Personhood in the Hebrew Bible
A few years ago, I was teaching a course on the first five books of the Bible. When the class session on the 10 plagues in Exodus came around, an interesting discussion ensued among the students about the plague of the firstborn and whether or not the Israelite deity was morally justified in killing Egyptian babies. After some handwringing, one student in the class chimed in: “Since they were babies, they were innocent, so they went straight to heaven.” His friend then replied flatly, “By that logic, abortion is the best thing ever invented.”
My students were getting at something important in this awkward exchange. The Book of Exodus presumably reflects the views of its Israelite authors on their deity, morality, and the like. Why, we then have to ask, would the Israelites have imagined their deity Yahweh slaughtering children for sins the children themselves had not committed? If they thought children could be killed for the transgressions of others, did they even think children were persons with any type of rights?
What do I mean by “persons” exactly? A person, in my usage and that of many anthropologists, is a human being accorded status and recognition in their society. A person is an individual who is seen as having value—not economic value like a sheep or a llama, but social value, value in relationships with others. A person is typically seen as having agency and afforded certain rights, such as the right to seek redress in cases of harm. Personhood is an abstract concept. One might say it is too abstract to be useful. But discussions of personhood arise generally only in the most pressing situations—when we are discussing what we can do to human beings and their bodies. Can we terminate human bodies, execute them, torture them, commit mass killings against them? These are the situations in which personhood comes up, and if you are someone who is undergoing torture because you are seen as subhuman by the individual torturing you, personhood is anything but an abstraction to you.
When read with an eye to matters of personhood, the Exodus narrative is a rather chilling one, as my students’ comments demonstrate. And this narrative is not alone among texts in the Hebrew Bible in leading readers to call into question whether or not the Israelites saw children as persons. We even read in the storied 10 Commandments: “I, Yahweh, your god, am a jealous god, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5 in English versification; Deuteronomy 5:9). Either the Israelites who wrote this did not see children as persons, or their conception of personhood was a collective one that allowed children to be punished for the sins of parents. We see this type of collective punishment at play in, for example, Numbers 16 and Joshua 7.
Some Biblical scholars would counter that child sacrifice was a foreign practice. The origins of child sacrifice seem beside the point, however. If the Israelites, or some Israelites, thought children should be sacrificed, this seems indicative that children lacked personhood in their eyes. Other indications of this can be found in the fact that parents could sell off children to pay off debts the parents themselves had incurred (Exodus 21:7–11; Nehemiah 5) and that parents could control whether daughters who had been raped had to marry their rapists (Exodus 22:16–17, English) and whether drunkard sons should be executed for being drunks (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Some Biblical texts describe children getting eaten—eaten!—in times of crisis (e.g., 2 Kings 6:28-29; Ezekiel 5:6-10; Lamentations 2:20, 4:10), and a text or two even portrays Yahweh as threatening the Israelites with catastrophes so severe that they would devour their own children (Leviticus 26:27-29; Deuteronomy 28:53-57).
Child killing, child selling, child eating—the picture that emerges is a bleak one. However, before the savvy reader gets exasperated, let me state that, yes, there are Biblical passages that paint a quite different portrait of children’s status. The Book of Genesis is filled with passages implying that the Israelites were really, really interested in having children. Other books contain examples of the same thing—a desire for and valuation placed on having progeny. Parents make vows to secure progeny and to keep progeny, they feel content in having progeny, and they mourn lost progeny.
But is this longing for progeny the same as assigning personhood to children? We could answer this question more easily if we could speak and interact with real Israelites. Since we can’t do this and since the Israelites revealed their views of personhood indirectly rather than through philosophical treatises on the subject, we are left having to read through the lines. At best, the Israelites held a view of personhood that allowed for collective punishment and saw children as low-level subordinates subject to the wishes and whims of parents—usually fathers. At worst, they were not seen as persons. We seem to see a sort of graduated personhood in some Biblical texts, with older children having more claim to personhood than infants. (Fetuses, as we see in Exodus 21:22–25, where the unborn are assigned only financial value, are out of luck.) This may be why it appears that it was infants rather than older children who were sacrificed.
We also see in the Bible disagreements between Israelites over the personhood of children. The fact that so many Biblical texts discuss child sacrifice tells us that some Israelites thought this practice was necessary or at least advantageous. This seems a particularly apt conclusion when these texts are read alongside archaeological and other evidence from elsewhere in the ancient world showing that child sacrifice really was practiced in certain locales. However, the fact that so many Biblical texts decry child sacrifice also tells us that many Israelites thought this practice was unacceptable. One can see in this disparity a disagreement over the personhood of children, or perhaps of infants in particular.
A final point is that status in Israelite society was not attached to particular ages as is the case in our society. There were no Israelite quinceañera parties where teenagers danced the night away celebrating their newly achieved personhood. Eighteen-year-old Israelites couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief knowing their parents would no longer be able to have them killed for drinking too much undiluted wine or leaving their sandals in the entryway for the umpteenth time. No, Israelite personhood was based on social role and physical maturity, not chronological age. It was also mutable and in some cases highly ambiguous to us as modern readers. Despite the desire of students of the Bible to find certitude within its pages, the Biblical corpus refuses to satisfy us on this score. More vexing, still, since the clearest statements on the status of children are some of the most troubling, the certitude offered is not always helpful. In other words, today’s teenagers had better hope that their parents look somewhere other than the Good Book for guidance on what to do with them when they find that cheap bottle of vodka stowed away under the piles of dirty laundry.
Understanding Israel’s 10 Commandments by Shawna Dolansky
Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone? by Richard Elliott Friedman
Misogyny in the Bible by Hershel Shanks
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Send this to a friend