“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid.”

They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made

I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree

A moment alone in the shade

At home in this nation we’ve made.”

This is one of the most beautiful lines in the musical, “Hamilton”, sung by George Washington’s character. It is a reference within a reference – Washington wrote something very similar to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, citing Micah 4:4 and expressing his desire for them to be safe from persecution as “children of Abraham.” 

Painting by James Tissot

In a previous post, we discussed how violence and domination were defining markers of Biblical-era society. In the midst of the war, idolatry, sexual immorality, slavery, and more, we see a hint of Edenic “tov” (beauty and goodness) again in God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12. God uprooted Abram, son of Terah, from the house, lineage, and land of his father to create with him a new clan, a new heritage tied to a new land. It is interesting that lineage, land, and clanship were tied together, and thus for God to begin something with Abraham it required uprooting him from both his father and his father’s house.

From thence forward, God’s blessing of Abraham and his sons and his son’s sons promised, even amidst the brokenness of the world around them. We see throughout the Old Testament this vision of “Zion”, of a land prosperous with milk and honey, and families each in their own inherited lands worshiping Yahweh and dwelling in peace and safety. What was envisioned amidst a broken world and brokenness even in their own families and tents was not perfect, but it was a picture of an agrarian, family-centered, rural idyll. God’s favor flowed through the patriarchal family-land unit, and God expected recipients of His blessing to extend to those without families (widows and orphans) or land (Levites and priests). 

We should note that circumcision was the central facet of Abrahamic inheritance. To belong, you had to be circumcised. Men were thus the primary inheritors, because they bore the “mark” of this covenant, the sign. 

Ancient flint knives used to perform circumcision

The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deuteronomy 28:11)

The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm:

“Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies,

and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled;

 but those who harvest it will eat it and praise the Lord,

and those who gather the grapes will drink it in the courts of my sanctuary.”  (Isaiah 62:8-9)

You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;

your children will be like olive shoots around your table.

Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the Lord. (Psalms 128:2-4)

In Psalms 127 and 128 we see a whole and joyful picture of the Lord who protects and guards, who builds the “house” (both the “family/lineage” and also physical dwellings), who grants food as the fruit of toil, who provides children as a heritage. Fathers and mothers passed this on to their sons and daughters, both faith (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and land.

The Harvesters, by Peter Bruegel the Elder; 1565. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Rogers Fund, 1919

Of course, even in the Mosaic law, “cracks” were evident and the Promised land was no utopia. For the widowed, poor, stranger, and enslaved, Earth could never be Eden. All of this, of course, occurs under the auspices of “Empire” and not “Kingdom”, with mankind bound under Satan’s power and continually perpetuating violence. Abraham, David, and other leaders still participated in the fallen conflicts and oppressions of their day.

If we take the word “patriarchy” in the Old Testament prophetic sense and not in the historical, Mesopotamian sense (despite the fact that it can never be divorced from context), it is a somewhat neutral term depicting the system of patrilineal descent, nationhood, and land-owning as building-blocks of Israelite society. Abraham’s tent, as it were, no longer needed to be moved. This was also instructive in the sense that God referred to Israelites as his “children”. But the prosperous, joyful, domestic bliss we see in Deuteronomy and the Psalms, as we know, was actually a shadow of more to come. There is yet more beauty God sought to restore to the earth.

“There’s more?” we might ask, “How, why, and what?”

For one thing, we never really see the fulfillment of Abrahamaic, Mosaic, and Davidic promises. After the law we enter the book of Judges and the reality where everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Solomon, was the author of Psalm 127 and the book of Proverbs, yet his own family and marriages fell far short of what he described. We then come to the time of the prophets, whose writings detail God’s anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness, failure, idolatry, and exile. We never see the “beautiful picture” actually “come to life”.

Painting by Walt Curlee

Conservative Christians today are inspired by visions of prosperity we see in the Old Testament, one of “godly generations” and families as building-blocks and core “mini-kingdoms” in God’s bigger kingdom, of fathers and mothers raising children in the faith and instilling values of Christianity and nationhood, taking fruitful dominion and instilling a legacy of “multi-generational faithfulness”. Remember that land and lineage are tied, in the Old Testament imagination? So it is with these people. Nationhood and family are co-existent within such visions, and as we shall see, so it is also in the Kingdom of God yet in a completely different way.

But let us take a step back from the Biblical picture, and travel over the course of several hundred years to a land actually flowing with milk and honey. There are towering, snow-capped mountains framed by the gleaming sun, majestic firs, thunderous waterfalls, sheep dotted over the variegated slopes and cows jangling enormous brass bells. Every which way you look it’s like seeing a postcard come to life.

At the Ballenberg open-air museum you can see recreations of traditional Swiss life – music, clothing, homes, villages, farms. You would think that the heritage of those who loved the Lord would look something like this, just like promised in the Old Testament.

The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deuteronomy 28:11)

But we know that the followers of Jesus in these lands and many others throughout church history lost lands, families, citizenship, belonging, safety, and much more in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. From the days of the early Christians, women like Perpetua and Felicitas were torn from their families and newborn babies and thrown into prison. We can read final letters that mothers like Anna Jantsz and Janneken Muntsdorp wrote before their execution, but it remains hard to picture the depth of their commitment and faithfulness to God above all else.

“Oh, that it had pleased the Lord, that I might have brought you up,” mourned Janneken Muntsdorp to the child she bore in prison.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and in his joy he went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)

It is significant that Jesus mentioned three categories of belonging in this passage. It is often misinterpreted to sound like Jesus is calling for the abdication of responsibility and family abandonment – Jesus in Mark 7 criticized those who took away monetary support from families to give it as a “gift” to God. Jesus is not saying that a Christian breaks off family ties – not providing for your own is a kind of selfish irresponsibility tantamount to denial of the faith (1 Timothy 5:8). Paul frequently calls Christians to familial faithfulness and responsibility, stewardship over one’s household for both women and men.

What this passage indicates is that in the pursuit of Christ, the discipleship forfeits or surrenders his or her past, present, and future.

  • The past: fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.
  • The present: houses and lands.
  • The future: wife and children

What did Jesus mean? I believe that Jesus’s first century listeners would have understood what he was saying, which is that the way God chooses to bless us and the road God calls us to goes beyond that of Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants and differs in a very significant way. Jesus was telling the rich young ruler how the New Covenant required relinquishing the Old.

Jesus is saying, “Give me that vision. Place it within my hands – your past, present and future, your security, your prosperity, your lineage, your inheritance. And I will give you so much more.”

It is not God who destroys the family unit, not for early Christians nor for the persecuted church. The Church is indeed part of the ultimate family unit, each member made into inheritors of the ultimate “patrilineal” inheritance. God is the Father, we are the children at His Passover feast. 

God does not negate or abrogate the vision of “blissful patriarchy” in the Old Testament, any more than Christ destroys the law and prophets, demolishes the Sabbath institution, or ends the feast of Passover. God transcends these with something bigger, that which is the ultimate, that which points to the final eschatological fulfillment of the original promise. The figurative engagement ring is removed, not because the marriage is called off, but because it has taken place and the wedding ring is now worn. Old covenant promises pointed to the coming of the Kingdom, but the war, violence, slavery, and immorality prevalent under its auspices made it clear they were still very much constrained by the limits of Empire.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18)

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)

Where Gentiles were once excluded by a “diving barrier of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), Christ “set aside in his flesh the law with its commandments” to “create in himself one new humanity from the two”. We are no longer foreigners, but citizens. We are no longer strangers, but sons. We are no longer in the outer courts, but inner sanctum. We are no longer uncircumcised strangers. Patrilineal inheritance was for but a few, but Christ brought about for us adoption as sons. Women who were once secondary members of the covenant by proxy are now full inheritors.

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:23-29)

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  (Hebrews 11:8-10)

One’s past, present, and future converge in a new reality, that of the Kingdom of God. Old distinctions, inheritances, allegiances pale in comparison to this new identity. Indeed, the author of Hebrews argues thst Abraham’s hopes and dreams were not of Deuteronomic prosperity, but the city of God. Christ is our “land”, our “lineage”. Being born again means that any old privileges under the previous system (such as Nicodemus’s elite male pedigree) do not qualify one for anything more or anything less – a complete rebirth is necessary. Psalmic Patriarchy was prophecy, for those who relinquish their (meager) rights and (meager) wealth to humbly receive the honorific, “Child of God”. Indeed those who are desirous of any position “above” this fail to grasp the significance of that which God bestows – there is only one Father.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:12)

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (Galatians 4:6-7)

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matthew 23:9)

Christ and Nicodemus on the Housetop by Henry Ossawa Tanner

What Jesus meant in Matthew 23:9 was the fact that none can come between us and God. Of course we have earthly fathers, but neither earthly childhood nor fatherhood is a status that carries over into the Kingdom. We are no longer sons of so and so, sons of Jacob the son of Isaac the son of Abraham, if indeed any of us reading actually qualify, but children of God.

The Kingdom of God is not antithetical to the family unit, but actually actively calls us to surrender our own agrarian-patriarchal visions of prosperity, or any other cultural or old covenant vision, for that of the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus said, give up your land, your house, your family, etc. Not abandon your family, per say, but to abandon the vision and ideal of being that Old Testament tribe happily threshing grain and milking cows and collecting honey on their homestead, not because it isn’t a somewhat holistic and beautiful dream but because such a holistic and beautiful dream is necessarily disrupted by our involvement in the cosmic battle that precedes the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. 

The martyrdoms, the separations, the vulnerability and fragility and insecurity… These are not ultimately what God calls us to, but what the forces of evil concoct to prevent the invasion of God’s goodness and shalom, the beauty of which no ugliness and overcome, the light of which no darkness can diminish. Evil will come against us, and we will have to relinquish that which is good for the promise of that which is better.  

God made families. Those who are able to have a semblance of wholeness and community in this broken world are tremendously privileged. They have the means, and the stability, and the wholeness, to pass on something to another generation and make something beautiful. But, sometimes, those who seek the Kingdom have sold their all for the sake of those who had none. Against every instinct to preserve, pass down and protect, Barnabas sold his land and brought it to the apostles (Acts 4:37).

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Luke 18:22).

The world is broken, which means that many suffer, many are enslaved, many are alone, and many are impoverished. Followers of Jesus cannot shut out the suffering of the world and claim that it is GOD who justifies us carving out earthly utopias and making the world beautiful only for ourselves. To want to include the hungry, the blind, the homeless, those by the wayside, etc. will require us to sacrifice the sacred safety of domestic bliss and want to participate in God’s larger work.

Martyrdom of Felicitas and Perpetua

The early church navigated a world in which ordinary lives and everyday faithfulness intersected with threats to their lives. The epistles of Paul and others reflect this dual existence, for not every Christian faced the ultimatum of “Deny Christ or Die” on a daily basis. Even those who did have spouses families and goods, however, lived as though they had none (1 Corinthians 7) – not in the literal sense (Paul strictly rebuked those who called for marital celibacy) but in the sense of resting their hope and vision beyond that limited ideal of the world around them, setting their minds of things of Christ (Colossians 3:1).

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44)

The challenge of the Kingdom of God is the challenge to see His vision even in reading the Hebraic scriptures, even in Deuteronomy and the Psalms. These should not distract us, but should illuminate the way of Christ. A “flat Bible” reading would tempt us to look at children and families in the same way as under the Mosaic covenant. But Deuteronomy 6:4-9, for example, is not a command to induct or inaugurate one’s progeny (for example by circumcision or child baptism) into the “Kingdom”. No longer are wealth, fertility of the land and the womb, and victory in battle, the hallmarks of God’s favor in the eyes of the world surrounding us like in Old Testament times. Our hallmark is, ultimately, the sacrificial love we have for one another that runs contrary to rather than with the grain of what the world sees as blessing in the form of self-accumulation and prosperity, and a name and legacy for ourselves to a “thousand generations”.

A Christ-centered, gospel-centered hermeneutic restrains us from the temptation of myopically grasping for ourselves the “prosperity” of the here and now, and finding our own Promised Lands upon which to enact “the settlement of Canaan” such as found in Christian nationalism today. This is not only destructive to those around us but also illustrative of a complete misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God. 

“Seek first the Kingdom!” we must remind ourselves. For many who counted the cost, the cost was indeed great, but the reward far greater.

Anna Jantsz, Anabaptist martyr, finds a home for her child as she is led to her execution.

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