BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

What Does the Bible Say About Children—and What Does Archaeology Say?

Examining the lives of ancient children

varallo-david-and-goliath

David and Goliath. What does the Bible say about children? Although children appear in some Biblical texts, such as the story of David and Goliath, these almost always come from an adult’s perspective. This painting by Tanzio da Varallo—titled David and Goliath—dates to c. 1625.

What was life like for children in the ancient Near East? Was it all fun and games—or mostly work?

Using ancient texts and archaeological remains, Kristine Henriksen Garroway of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, reconstructs what life was like for the average child in ancient Israel—and throughout the Near East during the Bronze and Iron Ages. In her article “Children in the Ancient Near East,” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, she explains that as soon as they were able, children became part of the household economic system. They helped in ways suitable for their age. Thus, their lives were more work and less play than many of us may have envisioned.

What can archaeology tell us about children, and what does the Bible say about children?

Unfortunately, children are underrepresented in the archaeological record and ancient texts, including the Bible. It is difficult to discern which artifacts belonged to children. In fact, the best context for identifying children’s artifacts is burials. When children and infants are buried with particular materials, we can infer that these materials were associated with children and were usually intended to assist them in the afterlife.
In her analysis of more than 440 individual infant and child burials at 58 different Bronze and Iron Age sites, Kristine Henriksen Garroway noticed a pattern: “Infants were buried in jars under floors, and children were buried in a manner similar to that of the adults in their community.” There were certainly exceptions to this rule, but this pattern mostly held true for 3,000 years in the ancient Near East (c. 3600–539 B.C.E.).


The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.


Children and infants typically were buried with pottery and sometimes a personal item, such as jewelry—when their burials included grave goods. Notably, during the Bronze Age, infants in jar burials often were interred with juglets, which would have served as a proto-bottle, meant to sustain them with milk in the afterlife.

Moving from archaeological remains to ancient texts, we see that children are still underrepresented. Kristine Henriksen Garroway explains that ancient “children did not write texts,” and when children do appear in texts, they usually are being written about by adults. Although children are present in some Biblical texts, such as the story of David and Goliath, these texts were not written by the children themselves and, thus, come from an adult’s perspective.

Legal documents are the best textual source for learning about the lives of ancient children; these include “wet-nurse contracts, adoptions, inheritance, debt-slave sales, and slave sales.” We have a large amount of ancient adoption records from the site of Nuzi in northeastern Iraq. For adopted boys, the major concern was inheritance; for adopted girls, it was marriage prospects. Garroway elaborates:

Many adoption contracts specify where the adopted child falls in the line of inheritance. In most cases, the adopted boy enters the household with the special status of the firstborn child, meaning he will receive a double inheritance portion. Contracts often dictate whether additional sons can be adopted. They also deal with the possibility of a biological son being born. Should this happen, the adoptee often gets demoted to second-in-line. Just as Ishmael, the biological son of Abraham, displaces Eliezer, the Nuzi adoptions show a preference for inheriting through biological children over and against adopted children. […]

For adopted girls, a whole new set of complications come to the fore, namely, her marriage prospects. The new parents become legally responsible for providing a dowry and for ensuring and protecting the girl’s virginity until they found and married her off to a man of their choosing. The Nuzi adoption contracts are notable because some discuss the possibility that a girl might be taken in adoption as a daughter or daughter-in-law; she could be married to the neighbor boy, the adopter’s own son, or even a slave! The upshot here is that a girl’s status within the household was not necessarily established upon her initial entrance into the household. Instead, her status remained fluid until her adoptive parents decided what to do with her.

simeon-solomon-the-mother-of-moses

Attempted Infanticide? What does the Bible say about infants and children? Kristine Henriksen Garroway identifies Exodus 2:3 as an incident of attempted infanticide. The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (c. 1860) depicts the moment before Moses’s mother places him in the basket, which is held by his sister Miriam.

The Bible mentions child sacrifice and infanticide—two other practices that shed light on children’s lives in the ancient Near East. Biblical passages about child sacrifice include Genesis 22 (Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac to Yahweh), Leviticus 18:21; 20:2–4 (sacrificing children to Molech), Judges 11 (Jepthah sacrificing his daughter to fulfill a vow), 2 Kings 21:6 (King Manasseh passing his sons through fire as an offering), and Jeremiah 32:35 (sacrificing children to Molech), among others. Garroway identifies Genesis 21:10, 17–20 and Exodus 2:3 as an incidents of attempted infanticide. In both of these cases, the infant—baby Ishmael and baby Moses—is miraculously spared.

No archaeological evidence of child sacrifice or infanticide has been found in ancient Israel. However, Garroway clarifies that even though there is no archaeological evidence of these practices, it does not mean that they did not happen. First of all, evidence of these two practices is not always easily discernible in the archaeological record. Second, the discovery of infant cemeteries (called tophets) at Carthage and other Punic sites suggests that child sacrifice did occur in the ancient Near East. Not all scholars agree with this interpretation, but many think these tophets are proof of the practice.

Archaeological remains and texts have shaped what we know about the lives of children in ancient Israel—and the rest of the ancient Near East. Learn more about these sources in Kristine Henriksen Garroway’s article “Children in the Ancient Near East,” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. As new discoveries come to light, these will also inform our understanding of ancient children’s lives.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Children in the Ancient Near East,” by Kristine Henriksen Garroway in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Did the Ancient Israelites Think Children Were People? by T. M. Lemos

Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?

Childhood in Roman Egypt

What Does the Bible Say About Infertility?


3 Responses

  1. Leslie says:

    Shame on Megan Sauter for referring to Garroway’s two examples of attempted infanticide and not correcting his example of “baby Ishmael” for her readers. Ishmael was not a baby when he was sent away from Abraham, so it could not have been attempted infanticide. He was over 14 years of age (Gen. 16:16; 21:5; cf. Gen. 21:8). It disturbs me when writers speak confidently about things they have not researched carefully, and then any readers who are not familiar with what Scripture really says take it as “gospel.”

  2. Rabbi Adele says:

    It is not clear whether Jepthah sacrificed his daughter or kept her from ever having progeny. Barren women were considered to be as if they were dead. Pretty much all the rest of the piece is speculation about the meaning of archaeological facts. It would have been nice to have a note about whether toys were found at the sites…

  3. Nathaniel says:

    David was not a child in the story of David and Goliath.

    David brought the Ark up from the House of Avinadav after he became king of all Yisrael and Yehuda, and after he had captured Yerushalayim (2 Samuel 5, 6)

    The Ark had spent 20 years in the House of Avinadav (1 Samuel 7:2)

    David was 30 years old when he became king of Yehuda in Hevron, where he ruled for 7 years and 6 months before he became king of all Yisrael and Yehuda, and conquered Yerushalayim (2 Samuel 5:4-5)

    – The Ark was in the House of Avinadav for 20 years
    – David brought the Ark out from the House of Avinadav after he was king of all Yisrael and Yehuda
    – David didn’t become king of all Yisrael and Yehuda until after he had ruled Yehuda for 7 years and 6 months
    – David became king when he was 30

    Therefore, David was already around 16-17 years old when the Ark was captured by the Philstines in the 40th year of Eli the Kohen.

    And according to Jewish tradition in which Shaul only ruled 2 and a half years, David would have been closer to 27-28 when he fought Goliath.

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3 Responses

  1. Leslie says:

    Shame on Megan Sauter for referring to Garroway’s two examples of attempted infanticide and not correcting his example of “baby Ishmael” for her readers. Ishmael was not a baby when he was sent away from Abraham, so it could not have been attempted infanticide. He was over 14 years of age (Gen. 16:16; 21:5; cf. Gen. 21:8). It disturbs me when writers speak confidently about things they have not researched carefully, and then any readers who are not familiar with what Scripture really says take it as “gospel.”

  2. Rabbi Adele says:

    It is not clear whether Jepthah sacrificed his daughter or kept her from ever having progeny. Barren women were considered to be as if they were dead. Pretty much all the rest of the piece is speculation about the meaning of archaeological facts. It would have been nice to have a note about whether toys were found at the sites…

  3. Nathaniel says:

    David was not a child in the story of David and Goliath.

    David brought the Ark up from the House of Avinadav after he became king of all Yisrael and Yehuda, and after he had captured Yerushalayim (2 Samuel 5, 6)

    The Ark had spent 20 years in the House of Avinadav (1 Samuel 7:2)

    David was 30 years old when he became king of Yehuda in Hevron, where he ruled for 7 years and 6 months before he became king of all Yisrael and Yehuda, and conquered Yerushalayim (2 Samuel 5:4-5)

    – The Ark was in the House of Avinadav for 20 years
    – David brought the Ark out from the House of Avinadav after he was king of all Yisrael and Yehuda
    – David didn’t become king of all Yisrael and Yehuda until after he had ruled Yehuda for 7 years and 6 months
    – David became king when he was 30

    Therefore, David was already around 16-17 years old when the Ark was captured by the Philstines in the 40th year of Eli the Kohen.

    And according to Jewish tradition in which Shaul only ruled 2 and a half years, David would have been closer to 27-28 when he fought Goliath.

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