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Volume 17, Issue 3: Childer

Giving and Taking

Douglas Wilson

In our last installment, "When Sons Leave," I emphasized how, in the formation of new families, sons leave and daughters are given. This pattern is taken from the foundational paradigm of family formation in Gen. 2:24, coupled with how it is applied in the New Testament (1 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:31). We found certain other features of Old Testament law to be consistent with this. Young men were included in the militia at the age of twenty (Num. 26:2), and the atonement tax for separate households was reckoned for twenty-year-olds and up (Ex. 30:14). While the normal pattern is for sons to leave in order to marry, there are exceptions. Timothy left home as a very young man to travel as Paul's assistant, Paul himself was unmarried, and of course the Lord was not married.

But how are we to respond to those who point out some other expressions found in Scripture? For example, it is not just said that daughters are given; it says that wives are taken. Does this not mean that sons are in some sense under parental authority in marital issues also? Rebekah was brought to Isaac while Isaac was still living at home. Jacob (when he was in his seventies) was commissioned by his father Isaac to find a wife in the house of Laban (Gen. 28:1-2). Hagar took a wife for Ishmael (Gen. 21:21). God commands the Israelites not to "take" Canaanite daughters as wives for their sons, and this surely assumes that there was a prospect of them doing so (Ex. 34:16; Deut. 7:3).
Following this pattern, it could be argued that a son does not leave his parents (Gen. 2:24) until those parents take a wife for him, and the formation of that new family occurs because they have taken a wife for him.
In my view, there are several problems with this view—but only if this approach is being offered as the normative pattern for us today. It is important to note something at the outset. Whether or not these examples from Genesis are normative, the presence of these examples of arranged marriages in Scripture certainly means that such practices are lawful. I once met a gracious Christian couple from India who were in this circumstance. The parents on both sides were non-Christians, and their son and daughter each asked their respective parents to arrange a marriage as they saw fit, but asked merely that the union be with another Christian. The parents honored this request, the couple married, and a number of years later they were here in the States, still happily married. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that this sort of thing is inherently sinful, and there is strong evidence to show that the patriarchs practiced a form of it.
So why is this pattern not normative? There are several reasons. The first is that the patriarchal examples prove too much. If the pattern in its entirety is normative, then we cannot reconcile it with the express words of Genesis 2:24, where sons leave and establish a household of their own. In the cases of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the sons did not really leave. Isaac took Rebekah into his mother's tent (Gen. 24:67). This suggests a number of things that would be problematic if we tried to apply them as a normative example today. This shows that Sarah's tent was different than Abraham's. Must husband and wife live separately? Later, when Sarah dies, Abraham traveled from his dwelling place to where she had lived, and mourned for her (Gen. 23:1-2).
And while Jacob left home to "take" his wife, after he had worked for his wives (buy one, get one free), he still returned to Isaac's house after many years (Gen. 35:27), when he was at least in his mid-eighties. To treat the example of the patriarchs as normative is not just to follow a certain pattern of courtship that requires permission from the parents of the groom—consistency would require the formation of a compound, where husbands and wives live in separate dwellings, and a self-contained agrarian economy. Such a model would have architectural ramifications.
Second, when the paradigm from Genesis is quoted in the New Testament, it is quoted in the midst of a pagan society that was not nomadic. And yet the pattern of leaving and cleaving is still regarded as functionally normative for these Gentiles who were just hearing about the Scriptures for the first time. St. Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 to the Ephesian church and applies the terms of it straight across. The point is not that the other portions of Genesis are not authoritative for the Gentiles also—it is simply to say that we have Paul's interpretation of Genesis 2:24 in hand. We do not have his view on Esau taking another wife because he realized the first one was distressing to his parents (Gen. 28:8-9). The New Testament tells us that Genesis 2:24 is normative in a straightforward way. The narrative portions of Genesis are authoritative also, but because they are narrative, we have to be careful in how we derive general doctrine from that narrative. It must be done, but given the nature of the case, it must be done carefully.
And third, as we look at the development of culture throughout the course of the Old Testament, we see God changing "the constitution" of Israel on several significant occasions. The climax of this was of course with the coming of the Messiah, where it happened in an ultimate way. In all these transformations, certain features stayed constant. But other elements of that culture faded away. As we consider various details from our covenant history, we need to make sure that we are not resurrecting something that God deliberately retired.

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