Psalm 127:3: Sons or Children?

Psalm 127 is a wisdom psalm in which the psalmist wants to teach that all human efforts are in vain if they are lacking divine blessing. Only God can assure prosperity and blessing.

Psalm 127 can be divided into two sections. The first section (vv. 1-2) shows that only God gives success to human enterprise. The psalmist’s words speak of the futility of human efforts when these efforts are devoid of God’s blessings. An individual may build a house but he may not be sure that he will dwell in it. Deuteronomy 28:30 speaks of the curses that will come upon Israel when the people violate the demands of the covenant: “You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit” (cf. also Zephaniah 1:13).

A watchman watching over a city may sound the alarm at the approach of danger (Ezekiel 3:17) but he many not prevent the attack of an enemy.

In the second section (vv. 3-5), the psalmist says that sons are a blessing from God. For the Israelites, a family with many sons was one of the greatest demonstrations of divine favor: “And Obed-edom had [eight] sons . . . for God blessed him” (1 Chronicles 26:4-5).

People in Israel believed that all things came from God, especially sons, since they were seen as God’s gift, especially the sons of one’s youth, because they are strong and because they are the firstfruits of one’s strength (Genesis 49:3).

So, when the psalmist declared how blessed he was, he wrote:

“Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3 -5).

The versions are not unanimous in translating 127:3. I checked twenty-eight English versions of 127:3 and the results are as follows: ten versions, including the NRSV and the NIV, have “sons.” Eighteen versions, including the ESV, and the TNIV have “children.” If these translations differ in their understanding of whether 127:3 should be translated “sons” or “children,” then, which translation is better?

In a recent post, Peter Kirk at Gentle Wisdom said that 127:3 should include both sons and daughters. Peter wrote:

I know these psalms well in NIV and have always semi-consciously understood them as meaning that sons are more of a blessing than daughters, at least in the mind of the psalmist. But is this what was intended?

Peter said that the Hebrew word banim “has a generic meaning, referring to daughters as well as sons.” Then, chastising the NIV and other translations by perpetuating the view that “sons are more of a blessing than daughters,” Peter wrote:

It seems to me that this is a case of the RSV (1952) and NIV (1978) translators (and, more surprisingly, those of NRSV (1989)) introducing and perpetuating an innovative rendering suggesting extremely damaging teaching, that sons are more of a blessing from God than daughters. This may be what is believed in some countries, e.g. China where, according to a 2004 report, nearly 20% more boys than girls are born because of selective abortion – a statistic which is becoming a threat to that country’s future prosperity. But this preference for sons was never taught in the Bible, at least not in Hebrew, and not in modern English until 1952.

It really is well past time for some of these misleading translations to be retired.

The question then becomes: Are the translations which use “sons” misleading the readers? Is the writer of Psalm 127:3 speaking about sons or is the writer speaking about daughters and sons?

It is true that the expression “the fruit of the womb” (Psalm 127:3) can include both sons and daughters, but this expression occurs in parallel with the word banim, “sons,” a word which occurs twice in the psalm (verses 3 and 4).

In the Old Testament, when the writer wants to speak of sons and daughters, he will use the expression בָּנים וּבָנֽוֹת (see Genesis 5:4; 11:1; 19:12; 31:28; 36:6). For instance, when the writer wants to say that Adam had many children, he wrote:

“The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters” (Genesis 5:4). The writer did not say, “Adam had other banim.” Rather, he included both sons and daughters in his statement.

When the writer of Genesis wanted to say that all the children of Jacob went into Egypt with him, he wrote that Jacob came with “his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters” (Genesis 46:7 NRSV).

A better example appears in Exodus 21:4, where all three words, “sons,” “daughters,” and “children” appear together, each being represented by a different Hebrew word: “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone” (Exodus 21:4). The writer here used banim for sons, banot for daughters, and yeledim for children.

The people of Israel lived in a patriarchal society in which a family with many sons was considered to be a great blessing from God, while the absence of sons was considered as one of the severest punishments from God a family could receive.

This is the reason that Rachel, unable to conceive, cried to Jacob: “Give me sons, or I will die!” (Genesis 30:1 HCSB). When Hanna, who was also unable to conceive, went to make a vow at the temple at Shiloh, her prayer was very specific: “Give to your servant a male child” (1 Samuel 1:8).

In ancient Israel, the life of a father had meaning only insofar as it was continued in the life of his son. A son kept the name of the father from being forgotten in Israel. Absolom said: “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance” (2 Samuel 18:18).

It is out of this cultural context that the psalmist declared that sons were a blessing from the Lord. Many sons could help a father when he was old, primarily when he was engaged against his adversaries or when he was litigating at the city gate.

The psalmist said: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). But once the house was built and the family had been established, then the man of the house had the responsibility of protecting his family. And it is out of this cultural context that the reader must understand the words of the psalmist.

Sons are divine blessings because they help their father bring protection and security to their family. A family with many sons was a theme that reflected the reality of Israel’s culture. A large family with many sons was less vulnerable against hostile attacks. Thus, in a male-dominated society, sons were prized more than daughters.

The words of the psalmist reflect a warlike situation. Sons are “like arrows in the hand of a warrior.” Sons are like a weapon. They are able to protect and defend their father when he is getting old and in need of support. A father who has many sons will not be put to shame before his enemies. A father would not be able to prevail against his enemies were it not for the support of his many sons. He who has many sons has his quiver full.

Patrick D. Miller, in his book, Interpreting the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 134, wrote:

“The psalm seems to have in view primarily sons and the father rather than parents and children in general. The contemporary community can and should interpret the psalm in a more inclusive way, recognizing the joy and the reward for both mothers and fathers in having both sons and daughters.”

However, when a contemporary community reads Psalm 127 and reads “children” rather than “sons,” they find themselves separated from the cultural reality that gave birth to this psalm. Readers today, who live in a gender-inclusive society, will not appreciate the reality of ancient Israelite society which prized the value of sons for utilitarian reasons.

If the writer of Psalm 127 were to read his psalm in some versions today and find the word “children,” he probably would say to the translator: “But this is not what I said.” And the translator probably would say: “I know, but I am not translating for your culture, but for mine.” And the despondent writer of Psalm 127 would say: “Yes, but this is not what I meant.”

The word “children” in Psalm 127:3 reflects a translation that does not take seriously the historical realities of the culture that gave birth to this beautiful psalm.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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14 Responses to Psalm 127:3: Sons or Children?

  1. >IMHO even in the Jewish community that attempts to live according to the Torah the original sense of "banim" as sons is still primary. True, enough of the Western egalitarianism has seeped into Modern Jewish thought to have some influence, but the clear distinction between man and woman as having different roles, so much so that only through the marriage of these two different 'halves' can either be complete, means that lack of "sons" – children with the out-going face-the-world role, would be a handicap for a large family. Last note to those who do not understand – the root of those different roles is spiritual. The ramifications of the differences can manifest itself in social and behavioural ways, but this is secondary.I enjoy your posts. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Peter Kirk says:

    >Thank you for responding to my post.I accept that there are cases where banim uvanot is used to emphasise inclusiveness of sons and daughters. But there are also places where banim is undoubtedly used of gender mixed groups, or is qualified by zakar "male" e.g. Joshua 17:2. In Psalm 127:3 the parallel with a gender generic term strongly suggests the gender generic sense of banim.I accept that this suggestion could be overridden by the context. But that context can be interpreted in different ways. The majority of Bible translations, even the very conservative ESV as well as KJV, go with "children" here. Maybe this is a place where we cannot be certain, and so a footnote would be appropriate. But the evidence is certainly not convincing enough to support the 20th century innovation of reading only "sons".

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  3. Peter Kirk says:

    >I have to comment again to get Blogger to accept my subscription to this comment thread.

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  4. >Yoel,Thank you for your comments. I believe Western egalitarianism has a place in today's society and I am the first one to recognize that both sons and daughters are blessings from the Lord.However, I also believe that we cannot change the meaning of Psalm 127:3 in order to meet today's expectations. We cannot change the realities of the past.I am happy to know that you enjoy my posts.Claude Mariottini

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  5. >Peter,Thank you for your comment. I enjoy reading your posts and am always challenged by what you write.I believe that the literary and cultural contexts behind Psalm 127:3 requires that banim be translated as "sons" and not "children." Just because the KJV translation uses "children" it does not mean that the KJV is right. There are many places in the KJV where their translation of specific verses is just not acceptable.Claude Mariottini

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  6. Loren Crow says:

    >I used to be fairly certain that the simile "like arrows in the hands of a hero, so are the sons of one's youth" reflected straightforwardly a military allusion, despite the fact that "speak with enemies in the gate" may be thought to have a forensic connotation. But I'm less certain these days. There are other readings of this simile. Arrows that are in the hand of a hero (or in his quiver) are also "things that are sent out so that the hero does not have to go." This might make better sense of their speaking in the gate, where one's enemies are mainly to be debated rather than shot. Even with a military metaphor, the point is that the hero doesn't actually fight. Just as it is YHWH who builds the house and guards the city, so it is YHWH who champions the hero's cause by means of (the divine gift of) sons. That makes sense. The other possibility, admittedly more of a stretch, comes from the fact that the hero fills his quiver מהם, fills it with the arrows that are in his hand. In fighting, one pulls arrows out of the quiver, one by one, for shooting. Multiple arrows in one's hand, and filling the quiver "from them" may imply that the hero is gathering arrows for placement in the quiver rather than shooting them. If that's the metaphor, then the point may not be so much his ability to fight as the fact that sons born while one is young allow a certain amount of leisure when one is old. It is, after all, they who are doing whatever it is they're doing in the city gate.

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  7. >Loren,Thank you for your comment. You have a very interesting approach to this text. I believe that your first suggestion is better than the second.I believe that the litigation against one's enemy at the city gate would require the presence of the father, since the whole emphasis of the psalm is on the father and not on the sons.The sons of one's youth will be the ones to help the father in his old age. Thus, I believe that the interpretation I have given in my post better fits the context of the psalm.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  8. >During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King's Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, "I have no son to carry on the memory of my name." –TNIVThe mention of 2 Samuel 18:18 is telling. Absalom in fact had three sons (14:27) and a daughter. Since Tamar lived in seclusion (13:20), one would think that from his statement in 18:18 that he had no grandchildren at all. But we know that his "daughter Maakah" produced a line of kings in Judah. I get into the identification of Maacah on my own biblioblog, but the point here is that for purposes of carrying on Absalom's name, she didn't count as one of his banim.Now, we can certainly understand that in our culture, because girls don't generally carry on their father's names. But what if that changes–will the Tom's NIV eventually change 'son' to 'child' here? Note that in Iceland, daughters as well as sons equally carry on a father's name for one generation. Here's how it works:F: father's first nameB: son's first nameG: daughter's first nameFull names are always B Fs-son or G Fs-dóttir. Yet the Icelandic Bible reads:"Ég á engan son til að halda uppi nafni mínu."At what point does it become nonsense to project our own cultural norms upon those of and to whom the Bible was actually written? Obviously we are going to differ on the answer, and that difference is going to affect whether we describe a new version as a translation or an explanation.

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  9. Peter Kirk says:

    >"the point here is that for purposes of carrying on Absalom's name, she didn't count as one of his banim."But surely we know more or less the opposite from the case of Zelophehad's daughters, that when there was no son the inheritance was continued through daughters.

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  10. >White Man,Since the names of Absalom’s sons are never mentioned, most scholars are agreed that they probably died while they were young and that is the reason Absalom said that he had no son who would preserve his name in Israel.I agree with you that because of our Western desire to use inclusive language, we "project our own cultural norms upon those of and to whom the Bible was actually written."Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  11. >Peter,The case of Zelophehad's daughters is different: they could inherit the land that belonged to their father but they could not preserve their father's name in Israel. This could only be done through sons.Claude Mariottini

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  12. >Peter,The case of Zelophehad's daughters is different: they could inherit the land that belonged to their father but they could not preserve their father's name in Israel. This could only be done through sons.Claude Mariottini

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  13. >It's pretty clear to me that banim means "children" here, both boys and girls.1. Certainly, "children" is one of the meanings of banim. The question is not whether banim can ever mean "children," but rather what it means here.2. The line is a classic example of parallelism, with the word banim parallel to pri habeten (literally, "fruit of the womb.") So in this context, banim are like any issue of the womb.3. Perhaps some translators are of the opinion that "sons" in English is also gender inclusive, the way the same translators use "men" for "people." If so, their translation "sons" may be in line with what I think the Hebrew word means.-Joel

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  14. >Joel,Thank you for your comment.I am sorry to say but I disagree with you. It is clear that in many passages in the Hebrew Bible banim means "children." However, it is clear to me that a textual context that refers to protection against enemies and legal defense at the city gate requires that the word be translated as sons and not as sons and daughters.Claude Mariottini

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