Family Terms and Language in the Old Testament

So Joshua rose early in the morning, and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken. He brought near the clans of Judah, and the clan of the Zerahites was taken; and he brought near the clan of the Zerahites, family by family, and Zabdi was taken. And he brought near his household one by one, and Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken.(Joshua 7:16-18)

This brief section of text from the book of Joshua captures the multiple terms used to describe the various spheres of kinship relations in the Old Testament. The concepts which relate to the terms and phrases translated as “household”, “clan”, and “tribe” will be explored to understand the kinship relations.

Beginning with the rise of Ancient Israel, the Hebrew phrase bet’ ab, literally “father’s house”, is what typically gets translated as “household”.1 The Old Testament also contains the phrase bet’ em which is literally translated “mother’s house” and also means “household”.2 These two phrases can also refer to a person’s biological lineage, possessions, or a compound where one lives. However, household typically refers to the basic family unit which is made up of multi-generational kinship relations and non-kinship relations.3 For example, a household in the Old Testament might have consisted of a woman and man along with sons, daughter-in-laws, the unmarried daughters, servants, parents of the man and/or the woman, and potentially any captives that were taken in military actions (e.g. Jacob’s household, David’s household).

The household shared a common religion, provided for the material needs of each of the individuals in the group, provided protection, and education.4 It would be at this level that individuals would understand their specific identity. For example, many names in the Old Testament would be accompanied by the phrase “son of” or “daughter of”, such as Achan son of Camri in the text above.

The concept of the household was most prominent during the period of Ancient Israel when the rural life demanded much from each family unit in order to survive.5 However, as times changed with the rise of the nation state and beyond, this basic family unit was weakened.6 After the exile the household was still present in the community. Therefore, the household was an enduring institution throughout the Old Testament.

The “clan” is typically the translation for the Hebrew word mispahah. More technically, the mispahah is a kinship unit of related bet ‘ab or households.8 Along with common ancestry, the clan shared their resources, a common religion and also the responsibility for protection.9 It would have been from this level of kinship relation that people would have found marriage partners (Gen. 24, 29).10 This would have ensured that the property, both land and animal, would stay within the clan.11

Finally, sebet is the Hebrew word that is translated as “tribe” in NRSV. It would be accurate to understand that this level of kinship is an association of related clans.12 At this level of relationship, there would have been a common religion and military obligation. The strongest bonds at this level were clearly their kinship and “kinship-in-law” relations along with their religion.13 This is the kinship group typically referred to as ‘am YHWH or the “kindred of YHWH”.14

The “kinship language” or language used between family members to talk about each other and their responsibility to one another has typically been obscured in years past by the emphasis placed on covenant language. Frank Moore Cross makes the point:

“Often it has been asserted that the language of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘fatherhood,’ ‘love,’ and ‘loyalty’ is ‘covenant terminology.’ This is to turn things upside down. The language of covenant, kinship-in-law, is taken from that language of kinship, kinship-in-flesh.”15

Cross comes to this conclusion through a study of West Semitic tribal groups which he believes to be grounded in kinship.16 He finds that their identity, property, legal acts and military power was tied to an understanding of their obligations to their kindred.17 Phrases that have been explained as covenant language such as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and the love terms, hesed and ‘ahabad, are better understood as first being kinship language.18 Also, the obligation to redeem (ga’ al) is best understood as “to act as kinsman”.19 This responsibility was turned into a role in the religious rituals of Israel with the rules of the go’al or “kinsman redeemer”.

As the complexity of the West Semitic tribal groups grew from household to clans and then tribes there became the need to articulate their relationships with the larger group. The kinship language was a natural way to talk about these people. Thus the rise of the kinship-in-law language, which was a legal fiction that allowed for outsiders to become insiders.20 The language of marriage, adoption, oath and covenant used by both individuals and groups allowed for ways of understanding ones relationship to others outside the household along with their responsibilities to them.21 Therefore, the language that was used above to describe the clan and tribe were all a part of an increasingly complex kinship-in-law language that was developed by the West Semitic tribes and found in the Old Testament.

1Joel F Drinkard, “An Understanding of Family in the Old Testament: Maybe Not as Different from Us as We Usually Think” (2001) 490 – 492. The period of Ancient Israel is dated between 1200 to 1000 B.C.E. This has typically included the books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth.

2Joseph Blenkinsopp, John J. Collins, and Carol Meyers, Families in Ancient Israel, 1st ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 34. Examples: Gen 24:28; Ruth 1:8; Song of Solomon 3:4 and 8:2

3Drinkard, “An Understanding of Family in the Old Testament.”490-491.

4Blenkinsopp, Collins, and Meyers, Families in Ancient Israel 24-27.

5Blenkinsopp, Collins, and Meyers, Families in Ancient Israel 38.

6Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon (JHU Press, 2000) 16-18.

7Ibid.

8Drinkard, “An Understanding of Family in the Old Testament.” 492-493.

9Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 3-4.

10Drinkard, “An Understanding of Family in the Old Testament.” 492-493.

11Ibid.

12Drinkard, “An Understanding of Family in the Old Testament.” 494.

13Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 11-12.

14Ibid.

15Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 11.

16Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 3.

17Ibid.

18Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 4.

19Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 5.

20Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 8.

21Cross, “From Epic to Canon.” 9.

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Paul Sheneman
Paul Sheneman is an author, speaker and youth pastor. He serves with the Macedonia Methodist Church in Ohio. He drinks way too much coffee for his own good. His main interest is exploring Christian formation. You can follow most of his ramblings on his blog at www.discipleshipremix.com or on Twitter @PaulSheneman.