Patriarchy may seem like an appropriate term to describe the ancient Israelites, the most prominent group in the Hebrew Bible. But patriarchy is not a biblical term, and its relevance as a description of Israelite social structures can be challenged.
What does “patriarchy” mean?
“Patriarchy” comes from the Greek words for “rule” and “father.” It usually means that the father had absolute control of families or clans. By extension, it also indicates male control of an entire society, with women excluded from community positions. The idea of patriarchy, as applied to the Hebrew Bible, is derived from social-science concepts. Anthropologists (e.g., Lewis Henry Morgan) began using the term in the nineteenth century. Drawing mainly on official legal texts from ancient Greece and Rome, they asserted that the father in classical societies was all powerful, controlling everything and everyone in his household. Influenced by these anthropological theories, biblical scholars began applying them to ancient Israel. They proclaimed that Israelite fathers had absolutely authority over their households. By the mid-twentieth century, drawing upon social science ideas about sociopolitical systems (e.g., Max Weber), scholars assumed that Israelite society as a whole was controlled by men.
Was ancient Israel a patriarchal society?
These ideas about biblical or Israelite patriarchy have now been challenged. Recent studies of ancient Rome, which consult many sources, not only legal texts, dispute the idea of the all-powerful father. They show that women actually had control over many aspects of household life and also had some public roles, even in religion. A similar development has occurred in the study of ancient Israel. Using sources other than the Hebrew Bible, studies show that women had considerable household power. Specifically, archaeological research and ethnographic comparisons have provided information about the farming households in which most Israelites lived. Women had a key role in the household economy as producers of food, clothing, and tools that could not be obtained elsewhere. As a result, they had control over many household activities. That is, they were household managers.
Several biblical passages reflect these revised ideas. Abigail (1Sam 25), a woman with access to resources, uses them cleverly to save her household; she acts without consulting her husband and gives orders to the household staff. The Shunammite woman (2Kgs 4:8-37; 2Kgs 8:1-6) also acts autonomously in inviting a prophet to her house, reconfiguring household space, moving her family to escape a drought, and negotiating with the king about family property. Micah’s mother (Judg 17) and the “strong woman” (NRSV “capable wife”) of Proverbs (Prov 31:10-31) show similar agency. In addition, information in the Hebrew Bible calls into question the idea that women were excluded from community life. About twenty different community roles were held by women. These included leadership positions, for example: Deborah, prophet and judge (Judg 4-5); Miriam, prophet (Exod 15:20-21); and the woman of Abel of Beth-maacah, sage (2Sam 20:14-22).
This challenge to patriarchy as an appropriate term for the Israelites does not mean that women and men were equal. Men still dominated, for example, in most community roles. Rather, it acknowledges that calling ancient Israel patriarchal prevents us from seeing the many ways that women contributed to family and community life. Moreover, because that term focuses on gender, it obscures other inequalities––based on social class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and/or age––in the world of the Hebrew Bible.