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Children in the Hebrew Bible

Elisha Raising the Son of Shunammite
Frederic Leighton

Many people think that the Bible is largely devoid of children—not so! Children are crucial to the world of the Hebrew Bible. While it is hard to know exactly, scholars think that most people in ancient Israel only lived to be about 40 years old, if they were not killed first by war, childbirth, famine, or disease. In cultures whose members have short life expectancies, children and youth are about a third of the population. Although the Bible’s writers do not have a specific interest in children per se, young people were integral to society, and their stories are accordingly woven into the Hebrew Bible.

The distinction between children, youth, and young adults is not neatly delineated. As in modern, Western culture, biblical Israel does not have a set time or ritual that clearly designates a person as an adult. However, the age of marriage would mark a significant transition in a person’s life and can serve as a marker of adulthood. A girl would be eligible for marriage about the time she began menstruating, likely in her early teenage years (clearly youth by our standards). Many of the younger female characters in the Bible, such as Rebekah in Gen 24, are of increasing interest to the text when they reach marriageable age. A young man would likely be about 10 years older than his prospective wife, an age at which he would have some resources to support a family. For example, Isaac marries Rebekah, who is a generation younger than he is (Isaac is the son of Abraham; Rebekah is the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham’s brother; see Gen 11:29, Gen 24:24).

Some children and youth in the Bible are relatively famous. Young Isaac (called a na’ar, see below) questions his father Abraham, who is about to sacrifice him (Gen 22:1-19); 17-year-old Joseph shares dreams with his brothers, who sell him into slavery (Gen 37); baby Moses floats down the Nile in a basket (Exod 2:1-10); the boy Samuel hears God’s call in the temple (1Sam 3:1-18); and youthful David slays the giant Goliath (1Sam 17). Girls also have significant roles: adolescent Rebekah eagerly offers hospitality and receives the blessing of brave descendants (Gen 24:15-60); Dinah goes out to visit other girls and is raped (Gen 34); young Miriam negotiates with Pharaoh’s daughter to ensure her brother Moses’s safety (Exod 2:1-10); the princess Tamar speaks eloquently and unsuccessfully resists sexual assault (2Sam 13:1-20); and nubile Abishag reveals old King David’s ineptitudes (1Kgs 1:1-4).

Boys and young men receive more attention from the Bible’s writers than do girls. Sons were desired because ancient Israelite society was patrilocal, with the daughter moving to the house of her husband upon marriage. Although girls and women were valuable contributors to the labor of the household, a family without sons would be bereft of children to care for the parents in their old age.

In addition to children and youth who are individually named, many more anonymous children and youth pepper the Bible’s pages. Specific terms signal the presence of young characters and further show that the writers recognized children as different from adults. Relational words that can indicate a young person include ben (son), bat (daughter), ach (brother), achot (sister), bekhor (firstborn son), bekhirah (firstborn daughter), qaton (little one), tsa’ir (young/er one), and yatom (orphan).

Other words for children and youths show awareness of a young person’s growth and development, such as bachur (young man), betulah (young woman), na‘ar (boy, youth, or servant), na‘arah (girl, youth, or servant), ‘elem (older boy/teenager), ‘almah (older girl/teenager), yeled (child or boy), and yaldah (girl).

Words suggesting infancy include taf (dependents, little ones), gamul ([weaned, safe] small child), awil (small child), yoneq ([nursing] baby or small child), and ‘olel (baby or small child [in danger]). These terms for children and youth reveal attention to kinship, birth order, gender, development, and also safety.

Scholars today explore how the writers of the Bible thought about children and then reread the text with an eye to evaluate their role and influence. Childist biblical interpretation calls attention to famous young characters and to those who are often overlooked, like the boys raised from the dead by Elijah (1Kgs 17:17-24) and Elisha (2Kgs 4:8-37) or the 42 children ripped apart by bears (2Kgs 2:23-25). Like children themselves, the burgeoning study of children in the Bible is full of promise.

  • Parker-Julie F

    Julie Faith Parker is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. Her most recent book is The T&T Clark Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical World (2019), co-edited with Sharon Betsworth.