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Child care and education in the Bible

Dr. Azila Talit Reisenberger

Ancient people loved their children as much as we do. They also had dreams and aspirations, but these differed from our plans for our children's future. The good fortune and success of biblical people was not measured by their financial power, but rather by their integrity and their contribution to the well-being of the community to which they belonged. To achieve these goals the children were guided from a very young age by their parents. The mother was expected to love her children, and by way of setting an example, had to impart to them the skill of knowing how to distinguish between right and wrong; while the father was expected to instill morality through religious ethics and teach them a profession. How was it done? The most important element in the education was the action, and not the words. Setting an example rather than verbal demands and enacting of the commandments together, rather than demanding the young ones to do it alone!

The mother-child relationship
From birth onwards, the infant stayed with his mother. At night, the Bible records, the mother laid her baby beside her, warming him with her own body-warmth (2 Samuel 12:3), so that she was ready to feed him any time the baby was hungry or her breasts were full and had to be relieved. A dangerous consequence of this practice was that it increased the possibility of suffocating the sleeping child by lying on him (1 Kings 3:17-21). During the day, the infant was carried gently under his mother’s arm, (hek – in Hebrew), (Numbers 11:12; Isaiah 40:11), or tied on her side while she performed her daily tasks (Isaiah 66:12).

When the mother was at leisure, the baby was hugged (2 Kings 4:16) and fondled on the mother’s knees (Isaiah 66:12). There is no place more comfortable for a young child than in close body contact with his parents. The Bible tells of Joseph who went to visit his ailing father, Jacob. When the old man saw his two grandchildren and wanted to bless them. “Joseph brought them out from between his knees" (Genesis 48:12). As the body contact with parents provides a sense of security, even the older child who feels sick likes to come and sit on his mother’s knees (2 Kings 4:20).

The children spent their days in the streets playing with their peers, singing and dancing (Jeremiah 6:11), usually under the supervision of the elderly who did not work any more. When together with the children, the mother would recite the very basic codes of religion, as well as basic codes of behaviour (Deuteronomy 6:4, 7; Proverb 1:8, etc.) and the young would mumble it with her; and when she was busy with the preparations for festivals, the children would help her, at the same time absorbing the customs and sharing in the excitement. When children became more independent and did not hang around the mother, the girls stayed at home and learnt to bake (2 Samuels 13:8), to spin (Exodus 35:25) and all the skills required to run a household, whereas boys” instruction was the responsibility of the fathers.

Father-child relationship
It was the solemn duty of every father to educate his sons (Deuteronomy 11:19). They were taught the commandments for righteous living, and the history of their people (Deuteronomy 4:9f, 6:20f). Apart from the spiritual and religious guidelines, the children were also taught the skills they would need to be successful members of their communities. It was common for a son to enter his father’s profession (John 5:19) and the father’s instruction included the secrets of the trade or craft. Though craftsmen belonged to guilds and were also educators, they took charge of youth only in the absence of a father or when he, for any reason, could not teach his son a craft.

There were no public schools until the turning of the common era, and Jesus’s time. Some scholars who claim that schools were established earlier, rely on a story of Gideon who “caught a young man of the men of Succoth, and enquired of him; and he wrote for him the princes of Succoth and the elder thereof, even threescore and seventeen men" (Judges 8:14). They conclude from this verse, that already in the Judges era (about 1200 BC), the children were taught to read and write. However, one must realise that a youth who off-handedly could recite and write down the names of all seventy seven members of the city council does not represent the rule but rather the exception. His father might have been the city scribe and he might had been trained in his family profession.

Disciplinary measures
As long as teaching took the form of participating in the household activities it was an interaction of love and naturally was carried out with enthusiasm. However, as the children grew older, the demands put to them were greater, and could, in certain circumstances, invoke some resistance. The book of Proverbs echoes this mood, by encouraging the youth to listen as it is for their benefit. All the teachings in the book are preceded by sayings as: “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother" (Proverbs 1:8), “My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee" (Proverbs 2:1), etc.

From the great number of verses which encourage the biblical youth to listen to their parents, there is no doubt that they were like young people of today, experimenting with their sense of independence and freedom, and therefore appearing to the older generation as rebellious. But one must emphasise that it is a natural behaviour, and one must be careful to allow the youth some freedom in experimenting at “being an adult". It is not easy to sit and watch the loved children, who are under our supervision, make mistakes. It is easier to discipline them as soldiers, who are told what to do and carry out orders. But by this we destroy their individuality and rob them of the experience of maturing into responsible, self-confident adults.

The Bible encourages guidance rather than punishment, and we, in modern times, should uphold the same code of ethics. For many years, educators who could not cope with the fresh spirit of youth, used physical punishment to break what seemed to them unruly behaviour, excusing their actions by quoting from the Bible: “He that spare his rod hateth his son" (Proverbs 13:24). But this understanding of the verse is totally wrong as the rod in the ancient time was not the cane in which we chastised our undisciplined children. It was the rod which helped us indicate the right direction symbolising guidance. In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon, the wisest of all mankind, teaches us that he who spares the guidance, hateth his son, as the same verse ends: “ ... but he that love him (his son) will show him the righteous way" (Proverbs 13:24).

In conclusion
To reinforce the importance of educators' duties, as well as the respect that should be given to them, the Bible emphasises the reward the individual and the community will gain from fulfilling them. “Honour thy father and thy mother" is the only commandment in the Ten Commandments that is rewarded, right there and then, with “that thy days may be long upon the land" (Exodus 20:12).

And about the parents and educators it is said: “ ... for I have chosen him (Abraham), that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him." (Genesis 18:19). This verse underscores the importance of instruction within the family, it's purpose (that the children might live righteously and justly), and the integral relationship of this kind of instruction to the hope of the nation (that the Lord may bring ... the blessing).

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