What does the Bible say about ‘family’?
First of all, the word ‘family’ has a different emphasis in the Ancient Near East. They are tribal and focus on clans. Individuals matter to the extent that they function in relationship to “a people.” (We tend to see people as individuals, and while there is overlap the two are not the same.)
Arguably, bible families are a dangerous place to be. The story of Joseph, and the sibling rage which we encounter today, is but the latest in a long line of such notorious behavior. The key component seems to be the Father’s preference.
The first couple fail God, but they also fail one another. Eve give her husband the fruit. When the deed is uncovered, Adam cast blame toward her. Whatever the previous situation, this event changed things going forward. The curse of the unequal relationship has been a blight on marriage ever since. More importantly, the ‘fall’ of marriage changed the dynamic for family. The first siblings make a brief appearance. Ancient conflicts between shepherd and farmer lay behind the story, but as told in Genesis it is a sparse tail of fratricide. God (Hebrew: sha’a, literally to look at) took notice of Abel’s offering (no reason is given) and “looks away” from Cain’s. [the obscure 4:6-7 are more ancient Hebrew and come from a poetic tex; sin lurks at the tent flap and desires Cain, but he will dominate it]. The text describing the murder uses the term brother twice. It takes place in a field. The ancient writers used signal words to make connections for us (remember Noah and Moses are in an ark) in order to lead the reader to study them together.
Speaking of the ark, the next family we encounter is Noah’s. One of the sons, Ham, disrespects his father, and so Canaan is cursed while Shem and Japheth are blessed. (Battles with Canaanites is a recurring issue for the Jews).
Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Sarah and Hagar are in conflict and the first born does something to Isaac (21:9; cf. 26:8 where it is used of Isaac and Rebekah. Some sexual connotation possible?) which upsets Sarah and Hagar and son were exiled in the desert where God intervened to save them.
We recently reviewed the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau (a man of the field, who returns from the field to learn he was tricked by his brother who will be a successful sheepherder. Esau plans to kill Jacob. Rachel and Leah are bitter rivals. And now the sons plan to kill Joseph whose dream of a field where his brother’s sheaves bowed to his seemed to have been the tipping point in their hatred for him.
We read Friday at Morning Prayer (Judges 9) about Gideon’s son Abimelek who had himself declared king and then murdered his seventy brothers. The word brother appears several times. In chapter 20-21 the tribe of Benjamin will go to war against other tribes with the words brother and field occurring several times.
It concludes with Solomon killing his brother Adonijah. Not long before that David’s son Absalom kills his brother, the first born Amnon. There is something worthy of note in that story. Amon had raped then spurned his half-sister Tamar (Absolom’s full sister). She wears a coat described with the same obscure Hebrew word as Joseph, the only other use of the term in the Jewish Bible. In addition, when David refuses to reconcile with Absolom a woman comes and tells a story about two sons, one killing the other in a field.
The field connects all of the fratricide, so that in Cain and Abel we see a template for all the future murders and chaos.
Bible families are rarely, if ever, a model of domestic bliss. Polygamy creates endless conflicts between wives and offspring. Even when there is a single wife, Eve and Rachel, the offspring still are at odds, it seems. (in fact, in the “first world almanac” the fratricide rate was 100%!)
The Bible provides sparse narratives and few explanations, but the images are rather disturbing.
The unfortunate reality is, even among us, there are often terrible conflicts among family members. If we aren’t killing each other, some might “wish” they were dead.
In the midst of all that conflict what are we to do?
Jesus offered an alternative. The family of God is not biological. The family Jesus gathered around Himself trumps genetic connectedness and is based on common worship, shared faith and mission. Yet, even in that family, the church, there are horrible conflicts and endless battles. Today as we criticize Muslims killing Christians, we forget that in the 16th Century Catholic and Protestant zealots murdered one another in the name of Jesus! The fractures produced by human sin are as at home among us as any where…
What then to do?
Trust the Father’s love for each of us and do not envy His treatment of others. We have no competition among ourselves, our only competition is our current self with our best possible self.
Loving our “brother/sister” is to see them with God’s gracious eye. If Jesus dies for everyone, who are we to differentiate? If Jesus is Judge of the living and the dead, who are we to hasten the judgment by condemning and battling one another?
There is no escaping the spirit of Cain. We aren’t able (forgive the pun). We can, however, recognize that impulse. We can, like him, know that sin lurks at the door. We can embrace the power God gives us to overcome that sin.
And in those times when our impulses and sins lead us, like Joseph’s brothers, to do a great evil, then we can pray that God will intervene. We know Joseph’s story works out. God writes straight with our crooked lines. So let us be people of faith, trusting God.
And remember the command is to love one another as Jesus loves us. It matters to Him that we break the cycle.