Sunday, April 3, 2016

(Literally) A Matter of Interpretation

"Many years ago, I had an atheist question me on the passage in 2 Kings 2:23–24 where some little kids taunt Elisha, and he curses them and two bears come out of the woods and eat them all. I’ve sought answers to that one for a long time, and never could find a satisfactory response. That seems a bit harsh to me... I thought you might be able to tackle this one.
Kind Regards,
—J.T., Australia

"The vital question of concern to most here is the age of these “little children.” We recoil in horror at the idea of bears mauling a gaggle of preschoolers. Of course, most don’t quibble when they see a Sunday school picture of a little boy David flinging a rock at the big bad giant, but that image of David is quite incorrect. David was already “a mighty valiant man” and “a man of war” who was “prudent in matters” and had already slain a bear and a lion himself (see 1 Samuel 16:18, 17:34–36) before anybody ever heard of Goliath.

"The Hebrew words used for Elisha’s detractors include the Hebrew words qatan, na’ar, and yeled, with Strong’s number 6996 (here translated “little”), Strong’s number 5288 (the “children” of verse 23), and Strong’s number 3206 (the “children” of verse 24), respectively. Qatan means small in quantity, size, number, age, status, or importance. Thus, we see it used to describe a cake, a cloud, a room, a city, and a finger, as well as the younger daughter of marriageable age in Laban’s household and the youngest son of Jacob, Benjamin, who was a grown man; this word even describes Saul (a very tall man, but low in status) at the time God anointed him king of Israel (1 Samuel 9:2, 15:17 )! Na’ar means a boy or girl, servant, or young man—it is a word that can cover a range of ages from infant to young adult. Yeled likewise means a boy, child, son, or young man—essentially, someone’s offspring.

"In seeing how these words are used throughout the Old Testament, we see that “little child” (qatan na’ar) is used to describe the young rebel Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:14, 17) who fled Solomon’s kingdom and married pharaoh’s sister-in-law. The combination is also used by Solomon to refer to himself when he prayed for wisdom after becoming king (1 Kings 3:7). Thus, we can already see the phrase “little child” being used by the King James translators to refer to the relative youth or immaturity of grown men.

"Na’ar is also used to refer to David—the mighty man of valor described above—and all his brothers, as well as David’s son Absalom as he led a civil war, the field hands in Boaz’s fields, and a number of soldiers throughout the Old Testament. The word describes Joseph at age 17 (in Genesis 37), Isaac at about 25 to 28 on Mount Moriah (in Genesis 22),1 spies in Joshua, and (along with yeled) the young men who gave Rehoboam such lousy advice in 1 Kings 12.

"Thus, as we ponder the translators’ word choice as well as God’s judgment, we see plenty of precedent for using “little children” to emphasize the relative youth or immaturity of the subjects.

"Did they die? The Strong’s number for tare [sic] is #1234 (baqa‘). This word variously refers to the breaking open of mountains and city walls, dividing the Red Sea, splitting wood, breaking bottles, making a way through a line of soldiers, getting a group of citizens to disavow their nation, and—in a prophetic metaphor for the destruction of a nation in Hosea 13:8—tearing by wild beasts.

"When we look at information on modern day bear attacks, we see that some attacks are fatal and some are not. The language of the Bible here is not specific regarding the fate of the 42. As Willmington’s Guide to the Bible puts it, “forty-two of these arrogant rebels were clawed as a divine punishment.”3 Maybe there were 42 funerals, maybe not. We simply cannot say. But one thing is sure: everyone watching and everyone who survived learned a lesson that day: God’s message is serious, and Elisha is His new messenger."

-- Elizabeth Mitchell

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