Elisha, The Youths And The Bears – Part 3/3

In the previous part, I discussed whether or not Elisha was over-reacting by cursing the young men. In fact, he did not.

Before we close, we need to observe that the attempt to portray Elisha as a murderer of young innocent boys is another case of the dawah team misrepresenting the Bible but also of their inconsistency in terms of their ethical criticisms. Whereas Elisha did not kill these young men himself, nor ordered anyone else to do so, Muhammad was certainly guilty of ordering assassination: 

Narrated by Jabir ibn Abdullah 

Sahih Al-Bukhari 5.369

Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said, “Who is willing to kill Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?” 

Thereupon Muhammad ibn Maslamah got up saying, “O Allah’s Messenger! Would you like me to kill him?” 

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Yes.” 

Muhammad ibn Maslamah said, “Then allow me to tell a lie (i.e., to deceive Ka’b).” 

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “You may do so.” 

Then Muhammad ibn Maslamah went to Ka’b and said, “That man (i.e., Muhammad (peace be upon him) demands Sadaqah (i.e., Zakat) from us, and he has troubled us, and I have come to borrow something from you.” 

On that Ka’b said, “By Allah, you will get tired of him!” Muhammad ibn Maslamah said, “Now as we have followed him, we do not want to leave him unless and until we see how his end is going to be. Now we want you to lend us a camel-load or two of food.” (There is some difference between narrators about the camel-load or two.) 

Ka’b said, “Yes, (I will lend it to you), but you should pledge something to me.”  

Muhammad ibn Maslamah and his companion said, “What do you want?” Ka’b replied, “pledge your women to me.” 

They said, “How can we pledge our women to you who are the most handsome of the Arabs?” 

Ka’b said, “Then pledge your sons to me.” They said, “How can we pledge our sons to you? Later they would be abused by the people saying that so-and-so has been pledge for a camel-load of food. That would cause us great disgrace, but we will pledge our arms to you.” 

Muhammad ibn Maslamah and his companion promised Ka’b that Muhammad would return to him. He came to Ka’b at night along with Ka’b’s foster brother, AbuNa’ilah. Ka’b invited them to come into his fort, and then he went down to them. 

His wife asked him, “Where are you going at this time?” Ka’b replied, “None but Muhammad ibn Maslamah and my (foster) brother, AbuNa’ilah have come.” 

His wife said, “I hear a voice as if blood is flowing from him.” 

Ka’b said, “They are none but my brother Muhammad ibn Maslamah and my foster brother AbuNa’ilah. A generous man should respond to a call at night even if invited to be killed.” Muhammad ibn Maslamah went with two men (some narrators mention the men as AbuAbs ibn Jabr, al-Harith ibn Aws and Abbad ibn Bishr).

So Muhammad ibn Maslamah went in together with two men, and said to them, “When Ka’b comes, I will touch his hair and smell it, and when you see that I have got hold of his head, strike him. I will let you smell his head.”  

Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf came down to them, wrapped in his clothes, and diffusing perfume. 

Muhammad ibn Maslamah said, “I have never smelt a better scent than this.” Ka’b replied, “I have got the best Arab women who know how to use the high class of perfume.” Muhammad ibn Maslamah requested Ka’b, “Will you allow me to smell your head?” Ka’b said, “Yes.” Muhammad smelt it and make his companions smell it as well. Then he requested Ka’b again, “Will you let me (smell your head)?” Ka’b said, “Yes.” 

When Muhammad got a strong hold of him, he said (to his companions), “Get him!” 

So they killed him and went to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and informed him.

This clearly was a savage assassination, but was it justified? We hear that Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf ‘has hurt Allah and His Apostle’ – but we are not told how. Did Ka’b hit, stab or poison Muhammad? Montgomery Watt, in Muhammad at Medina (p. 18), tells us the nature of K’ab’s ‘offence’: “Ka’b was the son of an Arab from the distant, tribe of Tayyi’, but was reckoned as belonging to his Jewish mother’s tribe of an-Nadir, in which he was one of the leading men. When he heard the news of Badr, he set out for Mecca, and by his verses helped to rouse the Meccans to grief and anger and the desire for revenge.” Shock! Horror! Gasp! The wicked crime of K’ab against Muhammad was to write poetry against him! Note that K’ab was not an apostate – he simply rejected Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet. The situation was very different from that of Elisha. 

Muslims should also observe that in the case of a true prophet like Elisha, God performed a supernatural act of judgment upon the apostate semi-pagans who rejected His word. Yet God did nothing similar to K’ab – Muhammad had to rely on purely human intervention to arrange for K’ab’s death. Then again, Muhammad never claimed to be a prophet of YHWH. The dawah team will have to find another means to attack the Bible, because the narrative of Elisha and the apostate young men will not fly.



Elisha, The Youths And The Bears – Part 2/3

In the first part, I discussed how the dawah team tries to defend the violence of Allah and his human followers by bringing up various Old Testament passages of violence. This tactic fails because Christians follow the New Testament ethic, which has replaced violence with peace.

The dawah team likes to use the story of Elisha calling for bears to kill young boys, or even infants, as an example of Biblical violence. This does not work because careful analysis shows that the victims were in fact a hostile group of young men, not innocent small boys.

Secondly, was Elisha guilty of an over-reaction to a bit of name-calling? Walter Kaiser addresses this objection (pp. 233-234):

Did Elisha lose his temper? What was so wrong in calling him a “baldhead,” even if he might not have been bald, being less than thirty?

The word baldhead was a term of scorn in the Old Testament (Is 3:17, 24). Natural baldness was very rare in the ancient Near East. So scarce was baldness that it carried with it a suspicion of leprosy.

Whether Elisha was prematurely bald or not, it is clear that the epithet was used in utter contempt, as a word of insult marking him as despicable.

But since it is highly improbable that Elisha was prematurely bald, the insult was aimed not so much at the prophet as at the God who had sent him. [Emphasis mine] The point is clear from the other phrase. “Go on up,” they clamored. “Go on up!” These were not topographical references to the uphill grade of the Bethel road. Instead, the youths were alluding to Elijah’s translation to heaven. This they did not believe or acknowledge as God’s work in their midst. To put it in modern terms, they jeered, “Blast off! Blast off! You go too. Get out of here. We are tired of both of you.” [Emphasis mine] These Bethel ruffians used the same Hebrew verb used at the beginning of the second chapter of 2 Kings to describe the taking up of Elijah into heaven. The connection cannot be missed.

Apparently, news of Elijah’s ascension to glory traveled near and far but was greeted with contemptuous disbelief by many, including this youthful mob. The attack was on God, not his prophet. [Emphasis mine]

Elisha uses no profanity in placing a curse on these young men. He merely cited the law of God, which the inhabitants of Bethel knew well. Moses had taught, “If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, … I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children” (Lev 26:21–22).

Elisha did not abuse these young men, nor did he revile them; he was content to leave the work of judging to God. He pronounced a judgment on them and asked God to carry out the action which he had promised when his name, his cause and his word were under attack. No doubt these young men only reflected what they heard at the dinner table each evening as the population went further and further away from God.

The savagery of wild animals was brutal enough, but it was mild compared to the legendary cruelty of the Assyrians who would appear to complete God’s judgment in 722 B.C. The disastrous fall of Samaria would have been avoided had the people repented after the bear attack and the increasingly severe divine judgments that followed it. But instead of turning back to God, Israel, as would Judah in a later day, “mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chron 36:16).

Instead of demonstrating unleashed cruelty, the bear attack shows God trying repeatedly to bring his people back to himself through smaller judgments until the people’s sin is too great and judgment must come full force.

Hard Sayings of the Bible (1996) pp. 233-234 by Walter Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch

It follows that the God of the Bible – in this case, during the Old Testament period – did not act with savagery, but rather punished the apostasy of grown men who did not want to follow the word of YHWH revealed in the Torah, which warned about divine judgment upon idolatry. The context of Elisha’s ministry follows on immediately from that of Elijah. He was a prophet to the northern Kingdom of Israel (as opposed to that of Judah, ruled by the Davidic dynasty). Ever since the secession under Jeroboam, son of Nebat, the northern kingdom had apostatised by expelling the Levitical priests, establishing their own shrine instead of recognising the unique House of God in the Jerusalem Temple, and also set up idols in the form of bulls to represent YHWH, despite the prohibition of such representation in the Second Commandment. Elijah’s ministry began under Ahab, who was even worse than Jeroboam (1 Kings 16):

29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of YHWH, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke YHWH, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of YHWH, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.

Ahab and Jezebel promoted a syncretistic religion whereby both YHWH and the Canaanite gods were worshipped, in defiance of the First Commandment demanding the exclusive worship of YHWH. Along with this, went the ignoring of other aspects of revelation – including the ban by YHWH of rebuilding Jericho. In 1 King 18, we read of Elijah confronting Ahab: “17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”18 And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of YHWH and followed the Baals.” This apostasy continued in the reign of Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, 1 Kings 22: 

51 Ahaziah the son of Ahab began to reign over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. 52 He did what was evil in the sight of YHWH and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. 53 He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked YHWH, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done.

It this historical and religious context that Elisha had inherited from Elijah – an apostate people, rebellious against YHWH, semi-pagan in their beliefs and actions. This explains their attitude to a faithful prophet of YHWH, who demanded exclusive obedience to, and worship of YHWH. These semi-pagan youths did not want to hear his message, because they did not want his God – YHWH, in the sense that they rejected His claim to exclusive worship. Hence, their punishment at the hands, not of Elisha, but of YHWH Himself sending wild animals to attack them, as promised in the Scripture they rejected.


The third and final part will discuss how Muhammad ordered an assassination unlike Elisha.

Elisha, The Youths And The Bears – Part 1/3

Doubtless because there is next to nothing in the New Testament to which they can appeal to show the God of the Bible as violent and cruel, the dawah team are always quoting Old Testament passages, invariably out of context, to respond to the well-documented savagery of the Allah of Islam and his human followers in enjoining mass murder, rape and enslavement in the Qur’an and Hadith when these facts are raised by Christians. Always, they ignore the fact that the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Covenant, and so the features of a political state and physical warfare as seen in the Old Testament no longer apply, as seen in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, where Jesus affirmed that He had come to fulfil the ‘Law and the Prophets’, which referred to the division of the Tanakh into the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (the last-mentioned sometimes simply defined by its first book, the Psalms, as in Luke 24):

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Luke 24:17-18

The last words of Jesus on the Cross included “It is finished”, which in Greek is Τετέλεσταιtetelestai, which means that Jesus has indeed accomplished His mission. It follows that actions which are features of a normal political state are not applicable in the New Covenant Age, since the nature of Christ’s Kingdom – being not of this world – do not include violence. If we return to Matthew 5, we see further evidence of this:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire…

Matthew 5:21-22

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

Matthew 5:27-28

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery… 

Matthew 5:31-32

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King…

Matthew 5:33-35

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… 

Matthew 5:38-39

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:43-45

Notice how Jesus contrasts His teaching with that given under Moses by raising the standard of ethics to a higher level. If the Old Testament is fulfilled, and ‘holy violence’ is no longer part of the Kingdom ethic, it follows that reference to violent events in the Old Testament prior in order to criticise Christianity is irrelevant.

The dawah team ignore this, and always refer to violent verses in the Old Testament in their diatribe against the Bible. One such example is that of the prophet Elisha and the youths in 2 Kings 2:22-23 (we shall set the context by referring to v.15 onwards):

15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him opposite them, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. 16 And they said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men. Please let them go and seek your master. It may be that the Spirit of YHWH has caught him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” 17 But when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men. And for three days they sought him but did not find him. 18 And they came back to him while he was staying at Jericho, and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?”

2 Kings 2:15-18

19 Now the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20 He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21 Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says YHWH, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” 22 So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.

2 Kings 2:19-22

23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of YHWH. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

2 Kings 2:23-25

Frequently, the accusation of the dawah team is that this was an act of infanticide – these were merely male children teasing an older man, who responds with supernatural violence. The truth is otherwise.

Walter Kaiser, in Hard Sayings of the Bible (pp. 232-233), points out that the Hebrew text does not support the idea that the males involved were children:

The problem begins with the two Hebrew words for “little children,” as many older translations term the youths. If we are to untangle this puzzling incident, the age and accountability level of these children must take first priority. “Little children” is an unfortunate translation. The Hebrew expression n̄_˓ûrîm q̣tannîm is best rendered “young lads” or “young men.” From numerous examples where ages are specified in the Old Testament, we know that these were boys from twelve to thirty years old. One of these words described Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties. It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old. In fact, the same word described army men in 1 Kings 20:14–15.

If someone objects, yes, but the word q̣tannîm (which is translated “little” in some versions) makes the difference in this context, I will answer that it is best translated “young,” not “little.” Furthermore, these words have a good deal of elasticity to them. For example, Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all your children n̄_˓ûrîm]?” But Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest [qāṭān].” But David was old enough to keep sheep and fight a giant soon after (1 Sam 16:11–12).

“Little children,” then, does not mean toddlers or even elementary-school-aged youngsters; these are young men aged between twelve and thirty!

But was Elisha an old man short on patience and a sense of humor? This charge is also distorted, for Elisha can hardly have been more than twenty-five when this incident happened. He lived nearly sixty years after this, since it seems to have taken place shortly after Elijah’s translation into heaven. Some would place Elijah’s translation around 860 B.C. and Elisha’s death around 795 B.C. While Elijah’s ministry had lasted less than a decade, Elisha’s extended at least 55 years, through the reigns of Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash.

Hard Sayings of the Bible (1996) pp. 232-233 by Walter Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch

Immediately, we can see the problem faced with the false claims of the dawah team. This was not an act of infanticide. The ‘boys’ involved were not minors, but rather grown men – young men certainly, but men nonetheless. It follows that a central plank of the dawah team polemic against the Bible in relation to this passage is false – this was not an act of infanticide.

The next part, Part 2 of 3, will answer the question, Did Elisha lose his temper?