Book Review: Family in The Bible

Family in the Bible

Critical Review

Family in the Bible: Exploring Culture, Customs and Context is a book edited by Richard Hess and Daniel Carroll R.[1]  This book contains seven essays and of these seven five will be critiqued in light of their theses.  These essays include:  Family in the Pentateuch by Gordon Wenham; Family in the Non-narrative Sections of the Pentateuch by Edesio Sánches; Family in the Wisdom Literature by Tremper Longman III; and Family in Gospels and Acts by Cynthia Long Westfall.   This critique will be concluded with application into this writer’s ministerial context.


Gordon Wenham builds a thesis that there are differences between biblical society and our society; that the bible has both good and bad examples of how family should be maintained; and that the family in the Pentateuch has didactic value for current day Christians.[2]  Gordon builds his thesis by beginning “in the beginning” and moving through the Pentateuch to describe some of the positives and negatives of family in the Pentateuch first without giving value labels, then later categorizes these as good and bad examples with present day application.

Wenham interestingly points out that in the patriarchal society that even though men leave their fathers and mothers and cleave to his wife, the men often remained on their father’s land because they were heirs to that land (Gen 2:24).[3]    Wenham describes this interaction as the emotional and providential role of the husband to no longer place highest priority on the parents, but on his relationship with his wife.   Modern clinical social work would agree that this is a task in the beginning of marriage.  The establishment of healthy boundaries between the marital couple and their respective parents often minimizes discord between the families.  The amount of permeability in the generational relationship tells much on how the family will fare.  Too much permeability (enmeshment) makes it difficult for the family to become their own while too much distance (disengagement) leaves the new family with no ability to ensure wisdom is passed on from generation to generation.

An area where Wenham differentiates biblical verses present day ethos is the social structure in which family exists.  Biblical structure is patriarchal, arranged marriages and male veto power over any transaction a woman takes was common.  In present day, western society, everything is very democratic and families generally do not get a formal vote in the process that any individual wants to make.[4]   While not saying we should revert to antediluvian politics, Wenham aptly argues that we should, perhaps, take some lessons from their culture like involving family in marital decision-making. Overall, Wenham makes intelligent arguments and was enlightening to see family described through the Pentateuch.


Sánchez argues in his essay that the Home and not the Church is the center of the vital teaching of the church and that under the guise of “it’s too complicated” family has abandoned theological education to schools, churches and the media.[5] Sánchez believes that family was intrinsically important in the Pentateuch pointing to the many times in Genesis where individuals were announced in forms of their sebet (tribe), mishpaha (clan), and bayit (house) (see Josh 7:14-18).[6]  He highlights the importance of family by pointing to the stories that family property could not leave the family and that the year of jubilee restored property back to the family.  While this is descriptive of the economic system, this writer has difficulty stating that since it was economically important for property to remain in family, that family was the most important thing in that society.  Additionally, he argues that family is not a closed system, but it is where the most impact takes place.  He cites that the church should support the parent’s educational role in the household.[7]  While his premise is good, it is completely supported by the texts he presented to bolster that idea. Sánchez works towards a both-and conclusion after his initial hypothesis seemed to say home was supreme.   While it seems that the conclusion is logical and supported by the schema, it does not necessarily support his initial hypothesis.


Tsumura’s essay focuses on the historical books of the Old Testament.  The arguments presented in this section were strongly similar to the essays based in the Pentateuch.  He asserted that fathers were responsible for education, faith, job and marriage of their children.[8]  Tsumura does highlight the Judges did not follow in their father’s footsteps with the exception of the two sons of Samuel.  This difference is major in that those following into God’s service did not always choose their father’s vocation and that this was socially acceptable.[9]

Joshua was brought into this discussion at length.  Joshua cites the provision that the woman had for her family as evidence that the value of family was given support by the Israelites.  While Butler in Word Bible Commentary cites that this was more about her trying to save her own skin and that of her family over, to the spies, honoring the woman’s family was not their motivation for this deal.[10]   While a family is saved, proof is lacking that this was upheld as an anecdote of the Israelites demonstrating family values as lots of families were subsequently killed in the coming attack.   While he made some good points, his arguments were not as strong as the two previous writers.


Longman writes on family in wisdom literature.  His thesis begins with defining wisdom as “emotional intelligence” and then proceeds to build five points that wisdom literature points to as it reflects on the family.  These are: Proverbs is built on the importance of a strong family; instruction from the father is important and heeding said advice behooves the child; children must respect the teaching of parents; proverbs do not condone abuse, but rather training children in an appropriate way and parents must model Godly behavior.[11]

Longman expands his thesis to include marital relations and proverbs addresses these by exhorting the reader to avoid immoral women, cultivate relationship with your wife, appreciate the joys of a good wife and beware the dangers of a bad choice.[12] Longman aptly articulates what the proverbs have to say for each of these matters.  Longman’s essay perhaps is the easiest to defend since much of wisdom literature is general pithy statements that are generally held to be true in the first place.  Longman did well to illustrate how these proverbs impact the family unit.


Westfall argues in her essay that Jesus prioritized mission and kingdom above family, even to the detriment of family.  She starts by describing Jesus abolition of ‘corban’ in Mark 7, then, contrary to her thesis, states how he emphasized family values in calling lust adultery, calling out divorce and increasing access of children to himself.[13]

She claimed that Jesus’ calling people away from family business’ proves that Jesus viewed ministry higher than vocation and that this was unique to his ministry.  However, Tsumura articulates that this was common of all the Judges in the Old Testament (except the two sons of Samuel) and Guelich in the WBC states that Elisha did likewise as he and other prophets did not follow in their fathers footsteps (1Kings 19:19-21).[14]  Additionally, she considered Jesus’ decree to let ‘the dead bury their own dead’ was an indication that Jesus viewed family as moot compared to the kingdom agenda.[15]  However, Carson argues that this was not a veto of family, but rather Jesus’ looking into the heart of the man who was asking for more time, and seeing a heart that was not ready to follow.  This was much like the parable of the rich young ruler who also went away troubled by Jesus’ words.  Jesus’ claims in these sections were not to nullify family values, but rather call people out who were disingenuous.[16]   Out of all the articles, it seems that Westfall made the most effort to stretch to make her points.  Perhaps her thesis was too strong and needed to be tempered some in light of some of the evidence that indicated that Jesus’ role in the family was not completely overshadowed by his Kingdom agenda.  The arguments that she presented either didn’t fully justify her thesis or did not seem to be what the biblical evidence indicated.


My future ministry is to involve youth and family ministries and most likely counseling.  Having a solid biblical worldview will enable me to educate families in the proper way to practice their faith.  I find that this book is an excellent resource and hits major themes of family in biblical contexts and aptly brings it into current contexts.  Knowing how to apply Old Testament family doctrine will also enable me to preach on these subjects to a world where the family is predominantly dysfunctional.   While there were some sections I disagreed with, even these sections had some reflections that I could teach from and help build families in my congregation and community.



[1] Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., , Family in the Bible: Exploring Customs, Culture, and Context, ed. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).

[2]  Gordon J. Wenham, “Family in the Pentateuch,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., 17-31 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 20.

[3]  Ibid. 18.

[4] Ibid 22.

[5]  Edesio Sánchez, “Family in the Non-Narrative Sections of the Pentateuch,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S. Hess and M.Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2003), 32.

[6] Ibid. 34.

[7] Ibid. 54.

[8]  David T. Tsumura, “Family in the Historical Books,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., 59-79 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). 62.

[9] Ibid. 65.

[10]  Trent Butler, “Samuel,” Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce Metzger, David Hubbard and Glenn Barker, Oaktreee Software V1.0 (Nashville: Nelson Electronic Publishing).

[11]  Tremper Longman III, “Family in the Wisdom Literature,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., 80-99 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). 83-86.

[12] Ibid. 93.

[13]  Cynthia Long Westfall, “Family in the Gospels and Acts,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R., 125-147 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). 128-9

[14] Tsumura, “Family in the Historical Books,” 62.

Robert Guelich, “Mark 1:8-26,” Word Biblical Commentary, Oaktree Software V 1.2 (Nashville: Nelson Electronic Publishing). p.51.

[15] Westfall, “Family in the Gospels and Acts,” 141.

[16]  D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelin, Oaktree Software V 1.2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).

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