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Biblical Thirteen Year Olds
A Conservative Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

Midrashic accounts of the thirteen-year-old biblical figures are rife with drama. Abraham turned thirteen and broke idols, beginning his turn to monotheism. Both of his grandsons, Jacob and Esau, studied until age thirteen. Afterward, Jacob devoted himself to further study, while Esau worshipped at “foreign shrines.” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 25:27). Two of Jacob’s twelve sons, Simeon and Levi, wreaked havoc when they were thirteen, decimating the male population of the city of Shechem (Midrash on Genesis 34:25). Later when it came time to build the portable Temple in the desert, a thirteen-year-old, Betzalel, was chosen as chief artist/architect. Centuries later the menacing Philistine giant Goliath was felled by thirteen-year-old David’s well-aimed stone. David’s son, Shlomo, became king, and according to the Torah commentators, guess how old he was!

Ishmael, Abraham’s older son, was thirteen when he was circumcised (Genesis 17:25). In that same year, he and his mother, Hagar, were cast out to the desert. Ishmael nearly died of thirst. An angel spoke to Hagar “What ails you, Hagar? Have not fear because God has heard the voice of the boy from where he is… for I will make him a great nation. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:17-19). Some scholars interpret this story as an early tribal test of adulthood. A boy enters the wilderness, survives, and returns a man.

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