The story in question is recorded in the Old Testament, in 2 Kings 2:23-24. The story goes as follows: Elisha is leaving the funeral of his mentor Elijah, and when going down the road he comes upon a group of youths. They mock his baldness, and he curses them; as a result, two bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of the children to death.
On its surface, let us be frank: this is a terrible story. It seems mean, cruel, and vindicative; it seems on its face to be totally out of the character of a loving God. As a result, non-Christians often use this as evidence that God is not worthy to be worshipped, or does not exist. (Ignore for a moment the clear appeal to pity and logical flaw--whether or not the act is horrible is irrelevant to whether God does or does not exist.) Many Christians, however, are also disturbed by the story. As a result, I think it worth our time to take a closer look at these two verses, and see if we can figure out what is going on.
First, let us read the verses in question, then we will go into more detail:
And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.2 Kings 2:23-24, KJV
I quote the King James Version above, because almost every atheist who relates this story does the same; the reason will become clear momentarily, as they take advantage of some questionable translations in the course of their argument.
The key outline of the story are this:
1. Elisha is outside of the city, in the wilderness
2. Elisha is bald
3. Children follow him out of the city
4. They begin mocking him
5. Elisha curses them
6. Two bears leave the woods and kill 42 of the children
As with any story, it is useful to understand the context. So we will ask "who, what, when, where, why, how, and how many" and see where that leads us.
WHO are the characters in the story?
The primary person in the story is Elisha. Elisha was a longtime follower of the prophet Elijah. Upon Elijah being taken to heaven, Elisha requested from God a double-portion of Elijah's spirit (2 Kings 2:9). This is a reference to Jewish inheritance; the eldest son would receive a "double portion" of the estate, thus showing that he is his father's rightful heir; Elisha's request, then, is to establish himself as Elijah's rightful heir as prophet of Israel. Elisha served in that role for sixty years (892-832 BC). At the time of this story, Elisha is likely somewhere between 20 and 40 years of age.
Elisha's mockers are referred to as children in some translations and youth in other translations. In this passage, they are referred to in two different ways: as qatan na'ar in verse 23 and as yeled in verse 24. So, what does this tell us about their ages?
A. Qatan Na'ar
In the Bible, the term qatan means small, young or insignificant. However, this does not necessarily imply childhood, simply that they are "young" in relation to someone else. For example, this term is used to refer to Noah's son Ham, who was fully grown and a father (Gen 9:24). It is used to refer to would-be rapists in Sodom (Gen 19:11). It is used to refer to Jacob when he was 63, and stole Esau's birthright (Gen 27:42). It is used to Rachel, who was a teenager ready to be married (Gen 29:16-18). So clearly, qatan does not necessarily imply "childhood"--it simply means that they were young in relation to something--in this case, younger than Elisha.
What of the word na'ar? Na'ar means a boy, or masculine youth. It is used to refer to Ishmael as a teenager (Gen 21:12), full time soldiers (Gen 41:12), and Absalom as a military commander (2 Sam 18:29). It can refer to children (as the babe Moses, for example, in Exo 2), but the majority of the uses in the Old Testament appear to be young men of military age, but who are as yet unmarried and have no families.
Therefore, we would conclude that the first reference here in the story is likely about a group of teenagers who were younger than Elisha.
As with our previous term, yeled can be used for a variety of ages. In Genesis 4:23 it is used to refer to a slave old enough to be a doctor; in Genesis 21 it refers to an infant who grows past the age of weaning; in Genesis 32 it refers to a dozen children, some of whom already have their own full-grown families; in 2 Chronicles 10 it is used to refer to men old enough to be royal advisors; in Isaiah it is used to refer to the whole of Israel.
Conclusion: We must conclude that Elisha's mockers here are younger than him, male, and likely in their teenage years.
WHAT happened during the fight with the bears?
This is perhaps a key point that atheists and many Christians miss: how exactly do two bears kill 42 teenagers? What would happen if a group of teens (or children, for that matter, or adults) were attacked by bears? Most likely they would flee. I have a four-year old. Even at his young age, if his class were attacked by two bears in the wilderness, at least half could get away (probably much more than that). In order for the bears to actually maul 42 of these teenagers, this must imply that the teenagers fought back. Otherwise, how could 42 actually be caught by bears and mauled to death? The only possible way this happens is if the youths were armed and 42 of them stayed behind to fight the bears, thus allowing the bears the time to maul this many. No other conclusion is possible: if it takes only 30 seconds to maul each person to death, and 30 more seconds to catch scattered youths, you are talking about a battle with bears that lasted nearly three-quarters of an hour! And if the people were trying to flee, it might take several minutes to catch each one, making this a half-day affair.
No, clearly the only explanation which holds water is this: the reason the bears were able to maul 42 teens in the open road is because the teens stayed close for an hour or more--implying that they were fighting back against the bears.
WHEN did the events occur?
These events occurred shortly after Elijah was taken up to heaven. It is highly unlikely that the twenty-something Elisha was naturally bald, and yet the teens mock him as being a "bald head" and tell him to "go on up". What are we to make of this? Well, the likely reason that Elisha was bald is because he shaved his head in a sign of mourning for Elijah. And by telling him to "go on up", they were likely referring to Elijah's being called up to heaven.
So the teens were at least mocking Elisha for mourning the death of a prophet; at worst, they were threatening to send him "on up"...a death threat.
WHERE did the events occur?
The events occurred along the road outside of the city, and in the wilderness (hence the closeness of the bears). Study any work of the ancient world, and ask yourself what kind of people hang out in bands of 40+, in the wilderness, along a major trade route, outside of a city? Only one type of person: brigands.
Clearly, this group of teens were a gang of thieves, hanging out along the trade routes in the wilderness, waiting on opportunities to rob passing merchants and travelers.
WHY did the events occur?
So, we now have a much clearer picture of the context. A twenty-something prophet is in mourning for the loss of the greatest prophet of God in a millenium. He is traveling along a wilderness road, when he is accosted by at least forty armed teenage brigands. They mock him for mourning and (possibly) threaten his life. He curses them, and God sends two bears to attack the men; they fight the bears to the death, with 42 casualties.
HOW MANY young men were in the gang?
We know that they fought back, and that 42 died. So at the least, we have a gang four-dozen strong. But is this everyone? I would argue that it probably is not--even if they are seriously brave and fighting back, I find it hard to believe that even half of the gang stuck around long enough to be mauled. I find the story much more plausible if the initial numbers rank around 100, though I have no proof of this, of course.
Now, having fully understood the context of the situation, we get a much clearer picture. A gang of young men, likely numbering somewhere between 50 and 100 and apparently armed, are hanging out along a major trade route to seek out victims for robbery. They see Elisha coming, who has shaved his head in mourning for the loss of a prophet. The gang accosts him on the road, mocking his mourning and (possibly) threatening to kill him. His response to the situation is to pray, and God responds by sending two bears. A significant portion of the gang attack the bears, and the bears ultimately kill 42 of the brigands. The prophet continues on God's work.
Put in context, it does not really seem all that outlandish, does it?