Children in the Ancient World

The Hebrew Bible and Mesopotamia in Comparative Perspective

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Shawn W. Flynn
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Shawn W. Flynn’s Children in Ancient Israel: The Hebrew Bible and Mesopotamia in Comparative Perspective engages recent scholarship in the emerging field of child-centered interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. Flynn’s study utilizes a comparative method of analysis between selected ancient Near Eastern (ANE) and Hebrew Bible (HB) texts in an effort to understand the value assigned to children—economically, cultically, domestically—during pre-birth and childhood (chapters 1 and 2); the relationship between the value of children and periods of stability or transition (chapter 3); how violence towards children or narratives of child death exploited their understood value (chapter 4); and the ways in which grown children maintained links with their childhood—whether through responsibility for and accountability to their parents or the extension of the child-deity relationship established pre-birth (chapter 5). 

The most helpful aspect of Children in Ancient Israel is the systematic analysis of the chosen ANE texts—including legal materials, medical texts, domestic letters, mythological texts, and incantations—followed by discussion of relevant HB texts that exhibit similar value patterns. By examining the “cultural matrix” of Mesopotamia, Flynn is able to situate the HB in its cultural context, and note when the HB follows ANE formulae and when it deviates, whether for rhetorical purposes or the advancing of YHWHism (18–19). Flynn’s use of iconographic and archaeological data bolsters his arguments regarding both the Mesopotamian and Levantine military and cultic practices affecting children (see especially chapter 4).

Arguably the most complex read, chapter 4—which engages ANE and HB perspectives on child death and violence against children—could have been strengthened by the tightening up of several sections. For example, Flynn’s analysis of “womb to tomb” (135–40) establishes the sacredness of the womb in connection to blood, but he does not discuss the connection between a woman’s blood and the birth-to-death cycle (see Hyam Maccoby, Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and its Place in Judaism, Cambridge University Press, 1999). Rather, following David Biale (“Does Blood Have Gender in Jewish Culture?” 23–4), Flynn posits that blood is a symbol of power, and is “neither pure or impure,” only “contextual.” This misses the point of the HB laws regarding menstruation and childbirth, which, according to Maccoby, are events that exemplify “the human cycle of procreation and death,” and thus “must be excluded from the realm of the eternal God, who creates life without suffering death” (60). If Maccoby’s view is taken into consideration, the link between the womb and the tomb is all the stronger, as both are a part of the birth-to-death cycle of immortality. The sacredness of the womb, then, is held in tension with its connection to both life and death.

In the section on violence against biblical children, there seems to be some confusion regarding Elijah’s relationship to the kingship in Israel; Flynn identifies the mortally-ill king to whom Elijah gives a divine message in 2 Kings 1:3 as King David when, in fact, the king was Ahaziah, several generations removed from David (148). As to the transition of power following the king’s death, Jehoram—not Adonijah or, later, Solomon—succeeded the king (Ahaziah) and Elijah appears to have played no role at all in the transition process, contra Flynn. This is a minor point in the chapter, and does not weigh against the overall thrust of the argument, but it is an unfortunate (and rather glaring) error.

Critiques aside, Children in Ancient Israel importantly opens a way forward for studying the “child’s domestic-cultic value,” as portrayed in the ANE and the HB. As Flynn notes in his introduction, this book is not exhaustive, it is merely a sampling of the available material. From an HB standpoint, several narratives could be explored further, including the deaths of children of prophet patrons in the Elijah-Elisha cycle; Jephthah’s vow and sacrifice of his virgin daughter (who was also his only child); the relationship between favoritism and the value of children (i.e., Jacob and Esau; Joseph narratives); and the value of illegitimate children (e.g., the child of the prostitute in Solomon’s court case). 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Gane Burton is an Independent Scholar in Collegedale, Tennessee.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shawn W. Flynn is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta, and the Academic Dean of the College.


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