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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. Character of the family in OT . ‘Family’ in the OT has a wider significance than that which we usually associate with the term. The word tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘house’ ( Genesis 7:1 ) approaches most nearly to our word ‘family’: but a man’s ‘house’ might consist of his mother; his wives and the wives’ children; his concubines and their children; sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, with their offspring; illegitimate sons ( Judges 11:1 ); dependents and allens; and slaves of both sexes. Polygamy was in part the cause of the large size of the Hebrew household; in part the cause of it may be found in the insecurity of early times, when safety lay in numbers, and consequently not only the married sons and daughters dwelt, for the sake of protection, with their father, but remote relatives and even foreigners (‘the stranger within thy gates’) would attach themselves, with a similar object, to a great household. The idea of the family sometimes had an even wider significance, extending to and including the nation, or even the whole race of mankind. Of this a familiar illustration is the figure of Abraham, who was regarded as being in a very real sense the father of the nation. So also the same feeling for the idea of the family is to be found in the careful assigning of a ‘father’ to every known nation and tribe ( Genesis 10:1-32 ). From this it is easily perceived that the family played an important part in Hebrew thought and affairs. It formed the base upon which the social structure was built up; its indistinguishable merging into the wider sense of clan or tribe indicates how it affected the political life of the whole nation.

Polygyny and bigamy were recognized features of the family life. From the Oriental point of view there was nothing immoral in the practice of polygamy. The female slaves were in every respect the property of their master, and became his concubines; except in certain cases, when they seem to have belonged exclusively to their mistress, and could not be appropriated by the man except by her suggestion or consent ( Genesis 16:2-3 ). The slave-concubines were obtained as booty in time of war ( Judges 5:30 ), or bought from poverty-stricken parents ( Exodus 21:7 ); or, possibly, in the ordinary slave traffic with foreign nations. In addition to his concubines a man might take several wives, and from familiar examples in the OT it seems that it was usual for wealthy and important personages to do so; Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, occur as instances. Elkanah, the husband of Hannah and Peninnah, is an interesting example of a man of no particular position who nevertheless had more than one wife; this may be an indication that bigamy, at least, if not polygamy, was not confined to the very wealthy and exalted. At all events, polygyny was an established and recognized institution from the earliest times. The gradual evolution in the OT of monogamy as the ideal is therefore of the highest interest. The earliest codes attempt in various ways to regulate the custom of polygyny. The Deut. code in particular actually forbids kings to multiply wives ( Deuteronomy 17:17 ); this is the fruit, apparently, of the experience of Solomon’s reign. In the prophetic writings the note of protest is more clearly sounded. Not only Adam but also Noah, the second founder of the human race, represents monogamy, and on that account recommends it as God’s ordinance. It is in the line of Cain that bigamy is first represented, as though to emphasize the consequences of the Fall. Reasons are given in explanation of the bigamy of Abraham ( Genesis 16:1-16 ) and of Jacob ( Genesis 29:23 ). Hosea and other prophets constantly dwell upon the thought of a monogamous marriage as being a symbol of the union between God and His people; and denounce idolatry as unfaithfulness to this spiritual marriage-tie.

2. Position of the wife . Side by side with the growth of the recognition of monogamy as the ideal form of marriage, polygamy was practised even as late as NT times. The natural accompaniment of such a practice was the insignificance of the wife’s position: she was ordinarily regarded as a piece of property, as the wording of the Tenth Commandment testifies. Also her rights and privileges were necessarily shared by others. The relative positions of wives and concubines were determined mainly by the husband’s favour. The children of the wife claimed the greater part, or the whole, of the inheritance; otherwise there does not seem to have been any inferiority in the position of the concubine as compared with that of the wife, nor was any idea of illegitimacy, in our sense of the word, connected with her children.

The husband had supreme authority over the wife. He was permitted by the Deut. code to divorce her with apparently little reason. The various passages ( Deuteronomy 22:13; Deuteronomy 22:19; Deuteronomy 22:28-29 , Isaiah 50:1 , Jeremiah 3:8 , Malachi 2:16 ) referring to and regulating divorce, indicate that it was of frequent occurrence. Yet wives, and even concubines who had been bought in the first place as slaves, might not be sold ( Exodus 21:7-11 , Deuteronomy 21:14 ). Indeed, the Law throughout proves itself sympathetic towards the position of the wife and desirous of improving her condition ( Exodus 21:2; Exodus 21:12 , Deuteronomy 21:10-17 ). This very attitude of the Law, however, indicates that there was need of improvement. The wife seems to have had no redress if wronged by the husband; she could not divorce him; and absolute faithfulness, though required of the wife, was not expected of the husband, so long as he did not injure the rights of any other man.

The wife, then, was in theory the mere chattel of her husband. A woman of character, however, could improve her situation and attain to a considerable degree of importance and influence as well as of personal freedom. Thus we read not only of Hagars, who were dealt hardly with and were obliged to submit themselves under the hands of their masters and rivals, but also of Sarahs and Rebekahs and Abigails, who could act independently and even against the wishes of their husbands in order to gain their own ends. And the Book of Proverbs testifies to the advantage accruing to a man in the possession of a good wife (Proverbs 19:14; Proverbs 31:10 ff.), and to the misery which it is in the power of a selfish woman to inflict ( Proverbs 19:13 etc.).

3. Children . In a household consisting of several families, the mother of each set of children would naturally have more to do with them than the father , and the maternal relationship would usually be more close and affectionate than the bond between the father and his children. Although it was recognized to be disastrous for a household to be divided against itself, yet friction between the various families could hardly have been avoided. ‘One whom his mother comforteth’ ( Isaiah 66:13 ) must have been a sight common enough a mother consoling her injured son for the taunts and blows of her rivals’ children. Thus the mother would have the early care and education of her children under her own control. The father, on the other hand, had complete power over the lives and fortunes of his children, and would represent to them the idea of authority rather than of tenderness. He it was who arranged the marriage of his sons ( Genesis 24:4; Genesis 28:2 , Judges 14:2 ), and had the right to sell his daughters ( Exodus 21:7 ). The father seems even to have had powers of life and death over his children ( Judges 11:39 ): and the Law provided that an unworthy son might be stoned to death upon the accusation of his parents ( Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ). See also art. Child.

4. Family duties . The claims of the family upon the various members of it were strongly felt. Many laws provide for the vengeance and protection of the injured and defenceless by their next-of-kin. Brothers were the guardians of their sisters ( Genesis 34:1-31 ). A childless widow could demand, though not enforce, re-marriage with her brother-in-law ( Deuteronomy 25:5-10 ). Boaz, as the nearest relation, performed this duty towards Ruth. In spite of the prohibition of the later code ( Leviticus 20:21 ), levirate marriage seems to have been practised at the time of Christ ( Matthew 22:25 ff.). Its purpose was perhaps rather for the preservation of the particular branch of the family than for the advantage of the widow herself: in any case it illustrates the strong sense of duty towards the family as a whole.

Children owed obedience and respect to their parents. Even a married man would consider himself still under the authority of his father, whether living with him or not; and his wife would be subject to her father-in-law even after her husband’s death.

To an Israelite, ‘family’ conveyed the notions of unity, security, order, and discipline. These conceptions were nourished by the religious customs and observances in the home, the most conspicuous instance of which was the keeping of the Passover. Such observances no doubt helped to bind the members of the family in close religious and spiritual sympathies. The common longing to love and to serve God was the base of the family affection and unity from patriarchal times when the head of each family would offer sacrifice upon his own altar, until the hour in which Mary’s Son asked in tender surprise of her and Joseph: ‘Wist ye not that I must he in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49 ).

E. G. Romanes.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Family'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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