Several facets of American Christian culture stress the importance of the “biblical family.” The basic idea is that biblical families – families with marriages illustrative of passages like Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5, whose children are well-disciplined, exhibiting biblical character and morality – is crucial for the flourishing of the Church. Such emphasis is important, especially in the face of secular challenges to matters of marriage, sexuality, parental discipline, and the value of unborn life. What is so surprising to careful readers of Scripture is that the “biblical family” and the actual families of the Bible are vastly different from one another. The families of Scripture are packed full of deceit, betrayal, negligence, rape, violence, jealousy, impatience, rage, and so forth. In other words, the families of the Bible are a great deal like today’s families, and in some cases worse. Drawing attention to the stories of those families is the aim of David and Diana Garland in this terrific work. “The Normal Family” they argue “…is the ‘norm’ only in our imaginations. It certainly does not capture the biblical families…rather, it illustrates the idol that we cling to, and the contrast between the imagined ideal and our own real life experiences can cause us grief.” Cause grief they have, as unrealistic ideals have created atmospheres of disingenuity and shame in regard to family. By drawing attention to the stories of characters like Sarah, Hagar, Leah, Dinah, Bathsheba, and the daughters of Jephthah and King David, the Garland’s help readers to see the tragic history of sin-riddled families, and consider ways to know one another, walk with one another, and be in community with one another better.
The first chapter is about Sarah and Hagar’s stories. The Garland’s establish the psychological frustration that comes with being an infertile family in the Ancient Near East. What’s worse, Sarah and Abram’s family has been promised offspring by the Lord, but that promise is taking a while to unfold. As a result of her impatience, Sarai presses the issue: the gives her slave Hagar over to Abram, so that he may conceive a child with her. Ironic, because Sarai – who was given over to Pharaoh without consultation to save Abram’s life – has now given Hagar over to her husband without her consultation. She is to be a sexual instrument for this impatient family, and she has no say so about it. “Sarai considered Hagar only as a means to her own ends, not as a person to be seen and valued as a child of God.” Sarai is eventually consumed with hostility toward a now impregnated Hagar. Hagar is banished to the wilderness where, despite all odds, she is met by God. In shocking fashion, Hagar – a slave girl – encounters God (just like Abram) giving him the name “El-roi,” meaning “the God who sees.” Readers of this story might be frustrated when they read Hagar being instructed to return to Sarai and Abram, but the Garland’s rightly suggest that “We can cope with a lot if we know we are not alone, if we trust that God sees, and sees us in our miserable plight.” God’s grace does not always remove us from hard situations, but it does give us the strength to endure and survive, trusting that the future is in God’s hands. The same goes for Sarah: she eventually conceived, not by abusing others but by God keeping his promise. “Sarah’s story” says the authors “reveals that one should never give up on God. Hagar’s story helps us see that God’s care and presence penetrate every human condition – even that of a hapless and hopeless runaway slave-girl.”
Chapter 2 tells the story of Leah, the first wife of Jacob. Her story is one of being victimized by the schemes of men and suffering the emotional consequences of being unloved by her husband. According to the Garland’s “[Leah’s] most desperate longing was to be loved.” To receive such love, she participated in sexual schemes, thinking that would secure her place in Jacob’s heart. When that didn’t work, she endured playing second-fiddle to her sister Rachel, hoping that if she just bore enough children for Jacob she would then be loved by him. As we might imagine, there was bitter tension between the two sisters. Leah, though loved the least, bore the most children. Rachel, however, had trouble bearing children. Jealousy boiled up inside her toward her sister. She pleaded with God “Give me children or I shall die!” (Gen 30.1). She bore Jacob, then cried once more “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Gen 30.24). She had Benjamin, and died during childbirth. “She got her wish, and it killed her.” We might imagine the effects such a vile atmosphere had on the children. Leah’s story is hard, because her situation never really improves. The challenging teaching of the story of Leah is that God truly cares for the unloved, “but that does not necessarily mean that they will be loved by the ones here on earth from whom they are so desperate to receive love.” This sad story, however, works mysteriously for God’s plan. Leah’s son Levi would be the father of Israel’s priestly line. Her son Judah would father the royal line, the line which produced King David, and through his line a child named Jesus.
Chapters 3 and 7 examine horrific accounts of violent rape in the lives of Dinah and Tamar, the daughter of David. The stories are horrible, inviting readers with “broken” families to reconsider how bad their family dynamics really are. What is so hard about these stories is that there is not a happy ending for either girls. As is the case for so many of these women, they are the victim of the schemes of men, being used to satisfy lustful longings, being silenced in the biblical accounts, and receiving no consolation from parental figures. Their assaults lead to siblings violently murdering their attackers, and in the case of Tamar, her attacker (Amnon) is murdered by his brother (Absalom), illustrating all the more the effects of sin within family dynamics. Why include these tragedies? Because “Dinah is still among us.” Dinah and Tamar’s stories need to be told so that victims of sexual assault, be they female or male, know that there are biblical characters who have lived their stories; that the Bible is not silent on the horror of sexual assault; that the very preservation of these stories tells something of God’s awareness of these people. These stories need to be read so that “Families and faith communities [can be] safe places where we can share our battles in safety and compassion.” Places where “we can tell our stories to one another and connect our stories to the great themes of God’s story and therein find grace and healing… in the telling of our stories… the wounded find healing and… we encourage others to know that their own voice can be heard, too.”
There are many more crucial stories that this book covers, each of which are worthy of their own reflections. Simply put, this book is a must read for pastors and church leaders. The Garland’s challenge us to read those hard stories of the Bible carefully, considering the emotions and motives implicit within them. Such attentive reading creates thoughtful leaders, who can inspire a church culture of honesty, stripping away an idolized version of the family, and speaking God’s grace into the hardship flawed families.
 Flawed Families of the Bible, 14-5.
 Flawed Families of the Bible, 30.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 58.
 Flawed Families in the Bible, 63.
 Ibid., 66.
 Flawed Families of the Bible, 93.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 101.