He [Elisha] 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!" And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Sama'ria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)
Many struggle with this type of story in the Bible and rightfully ask how a loving God could sanction the death of 42 innocent children?
King Solomon was a great ruler but his wealth and splendor came at a price - he ruled harshly, levying high taxes and conscripting workers to build his kingdom. When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam forsook wise council from the elders. He listened to the young men and promised to rule even harsher than his father.
he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions." (1 Kings 12:14)
The result was that the 10 northern tribes succeeded. They formed their own nation and set up not one but two golden calves to worship.
And they forsook all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves molten images of two calves; and they made an Ashe'rah, and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Ba'al. (2 Kings 17:16)
Two calves indicate that they were twice as bad as the people who worshiped one calf at Mt. Sinai! One of the calves was set up in the city of Bethel which was a center of pagan worship.
The ten northern tribes were known as the nation of Israel. The two southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah were known as the nation of Judah. Judah was by no means a faithful nation - they had their own problems, but Israel also had many problems and Elijah and his disciple Elisha after him were sent into the "enemy territory" of the ten northern tribes of Israel to preach repentance.
Elisha was a man consecrated to the God of Abraham. He was visible as such because of his bald head. He was a Nazarite, consecrated to God and all Nazarites shaved their head at the beginning of their ministry. Elisha was clearly a man of the God of Abraham and he walked right into the center of Bethel to preach repentance and do battle with the pagan gods. The 42 boys who came out knew knew this and that is why they mocked his bald head. In mocking his baldness they were mocking God.
That is the background to the story of the bears. God promised that the children of those who worshiped false gods would be devoured by beasts.
Then if you walk contrary to me, and will not hearken to me, I will bring more plagues upon you, sevenfold as many as your sins. And I will let loose the wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number, so that your ways shall become desolate. (Leviticus 26:21-22)
This was part of the covenant. Every covenant contains blessing for faithfulness and curse for unfaithfulness. Israel had entered into a covenant with God and was unfaithful to that covenant. The bear which killed the children was fulfillment of the covenant.
The people who forsook God knew that that children being killed by wild beasts was one of the consequences. The event would have been front page news and should have made the nation of Israel repent. They did not.