In Kenneth Bailey’s Jacob and the Prodigal, I encounter again the claim that for the younger son to ask for his share of the inheritance was a huge insult to the father, a way of wishing his father dead. In support of this claim, Bailey cites Ebrahim Sa’id, an Egyptian Protestant scholar commenting in 1935, with the commendation that “Sa’id was an able Middle Eastern Christian scholar. He looked at this text and at his own culture and affirmed that Jesus does not use an Oriental patriarch as a model for God” because it is “unthinkable” in the modern Middle East that a father should accede to such a request. Rather, says Bailey, “if the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house.”
(Perhaps Bailey could have benefited from reading a different Sa’id, namely postcolonial theorist Edward Said, who would have flagged Bailey’s use of a stereotyped “Oriental patriarch” as a benchmark of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.)
Two things make me suspicious of Bailey’s claim: first, the text of Luke 15 does not explicitly draw the conclusion that the younger son was wishing his father dead. Indeed, the parable gives no attention to any such implication. Even the older son, whose resentment of the younger gives him every reason to remind their father of this implication, makes no mention of it. Instead, his complaint is over the squandering of the money “with harlots” and the inequitable treatment of his own faithfulness in comparison to the younger son’s unfaithfulness.
Moreover, the father gave an early inheritance not only to the younger son, but also to the elder: ὁ δὲ διεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον. ( Luke 15:12)
The younger’s difference from his brother is not in having received his inheritance early, for they have both done that. Rather, it is in having broken an arrangement of consortium, or “dwelling together”, which is an arrangement preferred and extolled in many Biblical texts (e.g. Psalm 133). A similar breaking of consortium is at work in the story of Jacob and Laban. And we can see that this is so in the father’s answer to the elder son: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (Luke 15:31)
Second, if we direct our attention away from modern “Oriental patriarchs” and toward more specifically Jewish evidence from before the time of the New Testament, we find that the distributing of inheritances before the death of the testator, far from being an unthinkable breach of filial duty, was common enough to attract attention from Ben Sira: “To son or wife, to brother or friend, give no power over thyself while thou livest; and give not thy goods to another so as to have to ask for them again… For it is better that thy children ask of thee than that thou shouldst look to the hand of thy sons… When the days of thy life are ended, in the day of thy death, distribute thine inheritance.” (Sira 33:19-23, cited in Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament) If Ben Sira feels the need to warn his readers against the practice, we may assume it was common enough and not “unthinkable”.
Ironically, the section in which Bailey perpetuates this mistaken claim of “wishing his father dead” is entitled, “Scraping off the Barnacles of Centuries”. A good project, that, if only one does not preserve certain precious barnacles and polish them because “that’ll preach”.