The family in the Bible

The family in the Bible

James A. Sanders


I had begun study of the varied depths of partriarchalism in the Bible before Leland White died, even before 9/11, but when the opportunity arose to join in a tribute to my long-time friend I knew I had written it for him. The whole of the Bible and of Jewish and Christian tradition can be viewed within the tension between the Bible’s focus on family, or community worth and responsibility, and its struggle toward affirmation of individual worth and responsibility within the larger family. That tension was brought home to the West in a traumatic way in the events of 9/11 and dramatized tragically in the recent climax of the Second Intifada. The varying levels of the Hellenization of Early Judaism, and reactions to it, brought about the cultural mix that produced Christian Judaism, which warmly embraced Greco-Roman culture, on the one hand, and Rabbinic Judaism, on the other, which tried bravely to resist it. The current cultural tensions between Islam and the West, and even in the so-called culture wars in this country, are illumined by a socio-cultural reading of the Bible as a whole.


The family in the Bible, as in the Ancient Near East (ANE) and in the Mediterranean world generally, was patriarchal. What this means primarily is that the cultures through and in which biblical literature was shaped and formed over some 1200 years were basically patriarchal. The tribe and the family were centered in the men in the family, especially the first-born. This is seen in the biblical understandings of a family and its character, the “father’s house” (bet ‘av), the family (mishpahah), the concept of peoplehood (ha’am), brotherhood, kinship, Levirate marriage, and even the Jubilee laws of redemption of debtors and family land. “Round the man the house groups itself, forming a psychic community, which is stamped by his character. Wives, children, slaves, property are entirely merged in this unity” (Pedersen: 63). There are some who claim that the Japanese view of the people as a sacred family with the emperor as holy father is the closest to that of biblical Israel, and we have been starkly confronted since 9/11/01 with what many Muslims call “the Arab Family or Nation,” which transcends modern political states and stretches from Morocco to Indonesia (Goody).

The major issue in ancient Israel was that of the survival of the family God had chosen to receive and live God’s Torah. The principal issue of patriarchalism in the Bible was that of survival of the corporate identity of the chosen family or tribe, just as eventually the central issue of the Exile in the sixth century BCE was whether the people whom God had chosen would survive with identity intact, and not assimilate to the culture of the conqueror, thereby losing identity–as apparently all other peoples conquered by Assyria and Babylonia did. Most of the Bible is taken up with a history of threats of near extinction by foreign forces and natural disasters. In the fuller or canonical biblical story these are seen as challenges to God’s promises of progeny and land (Gen 12) to Abraham and Sarah. This was because of the wonder, as Abraham Heschel often stressed, at Judaism’s somehow surviving all such disasters, including the rise of Christianity and its persecutions, the pogroms, the Holocaust, and the Arab-Jewish War of the last century. The issue was survival of at least a remnant with identity still intact.

The children of the family or household were not just the father’s future through his name, but the continuing existence of one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Without children his major domo, or head household servant, who was often an alien like Eliezer of Damascus, would inherit the land (Gen 15). Selection of a spouse was a family affair, and not for the individual alone to decide. The wife had to be found not far removed from his family so as not to introduce disruptive foreign or strange elements into the heritage, as Solomon did with his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1Kgs 11:3). While the wife chosen for an Israelite was not to be alien, incest on the other hand was to be avoided. Incest and homosexuality were to be shunned because the Hittites and the Canaanites, and other foreigners, engaged in such practices. The prohibition against incest, however, did not preclude marrying half-sisters or half-brothers; and intermarriage with Canaanites and other peoples occurred frequently, as can be seen in the Book of Judges and elsewhere.

The man was at the center of the family and the woman his partner in assuring continuity (Wright). In a patriarchal society a woman was basically a regenerative-sexual being. (Please don’t moralize yeti) It was the man’s family she was committed to multiply when getting married. Everything was grouped around the man as the heir of the patriarch Jacob before him (hence the very term, patriarchal). It was his life which was to be continued in the family, and polygamy was practiced to serve that end. And the man could proclaim divorce from a wife if she did not bear children. But the woman who did produce children attained considerable status in the family, even nobility; indeed a foreign slave woman who bore the man children acquired high status.

The divine promise in Genesis 12 of land and progeny as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand particles of the seashore canonically dominates the Bible in many ways. Male children were cherished for this reason. A girl was to help in the growth of some other family, but she was still an integral part of the system because she would supposedly be given in wedlock to another family within the clan or larger family. The fifth commandment to honor the mother as well as the father underscored the family as the basic unit of society. If anyone cursed his parents or stubbornly refused to obey them he was to be put to death (Cf. Exod 21:15-17, Lev 20:9, and the prodigal son parable (to which we shall return).

The classic story of pathos, loyalty, misunderstanding, deception and final triumph of a “harlot’s virtue,” that of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, focuses on Tamar’s determination to provide progeny for her deceased husband, even to the extent of deceiving her father-in-law, Judah, into having sex with her in order to carry out the custom of Levirate marriage. After being seduced by Tamar Judah accused her of harlotry, but the story ends by showing that Tamar was fight to seduce Judah. Tamar wanted to provide her dead husband, Judah’s son Er, with children through Er’s father, Judah, their grandfather to be. The intrusion of the Tamar story in Genesis 38, after the beginning in Gen 37 of the longer and more famous Joseph story, has long puzzled commentators and scholars. Both stories, however, are about apparently rebellious children who turned out to have been right in terms of what was best for the survival of Jacob’s family in the long term. The focus in both stories is on the family and its survival.

Judah objected to his brothers’ wanting to kill the obnoxious imp, Joseph, in Genesis 37; but Genesis 38 then says the same Judah failed to keep his promise to his daughter-in-law Tamar to give her a brother of her deceased husband to carry on his name in Levirate marriage. (The brother, Onan, had refused to have children by her for his brother and in rebellion spilled his seed on the ground.) Judah finally recognized the righteousness of Tamar’s playing the harlot saying (in Genesis 38:26) finally, “She is more righteous than I in that I did not give her to my son Shelah”–even though Tamar had presented herself as a harlot to attract her father-in-law at a country sheep-shearing fair. Tamar by deception served the future of the family, God’s chosen people, Jacob/Israel, by acting the anonymous harlot who seduced her father-in-law.

In light of the focus on the family as the very essence of life and the center of justice in Israelite society the (Genesis 38) Tamar-Judah story on the contrary fits poignantly into the (Genesis 37-50) story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers in their selling him as a slave to a caravan going down to Egypt. The Joseph story is a story of extreme sibling rivalry told to say that God could turn the brothers’ evil act of betraying Joseph, into good. Because of their evil deed Joseph eventually became the grand vizier of Egypt who later saved the whole of Jacob’s family from extinction in the famine that threatened their survival. Joseph’s brothers served the future of Israel’s family by sibling rivalry and disobedience to the law.

One must not moralize on first reading a biblical story. One should not moralize either about the justness of the law broken, or the rightness of the disobedience of it recounted in the story. One must first ask what the story says God was doing through such human disobedience. There is an ancient saying that all my students had to learn: Errore hominum providentia divina–God’s grace or providence works through and with human sinfulness. Throughout the Bible one must theologize first in reading the text and moralize later, sometimes much later. This is the opposite of the position taken by so-called Christian conservatives, and certainly the opposite of that adopted by fundamentalists. That is, we must first ask what God is doing in the story with the normal but frail humans in it, and how they thought and acted in the story. We must theologize first, that is, ask what the text indicates God could do with and through the sin and evil humans continually commit in the Bible and in real life–and thereafter moralize on the basis of the grace of God celebrated in the text applied to any on-going socio-political situation.

The Bible has very few models for morality but many mirrors for human identity in which we can see our own foibles and failings starkly revealed. We must ask what the text by dynamic analogy indicates God can do with the likes of us mirrored in all these marvelously wicked stories! This hermeneutic principle forces and focuses the question of the role of ancient cultures in discerning the development of our own culture today. This is the central issue in the so-called “culture wars” some conservatives try to wage in society today. So-called conservatives claim that the cultural mores described and reflected in the Bible are God’s will for today, but this is highly problematic, as we shall see.

The Book of Ruth provides yet another story of family survival. Ruth’s loyalty in following Naomi was not to Naomi her mother-in-law, but to her deceased husband, even though Ruth, the ancestress of King David and of Jesus, was not Judahite. Because her brother-in-law would not fulfill the Levirate law by marrying his brother’s widow to make him progeny, Boaz, an eligible relation, stepped in and fulfilled the Levirate obligation for the sake of Elimelech’s Judahite family. “Ruth like Tamar was an example of womanly heroism” (Pedersen: 80). Ruth’s whole story is built around her determination to provide heirs for her deceased husband, Naomi’s and Elimelech’s son. The crux of the story (if we refuse to moralize first) is that Ruth slept at Boaz’ feet in his own bed!! The story provides a variation on the persistent and basic theme of the need for continuing heirs in the families of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Book of Ruth shows how God’s promise of progeny was often fulfilled through disobedience and sin. The loyalty and persistence of the foreign Moabitess, Ruth, secured the continuity of the tribe of Judah. In the Bible God often works through “others” of her children. The accounts also celebrate God’s ability to convert human sin or evil into good.

The crux of the story of Esther is in Queen Esther’s cunning in getting the Persian enemy, Haman, to appear to be seducing her on her own bed when King Ahasueros unexpectedly entered her chambers from the garden outside. Thus Persian royal jealousy saved the Jewish people. The stories of Tamar, Ruth, Esther, Hannah, Abigail and many other women in the Bible, heroic as each was in her own right, are built around the family heritage theme of God’s fulfillment of the divine promise of progeny and land God had made to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12. All had consciously or subconsciously sinned in some way that the family might survive, and the Bible honors them all.

The Family and the Land

Property too was a family affair. The laws of Jubilee stress the point. The property was to stay in the family to which originally assigned. Redemption of debt-slaves and of property in the Jubilee years was family- or clan-centered.

The institution of the monarchy and the gradual urbanization of Israel undermined the family network somewhat, but not entirely. A great deal of both the pathos and the marvel of Jewish stories from the Persian and Hellenistic Periods (in the Hagiographa, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) is in how enough of a remnant of the continuing family or clan of Jacob refused to assimilate religiously to foreign domination, and thus kept their identity. They absorbed many aspects of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman cultures through which the stories were told and were woven (foreign calendars, foreign names, finances, etc), but there was always identity enough in a remnant to refuse to abandon belief in the One God of All who made the promises of progeny and land to the patriarchs in the first place.

In sum, Israelite society was family oriented. The family, the bet `av or household, was the basic unit of society as a whole. It was gathered around the character of the head of the house, the father. Since marriage was often at a very young age, polygamy was practiced, and slaves were part of the household (the yelid bayit), so that the household might include four generations, or even five, and was often quite large. Wives left their family to become a part of the husband’s bet `av, which could number as many as a hundred persons at any one time. A number of such households constituted a mishpahah, often translated family but also clan, or grouping by kinship of a number of bate `ab, or fathers’ houses. The mishpahah also had a territorial identity. One returned to one’s ancestral home for certain festivals, the observation of Jubilee, territorial obligations, census, and taxation; and at death one was gathered to one’s fathers. Finally, the “tribe” was made up of a number of mishpahot, or clans. Israel is described as consisting of twelve such tribes.

When Israel gradually changed the social structure of ancient Canaan, Palestine went from being a city–state culture, with a power-at-the-top/poverty-at-the-bottom pattern–to a social system based on broad equality-of-kinship groups without a centralized elite power base such as a monarchy (Gottwald). The opposition of the early prophets, especially Samuel, to Israel’s having a king like the nations, and the searing indictments of the later prophets of the royal households for their oppression of powerless and poor people, indicate the continuing power of the old social structure based on kinship groups. Rich and poor alike belonged to the family; it was a form of “family security.” The rich could not keep their wealth to themselves, as in western society.

Within the mispahah, or family/clan, there were certain institutions under the head of household (bet `av). One was the go’el. The “redeemer” had three functions: (a) to avenge a murder of a member of the family; (b) to assure that deceased relatives had heirs (levirate marriage, from Latin levir meaning brother-in-law); and (c) to secure and redeem the portion of family land which a poor relative might have had to “sell” to pay off debts. This was a part of the Jubilee tradition in the Bible (Deut 15; Lev 25). In the Jubilee year all debts were forgiven, all slaves released, and all property repatriated to the original family to whom assigned. The theological base of the Jubilee was that both the land and the people belonged to God. They were God’s families, clans and tribes and had to be redeemed if “sold” into foreign or non-family hands. This too prevented an oligarchy from developing in Israel as it had in ancient Canaanite society. Rule by oligarchy (or an unchecked laissez-faire capitalist system) was a persistent threat, as it still is, and was resisted in the Bible in a number of ways, especially by the Jubilee legislation.

The Jubilee guaranteed the “inalienability” of God’s land and maintained the stewardship of families on the ancestral land by periodic restoration or redemption. The practice of Jubilee had started actually in high antiquity in the ANE as a way a king had of wresting power from the wealthy elite few (or oligarchy) who had accumulated so much wealth that most of his people were destitute and the king weakened by a narrow capitalist system. In the Bible this ancient practice of Jubilee was adapted and made a calendar event that occurred every seven (pre-exilic in Deuteronomy 15) or every fifty years (post-exilic in Leviticus 25), thus taking it out of the hands of humans, even of the king. The biblical Jubilee was very difficult to enforce and in early pre-Christian Judaism it was observed in the breach by proto-Rabbinic type Jews (by the ploy of the prosbul), or was eschatologized and delayed until Messiah came, by pre-Christian type Jews (as in the A&P). There is ample evidence that the Kingdom of God idea in the Gospel of Luke was based on the messianic Jubilee concept of redemption of people and land being extended to all people and all the earth. In any case, Jubilee also underscored how society was based on the power of the clan or family as over against the usurping power of royalty or oligarchy.

The bet `ab or household was also the legal base of society. The extended family or household had judicial independence of any political power beyond it; the bet `ab was indeed the primary framework of legal authority. The fifth commandment underscored this, inculcating the honoring of father and mother. Within the clan the judicial “elders” or judges were the heads of households who sat in the City Gate to execute justice. A judge was a patriarch who judged rightly in the long view.

Most poignant in this regard was the law in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which allowed parents to take a rebellious, cantankerous and drunkard son to court if he refused to be obedient. Jesus in the parable of the two brothers (Luke 15:11-32) challenged certain interpretations of the law (and the structure of patriarchalism) by stressing that the law in Deuteronomy 21 is a case law, and that the father might indeed accept the prodigal son’s return to the land as repentance and show tremendous grace and love to the one who had in rebellion challenged the patriarchal system which the older brother represented. The parable, like the stories of the heroic women who disobeyed, in effect subverts the patriarchal system.

The family, nonetheless, was the basic unit of Israelite culture and society. It was also the basic unit of Israel’s stewardship of the land which belonged to God, and the basic unit in the experience and preservation of the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Having a large family was a blessing of God. The earliest courts in the Bible were formed in the presbyterial system of justice wherein the elders or heads of families formed the court that sat in the City Gate (Exodus 18 et passim). While intending to avoid the emergence of an elite oligarchy of those who amassed great wealth, the presbyterial system sometimes developed into a power structure itself in which the Elders, or heads of households, became an elite power group.

Meritocracy and Honor/Shame

The Book of Job posits a situation in which an extremely wealthy patriarch, Job, was deprived by four disasters of all the evidence of his position in the clan, and indeed beyond the clan. In fact, the major reason Job is presented as non-Israelite is to provide for Israel or early Judaism a horror story of what can happen to the powerful in any society should they forget that all they have is in trust to God. And this was so even when they faithfully engaged in all the cultic practices of the faithful, as Job did. When the disasters happened Job held a position of immense prestige “among all the people of the east” in having “seven sons, three daughters, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 she-asses, and very many servants.” After the disasters Job sank to the absolute destitution of losing all of that in addition to being abandoned by his wife and sitting on an ash-heap scratching his boils with potsherds.

The first basic lesson of the Book of Job is that the trappings of great prestige in society, indeed all the evidence that the rich are honored by God, may be snatched away in one fell swoop (Job 1-2, 29-31). The second basic lesson of the Book of Job is that the traditional arguments about national responsibility in the pre-exilic prophets and in Deuteronomy should not be simplistically applied to an individual after the exile, as Job’s friends insisted on doing in the dialogues. This is probably the meaning of the otherwise enigmatic statement of Yahweh to Eliphaz and the friends in 42:7, in which God castigates the friends for not saying “what was right” about God in their debates with Job (Pyeon).

All forms of meritocracy are challenged by the Book of Job. Job himself is usually seen sympathetically by modern readers, and God as rather arbitrary. But within the patriarchal structure of ancient Israel and of the ANE generally the Book of Job stood as a sharp attack on patriarchalism when it became a meritocracy. All societies in the ANE, and indeed in the later Greco-Roman world, were structured by an honor/shame system or syndrome. The rich were honored by what they owned, and the poor shamed by what they did not own. The biblical family system of justice, however, was designed to make it clear that no one owned anything, but held whatever they had responsibility for in trust to God who alone owned both land and people, and indeed all means of creating wealth. The most that a patriarch or head-of-house should have claimed was that he was a steward responsible in his limited lifetime for a sizeable portion of God’s creation.

This same honor/shame system is still operative in most societies today, especially ours. Our justice system, even in this great country, is deeply flawed by the honor/shame syndrome of meritocracy, in which the rich are viewed as favored by God and the poor just don’t try hard enough. The rich often get away with infractions of law and custom in our society for which the poor are arrested and summarily punished. Police nationwide view themselves as the buffer between the haves (who pay their salaries) and the have-nots (who threaten them). This very syndrome is vigorously and unexceptionally denounced in the Bible by the prophets and by Jesus. In fact, it is frankly very difficult for the historian to explain how Western society, which claims to practice justice based on the Bible, got from the biblical, family-structured society of focus on the common good, guaranteed by many laws and practices, to its current market-oriented individualistic capitalist society which violates the whole concept of a family-oriented society, which is focussed on the common good. When ancient Israel strayed from its family-oriented base it was summarily denounced by the prophets. When Israel in any age strayed back into a Canaanite or common ANE culture of oligarchies in which riches indicated being honored by the gods and poverty being shamed by the gods, the prophets and Jesus lashed out against it. But churches tend to mute their challenge because churches are dependent on the system for their very survival.

The Family in the Covenant and in the New Testament

The early church was family-centered as well. Just as the family in the home was the center of Israelite and Judahite observance of the Sabbath, Passover, Hanukkah, and most Jewish festivals and worship, so the family was apparently at the heart of the early church. Abraham Heschel taught that Judaism has no cathedrals made of glass and stone, but its cathedral is the observance of the Sabbath = Shabbat = the sacrality of time, not space. The Book of Acts and Paul’s Letters make it clear that the church was made up both of individuals and of Jewish and gentile immediate households.

The covenant relationship between God and the people in the Bible is most often expressed by use of the metaphor of the family. Throughout the Bible God is presented as a parent, Father to be sure because of the patriarchal nature of societies deriving from ANE cultures generally. But God in a select few passages is also seen as Mother. Though the latter may not be as numerous as one might like, they are there. In the monotheizing process, which biblical history describes, the One God gradually took on the traits and characteristics of female as well as male deities. The metaphor for the covenant was basically the family for which the ultimate Father/Mother was God. Israel was seen as God’s son in the Mosaic covenant. And in the Davidic covenant God was seen as the Father whose son was the king, especially David and his heirs (cf. Ps 2:7). The idea of a king being a god’s son was not at all uncommon in the ANE, or in the Greco-Roman world.

The metaphor was carried on into the NT where Jesus is seen as the son of God. It is somewhat surprising that the Trinitarian formula did not explicitly include a mother figure, though I have often suspected that the Holy Spirit was viewed in feminine terms in most of the early church. The Holy Spirit is never masculine in gender in either Hebrew or Greek. “Spirit” in both languages was either feminine or neuter, but never masculine as English translations have tended to make her. The family metaphor was eventually established for many early churches in the apotheosis of Jesus’ mother, Mary, displacing older views in some religions of the Queen of Heaven; and Mariology has, of course, developed into quite a cult in non-Protestant churches.

God is also seen as King, especially in prophetic thought, and is a reason given for resisting the establishment of human monarchies in Israel and Judah, as we see in the harsh indictments of kings in prophetic literature (Martin Buber). Even so, God when seen as monarch was still imbued with the Mother/Father parental qualities of both love and discipline within the family.

Jesus’ focus on women, especially in Luke/Acts, and his many challenges to what the Torah had become in Judaism were both a challenge to the abuses of patriarchalism and an effort to re-establish the Law as a gift of God intended to guarantee justice and righteousness as the very base of society. His claims in the Gospels that he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it were intended to set the concept of Torah or Law back on its original basis as a gift of God designed to keep humans human, against the tendency to selfishness and greed of the rich and powerful, and the tendency to be obedient just to prevent adversity. The power of riches corrupts insidiously and deceptively, and creates the illusion of meritocracy.

The Hellenization of Judaism

In order fully to appreciate what Jesus was doing in his time, and to understand what the figure of Christ meant in fully biblical terms, we need to comprehend the vast importance of what Alexander the Great did to the Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern world, but especially to the Western world. As we have seen in our survey so far, the Bible is based on an understanding of humanity that was centered in the family corporately. Individuals had their worth but only in the context of family, clan, and people. This was a corporate view of human worth and responsibility. When Alexander, however, challenged the Persian Empire and brought it to its knees in the late fourth century BCE, he changed the world. There has rarely been a force more powerful unleashed on the world than this son of Philip of Macedonia, worthy student of the great Athenian philosopher, Aristotle. But his real power was not only in military might, it was in his dedication to Greek culture and philosophy which challenged abuses throughout the known world of patriarchal systems. Alexander was an evangelist for Greek ways of thinking. Everywhere he went he established Greek-type cities, the polis, and in those cities he established schools to propagate what he had learned in Athens. I imagine he established a Peace Corps in Athens to staff the schools and to teach the world what Aristotle had taught him. And at the heart and core of what they taught was individual worth and responsibility. Greece was indeed the birthplace of democracy and human rights.

A few examples will have to suffice to explain how the Hellenization of the known world affected Early Judaism. The Bible is basically a community literature. Most of it is anonymous. We have no idea who wrote most of either testament, with the exception that we think we know the Apostle Paul wrote some letters to some churches he had founded or helped to found. Otherwise, modern scholarship, which itself is very influenced by Hellenism’s focus on individual worth and responsibility, has had to make up “original” authors for most biblical literature–such as J, E, D, and P as “authors” of the Pentateuch. We have no idea who wrote the great histories of the Bible, or the fabulous stories we looked at earlier, or the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc. But when the Greeks came calling, they inevitably would ask who wrote this great literature. The Jew would have responded, “Why, the Torah is our Book, it tells us who we are and what we should do.” “Yeah, the Greek would say, but who wrote it? We know who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, so who wrote the Torah?” That information was far more important to Greeks than it was to Jews, until they too became Hellenized. Then they could answer, Moses wrote the Torah, David wrote the Psalms, Solomon wrote Proverbs, etc., etc. This despite the fact that it is clear they did not, and the fact that such claims were superimposed later. Attribution of a biblical book to a well-known name from the community’s past is called pseudepigraphy, that which happens when a community is forced to find an original author for its common literature because of Greek cultural focus on individuals.

So-called conservatives today are so Hellenized that they are offended when this is pointed out. They think it is an attack on the Bible to say the truth about its anonymous or community origins. We have no idea who wrote the Gospels. Superscriptions, such as Kata Lukas, were not affixed to mss of the Gospels until well into the second century CE. It has been shown that whoever wrote Luke was not a doctor but the tradition of Luke being the same person as the beloved physician who was companion to Paul in Col. 4:14 is so imbedded in popular thinking it is difficult to surrender it. The truth is that the Bible is so semitic in basic outlook that it is essentially a community literature, formed and shaped in the ancient communities that found value in its stories and wisdom, with later communities adapting them, glossing them, and adding to them, until the canonical process came to a close. The prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, which bear in their superscriptions the names of ancient figures, have many additions appended by later communities which found value enough in them to adapt them to their later situations and thus make those additions–until the canonical process ceased (Sanders 2002). The individual prophets’ names in those books are presented in them as those through whom God worked; the focus is always on God’s word working through them, not on the prophet as a great individual. Books of the Hebrew Bible do not have titles or “by-lines,” but are referred to by the first words, or the salient word of the first verse of the book.

The upshot of Alexander’s revolution for the Jewish world was to bring focus as never before to individual worth and responsibility within the corporate. Both Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (ch. 18) had introduced the idea of generational responsibility in the context of the devastating defeat of Judah in the Babylonian conquest of the early sixth century BCE, but these were designed to help the survivors, the remnant, to understand that their generation would not have to continue to pay for the sins “of the fathers,” as the Torah, on the contrary, insists they would (Exod 34:6-7). This was the major reason some rabbis later doubted whether the Ezekiel Book “soiled the hands,” or was in some sense sacred.

The corporate or family dimension of the Bible and subsequent Judaism never ceased, but it became infused with the idea of individual worth and responsibility. The concept of resurrection was originally a collective concept, as in Ezekiel 37, God’s resurrecting his new Israel, Early Judaism, out of the ashes of old Israel and Judah in the Babylonian Exile. But after Alexander and the Hellenization of the known world, resurrection began to be seen as an individual affair, as in Isaiah 24 and Daniel 12, Pharisaic Judaism and the NT. The poem in Sirach 44-50 that begins, “Come, now, let us praise famous men” would have been anathema to traditional Judaism, which had always praised God and God only in telling the Torah story. Now the old story of God’s promises to and work with the patriarchs and prophets was in the Greek form of the encomium or praise of humans….

Hellenization and the Reformation

We can see the effects of Hellenization in many ways in our own lives. The Reformation was a child of the Renaissance, and the Renaissance was the “rebirth” (after the so-called “dark ages”) of the Hellenization process. One of the most interesting ironies of history, looking back from the present, is that it was the rise of Muslim civilization and culture, which flourished from the eighth to the twelfth centuries CE across the Near East and North Africa into Spain, that was the cradle of the great Golden Age of Jewish culture of the time, and became the catalyst for the Renaissance in Christian Europe. When Cordoba in Spain was the cultural jewel of the world, Baghdad’s only rival in that regard, Paris, for example, was in comparison a backwater. The great achievements of the Muslim culture of the time, for example, algebra, calculus, engineering, medicine, anatomy and optics, were the major stimulants that induced the Renaissance in Europe and its child, the Protestant Reformation.

When Luther read the Bible for himself in the sixteenth century, and then translated it into German so others could as well, he could do so largely because the Muslim world had invented paper to replace parchment for use in the newly invented printing press. Luther thus severed the Bible from Roman Catholic accumulated doctrine, call the Magisterium, to which for centuries it had been tethered. Luther thus invited individuals to interpret it for themselves. Luther’s doctrine of Sola Scriptura was a direct result of the Renaissance emphasis on the individual’s worth and ability to read and think for themselves about it. In the secular world one needs but think of Rodin’s statue, Le Penseur. And what was the sculpted serf or slave thinking as he pondered his condition? I suggest that he was asking himself whether God really intended him to be a serf or slave all his life, as his masters had taught him. In Martin Scorsese’s film version of The Last Temptation of Christ (Kazantzakis), Pilate remarked to Jesus after his arrest, “You do not want simply to change the way people live and act: you want to change the way they think. And Rome does not want that!”

The Reformation did not stop with Luther, of course. It eventually developed the left-wing Reformation of those who almost obliterated the corporate or collective dimension from their forms of Christianity. Thus arose the Anabaptists and their heirs the Baptists, such as Roger Williams who founded Rhode Island, who insisted that each individual should read the Bible for him/herself, and that each reading was valid for that individual. Protestantism generally is a trip into the world of individualism. Some Protestant churches, however, continue to practice infant baptism and reading Scripture from a common lectionary, marks of corporate worth and responsibility (such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist). Protestants speak of the number of members in their congregations while Jews, Catholics, and the Orthodox speak of the number of families in their congregations.

Alexander’s philosophy had a profound effect on enough Jews that some were able to hear a message, emanating from the Galilee, that God in their time had been incarnate in one person, one Jew, for the sake of all persons of whatever tribe or family anywhere. “Emanuel=God with us” had always meant God’s being with the Jewish people as a whole. Early Christians, however, resignified it and applied it to their belief in God’s being in one Jew, Christ. Hellenistic individualism permitted them to hear the message that GOd had resurrected that one person for the sake of every individual in the world. When those Hellenized Christian-Jews emerged into the Greco–Roman world outside Palestine the message was rapidly embraced and celebrated. It is utterly astounding to the historian how rapidly Christianity, with its almost uncanny combination of semitic emphasis on corporate worth and Greek emphasis on individual worth, spread through the world Alexander had Hellenized. There were enough Jews, like those at Qumran and the Pharisees, suppressed and oppressed as they were by the Greeks and the Romans, who resisted such individualization and hence the Christian message. For those Jews the idea of God’s incarnation in one person was pagan and should be vigorously resisted. But it spread with amazing speed out in the Greco–Roman world.

Alexander had paved the way, and so had the Hellenization of most Early Judaism. It was the combination of the two worlds, the Hellenic and the semitic Jewish that gave Christianity its basic character. When Paul and John tried to develop an ecclesiology, a biblical view of the nature of the Church, they drew upon the corporate idea of the Church being “En Christo,” “in Christ.” This eventually led to the doctrine that “the Church is the Corporate Body of Christ Resurrected.” The left-wing churches in the continuing Reformation developed the further idea, influenced by Greco–Roman mystery cults, that salvation was not corporately in the Church, but came about when each individual accepted “the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” The concept of Christ being a personal savior is only marginally biblical, but the left-wing Reformation went its merry way in embracing individualism to the point of understanding the Church as the sum of the individuals who make personal decisions to enter it. They in effect set aside the earlier tradition of the Church being the heir of Israel called forth by God in a pastoral call on Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 and established by Christ for the whole world. Such minority forms of highly Hellenized, so-called conservative Christianity today tend to be exclusivist admitting only those individuals who share similar emotions about a personal experience of salvation (Sanders 2001).

The New Family in Christ

Viewed from the standpoint of the development of biblical thought from emphasis on the worth and responsibilities of the corporate family, tribe and clan, to embracing the idea that anyone anywhere from any ethnic family or tribe could become a member of a new family in Christ, the phenomenon of the advent of Christ into the world was revolutionary. But it was truly revolutionary only as long as the balance was kept between the corporate and individual views. In Christ a new family was formed in which, it was claimed, anyone could join the mighty flowing stream that had begun when God made those promises to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12. And that new family, at least in its first two and a half centuries, welcomed especially the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized of every society, as well as a few families of means.

Jesus, who was himself considerably influenced by Hellenism, is reported as saying that unless one hates his mother and father, wife and children, sisters and brothers, even his own life, he could not join the new family in Christ being formed of folk from many families, clans and tribes (Lk 14:26=Mt 10:37; cf. Lk 8:21; 9:59-60). That was a gauntlet thrown at the feet of those who claimed that one could not leave the family or clan into which one was born from his mother’s womb, which is still the case in the non-Western world today. This is the same Jesus Luke reports saying, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). And it is Luke also who advises one, who excused himself from following Jesus because his father had died, that he should leave the dead to bury their own dead, and that he should instead go and proclaim that a new family, a new kingdom indeed was being formed (9:60). These are radical challenges to all earlier genetic views of the family. The new day of focus on individual worth and responsibility throughout the Mediterranean world and Middle Eastern societies was dawning in which the Jesus movement would rapidly spread out in the Greco–Roman world.

Some Christians embraced the idea from Greco–Roman mystery cults that entering the new family in Christ was like being “born again”, or experiencing a new birth (an individual renaissance), which gave a totally new identity to anyone who embraced it. Being born again at that time meant joining Christ’s new family of inclusiveness, grace and universal access to personal salvation by adoption into Christ’s new family. As may be seen from the Book of Acts and the Letters of Paul such conversions were both of individuals and of whole families. But once members of Christ’s family the children born into it were also considered members and children of the Church. Here the corporate understanding of Christ’s family, or the Church, was reaffirmed, and was not questioned until the Renaissance emphasis on individual worth and responsibility (in the left-wing Reformation churches) weakened the corporate concept of The Church for many in the West. For the left-wing Reformation churches the child can not be “saved” or become a member of the church, until the age of reason when each individual can make the decision for her or himself, whereas the Catholic and Orthodox churches teach that salvation is corporately “in the Church.” So-called born-again Christians today often disdain denominations and flock to totally free-standing “community churches” where a single charismatic pastor is their sole guide to knowledge of Scripture or church.

Grace and Law

The Gospel’s emphasis on divine grace, being undeserved and unmerited and a pure gift of God, soon brought up the question of the place of ethics, or the law. And here the NT is quite dialogical, with the Pauline stress on God’s grace and the Petrine and Jacobean stress on obedience to the law in response to God’s grace. Even Paul had to curb the enthusiasm of the Corinthean church which so stressed the Resurrection and the new life in God’s grace that they felt that the law could be set aside while they lived it up in glory, because Christ would be returning shortly. That vigorous debate, registered so strongly between the NT epistles, has never been resolved, nor should it necessarily be. It was the major difference in the early Reformation between the Lutheran churches (grace) and the Calvinist churches (law), as can be seen in the Heidelberg Confession at one level, and between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic at another level.

Today the heirs of the left-wing Reformation churches call themselves the conservatives in the current context of the so-called culture wars. Their argument, as I understand it, is that the ancient culture reflected in the Bible is that which God wills for humans today. The major problem with that is that the Bible was formed and shaped over a 1200-year period in antiquity (no matter the theory of authorship) from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age to the Persian Period to the Greek and Roman eras. And each of the cultures of those eras in and through which the Bible was formed left its mark in biblical literature. The Bible, therefore, is transcultural and does not reflect a single ethic but is full of cultural dialogue. We have seen above the long-term move from corporate emphasis on the family of birth down to the Hellenistic and later Renaissance emphasis on the worth and responsibility of each individual to decide his or her own identity and fate. And there are many other conflicts on the cultural level within the Bible.

But the dialogue between these cultures in the Bible is also quite felicitous if one does not harmonize them. The corporate ethic in the Bible stresses family-like distributive justice while the individual ethic stresses retributive justice, and they are both important. As Walter Brueggemann very poignantly points out (Brueggemann), the Bible shows that the only valid context for individual retributive justice is the much larger context of distributive justice in which goods and wealth are shared, as indeed they were in the patriarchal system. This is graphically laid out in the Book of Acts where wealth was held in common by the new family in Christ with emphasis on the common good of all.

Now let’s moralize! It is very interesting on another level of the so-called culture wars today that conservatives have also wanted to stress what they call a biblical world view. I recently saw a “Christian Academy” advertised on a large billboard claiming that everything they taught was from a “biblical world view.” I do not think that the academy’s sponsors would advocate burning Galileo again at the stake, or retreating from the advances of modern science from which they themselves greatly benefit. I do not think they teach that the earth is flat, as the Bible does because of its cultural trappings, or that it forms the middle of a three-tiered universe. They have probably simply tried to draw their “final line of retreat” at so-called Creation Science with its efforts to save the Book of Genesis, as they read it, from what they call secular, humanist forces. In many ways Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists sponsor the same “world view.” Such traditionalists want the present to look and act like the past, in contrast to those who want to bring the past (the Bible, e.g.) into the present in contemporary terms. They would probably be shocked and stunned to hear a powerful understanding of the truth of Genesis based instead on a historically critical but faithful reading of Scripture, and to learn that the Bible, or the Qur’an for that matter, critically understood does not need their defense.

From all we’ve learned about the transcultural and multicultural nature of the Bible as a whole, we have seen that there has always been a mix of understanding of corporate worth and responsibility and individual worth and responsibility with some eras focussed more on the one than the other. Any viable society or culture has to find its own balance between the two. Individual responsibility recognizes human rights including the fight of the individual to migrate culturally and change corporate identity, as nearly every second-generation family in this country has done. The wonderful thing about second-generation Americans is that they are usually bilingual and bicultural. But their children, the third generation, revert to being monolingual and monocultural English-speaking Americans. This country is, so to speak, at the far western end of the Hellenization process and at least theoretically sponsors so-called human rights, that is, individual rights.

America prides itself on sponsoring human rights and often tries in foreign policy to force other governments to follow our lead in this. But many countries through their governments resist evangelization in this regard, especially in the Near East and in the Far East where corporate worth and responsibility are still very strong and a way of life. The Japanese almost instinctively resist buying imports when they can purchase Japanese goods instead. Restrictions on missionary activities in Muslim countries may be quite stringent. Even where they are not restrained there are precious few baptisms in Muslim lands. Our western mentality makes us feel that those governments are somehow mean not to let their individual citizens decide for themselves whether they want to be Christian, or to struggle for human rights. But we need to learn that their ancient and time-honored focus on corporate worth and responsibility is deep rooted in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and has its own strong points. This deep-seated tension is what lies behind the present crisis of resistance to the West. Their battle against what they see as the forces of secularism is similar to the “culture wars” of current Christian fundamentalism. All forms of fundamentalism, especially in the “monotheistic” religions, resist “incursions of secularism” into the canonical process of discerning the continuing truth of Scripture in contemporary terms. Karen Armstrong sees the conflict as one between a culture of mythos (those who adhere to a community story) versus logos (individual human reason that transcends such identity giving forces) [Armstrong]. Andrew Sullivan sees the current conflict between east and west as a religious war (Sullivan). One wonders if certain Christian fundamentalists (those who condone the murder of doctors who perform abortions, and the torture and crucifixion of gays like Matthew Shepard) can see themselves mirrored in the Muslim fundamentalism of Osama Bin Ladin and the Taliban. There is a pattern of self-righteous anger “in God’s name” they both exhibit (Brock). One of the areas where this country is most backward is in the concept of social security or distributive justice, the sequel in a western country like ours to family security. We have come to some weak forms of social security, but it is always a struggle to maintain the system or to universalize it, witness the fight to keep social security and medicare fiscally viable in the face of letting rich individuals get richer by biased tax cuts. Countries in Western Europe and Canada to the north of us are far more successful in this regard than we. Americans tend to be suspicious of government involvement in commerce to the point that our railroads are pitiful in comparison to other industrialized nations and we get into spurts of deregulation of industry that actually hurt commerce and the common good. Each society must find its own right combination of focus on individual rights and focus on the common good. Right now I think we need very much to focus on the common good or distributive justice, but not at the sacrifice of basic civil rights.

Protestant America in the nineteenth century viewed this as a “Christian nation,” even “God’s true Zion.” Public education in the nineteenth century was designed in part to propagate that doctrine to generations of immigrants through the widespread assignment of MCGUFFEY’S READER (Lynn). This was the origin of the idea of America being “God’s True Zion,” or of America as a true utopia. The Catholic Church, whose allegiance to Rome as well as to America, strongly disagreed and countered by establishing parochial schools wherever there were enough Catholics in this country to support them. Interestingly, the majority of American Jews in the nineteenth century, mostly of the Reform Jewish movement, supported the idea that this was indeed God’s True Zion (Jewett), but the Jewish Conservative movement, founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, opposed it by embracing Theodor Hertzl’s view that Palestine, on the contrary, was the true Zion.

The cultural battle cry of conservatives through the centuries is that one has to draw the line somewhere to save the culture, the Church, and the Bible. They realize that they are usually 40 to 50 years behind “liberals” in social change (slavery, segregation, women’s rights, human rights–distributive justice) and exhibit the frustration of needing to “draw the line” somewhere. It is the same cry one hears about drawing the line at homosexuality, the final assault in their mind on the family. I fail to understand how denouncing homosexuality is going to save the family. The 2000 census has shown that the conventional understanding of the family is most in retreat in the so-called Bible Belt states where there has been a dramatic increase (72%) in the failure of conventional marriages, and in partnerships without marriage. Do those marriages fail because of homosexuality? Of course not, but that is the cheap and easy way to address the issue. The tough way to restore the meaning of marriage and family in the Western world would be to quit making young people think that they are righteous just because they are “straight” and lust after the opposite sex. Bashing gays in their view is not really all that bad because their church teaches that homosexuality is a “sin” and heterosexuality, even trashing and debasing women, is blessed of God. This is dragging locker room ethics into the sanctity of the church, and that is the true sin in my opinion, not homosexuality. The church has been ordaining closet homosexuals for 2000 years, but it seems to have problems ordaining honest ones.

Hiding homophobia behind five scattered biblical verses is devious in the extreme, but so-called conservatives do so by claiming that the Bible is totally harmonious and all of it supports their interpretation of those five verses. Constantly denouncing homosexuality is simply a way of avoiding the many indictments leveled by the prophets and Jesus against the kinds of greed, selfishness and bigotry some so-called evangelicals espouse in the name of Christ. I personally think it extremely important for the church to help restore the sanctity of marriage, monogamy, and the family, but I am convinced that woman trashing and gay bashing will not do it but are themselves the real sins, not the sexual orientation God has given a precious few. Strict and full pre-marital counseling about the importance of marriage and the family to society, and to the couples who want to give themselves to each other sexually for their lives, straight and gay, is far more effective than making them think they’re sexually OK because they’re not gay. That is evil.

If one wants to be true to the Bible, in all its dialogical strength and power, one should come to a true appreciation of the importance and power of the family to the human enterprise. The tension or dialogue between Israel’s center in the patriarchal family and the Hellenized Jesus’ radical openness to the human family as a whole, can be resolved or understood as a biblical pilgrimage from the Bronze Age to the Greco–Roman which indicates how we ourselves should continue by dynamic analogy on that same route, but in our day. Understanding the Bible as a paradigm or model for how to bring the biblical past into the present in contemporary terms, gives us a map of God’s will and desire for the pilgrimage of constantly breaking through old family and tribal limits to new horizons about the worth and responsibility of all families and of all individuals in God’s creation.

The Church as a Pilgrimage

Just as prominent as the metaphor of the family for the covenant relationship between God and Israel is the metaphor of Israel or the Church being a pilgrim folk. Moses asked God one day on a desert mountain, “Is it not in your going with us, I and your people, that we are distinct from all other peoples on the face of the earth? (Ex 33:16)” In David’s consecration of the massive gifts offered so that Solomon could later build the temple, David prayed thus, “But who am I, and what is this people, that we should be able thus to offer gifts so abundantly? For all things come from you, O God, and of your own have we given you. We are strangers before you, O God, and sojourners, as all our ancestors were; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding (1Chron29:14-15).” And the psalmist sang, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry … For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my ancestors” (Ps 39:12). Abraham Heschel called it a fatal illusion to assume that a human being is the same as being human. “Being human, he said, means being on the way, striving, waiting, hoping.”

The church is a pilgrim people on the way. This should never be understood as a form of escapism–the “this world is not my home” syndrome–but as the essential character of the church, that church called by the Spirit to press on, to be on the move to address ever new challenges, to sing a new song to the glory of God, to break camp morning by morning from where we have been, to seek God’s will to live by it, to change what can and should be changed, to accept what cannot be changed, with a prayer for wisdom to know the difference–constantly vigilant to oppose dehumanizing others just because they are different. Such vigilance is to witness to the power of Scripture and of Christ, as led by the Spirit. That is the vocation and the true identity of the human family called forth by God in Abraham and Sarah and expanded in Christ to the whole world.

Jesus was a clear embarrassment to the conservatives of his day. Luke reports that Jesus accepted invitations to many parties in the Galilee and on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At one such party Jesus showed the depths of God’s grace to an uninvited woman who bathed his feet in her tears and kissed them unashamedly in public, as the prime example of what agape (God’s love) means (Luke 7:36-50). The long arc from Tamar in Genesis to Jesus’ uninvited woman encompasses the Bible. That story in the Gospel ought to shock every one who ever claimed to read the Bible literally, and it ought to shame all of us who forget the radicality of Jesus’ teaching and of God’s divine love and grace that know no bounds. The key is to theologize first and moralize later, that is, to celebrate God’s love and grace first, and then thereafter to ask what we should do about it in the light of that celebration. As Martin Luther and John Calvin both taught, we return to re-read the law after celebrating the Gospel of God’s amazing grace and love. The law has its uses, they said, but only after we have celebrated cradle, cross and crown. I submit that this is probably what Christ meant when he said that he had come not to abolish Torah, but to fulfill it.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. 2000. THE BATTLE FOR GOD. New York, NY: Alfred Knopf.


Brueggemann, Walter. 1998. THEOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: TESTIMONY, DISPUTE, ADVOCACY. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Buber, Martin. 1967. KINGSHIP OF GOD. New York, NY: Harper & Row.


Gottwald, Norman. 1979. THE TRIBES OF YAHWEH. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.


Kazantzakis, Nikos. 1960. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Translated by P A. Bien. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster: 373-76. Also: Scorsese’s film version.

Lynn, Robert W. 1971. THE BIG LITTLE SCHOOL: SUNDAY CHILD OF AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM. New York, NY: Harper & Row. Pedersen, Johaness. 1926. ISRAEL: ITS LIFE AND CULTURE, Vols. 1 & 2. Copenhagen, Denmark: Povl Brawer.

Pyeon, Yohan. 2001. YOU HAVE NOT SPOKEN WHAT IS RIGHT ABOUT ME: INTERTEXTUALITY IN THE BOOK OF JOB. Claremont Graduate University Dissertation. See especially pp. 272-80.

Sanders, James A. 2002. The Issue of Closure in the Canonical Process, in THE CANON DEBATE, edited by Lee McDonald & James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

2001. Scripture as Canon in the Church. Pp. 121-43 in L’INTERPRETAZIONE DELLA BIBBIA NELLA CHIESA. Roma, Italy: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Sullivan, Andrew. This is a Religious War. THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE of Sunday, 7 October 2001. Pp. 44-47, 52-53.

Wright, C. J. H. Family. Pp. 761-69 in ANCHOR BIBLE DICTIONARY, vol. 2, edited by D. N. Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday.

It is a great honor to dedicate the following study to my long-time friend and colleague on the BTB editorial board, Leland White. Dora, our son, and I first met Leland in 1972 at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Study located north of Bethlehem on a knoll Palestinians call Tantur. A graduate student of mine at Union Seminary in New York was there as well, co-editor with Leland of BTB since 1981, David Bossman. It was there that we all learned of Leland’s sharp mind and wit, and his often taking the road less traveled when he saw a wrong that needed addressing. It was largely Leland’s interest in a social-sciences approach to understanding the Bible, and relating it to current believing communities, that has given BTB, since he and David assumed responsibility, its special shape and contribution on the current biblical and theological scene. One always reads Leland’s work knowing that it was going to offer a perspective that was uncommon and incisive. He read voraciously and reflected critically on its implications for encouraging the forces of progressive thinking in church and society. His mind will be sorely missed, but what he has given us will last for decades to come. Try to go a little easy, Leland, on the others in the communion you have now joined; they fought their battles in their time, too, you know. And forgive us our usual bumblings as we continue to try to progress along on the pilgrimage here our Lord enjoined us to make. And thanks for the road markers you left us. I’m sure they’ll continue to point the way we should take. “Blessed are they who die in the Lord … for their works will survive them” (Rev 14:13).

James A. Sanders, Ph.D. (Hebrew Union College), Litt. D. (Acadia University), S.T.D. (Glasgow University), is President of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center for Preservation and Research and Professor Emeritus of Intertestamental and Biblical Studies at the Claremont School of Theology (P. O. Box 593, Claremont, CA 91711). His e-mail address is Dr. Sanders has served as President of the Society of Biblical Literature and is the only American member of the United Bible Society’s Hebrew Old Testament Text Critical Project, which has launched the next or fifth critical edition of the Hebrew Bible (Biblica Hebraica Quinta).

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