Are they really “The Patriarchs”?

In class, the topic of “The Patriarchs” (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob etc) emerged in class and Dr. Hess pointed us towards and interesting presentation given by Carol L. Meyers at the Annual SBL meeting.

Her argument is that the term patriarchy doesn’t actually describe it:

In sum, the concept of patriarchy taken up by Hebrew Bible scholars in the nineteenth century still influences the understanding of Israelite households. We still see references to patriarchy and the appearance of paterfamilias and pater potestas. And the all-inclusive concept of male dominance and concomitant female victimhood, as articulated by second-wave theorists, appears in the publications of many feminist biblical scholars.

But is this persistent appeal to the patriarchal model justified? Perhaps not, for recent developments in three areas—studies of classical society, research on Israelite and biblical women, and third-wave feminist theory—challenge its appropriateness as a descriptor of Israelite society.

You can read the full address here: Carol L. Meyers, President of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. 2013.

While this may induce eye-rolling of some kind, I do think it’s important to acknowledge two key points about this: Firstly, if ancient near eastern family structures are not at all analogous to the family structure of ancient Rome and if ancient Roman family structures are not as father-dominated in practice, then it is simply inappropriate to refer to the Genesis families as a “Patriarchy.”

Secondly, and by way of important application, the shrill screams of “F—- the Patriarchy!” have done much to shape the present connotation of the term “Patriarchy”. And so, apologetically speaking, it’s probably a win for the defense of the Bible against contemporary rancor.

For those of you who are curious, Dr. Hess suggested we use the word “Ancestors”, though I think that swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. I’ll probably push for “forefathers”.