The Bible overflows with references to children, childhood, and relations between the generations. There are two main reasons for this. First, children (both as minors and as adults) were embedded in multigenerational households, and the household was the fundamental unit of society in biblical times. Second, and related, much of the story of God and God’s relations with humankind is shaped by discourse drawn from the realms of kinship and family life. As the author and sustainer of life, God works God’s purposes out through human generation and from one generation to another; and human parenthood is seen as deriving its authority from God (cf. Deut 5:16).

Children in the Bible as a Subject of Study.

Until recently, the study of the child in the Bible has been a minor interest among biblical scholars. However, a number of developments have brought it more to the fore. In historiography, the rise of social history has encouraged the critical study of family life across the centuries, including biblical times. Further, developments in interdisciplinary study in the humanities have brought the social sciences into conversation with the interpretation of ancient sources. In consequence, there has been closer attention to the multifaceted dimensions of kinship relations and household patterns. Gender studies has also been influential, bringing a new focus on gender construction and gender roles of both adults and children in ancient times. Most recently, childhood studies has become a discipline in its own right, bringing together researchers in the fields of education, psychology, history, law, literature, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and religious studies.

These interdisciplinary developments have had an impact on classical studies, which has seen a burgeoning of research on the family in ancient Greece and Rome, with particular attention to women and children (Rawson, 2003). With this environment as a stimulus, the academic fields of biblical, Jewish, and early Christian studies have likewise given new attention to the family in general and children in particular. The majority of this work is historical (Cohen, 1993; Balch and Osiek, 2003; Aasgaard, 2006); some is also theological (Bunge, 2001). Increased concern about children in modern times has been influential also: witness the debates about abortion, the exposure of child abuse, the recognition of child poverty, and anxieties about the commodification and sexualization of childhood. Since children are on the contemporary moral agenda, they naturally come to the fore of the scholarly agenda as well, with faith traditions seeking wisdom from their respective scriptures and traditions (Sims, 2009).

Children in the Bible and Biblical Hermeneutics.

Scholarly approaches to children in the Bible tend to direct their attention in three basic ways. First, the relevant biblical texts are used as evidence for a larger account of children in the biblical world. In this work of historical reconstruction, the focus of interest is information about such matters as a child’s living conditions, birth, nurture and education, status and roles in family and society, and place in the culture’s system of beliefs, values, symbols, and rituals. To date, this is the dominant mode of scholarly research. Its significance for ethics lies in its potential for revealing both the continuities and the discontinuities between children and childhood practices then and now. This becomes an aid in the formation of moral judgements and practices in relations with children today insofar as these are informed by reading the Bible. A case in point would be debates about just forms of parental acts of discipline—in particular whether kinds of punishment deemed legitimate in biblical times remain legitimate two millennia later (cf. Pilch, 1993).

The second interest focuses more directly on specific biblical texts to analyze the ways these texts speak of children and childhood. Here, in addition to examining what the text says, the focus is on how the text speaks as literature, using the full panoply of rhetorical devices such as plot, setting, characterization, point of view, irony, ambiguity, metaphor, allusion, narrative gaps, and so on. With regard to children, such approaches enhance an interpreter’s appreciation of how the text may convey something of the drama and complexity of parent-child relations, as well as something of the vulnerability of children and therefore their cultural and religious potency. The narrative of the “sacrifice” of Isaac by his father Abraham in Genesis 22 is a classic example. The significance of such text-centered approaches for ethics lies in the ways they bring aesthetic and emotional sensibilities into engagement with the moral and theological imagination.

Finally, the biblical texts and their accounts of children become incorporated into larger moral arguments about children in our contemporary world. Here, attention is given to the ways in which the meaning of the text is actualized in often quite different ways by different readers according to the experience, presuppositions, competencies, and interests that readers bring to the text. The focus here is on how meaning is generated in the interaction between text and reader. Important also is the idea of the reading community and how readers’ responses to the text are affected by their social contexts. With regard to the significance of such approaches for ethics, two paradigms are noteworthy. Feminist and liberationist interpreters focus on biblical texts as records of the oppression of children and as sources warranting their liberation. Postcolonial interpretation focuses on children in the Bible as objects of violence and abuse in the context of contests of power between empires, but also as images of a hoped-for new society where children, the weak, and the marginal are at risk no longer.

Children as Created in the Image of God.

Among the main aspects of the child in the Bible, of first importance is the belief, grounded in the book of Genesis, that human beings, including children, are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3). As Terence Fretheim (2008, p. 4) puts it: “Everything that the image of God is, every child is. These Genesis texts claim that all human beings—regardless of gender, race, social status, or age—are created in the image of God from the beginning of their life.” Insofar as it is the image of God that children bear, then what is implied in the story of creation are characteristics of creativity, self-expression, relationality, and a capacity for delight. Children, in the company of people at every stage of life, are icons on earth of the divine in heaven. This conception gives children full dignity as human beings—a dignity well expressed in Psalm 8:5: “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” The implications for the status of children (both male and female), how they are to be treated and how they are to behave, are considerable.

Children as a Blessing from God.

Children are understood as a blessing from God and as agents within the divine purpose for humankind. In the patriarchal narratives and in the context of covenantal promise (Gen 12:1–3; 15:3–5), God blesses the patriarchs with children; the patriarchs are repeatedly depicted blessing their children (sons) (Gen 28:1–4; 48:15–16; 49); and the birth of children generates a response of gratitude and joy (Gen 21:6). The sense of wonder at God’s goodness in bringing blessing through the intimate work of creation is seen also in the Psalms: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:13–14A). In the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is greeted with great joy and Jesus’s parents are blessed for the blessing they have received (Luke 2:25–38). In Mark, Jesus himself is depicted taking “little children” in his arms, placing his hands on them, and blessing them (Mark 10:16).

Receiving children as a blessing from God and blessing children in turn is significant. It means that children are valued. The reason is simple and profound: children embody life and represent life. Indeed, there is a sense in which the often miraculous birth of progeny to the patriarchs (overcoming “death” in the form of the endangered wife or the barren womb) represents and prefigures what in early Judaism and Christianity becomes resurrection from the dead (Madigan and Levenson, 2008). It is entirely consistent with the idea of children as a blessing, both in life and for life, that practices causing harm to children—such as abortion, infanticide, and child sacrifice—are regarded in ancient Jewish and Christian tradition as morally abhorrent.

Childhood and Formation.

Childhood in the Bible is both a life-stage category and a relational category. As a life-stage category, childhood is a time for personal formation through practices of nurture, discipline, and instruction. Central to the process of formation is education under the aegis of parents. This is understood as a lifelong process. A classic text here is the book of Deuteronomy, which gives prominent attention to children from start to finish (Deut 1:39; 32:46). As Patrick Miller (2008, p. 62) says: “No single book of Scripture attends more directly and so often to the education of the children in the community of faith than Deuteronomy. It is itself a book of teaching and one that is deeply aware that the starting point for learning the faith is in the family circle and early in life.” Here, the goal of learning is obedience to torah as the way to life in “the fear of the Lord.” The techniques of learning include hearing and reading, memorization, recitation and meditation, and asking questions. The content of learning has to do with instruction in the ways of life as embodied in the nation’s “constitution” (i.e., torah), within the identity-defining narrative context of the story of the exodus and wilderness wanderings. The context of learning is the family, including its participation in the religious life of the community, with the cult rituals and the festivals providing repeated occasions for pedagogy.

Childhood as Relational.

Childhood in the Bible is also a relational category. Whereas in the modern period children are understood more as individuals, in the ancient world children were firmly embedded in kinship networks of families, clans, and tribes. This relational dimension has a number of implications. It means that age is not the main issue. The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16), is addressed to adult children as well as to minors. It means that personal identity is a matter of group ascription more than individual achievement. It is a matter of who the individual is in relation to significant others in the kinship group—to which the literary phenomenon of the biblical genealogy is remarkable testimony (cf. Gen 5:1, 10:1, 11:10, 25:12, 36:1; and in the New Testament, Matt 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–28). It means that what matters existentially and morally is oriented toward the preservation and well-being of family, clan, tribe, and people. It is noteworthy, for example, that the “second table” of the Decalogue lists prohibitions on behavior that threatens the foundations of household and community: disobedience to parents undermines parental authority, and adultery undermines marriage.

In religious terms, the relational character of childhood indicates that what constitutes “salvation” and “hope” resides, not only in the faith of the individual, but above all in the narrative and practices of the community, handed on from generation to generation (cf. Deut 6). In the Old Testament, that community is the nation of Israel, and relations are defined genealogically. In the New Testament, it is the church understood as eschatological Israel; and here, the biological genealogy of Israel is overlaid with a genealogy of the Spirit—overlaid, but not completely erased, as in the poignant words to Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you” (2 Tim 1:5). Here is a genealogy of faith nurtured across several biological generations in a household context; and it is significant that it is the mothers who have played the key formational roles.

The Child as Metaphor.

The child in the Bible as both a life-stage category and a relational category offers a rich resource for metaphorical appropriation and development. Reflecting, but also critiquing, the patriarchal structures of the biblical world, God is pictured as “Father” with Israel as God’s “children” (Isa 63:16; 64:8; cf. Hos 11:1, 3) and subsequently, Israel’s messiah as God’s “son” (Ps 2:7; cf. Acts 13:33). In the eschatologically oriented teaching of Jesus, the language of kinship and childhood has effective shock value. In response to the presumptuous attempt by his mother and brothers to intervene in his ministry, Jesus identifies as his “true” mother and brothers, “whoever does the will of God” (Mark 3:31). In criticism of disciples who neglect those on society’s margins, Jesus says: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15; cf. 9:36–37). Acknowledging the serious cost in familial terms to people who become his followers, the compensation Jesus offers is “one hundredfold…houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields” (Mark 10:30), where a biological kinship group is transformed into a fictive kinship group of fellow disciples, notably including children. Jesus, a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12), and therefore childless himself, draws nevertheless on the metaphorical potential of childhood and kinship language to communicate the breaking in of a new order of identity, relations, and values (Francis, 2006).

Similar is the apostle Paul—single, celibate, and childless, yet drawing in his correspondence upon a wide biblical and cultural repertoire of childhood metaphors for the purpose of building up the church (Aasgaard, 2004, 2008). Thus, in the semantic sphere of kinship, Jesus is represented as the Son of God, and believers are children of God having been “adopted” into God’s family. Also, having “fathered” them in the faith, Paul addresses believers as his own children as well (1 Cor 4:14–15). In fact, he is both their “father” and “mother,” parenting metaphors Paul uses in equal measure (e.g. Gal 4:19; 1 Cor 3:1–2). In the sphere of status, Paul can use the cultural perception of children as immature to shame Christians in the Corinthian churches who are boasting of their wisdom: “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as…infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food” (1 Cor 3:1–2; cf. 13:11; 14:20). In the sphere of formation, Paul presents himself as “like a father with his children…pleading that you lead a life worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:11–12). But, as a “father,” he can also present himself as a disciplinarian, threatening his recalcitrant (adult!) children with the rod (1 Cor 4:21). In the sphere of belonging, there is not only parent-child language but also metaphors of siblingship. Paul’s addressees are both his own “brothers” and “sisters” and siblings of one another, the metaphor implying solidarity while leaving room for differences of status, age, gender, and role (1 Cor 1:10, 11, 26; 2:1; 3:1; etc.). Very striking in this connection is the sibling language in the letter to Philemon where Paul appeals to the slave-owning Philemon, as his “brother,” to receive the runaway slave Onesimus back into his household (and house-church), “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phlm 16). Clearly, in the context of the institution of slavery, the insertion of sibling terminology into relations between master and (disobedient!) slave must be seen as having significant potential for social transformation.

Children and the Social Order.

In both Old and New Testaments, the place of children in a society ordered toward the preservation of life and the maintenance of harmony is given serious attention. A classic case from the New Testament consists of instructions for the regulation of household relations (Col 3:18—4:1; Eph 5:22—6:9; 1 Pet 2:18—3:7) (Balch, 1981; Dunn, 1996). Here, a common feature is the attention given to three pairs of relationship, in the order wives/husbands, children/parents, slaves/masters. The model for these household rules was the teaching among ancient moralists, from Aristotle on, about matters of a constitutional kind, including oikonomia (“household management”). Seneca, for example, talks about a certain kind of practical philosophy that “advises how a husband should conduct himself towards his wife, or how a father should bring up his children, or how a master should rule his slaves” (Ep 94.1). Similar ideas are found in Hellenistic Jews like Philo and Josephus in their reflections on the fifth commandment of the Decalogue. Since the household (oikos) was regarded as the building block of the state, the peace and good order of the latter depended on the peace and good order of the former. Recognizing the wisdom of these Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish traditions, Christian moralists took this up, offering at the same time specifically Christian modifications and motivations. Significantly, children are addressed. They are recognized members of Christian households and house-churches. Their prime responsibility is obedience: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord” (Col 3:20). Fathers, in turn, are not to “provoke” their children, “but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

No doubt, modern readers of a liberal philosophical bent will balk at the underlying assumptions about a patriarchal and hierarchical constitutional order with clear lines of subordination and superordination. This is hard to gainsay. Nevertheless, several observations are pertinent. First, these early Christian moralists may fairly be seen as drawing upon the best moral wisdom of the day. Their intention was to inculcate social responsibility within a Christian framework in order to contribute to the wider social good and witness thereby to a faith that sought the well-being of all people. Second, the rules themselves are rudimentary and straightforward: they are but a bare framework. As such, in the matter of children-parent relations, they leave plenty of room for play (in both senses). Third, in a world where the male household head (the paterfamilias) had absolute power (patria potestas) over other household members, the rules represent a significant restraint on abuses of power, not least the abuse of children. This is because the rules are set within convictions about the revelation of divine wisdom in Christ and about the new eschatological existence that comes—to parents and children alike—through dying and rising with Christ.

[See also FAMILY; FORMATION; HOUSEHOLD CODES; and KINSHIP.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Aasgaard, Reidar. “Children in Antiquity and Early Christianity: Research History and Central Issues.” Familia 33 (2006): 23–46.
  • Aasgaard, Reidar. “Like a Child: Paul’s Rhetorical Uses of Childhood.” In The Child in the Bible, edited by Marcia J. Bunge, Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, pp. 249–277. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.
  • Balch, David L. Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1981.
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  • Madigan, Kevin J. and Jon D. Levenson. Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Miller, Patrick D, “That the Children May Know: Children in Deuteronomy.” In The Child in the Bible, edited by Marcia J. Bunge, Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, pp. 45–62. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.
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Stephen C. Barton