Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?

Article excerpt

The title of this paper is not a rhetorical question meant to elicit the response "of course it was." Rather, it is a call to reexamine a concept-patriarchy-that has long been used as a descriptor of ancient Israel. Since the late nineteenth century, if not before, the term "patriarchy" has been invoked by those seeking to understand the cultural context of biblical texts. And more recently, it frequently appears in feminist discourse that examines and often critiques the presentation of female figures in narratives and other texts in the Hebrew Bible.

This concept deserves closer examination for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the slippery nature of the term itself, which is rarely defined by biblical scholars who use it. The term does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, which has a vocabulary for family units but lacks a term that might be translated as "patriarchy."1 Thus, patriarchy is to be understood as a social science theory rather than a biblical construct. Consequently, its value as a model for understanding any society, let alone a premodern one, must be examined in light of changing perceptions of the patriarchal theory as well as increased knowledge about the societies to which it is applied. I argue that the validity of the patriarchy model for understanding the biblical past is problematic and that using it is no longer as compelling as when it first emerged in the scholarship on ancient Israel.

In this paper I will consider the concept of patriarchy by first looking at its place in the study of ancient Israel (section I)-its nineteenth-century origins and then developments in twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship. Next (section II) I will consider challenges to the patriarchy model in three areas: classical studies, research on women in ancient Israel, and feminist theory. Finally, a brief conclusion (section III) will include a suggestion for an alternative model.

The matter of definition must first be addressed. Patriarchy, literally "rule of the father" from the Greek words pater (itaTTip) and archö (ap^co), has multiple meanings and is notoriously difficult to define.2 Some definitions, claiming that women have the status of slaves in a patriarchal system, are harsher than others, which simply refer to a system of male dominance. A better approach is to acknowledge that patriarchy has two manifestations: the disproportionate control of the father in families or clans; and, by extension, the organization of an entire society in ways that exclude women from community positions.3 The first manifestation relates to the nineteenth-century origins of the concept, and the second is part of twentieth-century developments.

I. The Concept of Patriarchy in Scholarship on Ancient Israel

Nineteenth-Century Origins

The use of the patriarchy model in studies of ancient Israel did not emerge in an intellectual vacuum. Rather, it entered the discourse of biblical studies mainly through the lens of anthropology.4 In the nineteenth century, with the burgeoning of historical-critical biblical studies, some biblical scholars sought to understand social aspects of the world of the Bible. They were interested in Israelite society but were frustrated by the incomplete and often contradictory materials in the Hebrew Bible.5 Thus they turned to the newly developing social sciences, especially to anthropology. This nineteenth-century engagement of biblical scholars with socialscience theories was the first of two "waves" of biblical scholarship that turned to social-science disciplines.6

The anthropologists to whom biblical scholars turned worked mainly from an evolutionist perspective, assuming that all peoples passed through stages of development, from the primitive to the civilized.7 They were especially interested in the development of family structures. Lacking direct evidence of ancient societies, they drew extensively on Greek and Latin sources as well as some ethnographic reports. …

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