Does childhood today look anything like childhood in the ancient world?
While one’s own childhood might conjure up images of birthday parties, sleepovers, school days, and summer vacations, childhood in the ancient Near East was much different.
Childhood in the ancient Near East was understood as the time between birth and adolescence. During this time, a child underwent the same biological growth patterns as children living today, moving from a period of strict dependency (0–2 years), to semi-dependency (3–5 years), to full autonomy (7–12 years). Children lost their baby teeth, developed motor skills, and went through growth spurts.
Childhood was a time of enculturation when children learned gender, social, and religious customs and how to contribute to the household economic system.
The gendering process began at birth. Whereas we might give a mother gender-specific gifts at a baby shower, Hittite birth rituals suggested giving children gifts postbirth according to their gender. A Sumerian hymn states that babies receive symbols of their gender, an axe for a boy and a spindle or crucible for a girl. Leviticus 12 notes that male and female babies are introduced into the community at different times, and Gen 17 provides a further marker of “male” through eighth-day circumcision.
Young children enjoyed similar experiences as they stayed close to their mothers, but as children grew, they started to separate according to gender. The Hebrew Bible and ethnographic sources (those coming from cultures that operate similar to the way we understand biblical cultures) note that girls stayed close to the house, learning how to bake bread, prepare meals, make textiles, and draw water. Boys would tend sheep, serve as messengers between the house and field, shear sheep, and run errands. In their own way, each child contributed to the household.
Unlike today, formal schooling was generally limited to boys from elite families; however, girls and boys alike had “religious schooling.” While they did not attend Sunday School or Hebrew School like children today, children learned by watching their parents. Adults modeled how to participate in domestic religion so that children would be able to grow up and replicate their parent’s actions with teraphim, Judean pillar figurines, meals, prayers, sacrifices, and ancestor cults.
Play was also an important part of ancient childhood. The Nippur “Games Text” records sports, like jump rope, hide and seek, wrestling, and running. Pretend play leaves behind no physical remains, but ethnographic sources record boys playing “shepherd, sheep, wolf,” reminiscent of David’s exploits (1Sam 17:34-35
), and little girls making mud dolls. Excavations have uncovered items that were definitely toys (game boards and dice) and other objects that might have been toys (figurines and ceramic discs).
As those who would grow up to be the next generation, adults placed high value on their children. But parents could not always protect children. Archaeological remains demonstrate high infant mortality rates, many childhood diseases, and deaths caused by wars. Biblical texts (2Sam 12
) and ancient Near Eastern letters give voice to distraught parents who pray for their children to reach adulthood unscathed, a sentiment that still resonates with contemporary parents