One of the things I love most about the Old Testament is that it is filled with people – real people. Not characters you would find in a book of fiction, but real people who struggle, love, fail, and are later redeemed in life.
The Old Testament is the ultimate story of humanity living in rebellion against God. One way this state of rebellion is evidenced is in the Old Testament accounts of men struggling to raise their children in a fallen world. Some of them succeed despite a few missteps along the way, while others fail utterly and completely. We can learn from them all. But below are two fathers in the Old Testament whose lives stand out to me and inadvertently teach us valuable lessons in parenting. I challenge you to learn from their mistakes like I have.
Eli failed to establish boundaries between parent and child.
Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the Lord’s people is not good. If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender; but if anyone sins against the Lord, who will intercede for them?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death (1 Samuel 2:22-25).
Eli made a mistake common to many parents; he failed to establish the appropriate parent/child relationship. It’s popular these days for parents to try to be their child’s best friend, forsaking the natural order of authority that God placed between parent and child. God has placed parents in leadership over their children, not the other way around. There is no way for a child to honor his father and mother if they have placed themselves on the same level as their child. Despite everyone coming to Eli and telling him the problems that his children were causing, Eli failed to earn the respect of his children, and as a result, they disregarded his instruction.
Therefore, as parents, we must learn from Eli’s failure. We must try to balance being available and approachable to our children with teaching them to respect us, as set forth in Scripture. We want them to feel comfortable enough to come to us with their problems while obeying us out of love when we give them guidance and instruction.
Jacob raised one of his children as favored over all the others.
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him (Genesis 37:3-4).
I am the father of six children ranging in age from newborn to 13 years, so things get a little crazy from time to time. Each one of them is different, and my relationship with each one of them is different as well. I show my love to each one of them in individual ways, and all of us communicate differently with each other. While in my family there is no one child favored above the rest, this is a real struggle in some families. Jacob had multiple children by several different wives. The problem arose when he lifted up one child up above the rest, planting seeds of bitterness in the hearts of his other children. This favoritism manifested as nothing but problems for the favored Joseph.
Jacob’s actions help parents realize that they are actually doing more harm than good by playing favorites. Each child is special and unique, showing and receiving love in his own special way. Sometimes a parent will have to spend more energy and attention on one child, but that shouldn’t be to the detriment of the other children.
It is also important to note that God was completely active in the lives and outcomes of Eli and Jacob, whether they realized it or not. The same can be said of our Heavenly Father today; He is active in our lives in ways that we cannot possibly comprehend. As fathers, and as mothers too, we need to be obedient to the Lord’s instructions in His Word on how to raise our children. If not, we may experience some of the same pitfalls as the men of the Old Testament.
Pastor and apologist Dr. Voddie T. Baucham Jr. sums it like this:
The key is to understand that our children don't belong to us – they belong to God. Our goal as parents must not be limited by our own vision. I am a finite, sinful, selfish man. Why would I want to plan out my children's future when I can entrust them to the infinite, omnipotent, immutable, sovereign Lord of the universe? I don't want to tell God what to do with my children – I want Him to tell me!