Godly Families of the Past—A Pattern for Our Day
THE family—the United Nations tried to make it the focus of world attention. How? By declaring 1994 the “International Year of the Family.” Although world leaders, sociologists, and family counselors have been quick to lament such things as the rise in illegitimate births and skyrocketing divorce rates, they have been slow to come up with workable, realistic solutions to such problems.
Could it be that the Bible has solutions to family problems? To some it may seem naive to suggest that the Bible could be of help in today’s families. After all, it was written centuries ago in a Middle Eastern setting and culture. In most parts of the world, life has changed drastically since Bible times. Nevertheless, the Bible was inspired by Jehovah God, the one to whom every family owes its name. (Ephesians 3:14, 15; 2 Timothy 3:16) What does the Bible say about family problems?
Jehovah knows exactly what is needed to make family life enjoyable and fulfilling. His Word, the Bible, therefore, has much to say about family life, some in the form of admonition. The Bible also contains examples of families that put godly principles to work. As a result, they enjoyed real closeness and contentment. Let us take a look at family life in Bible times and see what lessons can be learned.
Consider, for example, the matter of family headship. In patriarchal times, men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were undisputed “family heads.” (Acts 7:8, 9; Hebrews 7:4) The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, by Ralph Gower, says: “The family was . . . a ‘little kingdom’ that was ruled by the father. He ruled over wife, children, grandchildren, and servants—everyone in the household.” Indeed, the patriarchs often had authority over their sons’ families as well.—Compare Genesis 42:37.
Did this not give men the license to oppress their wives and children? Not at all. True, God told the first woman, Eve: “Your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” (Genesis 3:16) Those words indicated how married women in general would fare, but they did not describe how things were to be among God’s true worshipers. God-fearing husbands were to keep in mind Jehovah’s original purpose. Jehovah made woman to be man’s “helper as a complement of him,” not his slave. (Genesis 2:20) Because godly men of early times recognized their own subjection and accountability to God, they did not abuse their authority. Far from treating their wives and children as mere slaves, God-fearing patriarchs showed them genuine love and affection.
A glimpse into the affection that children commonly received is given at Genesis 50:23. There it says of the great-grandsons of Joseph: “They were born upon Joseph’s knees.” While this could simply mean that Joseph acknowledged the children as his descendants, it could also indicate that he affectionately played with the children, dandling them upon his knees. Fathers today do well to show their children similar affection.
As family heads, the God-fearing patriarchs also cared for the spiritual needs of their families. Upon emerging from the ark after the global Deluge, “Noah began to build an altar to Jehovah . . . and to offer burnt offerings upon the altar.” (Genesis 8:20; compare Job 1:5.) The faithful patriarch Abraham set a good example by giving family members personal instruction. He ‘commanded his sons and his household after him so that they would keep Jehovah’s way to do righteousness and judgment.’ (Genesis 18:19) Loving headship thus contributed to the emotional and spiritual well-being of families.
Christian men today follow this pattern. They exercise headship in matters of worship by helping their families to comply with God’s requirements and by setting a good example themselves. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Hebrews 10:24, 25) Like the patriarchs, Christian husbands and fathers also take the time to give personal instruction to their family members.
Taking Decisive Action
When he finally paid off a huge debt to his father-in-law, the patriarch Jacob asked: “When am I to do something also for my own house?” (Genesis 30:30) Like all fathers, Jacob felt the pressure of meeting the material needs of his family, and he worked hard to do this. Says Genesis 30:43: “The man went on increasing more and more, and great flocks and maidservants and menservants and camels and asses came to be his.”
Some years later, however, after Jacob had moved into the land of Canaan, he apparently was unaware that his daughter Dinah had developed the dangerous habit of associating with the pagan Canaanites.* (Genesis 34:1) He also failed to act when he became aware of the presence of heathen paraphernalia in his household. At any rate, after the tragic rape of Dinah by a Canaanite, Jacob took decisive action. “Put away the foreign gods that are in the midst of you and cleanse yourselves,” he directed.—Genesis 35:2-4.
Christian fathers must be vigilant when it comes to the spirituality of their families. If there are serious threats to the spiritual welfare of the family, such as the presence of immoral literature or unwholesome music in the home, they must take decisive action.
Interestingly, such women of faith as Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel also exerted significant influence in the family. Although they were submissive to their husbands, they were not restrained from taking the initiative when it was appropriate and necessary. For example, Exodus 4:24-26 tells us that when Moses and his family were going to Egypt, “Jehovah [“Jehovah’s angel,” Septuagint] got to meet him and kept looking for a way to put him [Moses’ son] to death.” Evidently, Moses’ son was in danger of being executed because Moses had failed to circumcise him. Zipporah took swift action and circumcised her son. Consequently, the angel let go of him. Christian wives today can also take the initiative when the situation makes this appropriate.
Fatherly Instruction Under the Mosaic Law
In 1513 B.C.E., the patriarchal age ended as Israel became a nation. (Exodus 24:3-8) Fathers continued to serve as family heads. However, family law became subordinate to the national Law given by God to Moses and administered by appointed judges. (Exodus 18:13-26) The Levitical priesthood took over the sacrificial aspects of worship. Still, the father continued to play an important role. Moses exhorted: “These words that I am commanding you today must prove to be on your heart; and you must inculcate them in your son and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you get up.”—Deuteronomy 6:6, 7.
The Law provided occasions, such as the Passover, during which instruction could be given both formally and informally. As the Passover date, Nisan 14, approached, Jewish families would begin preparing for their customary trip to Jerusalem. (Deuteronomy 16:16; compare Luke 2:41.) What child could fail to be caught up in the excitement of such preparations? The journey itself would be a delight. By then the rainy season had ended, and the springtime sun had begun to take the winter chill out of the air. As the snows of Mount Hermon melted, the Jordan River would overflow its banks.
Along the way, fathers could teach their children not only the geography of their land but also the rich history connected with the sites they might pass. These might include Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, where the curses and blessings of the Law were read. They might also pass Bethel, where Jacob had his vision of the celestial ladder. What thrilling discussions would ensue! As the journey progressed and family groups were joined by travelers from other parts of the land, all would enjoy upbuilding association.
Finally the family would enter Jerusalem, “the perfection of prettiness.” (Psalm 50:2) Says scholar Alfred Edersheim: “Many of these pilgrims must have camped outside the city walls. Those who lodged within the walls were gratuitously accommodated.” Yes, Hebrew youths received a firsthand lesson in brotherly love and hospitality. Yearly conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses serve a similar purpose today.
Nisan 14 would finally arrive. The Passover animal would be slaughtered and roasted for several hours. Near midnight the family would eat the lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. According to custom a son would ask: “What does this service mean to you?” Fathers would then give formal instruction, saying: “It is the sacrifice of the passover to Jehovah, who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when he plagued the Egyptians, but he delivered our houses.”—Exodus 12:26, 27; 13:8.
Israel’s King Solomon said: ‘There is a time to laugh and a time to skip about.’ (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Israelite children were allowed time for recreation. Jesus Christ apparently watched children play in the marketplaces. (Zechariah 8:5; Matthew 11:16) And it was not unusual for parents of means to arrange for enjoyable family gatherings that featured singing, dancing, and feasting. (Luke 15:25) Christian parents today likewise take the initiative in providing wholesome recreation and association for their children.
Mothers and Children in Jewish Society
What role did mothers play under the Mosaic Law? Proverbs 1:8 commanded: “Listen, my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother.” Within the framework of her husband’s authority, the Jewish wife would apply God-given requirements in family life. She was to be honored by her children, even after she had grown old.—Proverbs 23:22.
The mother also had a large share in the training of her children. She cared for an infant almost exclusively until it was old enough to be weaned, no doubt resulting in a close mother and child bond. (Isaiah 49:15) While fathers were teaching their sons a trade, mothers taught their daughters the domestic skills. Mothers also had a profound influence on their sons. For example, Lemuel the king benefited from “the weighty message that his mother gave to him in correction.”—Proverbs 31:1.
A capable Jewish wife also enjoyed considerable latitude in “watching over the goings-on of her household.” According to Proverbs 31:10-31, she might purchase household supplies, make real-estate investments, and even manage a small business. To the appreciative husband, her value was “far more than that of corals”!
A Pattern for Today
In Bible times the family arrangement worked for the emotional and spiritual growth of all its members. Fathers were to exercise their authority lovingly to benefit their families. They were to take the lead in worship. Both fathers and mothers showed an interest in their children—teaching and training them, worshiping with them, and providing recreation for them. Godly mothers proved to be valuable helpers, respecting the headship of their husbands while taking initiative in behalf of their families. Obedient children brought joy to their parents and to Jehovah God. Indeed, the God-fearing family of Bible times was an excellent pattern for our day.
It should be noted that prior to this, Jacob had taken firm steps to protect his family from the influence of the Canaanites. He built an altar, doubtless of a style that set him apart from his Canaanite neighbors. (Genesis 33:20; Exodus 20:24, 25) Furthermore, he pitched his camp outside the city of Shechem and established his own water supply. (Genesis 33:18; John 4:6, 12) Dinah would thus have been well aware of Jacob’s desire that she not associate with the Canaanites.
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Your family can be as happy as families that worshiped Jehovah in Bible times