What is a family?

Family in the Bible

Social change (high rates of separation and divorce, legislation like the Civil Unions Act last year, some impacts of the much older Privacy Act…) together with the strong Christian tradition of “defending family values” combine to make it really important that as Christians we think through what we mean by “family”.

The primary paradigm (or ideal picture) of “family” in the Western world is a mum, a dad and an ever decreasing number of children. However, among Māori and Pacific cultures the paradigm begins with whānau – a much wider concept.

Before Christians can discuss family or family values we need to look closely at the Bible and hear what God has to teach us. In this short article I will try to suggest some starting points for developing a biblical view of family.

Words translated “family”

In the NT (although a large number of words express various sorts of kinship relationship: e.g. daughter-in-law, tribe…) most places where English translations use “family” a Greek word related to “oikos” (household) is used. In the other cases “family” means something more like tribe, since all are descendants of one often distant ancestor, e.g. “the Christ will come from David’s family” (John 7:42).

OT usage is similar, but with a stronger focus on the larger units. Mishpach (clan) is the commonest term, though beth ‘ab (father’s house) is also used. The beth ‘ab was not at all a “nuclear family”. It included slaves and servants, as well as married children and their children, and possibly a widowed aunt as well. A mishpach was made up of a number of households and could be as small as a village or as large as a tribe. Hapu or perhaps whanau seem the nearest equivalents in contemporary NZ to a biblical “family”.

A model family?

The Bible nowhere presents an “ideal family” that we can use as a model for a biblical view of “family”. Firstly no family is presented as a model, and secondly few were even close to ideal. Think of the families the Bible does present. Here is a sample with some comments:

  • Adam/Eve – a two parent nuclear family par excellence which produced the first murderer.
  • Abraham/Sarah (and Hagar) – a ménage à trois with dysfunctional power relationships.
  • Jacob/Leah and Rachel – polygamy producing a dysfunctional family.
  • David and his women – this time polygamy combines with executive murder and adultery…
  • Esther/Ahasuerus – Esther is selected in a beauty contest to replace the disobedient queen Vashti.
  • Timothy who has a mother and grandmother who were believers, but his father was a pagan (he is called a Hellenos, a Pagan Greek, not an Hellenistes, a Greek-speaking believer).

Even Jesus’ family – whom Christians sometimes call “the Holy Family” – left Joseph as step-father. However good a father he may have been (and we simply do not know since the gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ relationship with his parents or brothers) few people argue that step-parenting is God’s ideal!

This surprising apparent lack of biblical teaching on the basic unit of society even allows the growth in the USA today of groups like truthbearer.org an “organization for Christian polygamy”.

Biblical Family Values

If the Bible has no model family structure to propose, it does identify and promote a clear set of virtues associated with families and living in family. These virtues are vital in constructing a Christian understanding of family today.

Typical or normative?

However, we need to be careful here. Some Bible passages describe how ancient Israel, or Christians of the first century, lived. Others prescribe how God wants us to behave. On some issues of social structure and organization Christians are clear that biblical patterns are descriptive not prescriptive. So Christians today no longer defend slavery as “biblical” (despite considerable potential textual support for the kindly keeping of slaves!), few either demand that biblical economic prescriptions be applied (returning land within a generation of purchase and interest-free loans are only the start)!

Even prescriptive texts (e.g. Proverbs) come to us carrying the baggage of the social organisation of Ancient Israel or of the Roman Empire. Most Christians accept that the spirit or principles of these prescriptions still apply, but few seek to follow their letter. The same may be true of families and family values! So Proverbs 13:24 may not so much be counselling us to beat our children as to discipline them (while heavy beating was a common form of discipline in the ancient world – see Ex 21:20 – it is no longer acceptable). Paul’s injunctions (e.g. Col 3:21; Eph 6:4) may be felt to better express the normative biblical view of discipline.

So, what does the Bible as a whole present as normative for our understanding of family? Here is one (certainly incomplete) list:

Family images God

Biblical pictures of what God is like, and of humanity’s relationship with God, are mainly drawn from either royalty or family life. (These were the two predominant institutions in the ancient world).

God is (to give just a partial list):

  • father – e.g. Dt 32:6; Ps 2:7; Mat 6:6
  • mother – e.g. Dt 32:18; Is 49:15; Mat 23:37
  • redeemer – e.g. Ex 15:13; Ps 73:2; 77:15 (this is very much a “family” word as a look at the examples of human “redeemers” shows, interestingly though the verb is used the noun is absent from the NT)
  • husband – e.g. Jer 2:2; Hos 2; Rev 21:2

The chosen people are:

  • son or daughter – e.g. Gen 42:5; Ex 1:1; Is 22:4; Heb 12:7
  • household – e.g. Ex 16:31; Num 20:29; Hos 1:4; Eph 2:19
  • wife – e.g. Ez 16; 23; Rev 19:7
  • adopted stray – e.g. Ez 16 cf. Ps 2:7 & Eph 1:5
  • slave – e.g. Dt 5:15; Josh 24:17; Micah 6:4; James 1:1

If families help us understand what God is like, then God shows us what families should be like!

Marriage is a one-to-one partnership

From the Genesis account of the creation of humans, to Jesus’ own teaching and its NT outworking, a biblical understanding of marriage is centred on the claim that God made women and men as different-but-equal partners, who need each other, not only for procreation but also by their very natures. When a woman and a man marry they become “one flesh”. Because of this, marriage is the lifelong partnership of one man and one woman. This partnership is total, including the spiritual, mental, physical, and even the economic. It is expected to produce children (when, in the Bible, this is not the outcome of marriage it is a special tragedy, from which many biblical characters prayed to be delivered).

Gen 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Already the “preface to the Bible” expresses the equality, and complementarity, of men and women. Through the parallelism of Hebrew poetry we see that together they are “in the image of God”. Through this union of difference, human marriages picture the union of difference that Christian theology calls Trinity.

In Gen 2:18:

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

God expresses humanity’s need to be completed by a complementary partner. The word for “helper” (‘ezer) is most often used to describe God as humanity’s helper(Gen 49:25; Dt 33:26 etc.)! A few verses later the man concurs with his creator’s opinion of this complementary equality saying (2:23):

This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.

That this partnership of equals is the point of the story – and that it speaks of marriage – is confirmed when this episode ends with the words:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (2:24)

It is this teaching that Jesus confirms when asked his views about divorce (Mat 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2ff.) “what God has joined together, let man not separate.” His teaching goes on to assert that human law (Moses) allows divorce – in case of adultery – on account of human sinfulness.

The epistle to the Ephesians takes the same OT text to teach on the “profound mystery” of Christ and the church, and of how we are the “body of Christ”.

Loving-kindness (hesed): a family word for God’s love and care

God’s faithful and dependable loving care for us is often described using a Hebrew word that is difficult to render in English. “His hesed endures forever!” is a refrain in Psalms 118 and 136 and the word is used in many places to describe God, but does it mean love, mercy, faithfulness…?

This Hebrew word hesed describes the virtue expected in relationships (like family and covenant). It is a dynamic virtue that we see exemplified in God’s loving and enduring relationship to Israel. It is often associated with words that express grace and love as well as fidelity. It implies the mutual support and protection that family members are expected to offer one another. It may well be the Hebrew thought behind John’s affirmation that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).

Since hesed is used to describe actions like paying off a cousin’s or a nephew’s debt it clearly suggests that in the Bible family is not based on “love” (particularly not erotic love as the Western world defines family) but on reliability and dependability. When one party is stronger or more capable hesed involves protection and support. Yet it is mutual and not one-sided.

Families: a God’s eye view?

In the Western world today family is all about marriage and children. Marriage is all about love (understood as socially acceptable lust). Both family and marriage are discussed in terms of “rights”. Increasingly, even parenting is seen as a “right”.

The biblical view is different at every point. Family is much wider than a marriage and the children it produces. Family is about faithfulness and solidarity; about obligation, protection and trust; not about rights. Marriage does not make a family, but marriage widens the circle of existing families. While love is important, it is not the making of a marriage, loyalty is. Parenting is a gift and a blessing, not a right.

Our world likes models to which people can conform. The Bible takes families as they are, and proposes appropriate virtues: trust, loyalty, mutual dependence, faithfulness. Families that manage to show these virtues are indeed the backbone of society, and an echo of how God relates to us (children adopted into the divine family).