I have been hanging around in the blogosphere with a different sort of crowd since I joined The Despised Ones. Oftentimes, I am learning a new vocabulary as I try to step into discussing new and challenging issues. One such new word has come up quite a lot recently: “patriarchy,” the idea of the male-dominated society. It’s not a new idea to me, per se, but patriarchy has not been that big a concern for me in the past. Now, I have little problem calling myself a feminist and fighting for gender equality. But before we abolish patriarchy entirely, let’s take a moment to ask a particular question: is there anything good about patriarchy?
Strange as it may sound, the concept of patriarchy in the Bible is quite in line with the radical anti-authoritarian sentiment echoed now by feminists railing against patriarchy.
I think I just heard several of you gasp through the internet, but before you write a disparaging comment, hear me out. This isn’t an attempt to salvage patriarchy in any form. It’s not a bait-and-switch tactic to try to get you to read my article because of a catchy title. This is about what the Bible meant in its cultural context.
In Genesis 5, we see one of the most boring types of literature in the Bible: a genealogy. Oh boy! Soandso lived 100-some-odd years before he became father to Whatshisname. Then, Soandso lived 800 more years before he kicked the bucket. Whatshisname lived some hundred years before his wife pushed out another little whining kid, followed by another ridiculously long lifetime, thereafter. This is a big selling point for atheism when we learn that the lifetimes put forward here are totally impossible.
So what’s the deal? Did people really live that long? What does Ken Ham or Kirk Cameron have to say about this? What does this have to do with how patriarchy is good?
This is where the historical-critical approach to Scripture excels where more conservative approaches tend to fail entirely: we must consider Genesis 5 against its cultural backdrop. In ancient Sumeria, there existed a similar sort of document to Genesis 5. We call it the Sumerian King List. Its purpose was to establish the legitimacy of a Sumerian ruler by associating him with a long line of authoritarian rulers. These rulers supposedly lived far longer than anyone in Genesis ever did — even you, Methuselah. The longest on the list ostensibly lived 43,200 years. Power and legitimacy passed down through the kingship.
The Bible consciously rejects that notion. The legitimacy of authority is not in the passing down of authoritarian control but in the nature of your family — not just the literal parents who produced you but your spiritual family. The idea of God as father rather than as capricious, authoritarian ruler was a radical departure from the surrounding narrative. Here, patriarchy stands out as a good thing.
Are there better, more equitable family structures? I’d say most definitely, though the necessity of physical strength in ancient society might lend some additional weight to the idea of male governance for the time. That’s really not the point, though. If we read the Bible in order to put together a long list of societal values, we’re not reading between the lines like we should (probably because we’re not getting the whole picture due to the suppression of historical criticism — raise your hand if you had heard of the Sumerian King List, before). The point of patriarchy in Genesis is not that we should all try to establish a male-dominated power structure. The point is that we should reject the exercise of power which should try to manipulate and control its subjects rather than relate to them as human beings.
Leaving aside the notion of whether patriarchy was ever necessary for society, its modern application has essentially turned into the very thing it originally intended to oppose: authoritarian power. Legitimate power derives from something even more fundamental than fatherhood; it comes from love, not unquestioned acceptance of authority. It comes from the very foundation of what it means to be human.
Patriarchy as such is dead or dying, but let us remember and carry on what it represented in the Biblical narrative: the rejection of power that seeks to control and dehumanize, to set one person higher up than all others. Let us continue in that regard to seek what is true and good, and let our power and legitimacy stem from our status as God’s children.