“The Old Testament Evidence Regarding the Participation of Children in Covenant Observances” (Part Three)

In our consideration of the Old Testament evidence for paedocommunion, we noted that the appeal to the precedent of covenant children’s participation in the Old Testament Passover is a key part of the paedocommunionist argument. Though paedocommunionists appeal to a variety of Old Testament examples of the participation of children in covenant observances, the most important leg supporting the argument for paedocommunion is the appeal to the analogy of the Passover.

When we take up the New Testament evidence pertaining to the admission of children to the Lord’s Table, we will have occasion to consider the important differences between the Old Testament Passover and the New Testament Lord’s Supper. These differences are significant for determining whether the Old Testament Passover is truly a precedent for the participation of children in the Lord’s Supper. If we assume that the Lord’s Supper is simply a New Testament form of the Old Testament Passover, the paedocommunionist insistence that children should partake of this sacrament may appear to have a measure of plausibility. But if the Lord’s Supper is not simply a New Testament form of the Old Testament rite, the appeal to the analogy with the Passover loses much of its persuasiveness. Consequently, in our consideration of the New Testament evidence in subsequent articles, we will have to give special attention to the uniqueness of the Lord’s Supper as a new covenant sacrament in our evaluation of the case for paedocommunion.

Our primary purpose at this point, however, is to evaluate the evidence for the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper that is allegedly derived from the Old Testament Passover. We will restrict our treatment of this evidence in this article, accordingly, to what we know from the Old Testament. In keeping with our earlier observation about the priority of the New Testament’s teaching for the question of the participation of children in the Lord’s Supper, our evaluation of the paedocommunion argument from the Passover will not permit us to draw anything more than a tentative conclusion. Only after we turn directly to the New Testament evidence will we be able to reach any firm conclusions regarding the practice of paedocommunion.

The Limitations of the Passover Analogy

One of the immediate problems that confronts any student of the Old Testament Passover is that there is no indisputable evidence for or against the claim that all of the children of the covenant participated fully in its celebration. Despite the claim of some paedocommunion advocates that all children of the household fully participated (with the exception, perhaps, of unweaned infants) in the Passover feast, the relevant Old Testament passages do not warrant this kind of unqualified claim.

Not only are there some biblical restrictions upon participation in the Passover rite, but there are also limitations in the traditional practice of Israel upon the participation of some members of the covenant community. In order to determine what were the most important features of the Old Testament Passover, there are several considerations that need to be borne in mind. Before we draw a tentative conclusion on the basis of the available evidence, we will summarize these considerations in the form of several observations about participation in the Passover feast.

First, any consideration of the precedent of the Old Testament Passover must keep in mind the important distinction between the first and subsequent celebrations of the Passover. Whereas the first Passover in Egypt was clearly a household celebration, the stipulations for later celebrations of the Passover require that it and the other two pilgrim feasts (Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Weeks) be kept only by the male members of the covenant community (Deut. 16:16; Ex. 23:17; 34:23). Though the stipulation that only circumcised men of the covenant community keep the Passover at the centralized sanctuary in Jerusalem does not expressly exclude the participation of women and young children, it does represent

a significant change in the way the Passover was to be celebrated. While the women and children were to eat the unleavened bread in all Israel’s borders, the men were to go up to Jerusalem in order to fulfill the obligations of the Passover “to the Lord your God” and “at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it” (Deut. 16:2, 5-7, 16ff.). These Deuteronomic provisions for the annual celebration of the pilgrim Passover do not require, nor do they seem to anticipate, the participation of the women and younger children of the covenant community.

Indeed, it is possible to view these requirements for the participation of the men of the covenant community as a kind of Old Testament “public profession of faith.” Participation in the Passover is no perfunctory rite, but places a considerable responsibility upon its participants to prepare for and keep the feast in accordance with all of the stipulations of the law of the covenant. Once we acknowledge that these stipulations were normative for the annual feast of the Passover in Israel, the paedocommunionist argument that all of the children in Israel participated in the Passover becomes rather unlikely. Moreover, the assumption of the paedocommunion argument, namely, that non-participation in this covenant meal is tantamount to a kind of exclusion from full covenant membership and its privileges, is not valid. It is a gratuitous assumption to insist that enjoyment of the privileges of the covenant requires that all members of the covenant community participate to the same extent in the Feast of the Passover. Were this assumption correct, we would expect the Old Testament provisions for the Passover to require the participation of all members of the covenant people.

Second, the insistence on the part of advocates of paedocommunion that all the children of the Israelite households ate the Passover meal is a possible construction of the Old Testament evidence, but it is not a likely one. Even the most ardent paedocommunion advocates acknowledge that unweaned infants could not eat some of the elements of the Passover meal (for example, the meat). While acknowledging this restriction upon the participation of unweaned infants, proponents of paedocommunion appeal to the language of Exodus 12:4, “according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb,” to argue that the only requirement for eating the Passover was the capacity to consume the meal. Since a similar phrase is used in Exodus 16:16,18,21, to refer to the manna that the children also ate, paedocommunionists maintain that this language implies the participation of all members of the household, the only exception being the infant children.

But as the English Standard Version of this phrase suggests, this passage does not mean simply what our expression, “so many mouths to feed,” means. Rather than referring to the number of persons in the household, the language of this text refers to how much each member of the household was capable of eating. Whether infants and very young children were able to eat all the elements of the Passover meal remains, so far as the meaning of this phrase is concerned, undetermined. These elements of the Passover meal included roast lamb, unleavened bread (a kind of dry biscuit), and bitter herbs (Ex. 12:8ff.; Num. 9:11).

While newly weaned infants and younger children might possibly be able to eat the unleavened bread, it is implausible that they could digest the roast lamb and particularly the bitter herbs. All of the stipulated elements of the Passover meal, even on the occasion of its first celebration by the households of Israel in Egypt, were not likely to have been eaten by infants and the younger children of the household.

In connection with the question whether infants and very young children were able to consume the elements of the Passover meal, it should also be noted that subsequent Passovers included an additional element, namely, the cup of blessing. This cup of blessing added wine to the elements that typically belonged to the traditional Passover meal. Even though it is not clear how this element came to have a prominent role in the celebration of the Passover—it is not stipulated in the Old Testament legislation regarding this rite—its addition to the elements of the Passover meal adds a further obstacle to the claim of paedocommunionists that all the children of the household shared fully in the Passover meal. Since wine is an intoxicant and not suited to consumption by infants and very young children, it hardly seems to be an element of the Passover meal that they would be permitted to consume.

Third, in our previous discussion of the paedocommunionist appeal to the Old Testament Passover, we observed that the Passover feast included, as one of its prescribed features, a kind of “catechetical” exercise. At a certain point in the Passover rite, the children of the household were to ask, “What do you mean by this service?” (Ex. 12:27). In reply to this question, the head of household was to declare, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.” The presence of this catechetical exercise in the context of the Passover rite does not by itself argue conclusively for or against the participation of infants and younger children. Advocates of paedocommunion will observe that an intelligent participation in this feature of the Passover celebration is not a prerequisite for keeping the feast. All of the children of the household could share the Passover meal, even if only the older children could express this question and fully understand their father’s answer.

However, when this feature of the Passover rite is interpreted in the light of the common practice within Judaism, it does suggest that the children of the household participated in a different manner, depending upon their maturity and age. The spiritual significance and benefit of the Passover feast embraced all of the children of Israel, men and women, mature and immature, old and young. No one was excluded from an enjoyment of the covenant privileges that the Passover signified and commemorated.

Nevertheless, in order for all members to benefit from the Passover rite, it was not necessary or obligatory that all directly participated in every aspect of the Passover celebration. Just as the women and younger children were not required to keep the Passover in Jerusalem, though they benefited from its spiritual significance, so the younger children might not have participated in some features of the Passover celebration without being denied their proper place in the covenant community. The fact that some members of the covenant community did not partake of all elements of the Passover meal, or share in every feature of the ritual, would not compromise their place in the covenant community.

And fourth, the historic practice of Judaism does not support the claim of paedocommunionists that all members of Israelite households ordinarily participated in the Passover Feast. Even though there are some features of this practice that are difficult to determine, the main lines of traditional Jewish practice are clear enough.

In the period of the Old Testament history that follows the first Passover in Egypt, there is no clear biblical evidence that women or children attended the pilgrim Passovers, which were initiated and regulated by the Deuteronomic legislation. Whatever the extent of the participation of children in the first household Passover in Egypt, there are no undisputed examples of women and younger children attending the pilgrim Passovers until about the first century A.D. As we have noted, it is not that women and children were explicitly denied permission to celebrate the Passover.

The stipulation of Deuteronomy 16, that only the men go up annually to Jerusalem to keep the Passover Feast, however, appears to have encouraged a practice in Israel that did not include the participation of women and younger children. The only exceptions to this traditional practice may be the Passovers that were celebrated during the first year of king Hezekiah and the eighteenth year of Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23; 2 Chron. 30:1-27).

Josephus, the first century A.D. Jewish historian, claims that the women and children accompanied the men of Israel and attended these Passovers, which were celebrated upon the occasion of the return from exile. The problem with this claim is that it is not corroborated by the sources Josephus uses (Ezra 6:19-22; 1 Esdras 7:10-15), and it may reflect Josephus’ own preference, as a member of the party of the Pharisees, for the inclusion of women and children in the Passover feast. We have no undisputed evidence of the participation of women and younger children in the pilgrim Passovers prior to the intertestamental period.

Only during the intertestamental period do we find any explicit comments about who may properly participate in the Passover Feast. The author of the Book of Jubilees, which was cherished by the Qumran community and written in the late second century A.D., describes a practice in which men from twenty years of age and older participated in the Passover in Jerusalem (Jubilees 49:17). The description of the Passover practice in Jubilees probably reflects the traditional practice of Judaism until at least the end of the second century B.C.

In the post-exilic period, there was considerable emphasis upon the need for the children of Israel to keep scrupulously the requirements of the law of the covenant. Questions were raised regarding which laws were to be kept by men in distinction from those that were to be kept by women. Within the framework of reflection upon Israel’s obligations under the law of the covenant, the view prevailed that the commandments became binding upon men at the age of twenty, the age of maturity in terms of particular covenant obligations (cf. Lev. 27:1-7; Num. 1:3,20,22,24; 26:2; 1 Chron. 27:23; Num. 14:19-21; Ex. 30:14; 38:26). Since the law did not obligate women and younger children to keep the Passover feast, the practice of Judaism in this period did not include their participation.

In the period of the second Temple and post-exilic Judaism, a change of practice is discernable some time after the end of the second century B.C. With the emergence of the sect of the Pharisees, whose teaching is reflected in the Mishnah (c. 180 A.D.), the age at which a member of the covenant community could “keep the commandments” was determined to be thirteen. This was the age of discretion at which children of the covenant could partake of the Passover for the first time. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ going up to Jerusalem with his parents for the first time at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41,42), this change in practice (from the age of twenty to thirteen) is likely reflected.

At the age of twelve, a child of the covenant would begin the fast in preparation for eating the Passover meal for the first time at the age of thirteen. During this period, some controversy arose within different parties of Judaism regarding the permissibility and the extent to which women and children could participate in all the elements of the Passover feast. By the end of the first century A.D., after the destruction of the second Temple and the return to a household celebration of the Passover, the participation of women and children in the Passover appears to have become more common, though not altogether uncontroversial.

What this brief summary of the history of Jewish practice teaches us is that the inclusion of women and younger children in the Passover feast was not the characteristic pattern in the Old Testament economy. The practice of Israel during the Old Testament era was largely shaped by the provisions in the law for keeping the pilgrim Passover annually in Jerusalem, not the household Passover in Egypt. Only circumcised males were required to keep the Passover Feast, and preparations for the Feast included fasting and the ceremonial cleansing (cf. Num. 9:6; John 18:28) of the pilgrim celebrants.

In the traditions of Judaism, an “age of discretion” was stipulated for those who kept the Passover. Whether that age was twenty, as in the period prior to the first century A.D., or thirteen, as in the period that coincides with the New Testament’s writing, it was not the practice of Judaism prior to the destruction of the second Temple to encourage the participation of younger children who were not yet “sons of the commandment” or obliged to keep all of the laws of the covenant. While it appears that the participation of women and children began to be encouraged after the destruction of the temple and a return to a household celebration of the Passover, this was not the typical practice of Israel during the Old Testament era.

Conclusion

If our observations about the Old Testament Passover are given their proper due, the typical appeal that advocates of paedocommunion make to the alleged precedent of the participation of children in this Old Testament rite is not persuasive. Even without considering the differences between the Old Testament Passover and the New Testament Lord’s Supper, the Old Testament itself does not teach what some paedocommunionists allege that it does. So far as the participation of younger children in the Passover Feast is concerned, the best that a paedocommunionist can argue is that they may have been permitted to partake of some elements of the Passover meal. In the Old Testament legislation regarding the annual pilgrim Passovers, women and children are not expressly forbidden to keep the Passover feast. But the implicit permission granted to women and perhaps younger children to participate in the Passover hardly constitutes a strong precedent for the kind of bold claims that often characterize the writings of paedocommunionists.

There is nothing in the teaching of the Old Testament that would warrant the claim, for example, that non-participation in the Passover meal on the part of a covenant member is tantamount to a loss of full communion with the Lord of the covenant or a form of spiritual malnourishment. Though the spiritual benefit of the Passover feast extended to the entire covenant community, this does not seem to have required anything like the paedocommunionist insistence that all members of the covenant community (with the possible exception of unweaned infants) ought to participate in all elements of the Passover meal.

Even on the most congenial reading of the Old Testament evidence, therefore, the case for paedocommunion is hardly supported by an appeal to the analogy of the Passover. As we have seen, the likeliest reading of the biblical and inter-testamental evidence within Judaism, is that only “mature” members of the covenant community kept the Passover feast.

For most of Israel’s history prior to the New Testament epoch, only mature males of a specified age participated in the Passover practices that were shaped by the Deuteronomic legislation. Nothing in this history comes close to setting a precedent for a new covenant practice that would require the immediate participation of every covenant member in the Lord’s Supper, regardless of their age or maturity in faith. And yet this is the kind of claim that paedocommunionists are apt to make.

A more likely reading of the traditional Passover practice in Israel shows that it may actually provide a precedent for the Christian church’s communion practice. Just as those who participated in the Passover were expected to prepare themselves for a responsible keeping of the feast (a kind of Old Testament “profession of faith”), so those who participate in the Lord’s Supper are expected to prepare themselves for the kind of communion with Christ that it represents.

Of course, this still leaves open the question whether the Lord’s Supper should be viewed on such close analogy to the Passover. In our treatment of the New Testament evidence respecting paedocommunion, we will argue that this analogy, though valid, can easily be overdrawn. So far as our tentative conclusion here is concerned, we may even grant the paedocommunion emphasis upon the close analogy between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper. What we may not grant is that this analogy provides a strong argument for the admission of all covenant children to the Lord’s Table. A more plausible reading of the evidence would conclude that the Passover sets a precedent for the historic insistence that Christian believers profess their faith in order to be properly received at the Lord’s Table, which has been given for the strengthening of such faith.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.

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