Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
CHILDREN

1. Attitude to children

AT a peasant or Bedouin wedding in modern Palestine, a pomegranate is sometimes split open on the threshold of the house or at the opening of the tent: its grains symbolize the many children their friends wish them.

In ancient Israel, to have many children was a coveted honour, and the wedding guests often expressed the wish that the couple would be blessed with a large family. As Rebecca leaves her family, she is blessed with the words: 'O sister of ours, become the mother of thousands of ten thousands' ( Gn 24: 60). When Boaz marries Ruth, the wish is expressed that his young wife may be 'like Rachel and Leah, the two who built up the house of Israel' ( Rt 4: 11-12). First Abraham and then Isaac received the promise that their posterity would be countless as the stars in the sky ( Gn 15: 5; 22: 17; 26: 4). God promised Hagar, too, that her posterity would be past counting ( Gn 16: 10). Children are 'the crown of man' ( Pr 17: 6), and sons are 'olive plants around the table' ( Ps 128: 3), 'a reward, like arrows in the hand of a hero; happy the man who has his quiver full of them' ( Ps 127: 3-5).

Sterility, on the other hand, was considered a trial ( Gn 16: 2; 30: 2; 1 S 1: 5) or a chastisement from God ( Gn 201: 18), or a disgrace, from which Sarah, Rachel and Leah all tried to clear themselves by adopting the child which their maids bore to their husbands ( Gn 16: 2; 30: 3, 9).

All these texts show that the Israelites wanted mainly sons, to perpetuate the family line and fortune, and to preserve the ancestral inheritance. Daughters were held in less regard; they would leave the family when they married, and so the strength of a house was not measured by the number of its daughters.

Among the sons, the eldest enjoyed certain privileges. During his father's lifetime, he took precedence of his brothers ( Gn 43: 33). On his father's death he received a double share of the inheritance ( Dt 21: 17) and became the head of the family. With twins, the first to see the light was reckoned the eider ( Gn 25: 24-26; 38: 27-30; although Zerah's hand was seen first. Peres was the elder--cf. 1 Ch 2: 4--because he was the first to emerge from his mother's womb). The eldest could lose his right of primogeniture for a grave offence,

-41-

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