Family in the Bible: A Brief Survey -- By: Brenda B. Colijn
ATJ 36 (2004) p. 73
Family in the Bible: A Brief Survey
Brenda Colijn (Ph.D., Cornell; M.A. ATS) is Associate Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology at ATS.
There is no word in Hebrew or Greek that precisely corresponds to the English word “family.” In both languages, the closest word could be translated “house” or “household”: bayit in Hebrew and oikos or oikia in Greek. The same word can be used for the building or for the people who live in it. This term focuses on the household as a social and economic unit.1
The ancient Hebrew family included husband and wife, their children (and if their sons were married, their wives and children), the husband’s parents, the husband’s brothers and their families, the husband’s unmarried sisters, and other relatives. It might also include multiple wives and concubines, with their children and their children’s families. Besides those related by blood or marriage, the household would include servants and slaves, guests (who were bound to the family by the obligations of hospitality), and sojourners (aliens resident in the household and under its ongoing protection, often employees of the household). In a Greco-Roman context, the household would include the extended family, servants or slaves, clients, and guests.2 Families might include children by adoption, although that practice was much more rare in the Old Testament period than in the New Testament period.3
This summary helps to explain the large size of the biblical family. The average American family today consists of 2.63 people; the average Israelite household would have consisted of 50 to 100 people.4 For example, Jacob’s household included about 70 people (Gen. 46:5–27). The modern American notion of family is more narrow, individualistic, privatistic, and exclusive than the biblical one.5
For ancient Mediterranean people, personal identity was not primarily individual, as it is in modern American culture. Instead, people derived their identity primarily from being members of particular groups, such as tribes, clans, and families.6 In this cultural context, the family had an importance that would be difficult for many modern Americans to imagine.
The Old Testament affirms the biological family, which is assumed to be the basic unit of society. Israelite society was structured a...
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