Families are all over Scripture.1
As a matter of fact, God’s initial observation that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18, KJV) begins a long string of family stories that are part of the larger story of earth’s fall and God’s saving grace. Some of these families would not be featured in the Adventist Review and would be termed “dysfunctional” in this day and age. Murder, incest, rape, and selling a sibling into slavery appear on the tapestry of biblical family life, reminding us that Scripture describes real (fallen) people in need of redemption.
And yet, wrapped into the dysfunctional, the mundane, the often strange (who lives with an entire clan on a small family compound?), we find glimpses of God’s ideal for families. In order to catch these glimpses, we need to bracket our own cultural expectations and realities for a moment and reserve judgment.
“We” Instead of “I”
Community was a very important value in biblical society. Individualism did not really exist. People were part of a family, a clan, a tribe, and shared a religion.2 Archaeologists tell us that the earliest Israelite settlements consisted of small hamlets of not more than 150 people. Typical houses in these villages had three to four rooms on a ground floor that integrated all important elements of family life: food production and storage, animal shelter, and living quarters. Often two or three of these houses were built around a common courtyard, suggesting that an extended family was the normal modus operandi.3
Community also involved commitment to the larger group. When Joshua decrees his commitment to the covenant after the initial conquest of Canaan, he includes his family: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15, NKJV).4 Abraham’s entire household was circumcised after circumcision was established as God’s covenant sign, and we have no indication that this was done by democratic vote (Gen. 17:23-27). While only the male members of his family were circumcised, women and children were also partakers of the covenant blessings—they were part of the community. The opposite is also true: Achan’s sin affected his entire family—including his animals (Joshua 7:24-26). Families and communities were inseparably interconnected in Scripture.
Respect and Authority
Biblical law contains many hints about family. The language of the second commandment refers to the third and fourth generation when punishment is involved (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:9),5 but includes a thousand generations when God’s mercy is at play. “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16) introduces the laws that relate to human life—it is the basis of every healthy family relationship. This attitude of respect is demonstrated by obedience (cf. Eph. 6:1), and disrespect in this most basic relationship of society results in death (Ex. 21:15, 17). Matter of fact, a foolish child disobeys father or mother while obedience is a sign of wisdom and right living (Prov. 6:20; 13:1; 15:20).
No mindless obedience is envisioned here, though. Paul admonishes obedience “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1), and there are examples in Scripture where children made choices for God that involved disobeying their parents (consider Jonathan and Saul). The principle can be found in Peter’s reply to the Sanhedrin: “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men” (Acts 5:29, New Jerusalem).6
True affection and love between family members is the lifeblood that transforms families. The father in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son is anxiously waiting day by day for his lost (and disobedient) son to return. Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue of Capernaum, steps completely out of his comfort zone and, going against colleagues and public opinion, searches out the radical young rabbi from Nazareth. His love for his daughter must have driven him to the feet of Jesus.
When Jacob hears about the strange request of the governor in Egypt, he is aghast and does not want to allow Benjamin to travel with his brothers to Egypt. He loves Benjamin and is loath to lose another son. Genesis notes that Isaac not only married Rebekah upon her arrival in Canaan—he also loved her, and their new love relationship comforted him in his time of grieving the death of his mother (Gen. 24:67). Affection and love kept families together in biblical times, even though this does not always shine through in the often densely compressed biblical record.
Family Helps Us Understand God
Family talk is often linked to God-talk in Scripture.
God is described in terms of a father—and a mother. Listen to God speaking in Isaiah 1:2: “Children have I reared and brought up” (ESV).7 The close link between mother and child is also applied to God’s love for His people in Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (ESV). This is the same God who carried Israel like a mother carries a child in her womb (Isa. 46:3), who was ready to teach Israel, His firstborn, to walk (Hosea 11:3), and carried Israel again and again in His arms.
The New Testament continues to use the family metaphor as a way to describe God’s church.8 God is the father (Matt. 23:9); Jesus is the brother (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11); and believers are related. Paul highlights the universal aspect of God’s fatherhood (Eph. 3:14, 15) and reminds his readers that through Christ those once alienated from God have now become members of God’s family (Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:10).
Families in Scripture are not perfect, but their community, their mutual respect, and their affection and love provide great rallying points for families living at the end of time who (also) often struggle to keep the home fires burning and deal with the increasing complexities of living in a world saturated by media and many distractions. I love Ellen White’s summary of the influence of a Christian family: “The greatest evidence of the power of Christianity that can be presented to the world is a well-ordered, well-disciplined family. This will recommend the truth as nothing else can, for it is a living witness of its practical power upon the heart.”9
1 There are a large number of helpful volumes dealing with families in Scripture. See Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., eds., Family in the Bible: Exploring Customs, Culture, and Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) and Ken M. Campbell, ed., Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003).
2 Those interested in a closer look at biblical anthropology should consult Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Between ‘I’ and ‘We’: The Anthropology of the Hebrew Bible and Its Importance for a 21st-Century Ecclesiology,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 3 (2009): pp. 319-339.
3 Ehud Netzer, “Domestic Architecture in the Iron Age,” in The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Period, ed. Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1992), pp. 193-201.
4 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Some scholars feel that the x/x+1 literary device known as graded numerical sequence should be understood in terms of intensification or progression and thus dismiss the actual numbers. However, considering the fact that in Israel three or four generations lived together under the same roof, it is possible that the divine judgment referred to suggests a complete household affected (and perhaps even “contaminated”) by the sin of one member. Cf. R. K. Harrison, Numbers, Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), p. 214.
6 Bible texts credited to New Jerusalem are from The New Jerusalem Bible, copyright © 1966 by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd., and Doubleday & Company, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher.
7 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
8 The work of Joseph H. Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), is noteworthy here. Compare also the study of John K. McVay, “Biblical Metaphors for the Church and Adventist Ecclesiology,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 44 (2006): pp. 285-315.
9 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 304.
Gerald Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published October 27, 2011.