Undesired Offspring and Child Endangerment in Jewish Antiquity

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Within a number of publications in recent years, some scholars have assumed or asserted without much nuance that ancient Jews, Jewish tradition, and/or the god of Israel valued children more than did their Greco-Roman contemporaries. Now, a couple of caveats are in order. First, the secondary literature to which I refer appears primarily interested in Christian or “biblical” views of children. Often, scholars have highlighted Jesus’ treatment of children as unique in the ancient world of the Bible,2 and, since Jesus was Jewish, his cultural milieu must have inFluenced his openness toward children. Therefore, Jewish attitudes toward children must have been distinctly more progressive than the attitudes of their Gentile contemporaries. As a result, some scholars have begun to emphasize the distinctiveness of the Jewish regard for children as well, closer to that of Jesus and Christianity, while accentuating the chasm between Judaism and broader Gentile cultures. The second caveat is that numerous references to abortion and infanticide among Greco-Roman sources, especially among medical writers, and their corresponding paucity among Jewish sources appear to inFluence heavily this assessment about ancient Judaism. This emerging assessment by some, that ancient Jews, Jewish tradition, or the god of Israel valued children more than Greco-Romans, may be valid even if it is not the primary aim of these studies. Certainly, ancient Jewish culture does provide positive valuations of children. Children were an essential cornerstone of the covenant promise of land and descendants. As heirs, they were an ideological symbol that this covenant was still operable. At some level, the statement in Genesis 1:26-28 to go forth and multiply seemingly became paradigmatic for many Jewish families. God stays Abraham’s hand and preserves the boy Isaac (Gen 22). Deuteronomy 6:4-9 instructs Israel’s fathers to educate their children carefully and deliberately in the ways of their tradition and their god. Still, the emerging assessment above has led me to consider examining the evidence and arguments that children were valued more by ancient Jews than by their Gentile contemporaries. In this article, I merely want to examine one side of the assertion: Is there evidence that ancient Jews sometimes did not value children, or having children, much different from their Greek or Roman counterparts? To put it another way, is there evidence to suggest efforts to limit the raising of offspring or of child endangerment in the Jewish world of antiquity? First, I shall begin with an examination of a few statements recently made by some scholars regarding the treatment of children within ancient Judaism. Then, I shall examine the source material from the Jewish tradition in antiquity that either underscores undesirability for children or that endangers children, focusing on issues of abortion and infanticide.

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Journal of Childhood and Religion






Sopher Press