The Messiness of Family

The Josephites—Manasseh and Ephraim—received their inheritance.
Joshua 16:4 (NRSV)

Family is messy.

We all have ideals of a nuclear family that remains in-tact and everyone gets along in peace and loving-harmony through the generations. The reality is that few of us are blessed to experience anything near idyllic. It is true that our society today has experienced more and more fracturing and blending of families. I have a divorce decree in the file cabinet next to my desk as a testament to that reality. That does not, however, mean that family was less messy in an age when social, religious and cultural constraint held families locked together in tenuous unions.

As I have dug into my family history I have discovered that the messiness that results from our human flaws and frailties is universal through the generations. Underneath the stoic glares in the black and white photographs of our forebears, our family histories are rife with illegitimate children, children born out-of-wedlock, couples who hurt one another body and soul, parents who marred their children emotionally and spiritually, and a host of other injuries we flawed human beings foist upon one another out of a diverse host of motivations. It used to be that these things were buried, covered over, ignored, and only hinted at in whispered conversations. Most of them are forgotten and lost with history. It doesn’t change the fact that family is messy.

Under the stoic, ancient legal text of today’s chapter we find a reminder of the messiness of family. The 12 tribes of Israel were sons born from four different mothers. Two of the mothers were sisters, and the other two mothers were their handmaidens. Talk about messy, blended family.  The ten elder sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) hated their young half-brother, Joseph.  They were jealous of their father’s love and favoritism (Favoritism? More messiness!) for the baby of the family. So they threw him in the bottom of a well, sold him into slavery and then told their father that he was dead. Joseph ends up in Egypt where he rises from slavery into power and is used by God, many years later, to save his birth family from famine (and inspire a Broadway musical that would resurrect Donny Osmond’s career). Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own. They are grafted into the family and given Joseph’s portion of the family inheritance.

Today’s chapter is the fulfillment of Joseph’s sons receiving their share of the family inheritance. Under the legal property description of todays chapter is a family history of deceit, polygamy, jealousy, sibling rivalry, favoritism, violence, and disregard for human life. It is also, however, a story that is ultimately about divine providence, purpose, reconciliation, forgiveness, and redemption.

Today I am reminded of the messiness of family and the misery we so often inflict on those to whom we are closest on this earth. I am equally reminded that God is a master story-teller who seeks to weave the broken threads of family together with His themes of purpose, reconciliation, forgiveness, and hope. For those willing to seek Him, there is redemption to be found in the messiest of families.

2 thoughts on “The Messiness of Family”

  1. Today I was thinking about my biological and non-biological families. I have a brother who has decided to shun his siblings — and whom, I have to admit, I may have given up on in return. And then there is the non-biological family that I have given up very recently because the label of “family” is in fact just that, a label without substance. I don’t know about reconciliation, fo it may be beyond my capabilities right now. At this time, it is enough that I recognize my limitations and can be at peace from a distance.

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