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Volume 17, Issue 2: Childer

When Sons Leave

Douglas Wilson

I want to begin by belaboring a point. The Greek word for "leave" is kataleipo. The New Testament uses it twice to mean forsake (Heb. 11:27; 2 Pet. 2:15), once to mean reserve (Rom. 11:4), and the rest of the time it means plain old leave, as in "he up and left."

Jesus, for example, left Nazareth (Mt. 4:13). A man might leave his wife by dying (Mk. 12:19). The young man who escaped from those arresting Jesus left behind his linen cloak (Mk. 14:52). Levi left everything to follow Jesus (Lk. 5:28). Mary left Martha with the dishes (Lk. 10:40). A good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go find the one (Lk. 15:4). It was not right for the apostles to leave the Word of God to wait tables (Acts 6:2). The ship St. Paul was on left Cyprus behind (Acts 21:3).
The New Testament also uses this same word to talk about sons leaving father and mother in order to marry a wife (Mt. 19:5; Mk. 10:7; Eph. 5:31). This is a quotation from Gen esis 2:24 in all three instances, where the word azab is used—a word that throughout the Old Testament means forsake or leave.
Now in the sense of simple departure or separation, a daughter also "leaves." But she leaves because she is given. Daughters are given. Sons go.
This does not mean that sons have the right to disrespect their parents, obviously. The Fifth Commandment was not written just for daughters. Sons are to honor and respect their parents, just as daughters are. But the point must be underscored here. For a son to leave home when he is grown does not constitute disrespect. This is because honor and respect are defined by scriptural duties, and not by what the requirements of the parents may be.
A normal pattern is for a son to leave home in order to marry. A man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. There it is—leave and cleave. But Scripture also indicates that sons leave for other reasons as well.
For example, when the armies of Israel mustered for battle, the men who were required to be there were the men twenty years old and up. "Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, throughout their fathers' house, all that are able to go to war in Israel" (Num. 26:2). One of the central duties of manhood is to fight in battle if that is necessary. In Israel, eighteen-year-olds were not mustered for battle, but at the age of twenty, they were included among the men of Israel.
On the flip side of this, those who were under the age of twenty when Israel came out of Egypt were permitted to go into Canaan. The adult men, that is, those who were twenty and up, were kept out of Canaan with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb. "Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob; because they have not wholly followed me" (Num. 32:11).
Another indication that men were considered responsible and independent adults at the age of twenty was that this was the age when they had to pay the atonement tax on their own. "Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord" (Ex. 30:14).
In my view, this has obvious ramifications for how we bring up our sons. In a very real sense, parents are preparing them to leave. As my wife once put it, there is one thing worse than a son leaving home, and that is a son who doesn't. This means that when a son reaches a certain age, he may just leave—even if his parents have not blessed it—and he may do so without being guilty of rebellion against them. He is supposed to go. In addition, he may do this even if he is not getting married—he may have joined the Navy or be off at college. When he does this, and he is financially independent, he should be considered as a responsible adult, a new household.
At the same time, a common mistake that young men make at this age is that they want the perks of independence while postponing the responsibilities of independence. But young men who want Dad to stay out of their "private" affairs (like their lack of study habits) while fully expecting Dad to keep up the car insurance payments are young men who clearly have not yet grown up. They need to learn obedience.
Now the fact that a son may go when he has grown does not mean that his motives are right in going. In other words, he may have the right to be wrong. And his parents may be right to be worried about the choices he might make. But sons who struggle with independence when they have finally become independent are likely sons who have not been trained or prepared for it. That preparation should have happened long before the age of twenty.

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