Family Life in the Bible

[This article was taken from Chapter Five of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].


In every land the home is the nursery of all that is best and most beautiful in human life. In Syria and Palestine there is no curse of alcohol and drunkenness to deaden and destroy natural feelings, and the parental devotion of the poorest is as happy and self-denying as that of the rich and refined. [1] Nothing bewilders and shocks the Eastern mind more than the paragraphs of police news that are sometimes copied from English into Arabic and contain stories about the desertion and ill-treatment of children by their parents. Occasionally an infant is laid by night at the door of a convent or boarding school, but almost universally a child born into the poorest home is welcomed as a gift from God. Matters socially connected with the family, such as neighborhood, hospitality, and inheritance, will be touched upon in the next chapter: we shall here confine ourselves to the three chief events of family life, namely, Birth, Marriage, and Death.

1. Birth. The leading and distinguishing feature of Eastern family life is the preference of sons over daughters. This, of course, is a result of the demands of society rather than of domestic affection. The lack of public law and justice made the family unit an important alliance. The family is a union of common interests, not merely for the cultivation of truth, obedience, and loving self-sacrifice, but for defense, marriage alliances, mercantile enterprises, and social advancement generally. When a son marries, he usually brings his young wife into the home of his parents, to be for a time at least under his mother’s instruction. [2] A daughter leaves her home as the purchased or bargained possession of another family, and gradually becomes identified with its interests. Her origin is not forgotten, however, and she is protected by her own family’s influence.

A daughter remembers her family of origin, and promotes it when she can. This is beautifully illustrated by the life of Esther, who helped Mordecai come to power in the Persian kingdom. This “influence from the inside” was one of the reasons that kings and powerful men were given concubines as gifts. A concubine was a “lesser wife,” that is, a woman who was either a slave or was of lower birth than the man she was married to. Giving a daughter as a concubine to the king opened the possibility that great power would come to the family, or family interests would be considered by the royal family, or at least some influence or respectability would come to the family. Solomon, even given his extremely powerful position, had a ridiculously large number of wives (700) and concubines (300) (1 Kings 11:3). Often a wife who might otherwise have been divorced because of some provocation is treated with respect and forbearance because any affront to her would alienate all her relatives.

The union of everyone inside the household under its recognized head against everything outside the household is one of the leading ideas of Eastern life. An Arabic proverb that is often quoted says, “Better a thousand enemies outside the house than one inside.” An Easterner can politely decline a proposal that seems injurious to his interests by saying, “Good morning, neighbor, you are in your courtyard and I am in mine.” In Arabic the word family means “those who are cared for.” Another Arabic proverb says, “In social matters act as kinsmen, in business matters be strangers.”

The moment the Easterner passes beyond his own door and the circle of his immediate neighbors, he encounters officials who have paid for their appointment. He has no voice in their selection and no control over their conduct. The home is not a training place for noble service in the State, but instead a bulwark against its tyranny. Any family may grow into a clan the head of which may have sufficient means and influence to obtain a government appointment, and then he can help and favor those who recognize his leadership. Because of this struggle for wealth and worldly promotion, and the importance of having an heir to succeed to it and use it, the birth of a male child brings joy to a family, and that of an infant daughter sorrow and disappointment (Jer. 20:15; John 16:21). [3]

When a child is born, two or three local musicians are usually waiting outside to know if the new arrival is a boy or girl. If the former, they immediately beat the drum, and play upon whatever instruments they have, accompanying the din with improvised rhymes complimentary to the dignity of the family, and prophetic of the career lying before the son and heir. But the moment they learn from the silence and sad looks of the visitors that a daughter has been thrust upon the family, the drum is shouldered, and the musicians walk away. Music at such a time would be an unpaid affront. The grandmother sometimes refuses to visit a daughter who has thus brought discredit on the family. When natural affection and financial interest pull in opposite directions, victory too often goes to the latter. But God’s ink does not lose color although it is applied to such poor paper, and in spite of this disappointment at the beginning, the little daughter’s claims to family love are soon more fully recognized.

The idea of the Eastern family as a business syndicate, as much as a sanctuary of affection, is expressed in the Koran, which says, “Wealth and sons are the ornaments of life.” Thus also in Psalm 127:3-5, the family circle is compared to a quiver, and the sons are the arrows ready for service. Their father can command attention in the council of the elders at the city gate.

The newborn infant has its arms laid by its side and is wrapped in swaddling clothes. Among some of the peasantry the custom still prevails of rubbing the child’s body with a powder of salt (Ezek. 16:4), but washing with water is usually avoided until after forty days. [4] The little figure wrapped tightly in folds of cotton, and with its black eyes intensified by the eye-paint on the lashes, looks more like a mummy than a happy human child, and it is sometimes difficult to find the words of praise that the mother is expecting to hear. [5]

(A) Naming the Child. The names of Eastern children, after the familiar Bible custom, usually express the parents’ gratitude to God, or something connected with the personal appearance of the child or the circumstances under which it was born. Very frequently the name is given in remembrance of some relative. These names are thus personal registers of the happiness and hopes of their parents. Those of Jacob’s family will be recalled as instances of this custom, and so do names as Isaac (Laughter), Ishmael (God is hearing), Moses (Drawn out), and Samuel (Heard of God).

It is not usual to call a son after his own father. The father’s name is added as a kind of surname, as David, son of Jesse, and Simon, son of Jonah. [6] A child named after someone in a former generation is a memorial of that one who, though absent, is still living in the minds of the family members. Care is taken lest he or she is forgotten. Thus it is common to have family members’ names reused every few generations. This also explains why the people were so amazed when Elizabeth declared that the name of her child would be “John,” and said to her, “…There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name” (Luke 1:61). When a child was named after some honored relative, there was often the hope that the child would inherit the character of the departed.

A certain class of names is expressive of family anxiety and sorrow. Such are Dibb (bear), Nimr (leopard), and Saba (lion), given when one child after another has died in infancy, and it is hoped that the name of a common wild animal may take off the evil eye, and put a stop to such misfortune. This may have been the trouble when Caleb (dog) was born. Students of Eastern folklore find deeper meaning in such customs, but at the present day it is simply a form of humiliation to deliver a family from its dark fate, and in a dim superstitious way recognizes the fact that a new life requires a new spirit.

The names of female children are usually taken from beautiful objects in nature, or pleasant graces of character. Thus, astronomy gives Shems (sun), Kaukab and Nejmeh (star), Kumr (moon). Favorite flower-names are Zambak (lily), Yasmin (jasmine), and Wurdeh (rose). Jewelry is of course very popular: the school register is always richly ornamented with such names as Lulu (pearl), Almaz (diamond), and Zumurrud (emerald). Many again are suggestive of the pleasant appearance or kindly dispositions of their owners. Such are Selma (peace), Simha (joy), Farideh (special), Latifeh (gracious), Sultaneh (princess), and Jamileh (pleasant). A quaintly sad name is Kafah (enough), an implied remonstrance, meaning that after the birth of several daughters the parents would have reverently preferred to have had at least one son.

Bible examples are Jemima (dove), Tabitha or Dorcas (gazelle), Rhoda (rose), Rachel (lamb), Salome (peace), Deborah (bee), and Esther (star). [7]

(B) Raising the Children. Many of the Western attitudes and practices in the raising of children are not seen in the East. Great allowance is made for the impulsive ways of children, but parents never attempt to draw them into companionship, and there is no literature for young people. Thus in the Arabian Nights the interval between birth and marriage is usually a blank. Dolls are greatly enjoyed by the little girls, but Moslems, Jews, and Druzes find a taint of idolatry in them. Boys play with marbles, tops, and balls, and both boys and girls imitate in their games the things that occupy the serious attention of their elders. Thus, juvenile bands form into a marriage procession with swordplay, music, and shouting. They dramatize funerals and make lamentation in the same way. Bedouin robbers attacking travelers and law courts are also popular children’s games.

The selling of Joseph, the sorrows of Job, and the raising of Lazarus are described in poetry, which is learned by many, and passed down unchanged from generation to generation like our nursery rhymes. The account of Job’s misfortunes, for example, tells how his wife cut her hair and her husband’s to sell it for food, and such graphic touches come to be regarded as part of the original story. It is easy to conceive how a scribe copying one of the books of Scripture might introduce an explanatory comment from such floating traditions. The references to the book of Jasher are perhaps instances of this (Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18). [8]

The children in Christ’s time evidently played by imitating marriage and funeral processions as they do at the present time. Christ compared the stubborn and petulant attitude of the religious leaders to that of children playing in the marketplace, upset that others would not play along (Matt. 11:17). Among the little girls of the East, the chief entertainment is to play bride. One of their number is selected and dressed up with contributions from the others, and sits with downcast eyes and folded hands to be admired by her young companions.

2. Marriage. The chief event in Eastern family life is marriage. This is usually planned by parents in the infancy of their children. The formal betrothal may take place some years before the marriage. The bridegroom-elect sends a present to the girl, the dowry is settled, and if sometime afterwards the engagement is broken off, the young woman, if a Jew, cannot be married to anyone else without receiving first a paper of divorce from the rabbi. The marriage is a great occasion of festivity, sometimes prolonged over several days. A seven-day marriage festival was the biblical custom in many parts of the Middle East. Jacob’s wedding apparently lasted seven days (Gen. 29:27), as did Samson’s wedding many hundreds of years later (Judg. 14:14-17). To be omitted in the invitations is a grave offense. An Arabic proverb says: “He who does not invite me to his marriage will not have me at his funeral.”

The wedding customs of today strongly resemble those mentioned in Scripture, but do not exactly repeat them. The Jews introduce European elements, the Christians have new traditions belonging to the Christian Church, and the Moslems, who usually preserve most of the ancient practices, have been influenced by the strict seclusion of women.

At a Jewish wedding the most interesting feature is the canopy under which the bridegroom and bride sit or stand during the ceremony. It is erected in the court or large room of the house where the guests are assembled, and is made of palm branches and embroidered cloth. It is suggestive of the dome sometimes seen above pulpits, and gives to the wedding the appearance of a coronation. In Isaiah 61:10 (NIV) the bridegroom is described as decked like a priest, and he still wears, at such a time, the prayer cloak of public worship called the tallith. [9] The Jews say, “The bridegroom is a king.” The husband is priest and king in his own household. Amid all the countries in which the Jews are scattered, and the different languages that they learn to speak, the canopy is called by its Hebrew name, the Huppah. The sight of the robed bridegroom issuing from the canopy (tabernacle) and receiving with smiles the congratulations of his friends suggested the simile of the sunrise in Psalm 19:4-6. At a Jewish marriage one item of sad significance is never omitted. The glass that holds the wine of marriage consecration is dropped on the floor and broken to pieces. This is explained as a memorial of the destroyed Temple, and teaches the Jew that in the moment of his own supreme happiness he must not forget the deep sorrows of his nation. The thought recalls Psalm 137:6: “If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), the reader of Scripture naturally wishes to know where the maidens were when they slumbered and slept, and where and why the bridegroom tarried. The following description will shed some light on those difficulties. Eastern marriages usually take place in the evening. Among Jews and Christians the ceremony is usually performed in the house of the bride’s parents, though Christians get married frequently in the church. Among the Moslems the wedding always is in the house of the bridegroom. The whole attention is turned to the public arrival of the bridegroom to receive the bride prepared for him and waiting in the house among her female attendants.

If we make allowance for some changes in detail caused by their rules as to the seclusion of women, the Moslem customs are those which help us most in trying to understand how marriages took place in Bible times. During the day the bride is conducted to the house of her future husband, and is assisted there by her attendants in putting on the marriage robes and jewelry. [10] During the evening, the women who have been invited congregate in the room where the bride sits in silence, and spend the time commenting on her appearance, complimenting the relatives, discussing various family matters, and partaking of sweetmeats and similar refreshments.

Girls wearing ceremonial headdresses with coins

As the hours drag on, their topics of conversation become exhausted, and some of them grow tired and fall asleep. When there is nothing more to be done, and everything is in readiness for the reception of the bridegroom, the cry is heard outside announcing his approach.

The bridegroom meanwhile is absent; he is spending the day at the house of one of his relatives. There, soon after sunset, that is between seven and eight o’clock, his male friends begin to assemble. Their work for the day is over; they have taken a hasty supper, and dressed themselves, and have come to spend the evening with the bridegroom and then escort him home. The time is occupied with light refreshments, general conversation and the recitation of poetry in praise of the two families chiefly concerned and of the bridegroom in particular. After everyone has been courteously welcomed and congratulations received, the bridegroom, about eleven o’clock, subtly makes known his wish to set out. Flaming torches are then held aloft by special bearers, lit candles are handed at the door to each visitor as he goes out, and the procession sweeps slowly along towards the house where the bride and her female attendants are waiting.

A great crowd has meanwhile assembled on the balconies, garden walls, and flat roofs of the houses on each side of the road. It is always an impressive spectacle to watch the passage of such a brilliant retinue under the starry stillness of an Eastern night. The illumination of the torches and candles not only makes the procession itself a long winding array of moving lights, but throws into sharp relief the white dresses and thronging faces of the spectators seen against the somber walls and dark sky. The bridegroom is the center of interest. Voices are heard whispering, “There he is! There he is!”

From time to time women raise their voices in the peculiar shrill, wavering shriek by which joy is expressed at marriages and other times of family and public rejoicing. The sound is heard at a great distance, and is repeated by other voices in advance of the procession, and thus proclamation is given of the approach half an hour or more before the marriage escort arrives. It was during this interval that the foolish virgins hurried out in quest of oil for their lamps. Along the route the throng becomes denser, and begins to move with the retinue bearing the lights. As the house is approached the excitement increases, the bridegroom’s pace is quickened, and the alarm is raised in louder tones and more repeatedly, “He is coming, he is coming!”

Before he arrives, the maidens in waiting come forth a short distance with lamps to light up the entrance, and to honor the bridegroom and the group of relatives and intimate friends around him. These pass into the final rejoicing and the marriage supper; the others who have discharged their duty in accompanying him to the door, immediately disperse, and the door is shut.

Such is the simple incident in the earthly home that has found such wonderful correspondences in the heavenly life. The bridal procession has been taken into the house of Parable, and there robed with beautiful vesture of spiritual truth. If we are careful to interpret the latter by the former, we learn:

(1) from the bride’s adorning what varied and skillful attendance the Church, which is sometimes compared to a Bride, needs in order to wear properly the Bridegroom’s gifts;

(2) from the bright, forward moving procession, that every servant of Christ should be a light bearer and never stand still; an

(3) from the turning of all eyes upon the bridegroom, how great is the trespass when any Church official or creed displaces or obscures the great central personality, the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. Death. When a death occurs in an Eastern home, a wail is immediately raised that announces the sad event to those living in the neighborhood. It is customary and expected at such times of sorrow that the relatives should tear their hair and clothes, beat their breasts, and weep and cry aloud until sheer physical exhaustion brings on the necessary reaction of dullness and depression. Easterners are unsurpassed in the quiet, unmurmuring acceptance of what they believe to be the will of God. [11] However, in giving social proof and evidence of the loss they feel, the outward expression of grief becomes the chief burden of grief. The wail at the moment of death, and the lamentation around the corpse during the short interval before interment, are referred to several times in Scripture (Gen. 23:2; Mark 5:38; John 11:31; Acts 9:39). The tears of Christ at the grave of Lazarus have been a comfort in many a darkened home, allowing the heart to feel and tell its bitterness, even while faith in God remains sure and strong. Some of the common language of Eastern lamentation is preserved in Jeremiah 22:18.

Weeping relatives lean over the cold form of him who was so recently interested in the smallest affairs of the family and was the chief object of its ministry, and with words of loving endearment they plead for a response from the lips that never move and the face that makes no sign. Other names, the names of those in the family who have died lately, are mentioned and make the tears gush forth afresh.

Besides the family and relatives of the deceased who are genuinely grief stricken, it is a custom in the East to hire women who are professional mourners (Jer. 9:17; Amos 5:16). These women assist the lamentation and are skillful in interweaving family references and in improvising poetry in praise of the departed. When a new band of mourners arrives from a neighboring village, they lift up their arms and exclaim, “Hope is cut off !” (cp. Job 8:13 and 14; Isa. 57:10; Ezek. 37:11). It is the presence of these professional mourners that explains how grief could so quickly become laughter when Christ told them the little girl was not dead but only sleeping (Mark 5:38-40).

When a young person dies unmarried, the funeral lamentation is made more pathetic by first going through some of the forms of a wedding ceremony. The real situation is thus contrasted with what might have been.

In the warm climate of the East the interval between death and burial has to be very brief. The funeral generally takes place the same day, or on the day following. The short interval between death and burial was a reason to stay close to home if someone was sick or infirm. If a family member went away to a neighboring town, by the time word got to him about someone’s death and he traveled back home, his loved one was likely to be already buried. One of the men Jesus asked to follow him answered, “…Lord, suffer [allow] me first to go and bury my father” (Matt. 8:21). His father was not dead yet, but the son was uncomfortable leaving town in case he did die. Jesus would have never answered the way he did, “…let the dead bury their dead,” if the father had just died and the son was only asking for a few days to bury his father. The man’s father was likely to stay alive for years, and Jesus knew that his ministry was going to be short, allowing people only a brief opportunity to follow him and be his disciple.

The formulated frenzy that takes place at someone’s death to some extent displaces true grief. Worse, it often turns into pious selfishness on the way to the grave. Among modern Easterners, accompanying a funeral procession is called attending the merit, because it is thought to be an act that will secure a reward from God. This belief, and the resulting action, i.e., people going to a funeral who have no concern for the deceased or his family, is a prime example of empty and pious religion that presents itself as uncaring and only focused on form instead of substance and, sadly, it steals honest emotion and feelings of grief from the funeral itself.

Tombs from the time of Christ. One has a rolling stone as a door.

Although many people were buried in the ground, it was common that a family would have a tomb cut out of rock or made from a cave, and that generation after generation of people would be buried in it. Thus Abraham was buried in the cave where he buried Sarah (Gen. 25:10), and then his son Isaac was buried there with Rebecca, then Jacob and Leah were buried there (Gen. 49:31). This is why, when someone was dead, he was said to have gone to be with his fathers or that he had gone to “sleep” with his fathers (Gen. 15:15; Deut. 31:16; 1 Chron. 17:11). Jesus Christ was specifically said to be buried in a “new tomb”, because the usual custom would be to place his body in a family tomb (Matt. 27:60). Among the Jews a cemetery is solemnly called the House of Eternity (cp. Eccles. 12:5-NIV).


[1] We saw earlier when studying the vine that alcohol, though forbidden by Moslem law, was a common vice in the biblical culture.
[2] Although this sentence probably sends chills down the spine of many modern women, who marry in their 20s and would not enjoy being under the instruction of their mothers-in-law, it must be remembered that in the biblical culture girls usually married in their young teenage years, sometimes as early as 12, with 16 being considered quite old. Furthermore, the culture led them to expect, and be prepared for, life with their husband’s family. Interestingly, although both Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31 speak of the man leaving his father and mother, culturally, that was not done. Men were too important for the defense of the family to move away just as they were getting old enough to really make a difference in a fight. Men married and lived with or near their parents, and it was the woman who relocated to be with her husband and in-laws.
[3] The translators of the NIV missed the custom and translated “boy” as “child” in John 16:21, but the Greek word clearly refers to a male.
[4] This Moslem custom is in contrast to the biblical culture in which parents washed their children at birth, and if a baby was not washed it was considered neglected (Ezek. 16:4). The custom of “salting” the baby varied. Sometimes only a little salt was symbolically rubbed on the child as a sign of the salt covenant. Bishop K. C. Pillai, Light Through An Eastern Window (Robert Speller & Sons, New York, 1963), p. 42.
[5] Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes by Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:7 and 12). Newborn babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes in a way that straightened the arms and legs and so that the body was straight, and this was done as a dedication, showing that the child would be raised to live a straight life before God. Thus the baby in Ezekiel 16:4, who was not “swaddled,” did not have parents to care for her and bring her up in the ways of the Lord. The swaddling clothes were not left on very long. One of the unfortunate losses in the modern versions is that the translation of “swaddling clothes” has been reduced to merely “wrapped in cloth,” which most modern people assume was simply to keep the baby warm. Thus the custom involved is totally lost to the modern reader.
[6] “Son of” is ben in Hebrew, and thus the famous movie, Ben Hur, is “son of Hur.”
[7] There are some other customs associated with names that are very important. The name of the person carried the same authority as the person himself. To use someone’s name was to use his authority. Thus, when David’s men were negotiating for him, they spoke, “…in the name of David…” (1 Sam. 25:9). When King Ahasuerus’ scribes sent a letter out to his empire with his authority, it was written “…in the name of king Ahasuerus…” (Esther 3:12). When the priests ministered “…in the name of the Lord…” (Deut. 18:5 and 7), they were ministering with God’s authority. David told Goliath he came “…in the name of the Lord…” i.e., in God’s authority (1 Sam. 17:45). When Peter healed the man at the Temple, he used the authority that Christ had granted him, stating: “…Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk” (Acts 3:6). In Acts 16:18 Paul took a demon out of a woman, “…in the name of Jesus Christ,” i.e., in the authority of Christ.

In the same way that a person’s name carried the authority of the person, when someone wanted to demonstrate his control or influence in another person’s life, he would change the person’s name. Some of the names God changed were: Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), Sarai to Sarah (Gen. 17:15), Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28), and Solomon to Jedidiah (2 Sam. 12:24 and 25). When Pharaohnechoh conquered Judah he changed Eliakim’s name to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34). Nebuchadnezzar changed Mattaniah to Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17). The Babylonian official in charge of captives changed Daniel to Belteshazzar, Hananiah to Shadrach, Mishael to Meshach, and Azariah to Abednego (Dan. 1:7).

Jesus Christ has a name that is above every name, meaning that he has more authority than anyone else (Phil. 2:9), and he also has a name that no one knows, except for he himself, meaning that no one can get power over him (Rev. 19:12).
[8] Ecclesiastes 12:12 testifies that there were many books available in the ancient world, none of which have come down to us from the time Ecclesiastes was written. A few of these are mentioned in the Bible, including, “…the annotations of the prophet Iddo” (2 Chron. 13:22-NIV), “…the book of the annals of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41-NIV), and “the annals of Jehu” (2 Chron. 20:34-NIV).
[9] The NIV says “…adorns his head like a priest,…” while other versions say that he decks himself with ornaments or with a garland. The Hebrew word is used of, but does not have to mean, a priestly headdress (Exod. 39:28; Ezek. 44:18).
[10] As Mackie says, there were occasionally changes in detail. Almost every book on biblical manners and customs has something about weddings, and it is valuable to read several accounts to get a flavor for how customs varied slightly. One of the practices that varied was where the bride was. Many books record that she stayed at her house, with some fanfare the groom came to get her, and then there was a grand parade as the bride and groom traveled back to the bride’s new home. Fred H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (Moody Press, Chicago, 1953), p. 131.
[11] It was God’s will that mankind live forever. Death is an “enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) and it is the Devil who holds the power of death today (Heb. 2:14). People blame God for disasters and death, but that blame is misplaced. See Don’t Blame God!: A Biblical Answer to the Problem of Evil, Sin, and Suffering (Christian Educational Services, Indianapolis, IN, 1994).

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1 comment

  1. Not even a prayer of thanksgiving?

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