The World of Children in the Hebrew Bible

For its part, the archaeological record helps to uncover tangible items related to children and their lives, and in this regard, it is one of the most exciting strategies to use.

See Also: Growing Up in Ancient Israel ( SBL Press; 1 edition, 2018).

By Kristine Henriksen Garroway
Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible,
Hebrew Union College
November 2018


When asked to name a story about a child in the Hebrew Bible, many people might think of David and Goliath. The youth David, unable to hold a sword or carry the weight of military armor, faces-off with the giant Philistine armed only with a simple slingshot and handful of stones. Others might recall the tale of a teenage Joseph and his “coat of many colors.” Hated by his older brothers for his dreams of grandeur, he was sold into slavery. Those familiar with the prophets could point to the story of Eli, who was dedicated to the service of the Lord at a very young age. Each of these stories attests to the fact that children were an important part of the ancient Israelite social structure. But what more can be said about ancient Israelite children and their world?


Where are the Children?

A growing number of scholars have started addressing the fact that there is more to be said about ancient Israelite children. The first question to answer is: “Where are the children?” Children are evident in those well-known Bible stories, but they also appear in lesser-known stories. Many times children go unnamed, are abstracted, or are not thought of as children. Consider the gruesome story in 2 Kings 6 about two mothers who agree to eat their sons during a time of famine and war. Part of the issue here is re-thinking the way that we read the biblical text. The focus in 2 Kings 6 is generally on the cannibalistic mothers, rather than the role the children play in the narrative.  Consider too, Moses’ birth narrative. The story of a baby rescued on the Nile by the enemy’s own daughter is often subsumed into the larger, overarching narrative presenting Moses as a figure coming from humble origins. Yet, the narrative in Exodus 2:1–10 is about an infant. Changing the focus from an adult-centric one to a child-centered one reveals the presence of many more children in the biblical text.


While a change in focus helps, the main textual source on ancient Israelite children remains the Bible, a source that is not focused on the daily ins and outs of a child’s life. Because of this, the question, “What can we learn about children in ancient Israel?” might seem daunting. There are many well-established fields that can help us answer this question. However, when thinking about what a child’s world might have looked like in ancient Israel, the most helpful fields are historical criticism, archaeology and ethnography/social sciences. Historical criticism draws on comparative materials from the surrounding cultures. This is an especially useful tool for the times when the Bible is silent regarding a stage in a child’s life. While we cannot say for sure that because X happened in Mesopotamia that it must have happened in ancient Israel, we can form a picture of the cultural milieu in which ancient Israelite children existed. For its part, the archaeological record helps to uncover tangible items related to children and their lives, and in this regard, it is one of the most exciting strategies to use. Ethnography is most useful when the cultures compared have a similar social structure and are geographically close (Hardin: 2010). For comparison with ancient Israel, this means ethnographic cultures that are in the Southern Levant, that are kinship based, and which utilize subsistence farming can provide some insight into the biblical child’s world. With these tools in hand, we can peel back the pages of time to explore the world of the ancient Israelite child. 


A Child’s Life

Lawrence Stager’s seminal article (Stager: 1985) spurred an interest in the Israelite family and daily life. He noted that the Israelite family was focused on the extended family, the bet ‘av (house of the father), of the biblical text. Subsequent studies have estimated that upwards of 90% of Israelites lived in agricultural settlements and that the bet av remained the core social structure from early Israel on through the fall of the monarchy (Bender: 1996; Harding: 2010; Dever: 2012). Children were born to parents and grew up in this social structure; this was their world.


The Desired Child

We know from biblical texts that children were much desired. Genesis 1:28 and 9:1 utter the command to be fruitful and multiply, and many of the biblical narratives focusing on women are concerned with carrying out this command. In a social structure that understood a female’s life cycle as daughter, wife, and mother, the social role of a woman was centered on the domicile and insuring its continuity. Yet, barrenness or infertility were a reality for many ancient Israelite women, so much so that it was considered a disability (Baden: 2011). The Bible offers two suggestions for curing infertility: prayer and mandrakes (1 Sam 1:13, Gen 30:14-24). The Mesopotamian corpus provides many more examples, such as herbal suppositories, or pessaries, and fumigation of the vagina. One recipe states, “To make a not childbearing woman pregnant: You flay an edible mouse, open it up, and fill it with myrrh; you dry it in the shade, crush and grind it up, and mix it with fat; you place it in her vagina, and she will become pregnant” (Stol: 2000, 53). Even if a woman was fertile, families faced the reality of a high infant mortality rate. It is estimated that a woman who married in her teens and lived through her forties would need to have six pregnancies to gain two to three living children (Meyers: 2013, 110).


Post-Partum Rituals

          Once a much-desired child was born, a few post-partum rituals occurred. First, the infant’s umbilical cord was cut. While the Hebrew Bible does not relate how this was done, Mesopotamian texts note that the cord was cut with a special knife or a sliver of a reed, and  ethnographic reports also note that midwives used knives or sharp stones (Scurlock: 1985, 147; Granqvist: 1947, 52–56). A baby was then cleaned by rubbing it with salt or oil, after which it would be swaddled (Ezekiel 16:4; Garroway: 2018, 60–62; Granqvist: 1947, 95–96). Most often births were single births, but twins were not unknown. The Bible, as well as Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Egypt all record instances of multiple births. While all twins posed a problem to the inheritance order in a kinship-based society, on the whole it seems that fraternal twins were preferred (Garroway: 2016). Identical twins were seen as double monsters; it was as if the same person had come out twice (Leichty: 1970). According to most accounts, a child was named soon after birth. Some biblical texts suggest the naming happened right after birth. Most birth narratives are recorded in short order: she conceived, bore a son, and named him (Genesis 29–30). However, Levitical purity laws mandate that a new mother and child be secluded from public for a period of time after birth (Lev 12). Rainer Albertz has suggested that a public naming ceremony took place for the child after this seclusion ended (Albertz: 2012, 247). For a boy child, this would coincide with his circumcision on the eighth day. Names provided the parents a way of expressing characteristics the family wished the child to have, as well as an opportunity to note the circumstances of his or her birth. Consider the following biblical names inter alia: Dan, “God has judged me,” Asher, “happy/blessed,” Shemaiah, “YHWH has heard,” Jacob, “supplanter,” Esau, “hairy,” and Benjamin, “son of my right hand.”

The Early Days

Mothers typically nursed their infants for two to three years, after which the child began to eat solid foods and grow into a young child. This seems to be the norm for the greater Levant as a whole. The Egyptian eighteenth dynasty text called the “Instruction of Any” records the life stages of an infant: “When you were finally born, she [your mother] still carried you on her neck and for three years she suckled you and kept you clean.” Isaiah 66:11–13a provides a similar picture, while Joel 2:16, Deut 31:12, and Psalm 22:9 draw upon the imagery of nursing and transporting the child. Infants were nursed, carried in slings, baskets or hammocks, and toilet trained. The Egyptian record provides visual representations of some slings and other baby carriers, depicting both native Egyptian means of transporting infants, as well as the ways foreigners carried infants in baskets strapped to their backs (Janssen and Janssen: 1990, 20). So too, the ethnographic reports of 1930-40’s Palestine records the rather humorous observation that mothers swaddle their children to hammocks for easy transportation. Then when reaching the marketplace, mothers hang up the hammocks [babies intact] on hooks while the mother shops or sells her goods (Granqvist: 1947, 121). Swaddling and carrying infants are well-known methods of keeping them calm and quiet. Mesopotamian sources also note the use of lullabies. The soothing ooos and ahhhs and lilting tones have been shown to help infants fall asleep (Bosworth: 2016, 22–67). Rattles have been found in excavations throughout Israel, as well as the surrounding lands, and are surmised to have had a soothing function in addition to their use as musical instruments (Garroway: 2018, 102–03).


Raising the Next Generation: Gendering and Enculturation

          From the moment the child was born, the parents started the process of both gendering the child and socializing him or her into Israelite society. Raising properly enculturated Israelite children was how Israelite society insured its continuity. William Dever observed: “Few people were educated, except in the school of hard knocks.” (Dever: 2012, 204). The schoolhouse was rather everyday life. Boys and girls learned from their families. Proverbs 1:8 states, “My son, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother.” Children watch and learn from adults and are “active participants in the economic, social, political, and religious of cultures,” as they repeat the information they learn (Baxter: 2005, 11). Much of this information is gendered.

As an infant, gendering was imposed upon the infant. Cultures near ancient Israel provided the infants with gifts according to the gender. Hittite infants received either “boy” or “girl” gifts (Beckman: 1978, 8–9). A Sumerian text states that the children hold gendered items; a girl holds weaving items and a boy holds weapons (Stol: 2000, 61). The Hebrew Bible does not mention such rituals. Rather, for Israelite male babies gendering took place via circumcision on the eighth day. Female infants were not circumcised, but gender identity was reinforced through the seclusion period a new mother went through. Birth of a female meant an initial fourteen-day period of impurity, whereas the birth of a male required only seven days of impurity. After this time, a longer period of ritual impurity was imposed, again based on whether the child was male or female (Lev 12:1–5).

          As children grew, they learned tasks that were appropriate to their gender. In an agricultural society, children spent the first few years of their lives being cared for by their mothers and the other women in the household. While the men were off tending to the fields or herds, the women were completing domestic chores and caring for gardens and vineyards close to home (Meyers: 2013). Infants and young children of both genders belonged to this realm of women, thus learning and observing what took place in the household. As the children grew, they might be sent to tend the family flocks, like Joseph and Rachel (Gen 29:9, 37:2). Some jobs were gender neutral, yet other jobs were marked along clear gender lines. For example, both baking and weaving are associated with women in the Bible, so one can imagine girls learning how to carry out these tasks (Jud 16:13–14; Jer 7:14; Meyers: 2003, 430–31). Girls would continue to stay in the women’s realm, learning how to make bread, carry out daily household chores, care for younger children, gather dung, and various rituals related to the domestic cult (Garroway: 2017; Granqvist 1947: 137–39). When boys became old enough, they would accompany the men of the household into the fields. Ethnographic studies show that boys aged eight or nine watch over flock co-ops. They might also watch the newborn lambs, calves, or kids, protecting them and making sure they did not wander off (Granqvist: 1947, 130–32). The Bible also provides information on what makes a boy a man (Wilson: 2015). Two teenage boys, David and Jether, are each given the opportunity to kill an enemy and prove themselves as men (I Sam 17; Jud 8:19–21). David succeeds, while Jether does not. Boys were also considered men when they grew their hair long and had facial hair (2 Sam 10:4–5).


Playing and Learning

Theories abound addressing why children play. Biologically it can be understood as training a child for the real-life skills need for survival (Garroway: 2018, 199). The archaeological record provides two interesting case studies that mesh the desire to play with the development of skills: miniature ceramic items and two-holed disks. Because of their small size, miniature ceramic items have long been associated with “toys,” yet not every miniature item is a toy. The context in which an item is found is often helpful in determining its function. Noting that small vessels appeared scattered through houses at Tel Nagila, archaeologists explored the possibility that these were toys made by children (Uziel and Avissar-Lewis: 2013). Using fingerprint analysis, their study determined which items were made by children and which by adults. Their study found that the child-made items were concentrated in areas of the house that were otherwise empty. They suggested that children made the miniature items in imitation of adult-made items, and then took their projects to the areas in the house designated for children to play. The existence of similar objects at other sites across Israel suggests that children might have been trained to become potters (Garroway: 2018).  We know from Mesopotamian texts that families passed on the family trade from father to son (Steinkeller: 1996).


While children did not experience the same kind of “childhood” as we understand it today, life was not all work for children; plenty of evidence exists that suggests children had time to play. A study of two-holed disks also suggests that children were playing and learning at the same time (Garroway: 2017b). These objects appear throughout Israel, yet there is no consensus as to their function. Some of the objects look like buttons, with evenly placed holes and smooth, rounded edges. Other objects in the study included objects with uneven holes, holes not bored all the way through, or rough edges. A few archaeologists suggested they were spinning toys, similar to the early twentieth century toy called a buzz (van Beek: 1989). One first loops a string through the holes of the button-like object, ties it, and then winds the string up. Once the string is tightly wound, the child pulls the ends and the button glides up and down the string. If these objects are indeed toys, then they seem to be toys children made for themselves. Those children that finished the objects were able to use them as buzzes. Those “rough” objects would not work successfully. The skills needed to produce a working buzz, chipping, rubbing, and drilling, are all skills that could later be applied to other crafts, such as bead making and loom whorl production.




The Bible is replete with examples of adult men and women, but very little appears proportionally when it comes to children. Yet, we must not assume that children were unimportant. Children were a valuable part of the family. They represented the next generation of Israelites, and as such, parents poured time and energy into making sure they were taught. Deuteronomy 6:6–7 commands parents to teach their children the things that God is instructing, i.e.  the things that make them specifically Israelite. As the examples above have shown, the Bible offers a skeletal outline of the world children inhabited. By using all the resources at hand, comparisons with other nearby cultures, the archaeological record from ancient Israel, and the more modern ethnographic reports, one can begin to see the child’s world. This world is fascinating, and the work done to uncover it has just begun.




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Baden, Joel. “The Nature of Barrenness in the Hebrew Bible.” Pages 13–27 in Disability Studies and Biblical Literature. Edited by Candida Moss and Jeremy Schipper. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Baxter, Judith. The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender, and Material Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2005.

Beckman, Gary. Hittite Birth Rituals: An Introduction. Malibu, CA: Undena, 1978.

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Hardin, James. Lahav II: Households and the Use of Domestic Space at Iron II Tell Halif: An Archaeology of Destruction, Reports of the Lahav Research Project. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

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Meyers, Carol. “Material Remains and Social Relations: Women’s Culture in Agrarian Households of the Iron Age.” Pages 425– 44 in Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past: Canaan, Ancient Israel, and Their Neighbors, form the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palaestina. Edited by William G. Dever and Seymour Gitin. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003.

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Article Comments

Submitted by Joice Jones on Tue, 02/22/2022 - 14:46


I have often heard that Israelite women and children were exploited. The above information was very informative.

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