In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children in the Hebrew Bible

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Babies, Children, and Youth
  • Children and Daily Life
  • Children and Archaeology
  • Children and Sacrifice
  • Religious and Theological Approaches to Children in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
  • Children and Metaphors

Biblical Studies Children in the Hebrew Bible
Julie Faith Parker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0209


Children pervade the Hebrew Bible and were an integral part of ancient societies, yet they were largely ignored in biblical scholarship until the 21st century. Academic interest in children and the broader field of Childhood Studies has expanded rapidly since the latter part of the 20th century. This burgeoning interest was spurred in part by the publication of Philippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (translated by Robert Baldick [New York: Random House, 1962]; original 1960 publication in French by Philippe Ariès, L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime), a seminal work that claimed that children were viewed as “mini-adults” until the Renaissance. While this theory has been largely debunked, some Bible scholars uncritically adopted this view. However, the Hebrew Bible has concepts of children as different from adults that are revealed by the various terms that designate children and youth in successive stages of life. Recently, scholars have begun to examine this vocabulary to explore ancient Israelite concepts of children and childhood. Tools of narrative analysis along with sociological approaches, especially archaeology and anthropology, offer further methods for understanding the biblical writers’ views of children. These methods form the basis for “childist” interpretations of biblical texts, which examine the construction of child characters in the biblical world, and then reassesses their role and importance. Scholars recognize the need to acknowledge and dispose of modern, Western concepts of children and childhood as anachronistic and ethnocentric. Ideas that many take to be inherent attributes of children (e.g., that they are innocent, carefree, playful, or nonsexual) are instead specific cultural expectations that may bear little or no relation to children in the world of the Hebrew Bible.

General Overviews

Recent works approach children in the Hebrew Bible as an independent subject. Fewell 2003 creatively engages with child-centered biblical texts and was among the first books to focus academic attention on children in the Hebrew Bible. Awareness of child characters and the issues they raise grew with the publication of Bunge 2008. This landmark contribution showcases children in the Bible as a subject worthy of prominent scholars’ attention. The rate of publications continues to increase, both in the United States and abroad. Much of the emerging scholarship is in German. Kunz-Lübcke 2007 and Kunz-Lübcke and Lux 2006 provide volumes with strong scholarly analyses of biblical texts set within the context of the wider ancient Near East. In 2013, three monographs were published on children in the Hebrew Bible: Koepf-Taylor 2013, Parker 2013, and Steinberg 2013. The approaches vary: Koepf-Taylor focuses on economics; Parker on language, methodology, and a specific collection of stories; and Steinberg on sociological implications of biblical texts. All agree on the need to ferret out cultural differences between ancient and modern understandings of children.

  • Bunge, Marcia J., ed. The Child in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

    Six essays in this pioneering collection focus on the Hebrew Bible. Topics covered: children in Genesis (Fretheim 2008, cited under Children and Parents), Exodus as “text of terror” for children (Matthews McGinnis 2008, cited under Religious and Theological Approaches to Children in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), teaching children in Deuteronomy (Miller 2008, cited under Children and Parents), children in Proverbs (Brown 2008, cited under Children and Parents), children in Isaiah (Lapsley 2008, cited under Children and Metaphors), and the metaphor of Israel as a child (Strawn 2008, cited under Children and Metaphors). Concluding thematic essays also relate to the Hebrew Bible. Provides a broad range of approaches for engaging biblical texts. Helpful for seminary classes and accessible for general readers with an interest in the subject.

  • Fewell, Danna Nolan. The Children of Israel: Reading the Bible for the Sake of Our Children. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.

    Calls attention to children in selected biblical stories through creative essays, including poetry and a play. Academic footnotes undergird the imaginative interpretations with solid scholarship. Useful for seminary courses on children in the Bible, especially since the author connects biblical texts with modern challenges facing children.

  • Fleishman, Joseph. Parent and Child in Ancient Near East and the Bible. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1999.

    In Hebrew. Examines the status of children in the Bible’s legal material as well as Mesopotamian law and the Talmud. Provides a helpful addition to the work of Westbrook and other scholars who focus on laws, family, and society.

  • Koepf-Taylor, Laurel W. Give Me Children or I Shall Die: Children and Communal Survival in Biblical Literature. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.

    Emphasizes the economic value of children in ancient societies and reads specific texts related to infertility, education, and wartime atrocity through the lens of this historical understanding. Argues that children were essential to ancient Israelite culture for economic and cultural reasons.

  • Kunz-Lübcke, Andreas. Das Kind in den antiken Kulturen des Mittelmeers: Israel, Ägypten, Griechenland. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener, 2007.

    Discusses children in ancient Israel in conjunction with Egypt and Greece. Topics covered include birth, adoption, work, play, and violence. Useful for scholars doing comparative studies.

  • Kunz-Lübcke, Andreas, and Rüdiger Lux, eds. “Schaffe Mir Kinder . . .”: Beiträge zur Kindheit im alten Israel und in seinen Nachbarkulturen. Arbeiten zur Bibel und ihrer Geschichte 21. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2006.

    Compendium of academic articles on children in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures. Introductory essays discuss the challenges of researching children in Antiquity. Part 1 looks at children in the ancient Near East, broadly addressing the sale and deportation of children in Babylon and Assyria, children and labor in Egypt, and children in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Second part examines childhood in ancient Israel, with focus on violence, adolescence, prophetic literature, and children’s education in Ben Sira. Strong scholarly engagement.

  • Parker, Julie Faith. Valuable and Vulnerable: Children in the Hebrew Bible, Especially the Elisha Cycle. Brown Judaic Studies 355. Providence, RI: Brown University, 2013.

    In two parts. Part 1 offers conceptual frameworks for examining children in the Hebrew Bible, including philological discussion of Hebrew words used to describe babies, children, youth, and young adults; also explains the term “childist” and outlines a methodology for childist interpretation. Part 2 employs this methodology to analyze seven stories in the Elisha cycle that involve child characters. Helpful for scholars new to child-centered approaches.

  • Steinberg, Naomi. The World of the Child in the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew Bible Monographs 51. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013.

    Combines theoretical background with textual analyses of Genesis 21, 1 Samuel 1, and Exodus 21:22–25. Relates biblical texts to children in the early 21st century and the author’s work with children in Guatemala.

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