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FAMILY (Hebrew mišpāhāh, bayith, house; Greek oikia, patria, house, clan). The center of the covenant activity of God is the family. Father, mother, children and extended relatives all play a part in the scriptural ideal.

Overview of the Family in the Bible

The Hebrew term mišpāhāh has no exact equivalent in English but is usually interpreted as “household.” Another term for family, bayith, included all those living within the confines and jurisdiction of the dwelling. In a patriarchal setting the father was the head of the family, having authority over his wife, children, unmarried daughters, and sometimes married sons and their families, as well as cousins and their families and possibly grandparents and even great-grandparents (Gen.46.8-Gen.46.26). Additional members of the household also included in the designation of family would be concubines, servants, slaves, visitors, and occasionally prisoners of war. Some polygamy was practiced, and this also made the family unit more extensive.

In a wider sense, family could also mean clan, tribe, or village, and phrases such as “house of David” (Isa.7.13) or “house of Israel” (Ezek.9.9; Ezek.18.30) show that in broader terms the household could encompass the entire nation. Some families returning from exile in Babylon comprised several hundred members (Ezra.8.1-Ezra.8.14).

A common bond of blood bound together the members of the larger family or clan, who referred to each other as “brothers” (1Sam.20.29). Members of the clan accepted a communal responsibility for assistance, protection, the sharing of work, loyalty, and cooperation for the general well-being of the family. In places where the nomadic life gave way to a more settled existence, groups of villages (often interdependent and with intermarried members) formed a “family,” as did the Dan|Danites at Zoreh and Eshtaol (Judg.18.11). When arts and crafts developed, sons acquired skills from their fathers, and villages devoted to a particular type of production—such as wood or ironworking, linen or pottery (1Chr.4.14; cf. 1Chr.4.21, 1Chr.4.23; Neh.11.35)—became common. With specialization, however, came a loss of the former self-sufficiency of the family and an increased interdependence on the producers of food and other goods.

Even as cities developed, evidence of relatives of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah living in particular areas is found, as in Nehemiah’s census of Jerusalem (Neh.11.4-Neh.11.8). In general, however, city life tended to fragment the family, and the size of the houses excavated indicates that by this time the family unit consisted only of father, mother, and children. During the kingdom, as family ties loosened, so the absolute authority and responsibility of the father was transferred to the king. By the eighth century b.c., the individual, instead of working primarily for the good of the larger group, worked for his immediate family and for the ultimate benefit of the king or nation. Not surprisingly, as the focus of the family unit sharpened, the sense of communal responsibility lessened, and biblical reminders concerning obligations toward widows and orphans became more frequent (Isa.1.17; Jer.7.6). Family blood feuds declined as revenge for the honor of members of the wider family was no longer usual, though it was sometimes practiced and expected (2Sam.3.27; 2Sam.16.8; 2Kgs.9.26; Neh.4.14).

By virtue of marriage, the husband and wife were regarded as being akin, and their children were legitimate family members. Close kinship was an obstacle to marriage in the clan or tribe, and Lev.18.6-Lev.18.17 provided a list of degrees of relationship within which marriage was prohibited. One exception to this rule was the so-called levirate marriage|levirate (i.e., husband’s brother) marriage (Deut.25.5-Deut.25.10), in which a man was expected to marry the wife of a childless deceased brother so as to perpetuate his family name by means of children. Refusal to comply with this requirement brought shame upon the offender’s house.

The family functioned as an essential unit of the religious community. the father was the spiritual head of the family and acted as the priest within the household. He was responsible for leading religious observances and for instructing the family in the religious and secular history of the Israelites, as well as in their manners and customs. The father maintained the family altar and ensured the religious observances and piety of the entire family. The religious observances and festivals were frequently family-oriented, particularly the Passover, which was observed as a religious family meal and thank offering (Exod.12.3-Exod.12.4, Exod.12.46). In patriarchal times, before worship was centralized in the temple and the later synagogue, it was the fathers that offered sacrifice to God (Gen.31.54). The supreme position of religious and secular authority that the father had helps to clarify the subsequent reverence for his grave.

Family in the Old Testament

The Old Testament teaching about the family is embodied in the first chapters of the Torah. The creation of God was in a world-order and in a family-order. In the Old Testament family relationships are concentric, that is the married couple—husband and wife—form the nucleus of the circle, the children lie in the next circle, the grandparents, cousins, and the like on a further circle. This principle is clear in the terminology. Each term is applicable beyond the mere immediate definition to the set of relations which the term represents, e.g. the term daughter may be applied to a number of other individuals aside from one’s own female offspring, or it may be applied to any number of females who are in a specific law-relationship to the “father.”


The creation ordinances and the law

Cultural developments

The Old Testament is primarily a continuous narrative of the history of the covenant people of God. It begins with the Adamic covenant, continues through the patriarch|patriarchal and tribal periods and ends with the rise and fall of the Israelite monarchy. There is a definite temporal progression, and the various changes in the cultures of the ancient Near East—the development from mesolithic to neolithic, from bronze to iron and from food-getting nomads to food-producing township settlements—all have their impact on the covenant people. In such an arrangement, the place and structure of the family underwent certain alterations. Some of these are insignificant, some positive and some absolutely contrary to the covenant and the law order itself. In the patriarchal period the story of Lot and his antagonism to the rampant sexual immorality of his surroundings (Gen 19:4-11) and of Joseph and his escape from Potiphar’s wife (39:6-20) show the resistance of the covenant people to the family notions of their contemporaries. Ultimately, however, as Israel became a settled and independent political entity these cross-cultural forces worked upon the family associations of the Jews.

Polygamy and Levirate marriage

The greatest single erosion of the creation order of marriage, the polygamy|polygamous marriage, appears early in the patriarchal narrative, “and Lamech took two wives” (4:19). The subsequent events of the families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob frequently follow what is now known to have been the customs of the other Semites of the time. Analogies frequently have been drawn between patriarchal customs and the family laws of Babylon, Nuzi and Ḥatti. The concubine|concubinage of a servant girl to her mistress’ husband is a specific type of polygamy widely practiced in the ancient Near East and also recorded in the patriarchal period (16:1-4; 30:1-5, 9-13). One result of this was the expansion of the family to include not only the man and his wife and their children, but also uncles, aunts, cousins, servants, concubines, slaves, travelers, employees and even prisoners of war.

All of these people came under the family covenant of Abraham (Exod 20:10, et al.). In light of this, the rite of circumcision was performed upon all males born in a Jewish house (Gen 17:23-27). One important factor of Jewish polygamy is the preservation of the dignity and rights of the concubine and her offspring. Nowhere does the Old Testament provide for the elaborate caste systems commonplace in cuneiform descriptions of family relationships. Even a female prisoner had to be treated as a bride in binding marriage (Deut 21:10-13) and captives, whether man, woman or child, could not be sold into slavery. The offspring born to wives were to have no better inheritance than those born to concubines or slaves merely because of their inferior status. Since the polygamy of the ruling and dominating families greatly increased the degree of consanguinity and other males were either slain or forced into monogamy, the children of Israel were in a few generations a separate entity from the other nations round about them.

Since the polygamous marriage of two individuals in separate families, was in effect a covenant between the families, this also tied the few major strains of inheritance even more tightly together so that the families or clans not only grew larger, numerically, but more tightly related (Gen 34:8-22). Aside from specific rare instances the extent of polygamy or bigamy in the Old Testament is small and in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, there is no reported polygamy on the part of commoners who lived during the age of the monarchy of Israel. Even though polygamy was accepted as a reality and legislation concerning it was ordained (Deut 21:15-17) yet the actual situations in which it occurred are hardly shown to be happy, and are forthrightly declared to be the sources of continual bickering, envy and other sins.

Roles within the family

In nomadic times the father, by means of his authority, held the family group together and became the symbol of their security in the encampment. His powers over the family members were wide-ranging and significant. His decisions could mean life or death; and as his status was unquestioned, he demanded respect and obedience. His responsibilities were extensive both within and beyond the family unit. In addition to providing for his own family security, he was expected from the time of the kingdom period to send his sons to defend the nation. Throughout biblical times the father was responsible for the economic well-being of those over whom he had authority. The entire family could be sold for falling into debt, and uncles and cousins would be expected to prevent family property from passing into outside hands (Lev.25.25; Jer.32.6-Jer.32.15). The father was also responsible for teaching his sons a trade, frequently his own, so that they would be productive members both of the family and society.

The teachings of Hebrew history, religion, law, and custom were passed on from father to son in the family setting (Exod.10.2; Exod.12.26; Deut.4.9; Deut.6.7) and reinforced by the many rites celebrated within the house, often associated with the family meal. All such occasions—whether in celebration of the Passover, some lesser feast, or an ordinary family meal—reinforced the faith, heritage, and nationalism of the family, as well as their own unity as a group. As the sons grew older it was the father’s responsibility to find them suitable wives.

The list of a man’s possessions included his wife, servants, slaves, goods, and animals (Exod.20.17; Deut.5.21). Even the phrase “to marry a wife” comes from a phrase that means “to become the master of a wife” (Deut.21.13; Deut.24.1). Although she would even address the husband in subservient terms, the status of the wife was higher than that of the rest of the household.

The primary responsibility of the mother was to produce children, preferably sons. A large number of sons, who became workers from an early age, ensured the future economic prosperity and security of the family. The maximum number of children was normally seven. Babies were weaned at approximately three years of age, and husband and wife did not normally have sexual relations between the child’s birth and the completion of the weaning process.

Throughout her life a woman was subject to the protecting authority of a male relative—as a daughter, that of her father, and as a wife, that of her husband. If she became a widow, her nearest male relative became her protector, and under the levirate marriage provisions he could also be her “redeemer.” Under such conditions the woman was subject to the man’s authority.

The bride-price paid by the betrothed male to his fiancée’s father, though not directly a “purchase price,” was intended to compensate the father for the loss of his daughter’s services. Because of the exchange of money on most occasions, the bride was left with the stigma of having been sold to her future husband (cf. Gen.29.18, Gen.29.27; Exod.22.16-Exod.22.17; 1Sam.18.25; 2Sam.3.14). After the wedding the bride normally went to live with her husband’s family. Thus she became part of that extended family group and was subject to its authority. Aside from the primary duty of childbearing (Gen.1.28; Gen.9.1), the wife’s main responsibility was the organization of the household. This was her domain, and she was generally a respected manager. All aspects of food, from the collecting of olives and dates to the grinding of corn and cooking, were her responsibility, as well as the spinning and weaving of thread, the making of clothing, and the care of domestic animals.

The young children remained with their mother, and she was responsible for teaching the boys until they were about six years old, after which time they were likely to take on their own roles either as shepherds or goatherds. Some boys spent their days in the company of their father, whose skills they acquired by observation and practice. The daughters remained with their mother, who trained them in the arts of cooking, spinning, weaving, and general household management, as well as schooling them in their future roles as wives and mothers. When the wife provided a son, her position was a little more secure. Prior to that it was somewhat precarious. She could be divorced for any apparent offense, whether related to her subservience, management of the household, or culinary skills (cf. Sir.25.26). In early times, when polygamy was still practiced, the wife could find herself replaced by a second wife or sometimes by a concubine. Nevertheless, despite the status of the mother, her role in actual fact was not as difficult as it might seem. In many families her opinion was sought in decision making, and her ideas were respected (Exod.20.12; Prov.19.26; Prov.20.20; Sir.3.1-Sir.3.16).

By Persia|Persian times the status of the wife was showing definite improvement. She had her own position at games, the theaters, and religious festivals, often assisted her husband in business, and was known at times to manage her own property. In the New Testament one such woman, Lydia of Thyatira (Acts.16.24), operated a textile business out of her own home.

The inferior status of a daughter in patriarchal society is depicted clearly. She could be sold into slavery or into concubinage and then possibly resold (Exod.21.7-Exod.21.11). Even her very life was at the disposition of her father. Both sons and daughters could be put to death for disobeying the head of the household. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen.22.1-Gen.22.14). Judah ordered the burning of Tamar on suspicion that she, a widow, was having sexual relations with a man who was not of her late husband’s family (Gen.38.11-Gen.38.26), when she would normally have been expected to marry a relative of her husband and was, in fact, promised to his brother. This said, Israelite girls were allowed a great deal of freedom in the small farming communities which predominated in the period of the conquest and the early kings of Israel. After the Amarna Age (fifteenth century b.c. and thereafter) when no one nation of the Eastern Mediterranean held sway over the many petty kingdoms, political marriages and courtly concubinage became commonplace.

With the coming of the Mosaic Law, a father could no longer put his child to death without referring the case to the authorities. Thus the elders heard accusations of disobedience, gluttony, and drunkenness, which, on conviction, were punishable with death by stoning (Deut.21.20-Deut.21.21). Children, however, could no longer be held responsible for the crimes of their parents (Deut.24.16). By the time of king David, there was the right of ultimate appeal to the monarch himself (2Sam.14.4-2Sam.14.11).

Frequently, neither sons nor daughters were consulted when marriage partners were being selected for them. A marriage was often an alliance or contract between families, the wishes of the individual being regarded as unworthy of consideration. Although loved and valued, children were not pampered (Sir.30.9-Sir.30.12). As family disciplinarian, the father spared neither the rod nor the whip (Prov.13.24; Prov.22.15; Prov.29.15-Prov.29.17). In postexilic times, a son’s more formal education took place within the precincts of the synagogue, and just prior to the time of Christ a form of general education was introduced into Palestine.

Childhood was brief, although boys and girls laughed, played, and sang. Some of them had whistles, rattles, and dolls, while the young ones sat on their mother’s lap (Isa.66.12). In later Judaism a boy’s coming of age was celebrated in a manner that reinforced his position within the home and also within the religious family of the synagogue. As soon as they were old enough, both boys and girls were expected to gather fuel (Jer.7.18), care for cattle, and tend the flocks.

Protecting sheep from wild beasts and from the danger of injuring themselves in the mountain crevices, finding them good pasture and water, and carrying them home when sick or injured, was neither a light task nor a small responsibility (Gen.29.6; Exod.2.16; 1Sam.16.11). Young boys and girls would often follow their fathers to the fields to watch and help, but more often the girls would be learning the household skills from their mothers. One of the most menial and arduous tasks was that of fetching water, often from some considerable distance, and this was the responsibility of the mother or the daughter. Young girls were by no means secluded; rather, they were free to go about unveiled and visit with friends and neighbors (Gen.34.1).

Bearing in mind that all members of the household were subject to the strict authority of the head of the family, it is not surprising that as the household became smaller in postexilic times, it became the practice (where it was feasible practically and economically) for the married sons to move out of the patriarchal home and to set up their own family units.

Sexual relations

As with most ancient peoples, it was assumed that any two adults of opposite sex, if alone together for any time, were engaging or had engaged in sexual activity. This principle manifests itself frequently in the events (Ruth 3:14, et al.). Fatherhood was assumed to be the prerogative of the mature male, and there is some evidence that the marriage of older men (35-55) to younger women (13-18) tended to lower the birth rate. However, prostitution also is noted in the Old Testament and it apparently had no relation to the marriage bonds (Gen 38:14). Motherhood was construed as the natural outcome of wedlock and the plight of the barren woman is greatly lamented. The notion of male infertility is nowhere advanced. Motherhood was accompanied by an increased security that no other wife or concubine would be necessary to the husband. Although restrictions are placed upon the times of sexual relations, nothing is indicated about the frequency, and the Old Testament generally is much more frank about the female response than have been some recent societies (3:16, et al.).

Family in the New Testament

The only family actually portrayed in the New Testament is that of Jesus, and then only scarcely and occasionally. It is clear, however, that while a vast stable of princes and princelings had been enforced by the Hellenism|Hellenistic and Rome|Roman rulers, the common people still followed the Old Testament family tradition. The father was still the head, the wife concerned with motherhood, and the children raised in the community obligations. The one significant change seems to have been in the growth of the synagogue and the Rabbinate which provided a modicum of participation and education for Israelite boys throughout the country.

To some extent this may have been in self-conscious opposition to the zeal for education caused by Hellenism and the paganizing schemes of the Hellrnitic rulers. Be that as it may, it had a great effect upon the Jewish family.

As with all urbanization the growth of Rome|Roman age towns caused more and more breakdown in the old extended family. The visit of Mary and the subsequent trip to Bethlehem show some of this shearing of the older clan ties (Luke 1:36-40; 2:4). For one thing there is a marked change in the terminology applied and the many difficult semi-social clan determinations which marked the Old Testament pattern are no longer in use. The Greek terminology is more precise, analytical and directly individualistic; no remnant of the ancient concentricity remains.


Jesus’ teaching about the family

Much of Christ’s instruction concerning the family is simply reiteration of the creation ordinances with the added responsibility of motivation (Matt 5:27-32). However, the family is used as the pattern for the forgiveness, love and longsuffering of God. In fact the use of the endearment, “Our Father,” is one of the most profund insights into the nature of God revealed through Jesus’ teaching. It is clear that monogramy is uppermost and the bond of love is central in such discourses (Matt 18; 19; 20).

The apostolic and epistolary teaching about the family

The concept of the family was so easily extended that the apostles apparently used it in their preaching to describe, not only the Israel of the theocracy, but also the Church of Christ. Specific instructions concerning the family are given in terms of husband and wife (1 Cor 7:1-28; 11:3; Eph 5:22; Col 3:18; 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Pet 3:7). Of special emphasis is the subject of the subjection of the woman to her husband. This theme is repeated in a number of Paul’s epistles and in 1 Peter 3:1-7.

The family in the Early Church

The fact that the first churches were in private homes as that uncovered at Dura Europos, and that the initial converts were usually family groups, gave a specific character to the family image of Christianity (Acts 16:31; et al.). Symbols of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the murder of the innocents, the scenes of Jesus’ childhood are all extant in early Christian art.

In the apocryphal New Testament Book of Hermas, there were collected some folk stories of the childhood of Jesus. Of all Christian concepts that of its application to the family as a unit seems to have been the most appealing. Even the love of Christ for the Church is stated as the love of a husband for his wife. This image of the bridegroom and the bride is used in the final apocalyptic visions of the New Jerusalem (Rev 18:23; 21:2, 9; 22:17.) See Divorce.

Figurative Understandings of Family

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  • W. R. Smith, Kinship and Marriage, 2nd ed. (1903)

  • T. G. Soares, The Social Institutions and Ideals of the Bible (1915)

  • J. Doller, Das Weib in Alten Testament (1920)

  • V. Aptowitzer, “Spuren des Matriarchats im jüdischen Schrifttum” HUCA IV (1927), 207-405, V (1928) 261-297

  • E. B. Cross, The Hebrew Family (1927)

  • M. Tschernowitz, “The Inheritance of Illegitimate Children According to Jewish Law,” Jewish Studies in Memory of #I. Abrahams (1927), 402-415

  • M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung (1928)

  • S. Feigin, “Some Cases of Adoption in Israel,” JBL (1931), 186-200

  • E. M. Mac Donald, The Position of Women as Reflected in Semitic Codes (1931)

  • C. H. Gordon, “Fratriarchy in the Old Testament,” JBL (1935), 223-231

  • C. H. Gordon, “The Status of Women as Reflected in the Nuzi Tablets,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und verwandte Gebiete, XLIII (1936), 146-169

  • A. Margolius, Mutter und Kind im altbiblischen (1936)

  • M. Burrows, “The Complaint of Laban’s Daughters,” JAOS LVII (1937), 259-276

  • C. H. Gordon, “The Story of Jacob and Laban in the Light of the Nuzi Tablets,” BASOR 66 (1937)

  • M. Burrows, The Basis of Israelite Marriage (1938); “Levirate Marriage in Israel,” JBL LIX (1940) 23-33; “The Ancient Oriental Background of Hebrew Levirate Marriage,” BASOR 77 (1940), 2-15

  • M. I. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 3 vols. (1941)

  • D. Jacobsen, The Social Background of the Old Testament (1942)

  • E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944)

  • J. Pederson, Israel, its Life and Culture, I-II (1946), 46-60

  • I. Mendelsohn, “The Family in the Ancient Near East,” BA XI (1948), 25-40

  • A. van Selms, “The Best Man and the Bride,” JNES IX (1950), 65-75

  • J. Murray, Divorce (1952)

  • W. H. Russell, “New Testament Adoption—Graeco-Roman or Semitic,” JBL LXXI (1952), 233, 234

  • D. R. Mace, Hebrew Marriage (1953)

  • J. Leipoldt, Die Frau in der antiken Welt und im Urchristentum (1954), 69-114

  • A. van Selms, Marriage and Family Life in Ugaritic Literature (1954)

  • K. Elliger, “Das Gesetz Leviticus 18,” ZAW LXVII (1955), 1-25

  • R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. I (1957), 19-64

  • R. Yaron, “On Divorce in Old Testament Times,” Révue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité VI (1957)

  • S. Kardimon, “Adoption as a Remedy for Infertility in the Period of the Patriarchs,” JSS III (1958), 123-126

  • R. Yaron, “Aramaic Marriage Contracts from Elephantine,” JSS III (1958), 1-39

  • I. Mendelsohn, “On the Preferential Status of the Eldest Son,” ASOR 156 (1959), 38-40

  • A. N. S. White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (1963)

  • T. G. Soares, Social Institutions and Ideals of the Bible (1915)

  • E. D. Cross, Hebrew Family (1927)

  • E. M. MacDonald, The Position of Women as Reflected in Semitic Codes (1931)

  • M. I. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 3 vols. (1941)

  • D. Jacobsen, The Social Background of the Old Testament (1942)

  • E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944)

  • J. Pederson, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1946), 1:2:46-60; I. Mendelsohn, “The Family in the Ancient Near East,” BA 11 (1948): 25-40; “On the Preferential Status of the Eldest Son,” ASOR (1959) 145:38-40

  • E. A. Judge, Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century (1960)

  • R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (ET 1961), I, part one; A. N. S. White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (1963)