“All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” (1).
As a teacher of the Old Testament, I cannot help reflecting on the provision that God made for Israel’s children to be securely attached to him—attached in such a way that the Israelites would begin to venture out on his behalf, increasingly busying themselves with the mission of God, then regularly returning to find rest and energy for the next excursion (see John 4:32).
Although we read in Deuteronomy 6:7 and elsewhere that the sons of Israel were to teach the Lord’s commandments to the next generation, Old Testament history demonstrates that not every generation was obedient to this task. We are left, then, wondering to what degree the Israelites fulfilled this task, and more to the point, what did the various generations know about their God? We might expect the first generations to know the Ten Commandments and the stories of the patriarchs. Later generations could consider certain details from the period of the judges as well as episodes from the earliest days of the monarchy. Later still, certain psalms and proverbial sayings could have been included in a child’s or adult’s repertoire. Yet the reality is that we are limited in our capacity to know exactly what each generation of Israelites taught the next generation. A brief survey of commentaries reveals that there are those who do not believe the fifth commandment was directed towards children at all, leading one to wonder at what point did an Israelite begin his or her schooling in the Lord (2).
In the brief article that follows, we will consider four occasions on which God specifically mentions ques- tions that it was anticipated the children of the Israelite nation would ask (3). Four times in the earliest books of the Old Testament, God gave specific instructions regarding what parents were to tell, to teach, or to explain to their children in response to certain questions or circumstances (4). Two occasions fall within the book of Exodus, and there is one occasion each in Deuteronomy and Joshua. The instructions in Exodus are tied to the celebrations of the Passover and of Unleavened Bread. The teachings in Deuteronomy and in Joshua are of a more occasional nature that could conceivably happen at any time.
It has been noted how the details of what is to happen on each of these four occasions remind us that chil- dren were expected to be active participants in the life of the covenant community (5). What has not been noted is how what is said might relate to Israel’s sense of attachment to the Father who had adopted Israel as his firstborn son (Exod 4:22-23; Deut 7:6; Hos 11:1; Rom 9:4).
Daniel Hughes draws on John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, two forerunners in the study of attachment theory, to identify six components of an attachment relationship (6). He identifies the attachment relationship as:
1. persistent or ongoing; not temporary.
2. directed towards a specific person.
3. emotionally significant.
4. directed towards maintaining contact with
5. characterized by distress during involuntary
periods of separation.
6. characterized by seeking security and comfort.
It is my thesis that these components can be found in the four instructions that God provided to all Israelite parents for all Israelite children and ipso facto to all Israelites.
All four passages give prominence to the notion that the relationship God establishes with Israel is persistent. It is not limited to a particular developmental stage within childhood, nor even to the duration of childhood. These instructions made sure that the relationship was well established and continually nourished from cradle to grave.
Exodus 12:24: “Keep this command permanently as a statute for you and your descendants.”
Exodus 13:10: “Keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year.”
Deuteronomy 6:24: “The LORD commanded us to follow all these statutes and to fear the LORD our God for our prosperity always.”
Joshua 4:7, 24: “These stones will always be a memorial for the Israelites…so that you may always fear the LORD your God.”
Bowlby and Ainsworth focused on the importance of attachment in the early stages of life, but more recent studies show that attachment continues to be important throughout our lives, even as the attachment figure may change. God made clear to the Israelites that they possessed, through him, a secure base and platform for life. Even when an Israelite child grew up and became a parent, God offered himself to them in an unchanging way: “so that you may always fear the LORD your God,…for you and your descendants” (7).
Bowlby and Ainsworth both focused on attachment to a mother figure, but attachment is far broader than this one relationship. Throughout the story of salvation, God offers himself to Israel to be their ultimate “other,” the attachment figure in whom all other relationships are interpreted and relativized. On the basis of these four passages we would have to say that God’s expectation is that this should begin in early childhood. The idea that God should be viewed as the father of his covenant people is foreshadowed in the first chapters of the story but only made explicit in Exodus 4:22-23 (8).
Although the description of Israel as God’s firstborn son in Exodus 4 is a corporate term, we can see that three of these passages speak in terms of a personal, particular, and individual attachment. Notice carefully how, in the following excerpts, the second-person pronoun (though ambiguous in English) is singular in Hebrew.
Exodus 12:24: “Keep this command permanently as a statute for you [singular] and your [singular] descendants.”
Exodus 13:9: “Let it serve as a sign for you [singular] on your [singular] hand and as a reminder on your [singular] forehead, so that the law of the LORD may be in your [singular] mouth; for the LORD brought you [singular] out of Egypt with a strong hand.”
Deuteronomy 6:20: “When your [singular] son asks you [singular].”
Joshua 4:5: “Each of you [singular] . . . one for each of the Israelite tribes.”
The fourth passage does not bring the instruction to the level of each and every person, but it does stress how each and every tribe was involved. For an ancient society that conceived identity in collective terms, this too pointed to a degree of specificity and particularity.
Both Exodus passages feature the celebration of Passover and Unleavened Bread. Although Passover is identified as a pilgrim feast in Exodus 34:25, the instructions in Exodus 12-13 suggest that Passover was a domestic festival. The paradox may be resolved if we suppose that, while Passover was celebrated at home, it was immediately followed by the community-focused and centrally-located celebration of Unleavened Bread. Regardless of how they were celebrated, what we can confidently say in this context is that, since both were occasions for festivity, they would have been intertwined with positive emotional memories for participants.
Exodus 12:26-27: “‘What does this ritual mean to you?’ you are to reply, ‘It is the Passover…He struck the Egyptians and spared our homes.’”
Exodus 13:8-9: “‘This is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for the LORD brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand.”
Deuteronomy6:21:”‘WewereslavesofPharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand.’”
Joshua 4:23: “…which he dried up before us until we had crossed over.”
More important than the potential emotional weight of a festival is the startling fact that all four texts look back to dramatic past events in which “we” participated. History is deliberately cast in the form of autobiographical memory. This is a memory in which the child is invited to share. Through the sharing of this memory, they also share in the experience. As they share the experience, they are invited to relive the event and to participate in its emotional content as well as its historical value. These texts seem to presuppose a relationship that includes a deep emotional component. It is a relationship with one who was there for us and who came through for us in the most spectacular ways in the times when we were most in need. Those within the relationship are invited to remember and to relive these rescues in ways that would serve to strengthen the emotional ties between the saving God and his people (9).
While the first characteristic of an attachment relationship was that it is a lasting relationship, this fourth point indicates that the contact should be regular and frequent. The Exodus teachings are certainly regular, but—since these exchanges only took place at the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread—they can hardly be considered frequent. The Deuteronomy text places the relationship in the context of day-by-day life in the land, while the words in Joshua point to a lasting monument. Both suggest the expectation of frequent connection.
Exodus 12:25: “You are to observe this ritual.”
Exodus 13:10: “Keep this statute at the appointed time from year to year.”
Deuteronomy 6:23-24: “…in order to lead us in and give us the land that he swore to our fathers….for our prosperity always and for our preservation.”
Joshua 4:7: “… these stones will always be a memorial for the Israelites.”
Perhaps Israelite children might have asked about the stone cairn mentioned in the book of Joshua if they passed by it on a journey or especially if they stopped near it. However, we ought not to imagine that this stone pile was a common holiday destination! The journey need not have been a physical one. The instruction certainly allowed for physical journeys, but the journey might equally take place in a child’s imagination (10).
There is surely a suggestion here that this is a story that should come up from time to time, at home, in the fields, on the way back from market, whenever the occasion arose: whenever a child noticed any stone pile or tried to recall where the ancient ancestral boundaries lay, when old sandals were thrown away or a newborn child received the name Joshua, and so on. The stress of the passage is that, whenever this part of Israel’s history is being retold, the detail about the stones should not be omitted. There is a slight but a real chance that the children might pass by these stones at some point in their lives and be encouraged at how the truthfulness of the story resonates with the validity of the memory. More to the point, the mention of the stones should trigger a question which will allow the child to be active in the story-telling process and not just a passive listener (11).
The Deuteronomy passage likely had even more day-to-day relevance than the passage in Joshua. A parent might not choose to recount the crossing of the Jordan River or the arrival in the Promised Land every day of a child’s life, but we can expect that there were many occasions when a child struggled to see the value of a particular law. It is at this point that the parents were to explain in general terms how the laws were given as part of God’s gracious gift to direct life in the land, then to go on to address the particular law that was a source of confusion for the child.
None of the four passages connects directly with this aspect of the attachment relationship since the law is presented in a way which assumes faithful love and loyal obedience (12). Elsewhere explanations are offered about how God will respond to disobedience, which is seen as a rejection of one’s attachment to God. Within the Deuteronomic text, which explores how Israel responded to God’s call, we do see that Israel did indeed endure distress when they wandered away. Nevertheless, that history also shows that, even as Israel was unfaithful, God remained faithful to his covenant with his firstborn.
In many ways this is the most straightforward of the characteristics of an attachment relationship to dem- onstrate from the four texts. This in itself is noteworthy because, as Hughes points out, while the previous five characteristics are true of any relationship involving inter-subjectivity, this last element is unique to the attachment relationship (13).
Exodus 12:25, 27: “When you enter the land that the LORD will give you… as he promised….‘He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians and spared our homes.’”
Exodus 13:5: “He would give you, a land flow- ing with milk and honey”
Deuteronomy 6:21, 23-24: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt… the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand … in order to lead us in and give us the land that He swore to our fathers….for our prosperity always and for our preservation.”
Joshua 4:23: “… which he dried up before us until we had crossed over.”
All these memories connected each generation of Israelites to the larger story of salvation, with its movement from captivity to release, from confinement to freedom in a good and spacious land, from enslavement by a system that valued them only as a resource to being a treasured possession showing the world what it means to be the people of God. In Egypt, their lives were dominated by brick quotas and oppression, but God brought them into a new land for their prosperity and preservation.
Already, we have seen that these passages point to the fact that Israel was to give regular and frequent attention to their relationship with God. Now, in these portions of the texts that we are examining, it is clear that these patterns were also to remind Israel of the sure and certain source of their security and comfort (14).
The character of the relationship that God desired with the children of Israel exhibited all the hallmarks of an attachment relationship. There is still one more element that we need to consider, however. In a secure attach- ment relationship, not only does the relationship need to be characterized by the strongly affective qualities considered above but also by the attachment figure supporting the individual’s growth and exploration of his or her environment (15). In these four texts, God guides his people into a new land, commissioning them to explore their environment as his representatives. They do not just go out; they are sent out with the reassurance that he will look after them as they go, much like the followers of Jesus who are sent to “every nation” with the assurance that Jesus would be “with [them] always” (Matt 28:18-20).
Exodus 12:25, 27: “when you enter the land” Exodus 13:5: “he would give you, a land flowing with milk and honey” Deuteronomy 6:21, 23-24: “to lead us in.”
Joshua 4:23: “… which he dried up before us until we had crossed over.”
All four of these passages, and the larger episodes of which they are a part, feature Israel heading into the unknown under God’s watchful eye to accomplish God’s purposes. All four episodes required Israel to leave behind familiar patterns of living and structures that they might have looked to for security. Taken together, the four passages suggest that, from the beginning of their history as a nation, God was inviting each new Israelite generation to become securely attached to him.
(1) John Bowlby, A Secure Base (London: Routledge, 1988), 27.
(2) Allan Harman writes, “The fact that this command is addressed to adults points to the fact that some- thing more than just one’s parents was in view” (Deuteronomy [Fearn: Christian Focus, 2007], 78). John Thompson comments, “With the fifth commandment begins the statement of the obligations of the man of Israel to his fellows” (Deuteronomy [London: IVP, 1974], 117). Similarly, Christopher Wright explains, “It addresses adults and reminds us of the broad extended nature of the Israelite family”—though he, at least, does allow that “children…would obviously be included in its scope” (Deuteronomy [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996], 76-77).
(3) There are other occasions in Israel’s foundational texts that give explicit instructions for parents to teach their children—Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19; and 32:46, for example. We will restrict our attention here to four occasions that envisage teaching being given within the context of a dialogue or discussion between parent and child.
(4) None of these texts (Exod 12:21-28; 13:3-10; Deut 6:20-25; Josh 4:4-7, 21-24) use the term yeled, which we would expect to be translated ‘child’. Instead the sections use a more ambiguous term ben (son). The questioning behaviors that we see in these four passages would seem, however, to be more typical of younger children than of older ones. The simple manner of explanation also suggests that they have a stron- ger claim to be oriented towards younger children than Deuteronomy 11:19 and 32:46.
(5) For details see Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993).
(6)Daniel Hughes, Attachment-Focused Parenting (New York: Norton, 2009) 9-10.
(7) Scriptures taken from the Holman Christian Stan- dard Bible, (c) 2003, 2002, 2000, 1999, Holman Bible Publishers.
(8) Although Luke draws this conclusion (Luke 3:38), John Nolland notes that neither the Old Testament authors nor inter-testamental Jewish writers had joined the dots and made the connection. For Nolland, the only exception to this statement is Philo (On the Virtues, 204-5) who says of Adam, “his father was no mortal, but the eternal God” (Luke 1-9:20 [Waco: Word, 1989], 173).
(9) Robyn Fivush, Catherine Haden and Elaine Reese show how parents help their children to construct memories, which are then embraced, owned, and integrated into their developing sense of self. See “Remembering, Recounting, and Reminiscing,” in Remembering Our Past, ed. David Rubin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 341-359. Craig Barclay has shown how a memory will be particularly valuable to us and enduring (in other words, it will have greater emotional import) if it has been shared with us by those whom we have learned to love and to trust and whom our culture commends to us as authority figures, like parents or grandparents. See “Composing Protoselves through Improvisation,” in The Remembering Self, ed. Ulrich Neisser and Robyn Fivush (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 68-69.
(10) Richard Gerrig explores the way in which readers of written stories, and by extension hearers of spoken ones, can find themselves so caught up in a story that they experience it for themselves. There is a real sense in which we can be transported into a narrative world and participate in it or, in Gerrig’s words, become performers of the narrative. See his Experiencing Narrative Worlds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
(11) Fivush, Haden, and Reese discuss how this active par- ticipation in the story-telling helps form and cement memories in the brain, see especially pages 354-358. Since these are the memories on which both faith and a sense of personal identity are built, this is a tremendously important activity and part of a process that occurs each and every day.
(12) Interestingly, if Deuteronomy 11:19 were brought in alongside our four passages, then this would indeed include warnings about the serious consequences of Israel’s choosing their own way in the promised land and looking to other gods to satisfy them (Deut 11:16-17). The difference is that the distress will be brought about by purposeful decisions rather than being linked to involuntary periods of separation. The message here is that Israel is to be intensely purposeful about cherishing and maintaining contact and fellowship with God.
(13) Hughes, 10.
(14) According to Hughes, this is the essence of good parenting. It allows children to thrive and creates for them a space where development can most fruitfully take place (Hughes, 20). Louis Cozolino explains how secure attachment actually facilitates brain develop- ment. When we are feeling anxious or insecure, brain activity is oriented towards coping and seeking safety. By contrast, when we are given opportunity to explore our world from the secure base that being securely attached affords, that exploration and discovery is much more likely to lead to brain development, to personal growth and to maturity, see Neuroscience of
Human Relationships (New York: Norton, 2006), 139-150.
(15) John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss: Volume 1: Attachment (reprint; Chatham: Pimlico, 1997), 208-209 and 337ff.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry, 2.1.]