The Hebrew word na‘ar is commonly translated “boy” or “lad.” But how old is a “boy?” How old is a na‘ar? Let’s take a look at a representative sample of the 240 times this word is used in the Hebrew Bible.
Joseph is still said to be a na‘ar when he is 17 (Genesis 37:2). Ishmael is called a na‘ar when he is over 13, when he and his mother are sent away by Abraham (Genesis 21:12-20), while in the next chapter, Isaac is still a na‘ar when Abraham is asked to offer him in sacrifice (Genesis 22:12). David is told in 1 Samuel 17:33 that he cannot fight Goliath, because he is only a na‘ar. At Sodom, all the men of the city bang on Lot’s door, both old man and na‘ar (Genesis 19:4), a verbal pair covering the two ends of the age spectrum. Shechem, the guy who raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah, is called a na‘ar in Genesis 34:19.
But in Exodus 2:6, Moses is called a na‘ar while he is an infant crying in his basket in the Nile. Gideon’s firstborn son is afraid to slay the captured enemy leaders, because he is only a na‘ar (Judges 8:20). Before Samson’s birth, the angel says the na‘ar shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb (Judges 13:5). In 1 Samuel 1:22, Samuel the na‘ar has not even been weaned yet. In 1 Samuel 4:21, the newborn baby Ichabod is called a na‘ar, as is the short-lived newborn of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:16. In 1 Kings 3:7, Solomon complains that he is just a na‘ar, and doesn’t know how to be a king. In 2 Kings 2:23, it is specified that some “small” ne‘arīm mock Elisha for being bald.
1 Kings 11:28 states that Jeroboam is both “a mighty man of valor” and a na‘ar. In Job 1:19, Job’s partying children, who are adults with houses of their own, are called ne‘arīm. The clueless young man who gets seduced by the cougar in Proverbs 7:7 is said to be a na‘ar. Isaiah 3:4: “I will make ne‘arīm their princes, and sucklings shall rule over them.” When God first calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, Jeremiah answers, “Lord God, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a na‘ar” (Jeremiah 1:6). Zechariah 11:6, the last time the word is used in the Hebrew Bible, is the only verse where the word refers to young animals rather than humans.
In Genesis 14, the word seems to mean “servants.” Here it is used for Abram’s trained men who fought to recover the people kidnapped from Sodom, but elsewhere the word is often used for servants of unspecified age such as Gideon’s servant Purah (Judges 7:10) and Saul’s servant (1 Samuel 9:5). The spies in Joshua 6:21 are ne‘arīm, as are the fighters in the sword contest in 2 Samuel 2:14, and the executioners in 2 Samuel 4:12.
Na‘ar has a feminine form, na‘arah, “girl,” which is used 80 times in the Hebrew Bible. Much of the time, the word is spelled with the exact same consonants as na‘ar; only an unwritten vowel on the end tells us the difference. Na‘arah is often paired with synonyms such as betulah (virgin) and ‘almah (young, inexperienced girl – see my upcoming blog post in December). Unlike na‘ar, almost all of the uses of na‘arah refer to girls who are at least teenagers, including girls who are eligible for marriage. The related word ne‘urim is found in the famous line Psalm 103:5, “so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s,” and Psalm 127:4, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.”
The overarching characteristic of all of the uses of na‘ar is comparative young age. For boys, that could mean anywhere from birth to late twenties. So in a verse like Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a boy [literally] in the way he should go,” or Proverbs 22:15, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him,” there is honestly no way to tell exactly what age is intended, or at what age the advice no longer applies. That leaves it to you, the Bible reader, to use your God-given judgment as you seek to apply verses like these. You may even wish to add that unwritten –ah vowel on the end, if it helps you determine whether the verse applies equally to both genders.
As for 2 Kings 2:23, while I have heard the claim that the ne‘arīm on whom Elisha pronounced a curse for ridiculing his bald head were actually teenage hoodlums, don’t believe it. The word “small” (qatan) rules that out. Targeting God’s prophet turned out to be as hideous a mistake for these kids as playing on the freeway.
Do not mistake this term, however, with another word for children, banīm, for which the masculine singular is ben and the feminine singular is bat. This is the generic word “son/daughter,” which gives us no clue on age, except that the offspring must be younger than the parent. The same is true for the term yeladīm, which is also translated “children” and comes from the verb for childbirth.
“Youth” turns out to be a relative term in the Hebrew Bible, a word even more flexible in Hebrew than it is in English. It extends all the way from fetus to grown warrior. But the English word “child” in our Bible may be translating a word that points to parentage rather than age.