Sunday, December 01, 2019

The Perils of Family Ties

Most books of the Bible have themes. Commentators generally do a decent job of teasing out the more blatant ones and turning them into book titles or pithy summaries. Thus Psalms is “the hymnbook of the remnant”, Hebrews is concerned with “an unshakeable kingdom” and Mark’s is said to be the “gospel of the Servant King”. To their credit, in many cases these diligent students of God’s word also identify and share with us less obvious recurring patterns that could easily be missed by first, second and even third time readers.

In the books of Samuel, one of these recurring patterns is nepotism. It might not rate the subtitle of a commentary, but it’s there all the same, threading its way through the stories of Samuel, Saul and David, chronicling the perils of family ties that are just a wee bit too tight, and their potentially injurious effects on the people of God.

Once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it.

The Blessing of Family

Hey, families are wonderful. They are one of God’s many ways of showing his love to us. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” says the Law. “Children are a heritage from the Lord” and “A brother is born for adversity,” say scripture’s poetry and wisdom literature. “A son honors his father,” say the Prophets. God “settles the lonely in families,” notes the psalmist. All these are great things, and give us reason to be thankful for our blessings.

That said, unchecked family loyalty can cause compromise, favoritism, rivalry, jealousy and division among God’s people. The writer(s) of Samuel note this repeatedly.

Eli rebuked his worthless sons for their priestly misconduct in private, but he continued to enjoy the perks he received because of being related to powerful men, and never disclaimed his sons to the people or made use his accumulated political capital to have them publicly censured or removed, despite the fact that they made an absolute mockery of the office they held. Perhaps he hoped they would eventually see the light and begin to behave more responsibly. Perhaps he was reluctant to bring even more widespread disgrace on the family name, or to draw attention to his own failures of parenting. But God rebuked Eli and said, “You honor your sons above me.” Eli’s priorities were seriously out of whack.

The Benjamites in Charge

Saul’s administration was full of his own family members. He used his anointing as king to promote his fellow Benjamites left, right and center, and to give them all the plum political appointments in his kingdom. He gave them fields and vineyards, and made them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. He made his hometown of Gibeah his capital, despite the fact that his tribe was the smallest in Israel and almost any other choice would have been more politically savvy and conducive to national unity.

Saul’s desire to pass on his kingdom to his son Jonathan drove him to try repeatedly and unsuccessfully to murder God’s anointed, and to strike out murderously at anyone who supported David. In one appalling case, he had eighty-five members of the priesthood murdered at Nob for supposedly aiding David, then put the entire city to the sword, right down to the last donkey and sheep.

Even Death Can’t Stop It

Even death does little to mitigate the effects of unchecked nepotism. Saul’s cousin Abner commanded his army. After Saul was killed in battle, Abner split the united kingdom by crowning Saul’s son Ish-bosheth king over Israel in defiance of God’s anointing of David. For seven years Abner’s influence turned Israelite against Israelite in the name of family, and many on both sides died because of it. This sort of thing was common at the time, but also immensely destructive. Other tribes followed Ish-bosheth, but it was always the Benjamites that were the driving force in the split.

The acrimony between Saul’s family and David’s went on and on. Almost every thorn in David’s side during his reign turns out to have been some unhappy relative of Saul, blaming David for his death, and most probably for their own loss of power and influence in Israel. Disgruntled Benjamites turn up everywhere. Shimei cursed David and threw rocks at him when he was at his lowest ebb. (If this seems a comparatively small thing, note that there were about 1,000 fellow Benjamites who agreed with him, and later came to apologize to David in fear of their lives.) Sheba son of Bichri actually started a rebellion. That ended badly.

Under David It ... Gets Worse?

But where nepotism was concerned, David was no better than his predecessor. If anything, he was even more nepotistic. His nephew Joab commanded his army. Joab’s youngest brother Asahel was prominent among David’s choice fighting men, and their brother Abishai was “chief of the thirty”. These men were a constant source of temptation to David, counselling him toward policies and decisions that were not at all in character for him. Joab especially tended to freelance, and his violence toward enemies and brothers alike was legendary. Later, David appointed Amasa, another nephew, to command his army in Joab’s place. This too ended badly.

Need we talk about David’s sons and his foolish favoritism toward certain of them? First, despite his anger, he failed to administer justice to a son who had raped the sister of another, then, exercising even worse judgment, he protected the ambitious, self-involved, ingrate murderer. Absalom split his kingdom once again, and again, many died on both sides. When Absalom was killed, David mourned his enemy so publicly that he almost forfeited the loyalty of those who had fought for him against his rebel son.

Conflicts of Interest

The narrative thread of misplaced family loyalty and its consequences is a significant plot element in nearly every story in the books of Samuel. Almost everything bad that happens in these two books is somehow related to family drama. Should we imagine the Holy Spirit chose these particular stories to preserve without good reason? Of course not.

In the early church, we don’t have to go far to find family loyalty creating conflicts of interest for believers. Ananias and Sapphira conspired to test the Spirit of the Lord and were put to death for their trouble. And yet, how likely is it that both parties were equally motivated to hold money back for themselves or to deceive? As is almost always the case, one surely influenced the other, and spousal solidarity ended up trumping faithfulness to God.

Then there is the case of Barnabas, whose loyalty to his cousin compelled him to split with the apostle Paul, who was at the time unwilling to give John Mark a second chance. God made use of both Paul and Barnabas despite the division between them, but one wonders if Barnabas would have been quite so protective if Mark had not been a relative.

Nepotism and Family Loyalty in Churches

How many church splits and serious cases of in-fighting among believers over the years have involved family members? It only takes a few discreet inquiries to bring to light the connection between clannish loyalty and conflict within churches. Sometimes the links are so obvious we don’t even need to ask. The elder who rightly comes under fire because he disciplines the children of others but won’t tolerate the public correction of his own daughter. The mother who insists her son should lead the worship team, and then incites family and friends to leave her church with her when she doesn’t get her way. The father who aggressively defends his little boy in a parking lot spat without doing his due diligence first, and becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back for a younger Christian family who might otherwise have enjoyed happy fellowship at that church for years.

Even when there is no visible split, the bitterness created by family-related conflict can simmer under the surface for years, creating tension between brothers and sisters in Christ and driving appalled visitors elsewhere.

Setting Reasonable Limits on Our Affections

Families are great, but family loyalty cannot be unrestrained or without discernment. We need to set reasonable limits on what we are prepared to do because of our earthly affections. In a church family made up of brothers and sisters bought by the blood of Christ, paying too much attention to the products of our own genes far too easily becomes an undetected form of idolatry, just as it did for Eli and so many others. It is all too possible to honor our families above God himself. Equally, it is possible to be too hard on family members if one is overly concerned about being accused of favoring them.

And there is nothing new under the sun. The stories we find in the Old Testament books of history were “written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” precisely so that we might recognize the errors of the past and avoid making them in the present.

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