Christian family-based religious life is so dissimilar to the practices of biblical patriarchs there are times I wonder if we can consider them patriarchs at all. (Patriarchs are ruling fathers after all, and we certainly don’t seem to submit to them or resemble them.)
My previous posts in this series of reflections on Joseph C. Atkinson’s Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family show just how much the patriarchs expected of family life and just how little we do in comparison.
The first post on the family as the carrier of the covenant and the second on corporate personality are culture shock inducing for the, Jesus lives in my heart what else do I need? piety of evangelicalism.
Today I amplify the shock by directing your attention to the practice of priestly fatherhood in the Old Testament.
If you assume the household is the carrier of the covenant and that heirs of the covenant are in some real sense heirs because they are in Abraham, then the family necessarily becomes the locus of a cult. And like any religious institution, there are people set aside to administer it.
Because the father of the family is the link to the covenant, this responsibility naturally devolved to him.
Here’s Atkinson on the subject:
There were no previous ordination rites or rituals of consecration to empower the father for this role. Rather, by the very fact of his being a father, the founder of his house, each man stood before God as the representative of his family. Thus, within ancient Hebrew society, the very essence of fatherhood implicitly contained within itself the spiritual dimension of priesthood. …Even when the institutional priesthood was instituted under Moses, the primordial sense of the father was never lost. (p.100)
First of all, it did not entail abdicating your role to the professional priests–as Atkinson notes above. This is one of the problems with in just about every form of Christianity–the clergy work around fathers. Clerics tend to be far more comfortable working with mothers for some reason. But in the Old Testament model the father was the contact person for the priest. It was a federal system, not direct democracy. (More about the need to reform clerical practice another time.)
Getting to what it did entail. According to Atkinson, as can be seen here, it entailed passing on the covenant to a new generation.
The first task of fathers in the Old Testament system is blessing.
Now this isn’t the happy, self-esteem, only positive vibe stuff you get from the evangelical press. Read some of these blessings and imagine yourself as a recipient. (Genesis 27 & Genesis 49) Pretty stern stuff, wouldn’t you agree?
What we see in them are conferrals of real rights and real responsibilities having to do with passing on the covenant and all the physical assets of what could be called the family business. These are life an death concerns, not a time for a warm-fuzzy.
But that’s end-game stuff. In the course of family life there were three rituals a father was expected to perform. Two came at the beginning of life, tying the the boys of the family to the covenant, and the third tying the family to the deliverance that preserved the covenant and renewed it.
The redemption of the first born
The first son typically received the lion’s share. That’s because he was understood to be the one who carried on the family concern. He had to be redeemed and set apart for the task. The practice is known as primogeniture, and it is also the principle reason why first born sons were favored in the household. (It was a good idea to ingratiate yourself to the guy who may be your new boss someday.)
Of course we see some amazing reversals in Genesis–second born sons running away with the family jewels. But that’s why their stories are so remarkable. And note, when their turns came, they favored their first borns. And recall, lest you think this doesn’t carry over to the Christian faith, Jesus is the first born from the dead so that in everything he may have supremacy. (Col. 1:18) We still live in a system of primogeniture.
This practice made it very clear that those who proceeded from a father were sanctified. As we’re told, every male in a household was marked in this way. Membership came first, then a father catechized his children in peripatetic fashion. (Deut. 6:6-7)
This high holy day was to be observed in the home. And preparations were exact. But during the course of the meal the father presided and set questions were asked. Again, the stress here is upon the priestly role of the father in the observance.
Considering the prominence of the father in the family cultus Atkinson demonstrates that the burden of proof lies on those who wish to depart from the pattern seen here. Christians don’t continue these particular rites because in Christ they have been fulfilled. But does this mean the central work of a father in the Christian home shouldn’t look to the patriarchs for guidance?