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Biblical Usage and Historical Background

Among the people of the Old Testament and New Testament, as in most other cultures, children, especially male, were greatly desired (Gen.15.2; Gen.30.1; 1Sam.1.11, 1Sam.1.20; Ps.127.3; Ps.128.3; Luke.1.7, Luke.1.28).

Among the Hebrews all the firstborn belonged to God and had to be redeemed (Num.3.40-Num.3.51). Children were sometimes dedicated to God for special service (Judg.13.2-Judg.13.7; 1Sam.1.11; Luke.1.13-Luke.1.17, Luke.1.76-Luke.1.79).

Names often were significant: Moses (Ex 2:10); Samuel (1Sa 1:20); Ichabod (1Sa 4:21; compare Ge 30) (see Proper Names).

Male descendants of Abraham were circumcised on the eighth day (Gen.17.12; Gen.21.4; Luke.1.59; Luke.2.21), when the name was given.

Much was expected of children (Prov.20.11). Obedience and respect to parents was commanded (Exod.21.17; Eph.6.1-Eph.6.3; Col.3.20; 1Tim.3.4, 1Tim.3.12; Titus.1.6).

Favoritism was sometimes shown (Gen.25.28; Gen.37.3).

Affection for children is strikingly portrayed in many instances, as in David’s love for a child who died (2Sam.12.15-2Sam.12.23); and in the raising of children to life by Elijah (1Kgs.17.17-1Kgs.17.24), by Elisha (2Kgs.4.18-2Kgs.4.37), and by Jesus (Matt.9.23-Matt.9.26; Mark.5.35-Mark.5.43; Luke.8.49-Luke.8.56).

Jesus’ love and concern for children is seen in Matt.18.1-Matt.18.14; Matt.19.13-Matt.19.15; Mark.9.35-Mark.9.37; Mark.10.13-Mark.10.16; Luke.9.46-Luke.9.48; Luke.18.15-Luke.18.17. Jesus recognized children’s play (Matt.11.16).

There are many reports of attractive childhood—e.g., Moses (Exod.2.1-Exod.2.10), Samuel (1Sam.1.20-1Sam.3.19), Jesus (Luke.2.7-Luke.2.40), Timothy (2Tim.1.5; 2Tim.3.14-2Tim.3.15).

“Children” is an affectionate address, as in 1 John, of an old man to adults, who are nevertheless expected to act their age (1Cor.13.11; 1Cor.14.20). The attention given to the childhood of the Messiah in prophecy (Isa.7.14; Isa.9.6) prepares us for the infancy narratives in Matt.2.1-Matt.2.23 and Luke.2.1-Luke.2.52.

The Savior came as a helpless babe and apparently had a normal childhood. A return to childlike receptiveness and trust is required of those who would enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt.18.1-Matt.18.14; Matt.19.13-Matt.19.15; Mark.9.35-Mark.9.37; Mark.10.13-61; Luke.9.46-Luke.9.48; Luke.18.15-Luke.18.17).

Each Jewish mother, at least in later times, hoped that her son might prove to be the Messiah. The custom of Levirate marriage, which was not limited to the Hebrew people, rested on the principle that if a man died childless his brother should marry his widow, the children of such union being considered as belonging to the brother whose name and line were thus preserved from extinction (De 25:5; Ge 38:26; Mt 22:24).

To be childless was to be regarded with reproach (2 Sam 6:23; Jer 22:30), whereas the large family in OT times was considered a source of happiness and a means toward success (Ps 127:3-5).

Figurative use of the term

As noted above, "child" is the common rendering of the Greek teknon. The corresponding Hebrew words (ben and yeledh), are usually translated "son," but they have practically the same significance in the figurative use of the term. Child is used figuratively to describe:

  • An affectionate greeting. Jesus addressed the paralytic as a child (Mr 2:5 the Revised Version, margin).

  • Those who belong to God. Children of God is a common expression in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is based on the relation between parents and children, and in general describes God’s affection for His own, and their dependence upon Him, and moral likeness to Him. The term is sometimes used of those who are disloyal to God, and they are designated as "rebellious children" (see Isa 30:1).

  • Those who belong to the devil. Those who are like the devil in thought and action are designated as "children of the devil" (1Jo 3:10).

  • One’s relation to something to which he belongs, or by which he is dominated in his affection for it. Thus we have:

  • the children of a city or country (see Jer 2:16; Mt 23:37), and this designates those who belong to that particular city or country.

  • children of wisdom (Mt 11:19 the King James Version; Lu 7:35), and these are the ones whose lives are dominated by wisdom. The New Testament in Greek adopted ergon for teknon in Mt 11:19.

  • children of obedience (1Pe 1:14), and these are the ones who are eager to obey.

  • children of light (Eph 5:8), and this designates those whose souls are illumined by the light.

  • Those who are liable to some particular fate. For example, "children of curse|cursing" or those who are exposed to cursing (2Pe 2:14); and "children of wrath" or those who are exposed to wrath (Eph 2:3).

  • Moral likeness or spiritual kinship (Ga 3:7; compare Joh 8:39; "the children of Abraham").
  • Firstborn Son

    The firstborn son belonged to God (Nu 3:44 ff). The ceremony of redeeming the firstborn occurred on the thirtieth day. Friends of the family were invited to a feast, the rabbi also being present. The child was placed in the hands of the priest. The father carried some gold or silver in a cup or vessel. The priest asked the mother whether this was her firstborn, and, on being answered in the affirmative, claimed the child as Yahweh’s. The father offered the redemption money, which was accepted in exchange for the child (compare 1Pe 1:18).

    Other stages in the life of the child were celebrated with fitting ceremonies. In the fourth year, in Palestine, on the second day of the Passover occurred the ceremony of the first cutting of the boy’s hair, the friends sharing the privilege. Sometimes, as in the case of the wealthy, the weight of the child in currency was given as a donation to the poor. In common with the custom of other eastern peoples, male children were circumcised (Ge 17:12), the rite being performed on the eighth day.


    Early education was cared for in the home, the children growing up more or less with the mother (Pr 6:20; 31:1; 2Ti 1:5; 3:14,15), and the girl continuing with her mother until her marriage. In wealthier families tutors were employed (1Ch 27:32). Schools for children are first mentioned by Josephus (Ant., XV, x, 5). According to the Talmud the first school for children was established about 100 BC, but in the time of Jesus such schools were common. Children were taught to read and to write even in families of moderate means, these arts being widely diffused as early as 600 BC, if not earlier (Isa 8:1; 10:19). Great stress was laid on the Torah, i.e. the law of Moses. Boys were trained also in farming, the tending of cattle, and in the trades. The religious training of the boy began in his fourth year, as soon as he could speak distinctly. The religious life of the girl also began early. In later times at least children took part in the Sabbath and Passover festivals and boys attended synagogue and school regularly.

    Child's Relationship to their Father

    Hebrew Family Bond

    Child Psychology

    Whereas the eventual character and skills of a human being are dependent upon both heredity and environment, a child’s heredity determines the uppermost limit of his capacity to ultimately achieve. Heredity is not subject to significant alteration following conception apart from the effect of serious disease which might affect the mother during the gestation of the fetus through chemical interchange or transmission of infectious material between the blood streams of mother and fetus.

    Environment, on the other hand, is what serves to fill in the void of this inherited capacity encountered at birth. Evidently substantial environmental influences begin immediately after birth (Ezek 16:4, 5). Moreover, child psychologists inform parents that the effects of environment are at work much earlier than they used to think they were. Noteworthy is the fact that as the child starts to run about by himself, thus asserting a certain degree of independence, there naturally ensues an occasional clash of wills between parent and child. Psychoanalysts have clearly demonstrated that the manner with which these clashes are dealt during the first two or three years, usually affects the future character of the child.

    This development of character is brought about by the progressive organization of the child’s emotions about certain key ideas to constitute sentiments, attitudes, interests, or socalled complexes, first of all in relation to parents and siblings, and later to teachers, friends and playmates. Motivation is of great importance in this regard. Confucius’ mother is upheld as the motivating factor in his life and achievements, and down through history there have been many others whose interests and aspirations were acquired from one or both parents during earlier years.

    Teaching Children

    There is much rationale to the assertion of the Roman Catholic Church that, if they are entrusted with the training of the child until seven years of age, there will be little tendency to stray from their teachings after that. This is in accordance with the scriptural injunction, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6).

    This is not only applicable to trends in behavior but also to intellectual pursuits and the motivation for them. Much potential effect is missed in modern educational trends where the parent is encouraged to keep hands off of situations that arise at age two and three years, with the prospect that the teacher at a later age can do a much better job with the child. Later when the teacher encounters the child, all too often the pattern is set beyond much alteration. By this time “Even a child makes himself known by his acts, whether what he does is pure and right” (20:11).

    In view of the above, it cannot be urged too strongly that parents face their responsibility for teaching the child during his first three years, which constitute the more plastic stages of the child’s mental life. This should be in the form of daily urging by parents and setting of ideals, aims and worshipful attitudes before the child, based upon Biblical teaching at the family altar and at other appropriate times. Even where one of the parents in the home is an unbeliever, the responsibility of the believing parent must be recognized (1 Cor 7:14).

    It is a worthwhile guideline that the period from seven to fourteen years of age is the best period for memorizing, and the period of adolescence from fourteen to twenty-one years of age is the best period for reasoning. Since reasoning is prominent during adolescence, it is important that the stage should be appropriately set for it. Adolescence is characterized by a tendency to adopt the attitudes of others of the same age, an increasing stubbornness and impatience with authority, and resistance to conventional patterns of thinking and behavior often manifested by an obstinate independence of parental control. Such a situation is doubtless in view in 2 Kings 2:23, 24 where the KJV “little children” is more appropriately translated “young teenagers.” Since adolescence is a period when religious experiences and problems are dealt with most profoundly, an environment of intellectual honesty within a Christian framework should be provided.


  • Benzinger, Hebraische Archaologie, 2nd edition, 1907, 112-23.

  • Friedenberg in Jewish Encyclopedia, IV, 27 f.

  • W. C. Davison, The Compleat Pediatrician (1949), 237-243.

  • C. L. Burt, “Child Psychology,” EBr (1963) V, 504-510.

  • S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases (1963), 40-46.
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