Childbirth and Children in the Bible

A summary on the bearing and raising of children, and children’s lives, in the Bible and ancient Middle East. 

A reader who was preparing a Bible study asked me for some information on children in the Bible. Life in Bible times was centered around the family, and children were a vital part. Our 21st century debates in the West about whether to marry and whether to have children were unthinkable for most people in antiquity. For the vast majority of people, marriage was expected and even required. There were good reasons for this:

  1. There was no government sponsored social security, health care system, or other programs to benefit the elderly in the ancient world. Elders, widows, orphans, and people from other high-need groups received support from their family and their community.
  2. The more children a couple had, the more workers were available for the community and the more soldiers to fight against one’s enemies. Paul taught Timothy that women benefitted from bearing children and raising them to be godly adults (1 Timothy 2:15).
  3. Sons and daughters provided the opportunity to make marriage alliances with other tribes, clans, and later nations. Such alliances would help ensure that each group would have reliable trading partners and allies in times of war. War was ubiquitous in the ancient world.[1]

Because children were indispensable in Bible times, as in all ancient nations, Scripture and common social practice forbid doing anything to avoid having children.

  1. Childlessness was considered a great reproach for women (2 Samuel 6:23, Jeremiah 22:30). To not have a child was to not be providing for your own future or for the future of your community. A childless woman would not be providing extra hands to help on the farm. In her later years, likely after her husband had died, she would require her extended family, her father’s house, or community to provide her material support.
  2. Large families were considered to be a great blessing and a source of material success (Psalm 127:3-5).
  3. Avoiding conception and inducing abortion were condemned (Genesis 38:4, Psalm 106).
  4. Jesus highly valued children, seeing in them a humility and spiritual sensitivity lacking in adults (Matthew 21:15, Luke 18:15-17).

Since childlessness carried such a stigma, ancient scriptures provide potential remedies. The Bible mentions mandrakes and prayer (Genesis 30:14-24, 1 Samuel 1:13). Mesopotamian documents suggest pessaries, herbal suppositories, and fumigation of the vagina. One ancient formula recommended, “To make a not childbearing woman pregnant: flay an edible mouse, open it up, and fill it with myrrh. You dry it in the shade, crush and grind it up, and mix it with fat. You place it in her vagina, and she will become pregnant.”[2]

Jewish purification rites varied over time, but generally considered women unclean for seven days after the end of their monthly menstrual period. Sexual intercourse was prohibited during purification. Considering the timing of the normal female ovulatory cycle, women began ovulating at just the time when they could have sex again. Simultaneously, their husbands had not had sex for twelve days (five days of menses plus seven days of purification) so they had maximal sperm counts with which to fertilize their wife’s eggs. Pregnancy was nearly inevitable. Bathsheba’s husband was off at war, and she became pregnant after only one night with King David (2 Samuel 11:1-5).

Children were born with the mother sitting on a birthstool, rather than lying in a bed, so that gravity could help with the dilation of the woman’s cervix and external genitalia and the expulsion of the newborn. The stool was made of wood and had a curved seat with the front cut out to allow the baby to come down. The pain of childbirth is well recognized in Scriptures (Genesis 3:16, Isaiah 13:6-8, Jeremiah 4:31, 6:24, 13:21, 22:23, 49:24, 50:43, Romans 8:22, Galatians 4:19, 1 Thessalonians 5:3). Physical exercise was believed to help facilitate childbirth (Exodus 1:18-19).

Maternal and infant mortality were high, and childbirth was the most dangerous time of life for most women. One estimate suggests that a woman might need six pregnancies to have two or three adult children. Childbirth was attended by female family members and midwives. When the baby was born, his or her umbilical cord would be cut with a reed, knife, or sharp stone. The baby would be rubbed in salt and/or oil and swaddled (Ezekiel 16:4). Twins were problematic in determining inheritance order (Genesis 25:19-26, 38:27-30), but identical twins were dreaded as a bad omen. Parents would name their children in the first few days after birth, and certainly not later than the end of the mother’s purification rites (seven days for boys and fourteen days for girls).

Mothers nursed their children for two to three years and introduced solid food along the way. Exclusive nursing inhibits ovulation and naturally spaces births out for the protection of women and their children. Less nursing provides less protection. Mothers carried their young children in slings, baskets, or hammocks around their necks. In Egypt in the 1930s and 40s, mothers carried their infants in these hammocks to the marketplace and hung these hammocks on hooks while they went about their shopping.[3] Archeologists have found homemade rattles.

Family members and friends taught children culturally appropriate gender roles and useful skills from the beginning of life. A Sumerian text states that boys hold weapons and girls hold weaving items.[4] Until about age five, all children were cared for and taught by the females in the household. From ages as young as five, children began working for their families, in the house or on the farm. A child could help clean house, glean in the fields, or learn to watch sheep.

As their physical strength and judgment grew, their duties would increase. Mothers and aunts would teach daughters to cook, bake, weave, wash, make clothing, keep the house, and care for basic medical needs in the family. Fathers and uncles would teach boys how to plant, harvest, hunt, and fight. Boys aged eight to nine could cooperatively learn to watch sheep. Children made their own toys; good practice for learning to make tools later in life.

Parents were expected to train children in the ways of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). To do so was to minimize the chance that they would depart from the teachings of God later in life (Proverbs 22:6). Children were held to the same standard of conduct as adults; they were known by their actions, by whether their conduct was good and right (Proverbs 20:11). The episode of the “young lads,” probably teenagers, mocking Elisha suggests poor upbringing in a godless era. The boys paid a swift and heavy price for their sin (2 Kings 2:23-24). Christian parents in the New Testament were held equally responsible for training their children, even if one of them was an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:14).

Boys and girls would become men and women in their teens. Girls became marriageable when they started menstruating. Boys would typically be ten years older than the girls that they married to allow time to learn a skill and make some money to support a family. For example, Isaac was a generation older than Rebekah (Genesis 11:29, 24:24). Upon marriage, the wife would leave her father’s house and go into her husband’s household; a patrilocal arrangement.[5] Without birth control and with prohibitions against impairing fertility and killing children, families would rapidly begin having their own children. Fathers passed on the family trade from fathers to sons. Men would fight wars against the vast area of enemies, from highwaymen to other tribes to other nations.

Famous children in the Bible include Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19), Moses and Miriam (Exodus 2:1-10), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-18).

[1] Oded Boroski, Daily Life in Biblical Times, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta GA. 2003. 35

[2] Kristine Henriksen Garroway, The World of Children in the Hebrew Bible, https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/world-children-hebrew-bible, accessed 29 April 2020

[3] Kristine Henriksen Garroway, The World of Children in the Hebrew Bible, https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/world-children-hebrew-bible, accessed 29 April 2020

[4] Kristine Henriksen Garroway, The World of Children in the Hebrew Bible, https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/world-children-hebrew-bible, accessed 29 April 2020

[5] Julie Faith Parker, Children in the Hebrew Bible, https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/children-in-the-hebrew-bible, accessed 29 April 2020

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