I was recently an observer to an interesting conversation. At one point, a theologian wondered aloud how folks like myself, who teach about family life in a seminary context, could speak of biblical models of the family when the families we’re shown in Scripture are, well, less than exemplary. He wasn’t looking for a specific answer, but remarked that he had never heard a satisfactory one.
I don’t know that he’d like my answer either. But I do think there’s a way to think about this.
We have to start by recognizing that the man has a point. In Genesis 12, for example, after Abram has faithfully obeyed God’s call, we read of a troublesome episode in Egypt. Abram tells Pharaoh’s officials that his beautiful wife Sarai is his sister, because he’s afraid they’ll kill him to obtain her for Pharaoh’s harem. As a consequence of his deception, Abram is treated royally, while Sarai is taken into the palace. Who knows what advances or indignities she had to fend off by herself? When the cowardly ruse is finally revealed, Abram and Sarai are sent packing–and they get to keep all the gifts that were lavished on Abram.
Later, Abraham (his new God-given name, Gen 17:5) pulls the same trick again in Gerar, with the same result (Gen 20). And a generation later, Abraham’s beloved son Isaac does the same with his wife Rebekah (Gen 26). Like father, like son.
From Genesis 12 straight through to the end of the book, we’re treated to episode after episode of what today would be considered dysfunctional family behavior. Parents play favorites with their children. Family members deceive and trick one another. Two sisters, one perpetually unloved, compete for the affection of their husband. Ten brothers gang up on one and sell him into slavery.
Need more examples? How about King David and his wives and children? Or even the disrespectful way Jesus was treated by his brothers?
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen–the biblical family.
What should we make of this?
Let’s go back to Genesis 12 for a moment, the story of Abram, Sarai, and Pharaoh. In the first part of the chapter, Abram demonstrates great faith in believing God’s promise and obeying his strange command to pack up his considerable belongings and set out on a journey. By a striking contrast, he then acts shamefully in the second half of the chapter, essentially selling out his wife to save his own skin.
But even more disturbing: God doesn’t seem to mind. Surely Pharaoh is no saint, but in the matter of Sarai he seems innocent. God nevertheless strikes Pharaoh’s household with plagues until she is released back to her husband, and they leave Egypt richer than when they entered.
Fast forward to Genesis 20. After Abimelek, king of Gerar, takes Sarah into his household, God appears to him in a dream. The conversation is instructive:
But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” (Gen 20:3-7, NIV)
God himself declares Abimelek innocent, while also threatening him with death. Indeed, God had already punished Abimelek’s household by keeping any of the women from being able to bear children (20:17-18). Meanwhile, there is nothing in this or any other text that suggests that God took Abraham aside to chastise him for his deceit or his mistreatment of his wife. And in the end, Abraham received gifts of livestock, servants, and silver–Abimelek’s compensation for a sin he didn’t commit.
Now I ask you: doesn’t that seem just a teensy-weensy bit unfair?
Well, yes, if we take the story to be about how God should bless people for their virtuous behavior. But if we follow the lead of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, we can say instead that the story is about the inscrutability of the promise–in other words, the unfathomable faithfulness of God to his covenant promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation.
Let me say it this way. There are clearly episodes in which Abraham and his descendants serve as shining examples of faith. Other episodes remind us of their sinfulness and fallibility and serve as cautionary tales. But the point is that the scarlet thread that runs through these stories is not the faithfulness of families, but the covenant faithfulness of God.
When we come to the Bible for moral instruction, we have a penchant for boiling things down to rules and principles, hence the attraction of the notion of a “biblical family” that would serve as a guide. And don’t get me wrong: if I didn’t think there was much for families to learn from Scripture, I’d have to hang up my keyboard, here and now.
But to borrow from the thought of Richard Hays, at the core of the Bible’s moral instruction is not a set of rules or principles, but its creation of a narrative world which we are invited to inhabit, a world in which a sovereign God desires a people for his own and pledges himself to them, unfailingly.
In some ways, there’s not much mystery to the fact that families fail, sometimes miserably. What’s astonishing is that a holy God would put up with this without turning his back. And what families need, ultimately, is to be so astounded by that love, grace, and faithfulness that they would want to embody it in their lives together.
Be a biblical family? I’d rather put it this way: be a people whose imaginations are thoroughly shaped by the incredible story of a faithful and holy God, and who live out the truth of that story in their homes.