Michael Abrahams | The Bible: a poor guide for the treatment of children
Civilised societies today recognise children as belonging to a vulnerable community. They are dependent on adults for nurturing, protection, guidance… for their very survival. They are indeed vulnerable. When children are abused, neglected and exposed to dysfunction, they are traumatised, and are at risk of growing up into dysfunctional adults who are likely to traumatise their own children, and in doing so perpetuate a cycle of abuse.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the negative effects of corporal punishment on children, and there is widespread agreement among paediatricians, psychiatrists and psychologists, people who research and manage children, that the practice is to be discouraged.
However, here in Jamaica, there is much resistance to abide by the recommendations of the experts.Interestingly, some of the most strident defenders of beating children are Christians, who use the Bible to defend the practice. Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children,but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them”, is often used as a justification for hitting children in order to discipline them, although some interpret the use of a “rod” as something used to guide, rather than to strike.
But even if one chooses the less violent interpretation, there are several instances in the Bible where violence, often extreme forms, are used against children. For example, 2 Kings 2:23-24, tells of the prophet Elisha who was jeered by some boys while on his way to Bethel. Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, and two bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of them. Leviticus 20:9 states that anyone who curses his father or his mother shall be “put to death”. Likewise, Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 states that a rebellious son should be stoned to death by all the men of his town. Also, according to Proverbs 30:17, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.”
Often, in times of war, children become collateral damage. But there are instances in the Bible where the killing of children of enemies is encouraged, or even ordered by God. For example, Psalm 137:9 says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infant sand dashes them against the rocks”,a verse about revenge directed at the Babylonians who captured the people of the Kingdom of Judah. In 1 Samuel 15: 3, God actually sent a message to Saul, through Samuel, to kill all the Amalekites, including “children and infants”.
Cruelty to children in the Bible was not just confined to youngsters being punished for wrongdoing or killed during battles, but also in order to punish parents who had transgressed. David wanted Bathsheba and arranged to have her husband killed in battle, which displeased God. The punishment for this act is described in 2 Samuel 12: 15-18, where God “struck” their baby with illness, which caused the innocent child to suffer and die. Similarly, in Exodus 12:12 God killed all the “firstborn” in Egypt to punish, not the children, but their parents.
There are occasions where children were traumatised or placed at risk even when neither they nor their parents did anything to warrant punishment. Genesis 22:1-12 describes how God told Abraham, whom he described as “righteous”, to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Abraham tied the boy to the altar, on top of the firewood, and was about to stab him to death with a knife, when an angel told him to stop, and informed him that God was only testing him. Genesis 19 tells the story of all the men in the city of Sodom turning up at the home of Lot, another “righteous” man, and demanding to have sex with two male guests, who happened to be angels, who were staying there. Lot denied their request but offered his two virgin daughters to the mob to be raped and sodomised.
There is also a disparity between how boys and girls are treated in the Bible. Deuteronomy 22:21-22 states that if a man marries a woman and discovers that she is not a virgin, she must be stoned to death by all the men of her town. (In those days, girls were often married off in their mid-to-early teens and would be considered minors today.) There are no instructions, however, for dealing with males who were not virgins at the time of marriage, revealing a significant gender bias.
Then there is the issue of child abandonment. According to Luke 14:26, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Christian apologists will tell us that the use of the word “hate” is hyperbole and that Jesus did not want people to literally hate their families. But even if that is the case, the principle of someone abandoning their family, including their children, is clear.
In my opinion, a book that endorses the physical assault, killing and abandonment of children, speaks of great men being willing to sacrifice their children in different ways, and exhibits significant gender bias, is a poor guide for the treatment of children today. The Bible consists of stories written by people in a specific geographic region about their beliefs and experiences thousands of years ago. However, today we understand much more about psychology and the long-term effects of childhood trauma. We must also be mindful of the fact that many of the stories in the Bible cannot be verified, and that some are allegorical or are myths. Taking everything literally and applying it today can place the well-being of our children at risk.