Biblical family values: what's not to like? We all want our children to be respectful, moral, self-controlled, helpful, diligent, loving and loyal. But go to the Bible for examples of family life, and we run up against reality with a real bang. Incest, prostitution, child sacrifice – it's all there.
1. Noah was a 'righteous man', but not all the time. After the Ark he took to drink; on one occasion his son Ham saw him naked (Genesis 9), a terrible breach of etiquette at the time, and was cursed to be a slave of his brothers for it. The event was used to justify the enslavement of black people in the American South.
2. Abram pretended that his wife Sarai was his sister (in fact she was his half-sister) because he was afraid that Pharaoh would kill him if he knew they were married so he could have her for himself. So Pharaoh married her thinking she was young, free and single (Genesis 12: 10-20). Abram tried exactly the same thing with Abimelech in Genesis 20.
3. Sarai wasn't getting pregnant in spite of God's promise that Abram would have a son, so he took her servant Hagar and made her pregnant instead (Genesis 16).
4. Abram's nephew Lot lived in Sodom and welcomed two angelic travellers to stay the night with him. The townspeople gathered outside and demanded he hand them over so that they could rape them; he offered them his two virgin daughters instead (Genesis 19).
5. Lot was someone else who didn't do alcohol well. Genesis 19 tells of how his two daughters wanted children but didn't have husbands. They got their father drunk and slept with him, giving birth to the ancestors of Israel's deadly enemies, the Ammonites and Moabites.
6. Abraham's faith is tested by God telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22). He passes the test, though at the last moment an angel stops him from the killing. The daughter of Jepthah in Judges 11 was not so fortunate: her father made a vow that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out to meet him when he returned after a victorious battle. Unfortunately it was his daughter, and he kept his vow.
7. Isaac's wife Rebekah deceives her husband into giving his blessing to Jacob, her younger and favourite son, rather than to Esau (Genesis 27); she dresses him in goatskins so Isaac will think he's hairy Esau rather than smooth Jacob. It's a very calculating piece of deception perpetrated on a blind old man.
8. The story of Judah and Tamar isn't very edifying, either (Genesis 38). He had three sons; the first married a woman named Tamar but died. She was given to the second, Onan, who let's say declined to perform his marital duty. He died too, and Judah, seeing a pattern, wouldn't risk his third son. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and took Judah as a client. When she became pregnant he wanted to have her burned to death for dishonouring the family before she revealed who the father of her child really was.
9. King David was a great king, but not really a great parent. 2 Samuel 13 tells of how his son Amnon rapes his sister, another Tamar. Their brother Absalom is furious and since David does nothing about it he has Amnon murdered.
10. Absalom revolts against his father and nearly succeeds in overthrowing his regime (2 Samuel 15-18). Absalom is killed, but David nearly throws away his victory because of his excessive grief (2 Samuel 19: 5-8). Another son, Adonijah, tried the same trick in David's old age (1 Kings 1) but was thwarted by Solomon.
So, what's the point of a list like that? After all, it's the kind of thing that's sometimes trotted out by atheists who want to show that the Bible is a violent and cruel book. But here's how we should think of these things.
1. Don't pretend the Bible is all nice and inspirational. It's not: sometimes it's horrifying.
2. Don't imagine that God has nothing to say through dark stories. Learning how not to be a parent is just as useful as learning to be one.
3. Don't talk too blithely about biblical family values. Those were different days, and we have to be wise in translating what the Bible says for our own times.
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