In the Bible, Elisha is among the most mighty of prophets. He is mentored by the prophet Elija who, according to the Bible, did not die but ascended directly to heaven. Elisha is second only to Jesus in miracle working. Among his miracles are the raising of the dead, parting the waters of the Jordan river, feeding 100 men on a few loaves of bread and a few ears of grain.
Elisha is generally kind to those who follow him. He helps poverty stricken widows, heals a leper, and removes the taint of salt from a spring in Jericho. He is also harsh with his enemies. Through him, God counsels a scorched earth policy during Israel's war with the Moabites and, when a servant is larcenous, Elisha curses him and his offspring with leprosy.
Although Elisha is not taken bodily into heaven, after he dies, his bones still have the power to raise a man from death.
The story of the bears
Early in his career Elisha does a remarkably outrageous thing. After clearing the brackish waters of a spring in Jericho, Elisha sets out for the town of Bethel. On his way he is met by a group of children who make fun of his baldness. Elisha miraculously calls up two female bears to maul forty two of the children. After which he continues on his journey.
The significance of the bear story
There are a large number of outrageous acts recounted in the bible that are carried out by heroes, kings, and prophets. But these three verses are particularly disturbing. The extreme punishment laid upon children for the minor offense of an insult would be worthy of a Monty Python comedy routine if it were not reported with such horrific seriousness.
The story represents a difficult problem for apologists. They are presented with a man of God who can clearly perform powerful miracles; a wise man who counsels the kings of Israel for decades and who speaks for God often; a man who clearly acts at the will of God both before and after this outrage. Presumably, a man of such power has many options at his command when he is confronted by insults from children. The option he chose is to ask God to send bears to maul the youths. God complied. 42 children were mauled and, considering the tender mercy of bears, probably killed.
How can this act be squared with a benevolent God? How can this act be seen as ethical?
Apologetic explanations for the bear story
It is just a story
Apologists who are not also inerrantists often argue that certain stories in the bible are educational, rather than factual, in nature. Counter apologist are left to wonder which stories are true and how one tells the difference between one and the other. The story of the bears includes no obvious introductory clue that this particular set of verses is a parable about misbehaving children rather than a story of mass murder committed by a prophet of God.
Elisha was afraid
It is certainly possible for a lone stranger to feel threated by a large group of insult hurling people. Even if they were children, Elisha may have believed his life was in danger. This ignores several things we know about Elisha, God, and miracles. We know that Elisha, being one of the most powerful miracle workers in the bible, had many other, non-violent, options at his command. We know that God has protected his followers, including but not limited to Jesus, Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego, from harm without the use of violence to adults, let alone children. And we know that God, in the person of Jesus, made it clear that harming children was a terrible evil. With all this in mind, it seems unlikely that Elisha was afraid, and, if he was afraid, it is unlikely that his choice of defense could be squared with a sane man or, by granting this miraculous defense, a benevolent God.
Elisha was human and he made a mistake
People do make mistakes and over react. However, we know that God could have refused to perform this miracle for Elisha. He denies his follower's requests rather often in the bible and, apparently, in modern day life. God did not punish Elisha for this outrage. In fact, Elisha's powers become more formidable in the years after the mauling of the children. There is no indication that Elisha felt bad about this episode. He could have walked among these children, healing their wounds and raising the dead. Instead, he continues on his way to Mount Carmel. Again, we can not square this behavior with a sane person or a benevolent God.
Anything God does is good
This argument leaves the Apologist in a tentative position. We know that God does not like murder, it's one of the ten commandments, and he does not like harming children, he says so in the guise of Jesus, and, yet, he appears to approve of mauling unruly kids. Given this, the apologist must accept one of several options. God is an ethical relativist, a situational ethicist, limited in power, or non-benevolent. The story of the bears is an excellent illustration of the Problem of evil faced by apologists. This attitude plays right into the Euthyphro dilemma.
It is mistranslated
Some apologists argue that the word "children" has been mistranslated and should be translated as "youths" or even "young soldiers in training". Elisha can than be excused for his fright and violent reaction. Although this ignores the fact that Elisha still had many nonviolent options available to him, it makes the story slightly less outrageous. But, in this case, the apologists are certainly wrong. The original text uses the words "Na`ar" and "Qatan" to describe the children. "Na'ar" translates to "youth" or "boy" or "young man". The last definition can be made to fit the apologist's purposes. However, "Qatan", which modifies, "Na'ar" means "small", "little", or "very young". The translation is clear; the people that gathered to make fun of Elisha were children.
It is mistranslated (part two)
Any apologist who also believes in the inerrancy of his particular version of the bible can not make this argument. A mistranslation by definition is an error. An inerrant bible can not contain mistranslations.