What Should I Make of Disturbing Bible Verses About Children?

Question:

So i was on FB this morning and someone posted (after the shooting tragedy) something about bibles in school – and someone quoted all these Bible verses in response to shut them down. What should i make of them?

Children who refuse to obey their parents must be executed.

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die — Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Children who mock their parents will have their eyes plucked out by ravens and eaten by eagles.

The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it. — Proverbs 30:17

Like Abraham, parents should be willing to kill their children for God.

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and … offer him there for a burnt offering…. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. — Genesis 22:2,10

God killed all the firstborn children in an entire country.

The LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon…. And there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. — Exodus 12:29-30

Sometimes God kills children for misbehaving.

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. — 2 Kings 2:23-24

Someday God will force parents eat their own children.

And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat. — Leviticus 26:29 And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters. — Deuteronomy 28:53 And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend. — Jeremiah 19:9

And then there`s this statement, which could only be found in the Bible:

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. — Psalm 137:9

Answer:

The person is obviously trying to tell you that the Bible isn’t a good book for children – and frankly no thinking Christian believes that the Bible is kid friendly on every page. It was not written as a children’s story. It can and should be taught to children at age appropriate levels (I make no case here regarding public school curriculums), but like with all human history, the details need to be spared depending on your audience.

However, I think the person is not merely saying these verses prove the Bible isn’t fit for children. What they’re really saying is that the Bible has a barbaric attitude toward children, and further, that you could derive an attitude from the Bible about children that would justify the horrible events in Sandy Hook Elementary. That’s the real objection that must be faced in explaining these verses.

The person has nicely organized the verses into categories for me, so I’ll keep their heading, but note that the heading itself is misleading in places which I’ll make clear:

1. “Children who refuse to obey their parents must be executed.”

These are the most difficult passages to explain, since they are prescribing (as opposed to mere DESCRIBING) the execution of disobedient children. We wince at the harshness of these laws, but three things help us dampen our outrage.

First, our attitude in the West about the preciousness of children and childhood is owed almost exclusively to Jesus who validated children, women and old age in a way never before seen. So whatever moral superiority this person feels over the Bible’s attitude toward children must be viewed through the fact that if it weren’t for the Bible, we wouldn’t have a high view of children. So we have to read these Mosaic prescriptions through the teaching of Jesus, not the reverse.

Second, it takes only a very cursory reading to realize that none of these laws applies to what we would today consider “children”. Notice, the children here are clearly grown. They are “gluttons and drunkards” (know any 5 years olds that fit that description??), and harshly violent, they strike their parents! We call that 1st degree assault in our world – a very serious crime that nets years in prison. It just so happens that today, we have this artificial cut off of “childhood” at 18 where we think parents are no longer responsible for their children (and visa versa).

But in the agrarian culture of the Ancient Near East, you were attached to your children for a lifetime, since you even chose their spouses! Parents also, were your responsibility when you were grown. So the importance of maintaining honor into adulthood was far greater, since the contact between parents and children remained intact, underlining just how important it was for grown children to “honor their father and mother”. Thus, these laws are speaking about grown children, who fail in their duty to honor their parents in the worst way: turning violent and abusive in their disobedience. The community justly saw the need to intervene, to consider such breakdowns in the social order to be devastating and to justify the harshest of punishments.

Third, while we have in the Bible capital punishment prescribed for disobedient children, we have no instance in the entire bible of it ever being enacted. Which suggests that, like today, some laws are mostly symbolic. These express the common moral standard of the community, but the community realizes that the laws themselves are rarely enforced.

Sodomy laws were like that in the early States and today where they still exist. These were mostly unenforceable, and so we have only rare cases of them being broken or people being charged, yet they stayed on the books as a statement of the moral consensus of the community about sex.

It may be that the lack of descriptions of disobedient children being brought to court by Hebrew parents may reflect the fact that the law itself was largely symbolic of the importance they put on parental honor – a reflection of the community ideal – but rarely if ever followed through on. Remember, in the Mosaic legal system, the burden of proof in all legal matters was very high. You needed two or three witnesses for conviction. So when you read a law, like Exodus 21:15 you might not realize the due process that had to be gone through before you could get to an actual execution. We might assume a parent could have their kid killed willy-nilly! But it was never like that.

It is likely you rarely ever had two parents who would prosecute their own children, regardless of how disobedient. We are told Eli, for example, had very awful sons, but even as a priest in Israel, he never prosecuted his own sons, even though we know for a fact that they met the burden of proof as disobedient children under the Mosaic law. But again, even if they HAD been executed as “disobedient children”, keep in mind: they were probably grown men in their 20’s and 30’s, guilty of sexual predation and extortion etc. (1 Sam 1:3ff)

2. “Children who mock their parents will have their eyes plucked out by ravens.”

This is a Proverb – a pithy, wise saying, but it contains no prescription for what parents should do with their young children. It’s a poetical, hyperbolic description of the evil that befalls people who mock their elders. Notice, again the age of the children is not given. It’s not meant to bring to mind a young child of 6 being torn apart by a wild bird! It’s meant to bring to mind the seriousness of parental dishonor and the judgment that will ensue.

That judgment is a vivid play on the word “eye”. The eye, just as easily as the mouth, can mock. We have a saying about that too: “rolling our eyes” at someone. Well, the Bible is saying in colorful language that even this kind of disrespectful heart mocking that comes out the eyes and not the lips, is deplorable. And it’s saying, such persons will reap what they sow in a one for one kind of way, IE. The eye mocks, the eye will be destroyed. Scavengers did not kill, they ate already dead carcasses. So this is suggesting people who dishonor their parents will end up dead in some lonely place. It’s not a prescription for how we should treat sarcastic kids.

3. “Like Abraham, parents should be willing to kill their children for God.”

This heading for the story of Isaac is a completely wrong headed interpretation of the impact of the text. Many scholars have poured over this story and most agree that the lesson of the story is not, “child sacrifice is a good thing.” The lesson is, “God says, no more child sacrifice!”

The context of Abraham’s world was that every culture and religion practiced infant sacrifice. It was considered the HEIGHT of devotion – what higher act of piety to one’s gods could there be? So while we might be horrified that God called Abraham to offer his own son, Abraham apparently was not. It’s not unreasonable then, to believe that to get Abraham to understand the heart of God, and that God takes no delight in such sacrifice, and that he forever wants his people to reject it (See Jeremiah 7:31 for God’s thought on child sacrifice), he has to play to Abraham’s cultural expectations for what a tribal deity would demand.

Then, when the moment came, God provides a ram, and in a miraculous confrontation with an Angel, God calls Abraham off. Thus He calls all humanity away from such hideous acts. The lesson then is not “children are worth nothing and you should kill them for God.” The lesson is, no more child sacrifice! This is not what I want! True religion with the one True God will never require this, as do the religions of the gods of this earth.

However, we also have the New Testament writer of Hebrews insight into Abraham’s mind. He is not thinking that Isaac can truly be killed, for “he must have surmised that God would raise him from the dead.” (Heb 11:19) Which mitigates our horror at potential infanticide in this unique case, because Abraham may be thinking something like: “in this special case, my God, who loves life and hates murder, has tested my loyalty to him and my confidence in the certainty of his promises, by asking me to kill the very vehicle of those promises. So my God, who loves life and who is faithful to his promises, will make my sacrifice null and void somehow, someway. I trust him, so I will do this, as an act of obedience, believing that God doesn’t need or want Isaac dead, he wants my heart of devotion, and thus he’ll reverse this hideous thing.”

This is exactly what God does.

4. “God killed all the firstborn children in an entire country.”

When someone dies because of an “act of God” this really can’t go on the pile of “the disturbing way the Bible talks about kids.” The judgment on the firstborn was directly an act of God and as our Creator, this is his right to do. He gives life, he has the right to take it. Especially because from God’s perspective, he knows our earthly lives and bodies are temporal.

In this way, God doesn’t actually KILL anyone, because the human spirit cannot be killed. God knows this. SO when he “kills” the firstborn children of the Egyptians, what he’s really doing is taking them. Or should we say, transporting them, from one dimension of existence to another. From our temporal perspective, murder is wrong because we END the lives we kill. And we didn’t give that life, so it’s not ours to take. God on the other hand cannot murder anyone, since his perspective is eternal, and he doesn’t end our existence when he chooses to end our earthly lives.

The fact that he took the lives of these children as children is a tragedy for the parents (it was MEANT to be!) certainly, but again, from God’s perspective this might have been a grace to the children. How so? If they grew up in that hideous culture of evil, they might surely grow up outside his grace and would therefore come under his judgment and then wind up suffering eternally, instead of momentarily.

5. “God kills children for misbehaving.”

There is some unfortunate translation work in this passage in the KJV. The Hebrew should more accurately be rendered “young men” rather than “little children.” The same phrase is used of Joseph when was 17 and of others up to the age of 30! Also, the reason for the curse is not the “baldhead” comment. Baldness was extremely rare in the ancient near east and it was used as a term of utter contempt. Like we might call someone a “retard” regardless of their mental state.

In this case, as they disagreed with Elisha’s message, the name calling would be really more about dishonoring the God who gave the message than the Prophet. But it’s the other part of their repeated taunt: “go on up” that’s the key to understanding this. That was likely a reference to Elijah (Elisha’s mentor) who had just been taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Evidently that event had become well known and the mob of youths was basically jeering at the man of God saying, “Blast off! Blast off! You go too, get out of here, we’re tired of both of you and your messages from God.”

These are not a couple innocent children condemned for good-natured teasing. This is closer to a mob of youths who are indicative of a sick culture in rebellion against God. (see Lev 26:21-22). Again it is God who takes them, (not Elisha) so again the problem does not go back to “the bible’s barbaric attitude toward children” but rather “does God have a right to take life” (especially non-innocent, condemned lives) that he himself grants? Answer: Yes.

6. Someday God will force parents eat their own children.

These verses are a powerful prediction of what would happen if God’s people rebelled against him. And amazingly, this exact thing did happen about 700 years after these word were given, at the siege of Samaria. The writer totally misrepresents these predictions as God forcing parents to “eat their children.” As if the parents are tied to a post and God is cutting their children up and force feeding them to a screaming mom and dad. Uh, no.

What happened in direct fulfillment to these prophetic statements is that when God’s people rebelled so far from him that there was no return, he sent the Assyrians to conquer the land (2 Kings 18:9). When they laid siege to the Israeli capital, the food became so scarce that these wicked parents turned on their own children, cooked them and ate them to survive. God forced no one to do this. They did it, in fulfillment of what God said would happen IF his people turned from him.

7. And then there’s this statement, which could only be found in the Bible:

As if to say, the Bible is the only place to find harsh sentiment about children. This person hasn’t read very broadly. See my point above about the actual impact of the Bible on cultural attitudes about childhood.

Of course, these Imprecatory Psalms” (as they are called) are very difficult, but as hard as this sentiment is to read, it does not carry the weight of God’s endorsement of infanticide. It’s a heart cry for God’s vengeance on the wicked. Many of these are in the blustery, expansive, hyperbolic language of the Middle East. But this has nothing to say about childhood, nor does it carry some implicit endorsement of infanticide with it.

One further note: CS Lewis saw this passage through the lens of all Scripture’s context of spiritual battle of good versus evil. So the subtext behind all Scripture is that the evil of our world is backed by demonic powers of evil. Taking this passage in that context of spiritual warfare then, he saw metaphorically the wicked angels have “little ones” – their ideas, their temptations, their whispered lies, which are so innocent looking and sweet. But, the Bible warns, when temptation has “given birth” to sin it leads to death. So happy is the man who sees this deception, sees those little, lovely cherubs – and the only right thing to do is to smash the little buggers for they are from the pit of hell!

Next PostRead more articles