In a recent post, I explored the events of Genesis 2 and 3. As I explained in that post, a careful examination of the text’s language demonstrates that God did not make the woman to be a subservient helper to the man, nor was she the recipient of a curse for disobedience to God. She was a powerful, co-equal partner alongside the man.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the familial relationships described in the Hebrew Bible (and the New Testament) are patriarchal—meaning that the male is the head of the household. But does this mean that patriarchy is God-ordained? Is patriarchy the only scripturally-acceptable form of societal organization?
In this post, I want to look at some examples in the Hebrew Bible. I hope you will see that our perspective of patriarchy and the Bible’s attitude towards it might be more complicated than most people think.
Is Patriarchy Evil?
Patriarchy is a loaded term in modern discussions about feminist issues. It has become a trigger-word that tends to set off a stream of invectives when discussed. Often equated with misogyny, many consider it to be the root of all evil for the plight of women in our society. Is this vitriol warranted? Is patriarchy the problem? Is the Bible culpable for promoting patriarchy? As with most things in the Bible, it’s complicated.
Why do social systems evolve? Why does one social system spread while others don’t? I would argue that a major factor is maximization of social benefit for the group. Which system best ensures survival of the collective? Which system enables the society to become prosperous? The best answer for a subsistence-level agrarian society may be very different than a vertically-integrated industrial or high-tech society.
In their book, Social World of Ancient Israel, Matthews and Benjamin provide a very informative overview of patriarchy in the Bible. Patriarchy is, first and foremost, a social system. It is neither inherently evil nor inherently good. It’s a system based upon the idea that the household’s senior male leads the family unit. The Bible describes the family unit as the Father’s Household or Beit Av. This family unit could include 3 to 4 generations living under the same roof.
Like any social system, patriarchy has advantages and, at the same time, is prone to certain abuses. Before we get too high and mighty, our free-market/capitalist socio-economic system is also prone to abuse. Greed and exploitation of the disadvantaged are two of the many downsides. In certain circumstances, like subsistence-level agrarian societies, patriarchy could be the optimal system—which may account for its prevalence.
As foreign as it is to our Western mindset, we need to remember that in the ancient Near East, communal identity was more important than personal identity—regardless of sex. Self-identity was framed in the context of your communal group. Life did not begin at birth; it started at adoption. The primary motivating factor was the survival of the group on their land. Within this social structure, each person had a specific role to ensure the survival of the household. Our values of individual identity, personal freedom, and rights would seem foreign in this world, where survival depended on the collective. To be excommunicated from the group was a virtual death sentence (see Cain’s reaction in Gen 4:13-16).
According to Matthews and Benjamin, the father’s primary goal in a patriarchal family was to protect and provide for his land and children. As such, his authority included the following responsibilities:
- Adopt or excommunicate sons and daughters
- Recruit workers and warriors
- Negotiate marriages and covenants
- Host strangers
- Designate heirs
The mother of the household shared the same goal as the father: protect and provide for the family’s land and children. Her authority included the following responsibilities:
- Bear children and arrange for other wives to bear children
- Manage the household by supervising domestic production, rationing, and food production
- Teach clan traditions
- Mediate domestic conflicts
- Designate heirs
Both have essential responsibilities—some of which overlap.
We tend to think that women within a patriarchal society were without power or agency. While that sort of abuse is certainly possible, it does not necessarily reflect the norm. There are numerous examples within the Bible of women exercising power and agency on behalf of themselves and their families.
The Eshet Chayil
A great example of the mother’s qualities within the Beit Av is found in Proverbs 31. This acrostic poem (each line starts with a sequential letter of the Hebrew Alphabet) describes this woman in detail:
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. Prov 31:10-31, NRSV
This character is called the “wife of noble character” or “a capable wife.” Unfortunately, those terms don’t fully represent the Hebrew. The Hebrew phrase is Eshet Chayil (אֵשֶׁת חַיִל). Eshet means “woman” or “wife.” Chayil is the word translated as “noble” or “capable.” However, that is not the best translation of Chayil. In most places, this word means strong, powerful, wealthy, or mighty. Much like the word Ezer discussed in my earlier post, Chayil is sometimes used in the sense of a mighty army.
The Eshet Chayil described in Proverbs 31 is a powerful woman, full of agency, recognized for her business acumen, talents, and work ethic. This woman is not a slave/servant. She is a person of power and influence within her family and community.
What does the Bible say about patriarchy? Is it promoted as the God-ordained family system? A quick analysis of a few cases uncovers some surprising conclusions.
Rebekah and Isaac
Isaac was the only son of Abraham and Sarah. His wife (also a close cousin) was Rebekah. They had twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau was a hairy “man’s man” in every sense of the word. Jacob “dwelt among the tents” (read: with the women-folk). This is probably a slight against Jacob’s masculinity and failure to live into the gender normative behavior of the day.
Esau was Isaac’s oldest and favorite son. But, the narrative leaves no doubt that Esau is an idiot, driven by untamed passions. Esau’s speech is crude. Controlled by his hunger, he sells his birthright to his younger brother. He later marries two local Hittite women, that did not meet with his mother’s approval.
There is a curious incident in Genesis 27 where Isaac, now blind, believes his days are numbered. He needs to formally designate the heir to head the Beit Av after he dies. Naturally, he chooses his favorite son, Esau. Rebekah, sensing the devasting impact this would have on the future survival of their Beit Av hatches a plan to trick Isaac. She schemes to circumvent Esau to name Jacob the heir. Her deception involves dressing Jacob in goatskin and his brother’s “Sunday’s Best.” The unlikely plot works, and Jacob is named the future head of the household by Isaac.
Interestingly enough, Rebekah’s trickery and deceit do not seem to be viewed in a negative light. She was exercising her authority within the patriarchal social structure to designate the heir. She saw her husband’s actions as violating their prime directive: protect and provide for the land and children. Her cunning deception is viewed in a positive light. One might even say that her trickery was God-ordained.
Tamar and Judah
Judah, the 4th son of Jacob and Leah, had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah arranges a marriage between Er and a local girl named Tamar. However, Er was not a very good guy. He was so bad that God punished him with death.
Here’s where the story gets a little weird for us. Preservation of land and family was the driving force for households in the ancient Near East. So, what happens when a son dies without an heir to carry on the family line? Well, the brother was supposed to step in and sire children with his sister-in-law to maintain his brother’s family line.
So son #2, Onan, is tasked with “the deed.” However, Onan’s not real keen on the idea of having kids with his sister-in-law, Tamar. But apparently, he wasn’t too weirded out about having sex with her. In rather graphic detail, Gen 38:9 describes Onan’s “pull and pray” strategy. As you might expect, God’s not real happy with Onan, and he meets the same fate as his older brother.
Now misogynist Judah seems to think that the problem is with Tamar. He’s only got one more son. Shelah isn’t quite old enough to be married. So, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s household until little Shelah is older. It’s pretty clear he has no intention of losing a 3rd son to this woman.
Tamar is clearly in a bad spot. She is living within her father’s household, but cannot marry anyone else. Her future is precarious. She sees Judah is not going to fulfill his responsibility towards her and the family of her late husband. So, she takes matters into her hand.
She learns that Judah is shearing his sheep nearby. She disguises herself as a pagan shrine prostitute sitting by the side of the road. How she knows Judah was prone to this indulgence isn’t mentioned in the story, but it certainly makes you wonder. As it turns out when Judah comes along, he’s eager to “leave a donation,” but seems to be a bit short of cash. Tamar negotiates to keep his signet ring and cord until he can return with proper payment (a young goat). Of course, she steals away with his collateral. Judah gets his friend to deliver the goat, but he can’t find her. The townspeople tell him there’s been no prostitute at the shine. So, Judah drops the pursuit, fearing personal embarrassment.
When he learns that Tamar is pregnant because she has “played the whore,” Judah decides to burn her at the stake. Incidentally, I’m not sure where he gets this idea. I don’t believe that Torah ever calls for someone to torched as a punishment for extra-marital sex, or anything else. But Tamar has an ace up her sleeve. She produces evidence of paternity via the signet ring and cord.
Confronted with his failure to live up to patriarchal standards, Judah’s responds, “She is more right than I, since I did not give her to my son, Shelah” (Gen 38:26, NRSV). Judah, the misogynist, is shamed for his behavior and Tamar’s “sinful” act that is deemed honorable. Her actions change the trajectory of Judah’s life and how he appropriately manages his household.
One can hardly talk about the Eshet Chayil in the Hebrew Bible without considering Deborah “the Judge.” Her story is told in Judges 4-5. Deborah was not only a ruler/chieftain (the real sense of the Hebrew word for “Judge”); she was a prophetess. Situated under a date palm in the middle of the Promised Land, Deborah dispensed rulings and prophetic words to the Israelites.
When Deborah commands Barak to lead an army against a Canaanite army from Hazor (a huge city), he responds that he will only do it if she goes with him. Now that’s an unusual request. Why would he want a woman to accompany the army into battle? He probably sees her as being filled with the divine presence. If God goes with them into battle, they cannot lose. Who does Barak see as the earthly representation of God? Deborah, a woman.
Deborah agrees to go but tells Barak that the victory will not be to his credit. That honor will go to a woman. As it turns out, that woman was Ja’el.
Nowhere in the text does it indicate that Deborah was a judge and prophetess because the men were unwilling to do it. It appears that God chose her for this task. She is not derided for assuming this role. Neither are the men shamed because she is a judge and prophetess. Rather, she is the model judge for the people of Israel—a true Eshet Chayil.
Rabbinic Thoughts on Eshet Chayil
The unique nature of the Proverbs 31 acrostic poem on the Eshet Chayil did not escape notice of the early Jewish rabbis. There is rabbinic teaching on this poem entitled, Midrash Eishet Chayit. The earliest complete manuscript dates to 1270 CE, but from fragmentary evidence, scholars believe it to be a much older Midrash. This document assigns each of the 22 acrostic lines to a different female character in the Hebrew Bible: the wife of Noah, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bityah (the daughter of Pharaoh), Jochebed, Miriam, and so on. In rabbinic interpretation, the poem is a tribute to all the Eshet Chayils, both named and anonymous, throughout the Biblical narrative.
The Hebrew Bible is full of stories about women who upend patriarchy to correct the abuses common to this social system. The Bible accepts patriarchy as the given social system of the day. Still, it also condemns and corrects its abuses—including misogyny. It would be improper to read patriarchy as God-ordained from the Biblical texts. It was merely the prevailing social system that gave everyone the best chance for survival in a subsistence-level agricultural economy.
The Hebrew Bible does not promote misogyny. I would argue it condemns it throughout the narrative. The women of the Bible are strong, powerful, smart, and clever. They fiercely defend and protect their families against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Just as their male counterparts, they have an equal share in enforcing the prime directive: protecting the land and family and ensuring their survival for future generations.
While patriarchy was certainly the cultural norm throughout Bible (and well into the 20th century), it is inaccurate to consider it God-ordained. God takes people where they are and works to transform them to reflect the Divine image. Time and again in the Bible, many of the abuses of patriarchy are upended–often at the hands of powerful, Spirit-filled women.
Rather than forcing patriarchy as “God’s plan,” better use of our efforts would be evaluating how our socio-economic system prevents women from achieving their God-given potential. It’s clear from the Hebrew Bible that God values women as fierce, equal partners with men fulfilling humanity’s divine charge.