Steinberg, Naomi. The World of the Child in the Hebrew Bible

CTM Book Review. -Aug 2016

Steinberg, Naomi. The World of the Child in the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew Bible Monographs 51. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

In its focus, its treatment of the material and its style of presentation, Naomi Steinberg’s study, is to my mind a quality addition to the literature that can stimulate and inform the development of biblically grounded child theology.

Her treatment of child and childhood issues within the context of Hebrew or OT scriptures is particularly welcomed as there is not much, focused and serious study, available in this area.

Whilst its purpose is firmly fixed upon the exploration and elucidation of childhood as revealed in OT Scripture, the societal perceptions that it uncovers also add to our understanding of the socio-religious background to Jesus’ teaching and engagement with children as recorded in the NT.

The premises that will ground her subsequent discussion of specific texts and issues relating to childhood, are established in an opening three chapter chapters entitled, Background and Theory. After a concise review of the sociological background to study of childhood, she affirms her premise that childhood is a social construction and an experience that varies according to local social-cultural context. She then presents a thorough, but not overly technical, discussion of the words for children in the Hebrew Bible, concluding that, “ The understanding of “the child” in the Hebrew Bible derives from the context of the biblical texts themselves: thus this work will utilize etymological study but will ultimately emphasise context over cognates.”- Pg 26.

The main body of the work is entitled:  Childhood in the Hebrew Bible. This opens in chapter four with the statement of a well-argued thesis that the driving dynamic and therefore culturally determinative factor in understanding childhood in the Hebrew Scriptures is the role of the child in relation to the social and economic wellbeing and perpetuation of the family unit in agrarian ancient Israel.  “Its (childhood’s) contours were reflections of the social construction of family life that emphasized the production and reproduction of the family household from one generation to the next. Life-cycle distinctions were constructed on the basis of a child’s increasing capacity to contribute to the subsistence and survival of the family.”- Pgs. 81,2

In the following chapter, The Israelite Life Cycle, she examines life cycle division evidenced in OT scripture, concluding that: “…childhood in ancient Israel was a transitional stage in an individual’s social journey toward full incorporation into the family household and patrilineage. In contrast to the construction of childhood in the contemporary West, childhood in biblical Israel was not about developing one’s individuality and learning to speak one’s mind; instead it was about learning to think like the group and to put group interests before individual ones.”- Pg. 73

After establishing the framework for discussing particular biblically narrated episodes involving children, she dedicates chapters 5-7 to the study of scriptural texts that have the potential to speak to contemporary debates:

  • Gen 21 and the impact of monogamy and polygamy upon childhood experience, after which she concludes ” Children are not valued as unique individuals but they are valued for what they can contribute to the social status of their parents.”- Pg.97 ;
  • 1Samuel, in relation to questions regarding child abandonment and mantra ‘ The Best Interests of the Child’ so influential in current social practice;
  • Exodus 21 in regard to the question, Is the Fetus life, a question around which there is so much fierce denominational debate?

In a closing chapter she helpfully relates her study to current debate concerning the rights of the Child as expressed in the UNCRC.

The author acknowledges that these discussions are conducted from within the socio-religious context of the USA. Whilst a discussion that recognised and engaged with the more pluralistic socio-religious context recognised in the UK and Europe, her treatments are comprehensible and relevant and good examples of how scholarly study of the child in scripture can inform current social and religious debate.

The style of the book is scholarly, thorough, clearly argued and, best of all readable!

Her discussions are grounded in helpfully concise reviews of the relevant historical interdisciplinary scholarship and the main body of the text is supplemented by helpful though not excessive footnoting which offer signposts to further in depth research for those with specific study interests. The book as a whole is provided with a comprehensive biblical index and bibliography. Care is taken throughout to set each successive chapter within the framework of premise and preceding argument.

Few of us engaged in the serious pursuit of a Child Theological perspective on Christian life and faith would not be informed and have our understanding enriched by reading, The World of the Child in the Hebrew Bible. I had not expected to be so positive when I took the book in my hand for the first time- it seemed fairly expensive for what is a slim volume-146 pages. However, the slimness is a result of the good quality of paper and binding employed which makes it a pleasure to handle, whilst its contents are of similar quality and a pleasure to read.

Stuart Christine- Manchester, UK  13.09.2016

 

 

 

 

 

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