The Non-Personhood of Children in the Bible

The Daily Office, the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy and Bible readings for morning and evening prayer, provides some uncomfortable juxtapositions with current events. Shortly after watching the first TV debate among the Republican presidential candidates, I was presented with this reading from 2 Samuel 12:1-14.

King David has just arranged for his loyal soldier Uriah to be killed in battle because David coveted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan now tells him a fable about a rich man who had many flocks of his own, but seized a poor man’s only pet lamb to eat. That’s outrageous, says the king; that’s you, the prophet shoots back.

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”

(Boldface emphasis mine.)

So…not only was Bathsheba taken from her husband by King David (whether she wanted it or not, she couldn’t safely refuse), now she’s going to suffer the death of her child…at God’s command? And the innocent child, why does he get punished for the king’s adultery and murder?

The GOP candidates last week rushed to outdo one another in pledging to protect unborn children. They cupped their hands in tender gestures and invoked their Christian faith to support banning abortion, even when the pregnancy results from rape or endangers the mother’s life.

But what does the Bible actually say about children’s rights? At least in the Old Testament, children’s lives are not sacred. Their subjectivity and autonomy have no inherent importance. Like women, they are possessions that keep score of the male characters’ virtue or success. Besides this passage, notable examples are Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, God’s plague on the Egyptians’ first-born sons, and the divinely commanded genocide of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Jesus ups the value of children in his invitation to them in Matthew 19, and his statement that one must become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Even so, the God who warned Joseph to hide the Holy Family in Egypt did not intervene to protect any of the other infant boys slaughtered by Herod in Jesus’s stead.

My conclusions from this are two-fold, and both are kind of disheartening. First, that the Bible can be proof-texted or idealized to justify many positions that are quite a stretch from the original story, which seems to diminish its usefulness as a source of clear moral boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the sacredness of all infant life is a great evolution beyond the values of the ancient world, though I am pro-choice as a matter of legal policy. I just don’t see how you get “every sperm is sacred” from the Old and New Testaments.

Second, for me personally, it’s feeling like too much of a struggle to mesh my survivor-centric liberation theology with the Biblical writers’ very different assumptions about parents’ ownership of children and how this also maps onto God the Father’s creation and destruction of His children. I respect Christians who can find enough liberating material to stay within the Biblical framework and bracket the bad parts. Sometimes, I envy you. I am trying to shift my faith orientation in the most non-hegemonic way possible. It’s not my intention to take away from others the comfort that I no longer find in this tradition. But it is too jarring for me right now to have my healing and activism constantly interrupted by micro-aggressions from religious authorities who remind me that women’s and children’s lives have always been devalued.

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