The family in ancient Israel was a fluid and open community. The most common Hebrew terms (mišpāḥâ and bêt, “house”) can designate the single household unit, the wider circle of consanguinity (Gen. 24.38), the clan, the tribe, and the nation (Amos 3.1–2). This concentric usage suggests the role of the basic family in shaping the larger community. Significantly, the Passover, Israel's foundational ritual, was essentially a family celebration (Exod. 12.3–4, 26–27).
The basis of the family is marriage, understood as a covenant between the husband and wife (Prov. 2.17; Mal. 2.14). Although some texts imply a monogamous relationship (Gen. 2.18, 22–24), at least in earlier periods polygamy was an accepted practice (Deut. 21.15; 1 Sam. 1.2; 1 Kings 11.1–6), enlarging the scope of the family. And in a broader sense, the extended family included other relatives (grandparents, grandchildren, siblings) as well as slaves, servants, and resident foreigners (Gen 17.23; 46.5–7, 26–27; Exod. 20.10; Judg. 9.1).
In the extended family (the “house of the father,” Hebr. bêt ʾāb), the authority of the father was the strongest cohesive force. He arranged marriages for his children, generally within the clan (Gen 24.1–9; Deut. 7.3; Neh. 13.23–25). His patriarchal power might require drastic action against worshipers of other gods (Deut. 13.6–11). Nevertheless, the fifth commandment demanded “honor” for mother as well as father (Exod. 20.12)—perhaps very pertinent in a family that included adult offspring—and the book of Proverbs teaches the respect due equally to each parent (1.8; 6.20; 10.1; 15.20).
The family provided one of the most commonly used analogies for the relationship between Israel and God, as father (Exod. 4.22; Ps. 103.13; Prov. 3.12; Jer. 31.9; Hos. 11.1–4), and also as mother (Isa. 66.3) (see Metaphors).
In the New Testament, oikia (“house, household”) is the ordinary word for family, although patria (from patēr, “father”) is also used. Disobedience to parents is a sin (Rom. 1.30; 2 Tim. 3.2; see Ethical Lists), and caring for one's family is strongly inculcated (1 Tim. 3.4–5; 2 Tim. 1.5). Yet in the teaching of Jesus, his followers must give no more than second place to even the closest family ties (Matt. 19.29; Luke 14.26); the true family of Jesus are those who do his father's will (Matt. 12.46–50 par.; cf. Luke 2.48–49).
The primary use of the word oikia is in reference to the church. The solidarity of the family as the building block of the spiritual family of God is evident in “household” conversions and baptisms (John 4.53; Acts 11.14; 16.15, 31–34). Not only is the whole church the household of God (Eph. 2.19; 1 Tim. 3.15; 1 Pet. 4.17), but also most early Christian congregations were family or house churches, meeting in domestic buildings and led by the householders, including women and husband‐and‐wife joint leaders (Acts 2.46; Rom. 16.3–5; 1 Cor. 16.15, 19; Philem. 1–2). This helps explain the prominence given in the New Testament to appropriate relations between individuals in the family, including masters and slaves (Eph. 5.21–6.9; Col. 3.18–4.1; 1 Tim. 5.4, 8, 9–16; Philem. 15–16; 1 Pet. 2.18–3.7). The letters in particular are full of metaphors drawn from family life, such as childhood, adoption, sonship, and inheritance (Eph. 3.15; 1 Tim.5.1–2; Philem. 10).
David F. Wright