The role of the patriarch in family life (Genesis 18)

Genesis 18

In order to understand the description of Abraham as the founding father of Israel’s faith, we do well to recognize the key role a patriarch such as Abraham played in family life during this pre-monarchic period. The social structure of the time had three tiers: tribe, clan and family/household (Josh. 7:14). The fundemental unit was the household (Hebrew “bet av” meaning “house of a father”. It consisted of a patriach – resonsible adult male – his wife, his sons and their wives, his grandchildren and various other dependents. Since lineage/descent in patriarchal societies was passed along through sons, married daughters joined their husbands’ households.

Exploration of Iron Age settlements, although they existed later than the patriarchal period, tells us much about Israelitwe patriarchal society. They indicate that such social units likely inhabited clusters of compounds with a few houses around a courtyard, encircled by a low wall. The elder patriarch and his immediate descendants would occupy one of the homes, with his married sons and their families living in other houses within the compound. In like manner Jacob, along with his sons and their families, sojourned as a small, patriarchal clan (Gen. 46:5-7).”

Various Biblical passages reveal much about Abraham’s patriarchal household. The patriarch was responsible for the socioeconomic and religious well-being of his entire household (14:13-16). In Genesis 18, for example, Abraham’s hospitality toward his three visitors reflected kinship responsibilities that even included the protection of vulnerable sojourners or resident aliens (cf. Lev. 19:33-34). Providing water for dusty feet and serving an elaborate meal conferred honour upon guests, and, as in Abraham’s case, indicated his generosity.

At the same time, Abraham in Genesis 18 may have realized that he was entertaining heavenly guests and thus have been especially hospitable. The bond established during their subsequent table fellowship engendered a blessing from one of the guests and established a basis for Abraham’s intercession for Sodom.

The sacrosanct nature of patriarchal hospitality recurs as a metaphor for God as the host of a feast in Psalm 23:5-6 (cf. Matt. 8:11, Luke 13:29).

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