Relationships, Family



1. In General

2. Parents and Children

3. Brothers and Sisters

4. Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Kinsmen


1. Husband and Wife

2. Father-in-Law, etc.

3. Brother-in-Law, etc.


1. Foster-Father

2. Master and Servants

3. Host and Guest

4. The Dependent Stranger

The family or domestic relations of the Bible include (1) those of consanguinity or blood relationship, (2) affinity or marriage relationship, and (3) legal convention. Those of consanguinity may be divided into lineal and collateral groups; the former are those of parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, and ancestors and descendants in general; the latter are those of brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts in relation to nephews and nieces, cousins of various degrees, including mere tribesmen and even remoter kinsfolk. The relations of affinity include besides that of husband and wife or concubine, the relations among rival wives, and their children, those of father-in-law and mother-in-law in relation to son-in-law and daughter-in-law, and those of brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. The domestic relations based on legal convention are either legal fictions or the results of agreement: among the former we must include those of foster-father or mother and foster-children; among the latter the relations between master and the various classes of servants and slaves held by the ancient Hebrews, those between host and guest, especially where they became covenant brothers, and between the citizen and the stranger who had attached himself to him for his protection.

I. Consanguinity.

1. In General:

Genealogies were carefully kept by the ancient Hebrews (compare those of Genesis, Numbers, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Matthew, Luke), not only because they formed the basis of a man's title to his property (Nu 27:8-11; exceptional case, Nu 36:1-12), but also because on one's pedigree depended the right of his family to intermarry with the priestly caste. Descent was traced through the father; a man's closest association was therefore with his father's family, and he was ordinarily referred to as the son of his father, thus Isaac the son of Abraham (Ge 25:19), Joshua the son of Nun, Caleb the son of Jephunneh (Nu 14:6). Still there are instances of men named for their mothers (Joab the son of Zeruiah), and a man's relation with his mother's family was fully recognized in the laws forbidding incest. No lineal relatives were permitted to intermarry (Le 18:7,10). The relations of ancestors and descendants were considered so close that the ordinary terms of relationship between children and parents are used constantly in relation to grandparents and remoter ancestors. The wishes of a great-grandfather are respected long after his death as the wishes of a father (Jer 35:16).

2. Parents and Children:

The father ('abh; pater) was the head of the family (mishpachah) or household (bayith), which was a religious (1Sa 20:6,29; Ex 12:3; Job 1:5) as well as a social and political unit, consisting usually of a combination of families in the modern sense. As long as polygamy prevailed a family would include at least the several groups of children of the wives and concubines. The Bible represents the Hebrew father as commanding (Ge 50:16; Jer 35:6 ff; Pr 6:20), instructing (Pr 1:8; 4:1), and rebuking (Ge 37:10; Nu 12:14); at the same time, as loving (Ge 25:28; 37:4; 44:20), pitying (Ps 103:13), and blessing his household (Ge 27:41), rejoicing over its triumphs (Pr 10:1; 15:20), or grieving over its misfortunes (Ge 37:35). The mother, too ('em; meter), naturally displays love and care (Ge 25:28; Pr 4:3; Isa 49:15; 66:13). To the Hebrew woman childlessness was considered the greatest of misfortunes (1Sa 1:10 ff, of Hannah; Ge 30:23, of Rachel). Children were looked upon as a blessing from God (Ps 127:3) and the defenders of the home (Ps 127:4-5). In early life a child was more directly under the control of the mother than the father; the mother was its first teacher (Pr 1:8). Thereafter the father was expected to direct the training of the son (ben; huios, teknon) (Ge 18:19; Ex 12:26; 13:8,14-15; De 6:7), while the daughter (bath; thugater) probably remained with the mother until her marriage (Mic 7:6). Both parents are looked upon in the Law as objects of honor (Ex 20:12 parallel De 5:16 (the Fifth Commandment); Ex 21:15; Le 20:9; De 27:16; Pr 20:20; Eze 22:7; Mic 7:6), obedience (Ge 28:7; Le 19:3; De 21:18 ff; Pr 1:8; 30:17) and love (1Ki 19:20; Pr 28:24; 30:11). The control of parents was so great as to include the right to sell daughters in marriage, but not, without restrictions, into slavery (Ex 21:7-11; compare Ex 22:16 ff; Ne 5:5), and never into a life of shame (Le 19:29); they could chastise children (De 8:5; 21:18; Pr 13:24; compare Ecclesiasticus 30:1-13), and in the early days even exerted the power of life and death over them (Ge 22:1-24; Jg 11:39; Le 18:21; 20:2-5; 2Ki 23:10; compare Mt 15:4). This power, at least for sacrificial purposes, was entirely removed by the Law, and changed, even for punishment, in the case of a stubborn, rebellious, gluttonous and disobedient son to a mere right of complaint to the proper authorities (De 21:18-21), who were to put him to death. Infanticide by exposure, such as was common among other ancient peoples, seems never to have been practiced by the Hebrews. That the children were nevertheless the chattels of the parents seems to be attested from the fact that they could be seized for the debts of the father (2Ki 4:1). The father could annul the vows of his daughter (Nu 30:3-5), and damages for wrongs done to her were paid to him, as in English law "for loss of services" (De 22:29). A widowed or divorced daughter could return to her father (Ge 38:11; Le 22:13; Ru 1:15). At his death the mother would become the actual, if not the legal, head of the household (2Ki 8:1-6, the Shunammite woman; Tobit 1:8, Tobit's grandmother; compare the position of the mother of Jesus). This was especially true of the queen mother (gebhirah), whose name is usually given in the accounts of the kings of Judah (1Ki 1:11; 2:19, where a throne at the king's right hand was set for the king's mother; 1Ki 11:26; 14:21,31; 15:2,10,13; 22:42; 2Ki 8:26; 10:13; 14:2; 15:2,33; 18:2; 21:1,19; 22:1; 23:31,36; 24:8,12,15,18; 2Ch 22:2; Jer 13:18; 22:26; see QUEEN MOTHER). While it is true that the position of the widowed mother depended to some extent on the will of her son (1Ki 2:18 ff), it must be remembered that the sense of filial duty was highly developed among all classes in Palestine (Jos 2:13,18; 6:23; 1Sa 22:3; 2Sa 19:37; 1Ki 19:20). The rebellion of children marked the acme of social degeneration (Mic 7:6; Pr 30:11); on the other hand the "great day" according to Malachi (Pr 4:5 (Heb 3:19)) is one of conciliation of parents and children.

3. Brothers and Sisters:

The terms "brother" ('ach; adelphos) and "sister" ('ahoth; adelphe) apply to children of the same father and mother (Ge 4:2), and also to children of one father (Ge 20:12) or of one mother (Ge 43:7; Le 18:9; 20:17). The brother as well as the father was the natural protector of the honor of his sister; thus, the sons of Jacob speak of Dinah as "our daughter" (Ge 34:17). Absalom feels more deeply aggrieved over the crime against Tamar than does David himself (2Sa 13:21). The brother's other duties toward a sister were very much like those of a father (Song 8:8). The Law strictly forbids the intermarriage of brother and sister, whether of the same father and mother or not, whether born at home or born abroad, as a "disgraceful thing" (chesedh, a different word from checedh, "kindness" (Le 18:9,11; 20:17). In earlier times marriage between half-brother and sister was allowable (Ge 20:12; compare 2Sa 13:13). In fact, we are expressly told that the laws against incest were not obeyed by the Egyptians or the Canaanites (Le 18:3 ff; Le 20:23). Brotherly sentiment was highly developed (Ge 24:60; Jos 2:13; Pr 17:17; compare Le 25:35; De 15:11 f; De 25:3); the dwelling of brothers together in unity is considered good and pleasant (Ps 133:1). Brothers were ever ready to protect or avenge each other (2Sa 3:27). Indeed, it is part of the unwritten, common law, recognized though not necessarily approved in the Bible, that the brother or next of kin, the go'el, is expected to avenge a death (Nu 35:19 ff; De 19:6; Jos 20:3; 2Sa 14:11), and no punishment is meted out to prevent such self-help, unless it occurs in a refuge-city. A brother was also expected to ransom a captive or slave (Le 25:48; Ps 49:7). Half-brothers were of course not so near as brothers of the full blood (compare Joseph and his brothers), and it is not surprising to find the sons of a wife despising and driving out the son of a harlot (Jg 11:1, Jephthah). The words "brother" and "sister" are used frequently of more distant relationships (see below) and figuratively of a friend.

4. Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Kinsmen:

The Hebrew dodh (Le 10:4, "uncles"; Nu 36:11, "cousins"; 1Sa 14:50), coming from a primitive caressing word, possibly indicating "dandle" "fondle" "love" means both "uncle" and "beloved." It is used of the father's and also of the mother's brother, and the corresponding feminine form (dodhah) is used of the father's sister (Ex 6:20; compare Nu 26:59) and even of the father's brother's wife (Le 18:14; 20:20). Intermarriage between nephew and aunt (i.e. father's sister, mother's sister, or father's brother's wife, or, in general, uncle's wife) was prohibited (Le 18:12-13,14; 20:19-20), though nothing is said of intermarriage between uncle and niece nor between cousins (compare Nu 36:11). On the relations between uncle and nephew compare the Bible accounts of Jacob and Laban, Abraham and Lot, David and Joab, etc. In a more general sense the word [~dodh is used of kinsmen, Am 6:10 (where the dodh, "even he that burneth him" (mecarepho, perhaps "maternal uncle"; the Jewish Encyclopedia, under the word "Cremation"), takes charge of a dead body); ben dodh is used of cousin (compare ben 'ahi 'immo, brother of his mother," etc.) and bath dodh of a female cousin. For other relations of this and remoter degrees the word for brother is loosely used (e.g. of nephews, Ge 13:8; 14:14, etc.; of tribesmen, Le 21:10; and of more distant relatives, De 2:4,8; 23:7).

II. Affinity.

1. Husband and Wife:

The husband ('ish; compare ba`al, Ho 2:16; aner), though in a sense leaving father and mother for his wife ('ishshah; gune) (Ge 2:24), under normal conditions remained a member of his father's family. If such passages as Ge 2:24; 21:10; 24:5,67; 30:3; 31:31; Jg 4:17 ff; Jg 5:24 ff; Jg 8:19; 9:3, indicate the existence in pre-Biblical times of a matriarchate, the allusions are at least too vague to justify the predication of its persistence in Biblical times. The wife was "taken" by her husband, or "given" by her father or, in the case of a servant, by her master or mistress (Ge 2:22; 16:3; 34:9,21), and although the contract was between the men (Ge 29:1-35; 34:16; Ex 22:16; De 22:29; Ru 4:10) or the parents (Ge 21:21; 24:1-67), it is probable that the consent of the girl was usually asked (Ge 24:58). Love between the young people was given due consideration (as in the case of Samson, Shechem, Jacob and Rachel (Ge 29:18), David and Michal (1Sa 18:20)); at least it developed among married people, so that Hosea could compare the attitude of husband toward wife to that of Yahweh toward Israel. As a matter of legal right, it is probable that throughout the Orient long before the events narrated in the Book of Esther, every man did "bear rule in his own house" (Es 1:22). In fact a precedent for the Persian decree has been traced as far back as the first human pair (Ge 3:16). Nevertheless, we find many instances in which the wife seems to take the lead in the affairs of the household, as in the case of Samson's parents (Jg 13:23), of the Shunammite woman (2Ki 4:1-44), of Jael (Jg 4:18 ff; Jg 5:24 ff), of Achsah (Jos 15:18 f; Jg 1:12 f), and in less pleasant matters of Jezebel (1Ki 18:4; 21:1-29), Sapphira (Ac 5:2), and Zeresh (Es 5:14), who were at least consulted in the affairs of their several households. Abraham is even commanded by the voice of God, "In all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice" (Ge 21:12). That most women were not so fortunate is probably best attested by the fact that at least in the earlier times the best of them had to resort to stratagem to accomplish their purposes (as in the cases of Rebekah (Ge 27:6 ff), Rachel (Ge 31:34), Leah (Ge 30:16) and Abigail (1Sa 25:18 ff), and even to get information as to their husband's affairs (Sarah, Ge 18:10; Rebekah, Ge 27:5)). Perhaps their humbler sisters in later days accomplished their ends by being so contentious as to attract the notice of two proverb-collectors (Pr 21:9; 25:24). Though we have no instance of the exercise of the right of life and death over the wife by the husband, and though it is clear that the Hebrew husband had no power of sale (compare Ex 21:8), it is frequently asserted on the basis of the one-sided divorce doctrine of the Old Testament (De 24:1), and on the basis of analogy with other ancient laws, as well as because the wife is spoken of in conjunction with property (Ex 20:17) and because the husband exercised the right to annul the wife's vows (Nu 30:6), that the wife occupied in the ordinary Hebrew home a very subordinate position. It must not be forgotten, however, that the husband owed duties to the wife (Ex 21:10). It must also be borne in mind that great divergence existed at different times and places, and in different stations of society. Most of our Old Testament evidence pertains to the wealthier classes. The two extremes of the women that are "at ease in Zion" (Isa 32:9-20; compare Am 4:1 ff; Am 6:1 ff) and the busy "good wife" described in Pr 31:10 ff are hardly exceeded in the most complex society today. The latter probably gives the fairer as well as the more wholesome picture of the functions of the wife in the home, and it is significant that her husband as well as her sons are expected to call her blessed (Pr 31:28).

It is difficult to estimate the extent to which polygamy and concubinage were practiced in ancient Palestine, but it is clear that the former practice was discouraged even among kings (De 17:17), and the latter, an outgrowth of slavery, was not held in high repute (compare De 21:10-14). The position of a less-favored wife (De 21:15, "hated") was naturally unpleasant, and her relations with other wives of her husband decidedly bitter--they were called each other's tsaroth, literally, "vexers" (the Revised Version (British and American) "rivals," Le 18:18; 1Sa 1:6, the King James Version "adversary"; compare Ecclesiasticus 37:11)--even when they were sisters (as in the case of Rachel and Leah, Ge 30:1). Hence, the Law forbade the marrying of two sisters (Le 18:18). On the other hand so strong was the desire of a Hebrew mother for children that the childless wife welcomed the children of a maidservant born to her husband as her own (Ge 30:1-12, etc.).

2. Father-in-Law, etc.:

In normal Hebrew society, for reasons already explained, the relations of a family with the husband's parents (cham, from chamoth) were closer than those with the wife's parents (chothen, feminine chotheneth; pentheros, penthera. Where under special conditions a man remained with his wife's tribe after marriage, as in the case of Jacob, serving out his mohar, or Moses fleeing from the wrath of the Egyptians, or the sons of Elimelech sojourning in the land of Moab because of the famine in Palestine, his identity with his own tribe was not destroyed, and at the first opportunity the natural impulse was to return to his own country. The bride, on the other hand, leaving her people, would become a member of her husband's family, with all the rights and duties of a daughter (Mic 7:6). Thus Judah can order Tamar burned for violation of the obligations of a widow (Ge 38:24). No doubt the position of the daughter-in-law varied in the Hebrew home between the extremes of those who vexed their parents-in-law unto-the death (Ge 26:35; 27:46; 28:8) and the one who said to her mother-in-law, "Yahweh do so to me .... if aught but death part thee and me" (Ru 1:17). Parents-in-law and children-in-law were considered too closely related to intermarry (Le 18:15; 20:12,14).

3. Brother-in-Law, etc.:

A woman's brother acting in loco parentis might perform all the offices of a father-in-law and possibly be called chothen (Ge 24:50,55; 34:11 ff). Naturally, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law would be considered too closely related to intermarry (Le 18:16,18; 20:21). Nevertheless the husband's brother (yabham) was expected to marry the childless widow to establish the name of the deceased on his inheritance (De 25:5-10). This custom dated back to Canaanitic practice (Ge 38:8), and from the connection between marrying the childless widow and the redemption of land may be called a part of the land law of Palestine (Ru 4:1-12; compare Jer 32:6 ff). In practice the Levirate was probably considered more in the nature of a moral duty than a privilege (De 25:7; Ru 4:6), and devolved not only on the brother, but on other members of a deceased husband's family in the order of the nearness of their relationship to him (Ru 3:12). In the Hebrew family brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law would form part of the same household. In this relation as in others we find both ideal friendship (David and Jonathan, 1Sa 18:3; 2Sa 1:26) and petty jealousies (in the matter of Moses' wife, Nu 12:1).

III. Other Domestic Relations.

1. Foster-father:

The Hebrew 'omen, feminine 'omeneth (participle of 'aman), literally, "nourishing," is translated "nursing father" (Nu 11:12; Isa 49:23), nursing mother" (Isa 49:23), "nurse" (Ru 4:16; 2Sa 4:4), or simply as the equivalent of "bringing up" (2Ki 10:1,5; Es 2:7). In the case of Esther and of Ahab's children, and possibly in the other instances referred to, the relation of foster-parents is suggested. The foster-children under such conditions obeyed the words of the foster-father as the words of a father (Es 2:20). Michal is spoken of as the mother of Merab's two children (2Sa 21:8) because she reared them (Sanhedhrin 19b). Adoption in the Roman sense was, however, hardly to be expected in a polygamous society where the childless father could remarry. Nevertheless, Jacob adopts Manasseh and Ephraim (Ge 48:5), and thereby makes them the fathers of tribes. According to Josephus, while Abraham was childless he adopted Lot (Ant., I, vii, 1), and the daughter of Pharaoh adopted Moses (Ant., II, ix, 7; compare Ex 2:10). In New Testament times the notion of adoption was so familiar that Paul uses the word figuratively of conversion (huiothesia, Ro 8:15; 9:4; Ga 4:5; Eph 1:5).

2. Master and Servants:

The "family" as the word is used of ancient peoples included dependents. The Hebrew mishpachah is connected with the word shiphchah, "maidservant," as the Latin familia is connected with famulus, "servant." For a discussion of the various classes of servants and slaves, Hebrew and foreign, male and female, see SLAVERY .

3. Host and Guest:

When Lot protested against betraying his visitors to the men of Sodom, forasmuch as they had come under the shadow of his roof, and he even preferred to give his daughters to the mob rather than fail in his duties as a host (Ge 19:8), he was acting on the ancient principle of guest-friendship (compare Greek xenia), which bound host and guest by sacred ties. In the light of this principle the act of Jael, who receives Sisera as a guest, and then betrays him, becomes startling and capable of explanation only on the basis of the intense hatred existing at the time, and justifiable, if at all, only on theory that all is fair in war (Jg 4:18-21; 5:24-27). The nomads of ancient times and even the post-exilic Hebrews, like the Arabs of today, were bound by a temporary covenant whenever there was "salt between them," that is, in the relation of host and guest (Ezr 4:14; compare the expression "covenant of salt," 2Ch 13:5; Nu 18:19). In the early Christian church breaking bread together served as a sort of a berith 'ahim, or covenant of brothers. In large households such as those of a king, those that ate at the table were members of the household (2Sa 9:11, compared to sons; compare also 2Sa 9:7,10,13; 19:28; 1Ki 2:7; 4:27; 18:19).


4. The Dependent Stranger:

The ger or stranger (as indicated by the expression "thy stranger" (Ex 20:10; Le 25:6; De 5:14; 29:11; 31:12; compare De 1:16), Hebrew gero, literally, "his stranger") attached himself to an influential Hebrew for protection. Thus we read of a "sojourner of the priest's" (Le 22:10, toschabh; compare Le 25:6) who was in many respects a dependent, but still to be distinguished from a servant (Le 22:11). The Mosaic Law commands that such strangers be treated with consideration (Ex 12:49; 20:10; 22:21 ff; Ex 23:9; Le 19:33; De 1:16; 10:18; 14:21, etc.; Ps 146:9) and even with love (De 16:14; Le 19:34).


Nathan Isaacs and Ella Davis Isaacs

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