Three Stories of Loss
Lk 15:1-32, Mt 18:10-14
Other than the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son is probably the best-known of Jesus's stories. Often, the fact that it's part of a trilogy gets ignored, but that grouping reveals a much more complex story than a simple tale of sin and forgiveness.
Fathers and Villagers
Christian exegesis gets wildest, with regard to Jews and Judaism, in the final parable of the trilogy. Before you know it, a simple tale of a father and two sons has sons wishing fathers dead, lurking villagers ready to stone the family to death, and a father disinheriting one son in favor of the other.
Fathers and Sons
Another raft of anti-Jewish readings involves the idea that the father's willingness to forgive his son somehow violates normative Jewish practice. This rapidly expands into the idea that the expression of any affection is abnormal for Jewish fathers and then ripples outward until commentators are claiming that the son's life was in danger from his neighbors and that the father had to endure humiliation and perhaps risk his own life to save his son from other Jews.
Similarly, Christian commentators claim that the son's request for early inheritance was tantamount to wishing death upon his father and that his father, accordingly, would have disinherited him and treated him as dead.
It's rather astonishing how these commentators can talk about "tight-knit Oriental communities" with one breath and posit a view of Jewish family and community relations that imagines Jews as unable to love even their own children or parents with the next.
And all of that is before we even get to interpretations that posit the older brother as unforgiving, unloving, and ultimately disinherited and then claim that he, in contrast to the "gentile" younger brother, represents the Jewish people.
So let's take a look at some of these claims:
The younger son's request for early inheritance was in essence wishing death on his father
In granting the younger son's request, the father disowned him
The early inheritance included a ketsatsah ceremony, a formal "cutting off" from the family, used by fathers to shame sons who married beneath their station or sold land to gentiles
The father was displaying behavior that violated Jewish norms by running to greet his son
The father was displaying behavior that violated Jewish norms by kissing his son
The father was attempting to protect his son from humiliation, physical abuse, or even death at the hands of his neighbors
We'll also take a look at how inheritance works in Jewish law, what both sons' legal status was (and whether the elder brother had a reason to be upset or worried), and the status of children in first-century Jewish culture.
The Running Father
The most common interpretation of the father's forgiveness as worthy of note insists that it violated normative Jewish child-rearing practices in every way by being "undignified." Blomberg, in Preaching the Parables, gives a fairly typical statement of this argument (for which he cites no sources):
Particularly striking is his defiance of the cultural norms that dictated that a well-to-do, male head-of-household, particularly an older man, was not to be seen running in public, for that was most undignified. This man is so overjoyed to see his son return home that he flouts convention, runs down the road, and hugs him tightly.
Bekgaard makes similar claims (and cites no sources):
The fact that the father saw him when he was a great way off suggests that he was watching for his son. His compassion caused him to run to him. This also would have been a much undignified act, against all propriety. The proper conduct would have been for the father to stand and let the son come to him. In that way, the respect of the elder and the proper posture would be maintained. The father's running, and hugging and kissing him, was a breach of tradition and unbecoming a man of his age and position. It has been noted, no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by this undignified action.
Michelle Lee Barnewall (professor at the evangelical Talbot School of Theology), in Surprised by the Parables, seems to be basing her assertions primarily on Blomberg:
The nature of the father's actions is more astounding considering that as the head of a Middle Eastern estate, running to greet the son would have been considered undignified and disgraceful. In his culture, a man demonstrated who he was by the way he carried himself in public. As the Jewish document Sirach says, "A man's manner of walking tells you what he is" (Sirach 19:30). But the father is so overcome with joy at his son's return that he cares more about being with his son than acting with proper decorum. The immediate commands for such an extravagant outpouring of affection and celebration would also have been startling. These details "illustrate God's amazing patience and love for his ungrateful children."
Alyce M. McKenzie (a professor at Southern Methodist University) gives a similar description of "expected" Jewish paternal behavior in The Parables for Today, and adds the detail that the father is behaving not only in a way that is undignified, but unmasculine:
His behavior is strange—fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behavior, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated. This strange behavior is not the way the patriarchal head of a household would act in Jesus' time. But this running to meet his son is an expression of a love strong enough to make one willing to put aside one's power and position for the good of another!
A father expressing loving joy and relief that his estranged, presumed-dead son has returned is a "stunning departure" from conventional Jewish practice? Unmasculine? Disgraceful? Astounding? This is another idea that makes Jews of the time seem almost inhumanly cold, incapable of love even for family members. So where is it coming from?
Luise Schottroff (The Parables of Jesus) traces the "a real Jewish father (unlike this allegory for God) would never run to greet his son" trope to Joachim Jeremias, but it's not that simple.
Blomberg cites two sources: Ruth Etchells (A Reading of the Parables of Jesus) and Robert H. Stein (Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture). I was not able to obtain a copy of Etchells, but the author was a poet and college principal, not a historian or archaeologist, so it's unlikely that it contains original research on child-rearing in the first-century near East. He cites a page number for Stein that contains nothing matching the subject for which it is cited as proof, but I think I found the passage he meant a few pages earlier.
Stein makes some assertions about expected behavior from Jewish fathers:
Throwing aside Oriental behavioral conventions, Jesus has the father run to his son in order to show God's love, joy, and eagerness to receive outcasts.
As proof that a Jewish father would never run to greet a child thought dead, Stein cites Ben Sira 19:30, which says simply:
The way a person dresses, the way he laughs, the way he walks, tell you what he is.
The idea that this passage somehow contains the idea that one should not express affection for an estranged child who wishes to reconcile is, to put it mildly, a stretch.
In Interpreting the Parables, Blomberg also does a survey of traditional interpretations, which includes this summary:
However inwardly glad he may have been to see his son again, no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son (Lk 15:20). Nor would he have interrupted the son's speech before a full display of repentance (cf. Lk 15:21 with 18-19) or instantly commanded such a luxurious outpouring of affection for him (Lk 19:22-23). All of these details strongly suggest that Jesus wanted to present his audience with more than a simple, realistic picture of family life. Rather he used an extraordinary story to illustrate God's amazing patience and love for his ungrateful children.
For this claim, he cites Kenneth E. Bailey's Poet and Peasant/Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey (who was ordained as a Presbyterian and eventually became the Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh) has a lot to say, so we'll come back to him.
An Oriental nobleman with flowing robes never runs anywhere. To do so is humiliating. Ben Sirach confirms this attitude. He says, "A man's manner of walking tells you what he is."' Weatherhead writes, "It is so very undignified in Eastern eyes for an elderly man to run. Aristotle says, 'Great men never run in public.'" The text says, "He had compassion."
Jewish landowners never run anywhere? According to whom? Ben Sirach doesn't say anything of the sort, Bailey notes in a footnote that Weatherhead doesn't actually provide any sources for his assertion or even for his Aristotle "quote," and Aristotle is a fourth-century BCE Greek, not a first-century CE Jew. He cites Jeremias (Parables of Jesus) as additional support, without acknowledging that Jeremias, as proof that running would be "most unusual and undignified for an aged Oriental," merely cites Weatherhead (who, again, provides no sources other than Aristotle). Bengel's Gnomon of the New Testament gets a citation too; it was published in 1742 and of course provides no sources for its claim that "parents are not ordinarily disposed to run and meet their children." So does a 1971 article by McLaurin that I was unable to obtain.
Finally, Bailey also cites as proof an anecdote about a pastor he knew whose congregation didn't accept him because they thought he walked too fast. I assume I don't need to explain why an anecdote about 20th-century Christian behavior is not useful for proving anything about the behavior of first-century Jews.
Levine cites even more members of the chorus insisting that the father's behavior was somehow un-Jewish.
Scott insists that Jewish fathers "were remote and figures of authority" and that "gentlemen of honor do not run except in cases of emergency."
Hultgren claims that it would have been "considered shameful in Semitic culture." (Perhaps one might remind him that "Semitic" is a language group, not a culture, and that the cultures of various Semitic language speakers in Malta, Eritrea, and Israel have no more in common than any other three randomly selected cultures.) This claim is echoed by Snodgrass.
David Buttrick (Presbyterian, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School) claims in Speaking Parables that, "The father in the parable is playing a role no proper Semitic patriarch would enact. He has left his honor behind, his position, his community standing.”
The idea that proper Jewish patriarchs never run anywhere would have come as a surprise to most Jewish listeners, given that running is a behavior that typifies Abraham, the Jewish patriarch par excellence, and other Jewish patriarchs and their family members in the Torah:
Abraham ran to do things considerably less world-shaking than seeing a long-lost son. When he's recovering from his circumcision, he notices three men standing nearby and runs to greet them.
When they agree to stay for lunch, he runs to his herd to fetch some protein.
Upon hearing that his nephew Jacob has come to visit, Laban runs to meet him.
Upon seeing his brother Jacob after years of estrangement, Esau runs to him and kisses him.
And even the dignified High Priest, Aharon, runs in certain circumstances.
Regardless of the opinions of ancient Greek gentiles (of whose existence the majority of Jews were unaware), Jewish dads in the first century most likely ran to greet beloved family members just like their ancestors and role models.
The first detail most Christian exegetes comment on is the son's request to receive his inheritance early, which they are certain is a sin of some sort.
Alyce McKenzie hammers home the idea that this request is tantamount to wishing the father dead:
The essence of a man's inheritance at that time was land, and the only way it could be received was on the father's death. Thus, his request was essentially, "Father, I wish you would drop dead." Even though the father could divide the land before his death, he retained rights to the use of the land. The younger son, in selling his portion, left his father without rights to the land's use. A person's property was his until death, and the family's property was meant to maintain its oldest members until their death. So to demand his share early and then to dissipate it rather than to manage it responsibly for his parents' sake, is to say to his father, in effect, "You are already dead to me."
Paul Simpson Duke (a Baptist minister), in The Parables: A Preaching Commentary, makes a similar claim:
Since a man's property was his until his death, the son's request is disrespectful, even scandalous. For all practical purposes, he is pronouncing his father dead. Some scholars argue that the scandal does not lie so much in the request itself as in the son's liquidation of the property and squandering of it. A family's property had to maintain its oldest members for life. Whatever a son may have received before his parents' deaths would have to be managed responsibly for their sakes. Either in demanding his inheritance or in dissipating it, most likely in both, the younger son commits a kind of patricide.
(As usual, Christian commentators want to find something earth-shattering or "scandalous" in every utterance Jesus makes.)
There are numerous versions of this idea throughout Christian commentaries from almost every denomination. I won't bother quoting them all, since they all say pretty much the same thing and none of them are all that interesting.
What's troubling is that even Christian commentators who seem to have done some research into Jewish inheritance laws claim this same conclusion.
For example, Brad Young, a professor and graduate of Oral Roberts University, who I often see cited by Christians (along with Joachim Jeremias, who's problematic for a whole host of reasons), gives the following explanation in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation:
Both Joachim Jeremias and David Daube have discussed the Jewish laws of inheritance that can clarify a number of points concerning the parable's setting in life. According to mishnaic law, a father could execute a will even before his death. This is what takes place in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Jewish law of inheritance describes what happens in the parable. Even so, it would have been presumptuous for the younger son to initiate the execution of the will by the division of the estate while his father was still living. His request would have shocked the original audience of the parable. The provisions of the oral law, however, allowed a father to implement his will before his death. Hence, in accordance with the stipulations of the law, the father in the parable di-vided his estate between the heirs because of his younger son's request. In this parable, the dramatic shock effect of the story results from a son who takes the initiative and asks his father for the inheritance before his father dies. In essence the younger son was telling his father that he wanted him to die.
(Again, notice the emphasis on the idea that this is "shocking.")
If you genuinely want to understand the Jewish worldview(s) on a subject, please read actual Jewish sources rather than regurgitated Christian versions of them, because if you approach Jewish texts with the desire to "prove" that Jews think a certain way, you will absolutely find support for whatever you're trying to prove. We keep records of debates as our canon, and not just the conclusions of the winners. If you genuinely want to understand, however, you're better off not going in with a foregone conclusion. David Daube isn't a bad source, but Joachim Jeremias is a very suspect one, for reasons I'll address in a later section.
Luise Schottroff, always sensitive to anti-Jewish readings of the parables, and always interested first and foremost in treating human beings as human beings, whether they are characters in the parables or the gospel narratives or theoretical Jewish listeners, rightly scoffs at the idea that there was anything murderous about the younger son's request:
The younger son can expect a lesser inheritance than the firstborn. He asks, during his father's lifetime, for the share of the property that will come to him. "And he divided his property between them" (v. 12). The text gives no indication that the son's request is in any way reprehensible. The father fulfills his request. Thus it makes sense to him also.
Greg Carey (Stories Jesus Told), a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary (United Church of Christ) has one of the better takes I've seen from Christians, perhaps because he studied at Vanderbilt University while Dr. Amy-Jill Levine was a professor there:
Unfortunately, the sensationalism habit often expresses itself in contrasting Jesus’ behavior or his teachings with an imaginary and negative depiction of ancient Judaism. In the case of the Prodigal Son, some of us have heard that son would not expect a warm welcome from his father because of what he had done or that ancient fathers did not show affection to their children. Simply, hogwash. We have ample evidence of love and affection from ancient fathers, including Jewish fathers. Is it not enough simply to note that the father sees, feels compassion, runs, and hugs?
Bernard Jackson, a Jewish legal scholar, states flatly:
Jewish sources give no support to [the idea] that the prodigal, in seeking the advance, wishes his father dead... Here and elsewhere, Bailey works from a methodologically questionable premise: that one should interpret both the parable and near contemporary Jewish sources against a construct of “Middle Eastern” custom heavily informed by medieval Arab Christian interpretation and contemporary Arab custom. His argument, 1992:112–114, that the younger son’s request was so socially unacceptable as to evoke absolute horror (based on Sir. 33:19–23 (see n. 10, supra) and B.M. 75b) takes no account of the Mishnah’s regulation of such advances, M. B.B. 8:7(b), quoted infra, at 120. At 127f., he accepts that “the evil set forth in the story is primarily in terms of broken relationships, not broken laws. There is no specic legislation against a son requesting his inheritance from a relatively young healthy father.” Yet the degree of disparity Bailey’s argument implies between social acceptability and legal permissibility must prompt hesitation.
Bailey, whom I'll cover in more detail below, wants to see the prodigal both as a sinner welcomed back into the divine embrace through grace, and as a parallel to Jacob. Yet the younger son's story bears very little resemblance to Jacob's: Jacob tricks his father and elder brother into granting him the elder's birthright and blessing at his mother's behest, yet leaves empty-handed, flees to his proto-Jewish uncle's holdings and there cleverly takes himself from poverty to wealth with the help of two wily women, meets his estranged brother and reconciles with him without any involvement from their father. He returns to his father a wealthy man with multiple wives and children, but their reunion is not described. Immediately after the text tells us he has returned, it describes the two brothers burying their father.
In contrast, the younger brother in the parable takes only what is his by right, and does so in a world without women. He leaves of his own accord and with a great deal of wealth, loses it among gentile strangers, returns out of desperation, is welcomed by his father, and does not reconcile with his brother.
Other than having a brother and leaving home, he has very little in common with Jacob.
Retrojected Christian theology, here, is both rewriting Jewish history and interfering with the ability to hear the parable as a story. The idea of a sinning child and a forgiving (Heavenly) Father preempts actually listening to and interpreting the story as a story and insists that the son must be committing a great wrong and the father must be behaving only with love, wisdom, and compassion. The idea that everything Jesus said must have been radical enough to scandalize listeners insists that the son's sin must have been shocking indeed.
But what was the younger son's "sin," exactly? It's not a sin—at least in Judaism—to ask for early inheritance; if it were, the Mishnah and Talmud would hardly provide instruction on how to do it legally. Neither is the son's choice of how to spend his money a wrong done to his father: once the inheritance is given, it is the son's to spend as he wishes.
Asking for an early inheritance is certainly inadvisable, as is squandering it in a foreign land, but foolishness is not automatically a crime (and in Jewish law, there is no distinction between "sin" and "crime"). While rabbinic writings do not look kindly on such a situation, they save the bulk of their disapproval for the foolishness of the father who agrees to such a request. Young adults often want too much, too fast, too far away. This does not mean that it is compassionate, loving, or wise for their parents to indulge them.
Moreover, focusing on the son's behavior requires departing from the focus and structure of the two other parables in the trilogy. The clear point of these stories is not that the sheep or the coin somehow sinned in being lost; the focus is on the searching and the joy of the one who reclaims them.
If we are to assume that the point of telling these stories in a series of three is to have the first two set the pattern and the third make its point in departing from them, the first place to look to identify such a departure is at the structure itself. And the difference there is not that the first son is lost, but that the story continues after the finding and attendant celebration.
Between the youngest son supposedly wishing death on his father, the father who supposedly should (as a "normal" Jewish father) cut off his son from any further contact instead of being glad he's alive, hypothetical villagers (spoiler alert) eager to humiliate and even murder the younger son, and an elder brother whose sin is often positioned as worse than the younger son's supposed murderousness, it seems that Christian exegetes are unable to imagine Jewish family relationships as existing in a normal human context of familial love.
Christian commentators are so busy trying to fill the white space in the parable with imagined Jewish bogeymen that they usually neglect the far more interesting questions the parable raises, many of which are raised by Jewish legal scholar Bernard Jackson in Essays on Halakhah in the New Testament (quoted but reformatted and reordered here for easier reading):
What was the nature of the original division of the estate?
What did each of the sons get and what did the father retain, if anything (so as to be able to organise a feast on the fatted calf on the prodigal’s return)?
[D]id the gift to the younger son exclude him from all future interest in his father’s estate[?]
[D]id the father (despite his attempted reassurance to the older son at the end of the parable) either restore the younger son to his original position in the family or at least reintegrate him into the family as a (dependent) member with a claim for support?
When the prodigal “came to himself”, does this indicate “repentance” or just economic realism?
When he decided to confess to his father, was he sincere, or was he calculating that he would be able to manipulate his father’s natural emotions?
Is the father interested in the genuineness of his son’s apparent repentance?
Is his use of the language of dead/alive, lost/found to be taken literally or metaphorically?
When the prodigal returns, and the older son complains “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends”, did he not have his own share of the original division?
Is he just jealous of the feast, or does he have other, material fears regarding the return of the prodigal?
When the father responds: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”, what kind of reassurance is he giving, and ought the older brother to be satisfied with it?
When the father justifies the feast by saying: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found”, is the older son being rebuked[?]
[W]hat are the implications regarding the future relations between both father and older son and the two brothers?
Does the prodigal take the place of the older brother in his father's affections? And who do the older and younger sons represent?
What is the relationship between the socio-legal content of the parable (concerning property relations within the family), its overt theological meaning (concerning forgiveness) and its figurative theological message (the referents of the figures of the father and his sons, and the message concerning their inter-relations)?
[S]hould we allow the theological message to control our reading of the socio-legal situation depicted in the narrative, or should we, rather, proceed in the opposite direction?
In particular, which (if any) should we privilege in interpreting the meaning of the parable?
[W]hose time and institutions are we talking about?
Is it (to simplify the matter) Jesus’ Jewish audience, to whom we may attribute knowledge of at least basic halakhic institutions, or is it Luke’s gentile audience, to whom we may attribute (apart from somewhat different social institutions) a greater concern with the theological issues?
Despite the apparent disinterest of most Christian exegetes in these questions (primarily, one suspects, because attending to them means attending to the objections of the older son as more than just bitterness or petulance), we will return to a number of them.
But first, let's look at the norms of Jewish inheritance.
All of the laws and customs around inheritance during Jesus's time need to be understood in the context of the principle that the land does not actually belong to people; it belongs to God. At the time that the Children of Israel settled in Canaan, the land was divided into tribal territories, and then subdivided into holdings for individual families.
And the land shall not be sold irreversibly, for Mine is the land, for you are sojourning settlers with me. (Leviticus 25:23)
The Torah provides instructions for how to redeem the land if it is sold to another Jew. It is not to be sold to those outside the Jewish people, since such a sale might not be available to be "redeemed" (it might be an irreversible sale).
Every 50 years, there is a redistribution of the land to the original families:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and call a release in the land to all its inhabitants. A jubilee it shall be for you, and you shall go back each man to his holding and each man to his clan, you shall go back. It is a jubilee, the fiftieth year it shall be for you. You shall not sow and you shall not reap its aftergrowths and you shall not pick its untrimmed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy for you. From the field you may eat its yield. In this jubilee year you shall go back, each man to his holding. (Leviticus 25:10-13)
So to a certain extent, inheritance is irrelevant for more than a few generations. Any sale to a fellow Israelite is temporary, since in 50 years (or less), the land will revert to the original holders.
The concern with preserving the tribal allotments also necessitates patrilineal inheritance, since tribal status is inherited through the father's line (membership in the Jewish people as a whole is matrilineal, but tribal/caste status—to the extent that it is preserved for Levites and kohanim—is patrilineal). Daughters may inherit if there are no sons, but such an inheritance requires them to marry within their tribe. A daughter's dowry functioned as her inheritance. For a relatively brief overview of the Torah's system of inheritance, see this resource. The oldest son usually became head of the household upon his father's death, and received a double share of the inheritance.
Under normal circumstances, then, the older brother in the parable would have inherited 2/3 of the estate, and the younger brother would have received 1/3. Against this background, we can understand Sarah's worry that Yishmael will inherit as the oldest son over Yitzhak, and Yaakov's trickery to obtain his elder twin's birthright.
However, there were also a number of ways to alter that standard. The first is a deathbed gift, a shekhiv mera, which is how both Avraham and Yaakov dictated the fate of their estates. The Mishnah (Bava Batra 8:7a) also provides rules for providing gifts when a property holder is still healthy, known as a matanat bari. Similar arrangements are attested in the Elephantine Papyri, which date back to about 500 years before the time of Jesus. The standard for this type of gift is that the giver retains an interest until his death, but once he has gifted the property, he cannot do anything that would harm the receiver's future interest in it. However, the giver can choose to simply gift it outright.
The gift to the younger son in the parable must have been an outright gift, otherwise the son would not have been able to sell it and leave.
As Bernard Jackson explains:
Here, then, we have a clue to the concern of the older son regarding the fatted calf. If this forms part of the property which the father had given to the older son as a matanat bari (rather than retained himself ) the father was entitled to the income from such animals, but not to dispose of them to the prejudice of his son’s future interest. He has acted, as regards the fatted calf, as if he is still absolute owner, rather than simply having a life interest. The converse of this is the complaint of the older son that the father “never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends”: this recognises that he could not unilaterally dispose of farm animals, to the prejudice of his father’s life interest.
The older son might rightfully resent such an absolute gift to his brother, not simply out of jealousy, but because it reduces the overall value of the estate, and thus the income and resources of both the father and the older brother during the father's lifetime. In addition, as the younger brother's nearest relative, the older brother is the kinsman upon whom the primary responsibility to redeem the land—that is, to buy it back and restore the familial holdings—falls. So the younger brother gets to leave his older brother holding the bag, so to speak, while he goes on his merry way with the profits. The older brother now has to buy back the third of the land that was sold, while having taken a 33% pay cut.
But a greater concern for the older brother is what it means when his brother returns. Given that the younger brother received an absolute gift during the father's lifetime, not a deathbed one, does this mean that upon the father's death, he will inherit as normal? According to the Mishnah, these sort of gifts are not considered in the final disposition of the estate. If this ends up being the case, the younger brother will have ended up receiving 5/9 of the original estate, while the older brother will receive a lesser total share, 4/9 of the original. One can see why, as the faithful child who has stayed home to maintain the estate, he might be angry at ultimately receiving a lesser share.
Such questions may be answered by the language of both the younger son upon his return and that of the father in reassuring the older son.
As Jackson explains:
In fact, the prodigal’s language on greeting his father (encouraged, no doubt, by the father’s affectionate embrace) may perhaps imply that he does retain a legal entitlement, which he is prepared to renounce on moral grounds: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”, v. 21. On the other hand, the father’s response to the older son, “all that is mine is yours”, appears (unless we take it as a disingenuous reassurance) to presuppose just such a disinheritance of the prodigal.
There is some support for the idea that the younger son is not expected to return, and that his receipt of a gift from his father and departure excludes him from future inheritance, in rabbinic commentaries on Avraham's disposal of his estate. Avraham gifts land to his sons by Keturah and sends them away; the whole of his remaining property appears to go to Yitzhak upon his death.
It should be noted, however, that contrary to the way Christian commentators describe such a disinheritance, nothing in it presupposes any diminution of affection or familial membership for the younger son; it is hardly unusual that the father should be glad to see his son return. It merely affects inheritance.
If there is any break in affection, it seems to be on the part of the younger son, who departs for a distant land in a way that makes his father believe he'll never see him again in his lifetime.
A number of interpreters insist that the father would have performed a ceremony known as ketsatsah to "cut off" his son, disowning him forever.
David Daube, in an offhand comment in his 1955 article "Inheritance in Two Lukan Pericopes" (reprinted in 2000), remarked that ketsatash's "precise import has never been investigated." Bailey takes this up and spends a considerable amount of time analyzing whether it applies in this case in Poet and Peasant/Through Peasant Eyes, and concludes that it does in Finding the Lost Cultural Keys.
From here, Christian exegetes begin to make all sorts of assumptions. Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) proclaims that the father would normally have subjected the son to some sort of "probationary period" before accepting him back as a son:
What is significant, however, is that the father welcomes him home without his having to demonstrate the genuineness of his repentance over any probationary period, a stunning contrast from conventional Jewish practice.
In Preaching the Parables, Blomberg goes further:
In [the son's] desperate plight, his only hope is to return home, even though he recognizes that his father may well have performed the standard Jewish ceremony of "cutting off" his wayward son and disowning him, a disowning that might not be revoked.
In a world in which many people do not have even generally good experiences with their biological fathers, it is important to stress how God as father is different from even the best earthly fathers. The typical Jewish father would have forever "cut off" his son with a formal ceremony—recall Tevye with his youngest daughter in "Fiddler on the Roof." This father does the exact opposite with his "re-investiture."
I cannot emphasize enough that Fiddler on the Roof is not a reliable source for information on normative first-century Jewish practice. (Moreover, Tevye disowned his daughter for marrying a Christian, not for asking for her inheritance early. A Christian like the ones that were committing pogroms. Whether it's reasonable to disown a child who marries someone who's a member of a group that's trying to genocide her parents is a different discussion.)
Barbara Reid (Parables for Preachers) claims that "[a] more expected reaction would have been for the father to rend his garments and declare his son disowned.”
This idea is one of many similar assertions that make Jewish culture in the first century out to be alien and inhumanly cruel. To read these commentaries is to see an image of "typical" Jewish families as incapable of normal familial love. Jews hated shepherds, we're told, because of alien and incomprehensible purity laws. Jews would have considered a woman losing a coin as having lost her sexual virtue. Jewish sons normally wished their fathers dead; if they remained close to them, it was merely to get the maximum inheritance. A Jewish father would disown his son, treating him as dead, for asking for money to go and see the world. A Jewish father would never express open joy at discovering a son he assumed was dead still leaves.
So what was ketsatsah, and how was it applied?
Bailey takes a text from the Qumran sect, the Testament of Kahat, which warns sons against squandering their inheritance or letting it fall into gentile hands, because gentiles will oppress, conquer, and humiliate them.
The ceremony as Christians imagine it is drawn from Ruth Rabbah, a relatively late text (c. 500 CE), that describes a public ceremony in which a son who sells the family's land to a gentile is "cut off" from the family (a status which is reversed when the land is redeemed):
Rabbi Yose the son of Avin: "Everyone who sells his field to a gentile, his kinsmen would bring vessels full of beans and nuts and they broke them before the children and the children gathered them and said "so and so" is 'cut off' from his inheritance. If it was returned, they said that "so and so has returned to his inheritance". In this way anyone who takes a wife and she is not allowed to him, his kinsmen would bring vessels full of beans and nuts and they broke them before the children and the children gathered them and said "so and so" is removed from his family". If he divorced her, they said that "so and so has returned to his family".
As I described in the Inheritance section above, selling land to gentiles created potential problems for the entire Jewish people in the Jubilee year, and violated the principle that the land belonged to God and was only lent to the Children of Israel for their use. It's unclear when or how often the ketsatsah ceremony was actually practiced, but it is absolutely plausible that someone who violated the nation's collective covenant with God might be both shunned by their family and humiliated by their neighbors until they restored the land to wholeness.
However, there is no indication in the parable that the younger son sold the land to gentiles. The gentiles in the story are in a far-off land, and the younger son leaves with money to spend. The most likely buyers are his neighbors. So even if the ketsatsah ceremony existed in Jesus's time, the younger son has done nothing to warrant being targeted by it.
There is a difference between financially disinheriting a son—that is, saying, "Okay, you can have your inheritance early, but that's all you're getting"—and disowning him, in the sense of shunning him and declaring him no longer part of the family, ending the relationship and withdrawing affection. Jackson concludes:
In short, there is a possible argument, based primarily on the midrash in Sanh. 91a, for an earlier stage of the halakhah in which an advance to a son involved his disinheritance from any final distribution. The parable may, on this view, provide supporting evidence of such an earlier stage in the development of the halakhah—provided, at least, that such an interpretation is coherent with its theological meaning and figurative message.
What's not in the parable is any indication of a break in affection on the father's part. He grants his son's request, and his assumption that his son is dead is presumably because the son has decided to move far away and hasn't communicated since leaving, not because of some cutting-off ceremony.
The Hypothetical Villagers
Not content with portraying Jewish fathers as generally too inhuman and incapable of normal parental love to express joy at discovering that a presumed-dead child lives, Bailey insists that all Jews of the time were like this.
To begin with, he insists that the father knew that his son would squander his inheritance and probably die:
Most likely the father expects his son to fail. He is assumed dead. If he makes it back, it will be as a beggar.
It would be quite cruel for a father who expects his gift to doom his son to death, or at least penury, to enable it if all he has to do to prevent it is to refuse to grant the son's inheritance early. If this is true, this isn't a parable about a son who screws up and is forgiven; it's a parable about a really bad father.
The father also knows how the village (which certainly has told him he should not have granted the inheritance in the first place) will treat the boy on his arrival. The prodigal will be mocked by a crowd that will gather spontaneously as word flashes across the village telling of his return.
The idea that a village that most likely includes other relatives of the boy, his childhood friends, and adults who watched him grow up would gather to mock and harass him instead of being glad he's alive makes Jews out to be malicious, cruel, and alien.
What is the evidence for this characterization of Jewish village life in the first century? Where is Bailey getting his information? Bailey, like Blomberg, cites Sirach as evidence that this is standard Jewish practice:
Ben Sirach mentions four things that terrify him. Two of them are "slander by a whole town, the gathering of a mob." The prodigal son returns to face both of Ben Sirach's terrors, the slander of a whole town and certainly the gathering of a mob.
So what does Ben Sirach actually say?
There are three things that I dread, and a fourth which terrifies me: slander by a whole town, the gathering of a mob, and a false accusation—these are all worse than death.
One might note, if one were being pedantic, that Bailey actually misrepresents the quote. These things are included in the category of things that Ben Sirach dreads; the "terrifying" situation is the jealous wife in the next verse. One might also note that if receiving one's inheritance early and leaving home is enough to call forth mob justice, the son is not being slandered, since he did indeed do the thing in question.
But in any case, while we can all agree with Ben Sirach that the idea of being slandered by an entire town, being the target of a mob, and being the victim of a false accusation are truly awful situations, you'll note that nothing in this verse describes under what circumstances these things are likely to happen. He doesn't say "a kid who gets his inheritance early and squanders it is going to face a mob if he ever comes home."
Neither the parable itself nor the Ben Sirach quote cited as proof that this will be the son's reception provide any support for the idea of an angry mob, or that the son's neighbors wouldn't be glad to find out he's still alive. (My beloved great-aunt certainly grumbled a lot about my choice to move halfway across the continent after college, but that didn't stop her from welcoming me home when I visited.)
Bailey also cites as proof an unsourced assertion that "tight-knit Oriental villages" engage in mob justice—when a wife is caught in adultery. This is certainly plausible for Jewish villages in the first century, but it ignores that cheating on a spouse and going off to see the world when one reaches adulthood are not the same thing.
Bailey, warming to the idea of all Jewish villagers as spiteful ghouls who hate the children in their communities, continues:
As soon as the prodigal reaches the edge of the village and is identified, a crowd will begin to gather. He will be subject to taunt songs and many other types of verbal and perhaps even physical abuse.
No sources are cited for the idea that this is the customary treatment for sons who leave home.
By the time Bailey's done, the father is "running the gauntlet" on behalf of his son, risking humiliation and abuse himself.
This claim then spreads throughout other Christian commentaries, repeated uncritically by authors such as Barnewell:
The village would have been scandalized and offended by the son's behavior, and would likely have taunted and perhaps even physically harmed him for the way he treated his father. However, the father's actions would protect him from the town's hostility and enable him to be restored to fellowship among them.
The most extreme of these readings claims that the father ran to protect the son from the ire of the locals who, knowing of the son’s shameful behavior, would be likely to stone him and that the father holds a dinner party “as a gesture of reconciliation with the villagers.” We thus go from a loving father who desperately misses his son and, like his predecessors who find their sheep and coin, rejoices when he sees him to an intolerant Jewish father and his bloodthirsty Jewish neighbors who cannot wait to stone the son who shamed his father.
Most of these descriptions seem to come from the ketsatsah ceremony, and imaginatively move from breaking a vessel with beans or grain in it to pelting the offender with the grain to stoning him to death. All of this ignores that ketsatash was intended to shame someone into correcting their behavior, which is what the younger son is already doing by returning home.
All of this ignores that there are no villagers in the parable itself; the only scenes in the story are set on the father's property and in the distant land. The only characters in the story are the father, the two sons, a slave, and a citizen of the far country.
One suspects that various Christian interpretations that see the younger son as an allegory for Jesus would like to further cement the allegory by imagining a bloodthirsty Jewish mob eager for his death.
Honor and Shame Cultures
It's common among the sources that claim the father was expected to cut the younger son off, or even that he was protecting the son from potential violence at the hands of the other villagers, to explain that first-century Jews had an "honor-shame culture."
This intrigued me, because honor isn't really a concept we talk about in contemporary Judaism, and we talk more about guilt than shame. The Torah uses a term, kavod, which literally means "weight," that usually gets translated as "honor" or "glory." However, the Torah uses it almost exclusively to refer to the glory of God, not to humans' personal characteristics. And it doesn't really talk about shame at all. There's a single use of a term that could be translated as "shame," which means to be whispered about, in Exodus 32:35.
So if it's not there at the start of our written culture, and it's not there today, where does this "honor and shame culture" that was supposedly so central to first-century Jewish life come from? And what does it mean?
Defining an "honor-shame society" isn't quite as easy as you'd think it would be for something that's presented as an accepted anthropological concept. As I usually do when I want to explore a concept, I started out by simply googling it, which usually helps me find the names of foundational texts about it. Web results and Wikipedia articles alone usually aren't going to teach me everything I need to know about a complex concept, but they will give me an overview and point me to more detailed sources.
The results for googling "honor-shame society" were not what I'd expect.
Generally, when you google a concept in anthropology or sociology, you get predictable first-page results.
If I google "kinship structure," the definition at the top of the page is from the Sociology Index. There are results from various encyclopedias, universities, libraries, and academic journals. The same thing happens if I google "material culture."
When I google "honor-shame culture," the results look very different. The top of the page gives me a definition from Wikipedia, which is normal. But then things get weird. The first result is from honorshame.com—the concept has its own website, apparently!—which turns out to be subtitled Resources for Global Ministry. The next link is to the "Bible Project" podcast. The next is from the "Lausanne Movement" ("Connecting influencers and ideas for global mission"), and then there's a link from thegospelcoalition.org. After that, at last, there's a journal article! It's from Missiology: A Global Review. After that, there's what looks like the website of a Christian motivational speaker ("communicating biblical truth with cultural awareness"), then a journal article from the Journal of Biblical Literature, and finally, an Amazon link to a book about evangelizing to members of honor-shame cultures.
In other words, while most anthropological concepts attempt to better understand different aspects of human cultures and different types of cultures simply to understand them, and attempt to do that from as neutral a framework as possible, the concept of honor-shame cultures appears to be primarily discussed in Christian circles, and exists as a framework for evangelism (that is, to market to certain cultures and ultimately change them, rather than to simply understand them).
That second journal article begins:
That honor and shame were (and for the most part) remain pivotal cultural values in the Mediterranean is really beyond question.
Daniel K. Eng, at the University of Cambridge, cites a number of sources for this idea (The Widening Circle: Honour, Shame, and Collectivism in the Parable of Prodigal Son):
In the ancient Mediterranean world, order was imposed as people were defined within the community. Honour and shame served to maintain social control. Rhetorical handbooks affirm the deep-seated identification of honour and shame in Greco-Roman culture by recommending the use of the commendable and the disgraceful to persuade one’s audience. Pliny the Younger opined that the supreme source of happiness was a good reputation that lasted (Ep. 9.3.3). Social propriety dictated that groups were strongly structured and exclusive. Those who were unacceptable were thus ostracized, rendering the experiences of exclusion and distance from the community associated with shame. Furthermore, punishments for shameful acts were often enacted publicly to bring humiliation in front of the people. Aulus Gellius, in describing the public beatings of notable men, lamented about the disgrace and mortification of such a degrading practice (Noct. att. 10.3.1). Honour was the highest social value in Greco-Roman society. Dio Chrysostom wrote that fame is more precious than life (Rhod. 20) and that a man would consider it worth it to be destitute as long as he is well regarded by his fellow citizens (1 Glor. 2).
But is it true that honor and shame were "pivotal cultural values" for first-century Jews?
Eng cites no Jewish sources, only Roman and Greek ones. Pliny the Younger is a first-century Roman author—he's at least from the right time period but from the wrong culture. Dio Chrysostom is a late first-century Greek author. Aulus Gellius is a second-century Roman author. Even when interpreters cite Jewish sources, those sources are almost always writings from Hellenized Jews such as Sirach (in fact, it's almost always Sirach since it's hard to find anything supporting the "honor-shame" paradigm in other Jewish writings).
While Jewish culture was certainly influenced by Hellenism, especially in the diaspora, Hellenism was also something that Jews resisted as a threatening foreign influence. The Maccabees famously fought a bloody war against both external Hellenistic influence (the Seleucids) and internal Hellenistic assimilation (Hellenized Jews like the Tobiads). In Jesus's time, the face of Hellenism was the brutal, occupying Roman Empire and the upper-class Jews who took an appeasement approach to the occupiers. So it seems to me that Romans and Greeks writing about what is normal for Romans and Greeks are a suspect source for the attitudes of the anti-Roman Pharisees or the Jewish peasants who seem to have been Jesus's Galilean neighbors and audience.
Eng's arguments seem motivated by benevolence: he uses the honor-shame paradigm as a point of commonality between first-century Judaism and contemporary Asian-American communities (Finally Belonging: The Reception of the Parable of the Prodigal Son Among Asian Americans):
Elements of Jesus’ parable mirror the experience of many Americans with Asian descent. In what follows, I will discuss how certain elements of the parable mirror three experiences of Asian Americans: immigration, the model minority and liminality. Notably, as we will see, aspects of both sons’ experiences in different places have affinity with the America-based experiences of those with Asian descent.
This is a lovely drash on the passage, and Eng uses it to initially urge the reader toward empathy for the elder son. Ultimatley, however, he repeats the same tired tropes (The Widening Circle):
First, his refusal to go in violates proper decorum. His responsibilities as the eldest included a leadership role in important occasions, especially ones that honour a special guest. The older son has not become part of this celebration, and this would be clear to the guests in attendance. In addition, the older son humiliates his father by not entering his celebration, denying him the esteem of being a great benefactor or patron. Thus, with such a momentous event, the older son’s absence is shameful.
(It's quite a rhetorical trick to blame someone for shaming the host by not showing up to a party to which they were neither invited, nor even informed that it was happening.)
Unfortunately, the entire argument is largely based on uncritical reading of Bailey and acceptance of his unsourced claims about first-century Jewish life, and reiterates claims that the Pharisees were acting as hateful snobs "scandalized" by violation of largely arbitrary standards of "propriety" and disdaining the marginalized, rather than as Jews who wanted to see their kinspeople stop harming each other to get a few extra drachmas from Roman oppressors:
In challenging Jesus’s association with sinners, the Pharisees accuse him of violating the societal code without regard to propriety. In their view, Jesus’ disregard for the accepted standards makes him the reprobate. His actions are scandalous, outside the expectations of what is right. In other words, they accuse Jesus of being shameless.
Eng seems unable to make an argument for consonance between the cultures of Asian-Americans and that of first-century Judaism without ultimately throwing almost every Jew (except the younger son, figured as a proto-Christian) under the bus:
The father shamefully runs in a manner associated with women. Furthermore, the father defiles himself by embracing his unclean son... Furthermore, the other villagers could possibly respond with violence to uphold their honour, attacking the returning young man who has brought shame on the village... He is expected to disown or stone his son to death, but he makes him the guest of honour...
Most importantly, it's unclear whether the paradigm of "honor-shame cultures" is actually a widely accepted concept outside mission work. The Wikipedia article (not a source I'd rely on, but usually a good place to start looking for references) on the subject is filled with  notes and has a flag asking for help from an expert in sociology. The article downplays the heavily Christian basis of most writing on the subject, and instead cites Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), a now thoroughly debunked American treatise on Japanese culture, as the source.
Either way, it seems that the concept of "honor-shame cultures" is largely an attempt to exoticize non-Western, non-Christian cultures and to simplify and flatten differences between cultures into something that can be consumed by non-sociologists in an hour or two. Yet it's hard to understand what makes a particular culture an honor-shame culture while distinguishing others from the paradigm: after all, the American founding fathers fought a rather excessive number of duels to protect their honor, so it's unclear why Mediterranean cultures count as honor-shame cultures and Revolutionary War-era America does not.
Much as with other aspects of this parable, attempts to understand first-century Judaism in this framework appear to be based on accounts of contemporary Palestinian Christians. While modern Palestinian Christians live in the same area that first-century Jews once lived in, any attempt to use their culture to understand first-century Judaism through their practices must reckon with the fact that they're 1) Arab, not Jewish, 2) Christian, not Jewish, and 3) 2000 years removed.
Finally, attempts to distinguish between so-called "shame cultures" and so-called "guilt cultures" claim that the former are characterized by concern over appearances and fear of ostracism, while the latter are characterized by concern for individual conscience and perhaps fear of punishment in the afterlife or via laws. In the most generous interpretation, this describes communal-focused versus individual-focused cultures, but the idea that individuals in shame cultures are motivated by appearance while individuals in guilt cultures are motivated by conscience suggests a moral hierarchy in which guilt cultures are more advanced (and lawful) than shame cultures.
(We see here yet another example of how Jews, in the Christian imagination, are incredibly protean—we're rigid and law-obsessed when that's what Christians need from a cultural foil, and primitively lawless with our Dionysian shame culture as opposed to enlightened Apollonian respect for the law when they need that from us.)
The truth of the matter is that humans are motivated by both shame and guilt (as defined in this framework). Human beings are social creatures—we care what other people think of us because we need other people. Human societies—regardless of where they reside—come up with rules and consequences for breaking them, and people are motivated by that as well. Our behavior is motivated by a mix of concern for how others will perceive us and individual conscience, and individual conscience itself is socially mediated.
In other words, all human cultures are both guilt and shame cultures, and that there isn't any distinction in the shame-guilt binary that can't be better explained via a communitarian-to-individualist spectrum.
Attempts to impose this structure on first-century Jewish communities lead to obfuscation, not clarity.
Jewish or Greek?
We can't be certain of who the original audience for the parable was. If we take Luke at his word, it was a crowd of first-century Jews, including both teachers like the Pharisees and (presumably) common people. However, Luke, writing at the tail-end of the first century, was most likely writing for a gentile audience. He may have had some sort of oral tradition or now-lost written document from closer to the time of Jesus that he was adapting. He may have been working from a record of Jesus's saying like the hypothetical Q source and attempting to reconstruct the context in which the sayings were uttered. He may simply have set the sayings in whatever context made sense for the story he was telling. Or he may be the true author of the parable. We can't know.
And because we don't know who actually wrote the parable (or even put it in its current form; as we've seen in parables that appear in multiple gospels, the details of the story may vary depending on who's (re)telling it), we don't know for certain who the original audience was.
If you believe that the story as we have it is the story as Jesus told it, the original audience was first-century Jews, and probably not particularly Hellenized ones. It's hard to reconstruct where Jesus was when he told this parable from the fleeting references in the gospels, but it appears to have been between when he left the Galilee for the last time (Matt 19:1, Mark 10:1) to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) and travels through Samaria (Luke 9:52) before visiting Mary and Martha in Bethany (Luke 10:38) and when he spends time in Perea (Luke 18) before arriving in Jerusalem (Luke 19:29).
We don't know much about the Pereans—the text seems to imply that they're Jews like the people in the Galilee and Judea, rather than a group seen as non-Jewish, like the Samaritans—but it's hard to parse the subtleties of such distinctions 2000 years later. In any case, since the text treats them as Jews, we probably should as well.
On the other hand, if you believe that Luke was writing many of these stories himself, and had his own audience—Hellenic gentiles and/or highly Hellenized Jews—in mind, that changes the context for understanding the behavior of the father and both sons.
David Andrew Holgate argues that the parable should be understood in the context of Hellenistic philosophy rather than the norms of Jewish farmers (Prodigality, Liberality and Meanness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: A Greco-Roman Perspective on Luke 15:11-32):
A further motif which can be compared with Luke's description of the younger son's moral change is the doctrine of the two ways, which was commonly illustrated by the fable of Heracles at the cross-roads. In the myth, which originated with the Sophist Prodicus but is best known from Xenophon's Memorabilia, Heracles arrives at the crossroads and has to choose between Virtue and Vice. The story was popular in philosophical literature. In Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, for example, Apollonius describes Heracles' decision as being a choice between the different philosophical schools. Heracles is a Cynic (and Stoic) exemplar and the idea that labours lead to virtue is a Cynic idea.
Both the fable of Heracles and the parable of the prodigal son can be seen as narrative expressions of the two ways doctrine, which goes back at least as far as Hesiod, and was widespread...
The first indication of the doctrine of the two ways in Jewish Hellenistic literature is found in texts with a Stoic ethical orientation, such as Sir 2: 12 and T. Ash. I:3, 5. While the doctrine has "little or nothing that could be called specifically Christian", Christianized forms of the doctrine are found in the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. Luke's use of the doctrine is evident in his contrast of the behaviour of the two sons, and the results of their behaviour. The Christian dimension of his use of the doctrine can be seen by comparing it with a similar example in Philo.
For Holgate, the particulars of Jewish inheritance law are less interesting and less relevant to understanding the parable than Stoic philosophy.
Throughout this site, I assume that the intended audience was first-century Jews who were not particularly Hellenized, but I don't think looking to Hellensitic philosophy to understand the parables is necessarily the wrong move. Jesus may have been talking to Jews in the Galilee in many of these stories, but the gospel authors had different audiences and may have glossed the stories to better reach them.
Either way, however, positioning Jewish culture as a negative foil (whether in assuming that the father chose Christian mercy over Jewish honor by running, or in assuming that he demonstrated a superior manifestation of Greek ideals over and above his Jewish context) is a bad move.
So far, everything about this story—the son's request for early inheritance, the father's grant of the request, and the father's joy at seeing his son again—is well within the everyday norms of Jewish life in the first century.
If Christian commentators want to find something remarkable in this family portrait, they might start with the conspicuous absence of any women.
If, as Bailey would have it, the younger son is supposed to be a parallel to Yaakov, where is the parallel to the all-important figure of Rivka? A better parallel might be that of Yosef, the youngest son spoiled and cosseted because of his father's grief over his dead, beloved mother. (Unlike the prodigal, however, Yosef and Yaakov find prosperity and success rather than disaster in a foreign land.)
Where is the mother when the younger son returns and receives a welcome-home party?
To me, the ghosts of Rachel and Sarah haunt this story. The tension between Yitzhak and Yishmael, between Yosef and his brothers, derives at least in part from tension between their mothers. Perhaps the brothers in the parable are children of different women. Or perhaps they are both the sons of a deceased, beloved wife, and the indulged younger son is indulged because he is the last part of her left to his father.
The absence of women in the parable is echoed in the lack of feminine input into opinions on how the father would have been expected to behave. Bailey bases his claims about how "Oriental patriarchs" behave on his own assumptions, on the words of Ben Sirach, and on the claims of male Christians in the Middle East.
Levine notes drily:
As for what “typical oriental patriarchs” might do, today’s scholars sometimes derive their models not from ancient sources, but from contemporary Muslim and Christian informants in the Middle East. One major problem with such fieldwork approaches is that the questioners sometimes forget to ask the women. Biblical scholar Carol Shersten LaHurd, reading the parable with Yemenite women, posed the question: “What would your husband do if his son returned home after wasting all his money?” The women unanimously agreed that the father would lovingly welcome the son, especially if he were a child of his old age.
In a footnote, Levine adds:
See also [Carol Shersten Lahurd's] earlier article... when she "asked whether any part of the father's behavior was unexpected in the light of their experience of the Middle Eastern family, all answered negatively and provided stories about how the family serves as location of unconditional care."
And yet, in a sort of bizarre tacit acknowledgment that there is a missing mother in this story, Christian commentators attempt to turn the father into both father and mother.
His behavior is strange—fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behavior, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated.
Levine offers even more extreme examples from Buttrick:
From the father’s concerns for food and clothes, several exegetes fatten up the view that the father with “bread enough to spare” is gender-bending or, to put the point directly, “In a way, he is behaving like a mother—kissing, dressing, feeding.” The next step is of course to claim, “This father abandons male honor for female shame.”
The idea that a father behaving like a mother is "shameful" could be an essay in itself, but we don't have time to unpack all that.
What's notable is that providing for a son's physical needs is hardly relegated to the realm of women in Jewish practice (in fact, a Jewish marriage contract specifies that a husband must provide these things for his wife), and kissing among men was a normal, unremarkable practice between kin. (See, for example, Yaakov and Esav's reunion.)
Rather than straining to find feminine traits in the father's behavior and to claim them as some sort of characteristic of radical divine love, it might be simpler to note the absence of a mother and ask what that means for the story.
Between the certainty that Jewish fathers would never run to greet a long-lost child, and that Jewish sons tended to wish their fathers dead, one gets the impression that Jewish families are incapable of normal familial love, that Jewish parents are inhumanly harsh, that they put strict adherence to arid custom above natural parental affection.
Ironically, modern Jewish parents regularly come under fire from the dominant Christian cultures in which they live for being too indulgent, too permissive, for raising spoiled, effete Jewish sons and demanding Jewish American Princess daughters. Unless, that is, Jewish parents are declaring their children dead to them for relatively mild offenses, like marrying a gentile, parental love dissipating beneath the weight of a Tradition. As usual, Jews appear to be protean figures, changing shape to serve as a foil for whatever Christian virtue is at issue, whether it's Christ-like parental forgiveness or Protestant discipline. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't—literally, since it's religion in question.
So, are contemporary Jewish parents unusually indulgent?
It seems to me that they're perceived to be by non-Jews. Anecdotally, I have ample experience both with overhearing non-Jewish mothers tut-tutting at parties about how the Jewish kids were spoiled and with Christians attending Jewish services and expressing dismay that the congregation doesn't shush children who talk or yell or cry during the service. The World Culture Encyclopedia claims, "Though Jewish families have fewer children, they are often described as child-oriented, with family resources freely expended on education for both boys and girls... Jewish parents are indulgent and permissive and rarely use physical punishment." While it may not be an accurate source for the reality of non-majority cultures, it probably is a good representation of common perceptions. Sometimes this perception involves admiration, especially for Jewish
pedagogical techniques. It also characterizes the focus on children as extreme: mid-century writer A.I. Gordon (Jews in Transition) explains, "The financial burdens that Jewish parents in suburbia gladly bear for what they regard as the best interests of their children is often astonishing [and sometimes disturbing] to persons who are aware of the sacrifices these entail."
It's also clear that Jews perceive Jewish cultural norms to include permissive, indulgent parenting, and see the Jewish approach to child-rearing as child-centered rather than parent-centered. Sometimes this is a source of pride; sometimes it is a source of anxiety; either way, as with all things Jewish, it is a source of debate.
This extreme focus on children, whether real or imagined, is modern. As the Jewish Virtual Library notes: "While concern for the well-being and education of children is basic to Jewish tradition, the child-oriented behavior of American Jewish families is a more recent phenomenon." A common explanation for contemporary Jewish culture's focus on children is that it's a response to the Shoah: having only barely escaped extinction, contemporary Jews treat every Jewish child as a miracle.
However, perceptions of ancient Jewish child-rearing, as the previous sections on interpretations of the prodigal son parable demonstrate, tend to be in stark contrast.
It's hard to determine what attitudes toward children were two thousand years ago, since writers of the time rarely explicitly described normative cultural assumptions about everyday life, which has allowed Christians to fill the blank space with whichever assumptions best support their theology. Alfred Edersheim, a Victorian Christian biblical scholar, departs from the norm in his description of biblical Jewish child-rearing practice, perhaps because he was born to a Jewish family. Edersheim makes an argument for a biblical "tenderness of the bond which united Jewish parents to their children" rooted in language, in "the multiplicity and pictorialness of the expressions by which the various stages of child-life are designated in the Hebrew," claiming that "those who so keenly watched child-life as to give a pictorial designation to each advancing stage of its existence, must have been fondly attached to their children."
Certainly, the text and the self-conception of the Jewish nation that it shapes (or documents) suggest a focus on children: the relationship between the Eternal and the Jewish people is sealed by the promise of a child to an infertile couple, and each of the three founding families struggles with infertility. Indeed, the whole of Genesis is primarily occupied with family matters; God's importance seems to be expressed primarily through God's aid to Judaism's founding families in finding spouses, surviving sibling rivalries, and bearing and raising children. The Tanakh rings with the voices of women pleading for children, demanding
them, praying for them, giving them powerful and significant names, and planning and scheming to give them every advantage in life. (This is curious, given that Jewish law considers procreation a commandment from which women are exempt.)
Archaeological data shows that the status of children in the ancient Middle East was not that different from the status of children today: children were both valued and vulnerable to violence from adults. Archaeology reveals that ancient Jewish parents sewed talismans into their children's clothing to protect them from harm, and crafted toys and games for them. Jewish parents kept an eye on children both indoors and outdoors. They played and made toys together, and parents kept their young children's clumsy attempts at art, much as modern parents hang drawings on refrigerators. Despite insistence that parents had children primarily as a source of free labor, Clark Nardinelli notes that the "consensus from the development literature, then, is that throughout history children have not been profitable investments in agricultural societies," yet unlike the Greek philosophers, Judaism unwaveringly condemned infanticide.
In other words, the idea that it was in any way radical, or even unusual, for the father in the parable to be overwhelmed with joy at seeing his son again is in contradiction to all the existing evidence about how ancient Jewish parents felt about their children.
Rabbinic Parables about Fathers and Sons
While documentation of the stories the Pharisees told is scarce, we do have stories from their immediate successors, the early rabbis that shed light on what sort of relationships between fathers and sons—and humans and the Eternal—the rabbis expected.
These stories also complicate the idea that Jesus obviously meant the father to be an allegory for God, since Jewish parables had a ready-made stand-in for the Absolute—the figure of the king. Rabbinic king-parables use the image of the king more often than any other to make points about God and God's relationship with both individual Jews and Israel as a whole. (By the third century king-parables also became a way to criticize the Emperor, as Alan Appelbaum describes.)
Because documentation of Pharisaic parables of the time is so sparse, we can't say for certain what Jesus's choice of an ordinary (if wealthy) man for the figure of the father meant, but I choose to approach it simply: the figure of a human father is a human father first and foremost and we should read him as such before we try to discern other layers of meaning.
The most obvious parallel to the story of the father and two sons—or at least the part of the story that focuses on the younger son—is from Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of midrash. The following translation is from Amy-Jill Levine's Short Stories by Jesus, although she appears to cite it incorrectly as Pesikta Rabbati 147-148, but I found it at Pesikta Rabbati 44 (Pesikta Rabbati only has 47 chapters).
A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, "Return to your father." He said, "I cannot." Then his father sent word, "Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you." So God says, "Return to me, and I will return to you." (Malachi 3:7).
Levine also cites a midrash in Devarim Rabbah 2:24, a collection of midrash based on Deuteronomy:
R. Meir said, "To what is the matter like? It is like the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a tutor to him who appealed to him, saying, "Repent, my son." But the son sent him back to his father [saying], "How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you." Thereupon, his father sent back word: "My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it not to your father that you will be returning?"
Far from finding the father's love and forgiveness "shocking" or "scandalous" or "radical," the Pharisees instead might well have questioned the father's passivity, especially if the listener is supposed to compare him to God. After all, the God-father of their stories doesn't give his son up for dead and go on about his life, only to be pleasantly surprised by the son's return. Their father figure keeps in touch, and offers to meet his son and bring him back home if he doubts his ability to make it all the way. He reassures his son, before his son even sets foot on the road of return, that he need have no shame. He is an active participant in helping his son come home.
This father figure reminds me of President Bartlett on The West Wing who, when his daughter says she doesn't know how to make him happy, tells him that the only thing she ever had to do to make him happy was to come home at the end of the day.
Ultimately, I'm suspicious of the idea that we're supposed to understand the father as representing God. He gives his younger son something that it seems he should be able to predict will do his son more harm than good, and then gives him up for dead. He doesn't seem to make any effort to remain in contact with his son. (If that's at the son's choice, one has to ask what kind of father he's been that the son doesn't want his father to know where he's going or to be able to send messages to him.)
Unlike the sheep owner of the first story, who can keep track of 100 sheep well enough to notice when one goes missing, and the woman of the second parable, who can keep track of 10 coins, the father only has 2 sons and seems unable to keep track of both of them. Not only does he literally lose his first son, but when that son returns, he forgets he has an older son who should probably be told what's going on and invited to the welcome-home party.
My father made me breakfast throughout my childhood, did crosswords with me, was thrilled whenever he could help with a school project, tended to me when I was sick, and never missed a school event. When I moved halfway across the continent to start a new adult life, he drove me to my new home and wept and held me at the airport when it was time to say goodbye.
I'm not sure why we think fathers in the ancient world loved their children any less than fathers today, and if I have to imagine God as a loving father, the supposed radical exemplar of extravagant parental love and forgiveness in this story comes up very short when compared to my very human father, and to many other very human fathers I know.
I think we all know the type of parent (in less egalitarian ages, almost always the father) who is willing to give his kids expensive gifts to buy their love, but can't be bothered to deal with the slow, patient work of day-to-day parenting. Small wonder, if that's the type of parent he is, that the younger son departs without leaving a forwarding address.
Next: The Younger Son (TK)
Sheep video: Matthias Groeneveld, Pixabay
Rosh Hashanah postcard: JTS collections
Roundel with Return of the Prodigal Son (ca. 1530–35): The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Return of the Prodigal Son: Victoria and Albert Museum
The Return of the Prodigal Son: Rembrandt, c. 1669, Wikipedia
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755–1830), WikiArt
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Karel van Mander I (1548-1606), National Gallery of Art
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Illustration for The Child’s Life of Christ with Original Illustrations (Cassell, 1882). Look and Learn History Picture Archive.
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Rembrandt, 1650. AKG images.
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: James Tissot, 1662-1663. Wikipedia.
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Pietro Testa, 1645. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. National Gallery of Ireland.
The Departure of the Prodigal Son: Jan Weenix II (1716). Mutual Art.