Vocabulary for OT Young People

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The OT is a great place to start in our look to find adolescents in Scripture. We find people of all ages in the OT. There are numerous chronicles of babies, kids, young people and old people in the OT. This is most likely due to the abundance of narrative writing (that is, writing that describes events and history) as compared with the primarily theological (and propositional) nature of the NT.

In our look at OT vocabulary I have not included any words that ONLY refer to infants, babies, children, or older men, even though some of the ones I will refer to overlap with these age groups. This is a short list of four nouns (not adjectives) that are used at least somewhere in the OT as a reference to youth or young men/women. Again, as we’ll see, these four words do have overlap with words for babies and children and with words used in reference to older men.

יֶלֶד (yeled)

This word is used some 90 times in the Hebrew OT. It is translated in various ways in the ESV including “young men,” though predominately by the word “child” or (plural, “children”). Just one example of this use will be sufficient:

For to us a child (yeled) is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Of course, this is a prophecy about the coming of the Christ; the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. Calling Him a child in this verse doesn’t really tell us much about His age, it is simply a general reference to offspring of parents (in this case Mary and the Holy Spirit).

But the word does have more definite age restraints in other places. For example, it is the word used to describe David’s child with Bathsheba.

2 Samuel 12:18 On the seventh day the child (yeled) died.

This is the account of the death of David’s infant son, a punishment of God on David’s crimes of adultery and murder. His son was only seven days old, not even having been circumcised yet. So yeled is used here to describe a very small baby.

More important for our discussion, however, is its use to describe “youth” or “young men.” Yeled is translated as “youth” in Daniel 1:4.

Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths (yeled) without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)

You can imagine that this might be a good model to study later in our series. But before looking at anything else we should figure out how old these “youths” really were.

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon adopted a policy of taking the most promising young men and “recruiting” them for government positions in his empire. Rather than reserving leadership for Chaldeans alone, Nebuchadnezzar resolved to pool the best brains and abilities to be found among the nations he had conquered. Though they were to have certain qualities already, probably the one “quality” not prized was stubborn persistence; someone who was “stuck in his ways.” Being stuck in one’s ways is something that is more likely to describe older people.

With that in mind, as well as from other indicators from history and from within the book of Daniel itself, most commentators believe that Daniel and the rest were somewhere between fourteen and seventeen. Yeled is used in Daniel to describe those who were … teenagers.

One more example of this word is important to note. Let’s go back to the story I mentioned in my previous adolescence blog, the story of Rehoboam and the “young men” he took counsel from.

1 Kings 12:8 [h]e abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men (yeled) who had grown up with him….

Forget for just a moment that it is translated young men, not adolescents. The important question is, how old were these “young men”? It sounds typical of teenagers, doesn’t it? It seems like the immature, impetuous manner of most adolescents. So how old were these guys? Take a quick look at 1 Kings 14:21:

Now Rehoboam the son of Solomon reigned in Judah. Rehoboam was forty-one when he began to reign, and he reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem.

He was forty-one! His peers, his equals were then probably somewhere in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. And yet the same word, yeled, is used to describe them as it is to describe a seven day old baby. I guess sinfully stupid and proud decisions are not something limited only to teens. This is not a passage that adolescent advocates can use to support their position.

So depending on the context, just this one word, yeled, can be used to describe anyone from the age of David’s dead seven day old baby, to Daniel and his teenage friends, all the way to Rehoboam’s mid-life counselors, “young men” who were around forty.

עֶלֶם (elem)

This word is used about five times in the Hebrew OT. It is always translated as some form of the word “youth.” In 1 Samuel 20:22 the youth are military assistants and in Job (20:11 & 33:25) it describes the physical strength, liveliness, and vitality of young people compared with those who are old. It is also used to describe David in 1 Samuel 17:56 after killing Goliath. We’ll look at some of these verses a little later.

נַעַר (na’ar)

This word is the Hebrew workhorse to describe young people, used over 200 times in the Hebrew OT. It is translated predominately with the word “youth,” but also frequently as “young man” or plural, “young men.” But it too is translated in various ways in the ESV. Let me show you a few examples of the various ages covered by na’ar.

This is the word used to describe Moses at three months old, left in a basket by his mother in the river. Exodus 2:2 says that he was three months old, and then in verse six we see that:

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child (yeled), and behold, the baby (na’ar) was crying. (Exodus 2:5-6)

This verse shows that yeled and na’ar can be used synonymously (interchangeably), though obviously na’ar can be used to describe someone extremely little. By the way, na’ar is also used to describe David’s dead infant in 2 Samuel 12:16.

2 Samuel 12:16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child (na’ar).

So there is overlap in the different vocabulary words, as well as an overlap in age distinctions covered by the same word.

na’ar is the word used of Samuel from before he was weaned (1 Samuel 1:22), immediately after he was weaned (1:24), probably somewhere around two or three years old. Then it continues to describe him as a young person:

Then Elkanah went home to Ramah. And the boy (na’ar) ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest. (1 Samuel 2:11)

Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy (na’ar) clothed with a linen ephod. (1 Samuel 2:18)

The young man (na’ar) Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord. (1 Samuel 2:21)

Now the young man (na’ar) Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man. (1 Samuel 2:26)

But look over at chapter three. Here we find the “young man” (na’ar) (3:1) ministering and this is the account of God revealing Himself directly to Samuel (3:8 – na’ar as well). How old do you think Samuel is by this point? The Jewish historian Josephus suggests Samuel was twelve…12! Based on the running story in 1 Samuel at most he could have been only a couple years older than that. He would be considered an early “adolescent” in today’s vocabulary.

But look at the description of him in verse 19:

And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. (1 Samuel 3:19)

This means that God was using Samuel as a young teenager to reveal divine things. He spoke with divine authority as an adolescent! Here was no superficial, trivial, cartoon-watching, computer-game-playing, silly, skin-deep young person with no substance. Samuel was a young person whose life was ripe with knowledge of God. Here was a young person defined by his relationship with God.

A little bit further in 1 Samuel we find the young shepherd David described by this word. Na’ar is the word used of David in:

And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” (1 Samuel 17:33)

More than likely David was a mid-teenager, perhaps between 15-17. He was also young enough that Goliath mocked his youth (“when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him for he was but a youth” v.42). You can imagine that we might come back to this representative teenager as well.

Finally, na’ar is the word used of Job’s sons who had their own houses in Job 1:4, 19. We can safely assume a certain level of responsibility and means for these young men to care for their own homes.

So depending on the context, just this one word, na’ar, can be used in a broad variety of ways to describe anyone from the age of Moses in the basket, all the way up to Job’s sons who had their own households.

בָּחוּר (bachur)

Bachur is used over 40 times in the Hebrew OT. It is translated in the ESV predominately as “young man,” and generally seems to refer only to those in the middle to older part of the “young men” spectrum. We could probably limit this word to the time from puberty to around forty.

These young men are of the marrying age:

For as a young man (bachur) marries a young woman…. (Isaiah 62:5)

Though they might not be married:

Fire devoured their young men (bachur), and their young women had no marriage song. (Psalm 78:63)

Another interesting description of these young men was that they were apparently able to have children:

[T]hus says the LORD of hosts: “Behold, I will punish them. The young men (bachur) shall die by the sword, their sons and their daughters shall die by famine. (Jeremiah 11:22)

And yet at the same time they were apparently still close to their mothers:

I have made their widows more in number than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of young men (bachur) a destroyer at noonday…. (Jeremiah 15:8)

They are able to battle (as they are promised to be killed by the sword in battle, while being described as different from men:

May their men meet death by pestilence, their youths (bachur) be struck down by the sword in battle. (Jeremiah 18:21)

So the fourth word, along with the previous three, can refer to a variety of persons in different stages of life, though bachur seems to be the most consistent in its description of those in their teens to their forties.

I will make some additional summary observations in a future blog. For today’s entry I simply want to point out that noticeably absent from this list is one (let alone more) words that restrict a person to the time of 12 to 20. We do not find any equivalent OT vocabulary for persons or the period of adolescence.

Adolescents in the Old Testament

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

There is a great old story about King Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12. At the beginning of the chapter we find Solomon’s kingdom divided, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam was made king in the South. The people of Israel petitioned the new king to lighten their heavy work burden and the high taxes placed on them by Solomon (vv.1-5). The new King Rehoboam sent the people away with a promise to answer in three days.

As we insert ourselves into the storyline we are initially impressed that Rehoboam immediately went to get counsel. There is, after all, safety in the abundance of counselors. Our impression is further strengthened when we see that at first he goes to the “old men” who had also stood with his father Solomon. These were the guys who had been around; they were the wise guys. But the story takes a turn for the worse when Rehoboam turns from their counsel in verse 8.

[Rehoboam] abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him…. (1 Kings 12:8)

The advice of his peers was to make the burden heavier than before. Their counsel to the new king was to increase his authority, his power, and wealth. The people should serve the king, not visa versa.

Now I don’t know if we would say that Rehoboam followed his friends’ direction because of “peer pressure” or because he didn’t want to lose his relationship with them by offending them. But regardless of his motivation, it definitely was not a good idea to listen to these punks.

But isn’t this just the way we would expect a teenager to act? Doesn’t this behavior seem adolescent, ignoring the elders and following the crowd? This is no surprise; it’s just what young men do.

In our discussion on the birth and growth of adolescence we have looked primarily at the various historical elements over the past century that have promoted (intentionally or unintentionally) this social myth. We’ve talked about the modern idea of adolescence as including more than just the actual years of being a teenager, but the mindset of rebellion and instability that are said to define those years. But whatever the history, we are most concerned with what God’s Word reveals about young people, what it expects of them, and what it expects of those who train them.

This leads us to the next step in our series: to look at the various OT vocabulary for young people and attempt to identify any relevant terms or descriptions of adolescent behavior as we recognize it today.

So does an account like that of Rehoboam reveal adolescence in Scripture? Is this narrative just the tip of the biblical iceberg? If we go below the surface will we find uncontrollable teenage hormones dominating ancient adolescents just like today? Will we find a category of juveniles who can’t help but be trouble causers?

We’ll have to see….