The question of the 42 boys and the bear

I read the new post that the boy posted up today — despite telling myself that I should not because I don't want to indulge his need for attention any longer — but I just could not help it. I wanted to hear his side of the story, to make my own judgment. And I wanted to see how he described the counsellor turned bailor.

I wish I hadn't. Because after finishing the post, I just felt sad. Sad for the counsellor. Sad for society in general. I was not quite sure what I should feel towards the boy.

Perhaps one problem that we Christians always have is that more often than not, we are so concerned about telling the whole world that we are the chosen salt and light of the world rather than actually being the salt and light of the world. In trying to push his agenda across, the counsellor shot himself in the foot unknowingly. In trying to help, he somehow made the situation worse.

I know the counsellor meant well. I read the way his child defended him. I don't think he's actually a bad person. But perhaps in this case, he might have thought that age or his actions meant authority, which turned out to be gravely wrong in the end. Should he have not tried to “convert” the boy, things would not have turned out so badly. If he have held his peace, only bailling the boy out without having to make his faith known, just to prove the boy wrong, things may not have turned out so badly for him.

I guess my only gripe about this whole incident has to do with Christians themselves. Or anyone who feel strongly for a religion. We have this insecure fear over our religion that we tend to get defensive whenever someone attacks our religion (like how the boy did to the counsellor) but at the same time we are so eager to prove our faith is the superior one that in our best of intentions, more often than not we end up doing more harm than good to our own cause.

I think another problem with Christians nowadays are more concerned with making their faith known in a self-fulfilling way that we forgot that Jesus once condemned the priests who prayed in the public and urged us to instead seek a quite corner to be with God. But no, everything now has to be in the public now. It's almost as if we're fighting a propaganda warfare with the aim for validating ourselves instead of really helping others. Like scoring brownie points. (I know some will try to bring out the point about evangelising, but that's another point for another post)

But back to the point. As a Christian, I tried to think about the point that he brought up. The one about the bear and the 42 deaths. Was God really unjust and vengeful? Was this a irreconcilable difference that points to the fallacy of Christianity? How can I answer this without shaking my faith? Or more importantly, how can I answer this without sounding too defensive?

Think as I might, I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. God is indeed vengeful in the Old Testament (OT). One need not look so deep into 2 Kings to get example of it. If you really wanted to believe in a just, merciful and benevolent Lord, you will not find it in the Old Testament. The flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plague of the first-born during Moses time and the way Israel slaughtered their enemies after Egypt — this was not an indication of a just God. If anything, he would kill to get things done.

Perhaps the insult of the bald priest made the story more absurd, but one does not need to flip a lot of pages in the Old Testament to get a sense that the God in the OT is more of a tough love kind of God. So how does one justify this then?

To be honest, I can't. If you ask me, Christianity can be filled with quite a lot of contradicting statements if you look deeply into it, especially when it comes to the bible. On one hand you have this passage saying you cannot do this but then on the other hand you can given the right circumstances.

Jesus didn't correct a lot of laws in the OT after all, other than the divorce and the meat eating portion, so a lot of things remain open to interpretation and that I think it's the biggest vulnerability that the Christian faith has if someone wants to attack it. Heck, even a 16 year old was able to shred a loyal believer to pieces.

So how can one answer his question on the 42 boys and the bear then?

Perhaps we can start by acknowledging that our faith is not as perfect as we would like to believe. Yes, God may have seemed fairly inconsistent if you compare the OT and the New Testament (NT), but personally I would believe that God, like us, changes too. He may not as rigid as we would like to think he would be and I believe there were instances when he changed his mind as well. The Jonah story can be an example and perhaps how God decided to send Jesus himself to save us by grace is perhaps the indication of the biggest change of all.

So why can't we explain that perhaps during that time during the OT God may be this way, but the God we believe now is somewhat different, at least in the way He does things?

Of course, that is only one answer. There's also the argument that the bible may have been interpreted differently for that story — after all, like it or not the bible is written and translated by humans and after so many translation, the story may have been misinterpreted from the way it was intended to be. This may open up a whole new can of worms, but I am only bringing up another possibility of an answer.

Or perhaps the best way to explain this whole thing is simply to admit that we, as humans, can never hope to understand the way God works, given our limited knowledge. After all, how can we expect an ant to grasp the way we think about mathematics or science? I guess the same reasoning can be applied to us trying to understand God's logic. We simply can't. And we should never hope to fit God into our worldview because if He is truly omnipotent as we believe, we can never hope to understand him. And perhaps this is what is meant by simply having faith.

I will admit that these are feeble attempts to counter the boy's questions — more like a touch on the surface — but I think what it important at the end of the day is that our purpose is not to “win” this argument or to “convert” anyone. This is not a competition.

Instead, dialogue should be about understanding each other's position, accepting them and coming up with a win-win compromise. No parties should be forced to accept the opposing party's worldview and it should be alright to agree to disagree. And I think if Christians are willing to do this, maybe then we can start dealing with people like the boy who seeks to challenge the faith without coming off as insecure idiots. This is my personal ideal.

I guess one man can hope.


  1. Luke, your question is one that has been answered many times. Here's the reply as found in CARM.

    Insults carries far greater weight and consequences in the ancient world. Those consequences lead to social pariah status and is a literal death sentence in those days.

    Why would God allow two bears to kill 42 young lads simply for saying Elisha was bald? Let’s take a look. Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel when a group of young men verbally accosted him. 42 is a large number of people, and they were probably an organized group who had gone out to challenge Elisha. Their mockery implied a malicious intent; especially when the culture of the time insisted on showing respect to their elders. Furthermore, the statement “go up you baldhead!” has cultural significance. First of all, “go up” is probably a reference to Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, ascending to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). In other words, they are stating they want Elisha gone; and since Elijah had gone on to the “next world,” the implication is they wanted Elisha dead. Also, the epithet ‘baldhead’ was one of “contempt in the East, applied to a person even with a bushy head of hair.” 1 Lepers had to shave their heads, so such a statement could easily have been a deliberate and malicious insult--something dangerous in a mob that can quickly get out of hand.

    Given the challenge of the youths, their intimidating number which could constitute a mob, their veiled threat, the contemptuous attitude, and the fact that Elisha was the prophet of God, the Lord allowed the youths to be destroyed.

    But, God did not break his own moral law. The Bible says do not murder. Murder is the unlawful taking of life. But, all people have sinned against God and are worthy of death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). So, God had them killed according to the Law.

    1. Hi JayF, thanks for the clarification. It paints a much better picture — though I must admit I am not entirely convinced by the last part — but it is still better than none. Helps to understand the context sometimes.

    2. Hi Luke.

      What are your reservations on the last part?

    3. Well, for starters it is still taking the lives of people, no matter how you look at it. It goes against the turn your other cheek believe. It begs the question on why death, but not some other curse like temporary blindness just to prove a point? And if you think about it, what if they happen to be fathers or sons? I know I am throwing a lot of questions and it is really just my personal values. But I guess this is just a question that cannot be answered in a satisfactory manner and is best left to the open.

    4. Hi Luke. Firstly the Bible is clear that the wages of sin is death and that all humans come with the wages waiting to be paid. Everyone in the Bible lives on the grace of God.

      Putting that aside I believe that my previous post has clarified that it was a dangerous situation Elisha was in. The 42 were youth familiar in Elisha culture and Elisha already had a reputation as a prophet. They would also be familiar regarding laws of Moses regarding false prophets and accusing someone of being one. Either the accused or accuser will be put to death. The 42 had challenged Elisha in a manner that directly goes to his status as a prophet. If he had let it slide he be a false prophet since he could not prophesize accurately or be proven via miracle.

      The youth presumably knew the seriousness of their mockery and went ahead . No saving those who refuse

    5. Also regarding the part of turning your cheek. In light of Jesus it may not appear so but that forgivness is radical and a large part why Christ was so divisive in His time. Even in the OT we must remember that most of the punishment handed out was either through grave provocation that until the late modern age invited lethal retaliation or after decades of warnings. If all gods are real then even OT God is incredibly patient compared to Chinese Greek and Babylonian gods

    6. Your argument makes perfect sense, JayF. I don't deny it. The reason why I find it hard to accept is merely because of personal feels. Or preferences, if you must. I understand why God did it. But it's one of the several things that I guess I will forever disagree with God.

      Lets agree to disagree, shall we?

    7. Of course Luke. There are always things especially in the OT a modern audience will find unpalatable.

      I will leave you with this. The OT can be read as a record of God relationship with the Jews who are the children of his covenant partner Abraham. His children of sorts. To discipline a child can be unpleasant especially one so rebellious like Israel. But God refrained from wiping them out and starting anew as during Noah when putting to death rebellious children especially one consirting with the enemy. It was only in a Christianised world that such punishment became taboo. An irony most atheist critics fail to appreciate

  2. /// So how can one answer his question on the 42 boys and the bear then? ///

    Two points:
    1) Ignore Amos
    2) Don't defend the indefensible - the Bible is just a fairy tale.

    1. And this is the reason why Christians and Atheists fight all the time. Because we just have to insult each other


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