From an educational perspective, where can one go in the Bible to find the ideal family setting and the ideal family in action? After considerable exploring and pondering, I must admit that I am frustrated, puzzled, and intrigued: Where is the “Focus on the Family” that I was wanting to find?
One can, of course, glean a host of individual verses — especially from the Proverbs. But where are the meaty contexts that tell us and show us how a family should function? Two lonely passages stand out: Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 5 and 6. But after that, it’s mostly a desert.
I will deal with Deuteronomy and Ephesians first. Then I will share two surprises that emerged from the woodwork, first, a remarkable number of examples of really bad parenting; second, a cluster of examples that suggest that quality parenting doesn’t really make much difference in the end. Most of the vivid examples are from the Old Testament. The New Testament tells us very little about family. John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul are all positive characters, but we know almost nothing about their families. Likewise, the families of the 12 apostles are unknown.
We will return to the examples, but now let’s go to Deuteronomy and Ephesians. Deuteronomy 6 opens with general counsel to Israel to obey God’s decrees and commandments so that “your days may be long” (vs. 2). But in 6:7-9, we strike gold: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (NRSV).
Repetition is the word: “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children, talk about them at home and away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them to your body and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Repetition, repetition, repetition! Does it get the job done? Does it help us build our ideals? It can help, but it’s not the whole story. Google yielded this concise Jewish commentary on Deuteronomy 6, the words of which are the basis for the Jewish custom of mezuzah:
A Jewish household is created by the people who live in it — by the way they act, the things they do and don’t do, the beliefs they hold. To a great extent, a Jewish way of life is a portable faith: you can take it with you anywhere you go. This is true for Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer, and study of Torah.
It is generally accepted that Judaism as a religion is more oriented to holiness of time than holiness of place. There are many occasions we sanctify, but very few places we call holy.
Is that the whole truth? Not at all, for the very place in which we live, our permanent residence, is sanctified. This is achieved through a very concrete ritual, through the mitzvah — that’s a command performed as a religious duty — of mezuzah.
Mezuzah is of biblical origin and therefore carries great weight. “And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts — in the singular, that’s the word mezuzah — of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20). What is to be inscribed? Divine instruction is very clear: “The words that I shall tell you this day”: that you shall love your God, believe only in Him, keep His commandments, and pass all of this on to your children.
Thus, a mezuzah has come to refer also to the parchment, on which the verses of the Torah are inscribed (Deuteronomy 6 and 11). Mezuzah refers as well to the case or container in which the parchment is enclosed. A mezuzah serves two functions: Every time you enter or leave, the mezuzah reminds you that you have a covenant with God; second, the mezuzah serves as a symbol to everyone else that this particular dwelling is constituted as a Jewish household, operating by a special set of rules, rituals, and beliefs.” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mezuzah/, accessed on October 4, 2020).
Now let me add a COVID-19 repetition to this story. The virus has helped to point out some longstanding habits that I know I should break: I put my hands on my face and I put my hands on the decks in the kitchen and bathroom. I have taken to imagining that every deck is covered with fresh, red paint. If I put my hand or hands on the deck, I imagine that they are stained red.
And my face? I asked my wife to make some thin face masks to wear indoors, simply as a reminder for me to keep my hands away from my face. It helps.
In short, repetition and memorization help provide a solid foundation for further reflection and action. But mere repetition will not necessarily lead to principled thinking and action.
Later, in Deuteronomy 6, however, the ideal comes closer to realization, this time in narrative form:
When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right” —Deut. 6:20-25 (NRSV).
The linking of commands to a story gives them staying power. Stories stick; lists get lost. A story reminds us of what is important.
But there is another point lurking in this part of Deuteronomy 6 that provides a helpful corrective to the thinking of two kinds of Christians, both of which link obedience strictly to eternal salvation. Yet the difference between them is striking, for those in one group know that perfect obedience is impossible; they believe in grace. Those in the other group believe they can indeed obey. They would never say out loud that they are saved by works and they claim to believe in grace. But both their words and deeds betray them.
Yet neither group clearly grasps the idea that obedience has to do with a happy and successful life now, on this earth. So, Deuteronomy 6 provides an important corrective for both groups, simply by telling us what works down here. God doesn’t have to reward them, the reward is built in.
Let me illustrate with a simple example: the rules are clear that gas, not grape juice, goes into a car’s gas tank. That’s not an arbitrary rule. It’s the way the engine works. Tim Jennings has popularized the phrase “design law.” It’s designed to work in a particular way.
Now with the idea of “design law” in mind, let’s go to Ephesians 5 and 6 in the New Testament. There we find some clues as to what works in a family. Here are crucial excerpts:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” — this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. —Ephesians 5:21–6:4 (NRSV).
This counsel from Paul is not directly linked to salvation, but to the happiness of our families on this earth here and now. The counsel is for both parents and children. And it is in a form that works in both communal and individualistic cultures.
But now let’s turn to those “discoveries” in Scripture that troubled, puzzled, and intrigued me, starting with examples of bad parenting. I’ll simply list them with brief descriptions.
Abraham and Sarah: both knew how to lie. And both played a part in encouraging Abraham to take a second wife, Hagar. See Genesis 12-25.
Isaac and Rebecca: Both parents sinned spectacularly against the rules of good parenting: They had favorites. Genesis 25:28 puts it bluntly: “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (NRSV).
Jacob: Another spectacular failure at parenting, Jacob not only practiced polygamy with his four wives, he set the children against each other by showing favoritism to Joseph and Benjamin, the children of his favorite wife Rachel. See Genesis 29 to 50.
Eli: Best known for his tutoring of little Samuel, Eli’s own sons were “scoundrels,” to use the NRSV of 1 Samuel 2:12.
Samuel: Samuel did not learn from Eli’s mistakes, as 2 Sam. 8:3 states: “His sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (NRSV).
David: After having an affair with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah the Hittite, David’s family fell apart. The most notable failures were Absalom and Adonijah. See 2 Samuel 11-19.
In short, I simply don’t see a clean parental model anywhere in the Old Testament. Which brings me to the second point that “troubled, puzzled, and intrigued” me, namely that the value of good parental role modeling may be overrated.
Devout parents are grieved if their children do not turn out well. And generally, we would say that good parenting is much more likely to produce good children than bad parenting. Yet for parents whose children have departed from their parents’ ideals, there are some really encouraging stories in Scripture, stories of good children managing to survive bad parenting, but also stories of bad children coming from good parents.
The most striking examples include a cluster of five kings of Judah, from Ahaz (732 BCE) through Josiah (609 BCE). See 2 Kings 16-23. Wicked King Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s best kings. But from good King Hezekiah, came Manasseh, the most wicked of all the kings of Judah (1 Kings 21:1-17; 24:3). He reigned for 55 years and caused his own son to “pass through fire” (1 Kings 21:6). His son Amon was also wicked, but only reigned two years. Yet from this “wicked” father-grandfather duo, came Josiah, one of Judah’s best kings. In short, even the best of parenting is no guarantee of good results, and the worst of parenting does not doom a child to bad results.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to tell someone else how to be a good parent than to be a good parent yourself. But what the world really needs are solid role models. Speaking of Abraham, the KJV of Gen. 18:19 describes the right ideal, even though Abraham himself fell short: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.”
In the end, if I were to prepare a “Family Handbook” from Scripture, I would go to the New Testament virtue lists, where the traits are universally applicable to all cultures. Patience is on every list; anger is on none of them. Indeed, I would put the “fruit of the Spirit” at the head of the list: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” —Gal. 5:22-26 (NRSV).
I have not yet found the pot of gold that I was looking for — unless it is lurking in the shadows of Galatians 5. If we model our lives and the lives of our families after the good traits in Paul’s “fruit of Spirit,” the rewards will be significant, in this life and in the world to come.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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