The last couple days, I have been looking at the history of interpretation of the fifth command (pet peeve: why do we retain the archaic “commandment” only in a biblical context? Biblical commands don’t have any special word in the source languages, so why should we retain an archaism in ours?): “Honor your father and mother.”
Now most scholars, of course, understand that this command fundamentally concerns taking care of one’s parents toward the end of their lives. In a world without retirement funds, Social Security, and the like, children taking care of their aged parents is especially important. This is, of course, the reason the command comes with a promise: if you take care of your parents, you will live a longer life also—since your children will in turn take care of you. The command establishes a culture of the young taking care of the old—ensuring that the old live longer lives.
Like I said, most scholars already know this—though most laypeople probably don’t, instead tending to see the command as directed to children to obey their parents while they are being raised. (In contrast, it is noteworthy that the command does not say, “obey,” but “honor,” and the Law itself generally concerns adults, not young children.) Nonetheless, this “obey” interpretation at least has an admirable objective, and it has some (though qualified) New Testament support in terms of understanding it this way (Eph 6:1–3). At any rate, this interpretation is at the very least not a harmful one, as long as it is understood within the constraints placed on it by the (better textual reading) of Eph 6:1, “in the Lord.” That is to say, as long as children are not taught to give unconditional obedience to anyone but God, but to obey their parents with respect to anything lawful, this interpretation is harmless at the very least.
Unfortunately, this particular interpretation is sometimes harmfully misapplied to those who are no longer children (violating the point of the Ephesians passage), with parents manipulatively using this concept as leverage or ammunition to ensure control over their grown (or nearly-grown) children. I have too often known of the difficult situation of rather authoritarian parents who use this verse at the drop of a hat to assert their power over their children-turned-young-adults, saying something like, “Well, you could do that, but it wouldn’t be very honoring to your parents, would it?”
I have even observed and heard about college students being guilt-tripped about not asking for permission to leave their college town (or even, in some extreme cases, make a visit to a friend’s home within the college town)—despite the student living hours away from home. It wasn’t enough to let the parents know the trip was happening—permission needed to be asked and granted. Even worse, sometimes this kind of controlling environment even extends into marriage, with the parents of one of the newlyweds still attempting to control and assert authority over his/her son or daughter (anecdotally, it seems like this tends to happen more often with the mother/groom relationship than any of the other possibilities).
It was this sort of abuse of this command that led me to think it might be worth looking over the history of interpretation and posting something about it. While I was looking over various interpretations, I can across a rather interesting find: the traditional Jewish* understanding of this command does indeed extend “honor” to include obedience, but obedience to parental wishes is not required in certain especially important cases, such as the selection of a mate. The obedience required toward a parent extends to anything concerning the well-being of the parent or any other “reasonable” command by a parent. That is, the command to “honor” is still understood largely in the same spirit in which it was given—parents are to be respected (in the sense that the adult child is not to simply cross his/her parents’ wishes for whatever reason) and provided for (cf. Maharik “in matters of physical well-being and support … but [not] in matters that do not affect the parents in these ways).
* I am using “traditional Jewish” as a catch-all term for the majority of Jewish practice and teaching up to now. I understand the problems of using such a nebulous term, but to get into a lengthy source-by-source analysis would quite frankly be beyond the scope of this blog, let alone this post as a single entity.
But the requirement of obedience does not extend to the choice of a spouse—apparently this does not fit within the “reasonable” category. In the test case of a man having chosen a lawful (that is, not from a forbidden line; in modern Judaism it concerns moral character, marrying outside Judaism, etc.) woman to marry and then being forbidden to marry her by his parents, he is not obligated to obey his parents in this case. Even more interesting is the reasoning: the parents have, by forbidding an otherwise lawful marriage, required their son to violate Torah, since it is akin to forcing him to marry a woman not pleasing to him (Deut 24:1). Maharik (an influential 15th Century rabbi) further clarifies, citing Song of Songs 8, evidencing that the parent is effectively opposing God in such a case.
This is all the more true when applied to parents actually forcing a child to marry an undesired spouse. Such a ruling would naturally apply also to women, since the Talmud makes it clear that a woman should not be married until she has declared her desire for that particular person (t. Kiddushin 41a). In cases in which the chosen spouse is “unlawful,” however, the child is obligated to obey (not so much because the parents protest, but because it is a matter of Torah).
In my view, it’s rather unfortunate that many modern Christians haven’t taken a similar approach as pertaining this command and selection of a spouse. I’ve known of far too many cases in which parents have made their child’s life miserable either because of a disagreement over the selection of a mate or because the parents want the couple to wait longer to get married. I’m not sure whether my circle of friends is an exception, but I actually don’t know many couples who didn’t have to deal with the former at least to some degree. Fortunately, some of my close friends who dealt with difficult parents who initially hated their choice of mate have assured me that it usually turns around after the marriage, though rarely before. That said, I have been told that the best choice is to “marry an orphan” (in jest, of course, though I’ve come to discover not entirely so).
As to the second problem (disagreement over timing), I’ve known of couples having to wait years for the inevitable marriage—including one couple (dear friends of mine) whose parents adamantly refused to allow to marry before he graduated. Instead, they lived in the same apartment as roommates for a year, getting married after he graduated. Yeah, that was an ideal situation for a couple that had decided to abstain. I’ve already addressed the inconsistency of simultaneously pushing abstinence and pushing marriage until later in another post. To put it succinctly, it is in my view utterly inappropriate (and downright harmful) for parents to push for later marriage when the couple (already of age) has determined their desire to get married. Hopefully my generation will handle this better than our parents’ generation has.
At any rate, I’m impressed by the common sense approach of the traditional Jewish understanding of this command. It manages to retain the importance of heeding the counsel of one’s elders, while also emphasizing that parents must allow their grown or nearly-grown children the ability to make decisions. After all, if one’s children have been raised well, they will make good decisions as adults; at some point, they need to be granted that capacity. (If anything, our society tends to artificially extend adolescence far longer than it should; twenty-somethings should not be looking home to mommy and daddy for every decision anymore. They should be adults.) In most cases where I have observed this authoritarian or manipulative style of parenting, it has resulted in the children rebelling against their parents, who try harder and harder to control them, only to lose even more control—an unfortunate but nearly inevitable outgrowth of any attempt at holding power or authority over another by coercion.
Finally, it is also worth noting that such an interpretation fits well with Ephesians 6, where children are told to “obey your parents in the Lord,” and the parents are subsequently warned, “do not provoke your children.” The children are told that they are to be obedient, provided the parents and their wishes are “in the Lord”; in the case under question, protesting an “equally yoked” marriage would likely not fall under this category. Likewise, the parents are warned that they should not “provoke” their children—and what could be more upsetting to the grown child than the parents opposing an otherwise “equally-yoked” marriage or forcing an unwanted marriage upon the child? Thus the New Testament also recognizes the potential abuses of parental power in this kind of matter and takes steps to alleviate it.