Image Exegesis: Infant Exposure

Len WilsonChurch, Faith, Image, SemioticsLeave a Comment

Image exegesis is the art and science of interpreting imagery, particularly from Scripture. The Bible is full of images which if properly understood can radically change your faith and life.

Image exegesis is part of my work as a church creative director; as a Creative Director in a typical branding firm or agency is responsible for core concepts, I am responsible for images that communicate Gospel themes in the life of our church. My privilege and responsibility is to choose, interpret and present images with faithfulness and integrity, so that those who hear may be moved and respond in a deeper way to the call of discipleship.

My doctoral research with Dr. Leonard Sweet at Portland Seminary, George Fox University, has inspired a deeper level of exegesis. Len offers hundreds of images on his website preachthestory.com. Here, I will occasionally publish images I have exegeted on this blog, for your personal edification and to assist pastors and church leaders with potential worship and sermon development.

This one is about infant exposure.


When Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.”
They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.”
– John 8:31 – 43

Infant exposure: Birth control to the gods

Birth control existed in antiquity, but not the kind that comes in a pill. If people had an undesired child, they were known to abandon their children to die, a practice called “infant exposure”, or expositio. With effective contraception unavailable and abortion potentially fatal for the mother as well as the fetus, infant exposure served as a primary means for ancient and medieval families to manage the size and shape of their household. The practice was the subject of extensive moral debate, akin to abortion in the United States today, though it wasn’t officially banned until 374 AD.[1]

Some cities had specific locations set up for such activity, an unofficial exchange location. Other babies were left at the trash dump.

The practice perhaps sounds horrific to modern ears, but premodern families saw it differently. Historian John Boswell writes, “parents intended to offer the child up—to the kindness of strangers, to the mercy of the gods, to public welfare, to a better fate (than the natal parent could offer), or simply to his chances. Expositio provided a means of removing a child from the family’s responsibility, not from life. Parents gave the child to the world; if the world rejected him, he died, but the family did not kill him. Expositio was an alternative to infanticide.”[2]

What happened to exposed infants

Surprisingly, death was not the most common result of infants left exposed to the elements. In some cases, city officials specifically forbade saving such children, but people did anyway, for a variety of reasons. Some adopted abandoned children as a solution to infertility or the loss of a child to death. Boswell writes, “Roman satirists implied that wealthy women picked up abandoned children because they could not be bothered with the nuisance of pregnancy.” Others wanted to add to the family clan for social, familial or economic reasons. There was even a name in Greek for a child who’d been saved from the trash heap – anairetoi, or “picked-up ones.”

Households in antiquity were defined according to the patriarch. Each person’s relationship to the patriarch defined their status in the household and in society as a whole. An infant was only given legal status as a person when the father officially recognized the infant. [3] Thus an expositus could be a free child, with full rights to the father, or an expositus could be a slave. It all depended on the father, who was the arbiter of the child’s status. A typical large household in antiquity with two types of children would thus have its own microcosm of a class system: Free children, whether by biology or through adoption, were the rightful heirs to the father’s estate. Slave children had no rights to the father’s estate.

Most children were saved for the slave trade. Abandoned children raised by slave traders for the specific purpose of selling later was the most common result of an abandoned baby. Infant exposure was the primary source for the slave trade. [4]  A slave trader would retrieve a baby and give the infant to a wet nurse on the payroll. After five or six years the child could begin to repay the cost of rearing by running errands and doing light chores. The women of the sex industry were primarily supplied by the female infants retrieved through expositio.

Infant exposure and themes of slaves, children and heirs in the New Testament

The presence of infant exposure sheds new light on the recurring themes of slaves, children, and heirs throughout the New Testament. One of the more popular verses in the gospels comes in John 8, when Jesus tells a group of Jews that “the truth will set them free.” (Jn 8:32) The group protested, saying, “We are Abraham’s children; we’ve never been anyone’s slaves. How can you say that we will be set free?” (v. 33) By saying this, they are using the metaphor of expositio and positioning themselves against it, insisting they have already been made free through their status as Abraham’s children.

In response, Jesus employs a linguistic trick common to his repartee with Jewish leaders: he keeps their metaphor of infant exposure yet redefines their thinking by saying they are indeed slaves, because “anyone who sins is slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.” A person’s status as free or slave isn’t determined by blood relationship to the father, as the Romans do, nor by blood relationship to Abraham, as the Jews do, but by faith. Jesus concludes by saying, “Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free.” (vv. 34-36)

They continue to push, declaring their citizenship because Abraham is their father. When Jesus responds, they switch to describing God as their father. At each turn, Jesus responds to their focus on blood affiliation. As the one true Son and the only rightful heir to the father, Jesus speaks on behalf of the Father. He alone has power to decide who is a slave and who is free.

The biblical concept of being a “child of God”, as does the concept of slavery versus freedom, references the tragic practice of infant exposure. In fact, one cannot fully understand the image of heir without this knowledge. To be a child of God meant that even though a person isn’t biological kin, through the decision of the Son he or she is no longer a slave but bonded with others as a full member of God the Father’s family.

Other possible applications and uses of this metaphor include:

  1. The infant Moses, whose mother left him in a basket in the river. Rather than expose him to certain death, she exposed him to the elements, and prayed for her God to protect him. The story of the infant Moses wasn’t random to ancient ears but made complete sense. It’s what a desperate mom would do. Risk isn’t the same as infanticide. It leaves open the possibility for the “gods” to move and save the baby. As it turns out, Moses was placed in a saving vessel. When have you seen God move while exposed to risk? Jesus is your saving vessel.
  2. Anyone who has raised a child knows that eventually, all parents must leave their children exposed to the elements. Leaving a child and praying for the right person to come “pick them up” is part of parenthood.
  3. Personhood may seem like a modern liberal idea, but it started with the Christians. While Roman culture decreed that the household father declared that a baby as only legal when the father recognized it, early Jews and Christ followers “unanimously opposed abortion, infanticide and throwing out babies, seeing personhood as a gift of God, not of parents.”
  4. Paul builds on this image by extending the metaphor to the full range of child development, saying that growth is complete when we graduate to full adulthood in the faith: “My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:1-7)

[1] Maureen Carroll, Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: ‘A Fragment of Time’ (London: Oxford University Press, 2018), 175.

[2] John Eastburn Boswell, “Expositio and Oblatio: The Abandonment of Children and the Ancient and Medieval Family,” The American Historical Review, 89, no. 1 (February 1984): 13. http://doi.org/10.2307/1855916.

[3] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1995), 553.

[4] Judith Evans Grubbs, “Church, State, and Children: Christian and Imperial Attitudes Toward Infant Exposure in Late Antiquity,” Andrew Cain, ed. The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 2009), 119-120.

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