Some claim that Jesus taught his disciples to hate their mother and father. If true, that would obviously make Jesus to be an immoral and unethical teacher, immoral, since one of the Commandments is to honor one's mother and father. Understanding the Jewish background to Jesus' teaching puts an entirely different light on his words.
Jesus' statements in question are:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple.
There are four things that show the real meaning of Jesus' statements:
1. These sayings of Jesus reflect a common Jewish understanding of the day.
Jewish understanding was that the messianic era would be preceded by a time of disharmony in family and social relationships. By these sayings, Jesus was announcing the messianic age and his own messiahship.
In fact, Jesus was quoting from the Jewish prophet Micah who spoke of the messianic age in these terms:
Do not trust a neighbor; put no confidence in a friend. Even with her who lies in your embrace be careful of your words. For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies are the members of his own household.
Micah had been speaking of judgment that was to come upon Judah because of her corruption and moral failure. This judgment, Micah previously said, would take the form of a siege by an outside enemy. In this context, social relationships would fall apart and even close relatives would no longer trust one another. This social deterioration would be the end result of Judah's immorality and sin. In Second Temple and rabbinic Jewish literature, this same passage and similar descriptions characterize the final "day of the Lord." See Jewish Quotes below for citations.
Beth Moshe claims that in Micah, "the situation is seen properly as evil and not desirable....Jesus, in contrast, says a sword and dissension are his goals." (Judaism's Truth Answers the Missionaries (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1987), p. 203.) But this fails to recognize the background to Jesus' words in Jewish literature. Jesus is not encouraging hate. Rather, he is saying that social networks will be torn apart because of his words and actions--as the end results of the people's sin, not because his goal is dissension.
So then, in much Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period, the Kingdom of God is preceded by a time of dissension such as Micah portrays. The implication of Jesus' words is that he is about to bring in the Kingdom of God, accompanied by this breakup of personal relationships. This happens not because it was Jesus' goal, but because when the Kingdom comes, sin stands out in sharp relief.
2. Jesus in fact reiterated the commandment to honor one's mother and father.
Jesus affirmed the commandment to honor parents in word and action:
For God said, "Honor your father and mother," and "Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death."
But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever help you might otherwise have received form me is a gift devoted to God," he is not to "honor his father" with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition."
"If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."
"Which ones?" the man inquired." Jesus replied, "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself."
For Moses said, "Honor your father and your mother," and "Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death." But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: "Whatever help you might otherwise have received form me is Corban (that is, a gift devoted to God)," then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to this mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
F. F. Bruce, late Rylands Professor of biblical criticism and exegesis, University of Manchester, England, remarked:
Jesus himself censured those theologians who argued that people who had vowed to give God a sum of money which they later discovered could have been used to help their parents in need were not free to divert the money from the religious purposes to which it had been vowed in order to meet a parental need. This, he said, was a violation of the commandment to honour one's father and mother (Mark 7:9-13).
The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 119-20.
3. Jesus' saying not only announced the messianic age but was a reminder that loyalty to God takes precedence over loyalty to family when the two come in conflict.
This principle is found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in rabbinic writings.
In The Hebrew Scriptures we find the story of Moses and the tribe of Levi. Levi was the tribe from whom came the priests who taught the Law and led in worship. Moses praises this tribe using language that reminds us of Jesus' statements about family:
"He said of his father and mother, 'I have no regard for them.' He did not recognize his brothers or acknowledge his own children, but he watched over your word and guarded your covenant. He teaches your precepts to Jacob and your law to Israel. He offers incense before you and whole burnt offerings on your altar. Bless all his skills, O LORD, and be pleased with the work of his hands. Smite the loins of those who rise up against him; strike his foes till they rise no more".
Moses is not saying that the Levites had no concern for their own parents, nor that they literally failed to recognize their siblings. Honor for parents was part of the Law. Yet family bonds did not take precedence over God's requirements. So Moses praises the tribe in hyperbolic terms. The truth is that it takes mature love rather than hatred to show honor to one's mother and father yet to give precedence to God's requirements.
Samuel Tobias Lachs, Professor of History of Religion at Bryn Mawr College, remarked concerning Matthew 10:37. Interestingly, here we see an example of a case from the Talmud where a teacher takes precedence over a father.
On the greater duty to serve the teacher over a parent, note: "If a man went to seek his own lost property and that of his father, his own has priority; if his own and that of his teacher, his own has priority; if that of his father and that of his teacher, his teacher's has priority, for his father brought him into this world, but his teacher, who has taught him wisdom, brings him into the world-to-come."
A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken: Ktav; New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1987), p. 188, citing Mishnah Baba Metzia 2:11.
4. The word "hate" in the Bible is often used to express priority and preference rather than emotional hatred.
For example, in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 the word refers to a preference rather than an emotional hatred. The same is true of Malachi 1:2-3.
If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love [literally, the hated wife], when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father's strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.
"I have loved you," says the LORD. "But you ask, 'How have you loved us?' "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" the LORD says. "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals."
In addition, the same sense of "hate" occurs in rabbinic literature such as Exodus Rabbah 51:8. See the supporting statements below.
Second Temple and rabbinic sayings concerning family strife in the messianic age.
First Enoch 56:7 (in regard to Israel's enemies; ca. 2nd-1st c. BCE)
And they shall begin to fight among themselves; and (by) their own right hands they shall prevail against themselves. A man shall not recognize his brother, nor a son his mother, until there shall be a (significant) number of corpses from among them. Their punishment is (indeed) not in vain.
First Enoch 100:1-2 (in regard to unspecified "sinners"; ca 2nd c. BCE)
(1) In those days, the father will be beaten together with his sons, in one place; and brothers shall fall together with their friends, in death, until a stream shall flow with their blood. (2) For a man shall not be able to withhold his hands from his sons nor from (his) sons' sons in order to fill them. Nor is it possible for the sinner to withhold his hands from his honored brother. From dawn until the sun sets, they shall slay each other.
Jubilees 23:19 (in regard to a sinful generation among Jewish people; ca. 2nd c. BCE)
Some of these will strive with others, youths with old men and old men with youths, the poor with the rich, the lowly with the great, and the beggar with the judge concerning the Law and the Covenant because they have forgotten the commandments and covenant and festivals and months and sabbaths and jubilees and all of the judgments.
Fourth Ezra 6:24 (in regard to "the end of the age"; ca. 1st-2nd c. CE)
At that time friends shall make war on friends like enemies, and the earth and those who inhabit it shall be terrified, and the springs of the fountains shall stand still, so that for three hours they shall not flow.
Commentator Max Margolis on Micah 7:6 (20th c.)
In the Mishnah (Sotah ix.15) our verse is embodied in a passage descriptive of the conditions which are to obtain in the period immediately preceding the advent of the Messiah (comp. also Matthew x. 35f.; Luke xii.53). Similar thoughts and phraseology occur in the apocalyptic writings (Baruch lxx.3 ff.; IV Ezra v.9; vi.24; Enoch ii) and in the Midrashim (Sifre on Deut. xxxii.36; Pesikta rabbeti, p.4b: 75a, and elsewhere; Derek eres zutta, ch. x; Cant. rabba, ch. ii; comp. also Sanhedrin 97a ff.). The idea underlying these expectations is that evil must have run its course before the good can come. The hope in the triumphant advent of the Kingdom of God is intensified by the very contemplation of the evil as it exists. When the moral corruption is greatest, salvation is surest; or, as the rabbis says, "out of distress cometh relief" (Midrash Shoher Tob on Ps. xxii; Jer. xxx.7 is appositely quoted).
--Margolis, Max L. The Holy Scriptures with Commentary: Micah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1908).
Samuel Tobias Lachs, Professor of History of Religion at Bryn Mawr College, on Matthew 10:21:
Family problems were to be characteristic of the Last Days. . . .It is a very common motif in the apocalyptic literature. E.g., "In that generation the sons will convict their fathers and their elders of sin and unrighteousness . . . and they will strive one with another, the young with the old, the old with the young." "And they shall hate one another, and provoke one another to fight, and the mean shall rule over the honorable, and those of low degree shall be extolled above the famous."
--A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken: Ktav; New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1987), p. 183, citing Jubilees 23:19 and 2 Baruch 70:3.
Lachs on Matthew 10:34:
The spirit of this deterioration of family relationships is reflected in rabbinic treatment of Micah 7:6, where it is explained as prelude to the messianic coming: "With the footprints of the Messiah presumption shall increase and death reach its height . . . children shall shame the elders and the elders shall rise up before the children, for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man's enemies are the men of his own house. The face of this generation is as the face of a dog, and the son will not be put to shame by his father." Similarly, "And in that generation the sons will convict their fathers and their elders of sin and unrighteousness . . . and they will strive with one another, the young with the old and the old with the young."
--Ibid., p. 186
Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament, Hood Theological Seminary, on Matthew 10:35-36:
The context of Micah 7:6, cited here, describes the awful evils in the land and the untrustworthiness of even the closest relatives and friends that would continue until the Lord would come to vindicate those who hoped in him. Given the belief held by many Jewish people that a time of sufferings would preceded the end, the disciples would probably have understood this saying as suggesting that they were already experiencing the sufferings of that time.
--The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 75.
F. F. Bruce, late Rylands Professor of biblical criticism and exegesis, University of Manchester, England:
We know that in biblical idiom to hate can mean to love less. When, for example, regulations are laid down in the Old Testament law for a man who has two wives, "one beloved and the other hated" (Deut. 21:15), it is not necessary to suppose that he positively hates the latter wife; all that need be meant is that he loves her less than the other and must be prevented from showing favouritism to the other's son when he allocates his property among his heirs. The RSV indicates that positive hatred is not intended by speaking of the one wife as "the loved" and the other as "the disliked," but the Hebrew word used is that which regularly means "hated," and it is so rendered in the AV.
That hating in this saying of Jesus means loving less is shown by the parallel saying in Matthew 10:37: "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." In Matthew's Gospel these words are followed by the saying about taking up the cross and following Jesus: the implication of this sequence is that giving one's family second place to the kingdom of God is one way of taking up the cross."
--The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 120.
Exodus Rabbah 51:8
By three names is this mount known: The mountain of God, 'Mount Horeb' and Mount Sinai. . . .Why 'The mountain of God'? (Exod. 18:5). Because it was there that God manifested His Godhead. And Sinai? Because [it was on that mount] that God showed that He hates (sane) the angels and loves mankind.
In Hebrew there is a play on words between Sinai and the word for "hate" which is sane'. The footnote in the Soncino edition explains the saying that God hates the angels and loves mankind: "By giving them His Torah, though the angels desired it.--'Hates' is not meant literally, but simply implies that He showed greater love for man."
--Soncino Exodus Rabbah, p. 571.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts:
But these antonyms, ahavah ("love") and sin'ah ("hate"), are also used with a special flavor in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 as meaning the loved one and the hated, that is, the less-loved one. In Greek, the same Semitisms are carried over in the antonymic use of agapan/misein with the same special flavor in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 "where, in dependence on Dt. 21:15-17 and Ex. r., 51(104) [footnote--on Ex. 38:21 'Why is the mount of the Law called Sinai? Because God disregarded (sane') the lofty and loved (ahav) the lowly'] they mean 'to prefer' ('to be faithful to') and 'to slight' ('to despise'). We have here a Hebraism, as in the requirement for discipleship." This last reference is to the two parallel lists of requirements for discipleship; Matthew 10:37 uses the formula ho philon huper eme, "He who loves . . . more than me," while Luke 14:26 simply parallels it by saying kai ou misei "If any one comes to me and does not hate. . . "
The reference to Esau, father, mother, wife, children, brothers, or sisters is not one of psychological hatred, but one of preference, temporary disregard for higher purposes, and exclusive separation.
In the case of Jacob and Esau, the love of God signaled an election and call for service ("To be a blessing to all the nations") that had not come to Esau. But Esau was not hated as God held evil in contempt, for Esau was the object of deliverance in the end times in Amos 9:12 and Obadiah 19-21.
--Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1983), p. 252. The original Hebrew and Greek fonts were transliterated for the web.