The Flawed Family of God
Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis
- ISBN: 9780664265984
- Published By: Westminster John Knox Press
- Published: February 2021
Who makes a family? How do families function? How are they dysfunctional? What can we learn from the dysfunctional families of the Hebrew Bible? These are among the questions asked by Carolyn B. Helsel and Song-Mi Suzie Park in their book The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis. By analyzing and mining specific stories of the Hebrew Bible for what can be learned about relationships between siblings, partners, parents, and children, Helsel and Park provide us with a new guide for studying the Bible in groups and as individuals. They provide a set of exploratory questions at the end of each themed chapter for further inquiry and discussion. This book would be best used as a road map for an adult Christian study group that wants to explore relationships in the stories of Genesis and is willing to ask hard and uncomfortable questions of the text. The authors, rather than shying away from these challenging topics, tackle them head on with questions and ideas of their own for readers to explore.
The authors’ three stated goals are that readers will: (1) find relevance in these stories from Genesis for their own families, and that sharing these stories will (2) create opportunities for “empathetic listening to voices in the text” (7) and (3) help build connections between families and faith communities. Through ten carefully chosen stories, they deftly demonstrate their method of engagement, which they call “reading the bible relationally” (3). Helsel and Park clarify at the beginning that reading the Bible relationally means that a person is in relationship with the Bible, as well as in relationship with God, but these are not the same relationship. Keeping that in mind while studying these stories can allow for a richer understanding and deeper questioning of the values and truths (lower case t) found within the bible.
The authors are most successful at this task when they stick to the stories themselves and mine them for insights. Their questions about the stories are quite piercing and have the potential to lead readers to think about Genesis in novel ways. For example, in chapter 7, the chapter on the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, they ask, “What constitutes faith or rightful fear of God? Does it consist of blind obedience, and what happens when divine command contradicts human ethics?” (90). Where Helsel and Park are not as successful is when they introduce modern stories to accompany the biblical ones. These stories feel somewhat forced into the narrative. In the eighth chapter, which focuses on Rachel and Leah’s competitive parenting, we learn about a courageous, admirable, and hard-working Filipino family. The story is long and does not fit as well into the arc of the chapter as it could. By the time we are done reading it, the point of the biblical story is nearly forgotten. The authors’ desire to bring in multi-cultural examples from around the world is admirable but it does not always work well with the flow of the text.
The authors begin with the story of Adam and Eve, move from there to sibling rivalry and murder with Cain and Abel, and then on to the trauma of the flood with Noah and his family. The next four chapters are devoted to the story of Sarah and Abraham and the subjects of family moves, infertility, blended families, and near child sacrifice. Moving into adult sibling relationships, they have a chapter on Rachel and Leah and another on Jacob and Esau. Then the final chapter turns to the death of two matriarchs, Sarah and Rachel, and the trauma those deaths cause to their respective families. Each chapter briefly lays out its respective story and offers incisive commentary, asking stimulating questions that will provoke readers into looking at these stories with fresh eyes. Each chapter also contains a section relating to a specific modern-day family.
In terms of the authors’ stated goals for this work, I believe that they are the most successful at number two, creating opportunities for “empathetic listening to voices in the text.” We can see this very clearly when they discuss Sarai and Hagar and the perils of infertility and slavery in the ancient world:
The bulk of the criticism has landed on the two women, both of whom seem to be subtly criticized by the text and whom are in essence pitted against each other. Sarai, who is in a position of higher status than Hagar, gives Hagar to her husband as if she is mere property and then mistreats Hagar when she conceives. Remember that Hagar as a foreign slave woman has no rights and no say as to whether in essence she will be raped by Abram and made to bear his child (63).
Another example of the authors’ empathetic listening comes in chapter 3. This chapter involves Noah and his family dealing with the trauma of the flood and its aftermath. The authors wonder about Noah’s silence when they point out, “Equally troubling . . .” Far from being a benign children’s story, the Noah and the Flood has become for the authors a site for grappling with family dysfunction and God’s violence against humanity. Helsel and Park have produced an excellent resource for adult Christian study groups looking for ways to find relevance in the biblical text of Genesis. They ask probing questions, deal sympathetically and empathetically with the characters of the bible, and push readers to think deeply about their own familial and communal relationships.
Laurie Fisher is an adjunct professor at Gratz College and a doctoral student in religion at University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology.Laurie FisherDate Of Review:July 27, 2023