Deuteronomy 1:39 New International Version

And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad--they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it.

When Moses spoke the words above, those children were already adults who were about to follow Joshua to enter the promised land.

What is the meaning of those people not knowing good from bad?

  • These are people under the age of twenty, it needs to be pointed out. Numbers 32:11.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 21, 2020 at 19:21

5 Answers 5


Deut 1:39 is a direct reference to the rebellion that occurred in Num 13 & 14. It was at this point that the Israelites had come to the borders of the promised land but refused to enter by trusting in God.

Because they refused to trust in God they uttered the fateful cry (Num 14:2):

And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!

Be careful what you pray for!! God granted this request and all those 20 years and older died in the wilderness as stated by God in Num 14:29 -

Your bodies will fall in this wilderness—all who were numbered in the census, everyone twenty years of age or older—because you have grumbled against Me.

(See also Num 32:11.) Note the reference to the census. The Book of Numbers is characterized (and named) for the two times that a census was taken. In both cases, the people counted had to be 20 years and older -

  • 1st census: Num 1:3, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, etc
  • 2nd census: Num 26:2, 4.

Thus, "little ones" in this context (Deut 1:39) refers to those who were younger than 20 years old and not included in the census. That is while everyone 20 years and older in Num 13 died in the wilderness, those younger than 20 survived and became the inheritors of the promised land.


What is the meaning of those people not knowing good from bad in Deuteronomy 1:39?

No, they were not adults, the expression "little ones" evidently included those up to nineteen years of age.

Numbers 14:29 NASB

29 Your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me.

What is the meaning of those people not knowing good from bad?

It means that they were not old enough to have any sound standard for judging what was proper or improper from God's standpoint.


This may be read as the condition to enter into paradise. It was the fruit of the knowledge of good and bad that serarates us from eden (Genesis 3:22). This seems to indicate that the Hebrew conception of kids under 20 was that they did not know right from wrong.

See also Isaiah 7:14-15:

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[e] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.[f] 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

This is speaking of Hezekia (Son of Ahaz) but Matthew maps this understanding onto Jesus in the first century (Matthew 1:23) which also points to the association with Eden as Paul makes in various places.

If the Hebrew concept of children is that they do not possess the knowledge of good and bad, then this casts a new light on Jesus’s calls to “be as children” to enter the kinggdom of heaven.

It also brings the church into a new light. The degree to which the church is a moral authority (ethics = the knowledge of good and bad) is the degree to which it is not achieving Christ’s message of non-judgment. Most people view the bible as an ethics textbook... this verse in Deuteronomy and in Genesis 2-3 seem to indicate that ethics and judgment are the poison that separate us from God and the Promised land.


The Berean Study Bible makes it clear by using the past tense:

And the little ones you said would become captives—your children who on that day did not know good from evil—will enter the land that I will give them, and they will possess it.

Near the end of the book, Moses actually mentioned this generation was like the previous generation.

Deuteronomy 31:27
For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the LORD; and how much more after my death?


Numbers 14:29-31 states that God allowed those aged 19 years and under to enter the Promised Land, but those 20 and over would die off in the wilderness because of the rebellion.

Deuteronomy 1:39

Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it.

This is past tense, saying that they HAD no knowledge of good and evil. Remember, the age group of 0-19 years includes toddlers and young children (under 12). But to say that all those under 20 are innocent and incapable of understanding between good/evil is completely false because it contradicts other Biblical passages.

Joseph was 17 years old when God gave him a dream (Genesis 37). In this dream, God told him about his future of ruling his brothers.

Luke 2:41-49 is where the Lord Jesus Christ impresses the Temple elders with His wisdom, and He tells Mary and Joseph that "I must be about my Father's business." Clearly, a 12-year-old is seen as accountable for his sins in the eyes of God.

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