Childhood in the Ancient Near East by Kristine Henriksen Garroway

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

Kristine Henriksen Garroway, "Childhood in the Ancient Near East", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:



Kristine Henriksen Garroway
Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Union College

Kristine Henriksen Garroway is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household (Eisenburans, 2014), Growing Up in Ancient Israel (SBL Press, 2018), and coeditor of Children and Methods (Brill, forthcoming 2020). Her research is on children in the bible and the ancient Near East at the intersection of texts and material culture.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

the study of peoples and their cultures

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A song or poem that is religious in nature.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The first major civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, arising in the fifth millennium B.C.E. and lasting through the early second millennium B.C.E.; the Sumerians invented the first writing system, cuneiform.

1Sam 17:34-35

34But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock,35I went after it ... View more

2Sam 12

1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.2The rich man had ve ... View more

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