Biblical Roots of the Domestic Church: Old Testament

This is the first of four weekly installments on the Spirituality of the Domestic Church.

The family is experiencing grave oppression from society and the world. Our society lacks the proper respect due to the family, which the Church has long considered as the “first and vital cell of society” (see Rerum Novarum, art. 12; Casti Connubii, art. 8; Humane Vitae, art. 23; and Familiaris Consortio, art. 42, et alia). If we wish to renew the understanding of family in our society, it is important for Christians to understand what it means to be a family. Particularly in this four-part series, we will look at the spirituality of the family as the domestic church. This spirituality will be the ultimate remedy for our society’s lack of understanding of and appreciation for transcendence in the midst of, to borrow Josef Pieper’s term, the “workaday world.” In these first two parts, we shall look at the biblical roots of the family as the domestic church, first in the Old Testament and then in the New Testament. The third part will discuss the family and the cross of Christ, and the fourth and final part will look at the relationship of the liturgy and the family.

wedding-of-sarah-and-tobias-jpglargeIn the Old Testament, we find models that prefigure the domestic church, which is only fully revealed at the coming of Christ. Psalms 127 and 128 reminds us that the household that fears the Lord will experience the favor of God. Psalm 127 opens with the following: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1, RSV). In reference to the Israelites trying to build their own cities, houses, or monuments in their own name (see 1 Samuel 15:12 and 2 Samuel 18:18), rather than in the name of the Lord, the Psalmist is showing that God must be the builder of the house. In other words, when we attempt to build our house without God, we end up only building it after our own name. Instead, our whole life is meant to be for the praise and glory of God, and nothing could be truer of the household of the family as well. Furthermore, Psalm 128 begins, “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you” (Psalm 128:1-2). In an almost reversal of the curses of Adam, in which he was told that he would eat in toil (see Genesis 3:17), the man who has reverence for the Lord and follows his commands will be blessed and happy in his labor.

Such a blessed man will also be rewarded a happy household: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table” (Psalm 128:3). The Psalmist then repeats the opening lines: “Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:4). It is clear that the household fearing and reverencing the Lord will be greatly blessed by him. Not only will they enjoy the fruits of the labor, for which the man works, but also, the wife will be fruitful, both spiritually and physically. The man and his wife together will bear many children, such that their house will be filled with joy and love. This household is like the man of Psalm 1, whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2). Such a man is the opposite of the wicked one, who is “like chaff which the wind drives away,” (Psalm 1:4) because he does not follow in the way of the Lord.

Again, in Proverbs 31, we find the praises of a good wife. As we read this passage of Proverbs, we find that the good wife is at the center of a happy household. Everything seems to revolve around her, and her joy sustains both her husband and her children. “She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain” (Proverbs 31:10-11). Not only does she take care of the domestic duties (see Proverbs 31:13-15), but also, “she considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (Proverbs 31:16). The good wife is wise and prudent; she takes care of her household in diverse ways. What is at the heart of a good wife? How does one become like the good wife described here, a task that is daunting and seemingly impossible? Here again, we find references to the same ideas from Psalms 127 and 128: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). The good wife is the woman who loves the Lord and gives all that is due to him. This is the woman who will be able to sustain in her family, both spiritually and physically. A woman who is caught up with the world, with vain pleasures and seeking after false beauty, will not be able to give of herself completely to her family.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see many examples of holy and upright families. The family of Tobit is just one example of a family that obeys and loves the Lord, and receives many blessings for it. Tobit is from the tribe of Naphtali, which is an important but subtle clue that helps us to understand the rest of the story; it is important because this book was written during the divide of the northern and southern kingdoms. The tribe of Naphtali, from the northern kingdom, was the first to go into exile in Assyria; thus, Tobit’s family is now living in exile (see 2 Kings 15:29). Nevertheless, Tobit himself walks “in the ways of truth and righteousness” (Tobit 1:3), unlike his brethren, who “deserted the house of Jerusalem” (Tobit 1:4). Among all the members of his tribe, he says, “I alone went often to Jerusalem for the feasts, as it I ordained for all Israel by an everlasting decree” (Tobit 1:6). In order to prevent the Israelites from journeying to the southern kingdom, where Jerusalem was, the Assyrians built small “temples” along the way, so that those going to offer sacrifices would stop there, rather than proceeding all the way to Jerusalem. Tobit alone, however, remembered the reverence due to his God, and went all the way to Jerusalem. Here we find a man who truly feared the Lord, for he did not forsake the true place of worship in Jerusalem.

Tobit marries Anna, and they have a son, named Tobias. In what Pope John Paul II calls “communion of generations,” Tobias is also a man who fears the Lord and obeys his commands (see Letter to Families, art. 10). When Tobit fears that he will soon die, he instructs Tobias on how to live uprightly: “Remember the Lord your God all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments” (Tobit 4:5). Tobit further instructs Tobias to retrieve some money, which will be his inheritance, and the angel Raphael (unbeknownst to Tobit and Tobias) becomes his guide to recover the money. Along the way, Raphael and Tobias stop at the house of Raguel, who is a relative of Tobias. Tobias is the only one who has hereditary claim on marrying the daughter of Raguel, Sarah. Yet Sarah has already had seven husbands, all of whom have died on the wedding night because of a demon. Raphael encourages Tobias not to fear this demon, and Tobias is given to Sarah in marriage. On the wedding night, Tobias makes a great prayer to the Lord, which reveals his devotion and reverence to him, “Blessed are you, O God of our fathers, and blessed be your glorious name forever. Let the heavens and all your creatures bless you. You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife as a helper and support” (Tobit 8:5). Because Tobias fears the Lord, the demon flees, and Sarah and Tobias are able to live a happy, married life.

The story of Tobit and Tobias reveals the centrality of prayer and fear of the Lord for a happy household. Even in the Old Testament, we see a foreshadowing of what will become most important for the domestic church, which is belief and participation in the Eucharist. In the next part of this series, we shall look to the New Testament passages that describe the domestic church.

veronica_arntzVeronica Arntz graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, which included courses in humanities, philosophy, theology, and Latin, among others using the Great Books of Western thought. The title of her senior thesis was, “Communio Personarum Meets Communionis Sacramentum: The Cosmological Connection of Family and Liturgy.” She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from the Augustine Institute.
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