Patriarchy: When fathers ruled the earth.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 February 2016
PATRIARCHY 'peɪ.tri.ɑrk.i noun. System of government where the father, or eldest male, is ruler.
2. System wherein women are largely excluded from positions of authority.
[Patriarchal 'peɪ.tri.ɑr.kəl adjective.]

When people talk about patriarchy nowadays, they tend to mean the second definition above: Women can’t seem to find their way into any official or significant positions of leadership. They can have unofficial power, like a First Lady; they can have insignificant power, like being in charge of cleaning the break room. (Gee, what an honor.) But never any serious authority; the “old boys’ network” keeps shutting them out.

Because the “old boys” don’t wanna work with women. Especially don’t wanna work for women. Doesn’t matter the reasons; they’re all different forms of sexism. It’s a way-too-common problem in the present day. But actually sexism isn’t what this article is about. (Not primarily. Sexism doesn’t have to be part of patriarchy. Problem is… it nearly always is.)

What I’m writing about is the first definition: The system of government we see among the ancient Hebrews, in the families of Noah, Abraham, and Jacob before the Law was handed down; and to a lesser degree the system we see in families thereafter. Before there were judges and kings, before there were cities and nations and empires, before there was anything, there were families. The families were led and ruled by the father or eldest male: The patriarch.

Now, we Americans grew up under democracy. When we’re in a situation where there’s no leadership, we figure, “Okay, we’ll take a vote”—all of us are equal, so the majority should rule, right? If one of us tries to seize power, we object, ’cause that’s not fair. But that’s because we were raised to be democratic. The ancients weren’t. Popular vote didn’t rule the day; the strongest or loudest or most dangerous did. This is Darwinism at its simplest.

The one best able to strike down his foes was usually the physically strongest; the man. And in order to maintain power, patriarchy was the system these men put into place. The man, the father of the family, the paterfamilias, ruled. They taught their kids this was the way things worked. So whereas our culture falls back on democracy to decide things, theirs fell back on patriarchy.

Not egalitarian, where spouses get an equal say. Not democratic, where the kids get a vote too. It was a dictatorship. What the patriarch decided was how things were. No one to overrule him, no constitution to say he violated civil rights, no legislature to control his behavior, no police to stop him. If he decided he was taking a second or third or hundredth wife, he did. If he forbade his daughter from marrying a certain man, she had to obey. If he ordered his son put to death for disobedience, off with his head. Seriously.

And there are a number of Christians who read about these “good old days” in the bible, and wouldn’t mind returning to them. Oh, I’ll get to them.

A nomad’s government.

You’ll notice most of the patriarchy is found in the first six books of the Old Testament. After God gave the Law to Moses, it took precedence over the patriarchs’ decrees. Although you’ll notice in Judges not every patriarch bothered to follow the Law, but did as they pleased. Jg 17.6, 21.25 As Israel moved away from nomadism, settled into tribes, built cities, and centralized their leadership under kings, patriarchy was gradually replaced with monarchy.

The patriarch was often the senior male in the beyt av/“father’s house.” Ge 24.23, 28.21, 31.30, 38.11, 22.13, etc. The “house” consisted of everything and everyone who lived in the patriarch’s camp:

  • His own immediate family: Wives and kids.
  • His extended family: Adult children and their spouses, grandkids and their spouses, great-grandkids and their spouses, and so on. (Remember, they married young back then.)
  • Other relatives who were in his care: Mother, father’s other wives, sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, cousins.
  • Guests. (Middle eastern hospitality being what it is.)
  • Employees and their families.
  • Slaves and their families.
  • Livestock—camels, cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, etc.—and any other possessions, like land, buildings, tents, tools, gold, etc.

These houses could get pretty huge. Even though Abraham’s immediate family only consisted of his wife, he still had enough subjects to put together an army, fight and win a battle against five kings, and rescue his nephew Lot. Ge 14.13-16

Patriarchy was built on a sense of honor and shame. Kids were raised to do what’s honorable. Honor your parents, and things will go well with you. Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16 Don’t embarrass Dad. If you shamed your patriarch, it was grounds for them to kill you. Ge 38.24, Dt 21.18-21 Which some of ’em would actually do—unless you could defend yourself by proving you were more honorable than they. Ge 38.25-26 Sometimes that worked. Not always.

There’s a big difference between an honor code and a moral code. In an honor code you’re not to embarrass yourself or others. You gotta look good, not necessarily be good. So yeah, there’s a great deal of hypocrisy built into every honor system. Which for some reason always manages to shock and surprise people who pride themselves on their honor—how could hypocrisy get in here? Well duh; any code which is all about appearances will be full of phonies.

Lesser male relatives, like Lot, might be part of the patriarch’s company. Ge 11.31 In those cases, the relative would rule his own family and possessions: He’d have his own subjects, his own livestock, his own stuff. But he was under another man’s authority. When Lot lived with Abraham, he answered to Abraham. When Jacob lived with Laban, he answered to Laban. They were subjects, kinda like a feudal earl ruled his county, and a sheriff ruled his shire, but both were still subject to their king, who could overrule their decisions, or take what he considered “his.”

But when Lot decided to go his own way, Ge 13.8-12 he became an independent house. Allied with Abraham, but now Abraham didn’t rule him. He was his own patriarch.

When families separated like this, they were expected to get permission and blessing from their patriarch. Jacob didn’t bother to do this: He gathered up his family and property, and left his father-in-law Laban. Ge 31.17-21 And Laban chased him for it. Ge 31.22-23 Laban considered Jacob’s family and possessions to be his—his daughters, his grandchildren, his livestock. Ge 31.43 The only reason Laban didn’t take back “his stuff” and kill Jacob, was because God intervened. Ge 31.24

Yep, kill him. Who’s gonna stop him? There’s no law over the patriarch. No higher authority. No police. Jacob might fight back—which was known to happen. But patriarchy’s honor code discouraged that. The patriarch claimed the right to do as he chose with his subjects. When Reuben told his father Jacob he could kill Reuben’s sons if Reuben was unsuccessful in bringing back Benjamin, Ge 42.37 he wasn’t exaggerating. Jacob was functionally Reuben’s king. He could kill any of his subjects, including his grandsons, like any absolute monarch.

Birthrights and double portions.

When Elijah was about to ascend into heaven, and this happened—

2 Kings 2.9 KWL
This happened when they crossed the river:
Elijah told Elisha, “Ask me to do for you, before I’m taken from you.”
Elisha said, “Please assign the double portion of your spirit to me.”

—various Christians wrongly interpret this to mean Elisha was asking for twice the anointing of the Holy Spirit as Elijah had. (As if the Holy Spirit stingily gives us any less than his full power. As if Elisha’s successor could likewise ask him for a “double portion anointing,” and thereby get four times Elijah’s power—and if you wanna keep multiplying this idea for a hundred generations, things are gonna get crazy.)

What Elisha was really asking was for the bekhorá/“firstborn[’s right],” which we call a birthright: He wanted to become Elijah’s designated successor. In medieval Europe only one child, usually the eldest male, would inherit everything his father owned: His titles, his property, his duties. In patriarchal times, the property would be divided equally between each of the patriarch’s sons. (And when there were no sons, the LORD included daughters. Nu 27.8) Each heir received one portion. But the heir with the birthright received two portions instead of the one. He became the new patriarch, the head of the family. He needed the extra portion in order to take care of all his father’s subjects, who were now his subjects.

Customarily (as indicated by the word bekhorá) the designated successor was the patriarch’s eldest son. But the bible’s patriarchs broke that custom constantly. Isaac was Abraham’s second son, Jacob was Isaac’s second, Joseph was Jacob’s 11th, Ephraim was Joseph’s second. And though God decreed fathers shouldn’t play favorites in picking successors, Dt 21.15-17 he clearly didn’t care if the successor was eldest. When he picked leaders, he went with character, not age. He chose Moses, Aaron’s younger brother; he chose David, Jesse’s seventh-born.

Again, this didn’t mean the other sons didn’t become patriarchs over their own family units. Of course they did. But if they lived with their father’s successor, they lived under his patriarchy. And later in Israel’s history, as these extended families grew into tribes, the senior men of the family became chiefs. This is why we see genealogies all over the bible: It’s how the Hebrews determined the chiefs of their tribes.

Now God is the Father.

Patriarchy was the existing system of leadership when the LORD handed down the Law to Moses. And what we see in the Law is God abolish it.

I know; you’re gonna hear various people claim God didn’t abolish it; that he only mitigated it. He kept the existing system—he didn’t throw it out and replace it with democracy, like we would, and kinda did. He just forbade some of its harsher practices, penalties, and more serious abuses. Thus they justify keeping patriarchy, and claim it’s divinely guided. They stay in charge, and claim they answer to God.

But biblical patriarchs were absolute rulers. And God abolished their absolute rule. Under the Law, the LORD is the absolute ruler. God has the final say, not the patriarchs. Patriarchs used to have the power to kill their subjects for any reason, have sex with any subject they wished, punish their subjects for any slight, fight their foes for any cause. Now they couldn’t. God implemented procedures. You had to establish guilt before punishing a crime. Most family members and slaves were sexually off-limits, and you usually had to marry ’em. Slaves had to be set free after seven years.

Every single one of God’s commands in the Law regarding family relationships took power from the patriarchs. They no longer owned their subjects and property; God did. They no longer had the power of life and death over them; God did. Even the very land they lived on: God decreed where the tribes would go, and every 50 years any purchases of new land had to go back to their original owners. The patriarchs were no longer sovereign. God was. And is.

Under patriarchy, women were largely excluded from positions of authority. Not entirely. Wise men listened to their wives. Children were expected to honor their mothers. But if a patriarch was stubborn, stupid, and sexist, there wasn’t a whole lot women could do to stand up for themselves. But after the Law kicked in, the idea of women in authority was no longer unthinkable. God speaks to women, same as to men, and if he raises up a woman as his prophet, we gotta listen to her. Dt 18.15 Like the prophet Deborah, who served as judge and led Israel, Jg 4.4 less than 300 years after the Exodus.

Sexists nowadays can’t fathom the idea. A woman prophet? Who ordered men, like Barak ben Abinoam her general, around? They’d never permit it in their churches or families. (In fact a lot of them, when they’re listing the judges in the bible, claim Deborah and Barak were co-judges—even though the scriptures describe Barak as no such thing. A leader, sure; not a judge.)

Today’s patriarchy: The “umbrellas of protection.”

How this supposedly works: God instructs, empowers, and guides the husband. The husband protects and provides for his family. The wife keeps the children and household in order. And there y’go.

Today’s sexists, you’ll notice, tend to be awfully familiar with the concept of patriarchy. Not so much the Law—not unless it serves their purposes. Hence a lot of ’em claim God never really abolished patriarchy; that it’s still his system of government. The way they depict it is with “umbrellas of protection” diagrams like the one on the right. I know; umbrellas aren’t in the bible. Doesn’t matter.

According to the diagram, God’s in charge of course. Top umbrella, keeping away the rain, meant to represent the woes of life. Underneath him is the patriarch husband, who’s in charge of everything in the family, although he doesn’t run it directly, ’cause that’s the wife’s purview; he usually just instructs her as to how to do her job. His job is to provide income for his family, and defend it:

  • Spiritually, by praying for his family, teaching them the scriptures, and banning all sorts of things which might spiritually corrupt them.
  • Physically, with violence or the threat of violence. Fists, guns, whatever. Remember, the patriarch is king, so he recognizes no government or police outside himself.

The wife does everything else: She supervises the house and the kids. That is, depending on how much leeway her husband gives her; lots of ’em insist she do things to his satisfaction. And some patriarchs claim the wife only supervises the kids till the boys reach a certain age. Then they consider ’em young men, and since women aren’t allowed authority over men 1Ti 2.12 (which to their mind, supersedes any command to obey one’s mother Dt 21.18) the young men therefore step out from under her umbrella, and answer only to their father.

But while age might be a factor when it comes to obeying mother, it’s never a factor when it comes to obeying the patriarch. He fully expects to rule his kids, no matter how old they get, no matter whose roof they live under. The patriarch’s adult sons are always under his umbrella, even when they have families and kids of their own. His adult daughters must always get his permission before they date anyone. (Married-off daughters are an exception… unless the patriarch discovers their new sons-in-law permit him to intimidate them. Then they’re not.) Hence if Great-Grandpa decrees the family isn’t allowed to listen to that evil rock ’n roll music, his adult sons, their adult sons, and his great-grandkids, can’t. Seriously.

’Cause umbrellas of protection. ’Cause patriarchy. It’s a biblical principle, they insist; it’s God’s natural order of things. Get out from under your proper umbrella, and you’re gonna get rained on. Or scorched, or whatever it is your umbrella is keeping away.

Now as a metaphor, the idea of umbrellas is fundamentally stupid. Who puts umbrellas under other umbrellas? Why is the top umbrella incapable of protecting everyone under it? If the wife gets out from under her husband’s umbrella, God’s umbrella suddenly becomes useless?—how’s that work? But patriarchs and sexists never bother to ask these questions. They like the umbrellas.

But as a biblical principle, there’s no evidence God is okay with patriarchy. On the contrary: We have one Lord, Christ Jesus, 1Co 8.6 like the creeds say. There’s only one mediator between us and God, Christ Jesus. 1Ti 2.5 And you see the umbrella diagram: In it, the husband becomes the mediator. It’s only when the woman follows him, when the kids obey him, that they’re right with God. That’s the fatal flaw of patriarchy. That’s how we know it’s of antichrist, not Christ. It’s a system which tries to usurp Jesus’s authority.

Some patriarchs try to disguise their heresy by putting “Jesus” on the top umbrella, not “God.” In so doing, all they’ve done is create an unbiblical go-between, keeping people from Jesus. There’s still only one Lord, and it’s not any bloody patriarch.

It’s why, when we reject patriarchy in all its forms, the wannabe dictators become enraged. Not kindly, patiently corrective: Furious. Quietly furious, but there’s an inordinate amount of anger underneath the surface. Angry, argumentative, spiteful, violent, abusive—all the works of the flesh. Ga 5.19-21 It’s why they excommunicate naysayers and drive them away, lest they lose their power. It’s why they always resort to force, never to grace. Patriarchy is entirely devilish.

In its place: God’s kingdom.

Patriarchy is simply another kingdom Jesus intends to overthrow, and one which has no business existing under his rule. He already had his apostle Paul spell out what he wants:

Ephesians 5.21-28 KWL
21 When you’re submitting to one another out of respect for Christ,
22 the women do so to their own men like they do for the Master,
23 because man is woman’s head like Christ is the church’s head; he’s the savior of the body.
24 But like the church submits to Christ, likewise the women do to the men in everything.
25 And men: Love your women like Christ also, who loves the church and gives himself up for it.
26 So he, who’s clean, can sanctify it with baptism in water and the word,
27 and can personally stand by an honored church.
One which shouldn’t have a stain, wrinkle, or any such thing, but so it’s holy and blameless.
28 Thus men are obligated to love their own women: Like their own bodies.
He who loves his own woman, loves himself.

Anír/“man” and gyní/“woman” can also be translated “husband” and “wife,” which is how this passage tends to be translated, ’cause Paul was talking about a man’s “own woman”—the woman he has a particular relationship with, same as women with their “own man.”

Note Paul starts the passage with ypotassómenoi allílois/“[when you’re] submitting to one another,” not the next verse, “ai gynaíkes tois idíois andrásin”/the women to their own men,” which a lot of bibles translate by inserting the command “submit.” Today’s wannabe patriarchs love that command, and use it to boss around their women. But it’s not in the text. We’re submitting to one another. Women to their men; men to their women. ’Cause in Christ, we’re equal. Ga 3.28 No patriarchs, no matriarchs. Jesus is our only Lord, and we’re sisters and brothers under his rule. Lk 23.10, Mt 23.8

Men are to submit to their women by loving ’em like Jesus loves his church. And the way he rules his church is by serving his church. He takes care of us. He loves us. He supplies our needs. He doesn’t treat us as subjects, like a patriarch would; he treats us as friends. He listens to us, has compassion on us, and forgives us. Today’s patriarchs, by comparison, are only interested in enforcing their own will, and submit to no one.

Yeah, women are to submit to their men. But men are to submit right back. And ypotásso/“submit” is not to be understood as obedience—I tell you what to do, and you submit to me like an employee or student or slave. That’s wholly inappropriate in the kingdom; only Jesus is Lord. We submit to one another in that we present our ideas for fellow Christians’ consideration. We don’t just unilaterally act on our own, like we’re accountable to no one. We’re accountable to everyone. A husband who doesn’t care what his wife thinks ’cause he’s the boss, isn’t being loving and kind and Christlike. He’s being a fruitless jerk. A parent who doesn’t care what their kids want is provoking ’em to anger—something Paul instructed us not to do. Cl 3.21

As you can see, God expects way better of us than patriarchy, a system which has no business in God’s kingdom. His followers have no business perpetuating or defending it. On the contrary: Knock it down whenever you can. Jesus, not the patriarch, is Lord. Set in its place God’s kingdom.