FAMILY IN THE BIBLE
Edited by Richard H. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll
(Baker, 2003, 176pp, US$18.99. Order direct from publisher)
In the May 2004 AD2000 I reviewed a similar title on the issue of family life in biblical times. This volume differs from the previous one in that it deals only with the biblical material.
Both volumes give a helpful introduction to the themes of marriage and family as found in the Scriptures, while this one also features Protestant evangelical scholars. But any orthodox Catholic academic writing on the same themes would come up with mostly similar sorts of information and conclusions.
In this volume seven experts deal with seven areas: the family in the Pentateuch, in the non-narrative sections, in the historical books, in the wisdom literature, in the prophetic literature, in the Gospels and Acts, and in the Epistles. Together they provide a comprehensive account of the biblical understanding of the family.
Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham begins the discussion with the important early chapters of Genesis, where God's ideal for the family is first laid out. He notes that in Genesis 2, the divine intention is clear, with the provision of one man and one woman for life as the ideal.
In contrast to contemporary life, belonging to a family was seen as the highest good for an individual. In fact, there were no free- floating individuals in ancient Israelite society. One's place was determined by belonging to one's family. Individual well-being depended on family well-being.
In the prophetic literature, there is a lot of information on family. Much of it is negative: families allowing worship of idols and unethical lifestyles, and so on. The injustice and oppression of Israel and Judah are often couched in terms of how families are affected. Thus the prophets railed against economic injustices which broke up the family unit, decimated ancestral family lands and caused debt servitude.
But there is a positive side which comes by way of images of God drawing on the realm of family life. That God so often chooses to express himself via these family images shows the importance of marriage and family. Thus a number of rich metaphors of God's relationship with Israel are highlighted, all drawing on the theme of the extended family.
One is the description of God as father. The parent-child relationship is often highlighted, either by referring to God as father, or by referring to Israel as son or daughter, or people or children. Ssometimes (albeit rarely) God is even spoken of as a mother as well.
Another family term used is that of husband. God is pictured as married to Israel, and Israel is described as sometimes being the delight of God, or a vexation to God, depending on Israel's faithfulness or lack thereof to Yahweh.
A final term that can be mentioned is that of kinsman redeemer. Just as a family member could help to redeem a family member or property sold off into slavery because of debt, so too God acted as a redeemer of Israel, paying the price for her spiritual impoverishment.
When we come to the New Testament, we find a similar high regard for families. Jesus, however, did put family relationships in their proper context. The focus of Jesus' teaching was not primarily on social or family relationships as such, but the kingdom of God. But that did not mean Jesus was against the family. He put family in its proper place, in terms of discipleship and the purposes of the kingdom.
As one writer puts it, "We must not forget that the focus of Jesus' teaching was on the kingdom of God, not the family. When Jesus chose his disciples and taught them and the crowds about discipleship, he relativised the priority of family without being anti-family."
While the demands of Jesus sometimes set one family member against another, it also needs to be kept in mind that the main means by which the early faith spread was through family connections - thus the emphasis on household salvation, found especially in the Acts of the Apostles.
In the New Testament epistles the term family is used rarely, but many family images abound. A key concept would be that of the Church as the bride of Christ. That of adoption as sons is another familiar metaphor used.
In sum, all of Scripture offers a continuity as to the significant place of marriage and family. Different emphases may arise, but the overall thrust of the biblical record is that family life is affirmed and encouraged throughout. This book attempts to show the vital importance and central role of the family in society according to the biblical world view. It is an important contribution towards that end.
Bill Muehlenberg is National Vice-President of the Australian Family Association.