If you have family problems, there is a book that can provide a good deal of consolation. That book, you might be surprised to learn, is the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah.
Genesis makes it abundantly clear that you are not alone, that what we now call dysfunctional families are the norm, not the exception. Every family in that biblical book is deeply troubled.
Let’s begin with the first family, that of Adam and Eve. Adam defends (to God, no less) his eating from the forbidden tree by blaming his wife: “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Adam blaming his spouse for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden would be bad enough. But things get worse: One of their two sons, Cain, kills the other, Abel.
The next family is that of Noah, the one righteous man of his generation. After leaving the ark, the youngest of his three sons, Ham, does something very wrong to him while Noah is in a drunken stupor: He “saw the nakedness of his father. … And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him.”
The next family is that of Abraham. His marriage to Sarah is fraught with tension, especially after the birth of his two children, Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah had given her servant, Hagar, to Abraham to impregnate so as to give Sarah a child. After Hagar became pregnant, “she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai [Sarah’s original name] tells Abraham, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”
So Sarah finally demands that Abraham eject Hagar and Ishmael from their home, and “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.”
Finally, after Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, his son with Sarah, he and his wife separate forever. This was pointed out to me by a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi, the late Pinchas Peli.
He was right. After nearly sacrificing Isaac, “Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.”
Just five verses later, Genesis informs us that Sarah “died at Kiriath Arba — that is, Hebron — in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.”
In other words, Abraham and Sarah went to live in separate cities and never spoke to one another again.
The next family is Isaac’s. He and his wife, Rebecca, were deeply upset by their older son Esau’s choice of two Hittite wives: “They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.”
Then, in old age, Rebecca and the younger twin, Jacob, plot to trick the now-blind Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob rather than to Esau. When Esau learns of the deception, Esau said to himself, “I will kill my brother Jacob.”
Later on, Jacob is tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying Laban’s older daughter Leah, rather than Rachel, the younger daughter for whom Jacob had worked seven years. Laban forces Jacob into working for him another seven years in order to marry Rachel.
After Leah repeatedly gives birth, tension builds between Jacob and Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
Finally Rachel gives birth to Joseph, but that only creates a terrible rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, because their father, Jacob, “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.”
The brothers plot to kill Joseph, but instead decide to sell him as a slave and then tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Upon seeing the bloodied robe, Jacob became inconsolable: “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.”
Why does Genesis portray every one of its families as dysfunctional?
First, because they were. The Hebrew Bible is painfully honest about the Jews generally and about the heroes of the Jewish people specifically — the patriarchs, the matriarchs and later about Moses, Aaron, King David, etc. (This self-critical honesty — unique among the world’s religious texts — is a primary reason I believe in the veracity of the Torah.)
Second, to show us that even great men and women have family problems.
And third, to make it clear that family pain and tragedy are the human norm, not the exception.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).
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