Many of us believe that we can go the Bible for guidance for living our daily lives. It includes wisdom for marriage enrichment and family life education. Sadly though, many of the Bible family stories do not always seem edifying and often, not suitable for emulating. In these stories we discover weak, scarred, scared, struggling, failing people who have suffered and survived horrible ordeals, many of them self-inflicted.
Yet God used them.
The stories of families in the Bible are raw and uncensored, bitter reminders of how awful family life can become. Though these ancient families lived in a distant time, in a far-off place, with social customs and rules that sometimes mystify us, when we peel back the surface differences, we discover that people and their family problems seem not to have changed much at all. Once we begin to understand them, their stories and experiences may seem to mirror our own lives. We see reflections of ourselves in their messy and troubled circumstances.
These stories are vital to our understanding of God, our faith, our relationships, ourselves and our world. They portray real flesh-and-blood human beings struggling with their past histories and with their fallibilities, foolishness and sinfulness. They battle for their present survival, and a future for themselves and their children. The twists and turns of relationships and the brokenness of being fallen humans are all there in these stories.
Yet it is in those broken places that we catch glimpses of God’s grace and healing.
As you read or listen to these stories, you will see the hand of God silently reaching in to touch the wounds. And you may also see how these fragile and broken people stepping up to do what is right. Let’s take the example of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar as found in Genesis 15 and 16.
Sarah, we recall, was barren, but was promised descendants that would constitute a great nation. The years flew by, then they slowed to a crawl, and nothing happened. English synonyms for the word “barren” such as unproductive, unsuccessful, fruitless, desolate and dry convey how Sarah would have been regarded and would have felt in her context (where no woman would have chosen not to have children).
She probably longed not only for fulfillment of being a mother but also for the honor and respect accorded to mothers in a society where women did not count for much otherwise. Sarah’s identity as a woman, as someone of worth, depended on her producing and nursing babies. She did not gain value in men’s eyes by being a righteous and faithful human being but by producing male heirs for her husband. An empty womb meant an empty life.
Yet we see how God protected her. In an earlier incidence when Abraham took the family to Egypt to escape famine, he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him because Sarah was such a beautiful woman (Gen 12:10-13). Abraham seemed to care only about being treated well himself – not about what might happen to Sarah. Abraham used her as a shield, putting her at great risk to protect himself (see how selfish man can be!).
The Lord was not consulted about this plan and did not like it, to say the least. As an expression of divine displeasure, the Lord inflicted on Pharaoh and his household a plague of terrible diseases. God acted on behalf of Sarah, because God is the God who acts with justice and compassion for those who are mistreated and struggling.
Fast forward to Genesis 16 and we see how God takes care of Hagar. Sarah, being barren for such a long time and growing really old, not only complained to Abraham but came up with her scheme of going through the surrogate-motherhood route. Her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, could be her stand-in. So, she instructed Abraham, “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah rather than the voice of God.
We read that Hagar conceived, and there began the tensions in their relationships – between Sarah and Hagar, Abraham and Sarah. The result was that Sarah dealt harshly with Hagar (reasoning “she was just a slave-girl” and “baby incubator”), bad enough to make Hagar run away pregnant into the wilderness. Her name means “flight” and she lived up to it.
Alone in the wilderness, she had put her life and the life of her baby at risk. But we read that an angel of the Lord came to her and rescued her (Gen 16:7). On the run from her mistress, she met the God who most often shows up during dire personal crises to bring assurance of divine care and mercy.
Our families and these ancient families are flawed by disagreements and divisions, physical and emotional abuse, infidelity, petty jealousies and mean-spiritedness. They are far from perfect. Yet it is exactly in those flawed places that the Spirit of God moves and where we can catch a glimpse of grace.
In the accounts of these biblical families, we do not attempt to distill “three easy steps leading to a happy family life” or “six ways to avoid pitfalls leading to family disaster.” Instead, we look or dig into the complexities and difficulties or their lives and try to understand them, and through them, God’s ways of working in their broken places.
As we explore the stories of the families of the Bible, we seek to make connections to the experiences that we face as families of today. As we read and hear of their stories, we too can tell our stories to one another – stories of defeats as well as victories, of fallenness as well as of graces, so that we can truly know each other, walk with one another and be an authentic community for one another.
Their stories are not simple but instead reveal how God works through darkness and struggle, through shattered lives. God’s grace often seems hidden, like yeast that silently and imperceptibly brings about change in and through us. We find hope for ourselves not in the beautiful, bigger-than-life statue of a perfect family but rather in the twists and turns and plunges into crises in these stories of very “normal” biblical family relationships.
We may ask, at this juncture, “what is the purpose of featuring such flawed and broken families in the Bible?” As stated above, it is to show God’s grace and His work of transforming them into a people of faith and character. And if I could add, to show the glory and power of God. Paul captures it well in II Cor 4:6,7 – “For God … made his light shine in our hearts to give us light of the knowledge of the glory of God … But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”