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Covenant Education And Infancy
Scripture gives us a few specific ages that help map out the growth of human maturity and the pattern of covenant education. So let’s start at the very beginning.
Scripture everywhere assumes that every child is alive from conception. It assumes that every unborn child is made in the image of God and every child is a sinner in need of saving grace (Ps. 58:3). They are already, in fact, capable of receiving such grace through the secret working of the Holy Spirit (Ps. 22:10; Luke 1:41-44). Scripture “entitles” the unborn child to the love, nurture, and protection of his parents and to the full protection of the civil law. In fact, under the Mosaic law, the man who accidentally killed an unborn baby during a brawl was guilty of murder and deserved execution (Ex. 21:22-23).
In Israel, infancy ended with the child’s weaning. Weaning was an important event in the child’s life. Abraham and Sarah held a feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning (Gen. 21:8). Once Hannah had weaned Samuel, she committed him to Tabernacle service and so gave him up for adoption into the high priestly family (1 Sam. 1:23-24). We are never told directly of an official weaning age, but there is a hint in 2 Chronicles 31:16. Here we are told that food was to be apportioned to Levites serving in the Temple: food rations were to be given to everyone three years old and older. Doubtless, the actual age of weaning differed from child to child as it does today. Egyptians normally weaned their children at four.
It would be a horrible mistake, however, to think that covenant education and spiritual nurturing begin only after weaning. Since children are human from conception and truly made in the image of God, we have no reason to believe that an unborn baby or an infant is incapable of knowing God or learning about Him. Remember that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost in his mother’s womb. Moses’ mother Jochebed had four years to engage her infant son, not only in covenant education but in the covenant promises that belonged to Israel. By God’s grace, she did a fine job.
These earliest years are an excellent time for parents to show their children God’s love and provision by demonstrating their own love, nurture, and care. This is also a time for telling stories that communicate the profound truths and patterns of covenant education and life. Children should learn to pray at this age and to begin the lifelong process of hiding God’s word in their hearts. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that small children can’t understand the word of their heavenly Father. They can and they do.
Covenant Education And Childhood (4-12)
Unlike many cultures, Israel had a place for childhood. Scripture even distinguishes children from young men and women (“youths”). According to Scripture, childhood stretches from weaning to about twelve or thirteen. In other words, to the beginnings of puberty.
During childhood, the child’s vocabulary, understanding, and retention increase. This is the time for parents to tell kingdom stories in more detail and to begin teaching all sorts of definitions, facts, and lists. Children should learn the books of the Bible in order. They should memorize the days of creation, the six covenants of promise with some of their distinguishing details, the floor plan of the Tabernacle, the five Levitical offerings, the seven Levitical feasts, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Children should also learn the kings of Judah and Israel in order and the prophecy of Daniel 2, which structures the history of the Captivity and the Restoration. It’s also important for children to memorize the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds so they have a basic framework for their theology.
They should memorize and sing lots of psalms and hymns… grown-up hymns, that is. And, of course, they should memorize lots of Scripture: Genesis 1, Psalms 1, 2, 19, and 23, Isaiah 53, the Beatitudes, John 1 and 3, 1 Corinthians 13, and Hebrews 11 are great places to start. This is also the time for parents, particularly fathers who take covenant education seriously, to take their children through Proverbs, a book written by a father for his son. Some denominational traditions also make really good use of catechisms during these years.
Childhood then is preparation for youth and the fuller maturity God requires later in life. Children should learn to read and write, of course. But obedience, humility, purity, diligence, faithfulness in work, and above all the fear of God, are the central lessons of childhood. Faithful church attendance, family devotions, private prayer, chores at home, and good examples from mom and dad all become even more important as avenues of instruction. It’s at this age too that children begin to notice whether parents are consistent in their worldview. They begin to notice if what a parent says matches up with what a parent does.
During childhood, particularly toward its middle, children may begin learning the practical skills that belong to homemaking or to a particular craft. Before compulsory school attendance laws, this was the age when boys were often apprenticed to an uncle, neighbor, or family friend.
However, not everything in childhood should be work. Play is still important. The prophet Zechariah sees the ideal Jerusalem as a city full of “boys and girls playing in the streets” (Zech. 8:5). Children’s games are generally a kind of role-playing in which children act out adult roles—mother, warrior, adventurer, healer, and so on. Play should be a big part of covenant education and worldview training as it strengthens the body and the imagination.
Covenant Education And Youth (13-20)
In Jewish culture, thirteen is the age at which boys undergo the rite of Bar Mitzvah, the time when they become answerable to God’s law as adults. This “coming of age” tradition seems to have a long history and has played a major role in covenant education and living throughout history.
Luke tells us about Jesus’ first Passover as a young man when was twelve (Luke 2:41-51). For the first time, Jesus was able to go into the Temple synagogue and be catechized by the teachers of the law. Luke says that Joseph and Mary found him in the Temple, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions” (2:46). It apparently “astonished all that heard at his understanding and answers” (2:47). That is, the doctors were asking theological questions and allowing those who answered to ask follow-up questions in turn. Jesus practiced active learning here and it’s a great precedent for parents to take notice of.
Remember, Jesus hadn’t told His parents where He would be because He took it for granted that they would know. Temple training at the synagogue initiated His formal theological training and it was an opportunity that wasn’t open to younger children. Jesus’ example suggests that, as early as twelve, young people should give themselves to their theological studies with great enthusiasm and diligence. They should listen to serious theological instruction and ask questions. Young people should begin to meditate deeply on Scripture. They should start to read books on Biblical and systematic theology and they should study individual Old and New Testament books in depth. Covenantal education should continue the study of Proverbs as an excellent source of wisdom and instruction.
There is something else in Jesus’ example. Jesus Himself went directly to Israel’s best teachers so He could learn at their feet. These teachers or “doctors” of the law treated Him as a young adult and received Him without consulting directly with His parents. In other words, in Israel, the shift from childhood to youth was also a shift from the narrow circles of home and family to the broader circles of public life. Children became young adults and the adult community began to treat them as such . Young people began to relate more directly to their elders and pastors. The concept of adolescence as we know it did not exist in Israel.
Youth should also be the time when young men and women begin to earnestly prepare for marriage and parenthood. During these years, young men pass beyond apprenticeship into productive labor in a respected calling. We may think here of Jacob’s sons and of David, all of whom were shepherds (Gen. 46:3; 1 Sam. 17:33-36). Interestingly, young men in Israel weren’t yet eligible for military service. They were still learning the use of the sword and the bow. Additionally, they were still growing in the courage to stand in battle (cf. Judg. 8:20). I guess that means youth is a good time for instruction in self-defense. It’s all a part of their covenantal education.
Covenant Education – Moving To Maturity
Youth blends into maturity as young men and women get married. Scripture speaks of the wife and children of one’s youth (Prov. 5:18; Ps. 127:4). But in Israel, young men were to be ready for military service at twenty (Num. 1:2-3). They also allowed those enrolled in the militia a voice in the public assembly. They were objectively and functionally… adults.
Priests and Levites did not begin their ministry until they turned thirty (Num. 4). Jesus observed this rule, as apparently did John the Baptist, who was six months older than Jesus (Luke 3:23). Perhaps this says something about the age when young men should be ready for leadership roles in a Godly society.
Priests and Levites could cut back in their labors when they hit fifty, as we find in Numbers 4. (That’s nice to know. I’m 60 as I write this.) This is the closest Scripture comes to recognizing an age for cutting back on our calling. The truth is, you don’t find the concept of retirement anywhere in the Bible. In fact, work as a “calling” is our continual duty, and when done in faith, a primary source of joy and fulfillment. Scripture does not release the elderly to play with or waste their children’s inheritance. Instead, the years after fifty are time for Godly men and women to share their wisdom and experience with the next generation.
Moses gave us a psalm that sets an average ending for human life: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). Moses himself lived to be a hundred and twenty, but even in his generation, he was an exception. And, of course, there is no “seventy-year guarantee.” Moses is simply speaking in general terms.
Covenant Education Should Continue Until We Breathe Our Last Breath
Our time is in God’s hands. And so God calls us to number our days that we might apply our hearts to wisdom (Ps. 90:12). Wisdom is applying God’s word to all of human life and activity. Wisdom is learning the best means to the best ends as God sees and ordains such things. What could be more important than a love for and a healthy appreciation of God’s ordination concerning the timetables of life? These timetables along with Godly wisdom provide a much-needed map… that we might gather up all that God has so graciously given to us and pass it along to our kids and grandkids.
At first the infant . . . then the whining schoolboy . . . then the lover . . . and then a soldier. . . .
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It (1599)
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
 In 19th century America, most students were finished with school when they were thirteen. Eighth-grade graduation, like bar mitzvah and confirmation, marked a real entry into adult life.