The 5th Commandment
“Give honour to your father and mother, so that your days will be long in the land that Yahweh your God is giving to you.”
Although there was no mention of wives or women in the 4th commandment, mothers are included with fathers in this one. Israel was a patriarchal society, and its God is almost always referred to in masculine terms, but there are a few chinks of light shining through the patriarchal armour. In Genesis, when God makes humans ‘in his own image’, he makes them male and female. When the Old Testament talks about God’s “presence” (shekhinah), that word is feminine. So is the word for God’s “wisdom”, from which we get the name ‘Sophia’. There are also verses in the Hebrew Bible that compare God to a woman in labour, or a mother comforting her children. There is even evidence that, for some Israelites, Yahweh had a wife whose name was Asherah. Other Canaanite tribes, among whom the Israelites lived, worshipped her as the consort of their chief god and so, not to be outdone, archeological inscriptions have been found which refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah” – which is why we hear, in 2 Kings 21:7 etc., about statues of Asherah being placed in Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem. The ‘marriage’, however, didn’t last!
Mothers as well as fathers, then, were to be ‘given honour’. Israel began as a tribal collection of semi-nomadic, herders-cum-subsistence farmers. Extended families living in close proximity would be the norm and, families being families, there would be disagreements, tension and conflicts. Harmony within family and tribe, and safety from external threat required structure, authority and cohesion. These ‘nuclear’ and ‘extended’ families would have been a key source of social stability, survival and wellbeing, and it would have made sense to ‘give honour’ to those with the longest experience of life and therefore, hopefully, a store of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Before, however, too quickly idealising this, we should note that the Israelites were, for centuries, polygamous. The stories tell us the ‘wives’ of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were numerous, and those of David and Solomon were innumerable and, as often as not, there wasn’t “safety in numbers”!
Why, then, should the ‘older generation’ be respected? Certainly not because of the threat found in Exodus 21:17 – “whoever insults his father or mother will be put to death.” Respect, to be freely given, must be earned and deserved. It’s perhaps worthy of note that the root meaning of the Hebrew word underlying ‘honour’ is ‘to be heavy and burdensome’. It can indeed be ‘burdensome’ for the young to honour the old, whose ‘knowledge, understanding and wisdom’ can often seem outdated and impedimentary. Caring for them can make ongoing exhausting demands on time, money and energy. In Covid-19 times, there are particular tensions between young and old, and much need for mutual understanding and a balanced approach. The very last verse in the Old Testament talks about ‘turning the hearts of parents to their children, and of children to their parents’. That’s, perhaps, the best thought to take away with us from this commandment.