There is sufficient material here for several studies on the role of households as social and economic institutions.
C J H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Chapter 10 was very useful in preparing this outline, and provides much very helpful background for the structure and role of the family in the Old Testament.
The main focus in this study is on households as economic actors, following the practice of economic analysis. But the family is very important in the biblical text, as a social structure as well as an economic unit. The concept of the family in economic analysis is informed by the Western model of the nuclear family: this is for example the focus of the work of Gary Becker, which is now part of the mainstream. However in the biblical text the family has a structure and social (as well as economic) significance that goes well beyond the nuclear family. To understand the biblical provisions for the family, it is important to appreciate the concept of ‘family’ both in OT Israel and in the NT of the Epistles.
Kinship in Israel had three layers: (i) the ‘father’s house’ – all those living in the household of a single male ancestor – the ‘head’: three generations, includes wives, sons and their wives, grandsons and their wives, unmarried daughters, plus servants and aliens – a small cluster of dwellings on an allotment of land; (ii) ‘clan’ – group of related households named after the grandsons of Jacob – territorial identity (village names and clan names identical ) – a protective association of families, with economic, social, judicial and military duties; (iii) ‘tribe’ – named after sons of Jacob – main significance was territorial and military duties.
‘Family’ is equivalent of ‘the father’s house’ plus their land.
The ‘household’ in the places to which the gospel spread outside Judea in the first century AD was that of Greco-Roman culture, and varied in size and structure depending on the wealth of the family. A wealthy household would include a number of family members, particularly grandparents, parents and children, and would typically also have a number of slaves or household servants. A poor household, by contrast, if not slaves themselves, would be restricted to immediate family members. The epistles make it clear that many of the earliest congregations met as house churches in the large homes of the wealthiest members.
1. The economic life of the household in OT Israel
What were the key roles of the family in ancient Israel (apart from functioning as an economic unit)? Read Genesis 17: 9-14; Deuteronomy 6: 1-25; 14: 27-29; 16: 11,14; 29: 10-12. [Preserving and renewing the covenant, passing on historical traditions, provisions for worship].
Recalling the definition of the ‘family’ given above, what might explain the detailed regulation of sexual relations between family members given in Leviticus 18: 6-18, 20: 11-14, 19-21? [Illicit sexual liaisons within the extended family living together in the same settlement could quickly destroy its cohesion.]
What were the economic implications of each family having an inalienable right to a particular piece of land? Read Numbers 26 focusing attention on verses 52-55, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 6. [No market in land (at best a form of leasing for a fixed term), productivity of the land accrued directly to the family reflecting their skill and effort, subject to the usual uncertainties of agriculture.]
In what ways were the rich in Israel required to support the poor? Distinguish: (a) those who had lost their land (Leviticus 25: 39-40); (b) those without land (Leviticus 19: 9-10, Deuteronomy 23: 24-25, 24: 19-22); (c) those in temporary need (Exodus 22: 25, Leviticus 25: 35-37). Evaluate this ‘welfare system’ as a means of tacklingproblems of poverty in a rural economy, and consider what if anything we can learn from it.
2. The economic life of the household among the NT people of God
How important are families in the life of the NT people of God? (a) what significance should we attach to Jesus’ teaching about family ties in the context of the kingdom of God? Consider, for examples, Mark 3: 31-35, Luke 14: 25-26, Luke 18: 28-30; (b) what can we deduce about the significance of family life in the Early Church from passages in the Pauline epistles that address relationships within the household, and the qualifications for church leaders? See, for examples, Ephesians 5: 22 – 6: 9, 1Timothy 3: 1-13.
What is the significance of work for members of a household? Consider Genesis 1: 26-28, 2: 15, Luke 19:11-27, 1Thessalonians 4: 11-12, 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-15. [To fulfil our calling as human beings, to serve God’s kingdom, to provide for oneself and one’s dependents.]
Isn’t more consumption nearly always better for the household? When does it become greed, and why does that matter? Philippians 4: 10-13, 1Timothy 6: 6-10 [The desire for material goods becomes an idol, distorting lives and relationships.]
Is the accumulation of household wealth a good and prudent objective, or a snare? See Matthew 6: 24, Mark 10: 17-31, Luke 6: 20-38, James 5: 1-6. [Consider the desire to own the property where you live, saving for eventualities like illness or unemployment, saving for retirement, providing wealth for your children to inherit.]
The obligation on the rich to provide for the poor is repeatedly addressed in the NT: see Luke 16: 19-31, Acts 2: 42-47, 4: 32-37, Romans 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 28, 2 Corinthians 8-9, 1Timothy 6: 17-19, James 2: 14-17. Why is this given so much prominence? What can be learned from the mechanisms for channeling help to the poor adopted by the Early Church?
Which, if any, of the provisions for the above five areas (families, work, consumption, accumulation of wealth, provision for the poor) can be generalized and applied to non-church families? Recall Jesus’ teaching about ‘hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:1-9) and suggest what accommodation to non-Christian values might be required.
[Donald Hay, July 2015]