Family – Chapter 8: The Biblical Family Covenant

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

A couple of years ago, I participated in a seminar on the family. Its purpose: to draft a statement on the family from a Christian perspective that would be sent to politicians, showing them that a “traditional” view of the family exists in the consensus of our society. I remember the members of the group well: there were housewives; there was a theological professor with admitted family problems who was participating for his own sake; there was a family therapist; there was the head of a leading family organization. I was the minister.

For two days, we sat in a small room, trying to hammer out a statement on the family, seeming to make little progress. What was the problem? No one could answer the question: “What is the family?”

There were basically three options presented. One, the family is a blood-bond, involving all those related by blood. Of course, this raises the issue of “extended” vs. “nuclear” family. If the family is related by “blood-bond,” then the family consists of all those near and distant relatives who have any of the “clan’s” blood running through their veins. The group was inclined to reject this view, but on the other hand, it wanted to adopt it.

Second, the resident “family therapist” vehemently objected to the “blood-bond” definition, submitting the idea that marriage was a social contract, along the lines laid down by Rousseau. Some were immediately pulled this direction, thinking it was the solution to our dilemma. But then, one of the “down-to-earth” housewives said, “Wait a minute. If marriage is simply arranged among various parties by social agreement, what would stop someone from calling a social organization of homosexuals a ‘family’”? She was correct, because homosexual couples do call themselves a “family.”

Finally, after hours of listening to this fruitless debate, another housewife – the housewives seemed to have more sense than anyone else in the meeting – suggested that we turn to the Bible for a definition. They turned to me, the resident minister, and said, “Does the Bible define the family anywhere?” I took them to the Old Testament, and this became the third and accepted definition.

Malachi says,

The Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant (Mal. 2:14).

The Bible defines the family as a covenant, the same Hebrew word (herith) being used in Malachi that is used elsewhere for the God-to-man covenant (Gen. 6:18). Once this definition is accepted, however, it affects how one views the family. It is the missing concept that has not been addressed. Consequently, most Christians have a defective view, and only see the family as a series of isolated “principles” concerning “how to communicate,” “child-rearing techniques,” and so forth, but they do not have the faintest idea how all these concepts relate. In other words, they lack the integrating concept that properly outlines what the family is.

To take dominion over the family, we should begin here. Let us analyze the first family covenant.

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at the place. And the Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. And the man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed (Gen. 2:18-25).

How do we know that this passage refers to a covenant? In the previous chapter, we saw that the creation days were structured according to the covenant, creation being called into existence with ten words. This account of the creation of woman and the first marriage falls within such a covenantal context. The following introduces briefly the first model of the family, It too follows the five-fold pattern.

True Transcendence (Gen. 2:18)

The section begins with a certain “revelatory” character, similar to the Deuteronomic covenant: “Then the Lord God said’ (Gen. 2:18). God creates the first marriage and immediately distinguishes marriage from creation, distancing Biblical religion from all ancient pagan religions. Pre-Christian pagan religious cosmologies generally involve creation itself with the first marital union. For example, the marriage of one “god” to another “god,” or even to man, produces offspring that populate the earth. Consequently, to worship “god,” or the “gods,” is bound up in the family ancestry. The result is that the worship of god is worship of the family!

Since God is transcendent, the family is not absolute, nor is it the center of society. How ironic. Modern Christian writers frequently insist that the “family” is the most important institution of society, making it transcendent and absolute. They simply ignore the covenantal aspect of Biblical religion, and they return to pre-Christian pagan concepts of the family. Is it any wonder that we cannot tell much difference from Christian and non-Christian teachers on the subject? A covenantal view of the family begins here, distinguishing God from the family, thereby placing Lordship in God and putting the family in the proper role.

Carle Zimmerman gives modern man the best analysis of the history of the family, being a creationist and rejecting all traditional “evolutionary theories” of its development.[1] His evaluation classifies the family’s history into three categories: trustee (clan), domestic, and atomistic. He explains that the family tracks these three “phases” in every major period of history, particularly in the West, although he summarizes the same tendencies in the East.

For our purposes, however, he reminds us that the spread of Christianity had to counter a “clan,” or what he calls the “trustee,” view of the family. The clans were the final authority about everything, even to the point of executing one of its own members should he be found guilty of some “capital,” or rather “familial” offense. The Church attacked this clan view, and taught that the Church is the means of change.[2] It taught that the family can only draw true life from the Family of God. Build God’s Family, and God will save man’s family.

The true transcendence of God, therefore, keeps the family from being “absolutized.” On the other hand, with God as the Creator of the family, He becomes the source of salvation and hope for it.

Hierarchy (Gen. 2:19-22)

The second section of the family covenant describes the creation of woman: how God showed man his need and made the special provision. Herein are all the facets of the principle of hierarchy.

God actually created a hierarchy by which the first dominion mandate could be accomplished. He, through the headship of the male and submission of the female, uses couples to perform His work. God first shows Adam his need by involving him in naming the animals. The Lord causes the man to see that man cannot carry out his mandate alone. A hierarchy of checks and balances is required.

It is important, however, that the Biblical hierarchy of the family be theoretically and historically distinguished from the pagan patriarchal or clan family system. Such pagan family structures have persisted in Central and Eastern Europe, but they invariably collapse within one or two generations when these families arrive in the West, especially in countries with a Protestant background. The clan family simply cannot compete with the Biblical covenantal family. The Biblical family order is supposed to replace clans and patriarchs.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are frequently referred to as patriarchs. Biblical patriarchs, yes; patriarchs of a clan system, no. When Abraham sent Ishmael away, he broke from Ishmael legally. Ishmael no longer had to take orders from Abraham, although he showed filial honor by joining Isaac at his father’s burial (Gen. 25:9). Similarly, after Abraham passed the inheritance to Isaac – a transfer symbolized by his transfer of Sarah’s tent to Isaac – so that he and Rebekah could begin their life together in it (Gen. 24:67), he left the region. He remarried, journeyed east, and disappeared from covenantal history until his death (Gen. 25:1-9). He was father of many nations: Ishmaelites, Semites, Midianites, and so forth. But he wisely and faithfully ceased to meddle in the lives of those sons who had gone their own way.

The patriarchs in the Bible were not patriarchs in the sense of men who ruled a single pyramid of families beneath them. The sons and daughters-in-law were not expected to live in their father’s house, or even nearby. The familiar “in-law problem,” reflected culturally by the “mother-in-law joke,” is the product of sin: unbiblical interference by would-be patriarchs and matriarchs, and smoldering resentment and outright rebellion by resentful sons and daughters-in-law. If men understood and honored the covenant basis of the Biblical family model, such problems would be drastically reduced. To put it bluntly, the in-laws’ authority stops long before and far outside the heirs’ bedroom door, not because of biology, but because of a legal declaration of a new unit of government that is created by marriage.

The creation of Eve out of Adam adds another dimension to the Biblical hierarchy. Her creation is analogous to man’s. As Adam was created by God, she is created by God. Unlike Adam, however, she comes into existence through the male’s own being (rib), making her distinct from God, but forever dependent on the male for life. Not until the Fall does woman appear in a totally “autonomous” and independent role. So, the man needs the woman, and the woman needs the man.

The hierarchy of authority places the male in the position of representing God to the woman. Although she is man’s “vice-president,” and top advisor, she is created to submit to man (Eph. 5:22). The Apostle Paul uses her creation as an argument explaining why women should not be allowed to exercise authority over men in the Church.

But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression (I Tim. 2:11-14).

The Biblical chain of command runs from the man outward and then downward to the rest of the family. Although modern man, in all of his rebellion to the God Who created him, tries to escape this reality, the Biblical authority structure is a major ingredient missing from American home1ife. A. C. R. Skynner speaks of the need to have a set hierarchy, as opposed to an “equalitarian,” everyone-is-equal approach.

The parts of the group, like the parts of the individual, are not all on one level but require to be arranged in a certain hierarchical order if they are to function effectively. No one disputes this in the organization of the central nervous system, where lower centers are under the dominance of higher…. But groups and families also have an optimum type of organization which must involve a form of dominance hierarchy and while there is again a range of possibilities of varying effectiveness, it appears that breakdown of the authority structure – whether through the loss of control of a nation by its government, abdication of responsibility by a father, or destruction of the cortex through birth injury-leads to uncoordinated release of tendencies which can be damaging to the whole system, however valuable these may be within proper bounds and in their proper place.[3]

The second covenantal principle for the family is a set hierarchy around the male (under Christ’s authority). What about a day when there are so many “one-parent” families? The institutional Church is the Biblical solution until the woman remarries. Women can find the “true Groom” Jesus Christ to be an immense comfort. The male will discover that the Bride of Christ, the Church, can offset his deficiencies. Nevertheless, the problems do not negate the Biblical reality of hierarchy.

Ethics (Gen. 2:23)

After God creates the woman, Adam names her (Gen. 2:23). “Naming” was part of the cultural mandate and original command given to man. Not only was Adam told to name everything, but thereby to have dominion. So, this function is in compliance with an ethical stipulation. Biblical dominion is ethical and not manipulative, designed according to the Ten Commandments.

The law of the family is supposed to be the Ten Commandments of God, with fathers teaching their sons how the commandments are applied. Moses tells Israel’s fathers,

And these words [Covenant of Ten Commandments] which I am com gently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your foreheads. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut. 6:6-9).

I do not believe Moses intended these verses to be taken according to the Talmudic Jewish tradition, writing the Ten Commandments on little pieces of paper and nailing them in special boxes to the doorposts of one’s house. The family was to be taught the law of God: what it was, and how it applied.

Solomon reiterates this message to families, devoting the entire book of Proverbs to “wisdom” (hocmah). What is wisdom? It is the ability to think and apply God’s Law. In Proverbs, Solomon tells sons to listen to their father’s instruction in the “commandments” of God.

My son, if you will receive my sayings, and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; For if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, and discover the knowledge of God (Prov. 2:1-5).

The ethics of the family is the covenantal commandments of God. Throughout this book, we have seen the relationship between the covenant and ethics, the Ten Commandments. Solomon says that God’s ethics should be so internalized that one’s “natural” response is obedience to His Law. This is the task of the family and parents.

Sanctions (Gen. 2:24)

Next in Genesis 2 the text says, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24). Moses adds his own editorial comment (under the inspiration of God), which is judicial in character. All of the language here implies some kind of legal process of oath-taking to establish a marriage union.

“Leaving” (‘azab) implies the termination of a covenant bond, the same Hebrew word being used of apostasy from the covenant (Deut. 28:30; Judges 10:10; Jer. 1:16). The covenant being ended is the parental bond. A new covenant or bond is formed by “cleaving” (dabaq). The parental relationship is temporary and the marital covenant is permanent.

Even the “one flesh” language is primarily legal and covenantal, not primarily “physical.” The word for “cling,” or “cleave” (dabaq) is the key to understanding the full sense of “one flesh.” Dabaq is a technical term, often used in covenant contexts like Deuteronomy (Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh. 22:5, 23:8). The parallel words to this concept are “serve, love, fear, obey, swear by His name, walk in His ways, and keep his commandments,” all of which is covenantal language for receiving God’s sanctions.[4] Of particular interest is the use of this word in the sanctions context of Deuteronomy. The covenant is bonded to by “clinging” to it in love and obedience (Deut. 30:20).

The language of Genesis 2:24, therefore, implies a legal process whereby God’s sanctions are received for the marriage covenant. In essence, the traditional marriage ceremony even to this day reflects the covenantal influence on marriage, “Till death do us part.” Most people do not realize that they are taking an “oath” before God, witnessed by the minister (Church), the relatives (Family), and civil authorities via the marriage certificate (State). All three institutions testify that an oath was taken, sealing the two together until one or the other dies. The consequences for breaking the oath is the judgment of God (Mal. 2:14ff.).

The point of all this, though, is that marriage is a covenant, creating a new family unit. The old family covenants that used to govern the newly married partners are broken, and a new covenant is formed. Marriage means that family ties are not by blood-father to sons, and to the daughters-in-law through their husbands, as in pagan Greek and Roman families[5] – but by covenant. Although children have responsibilities to aid their parents, the parental covenant and authority cease at the point of marriage. The “new” husband is head of his house, and neither his nor his wife’s father is the covenantal head. Thus, the terms “nuclear” (autonomous) and “extended” (patriarchal) miss the true description of the Biblical family. It is covenantal, being created through a legal process of receiving sanctions.

Continuity (Gen. 2:25)

Finally, the family covenant consists of continuity, the fifth point of covenantalism. Moses says, “And the man and his wife were both naked and not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Why would Moses add such a statement?

Following upon the “one flesh” comment of verse 24, Moses describes the marital bliss of Adam and Eve. His words, however, are not in terms of physical union – none is mentioned – rather, there was no “shame.” They needed no clothing because before the Fall they were clothed by God’s covenant. More to the point, the covenant bond of Genesis 2:24 had created perfect continuity. Their union was complete. It was confirmed by the absence of shame. The Bible expresses their continuity this way so as to create a contrast with the following chapter in Genesis. Satan destroys their absence of shame by provoking the Fall. They become guilty, and their shame becomes a reminder of their complete loss of inheritance. In an ironic sort of way, as long as they had no shame, they had inheritance. When their shame was removed, ultimately in Christ, their inheritance was returned (Matt. 5:5). Only people who have their sin forgiven are able to lay hold of the inheritance.

Continuity is in the covenant, and it is very important to the being and well-being of the family. In our house, for example, we teach our children that if they really love us, then they will love the God that we love. They are warned that if they ever leave the covenant into which they have been baptized, then they will be cut out of their inheritance. In a Christian home, “blood is not thicker than (baptismal) water!”

Is this cruel? No. This is precisely how God treats us, and how the families of the Bible treated their children. When a son left the covenant, he was removed from the family inheritance. When Cain killed his brother and deserted God’s covenant, he was cast out (Gen. 4:9-15). Of course, to apply this concept of marriage and family, one must love the covenant more than he loves his children. Family continuity should be built on the covenant. Children should be taught to see the connection between covenant faithfulness and inheritance, both spiritual and material. Christians are not to subsidize evil, which is what unconditional inheritance does in a world of sin and covenant-breaking.


The family is a covenant. In this chapter, I have used the first marriage to demonstrate its covenantal nature. To review, first we saw that God is transcendent over the family, meaning the family is not the center of society. Second, God set up a hierarchy around the male, not denigrating but subjugating the woman and children to him. Third, man carried out God’s commandments by naming the woman, making the covenant ethical. Fourth, the family is created by the application of sanctions (oath and legal declaration), meaning the family tie is covenantal and not primarily of blood. Fifth, the continuity of the family is in compliance to the covenant of God.

This is the Biblical model, but do we find that it has been adopted anywhere in history? Is this ideal unobtainable, in other words? No, as a matter of fact, Edmund Morgan says that the covenant was the most important family concept in early Puritan America.[6] In the next chapter, therefore, let us take a more historical look at the family covenant.

[1] Carle C. Zimmerman, Family and Civilization (New York: Harper & Row, 1947). Although Zimmerman was a Harvard University professor and one of the leading experts on the family, he was ignored, and still remains ignored, because he was a creationist. His works are mammoth and monumental, but very few take note of him simply because he was a devout Catholic who believed strongly in creation and rejected, particularly at the time he lived, the standard Marxist and evolutionary interpretations of history.

[2] Ibid, pp. 462-495.

[3] A. C. R. Skynner, Social Work Today (July 15, 1971), p. 5.

[4] E. Kalland, “Dabaq, ” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. L. Harris; 2 vols., (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 1:178. Also, see Walter Brueggeman, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone (Gen. 2:23a),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970), p. 540.

[5] Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (New York: Doubleday Anchor, [1864] 1955), Book Second, ch. II.

[6] Morgan, The Puritan Family, pp. 26ff.