We have now taken a whirlwind tour of fictive family and fictive household metaphors found in the Bible. This wide ranging discussion can get us lost in the proverbial trees to point we lose sight of the forest. So before we go any farther, let us step back with a wide angle lens and recapture the role the family metaphor plays in God’s mission for the world.
The creation narratives in Genesis tell of a world created by God. Humanity is God’s crowning achievement. Upon completion of creation there is perfect shalom between the triune God, humanity, and creation. Humankind rebels. Shalom is deeply marred. Human beings are separated from God and from each other. They find themselves in a life and death struggle with nature. Human beings are alienated from themselves.
The early chapters of Genesis present us with a picture of humanity where power and domination have become the modus operandi. Through religion, myth, custom, and political power, humanity forms cultures that create their own versions of the “eternal present” (ala Brueggemann) where “what is” is cast as that which always has been and always will be. Competing cultures battle it out on the pages of human history to make their eternal present prevail and to keep back the chaos that threatens to destroy their systems of meaning and survival.
God’s mission in the world is to reunite humanity and all creation in him. His strategy is atonement, or as some would have it, “at-one-ment;” nothing less than the restoration of shalom. The strategy begins when God sets apart a people for himself, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Through this people, God will redeem the world. Christopher Wright captures this simply but powerfully in a diagram.
(Source: Christopher Wright, “Mission of God,” IVP. 2006. 395.)
The small triangle represents Israel and the promised land within the broader context all humanity and the earth. The mission of God is to expand the smaller triangle until “Israel” expands to encompass “humanity” and “the land” becomes equivalent to the “the earth.”
Israel was to be a beacon to the Gentiles, drawing them to God, thus expanding the triangle. But Israel rebelled and turned inward, even to the point that by Jesus’ day, God’s mission had come to be interpreted by the Jews as the destruction of the gentiles. At this point in history God took center stage in the person of Jesus Christ who through his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, expanded the called community to include Jew and Gentile alike. They were then sent into the world to give witness of the at-one-ment that has been achieved in Christ, imaging (ever so imperfectly) the coming shalom of God and inviting others into community.
The challenge for Jesus and the New Testament writers was to craft images and metaphors that would enable us to capture the essence of our relationship with God and to each other. These metaphors had to capture the eschatological relational realities that will exist in the coming age of shalom while also giving guidance to our existence in this time before the fullness of the new creation is realized. What I have labored to demonstrate is that the household and family metaphors were firmly established by Christ and became the metaphors of choice for New Testament writers (but far from the only choice), especially Paul. So let us summarize again what meaning these metaphors conveyed.