Age of Accountability

Age of Accountability: What do the Scriptures say?

The age of accountability is a very tricky concept. The Scriptures really do not detail at what age a young person is considered an adult. We do have some guidelines or milestones and we would probably be ok to use these guidelines when it comes to understanding or studying the age of accountability or the age of responsibility.

It is common knowledge that many societies and/or religions throughout the ages have themselves established different ages for which they held somebody responsibly or to designate a right of passage from. Judaism for instance holds that a young man of 13 reaches the age of Bar Mitzvah and that he becomes responsible for keeping the commandments. In our society we typically say that a young man between 17 or 18 generally has a responsibility to act or to begin to process from a teenager into manhood. Many young people generally leave their homes around the age of 18. The U.S. Military used to hold that only 18 year olds could join the military but I think that it is currently changing or has changed to 17. In the State of Illinois, a young criminal that is under 18 years old will generally spend any prison time in what most people generally call “the Juvi Hall.” My understanding is that State is working on changing that to the age of 17. So basically if you commit  a crime and if you are 17 and older then you will go to the adult facility instead of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Now there are many other examples that we can discuss about the age of accountability in various societies and throughout the ages but we get the point that is not concrete across the board, nor is it set in stone. Regardless of that, I don’t think that we err if we take the basic guidelines given to us in the Scriptures regarding the age of responsibility and apply them to our lives, knowing that they are not necessarily concrete.  Now although we do find examples of various ages mentioned in the Scriptures, for example King David was 12 when he killed Goliath, Yahshua taught in the Temple when he was twelve years old. Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king; and there are probably other examples. We find however a consistent age mentioned in many different verses throughout the scriptures and this particular age is singled out in various ways. Take a look at some verses:

Num 1:1-5 1:1 YHWH spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first          day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said: 2 “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. 3 You and Aaron are to number by their divisions all the men in Israel twenty years old or more whoare able to serve in the army. 4 One man from each tribe, each the head of his family, is to help you.

Later on in the book of Numbers Chapter 1 we find a confirmation of the fact that those that were counted as men were 20 years old and up.

Now it is important to mention that there are other ages mentioned with regards to the men of Israel but those ages were generally for specific purposes. For example:

Num 8:23-26

23 YHWH said to Moses, 24 “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the Tent of Meeting, 25 but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. 26 They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the Tent of Meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.”

However when it came to counting men across the board, then the age that is given in the scriptures is the age of twenty. In fact we find that in the book of numbers we are told that it was those who were twenty and older who were not allowed to leave Egypt:

Num 32:6-13

6 Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, “Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? 7 Why do you discourage the Israelites from going over into the land YHWH has given them? 8 This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to look over the land. 9 After they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and viewed the land, they discouraged the Israelites from entering the land YHWH had given them. 10 YHWH’s anger was aroused that day and he swore this oath: 11’Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of the men twenty years old or more who came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob– 12 not one except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they followed YHWH wholeheartedly.’ 13 YHWH’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the desert forty years, until the whole generation of those who had done evil in his sight was gone.

One cannot miss the fact that Yahweh sees the age of twenty as a pivotal time for a person to take responsibility. In fact we can strongly assume that Yahweh has appointed that at the age of twenty a person is counted as a man because in verse 11 he refers to those of twenty as being men.

OT:376 ‘iysh (eesh); [used 2005 times in OT] contracted for OT:582 [or perhaps rather from an unused root meaning to be extant]; a man as an individual or a male person; often used as an adjunct to a more definite term (and in such cases frequently not expressed in translation):

KJV – also, another, any (man), a certain, + champion, consent, each, every (one), fellow, [foot-, husband-] man, [good-, great, mighty) man, he, high (degree), him (that is), husband, man [-kind], + none, one, people, person, + steward, what (man) soever, whoso (-ever), worthy. Compare OT:802.

In addition to Yahweh having had started the census for those from the age of twenty and having started his judgment upon those who were twenty and above, we also find that those that were twenty and above were required to pay a ransom for their lives.

Ex 30:11-16

11 Then YHWH said to Moses, 12 “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay YHWH a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. 13 Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to YHWH. 14 All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to YHWH. 15 The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to YHWH to atone for your lives. 16 Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the Tent of Meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before YHWH, making atonement for your lives.”

The fact that Yahweh uses the age of twenty from several perspectives should convince us that the age of 20 is significant to how he sees us and to how holds us responsible and ultimately to how he perceives our ability to make good decisions. It is interesting to note that scientists have made some significant discoveries as they have studied the human brain. One of these discoveries pertains to teenagers and the development of their brains.

According to recent discoveries in medical science they have proven that the brain of a teenager, no matter how much they seem to mature in appearance, doesn’t completely develop until they are almost twenty years old. This occurs because of the development of the prefrontal lobe of the brain.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd is the director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. She says this:

“In an adult, the anterior or prefrontal part of the brain carries out a lot of executive functions, or what we call more thinking functions: planning, goal-directed behavior, judgment, insight. And we think that the prefrontal part of the brain influencesthe more emotional or gut part of the brain. Therefore this relationship is key to understanding teenage behavior.

A youth’s relative activation of the prefrontal region or this anterior front part of the brain is less than it is in the adults. But in contrast to that, the more emotional region or that gut response region has more activation compared to the adult. So the relationship between these two regions is very different.

According to Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, one of the interesting outcomes of this study suggests that perhaps decision-making in teenagers is not what we thought. That is, they may not be as mature as we had originally thought. Just because they’re physically mature, they may not appreciate the consequences or weigh information the same way as adults do. So we may be mistaken if we think that [although] somebody looks physically mature, their brain may in fact not be mature, and not weigh in the same way. …

Certainly the data from this study would suggest that one of the things that teenagers seem to do is to respond more strongly with gut response than they do with evaluating the consequences of what they’re doing. This would result in a more impulsive, more gut-oriented response in terms of behavior, so that they would be different than adults. They would be more spontaneous, and less inhibited. …”

According to the view of many medical scientist, a teenager, 13-19 is still in the process of developing the prefrontal lobe of the brain. This part of the brain influences our emotions to do the right thing in our decision making.

This explains why we have a high number of teen suicides, why so many teenagers are killed in car wrecks or other accidents in which they were ‘showing off’ to their friends, why they involve themselves with drugs and why we have a vast number of teen pregnancies. The bottom line is, that teenagers do not or perhaps cannot weigh the consequences in regards to their actions. This does not mean that they cannot make good decisions, but it does mean that if they are left to themselves, and if they are influenced by somebody else who is influenced by emotion and who perhaps is not grounded in Torah or the Scriptures, then the chances of our young people doing things that they should not be doing are much higher. It seems then by the facts noted about the development of the brain, the fact that Yahweh did not pass judgment on those who were under twenty years of age and the fact that he referred to those of twenty years of age and older as ‘men,’ that the probability that the age of accountability or responsibility is actually twenty years and not 18 as society would have us to believe.   

We then are responsible for our young people’s behavior, we need to guide them, teach them the Torah, continue to monitor them and give them discipline even though they might resist it. Remember that just because they feel or think that they are an adult, the brain has not been fully developed and so their ability to make decisions and good judgments may be hampered.

Now we need not to be intimidated by any of these nor do we have to act as if our young people have some kind of disease. We just need to realize and we need to educate our young people on the fact that they are still developing and we need to encourage them and support them and talk to them. We must not leave them to themselves and think that because they are no 16 or 17 or 18 that they can now think like an adult. We must not allow them to make decisions that they are not fully capable of making, we must sit down with them, talk to them, teach them and train them so that when their brains reach a full development around the time that they reach the age of twenty they will be more successful. We cannot do what the world does and turn them lose just because they are teenagers especially since we now understand that their prefrontal lobe has not been fully developed.

Because society does not understand the ways of Yahweh, we cannot leave it up to them to raise,  to teach, or to ruin our young people. Yahweh has given us, the parents, the responsibility to raise them and therefore we cannot be pressured by society or the government into doing things that are not acceptable to Yahweh. If we take the guidelines that Yahweh gives us and we apply them to our lives than we cannot go wrong!

On a very important side note, in our assembly we have taken the stand that the age of twenty is the age of responsibility, therefore we support the practice of not baptizing a young person until they reach that age and until they fully comprehend the life-long commitment that they are making. In addition our kids and teenagers do not receive the emblems of the Yahshua’s Covenant until they have either been baptized after they have reached their 20thBirthday. Again, we believe that baptism and the emblems are a long life commitment and we want them to be fully committed to our Heavenly Father Yahweh.

1 Cor 11:23-32 23 For I received from YHWH what I also passed on to you: The Master Yahshua, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Master’s death until he comes. 27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master  in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Master.  28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of Yahshua eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32 When we are judged by YHWH, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So we learned that YHWH’ judgment fell upon those who were twenty and above, we also learned that he, YHWH, referred to those of twenty and above as men. In addition we also learned that the brain of young adults is not fully developed until about the age of twenty, therefore their decisions are made by emotions not necessarily by concrete thinking (consequential thinking); and we see here that Paul instructs that a ‘man’ should examine himself, in other words, use proper judgment, or fully understand what he is doing and what he is accepting before he partakes of the emblems. He goes on to say that otherwise there will be discipline and it seems that some of these punishments include death.