I realize that for many people, talking about “traditional families” conjures up a lot of bad memories. Many people now live in the shadow of families that fell apart or—in other cases—stayed together in some political sort of way though the love had ebbed away like dirty sinkwater. If you’ve lived through something like that than the whole idea of “family” might seem an unattainable dream at best or an unwaking nightmare at worst.
Without being insensitive, can we at least agree that no one throws out an entire brand on the basis of one lemon? Even our bad experiences might generate within us a yearning for the “Real Thing”—elusive though it may be—just as a shadow might prove the sunshine. So families have enduring value even when our experience fails to match God’s design.
This is why the Psalm-writer can say that “children are a gift of the Lord…Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5). In the ancient world, children were not a distraction, but an incredible blessing. And children also reflected a profound responsibility, calling mothers and fathers toward a deep commitment to raising a family based on God’s design.
Though the Bible has relatively few prescriptive commands concerning family systems, though the Bible also gives us a glimpse into the “tWorld”—the world of tradition—in which we see how family systems operated within the Bible. In his study of ancient family systems, Daniel Block of Wheaton College points out that the families of ancient Israel were deeply patricentric. What is “patricentrism?” Block tells us that in ancient Israel, families were “centered around the father.” This differs from strict patriarchy, where the father rules the family. The difference is subtle, but “patricentrism” helps us escape the abuses assumed to exist within patriarchal cultures.
What did this mean practically? The Bible gives us a host of specific duties related to the father’s role within the family:
- Personally modeling strict personal fidelity to God (Dt 6:4-9; cf. Noah—Ge 6:9; Abraham—Ge 17:1-7; 26:5; Joshua—Josh 24:15; Hezekiah—2 Ki 18:3)
- Leading the family in the national festivals, nurturing the memory of Israel’s salvation (e.g. Passover—Ex 12:1-20; Festival of Weeks—Dt 16:9-12; Booths—Dt 16:13-17)
- Instructing the family in the traditions of the exodus and the Scriptures (Dt. 6:4-9, 20-25; 11:18-25)
- Managing the land in accordance with the law (Leviticus 25)
- Providing for the family’s basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and rest
- Defending the household against outside threats (e.g., Judg 18:21-25)
- Serving as elder and representing the household in the official assembly of citizens (Ruth 4:1-11)
- Maintaining family members’ well-being and the harmonious operation of the family unity
- Implementing decisions made at the clan or tribal level
Block goes on to note that fathers had a whole set of related duties toward their sons and daughters—helping to establish their children as functioning members of the Israelite community according to their respective gender roles.
It’s true that in the ancient world mothers had a smaller status in contrast to their husbands. But we must never neglect the tremendous influence mothers had over their children. As other authors have pointed out, even though fathers would help shape their children particularly in adolescence, the mother had the lions’ share of time with the children leading up to that point.
Andreas Kostenberger summarizes the mothers’ influence as follows:
“At a child’s birth, mothers would cut the umbilical cord, bathe the child, and wrap it in a cloth (cf. Ezek. 16:3-4). During the first decade of the child’s life, he or she was the special concern of his or her mother. Since in ancient Israel the home was the primary place for education, the mother’s example and instruction were vital …Mothers would also train their daughters for their future roles as wives and mothers. This was even more important since daughters upon marriage would leave their paternal household and join that of their husband. Nevertheless, mothers would continue to follow the course of their daughters’ lives, and being able to witness the birth of grandchildren was considered to be a special blessing and delight (e.g. Ruth 4:14-16). Mothers also bore responsibilities toward domestic servants and slaves.”
We must therefore not neglect the influence of mothers over their sons and daughters.
PARENTHOOD AS SPIRITUAL SHEPHERD
We should also note that there is one important instruction given to Biblical families. We find it in the context of the “revival service” represented by the book of Deuteronomy. If you recall, the whole book of Deuteronomy was about a re-affirmation of the promises God gave to Israel, as well as Israel’s commitment to enjoy those promises through a commitment to God’s character. This would apply not only to the present generation, but for generations to come. In Deuteronomy 6 we read:
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
God’s people are called to spiritually mentor future generations—most pointedly the generations that live within the home.
“‘These words,’ [Moses] says, ‘are to be in your heart’ (Deut 6:6). That is, they are to become part of the mental inventory of the people, the basis upon which life decisions must be made…For the Word of God to be retained and to be effective, it must be committed to memory, ‘incised,’ as it were, on the tablets of the mind (v. 7). So vital was this that parents must constantly, by word and deed, repeat the words of the covenant to their children and reinforce the learning by the display of mnemonic devices on their person and on the doorposts of their houses (Deut 6:7-9).”
This hasn’t changed in the present era of the Church. Parents today have the joy-filled task of teaching their children the promises of God made through Jesus. Understanding the gospel—and learning how to live in it—is an indispensable part of Christian parenting. Are all parents good teachers? Actually, yes; I believe God would never have issued this command were this not true. Every parent has a unique style of teaching—just as every child has a unique style of learning. But the most enduring lessons will no doubt come not from an explicit lesson, but the example your children see modeled in their parents’ lives and in their homes.
 Daniel I Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, Ken M. Campbell, ed., p. 41.
 Ibid., 43ff.
 Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p. 89-90.
 Eugene Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, p. 357.