The Extinction of The Tribe
My wife and I attend a grief support group on Tuesday nights. This has proved to be one of the most beneficial things we have done and experienced in the grief process. As I sat in this group a few weeks ago, I took note of a newcomer named Christine who was so overcome by her grief on her first night that she was barely able to tell us her name and who she had lost. She didn’t utter another word in the next two hours. In fact, she seldom even opened her eyes, though I know she was not sleeping, as the tears continued to seep out of her closed eyelids.
In the last few months of attending meetings of this group, I have seen several people very similar to Christine who on their first visit looked so lost and devastated that I was actually concerned for their safety. Are they so overcome by their grief that they might seek an ultimate escape from it? Perhaps I looked that way on my first visit too. I don’t really know.
Some people never really recover from a traumatic or devastating loss. While many people go on and recuperate fully, some never return to anything resembling normalcy, while others create a new normal but are never really the same, and some simply give up and opt out of the process by taking their own lives. What is the difference between all these people? Is it the constitution of the individual? Or is it something else, or a combination? Knowing that humans are social creatures and thus interdependent, I think a very significant part of grief recovery is community and fellowship.
As I discreetly observed Christine her first night, some thoughts and a question came to my mind: People have been losing loved ones for thousands of years. Grief support groups are a relatively new concept. How have people been getting along before their conception? Is it that we have become weaker than previous generations? This may indeed be near to the truth but if it is, it is not a cause, but a symptom. What else is different today from previous times? Many things, obviously. But one thing I know for sure that is very different today from past generations until say, 100 years ago: families are not as close as they used to be.
For most of human history, the world has been tribal. Many places in the world still are. And tribes are just extended families that dwell in close proximity. This concept is almost totally foreign in the “Developed World” in which we live. We call tribal cultures “Third World”; places with infrastructure and industry inferior to our own. Places where the comforts and conveniences we in the Developed World enjoy are less available or even unknown. We pity them. We send them foreign aid, medicine and missionaries. We donate our cast-off goods to be sent to these places and these poor folks.
But while some of these poor, tribal regions are lacking in modern conveniences, they are also not ensnared by them either. Think of one of the most important inventions of the last thousand years and its effect on society and families: the automobile. While this modern marvel makes it possible for us to travel great distances overland in short periods of time, what it also does is allow us to get away from one another. We can live thirty miles away from close family members and yet still see them regularly. But not as regularly as in the past, in the tribal setting. And even that small distance has an impact on the family.
Two hundred and two thousand years ago, many extended families lived their entire lives in the same village. Multiple generations in the same square mile. Every event and every experience was shared by the whole tribe/family. There was an intimacy, a closeness, and a bond amongst the tribe that we today have little understanding of. And a direct result of this tribal culture was an overall higher quality of life, less stress, and greater levels of satisfaction. But family means less today in the West that at any point in history. And we in the church are not vastly different, at least in practical terms.
In a tribal setting, no one outside the tribe took precedence over anyone within the tribe. While marriage from one tribe to another was acceptable, it was only with the approval of the patriarchs, who made the decision with very different criteria in mind than that of the candidate, and with broader considerations and less emphasis on temporal qualities. See Judges 14, Genesis 26:34-35, and 1 Kings 11:1 for examples of “grown men” making bad decisions in choosing their own mates, and how it worked out for them. The idea of an arranged marriage is totally foreign and even repulsive to our self-centered, independent- minded society. And our divorce statistics are reflected by it. In the Bible days, and in tribal regions, divorce was virtually unknown. Today, more marriages fail than succeed. And this is not solely due to an increasingly amoral society, for divorce rates in the church match those outside of it.
In the tribal setting, after a new couple married, they would start their new life and new family within the village of one of the tribes. There was no leaving family to strike out on their own. They stayed close to the counsel and support of their families. The benefits of doing this are myriad and far outweigh the negatives.
Deuteronomy 24:5 When a man taketh a new wife, he shall not go out in the host, neither shall he be charged with any business: he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer his wife whom he hath taken.
How was it possible that a newlywed couple could take a year off from societal obligations, working and paying bills? In Moses’ day, the tribe took care of the new couple. They were free to spend time exclusively with each other getting to know one another and bonding because they didn’t have to worry about where they would live, and their jobs (responsibilities in the tribe) would be covered by the tribe for that year. They didn’t take two weeks for a honeymoon and then rush back to their jobs, bills, the stress of a mortgage, etc. For one year, their sole responsibility was to bond physically and emotionally; to firmly establish what will become the foundation of their new family. What a great plan. This was God’s plan.
In Genesis 2:24, we are told “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh”. This verse does not denote a spiritual change in the nature of a man’s relationship to his father and mother, but rather a change merely in proximity, specifically his residence. When a young man marries, he is to depart from his father and mother’s household (literally) and establish his own household with his wife. And what is seen in much of Scripture is that the son has been working on and in his father’s enterprise and thus has much invested in it, he continues to do so and remains the heir of his father’s estate and possessions.
One of the primary changes in the newly married young man’s life is a new residence; one usually provided by the tribe, by the way (a tremendous advantage to this familial synergistic way of life is no debt and the stress that accompanies it). The relationship between he and his wife is differentiated by the fact that they are now one flesh, and this relationship is marked by a physical exclusivity, but not emotional exclusivity.
It Takes a Village…
In the account of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, the idea that this son would leave his father’s estate was uncommon and exceptional in their time; and that exception is the basis for the entire story; a self-centered and unwise son leaves home. Even into adulthood, in much of human history, children stayed close to their families and specifically their parents and under their authority and influence all their lives. The commandment to honor our fathers and mothers in Exodus 20 is a lifelong command with no statute of limitations and is a bedrock principle among human relationships and even has a divine promise attached to it, and while most people are aware of it, it receives so little attention, emphasis or even consideration today. Do the promises and blessings God has offered to us in His Word mean so little to us, that we forsake them to pursue our own course and achieve our own independence?
Exodus 20:12 Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee.
Ephesians 6:2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) (3) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
Ephesians 6:1 says “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right”. What’s the expiration date on this command? There isn’t one. As long as one’s parents are alive, they always retain a measure of authority in the lives of their sons. We honor them when we acknowledge this and seek out their counsel.
Back to our Prodigal Son, when the older son complained to his father after receiving the younger son again, the father told him “all that is mine is thine”. Not “all that I have will one day be yours”; it was his in that moment. And why was this? The father told him “Son, thou art ever with me”. The older son was faithful, and fully vested in his father’s estate and thus was a present stakeholder and owner, not just an heir who hits the jackpot when pop dies. Notice that prior to his departure, the younger son said “give me the portion of substance that falleth to me”, or literally, “the portion that is mine”. He was not asking for an early inheritance, he was asking for what already belonged to him as a result of his labor in his father’s enterprise.
Our idea of an inheritance today is actually a rip-off of a concept from a time when children were vested with their time, efforts and labor in their father’s estate and wealth, and not merely waiting for the folks to die off so they could get their hands on what they have little or no investment in, and thus no rightful claim to.
Proverbs 13:22 A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children…
A multi-generational inheritance was the blessing and natural by-product of a tribal setting. Remember this: much of the Bible was written in times when families were tribal, and knowing this gives a different context to verses such the one above, as well as numerous others. Try to bear this in mind as you read the Scriptures and see if it changes some of your views.
The old saying “It takes a village to raise a child” does not resonate in our modern society. But it did in a tribal setting. Grandparents and aunts and uncles were close by and had parts in a child’s upbringing. Children learned broad sets of skills and values from the whole tribe. Proverbs 11:14 says “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety”. There was a multitude of counselors within the tribe itself.
In this small, family based and oriented community, children grew up amongst numerous other children and family members. They did not have to be taught that they were not the center of the universe; that it was not “all about you”. This mindset is a by-product of an isolated environment with little exposure to tribe and community and the abundance of lessons to be learned there. When a child grows up seeing his parents and extended family helping each other and working together on a daily basis, and where no one person’s agenda or interest supersedes, a giving, cooperative mindset is automatic.
The elderly benefited from the tribal setting as well. Elders progressed from taking active roles in the upkeep and responsibilities of the tribe, to instructive and advisory roles, which were in those times held in very high esteem. And as they become too aged to care and provide for themselves, they were not sent off to institutions, nor did their care fall on only one or two of their children. The tribe was available and shared this burden collectively. A fact of our day: elderly folks who are sent to live in care homes die sooner on average than those who stay with and are cared for by family. With that in mind, think again about Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 6:2 and 3: “Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) 3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.”
And as the younger generation saw the elder generation respected, honored, and given tender care in their twilight years, they learned firsthand the meaning of Biblical Honor, for they saw it actionably demonstrated. And we always reap what we sow…
The honoring of our parents, as commanded in Scripture, is not an occasional phone call to check in and a mushy card on Mother’s day. I just don’t think this is what The Lord had in mind.
So for most of human history, and certainly as recorded in the Word of God, families generally stayed close. The twelve tribes of Israel were simply the twelve sons of Jacob and their offspring. In the wilderness, when camp was made, they were separated by families (Numbers 2). When they entered into the Promised Land, they were allotted land by tribe (Numbers 33:54, Joshua 11:23). This created order. God Himself ordained that families should dwell together. Is this important? Is it significant today?
So back to the question: How has humanity survived millennia of death and trauma without grief support groups? My supposition is that the intimacy and close bond of family and tribe precluded the need for it. When someone in a family died, the entire family grieved together. They did not so much gather around the bereaved spouse, parent, or child and comfort them, as they gathered around and comforted each other. All felt the loss equally. The grief of one was validated by the grief of all.
The gradual destruction of the concept of tribe has left many vacuums in the affected societies. In the case of grief, that vacuum has been partially filled by support groups. In many other circumstances, the vacuum has been filled by the church. But can the tribe be replaced by these? Did God, who established the concept of family and tribe, intend for this to be? I don’t believe so. At least I can find no place in Scripture that demonstrates it, neither by statute or by example. I believe His intent was for families and tribes to stay close and function as He designed them to, then these families could take their places in the Kingdom of God. The church was never to replace the family. That deserves to be said twice. The church was not to replace the family; but rather the church is to be made up of them. Countries are made of states, made of communities, made of churches, made of families built around marriages.
In the US today, family is less important than at any other time. Tell me; are we better of as a society for it?
The benefits and the necessity of tribe are far too understated, and hardly even understood in our time. We have strayed so far from God’s original plan for the family that it may not be possible to get back to it. Because if we ever were to get back to it, its emphasis would have to begin in the church, and even the church has to a degree embraced the world’s view of family, or sometimes (of necessity) becoming a replacement for it. Is not a church family a form of the tribe we are talking about?
In the grief group, I observed those several people who on their first night looked on the verge of a total breakdown, and without exception each one of those people looked better their second night, and more still on the third. What was the difference? Not the passage of time, as some of these folks were many weeks or even months away from the loss. The difference was community. They found a sort of family; a small group of people with whom they identified and who fully understood where they were and why, and were willing to embrace them and their grief. In centuries past, that was the tribe. Today, by and large, owing to our independence, we have to look elsewhere for this kind of help in time of need.
I do not see any place in Scripture where my position as father is ever abdicated to another party. There is no substitute for a father and a mother.
Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: (5) And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (6) And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: (7) And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
The priests had their office, but they, at no time or age of the children, replaced or superseded the parents. Many of God’s individual people never even came in direct contact with the ministry in their entire lives. It was the parents who instructed their children about God and His Word. Notice the intimacy between parents and children mentioned above in verse 7 of Deuteronomy 6; parents were to instruct the children when they sat in the home, walked on the ways, first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. And why? Because where the ministry may have only been encountered occasionally, families were always together. This was the Lord’s design and intention.
The concept of Marriage and Family is so marvelous, so brilliant, that it could only have come from the mind of an Omniscient Creator.
One thought on “The Extinction of The Tribe”
Marvelous, insightful words. So true, and so unknown in today’ society.