Patriarchs and Dysfunctional Families in the Bible Essay

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The stories of patriarchs reveal differential customs and social norms, creating problematic and marginalized modern interpretations. In what Breuggeman (2003) calls the "traditioning process," it has become customary to manufacture meaning within the Biblical texts in order to perpetuate their relevance. The political, social, and theological messages contained within patriarchal narratives are therefore similar to those located in other Biblical texts and depend on faith for their renewed value.

Boadt (1984) points out also the means by which patriarchal figures and their corresponding social norms are codified in Biblical texts. The process of canonization and "traditioning" depends on acceptance of patriarchal codes and processes, including the means by which families are structured. In terms of both faithfulness and dysfunctionality, to read the patriarchal narratives and particularly the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar requires a dual consciousness: to step at once inside the mindset of Biblical times but also to retain the awareness of contemporary values. Faithfulness in a marriage covenant was illustrated contextually in the narrative of Abraham because of his frankness and honesty, and Sarah's complicity in the surrogate motherhood of Hagar. A similar situation in the twenty-first century would have yielded similar results, and would not have called into question the integrity of the marriage or any of its key members.

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However, the term "dysfunctional" or "dysfunctionality" is purely a modern one. Modern readers risk projecting too much on ancient texts when they presume or assume too much about the nature of ancient social customs. In fact, there is little that is actually dysfunctional in the story of Hagar and her relationship with both Abraham and Sarah.

What matters perhaps more are the grave political and social consequences of placing undue faith in patriarchal narratives or any other Biblical text. The story of Abraham's two women, the mothers of his children, has become the seed metaphor for the schism between seminal Semitic peoples. Even though it would not be for many centuries, the evolution of Islam clarified the sharp differences between the matriarchal model exemplified by Sarah's seemingly miraculous mothering of Isaac and the patriarchal model denoted by Hagar's carrying Ishmael, the symbolic patriarch of what would later become Islam. Jealousy and other petty, negative human emotions are almost celebrated in the Biblical narrative. The "traditioning" of family dysfunction also becomes a tacit approval of selfishness and deceit; the casting out….....

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Boadt, L. (1984). Reading the Old Testament. New York: Paulist.

Brueggeman, W. (2003). An Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville: John Knox.

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