Dr. Kristine Garroway and "Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household" - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Dr. Kristine Garroway and "Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household"

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Monday, August 17, 2015

One pleasure of working at HUC is being able to speak with so many scholars about their passions. I recently spoke with Dr. Kristine Garroway, Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, about her recent book, Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household.

sfs: Congratulations on your new book! and thanks for taking the time to talk to me about it.

Obviously, as long as there have been people, there have been children, but kids don’t usually make history. What drew you to this topic and why do you think it is important?

KG: I was first drawn to the topic by a pair of footprints I saw in a museum catalogue.  They were from the town of Emar. An inscription on the inside of the footprints reported that a mother could no longer care for her two small children, so she was selling them to the temple.  The inscription was so touching and raw.  Here, a mother was giving up her children because she could not support them.  She did not want to simply abandon them or sell them as slaves. It seemed that she was trying to do the best she could for them.  It got me to thinking, just as women had been overlooked in ancient Near Eastern scholarship for so long; here was another group of people that we had not thought to explore. Children are, quite literally, the future of a civilization. To understand their lives and the ways in which civilizations passed on their culture to their children by enculturating and engendering them is, I think, a really important piece of understanding the biblical and ancient Near Eastern worlds.


sfs: Generally historians stick to their texts; archeologists to their material finds etc., but you’ve incorporated the methods of historians, archeologists, anthropologists with a healthy dose of gender theory and class distinctions.  From a reader’s point of view, that made the book more interesting, but are there other reasons you decided to examine the topic so broadly?

KG: I am glad it made the book more interesting! My goal in using an interdisciplinary approach was to look at my subject from as many angles as I felt I could manage with integrity.  I first started with the question “I wonder if what is recorded on paper matches what the archaeological record has to say on the ground.”  As a young biblical scholar, I kept writing and parroting the line “we don’t know if this actually happened.” I was starting to become slightly disenchanted with my field, so I decided to broaden my scope.  (Plus I adore archaeology.) Incorporating archaeology and anthropology into the mix, led me to an investigation of gender theory and how that related to children and childhood.


sfs: In your chapter on orphans, you show that the Bible, the Code of Hammurapi, and the Urgaritic Epic of Keret all have statements about the importance of protecting the orphan. You conclude that that shows that each society values orphans and other marginal groups. Can I play Devil’s advocate and suggest that if they had to make statements and laws about it, then probably the orphans were not being taken of?

Cover of "Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household"

KG: I love this question and I have used such reasoning a number of times! If we have to say something about it, it probably means we were (not) doing it. Why so many texts prohibiting idol worship? Forbidding intermarriage with various ethnic groups? Or proscribing child sacrifice? In the case of protecting the orphan, it is widely acknowledged that these ANE and biblical texts use a literary trope: protect the orphan, the widow and the stranger. Most of these texts are found in law codes. Most scholars assert that the ANE law codes were more like “ideal guidelines” as we hardly ever find case laws that directly correlate to a section of a code.  So, to answer your question, I think that societies did value orphans and other marginal groups, but the degree to which they acted on this may not measure up to their ideals. I would say the same thing exists today. Most people I know would say that all people have the right to shelter, clothing, food and a job. But how many of us are actively out there daily, weekly, doing something about it? How many times have you driven by a person on the side of the freeway exit and not stopped to give money?  How many people adopt or foster a child?


sfs: In the file of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” having large families to help run a farm is still as important today all over the world as it was in the ancient Near East. I was wondering though if we know about family size in more urban areas?

KG: Yes, we do know about urban areas.  Archeologists rely on a demographic formula that says each individual needs 10 square feet. This measurement is taken from ethnographic parallels. Using this formula and applying it to the size of houses found in urban areas, we see that most houses held around 5-6 people. This fits well with the estimates for the number of people in a nuclear family (mother, father, 2-4 children, and maybe a servant/slave). Houses may be in close proximity to one another or be a bit bigger, in  which case their size appears to with fit the kinship group called the bet ‘av or the extended family. This group might be 10-15 people including a patriarch with his nuclear family, aunts, uncles, their children and the likes. Carol Meyers (Rediscovering Eve) and Bill Dever (The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel) both have a nice discussion of house size, kinship groups, and projected demographics for urban and rural areas.

sfs: And did the children in urban settings need to work as the agricultural kids did?

KG: I'm guessing that children needed to work in a different way, in the family trade.  For example, weaving or running errands to the market, gathering wood for fire, help with baking, learning the trade from the father, help with other childcare and so on.    


sfs: I admit that I couldn’t make it through the chapter on child sacrifice. But, in it you quote the Biblical passage where God instructions Abraham to take Isaac “the one you love” as a sacrifice. I can think of Jacob favoring Joseph, but are there other passages in the Bible or other texts where it explicitly states the love between a parent and child?

KG: Love, no. But favoritism, yes! If one were to use the Bible as a parenting guide, we would think we should all have a favorite child. Abraham loves Isaac (maybe more than Ishmael), Rebekah favors Jacob, but Isaac favors Esau. As you mentioned, Jacob favors Joseph, and then Benjamin over his other sons. David mourns the death of Absalom more than any of his other sons (and doesn’t seem phased when Tamar is raped). 


sfs: Can you explain the ANE practice of burial in jars? I was a little confused by this. Although I was relieved that after the chapter on child sacrifice, that there is evidence of parental concern for their children in the afterlife. 

KG: This is one of my favorite topics, although to be sure, it became a little macabre after I had children. Throughout the ANE, infants (those individuals between birth and 2 years old) were treated differently than other members of society when it came to burial.  In many instances we find infants interred in jars, which were then buried under house floors.

Let’s discuss the technical side of the burial first. When an infant died, it was placed in a store jar. Store jars are a fairly common, utilitarian ceramic item. It does not appear that jars were made special, like a coffin, for the child.  People simply used what they had on hand. In some cases, bowls were placed over the mouth of the jar as a sort of lid.  Sometimes these bowls were made specially for the burial.  At the Early Bronze site, Tel Beth Yerah, we find a bowl that was burnished on the inside only, as if it make it pretty for the infant. A few jar burials include personal items like beads, but most jar burials have a juglet associated with them.

What does this all mean? First, we see that in comparison to other burials, the energy expenditure put into infant burials was relatively low. Second, the fact that juglets are found means that the infant was provided with sustenance for the afterlife; it was given a bottle to take on its journey! The location of the burial is also significant. Ethnographic parallels from Madagascar, Borneo, Malaysia, West Africa and the Huron all believe in a relationship between the womb and tomb.  Burial in a jar (which kind of looks like a womb), placed under domestic area, represents a return to Mother Earth.  There is the idea that a special form of burial would result in infant rebirth. My favorite example comes from the Huron, who believe that one should bury an infant in the road, so that if a woman walks over them they may sneak back into her womb and she may give them life again.


Such ethnographic studies, along with what we see in the ANE texts themselves, demonstrate that people understand infants differently than we do today. The realities of infant mortality were not lost on the ancients. It is estimated that a woman needed to have ten pregnancies in order to have at least 3 children survive into adulthood. Notably, around age 3 or 4 years old, individuals were no longer buried in jars, but buried in a manner similar to the other members of their society.  It is as if the first couple of years are a waiting period. I cannot imagine that a mother or father did not love an infant or neglect the baby. But, I think people were realists. Maybe as an emotional defense mechanism they did not become too attached to the infant until the baby had passed through some of the danger zones of infancy. Then again, who can resist a baby’s smile?    


sfs: What a great image to end with! thanks again!  

Sheryl F. Stahl, Senior Associate Librarian, Frances-Henry Library.