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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Family Life and Relations

The Old Testament . In Western societies individuals are often considered the societal units, brought together by some commonly felt need (commerce, industry, mutual defense, etc.). In contrast, Israel's social structure was tribal and therefore corporate (solidary) in its internal relationships, generating tightly structured communities. Whatever their size, these communities perceived themselves as totalities, bound together through internal agencies that made their presence felt in each individual member. The individual was neither overlooked, nor was he considered the unit on which the society was built. Instead, the family was the unit, and the individual found his place in society through the family and its extensions. The subtribe was really a greatly extended family; a collection of related subtribes formed a tribe; and a federation of tribes yielded a people.

Nowhere is community stronger in Hebraic society than in that most foundational of the primary groups, the bayit [ Jeremiah 2:3-4 ). The household would embrace the mother and children, even after the latter had reached maturity (Judges 6:15; 9:1; 1 Samuel 16:5 ). In its broadest definition, the household would also include its servants: Abraham had 318 who had been "born in his household" (Genesis 14:14 ).

Though every effort was expended to preserve the stability of the family, tensions existed, and the Bible makes no effort to conceal them (Abraham's quarrel with his nephew Lot, Genesis 13:5-8; Esau's hatred of Jacob, Genesis 27:41; and the favoritism shown Jacob by Rebekah, Genesis 25:28; 27:15-17 ). In a polygynous environment the only bond between siblings born to disparate mothers was the often remote father. At times bitterness developed between women such as Hannah and Penninah, both wives of Elkanah. The story of Joseph's sale into Egyptian bondage (Genesis 37:12-36 ) vividly portrays how competition between wives in childbearing (Genesis 30:1-7 ) could be transmitted to the children. An even more severe example may be seen in Amnon's rape of his half-sister Tamar and his subsequent murder by Absalom (2 Samuel 13:1-29 ). The bond of affection between Joseph and his only full brother Benjamin (Genesis 43:15-16 ) is also echoed in Absalom's concern over his sister's disgrace, contrasted to his cold hatred for his half-brother, Amnon.

In ancient Israel large families were deemed necessary to conduct the family business, to provide for the parents in their old age, and to carry on the family name. As a result, the large family was regarded as a blessing from God (Exodus 1:21; Psalm 128:3 ). Sons were especially valued (Psalm 127:3-5 ) to carry on the family name, yet it is against rebellious sons, not daughters, that legislation was directed and proverbs were coined (Proverbs 20:20; 30:11,17 ).

Legally, children were regarded as the property, and therefore the responsibility, of the father. Accordingly, he is compensated for the loss of a fetus (Exodus 21:22 ), an unmarried daughter who is seduced (Exodus 22:16 ), and unfounded charges about his daughter's character lodged by his son-in-law (Deuteronomy 22:13-19 ). The father may sell his daughter as a servant or concubine (Exodus 21:7-11 ), or even pledge his sons as a loan guaranty, although these practices seem to have arisen more out of cases of economic necessity than from established custom (cf. 2 Kings 4:1; Nehemiah 5:1-5 ). The distance between the father and his children in a polygynous household may be seen in Absalom's efforts to unseat his father David and kill him (2 Samuel 15:14; 17:2-4 ).

Government of the family was by its family head, usually the eldest male. The father and other aged males were shown respect and deference. It was the father's task to arrange marriages (Exodus 22:17 ) and to discipline his sons (1 Samuel 3:13 ). The age of the children determined their rank within the family, with the eldest having the position of privilege and with it, the responsibility of acting for his father in the father's absence. Joseph's brothers, for example, were seated in order of their birth, with the eldest presumably having the seat of honor (Genesis 43:33 ). The eldest daughter had an understood agreement with the family that she would be married before her younger sisters (Genesis 29:26 ).

Wives had much more power than they are often credited with. Sarah, for example, after urging Abraham to have sexual relations with Hagar to father a child, expels both the girl and her infant child over Abraham's protests (Genesis 21:9-13 ). The numerous stories of women who were heroes (Deborah, Jael, etc.) or villains (Jezebel, Athaliah) show that free women had a degree of self-determination that modern writers sometimes ignore. Likewise, the stories of the successes of Joseph and David and the failures of Reuben and Esau show that age was not inviolably superior to youth.

The functions of the extended family were to provide for its own perpetuation and to maintain an atmosphere of emotional warmth and stability for rearing children. The harmony of the home was necessary to provide a stable environment for its functions. Accordingly, in the Mosaic legislation a number of provisions were made to ensure this harmony and to circumvent rivalries that would endanger it and cause the home to break apart. A case in point may be seen in the command to honor one's father and mother (Exodus 20:12 ), with the death penalty prescribed for anyone who attacked or belittled his father or his mother (Exodus 21:15,17; cf. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ).

Another effort to promote harmony in the family was the law forbidding marriage of sisters to the same husband (Leviticus 18:18 ), an obvious effort to avoid the sort of strife that had infected Jacob's household. But not so obvious are the laws of incest. One's father's wife, mother-in-law, and sister (including one's half-sister) are forbidden degrees of sexual contact in Deuteronomy (22:30; 27:20,22-23), to which the priestly formulation adds one's mother, granddaughter, aunt (including the wife of one's uncle), daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, wife's child or grandchild, as well as the sister of one's wife as mentioned already (Leviticus 18:6-18 ). That the issue at stake is not genetic may be seen in the many forbidden relationships in which the female is not genetically related to the male (one's father's wife, mother-in-law, uncle's wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, or wife's child, grandchild, or sister). The end, instead, is harmony in the home. Strife is to be avoided as destructive to the family's inner cohesiveness; any two males striving for the same woman would yield an incendiary situation (e.g., Reuben's liaison with Bilhah). The same obtains for adultery, a rebellion against the structure of the family: it is forbidden because of its destructive effects on the home, the fragmentation it yields, and the alienation that follows. Since the social structure was predicated on the family and its extensions, any violation of the integrity of the family could be perceived as a threat to the integrity of the entire group.

The social foundations for Israel's preoccupation with responsibility and motives may be traced to its understanding that an individual cannot act in such a way that his deeds have no effect on others, whether or not those effects are visible in the present. Rather than seeing infractions as isolated incidents, a violator endangered his group by bringing upon them guilt, whether it be upon an entire people (as the Gileadite altar, Joshua 22:19-20 ) or the succeeding generations (as in the sin of idolatry, Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9 ). The woman convicted of adultery became a curse on the community to which she belonged (Numbers 5:27 ). Oft-cited examples are Achan's sin that brought guilt on his family and through it, to the entire people of Israel (Joshua 7:24 ). The families of Dathan, Abiram, and Korah, and the latter's entire household, were destroyed because of the rebellion of their leaders (Numbers 16:32-35 ).

Rooted in the promise given to Abraham, and through him to his seed (Genesis 12:1-3,7 ), lay the assurance of an election, ever present and articulated in the covenant. Embracing the whole of the people of Israel (Genesis 15:5-21; 17:1-22 ), it was premised, not on the goodness of the people themselves, but on that of Abraham. Through him, all who claimed kinship to him were to receive blessing and to participate in the covenant (Genesis 26:3; 28:4; 35:12; Exodus 2:24; 6:8; Leviticus 26:42; Numbers 32:11; Deuteronomy 1:8; 6:10; 9:5; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4; 2 Kings 13:23 ). In an earlier period, Noah was able to save his entire family from destruction (Genesis 7:1 ) because of his righteousness; Lot's entire family was spared because of him (Genesis 19:1-28 ). Rahab's favorable treatment of the Israelite spies brought her family mercy from human agencies (Joshua 2:12-14,17-20; 6:22-25 ), and the house of Obed-Edom obtained blessing because he gave shelter to the ark (2 Samuel 6:11 ). While Exodus 20:5 is frequently cited as showing God's vengeance to the fourth generation, the following verse adds that his mercy embraces the myriads who love him.

The New Testament . Words used in the New Testament for family are patria [ Luke 1:27; 2:4 ). In Acts 3:25 patria [ Acts 2:46; 5:42; 12:12 ). Paul frequently mentions households by name in his epistles (Romans 16:10-11; 1 Corinthians 1:11,16; 16:15; 2 Timothy 1:16; 4:19 ) and recalls with great affection Priscilla and Aquilla and the church that met in their house (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19 ).

Perhaps because it assumes an understanding of the Old Testament or because it is less predicated on the social structure of a single people, the New Testament has much less to say about the family as a sociological unit. While not denying the value of strong internal ties in a traditional Jewish family (see Luke 1:17 ), Jesus would not permit such ties to stand in the way of one's decision to follow him (Matthew 10:35-36 ). Genesis 2:24 is cited with approbation twice in the Gospels ( Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:8 ) and twice in the Pauline corpus (1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31 ) as indicating the close bonds between husband and wife and, therefore, of the family unit.

Paul and Silas seem to attribute a position of headship to the Philippian jailer not unlike the head of an Old Testament household (Acts 16:31 ): his belief will bring about the salvation of both himself and his entire family. Although certain women may have been the heads of their households (e.g., Lydia, Nympha; Priscilla is always mentioned before her husband), Paul's understanding of the family seems to have the husband generally as its head (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23 ), yet involved in a loving (Ephesians 5:25-33; Colossians 3:19 ), caring relationship with his wife and with his children (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21 ).

Possibly because of the disruptive effect of Christian conversion on pagan homes, a considerable effort is made by the New Testament writers to articulate the familial nature of the kingdom of God. Paul stresses God as Father of believers (Romans 1:7; 8:15; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3-4; 4:6; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; 4:20; Colossians 1:2 ), while John emphasizes believers as God's children (John 1:12; 11:52; 1 John 3:1-2,10; 5:2,19 ). Believers, even Gentiles, are no longer "separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12 ), but have become members of God's own family (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:19; Hebrews 3:2-6; 1 Peter 4:17 ) through the work of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15 ). God is their Father and Christ their elder brother (Romans 8:29 ).

William C. Williams

See also Divorce; Marriage; Woman; Widow

Bibliography . T. D. Alexander, EQ 61/1 (1989): 5-19; F. I. Andersen, The Bible Translator 20 (1969): 29-39; M. Burrows, JBL 59 (1940): 23-33; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament; I. Ellis, SJT 38 (1985): 173-88; N. K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh; J. Hempel, IDB, 2:155; D. Jacobson, The Social Background of the Old Testament; H. van Oyen, Ethik des Alten Testaments; J. Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture; C. S. Rodd, The Bible Translator 18 (1967): 19-26; J. Rogerson and P. Davies, The Old Testament World; M. J. Selman, Tyn Bul 27 (1976): 114-36; R. P. Shedd, Man in Community; W. R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions; F. Tä nies, Community and Society; R. de Vaux, Israel: Its Life and Institutions; W. C. Williams, An Examination of the Relationship Between Solidarity and Adultery in Ancient Israel; C. J. H. Wright, ABD, 2:761-69.

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Family Life and Relations'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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