" or "steward." It denotes someone who is in a subordinate position without implying anything about age. Mephibosheth’s servant Ziba is called a na`ar of Saul’s house (2 Sam. 16:1), and he was clearly no "lad," since he had fifteen sons of his own (2 Sam. 19:17). Boaz would have been a fool to put a "boy" in charge of his reapers, but his foreman is called a na`ar in Ruth 2:5-6. These examples suggest that na`ar might be translated as "official" in other passages as well (cf. 1 Ki. 20:13-15).

The same can be said for the other term used to the describe the 42, yeled. While this word normally refers to humans and animals of young age (even fetuses, Ex. 21:22), it is also used in reference to older persons. When Jeroboam led a delegation to Rehoboam to ask for relief from Solomon’s heavy yoke, Rehoboam consulted with the yeladim "who grew up with him and stood before him" (1 Ki. 12:8). How old were these young men? Verse 8 indicates that they were about the same age as Rehoboam, and 1 Kings 14:21 tells us that Rehoboam was 41 when he began to reign. Thus, the "young men" were about 40 when they gave their foolish counsel. They are called yeladim both because they were younger than the elders whose counsel Rehoboam rejected and because they were Rehoboam’s subordinates; that they "stood before" Rehoboam suggests that they were his personal servants and confidants, holding the office of "prince’s friend." In any case, this passage shows that the usage of yeled is not restricted to young children and teenagers.

Elisha, thus, did not instigate a slaughter of babies or infants or little children, but instead called down curses on the "officials" of the idolatrous shrine of Bethel. As the new Joshua, he was beginning his herem war against the shrines of the Israelo-Canaanites who dominated the northern kingdom.