Public Square Magazine Primary White, Gold & Black Logo | PublicSquareMag | What is Public Square | Politics, Faith & Family | Home | Public Square Magazine
painting-Abraham-Jozsef-Molnar-Hungarian-National-Gallery (1)

Imperfect Families and Covenantal Relationships

To those who are quick to assume that God’s loving support comes mostly to families without problems, I would recommend the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Image: The Departure of Abraham (1850), József Molnár, Hungarian National Gallery

For about the last month, those who have been following The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me study schedule have spent time with the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As is rightly highlighted in the lesson materials, these stories are, at their core, stories of covenant. When viewed collectively, the accounts of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, and Zilpah are an uninterrupted narrative about God and God’s willingness to reach down directly into the lives of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Through these Divine interactions, God forges covenant relationships with people, one-by-one, as part of God’s intention to bless (i.e. to make holy) all of creation.  Far from the image of the legalistic and jealous God that Marcion saw in the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is patient, interactive, engaged, and deeply committed over multiple generations.  This is a God that is willing to meet these humans where they are and gently lead them into newness.

And it’s a good thing God is generous because the family dynamics that we encounter in these stories are (to say it gently) complicated. Consistent with the “warts and all” approach that is characteristic of the Hebrew Bible, the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are portrayed as far from idyllic. For example:

  • Abraham, at the behest of Sarah, throws Hagar (his wife) and Ishmael (his son) out of his household, presumably appreciating their risk of dying in the desert. 
  • Abraham and Isaac both pretend their wives (Sarah and Rebekah, respectively) are their sisters and offer them up to be married to other powerful men (at God’s urging in one instance) and as a way to save their own lives (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-14; 26:1-11 cf. Abraham 2:22-25).
  • There is intense conflict between Hagar and Sarah (Abraham’s wives) and between Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah (Jacob’s wives) when it comes to childbearing and the status it provides—along with painful conflict around the love of Jacob himself (Genesis 16:5-6; 21:10; 29:30-30:22).
  • Rebekah and Jacob collude to trick an old and nearly-blind Isaac into giving Jacob (who was Rebekah’s favorite) the firstborn’s blessing. While they were successful in this subterfuge, Esau is so upset that he threatens to kill Jacob who flees to Haran and lives with Rachel’s family for two decades. Rebekah recognizes her actions have damaged her relationship with Esau beyond repair. 
  • Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant (his “other mother” to use language from contemporary polygamous relationships), shortly after Rachel dies in childbirth.
  • Joseph is sold into slavery by his siblings out of jealousy. 

Perhaps because Latter-day Saints are familiar with the covenant-specific aspects of these stories it is easy to jump over those texts that expose the challenging family situations these stories present; situations that are filled with pain, hurt, duplicity, and selfishness.  And yet, I have come to believe that these family stories are just as important as the stories of covenant.  But why, you might ask, should we spend time talking about these difficult family stories?  The answer seems as obvious as it is profound: because the stories in Genesis are not only about covenants, they are also about families.  In fact, Genesis makes clear that any discussion about covenants also requires a discussion about the families through which these covenants were transmitted.  The two are intertwined.  Importantly, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are fully transparent in recognizing that complicated family dynamics are part of life—even for those who make and keep covenants with God.

God’s covenant relationship with humanity continues to move forward even through complicated family environments.

With the ideas clearly in mind that (1) covenants and families are both a part of everyone’s life (even if one is not married, they come from a family), and (2) covenants and families are deeply interconnected, a beautiful aspect of the family stories in Genesis comes into stark relief: these stories show that God’s covenant relationship with humanity continues to move forward even through complicated family environments.  We do not need a perfect family to partake in God’s covenant.  For instance, even though Abraham becomes the father of nations through covenant, the text seems to suggest a fracture in his relationship with his children: While Ismael and Isaac came together to bury their father, there is no record of Abraham ever speaking again with Ishmael after Ismael was forced into the desert, nor is there any record of Abraham speaking again with Isaac after the Akedah (the Hebrew term for what happened in Moriah in Genesis 22, it translates to “the binding”).  Or consider that Jacob, who was heir to the covenant (Genesis 28:10-15; 32:24-30) lived most of his adult life having no contact with his brother Esau (Genesis 31:38; 33:12-17). Though Esau and Jacob have a reconciliation of sorts, Michael Austin points out that Jacob seems content to be freed from the fear of conflict and is not really interested in an enduring relationship.  In fact, the Edomites (Esau’s offspring Genesis 32:3; 36:1) serve as antagonists to the Israelites (Jacob’s offspring) throughout their shared history.  Or despite the fact that Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah are expressly part of God’s covenantal intentions (Genesis 16:7-12; Genesis 49), there was obvious tension introduced through the cultural practice of “giving” one’s handmaiden (i.e. slave) to a husband.  Hagar and Sarah and Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, and Zilpah were women who might have been (and maybe should have been) friends, but the culture of the day pitted them against each other and created situations rife with exploitation and pain that played themselves out through their children.  These intrafamily conflicts may have been part of the reason Joseph was sold into slavery.

Though many of these complicated family situations didn’t seem to be resolved in this life, God’s covenantal interactions with these families continued nevertheless.  I realize this is not the way we usually talk about the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but it is a perspective that is grounded in these biblical narratives and thus part of our sacred tradition.  And as we try to liken these scriptures to ourselves, we may be able to recognize some of these same (or other) complicated family dynamics in our own lives or the lives of our friends.  In fact, these stories make expressly clear—they even seem to embrace with both arms—the reality that every family has complicated forces at work.  Even families of the covenant.  Some families of the covenant have individuals whom they have effectively exiled into the desert, and others may feel like they have been exiled by their families; some families of the covenant have fractures in relationships among parents/children/siblings; some mixed marriage families of the covenant (but certainly not all) are marked by conflict between the adults, leaving children to struggle with navigating intrafamily relationships; and some families of the covenant have conflicts over inheritance with certain family members lining up against other family members.  The Genesis stories demonstrate that family relationships, even those bound by covenant, may not work out the way we might expect; this reality, Genesis seems to suggest, is part of life.  

As odd as it may sound, I find deep reserves of hope nestled in the Genesis narratives when it comes to families.  I find it comforting that the great patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith—those whose covenants serve as the foundational elements of our understanding of God’s relationship with humankind and the world—had less-than-perfect families which contained—alongside joy and happiness—moments of conflict, challenge, and discord.  They were imperfect, but this did not stop God from interacting with these families!  In fact, a central message of these texts seems to be that families of the covenant should expect to have challenges, but that does not mean that God is not with them.  Rather, God persists with these families anyway.  God embraces our families as they are—God does not demand (or even expect, it seems) perfect families—and God offers to walk with us as we struggle through complicated relationships.  In a culture where anything less than ideal is seen as a failure, the families of Genesis offer us a space for self-acceptance and self-compassion.

About the author

M. David Huston

Michael Huston (who has previously published in Public Square Magazine under M. David Huston) currently resides in central Maryland. He received degrees from Utah State University (Logan, UT), American University (Washington, DC), and Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC). You can find him at wonder.annotated on instagram and Wonder Annotated on facebook.
On Key

You Might Also Like

How Collective Healing Happens

In all the debate around appropriate accountability, reform, and policy change, far less attention has gone to how to find healing together as a people.

European Refugee Crisis

As mentioned in this weekend’s General Conference, the Church is focusing on helping with the refugee crisis in Europe. The Church Newsroom has a great

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Stay up to date on the intersection of faith in the public square.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This