Households Are Religious Institutions

Atkinson, Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family

The covenant with Abraham wasn’t just a covenant with Abraham, it included all of his heirs. In our society of atoms (aka individuals), even the religiously inclined tend to reduce covenants to concepts.

But even a concept requires a medium to be communicated. The medium for communicating the covenant that God made with Abraham is Abraham’s household, as Joseph C. Atkinson tells us in his study, Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family.

We tend to think of households as havens of rest, places to get away from the workaday world. But for premodern people they were productive enterprises, among other things. (One of those things in a moment.) The word economy tells us so. It is a greek compound word transliterated into english, oikos, meaning house, and nomos, meaning law, as in the law of the house.

It was because households fit into a larger structure of meaning that they were religious institutions at a foundational level. With these things in mind–namely, the productive and religious nature of households–the essential work of Abraham’s house was to pass on its religious character. The terms of God’s covenant with Abraham had to be observed, and those terms had to be impressed upon all the members of the house. Here’s Atkinson on that–

If the family was to carry out its function of transmitting unimpaired the covenant from generation to generation, it had to ensure that both the ethos of the covenant and all its specific details were faithfully “handed over” to the next generation. To do this, the family had to acquire a precise form and structure by which this task could be accomplished. Within the covenant, human sexuality and family played a significant role which would ensure the survival of the covenant. They were no longer merely the instruments by which human life physically continued. Rather, as the well-known Jewish philosopher Hirsch noted, the nascent human life born to the family had to be shaped and formed so that the person would be conformed to God. (p.91)

This sort of thing doesn’t happen without someone making sure that it does. And if it is left up to a vote, or it is unclear just who it is that makes certain that it does in fact happen, it won’t happen for very long. So for this reason, among others, it was the patriarch of the house that made sure that the covenant as the law of the house was observed.

Anticipating modern objections to patriarchy, Atkinson takes time to address the contemporary crisis of fatherhood as well as the role mothers played in the passing on of the covenant. But there is really no way to make the father’s central role palatable to modern people, so much the worse for modern people. Because the father was in truth the priest of his house for the simple reason that he stood before God to represent his family, just as father Abraham had. (p.100) And as priest he was responsible for leading the rituals that passed on the covenant to the next generation. Atkinson notes, those included: redemption of the first born, circumcision, and Passover.

To be continued.

Here’s something else for you to enjoy. Wipf and Stock, the publisher of my book, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

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