Family, land, and households in the Old Testament

Family, land, and households in the Old Testament January 15, 2016


By Keith Reeves

The connection between the family and ownership of land – economic production – is central to the Bible’s picture of social order. The household of biblical times was both a familial and economic unit. Today we tend to think of familial and economic relationships separately, which has profound implications for our society.

In part one of this two-part article, we will take a closer look at how and why the Old Testament codes demonstrate a deep concern to keep the familial and economic aspects of the household joined together. In part two, we will look at how the breaking up of this household unity under the monarchy was a key subject of the prophetic witness against injustice.

First, let’s talk about what we mean by “family.” Family structure was certainly different in ancient Israel than what we typically see in America today. In one sense, the entire nation was a single family; the fact that we can call the nation “Israel” demonstrates this.

Within the nation we find the tribes, which according to Numbers 26:52-56 received initial land allotments according to size. The tribes, in turn, are composed of clans – larger family units that might comprise a village or a region. The clans had a vital social function, which we will discuss below.

Within the clans was the most basic unit, the “father’s house.” This is headed by the “father,” the oldest living patriarch of the family. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are all under the authority of the father. The father’s house could be a fairly large unit, comprised of more than 50 people.

The father’s house is where the ownership of land actually occurred. Today, individuals own land, either singly or jointly. In Israel, land belonged to a father’s house rather than to any individual or set of individuals.

The father’s house was therefore a vital link both to the land and to Yahweh for the individuals in the house. Ultimately, the land belonged to Yahweh (Leviticus 25:23). But it was “owned” in a more secondary sense, and managed, by the father’s house.

Severing the connection between the father’s house and the land in essence broke the connection between the people and Yahweh (Micah 2:9). Thus, the laws in Israel were designed to maintain the integrity of the father’s house and its connection with the land. There are many such laws, but we can only touch on a few.

The various sexual laws were primarily designed to maintain the integrity of the family unity. The law of the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) is clearly designed to maintain order and integrity in the family. We see this also in the clan’s responsibility for vengeance when one of its members was killed (II Samuel 14:6).

The various redemption laws are some of the clearest examples of the requirement to maintain integrity in the family unity. The clan was responsible to redeem any of its members who sold themselves into indentured servanthood (Leviticus 25:47-52). Likewise, the clan was responsible to redeem the land (Leviticus 25:23-28).

One of the more interesting laws designed to maintain the integrity of the family and the land was the law of Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). In essence, Levirate marriage requires a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother. A man did have the option to opt out, so to speak, but public shaming could follow such a decision. The widow could pull the sandal off the man’s foot, spit, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house” (Deuteronomy 25:9).

This law was not necessarily popular, due to its economic implications. We have two instances in the Old Testament where it was rejected: the story of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) and the story of Ruth’s kinsman, who refuses to fulfil his obligation (Ruth 4:1-6).

The details in the story of Ruth regarding the redemption of the field are unclear and disputed. It appears that Elimelech “sold” his field prior to leaving for Moab. “Sold” in quotation marks, because the clan always has the right to redeem the field. There are no “All Sales Final” signs when it comes to land in Israel, because the laws give priority to family and household integrity.

But Naomi does not have the financial means to redeem the land. Thus Boaz, who is a member of the clan, can seek the opportunity to redeem the field and restore the land to Naomi. However, with the field comes the obligation of Levirate marriage to Ruth, so the firstborn son will legally be Elimelech’s offspring.

Boaz is not first in line, so he must offer the opportunity to a closer kinsman first. The closer kinsman refuses, because not only would he need to pay for the field, but the field would not ultimately belong to him even after he paid for it. It would go to Ruth’s firstborn son, Elimelech’s legal heir. This explains the prayer of the villagers, “may your house be like the house of Perez” (Ruth 4:12). Perez was a twin (Genesis 38:39) who also had twins. The firstborn child of Ruth would legally be Elimelech’s heir, whereas the second born would be Boaz’s heir.

This is much more than just interesting history. The family unit is as important to economics and social order today as it was in ancient Israel. We no longer have a land-based economy, so land as such is not the key factor now. But the family is still vitally connected to the economy. Nick Schulz, in Home Economics: the Consequences of Changing Family Structure, details the destructive consequences of the breakdown of the family in America. Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, in their book The Poverty of Nations, include “Laws that give protection and positive economic incentives to stable family structures” as one of the factors that help nations overcome poverty (p. 256-257).

The biblical account of the household raises no shortage of critical questions for us today. What can we do – as individuals, as families, as churches, as communities – to protect the integrity of the family? What can we do to aid those who find themselves in broken families? How can we help people see familial and economic relationships as deeply interconnected rather than separate and unrelated?

Thankfully, we are not the first to face such questions.

Keith Reeves is professor of biblical studies at Azusa Pacific University. In the second part of this article, we will look at what the prophets had to say about the breaking up of household unity under the monarchy.  Reprinted from the Oikonomia Network. Image: ON.

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