Unlike within most homes today, in Bible times each member of the family held a certain position in the home, which came with specific duties.
Position of the Father
The Eastern idea of the family is a little kingdom within itself, over which the father is supreme ruler. Every company of travelers, every tribe, every community, every family, must have a father who is the head of the group. A man is said to be the father of what he invents. Jubal “was the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe.” Jabal was “the father of such as dwell in tents, and have cattle” (Genesis 4:20). Because he was a preserver and protector, Joseph said that God made him “a father to Pharoah” (Genesis 45:8). The Eastern mind cannot conceive of any band or group without somebody being the father of it.
Supremacy of the Father Under the Patriarchial System
Under the patriarchial administration, the father is supreme in command. This gives him authority over his wife, his children, his children’s children, his servants, and all of his household. If he is the sheik, it extends to all the tribe. Many of the Bedouins today are under no government except this patriarchial rule. When Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sojourned, living in tents while looking forward to the Promised Land, they were ruled by this same system. And when the law of Moses was given to Israel, the authority of the parent, and especially the father, was still recognized. One of the Ten Commandments is “honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12). In many ways the father was the supreme court of appeal in domestic matters.
Succession of Authority
In a majority of cases, the great authority, which the father had, was handed down to his eldest son, who took over the position of leadership upon the death of the father. Thus Isaac became the new sheik over his father’s household upon the death of Abraham. He and Rebekah had been living in that household under his father’s authority, but the succession of authority passed on to him as the son. Ishmael, being son of the handmaid, did not succeed to the place (Genesis 25). In some cases, the father bestowed the succession of authority on other than the eldest son, as when Isaac bestowed it upon Jacob instead of Esau (Genesis 27).
Reverence of the Children for the Father
Reverence of children for their parents, and especially the father, is well-nigh universal in the East down to modern times. Among the Arabs, it is very seldom that a son is heard of as being undutiful. It is quite customary for the child to greet the father in the morning by the kissing of his hand, and following this, to stand before him in an attitude of humility, ready to receive any order or waiting for permission to depart. Following this, the child is often taken upon the lap of the father.
The Mosaic Law demanded obedience to parents, and a rebellious and disobedient son could be punished by death (Deuteronomy 21:18–21). The apostle Paul reiterated the injunction that children must obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20).
Position of the Wife in Relation to the Husband
The wife held a subordinate position to that of her husband, at least in office, not in nature. The ancient Hebrew women did not have unrestrained freedom as the modern women of the Occident [Western world] have. In the East, social intercourse between the sexes is marked by a degree of reserve that is unknown elsewhere. Dr. Thomson says, “Oriental women are never regarded or treated as equals by the men.” They never eat with the men, but the husband and brothers are first served, and the wife, mother, and sisters wait and take what is left; in a walk the women never go arm in arm with the men, but follow at a respectful distance; the woman is, as a rule, kept closely confined, and watched with jealousy; when she goes out she is closely veiled from head to foot. (W. M. Thomson, in early edition of The Land and the Book, quoted and paraphrased by E. P. Barrows in Sacred Geography and Antiquities, American Tract Society, 438.)
This attitude toward women can be illustrated from the Bible. Notice how Jacob’s wives, when traveling, were given places by themselves and not with him (Genesis 32). And nothing is said about the prodigal’s mother being present at the feast, which the father served his son (Luke 15:11–32). All this is in keeping with Eastern custom.
But while these things are true, it must be understood that the Old Testament does not picture the wife as a mere slave of her husband. She is seen to exert tremendous influence for good or ill over her husband, and he showed great respect for her in most cases. Sarah was treated by Abraham as a queen, and in matters of the household, she ruled in many ways. Abraham said to her, concerning Hagar, who had given birth to Ishmael, “Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee” (Genesis 16:6). The tribute to a Hebrew wife and mother in the book of Proverbs indicates that she was a person of great influence with her husband: “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her” (Proverbs 31:11). “She openeth her mouth with wisdom” (verse 26). “Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also; and he praiseth her” (verse 28).
Position of the Mother in Relation to the Children
Children in the East show nearly the same respect toward the mothers as they do toward the fathers. The mother is believed to be entitled to honor and to have authority from God. Actually, the father and mother are looked at as being the representatives of God in the matter of authority. They are considered as having this position no matter how poorly they fulfill their obligations. Hebrew children in general held their mothers in great respect, even when they became adults. This may be illustrated by the great influence exerted by queen mothers on the kings of Judah and Israel (I Kings 2:19; II Kings 11:1; 24:12.).
Excerpts from Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Fred H. Wight, The Moody Institute of Chicago, 1953, 103–106.
Although customs have changed over time and even today are different in the West from those in the East, the significance that the Bible places on parental authority remains unchanged. Honor is still required of children for their mothers and their fathers in keeping with the counsel provided in inspired writings.