The story of Elisha and the two bears, as I call it, tells us that the prophet Elisha is set upon by 42 youths. I've written plenty about the moral and historical issues in this story, but while reading Joel Burnett's new book The Absence of God, I came across a more developed form of an argument I've dealt with before and that concerns the use of the number 42.
Some time ago an atheist had argued that the number "42" was somehow symbolic, and that this made the account historically suspect. I noted that the atheist provided insufficient data to show that the number 42 was used in symbolic ways. Burnett does a much better job than the atheist in providing data, but his applications are rather questionable.
Burnett provides the following instances of 42 as "a number representing divine blessing or curse":
With that said, does the evidence indeed suggest that 42 functioned here in a symbolic fashion? The answer is, not really. Burnett's examples are certainly correct, to the extent that they used the number 42 in some way. But he has also biased the conclusion in a way that is similar to that of imitation theorists like Dennis MacDonald and Acharya S. i.e., by choosing his own words and his own description ("representing divine blessing or curse") he has biased the results. Let's start with the Scripture citations.
For example, Judges 12:6 tells of how 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in war when they failed to say a password correctly. A form of 42 is used, to be sure, but where is the "divine blessing or curse?" There is no sign in the text that the deaths are part of some divine curse. Here also, Burnett has biased the outcome by using the word "curse" as a descriptor for any undesirable fate. Finally, if the number 42 is meant to be symbolic here, we have to ask why we also have examples of numbers of people killed in battle that are not a variant of 42.
2 Kings 10:14 is in fact such an example, of 42 people killed by Jehu. This is a little closer to being able to be a divine curse in action, to the extent that Jehu was commissioned by God's prophet to do his work. But these are nevertheless only seen as deaths in battle. There is no sign of a "divine curse."
2 Chr. 22:2 probably does not even belong. It lists the age of Azariah, and some manuscripts say 22. This is paralleled in Kings as the age of Ahaziah, along with some Septuagint manuscripts of Chronicles. It is also open to question how one's age is a curse, or how this passage represents a divine curse (or blessing).
The two verses from Daniel seem puzzling as an inclusion, since they do not seem, at first glance, to reference the number 42 at all, but instead, to "time, times, and half a time." Actually, the 42 is hidden; this refers to 42 months of time. The passages in Revelation echo Daniel, so they should not be counted separately in statistical terms. It is also a question of how these represent "blessing" or "curse." The 42 months here is an interruption of sorts, which seems to be followed by divine judgment. Perhaps that could be argued to be either a blessing or curse.
Luke 4:25 is also obscured. It does not use 42 directly but refers to three years and six months, which equals 42 months, as the time during which Elijah stopped rain from falling. This is arguably the best example so far of what Burnett claims to provide. It is echoed by James, which therefore should not be counted statistically.
Erasing duplicates and the likely erroneous case of Azariah, we are left with four total Biblical references to 42. Of these, only two seem to strictly qualify as referring to a "divine blessing or curse." And the case of Elisha, indeed, may only marginally be argued to join those two references to make a third: Elisha does issue a curse, which has some sort of effect towards 42 victims. But now break down each use, including those outside the Bible:
Being fair, it may be argued less precisely that 42 is used in contexts of judgment; however, this creates another problem. We would need, in order to validate a statistical conclusion, to show that e.g., 42 appears an unusual number of times in reports of sacrifices. In other words, are there also reports of 37 sacrifices, or 15, or 13? Is there an established pattern, sufficient to show that the incidences of 42 are not merely coincidence?
In conclusion, I would have to say that Burnett's conclusions about the use of 42 require further statistical validation in order to be jusitified.