Did the Ancient Israelites Think Children Were People?

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.”


This fifth-century B.C.E. relief on a Phoenician funerary monument from Pozo Moro, Spain, is commonly interpreted as a scene of child sacrifice in an underworld banquet. A seemingly two-headed monster, who may well be a Phoenician deity, holds in his right hand a bowl containing a child and grasps with his left hand the leg of a piglet. Photo: Rafael dP. Iberia-Hispania licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

What about child sacrifice? There are many Biblical texts that condemn this practice; doesn’t that tell us that the Israelites did see children as persons worthy of protection? Unfortunately, the matter is more complicated than this, as we also find Biblical texts such as Ezekiel 20 and Exodus 13:1–2 and 22:29–30 (in the English) that suggest that some Biblical writers thought that Yahweh actually demanded child sacrifice. In 2 Kings 3, a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!

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.

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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.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

tm-lemos-profileT. M. Lemos is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College and a member of the graduate school faculty at the University of Western Ontario. Her most recent book is Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017); it discusses the personhood of children in much greater detail, as well as the personhood of other groups in ancient Israel, ancient West Asia, and contemporary America.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

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

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

Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?


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  • Isaac says

    This is an embarrassing article in need of serious quality control. The exegesis is bad and extremely controversial minority opinions are presented as plain fact. All of the author’s bizarrely slanted theories favor modern progressive ideology for some reason. I hope her students are good enough at critical thinking to second-guess and fact-check her claims.

  • Sandra says

    About this article and in regards to the story of 2 Kings 3, many Christian commentators appear to agree with the author; however, I do not. In this case it is the king of MOAB that sacrifices his eldest son who was to rule after him to his heathen god, Chemesh. After unsuccessfully doing his best to win against Israel, he then offers his son as a burnt offering on the wall to the god of Moab, Chemosh (according to archeological records), to whom that horrific and evil ritual was performed. The author states that “In 2 Kings 3 (KJV), a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!”. This is an appalling claim. First of all no where does the Scripture say that this was done to “avert disaster or that because he did this, it worked (to avert disaster). Instead what it says is that they inquired after God’s prophet, who told them (after God’s Spirit came upon him), that the Lord would supply all the water they needed and that this was a light thing for the Lord to do “18 And this is but a light thing in the sight of the Lord: he will deliver the Moabites also into your hand.” Oh, and by the way, the Lord will also deliver the Moabites into your hand. This must have been a great faith builder to this 3 kingdom army; who sought and got the approval of the Lord for their putting down of Moab’s rebellion. However, they were given instructions by the Lord with the following things they were to do: “19 And ye shall smite every fenced city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.” Meanwhile the Moabites made a serious judgement error when they decided that the water they saw was the blood of the kings and went to the camp of the Israelites who surprise, surprise, rose up against them smitting them and chasing them into their land where they did what the Lord told them to do, namely “25 And they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kirharaseth left they the stones thereof; howbeit the slingers went about it, and smote it.

    The author’s assertion that the Moabite king averted disaster by sacrificing his eldest son as a burnt offering is a blatant affront to the God of Israel who told them what they were to do to the Moabites and their land, which they actually did according to what the Lord had told them to do. For this reason, they had no further reason to stick around, as they had already done what they came to do (see verses 24 – 26)! Therefore, I do not believe the timing of the 3 kings leaving had anything to do with the sacrifice of the Moabite King’s son averting disaster, as the author claims. The disaster for Moab had already happened. Thus, there was no need for the 3 kings to stick around any longer. Her conclusion would seem to imply that she did not actually read or understand the story. Verse 26 seems to indicate that the decimation of the Moabite’s kingdom had already occured when he made one last stand with 700 men against the king of Edom. Alas, he failed here too. It was following this that he sacrificed his son.
    26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the king of Edom: but they could not. Then when the king of Moab could not break through, he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him as a burnt offering. In other words the king knew he was done. There was no disaster to avert. The disaster had already occurred.
    “27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.”
    In light of the above, why would the king or anyone do such a terrible, horrific thing like that? I can think of several reasons why he might, but Scripture doesn’t tell us, so any answer would just be conjecture.. What it does say next is that two things happened. 1. They were really angry at Israel. I believe “they” would refer to the people of Moab. If there was any anger to be had, it certainly would be the Moabites who had just gotten “smitted” and their cities “beaten down”. They had just gotten “wholloped” big time by Israel to whom they were providing lambs and rams, a lot of them. They were the ones rebelling after King Ahab died. 2. They departed from him and returned to their own land. “27b And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.” There is no mystery here. Israel and his accompanying 2 kings with their armies came to do what a ruling king had to do to put down rebellion and keep peace in his kingdom and had the Lord’s backing, so when Israel did what they were to do according to the Lord, He did what He said He would do and gave them back the Moabites, so the 3 king army went home. Why not, it was over, the war was won, they did what they came to do according to the word of the Lord’s instructions to the, and it was time to go home. Yes, they may have been appalled at what that evil king did to his son, but that is not stated in the story. It is conjecture and it, the sacrificing of children to heathen gods at that time in history, was a common thing that was done in the nations surrounding God’s people, so would not be surprising to them. How they (the 3 kings) actually felt about it, it does not say. But to attribute the timing of their leaving to the sacrifice of the son, as what averted disaster is too far of a reach In my opinion. That would be giving Chemesh the glory, when it is the Lord (God Almighty) who gets the glory. Chemosh or the King of Moab was not the winner here. The Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel and His people were.

  • Deborah says

    The author seems determined to get to her preferred conclusion by any means except proper scholarship. My goodness, some university *pays* for this kind of exegesis?

  • Rabbi Dr Adele says

    This piece is quite limited and amateurish. There is a huge body of commentary and interpretations that the author has totally ignored. Just because it was written one way does not excuse slovenliness in researching how the various statements were actually carried out and how that changed over time and generations. Imposing one’s own interpretation based on modern interpretations of mistranslations or worse yet not understanding the biblical language in context and in literary styles of the time only leads to the publishing of pieces like this one which should not be published in any serious venue. almost Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Adele

  • Don says

    Wow: “Child killing, child selling, child eating—the picture that emerges is a bleak one.”
    Never mind that the “child killing” refers to “children”/descendants of the “third or fourth generation.” Don’t consider that the “child selling” probably referred to a form of indentured servanthood in circumstances of extreme poverty. “Child eating” during sieges, perhaps of carcasses, by some of a starving populace, is reported as part of a devastating judgment on a sinful people. For good measure, toss in child sacrifice too, and brush aside foreign origins as insignificant.
    This is what passes as scholarship today?

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