Reading the Bible: seeking teaching on family

Previous posts about biblical teaching on family ( What is a family? and Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family) led to lively discussion. How do we use the Bible rightly to establish teaching on family? This post addresses two aspects. The Bible uses different sorts of text to teach different ways. We also need to discern the direction or thrust of the Bible as a whole.

How the Bible teaches

The Bible is made up of many different sorts of text, and they do not all “work” the same. We understand a law from Leviticus differently from a Psalm, and both are read according to different rules from a proverb…

Some sorts of biblical passage intend to teach us something. Paul’s letters for example sought first to teach the early churches how to live, and so they also seek to teach us about Christian living.

A narrative does not teach in this direct way. When 2 Samuel 11ff. tells us about David’s adultery with Bathsheba, and subsequent executive murder of her husband Uriah. The purpose is not to teach the moral “adultery is wrong” nor even “murder is wrong”. It does want us to identify with David, and learn about temptation, sin and punishment from his mistakes. So when we read Ps 51 we will learn even more (but about God and ourselves rather than about “morals”).

Epistles and History are told in different ways and teach differently.

Narrative reaches deeper into our being, but we need to be more cautious in identifying its “teaching”. Epistles by contrast teach directly. When reading such direct teaching (and much of Jesus’ speech in the Gospels is like this – direct teaching) we need to be cautious about making the Bible say something different from what it intends. Using Jesus’ teaching about trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle (Mat 19:24 etc.) to teach about the folly of over loading a beast of burden is simply a way to avoid what Jesus says “wealth is dangerous to our spiritual health”!

Western Christians seek to avoid Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage by turning it into “safe” teaching about families.

I am saying two things here:

1. When reading a Bible passage that “teaches” we should be very cautious of making it teach something more than it sets out to teach – avoid the temptation to make the Bible say more than it does!

2. When drawing teaching from a narrative text we should be careful. Scripture is not seeking to teach ideas to readers of such texts. 2 Sam 11ff. is not merely a warning to murderous adulterers. It is a warning to all of us about following our desires and becoming faithless people.

The thrust of biblical teaching

Granted that much of the Bible (especially most poems and many stories) does not set out directly to teach, we need a way to confirm what we suspect the Bible may be teaching us.

We are so used to hearing people quote Bible verses (and seeing this – as I did above!) that we forget that we need to look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching. I’ll use quotes from the comments to the previous article to try to explain what I mean. (The quotes are in italics.)

Matthew interprets Hosea 11:1 in “messianic” fashion in Matthew 2:15 and gives a meaning to the text that is not evident in its original context.

This use by Matthew of Hos 11:1 is a really good textbook example of some of the issues involved in Christian reading of the Old Testament. At first glance it seems as if Matthew has “played fast and loose” with the biblical text. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In Hosea the son is Israel, who as the following verses show was less than faithful to God. Matthew says that Jesus “fulfills” this. What does he mean? He uses the verb “fill, make full”(as do other New Testament writers) to point to a relationship between Jesus and Scripture. What the NT means by fulfil is something like: What Israel was intended to be, Jesus is fully. So Jesus was intended to be God’s son, called from Egypt to reveal God. Israel failed at this task, but Jesus (as the rest of the Gospel will show) fills the calling fully. In other words Matthew is not making Scripture say something it did not intend, rather he points to a consequence or conclusion drawn from comparing this text with the experience he has of Jesus.

Similarly: “In 1 Corinthians 9:8-9 Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 and gives it a meaning that was clearly not intended in its First Testament context.” Paul is also drawing a principle out of Scripture, that even an animal that works deserves to benefit from their labour – and as Paul says how much more a human!

In Matthew 22:32 Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 as proof to the Pharisees that there is a resurrection. The text he quotes in its original context has nothing to do with resurrection.

It is true that the Scripture Jesus quotes is not about resurrection. Though it is about the nature of God, and God does claim to be the God of Abraham, not to “have been” his God. He refers to a present reality. Here Jesus points to a hint that is already present in Scripture. A hint that the NT again fills out, fulfills for us. God’s self-revelation in the Bible is not static and timeless, but incarnate first in the story of Israel, and then fully in Christ and in the NT witness to what his coming means.

As you point out I did the same thing! Taking what was merely a hint in the Old Testament and recognising its fullness in the revelation of God in Christ, and even in the later doctrines that the Church developed to understand him!

In your first article Tim you say “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”. You of course are reading a ‘trinitarian’ meaning back into the Genesis text that can hardly be said to be intended in the original context. I’m quite comfortable with your approach however because it is consistent with broader themes within the unified canon of scripture.

So, at times the New Testament goes beyond (but builds on) the Old. Because God’s self-revelation in the Bible was “incarnate” like a human being it grows and develops. But the new builds on, and fills out, the old. So that there is a direction or trajectory of Scriptural teaching.

I do not see this happening with the topic of family. This is a surprise to me, I would have expected clear teaching on such an important topic. When Scripture is silent then I am cautious of claiming more than I read… What I think is going on (and here I am merely expressing a feeling, not claiming to teach with authority ;-) is that on this topic God recognised that human cultures are different. Different cultures would have different family and child rearing patterns. So the Bible does not impose one pattern (e.g. the Mediterranean “household”). Rather it shows and teaches us the virtues that we need to strengthen our families.


This piece, like: What is a family? and Does the Bible present a preferred pattern of family was first published on the Vision network site, but changes of URL have lost it there, so I am reposting it here.

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