Suffer the children:
A second look at parental fidelity in the Bible
v1 – October 2019
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
– Exodus 20:12
“Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
– Deuteronomy 5:16
“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
– Proverbs 13:24
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town.
They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”
– Deuteronomy 21:18-21
“Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head.”
– Leviticus 20:9
In 1971, Alice Miller published a groundbreaking book called “The Drama of the Gifted Child“, which looked at the impacts that narcissistic/abusive parents can have on their children, and how abuse can propagate through generations.
Today in Canada, it’s estimated that one-third of children will have experienced some kind of abuse by the time they are fifteen (link), and many of those children will have experienced prolonged emotional or physical neglect.
In light of these sobering statistics, the Biblical requirement to honor one’s parents seems a little bit peculiar. How can this commandment possibly account for bad or abusive parenting? What happens then?
Mediating the relationship between Biblical wisdom and modern understandings of family dynamics seems like it may be of value – below is my first effort!
“Honor” doesn’t mean total obedience.
One of the things I find most striking about the Old Testament is how brutal it is. People endured a great deal of warfare and conflict back then, which meant that strong laws were necessary for survival.
In that context, obeying your parents makes a lot of sense – when they told you to pack up your toys and run, you listened. When they told you to prepare food, or pray, etc., you listened. That’s how you survived.
Similarly, in that time period and context, parents had to discipline their children – otherwise they were likely to get caught up in activities that could get them killed. Back then, there were no hospitals, and second chances were hard to come by.
However, the commandment to honor one’s parents doesn’t necessarily mean to obey them mindlessly. “Honor” had a specific context in that time period. In short, it meant that one had to provide for their parents as they aged, carry on family traditions, and pay homage to dead ancestors.
“Honor your father and mother: In the ancient world the only institution for the support of the elderly was the family. Most ancient readers would have understood this at the very least as an admonition to care for one’s elderly parents, although other forms of honor would not be excluded. Minimally this would have included the supply of provisions for sustenance…. if a son supports his parents as they grow older and thereby helps to extend their lifetimes, he can reasonably expect to receive similarly beneficent treatment in his twilight years.”
– From footnotes on Exodus 20:12, from NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
The community was responsible for dealing with bad parents.
The commandment to honor one’s parents is not the only law that exists in the Old Testament, and therefore cannot be read in isolation. Generally, I would claim that this commandment only applies when the parents themselves are God-fearing, God-obeying parents.
Looking at some of the other laws in the Old Testament, it turns out that there are many things that could get bad parents killed. This includes adultery, sorcery, and idol-worship (which are prevalent among today’s parents).
Parents are also expected to teach their children about the ways of the Lord and the Lord’s laws. There’s a lot of responsibility placed on the shoulders of the parent in the Old Testament that isn’t being lived up to today.
Finally, the community was responsible for showing mercy to the fatherless (as well as widows, foreigners, and the poor). Children were expected to be provided for, as far as I can tell.
In our modern world, we have traded tight-knit communities for bureaucracies like children’s aid services and public school, which further complicates matters. Who is ultimately responsible for championing the rights of today’s children?
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.”
– Deuteronomy 11:18-21
Jesus’ ministry is intended to divide the family.
One of the themes throughout the Bible is the requirement to travel beyond one’s home and family in service of the Lord. This was true for Abram in Genesis, and also for Jesus, who noted in Matthew 13 that “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
During Jesus’ ministry, he explicitly called for the division of household in service of the Lord. This certainly implies disobedience, especially if the parents are not following the religious laws that they should be following.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”