A review of Family in the Bible. Edited by Richard Hess and Daniel Carroll.

Baker, 2003.

This book provides a helpful introduction to the themes of marriage and family as found in the Scriptures. 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 clearly set out, with the provision of one man and one woman for life as the ideal.

And in contrast to contemporary life, belonging to a family was seen as the highest good for an individual. Indeed, there were no free-floating individuals in ancient Israelite society. One’s place in the world was determined by belonging to one’s family. The wellbeing of an individual depended on the wellbeing of the family.

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, caused debt servitude, etc.

But there is also a positive side. And this comes by way of images of God which draw on the realm of family life. That God so often chooses to express himself by way of 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. Indeed, sometimes (albeit rarely) God is 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. However, that did not mean that 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 relativized the priority of family without being antifamily.”

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 book of Acts.

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.

Then there are the so-called household codes, which are detailed in such places as Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 2-3. Extensive discussion of the relationships among family members highlight the importance given to this institution.

In sum, all of Scripture offers a continuity as to the significant place of marriage and family. Different emphasis 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 worldview. It is an important contribution towards that end.

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One Reply to “A review of Family in the Bible. Edited by Richard Hess and Daniel Carroll.”

  1. Hello Bill,

    I have found some excellent historical and sciptural info on the “household of God” at Michael Kruse’s blog site. He isn’t finished the (longish!) series yet. But I have in particular found some of the historical background on Jewish/ Greco-Roman attitudes to family very helpful in better understanding Jesus’ comments/teachings on ‘family’, as well as other NT passages. Just thought I’d draw your attention ot the series. If you feel it warrants a link from your page here, then pls go for it. http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/2007/05/index_to_househ.html

    On a slightly different note, we have a significant ‘single’ population – both ‘in’ the Church and in society in general. Although I am married, I have a real heart for those who are not and wish to be, or those who are single and don’t necessarily wish to be married, but would appreciate relationships with ‘families’. Also, many singles feel very pressured by the Christian culture of today that they ‘should’ be married – if they are not, then all too often they feel that many Christians (even if it’s indirectly) tell them something is wrong with them. I havne’t seen any articles on your site regarding singleness, although there are some on the ‘family’. Talking about family is great – but I am always mindful of those who are single and may not feel like they are part of a ‘family’. I think we as the “family of God” need to make sure we are inclusive of all – single, married, single-again etc. Our western society thinks of ‘family’ as very much the ‘nuclear unit’… this is not quite what the family was like in OT or NT times…
    Anyway, i just wondered if you might sometime have some thoughts that are worth ‘blogging’ on this?

    Warm regards

    Kerryn Zwag

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