Friday, January 16, 2009

1 Samuel 1-4: Biblical family values?

One of the great ironies of the present day is the use of the phrase 'Biblical family values' to champion the cause of Western (American?) style nuclear families with authoritarian patriarchal leadership and neat polite children. I don't know what Bible those 'values' are found in, but it's not a translation I've ever come across. Incest, polygamy, wife swapping, rape, prostitution and rebellion seem to be some of the 'family values' protrayed in the Bible. But I'll get to most of those another time. here's 1 Samuel chapter 1-4 in brief.

Chapter 1
A man has two wives, one is fertile (Peninnah) one is barren (Hannah).Hannah promises God that if God gives her a boy she will dedicate the boy to God (no alchohol and no hair cuts).God gives Hannah a boy, Hannah gives the boy (Samuel) to the high priest (Eli) the moment he is weaned, and leaves Samuel at the temple as a servant.

Chapter 2
Eli (the hight priest) raises Samuel (who gets to see his mum and dad once a year). Eli also has two sons (Hophni and Phinehas). They abuse their position as priests and exploit those who comes to worship.Eli makes a half hearted attempt to discipline his sons, it fails because God has already decided they have to die.A prophet turns up and tells Eli that because he honoured his sons more than God that he and his sons are going to die.

Chapter 3
Samuel, while still a boy, hears God's voice and becomes a prophet. Samuels first message is to Eli: 'you and your sons are going to die.'

Chapter 4
Hophni and Phinehas take the Ark of the Covenant into battle and die, losing the Ark. Eli gets the news and falls off his chair and dies.

Now is it just me but, does the boy who only sees his parents once a year and never gets a haircut not turn out better than the ones who take on the family business and get spoilt rotten by their indulgent dad?

You have to look hard to find the 'family values' there but I think these chapters do have a subtle (and subversive) message about parenthood. Children are a gift from God (as God grants Hannah's prayer) but are not to be allowed to compete with God for our devotion (as Eli compromises his duties towards God for Hophni and Phinehas).

Western evangelicalism is often in danger of idolising 'the family'. This is seen in some of our organisations (see focus on the family, family first, etc) our politics (can I take that as read?) and in day to day church life (e.g. only going to a church with a good 'childrens ministry', or taking kids out of Bible study groups so they can concentrate on school work). But nowhere in the Bible is the nuclear family modeled, let alone advocated, and we need to ask ourselves how much are our 'family values' truly Christian/Biblical and how much is mere western middle class respectability?

Let me know what you think :)


  1. It sounds to me like you've just written verbatim one of the rants that Jane and I have from time to time.

    We've tried looking in the Bible, and we have not yet found a single example of a family exhibiting "Biblical family values" - not even Jesus' earthly family. "Biblical family values" were invented in the American mid-west following the second world war; strictly utilitarian.

  2. Thanks D&J, sorry to steal your rant ;-) but...
    Isn't Hannah exhibiting BFV?
    How do you mean 'strictly utilitarian'?

  3. I was using "Biblical family values" in quotes in the same context as you were.

    I agree that Hannah was exhibiting BFV. I also agree that when Jesus stayed in the temple as a young boy, he was exhibiting BFV. Any time God is glorified for a family decision, they are showing BFV.

    "BFV" were not "strictly" utilitarian (I got carried away!) After the horrors of WWII, American society had to reconsolidate, and these attitudes helped them to do so. By shunning difference and expecting respect for authority (parents), the risk of failure was minimised and it was believed that everyone would be better off. It was for the good of the many.

  4. apologies, i see what you mean about "BFV".
    Re the history of "BFV" in America, interesting, where did you get that from? would be interested to follow it up.