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.