Despite the vast gulf in wealth and technology that separates Biblical Palestine from modern America, I suspect that the largest disparity actually lies in the simple concept of the family unit. Perhaps more disturbingly the distinction is one which almost certainly leaves the American child on the losing side; despite what American society may think. A Jewish family was a close knit unit with a strong and clear chain of command; the purpose of this paper is to outline how it worked.
The head of the family was the father; this could be the immediate male ancestor but it could be the grandfather if he were still alive. The father had absolute control over his household. ISBE narrates that he could arrange the marriages of his offspring, sell his children into slavery and even kill them if he chose. In return he was expected to love, command, instruct, guide, warn, rebuke, chastise and nourish his children. Wight states that it is common in the Middle East for a child to greet his father by kissing his hand and then standing humbly awaiting instruction. Fausset notes that this position of authority was open to abuse and that twice the New Testament urges caution (Eph 6:4, Col 3:21). He also shows that the term father could be used outside of the bloodline to show respect; thus a pupil might call his teacher 'father'. The position of 'father' was clearly an important position and generally it would pass from the father to the eldest son upon the death of the father although there were some exceptions such as Jacob.
From the perspective of the child respect and even reverence for both parents was commanded (Exo 20:12, Lev 19:3). A child that repeatedly refused to do his parents' bidding could be taken before the elders and ultimately stoned to death; to strike or curse a parent was also punishable by death. Fausset makes the point that until the age of twelve the parents, and particularly the father, were acting as a proxy for God onto the child, this may well explain the severity of these laws. The point that Fausset makes is somewhat substantiated by the frequent commands given to the parent to raise the children in the law of God. It may even explain why the Lord was twelve when he stayed behind in the temple; until that point it was Joseph that represented His ultimate authority.
It is interesting but perhaps not surprising that different commentators can take identical facts and reach entirely antithetical conclusions in the area of the role of women. Sexual equality is such a fixated topic in American thought today that we have to find the Bible teaching it in order for the Bible to be credible. Thus we find under each subject of 'family', 'woman' and 'children' the ISBE has a heading of 'sexual equality'. Easton, an older lexicographer, states 'woman was taken from man and thus man has the pre-eminence'. Wight somewhat splits his bet by declaring: 'the wife was subordinate to the husband, in office if not in nature'.
In reality I think the most Biblically defensible position lies between the two extremes. There can be no doubt that the Bible states that the husband is the head of the wife. In contrast a Jewish child (male or female) was to honor their father and their mother. From this we see that women as a class were certainly not inferior to men as a class; however, we also see that within the all-important family unit the father held the place of absolute control. Whilst Sarah was in a position of great honor (Gen 16:6) with firm control over the household she still referred to Abraham as Lord. Perhaps in mitigation the book of Proverbs tells us that a husband will trust in a Godly wife (Prov 31:11), that she will be wise (Prov 31:26) and greatly appreciated (Prov 31:28).
It is possible that some of our reticence to understand the Biblical position of a wife stems from association with the treatment of Arab women today. All of the commentators agree that the lowly position of a Middle Eastern woman today stems from outside of Biblical thought. There are perhaps two contrasting influences which have placed the Arab woman into her current predicament. Firstly, there was the Greek and later Roman influence in which the woman served two purposes; pleasure and child-birth. Secular writers show that courtesans had greater status than married women and the widespread incidence of homosexuality showed that women were deemed unfit for true love. Secondly, by contrast, Islam came along which essentially attempted to remove the sexuality of a woman and confine her to the job of providing a stable home environment. Caught between mindless biology and physical drudgery the women had little room to grow. The Bible shows that Hebrew women were not so constrained. The Law prevented them being used for pure sexuality and did not require them to be confined to the darkness of the tent. Therefore many Hebrew women rose to positions of prominence within Israel.
In closing I would note that the thesis of this paper is almost proven simply by the impossibility of writing a paper today on family life that does not have the possibility of being controversial. The fact is however that in Biblical thought a child would be raised in a home in which everyone was subject to the rule of the head of the house; the father. The children would also be subject to the mother. The eldest son would be subject to his father until his father passed away at which point the eldest son would be the head. Hebrew women were not simply sex-slaves or work-horses but neither were they emancipated independent entities. Biblical thought required that everyone was willing to sacrifice some of their own desires and interests in order to make the family unit work; and generally it did.