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Monday, March 26, 2018

Families have never been just a mom, dad, and 2.5 children

What does the Bible say about family?
Hint: Families have never been just a mom, dad, and 2.5 children.

The fairy tale pushed by bedtime stories, Disney movies, and traditional values in general is that we grow up, find that special someone, marry, and have children. But as central as marriage and childrearing are, especially for Christians, as far back as biblical times families have always been about something more than the couple, their 2.5 children, and their family dog. 
Scripture shows us a broader definition of the family--including siblings, cousins, and fellow Jesus followers--that reflects the realities of childlessness and infertility in the ancient world. Barrenness is the preeminent disability that afflicts women in the Hebrew Bible. The case of Abraham and Sarah is well known: Sarah is in her 90s when she conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Excluding Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, there are four other barren matriarchs in the Bible: Rebekah, Rachel, the unnamed mother of Samson, and Hannah. 

The first words God speaks to humans in the Bible, in Genesis 1, are the blessing "be fruitful and multiply," so we might assume that infertility in the Hebrew Bible is some kind of curse or punishment. After all, in the biblical text, impairments are often associated with sin: The skin disease that afflicts King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26:19-21, for example, is the direct consequence of his efforts to usurp the role of the priests. But the infertile women in the Bible are utterly blameless. They have done nothing to deserve their state. Indeed these are some of the most beloved and admired women in all of scripture. Their barrenness is no curse or punishment. It is, rather, simply the state in which they find themselves. You might say that even though having children is a blessing, being childless is value neutral.

The (ancient) medical language used by the Bible to describe the process of becoming pregnant makes pregnancy a collaborative affair between humans and God. God does not only intervene in cases where a woman might be assumed to be postmenopausal. Every pregnancy, be it the first or the fifth, is ascribed to God's power. Sarah, who bears Isaac at 90 years old, says, "God has brought me laughter" (Gen. 21:6). When Leah, still in her relative youth, bears Issachar, her fifth son, she too credits God: "God has given me my reward" (Gen. 30:18). For her sixth, Asher, she says, "God has given me a choice gift" (Gen. 30:20). In the ancient Israelite view, God is involved in every human conception.

The fact that God is involved in every pregnancy is connected to the ancient belief that for a woman to remain pregnant her womb must be effectively "opened" and "shut." In the thought-world of the Bible the actor that opens and closes the womb is God. In fact, circumcision itself is instituted as a "sign" in order to remind God to make the people of Israel fertile. 

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