The Bible encourages love and community in families, and sees that love as a way to spread harmony in wider society, but it doesn’t assume family solidarity is natural.
A while ago I was listening to an expert on twin studies as an effort to come to some conclusions on the problem of “nature v. nurture.” She said something I didn’t expect and yet immediately reminded me of the Bible. She said there is no such thing as “identical twins.” Yes, that’s the name we give twins who are genetically identical. But in the womb, she stated, they don’t get equal access to limited resources. By the time they are born, they are already showing developmental differences.
Naturally, I immediately thought of Jacob and Esau.
In the Bible, family solidarity is often invoked as the key to social peace. When the tribes offered to be subject to David, they appealed to it: “Behold, we are your bone and flesh.”
But it is a mistake to assume this means that family solidarity is natural or in any way easy. Laban said the same thing to Jacob, yet that family connection meant exploitation and competition for limited resources. Jacob’s struggle in the womb with his twin brother became a struggle to get out of slavery and poverty against his father-in-law and his brothers-in-law.
I’ve understood the start and finish of Genesis as being significant. It starts with the exalted Adam who loses his kingdom when he seizes what is forbidden. It ends with Joseph who refuses to touch forbidden “fruit” though he is a slave, and is exalted to rule a kingdom as a result.
But thinking about twins has led me to another observation.
The first two brothers mentioned in the Bible, and indeed the first brothers in human history, are also the characters in the first homicide. The second Fall in Genesis is the story of Cain and Abel. Adam was driven out east of Eden, but Cain was driven further east to the land of Nod.
Genesis tells us that the first homicide was a fratricide.
The last story in Genesis is also about brothers. All Joseph’s brothers hated him. The majority of his brothers wanted to murder him. One of the brothers schemes to save his life but that plan is partially thwarted when an opportunity arises to profit by selling Joseph to slave traders.
The rest of the story of Joseph depends on that event: brothers acting in murderous hatred against a brother much like Cain and Abel.
Between those two stories, Genesis has several other stories recording God’s covenant to save humanity. The majority of those stories are about domestic strife. If they don’t feature sibling rivalry, they present us with other conflicts such as father against son, mother against father’s son, father-in-law against son-in-law, and father against daughters. Reading Genesis, one would think the kingdom of God depends on a soap opera. Perhaps Jesus was thinking of Genesis when he said
For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:52-53; ESV)
But why should this surprise us?
All the temptations and anxieties of life that would cause a person to selfishly try to exalt himself over others are concentrated in the family. Siblings compete for real and imagined rewards, whether financial resources or honor in the sight of their parents. Parents love their children but, in seeing their children as blessings, can impose themselves on their children, not even realizing how selfish they are being. Isaac and Laban have different motives but both exploited Jacob.
All the trials a person will face in outside life are there in his or her family relationships. If anything, the problems in the family as a society are more intense.
Perhaps that is why Genesis seems to spend so much space on soap-opera-like stories.
Family solidarity isn’t natural, but it is a great blessing to society. If one can master oneself in the way one functions in the family, one will be an asset in other relationships. If an entire family can do this, they will be a city on a hill.
Genesis starts with fratricide. It ends with the solution to fratricide: faith in God’s providence and forgiveness:
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8; ESV)
And then it repeats the lesson later, as a second witness that this is what the story of Joseph teaches us, as the climax of the stories of family conflict in Genesis.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21; ESV)
Jesus our brother says the same thing to us.