The following post is something I have held to my heart for a couple years now. It’s compromised of archaeology classes, Akkadian classes, ANE classes, ancient warfare research, scribalism research, and women’s issues in the ancient world. I wish I could tell you that you could read this in a textbook. I wish I could tell you that someone has written a book on this topic. I hope that one day, I could be that person who shatters some of the lies we’ve been told in our Old Testament classes.
Everything I will *briefly* touch in this post is there in the biblical text. And once you see it, you see it everywhere. I see it in the opening of the bible when a man “leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife”. I see it when David passes his reign to Solomon. And I see when Mary tells Jesus to turn the water into wine. As I write this, I want to tell Christian girls, those who have struggled just like me, that you don’t have to question the faith just becasue you only see man, after man, after man, serving the Lord in the Bible.
The biblical patriarchy is obvious – you can’t miss it, it’s littered all over the pages of the Bible. But it might surprise you to know that it was the women: the matriarchs, who put it there. They didn’t put a pen to paper- they did something much more influential: they created a culture that relied on remembrance to define them. And the product of that remembrance is the Bible that sits on our shelves.
This week in Genesis we are going to cover a topic that has been touched in the last three weeks: the matriarchy. And we are going to do it by really stepping into culture in a whole new way. And when we do, we will be able to answer this question:
Why did Lot’s daughters sleep with their own father? (GEn. 19:30-38)
Three weeks ago, when I started this series, I explained that Sarai, and her family would have practiced matriliny instead of patriliny. Then, in the past two weeks, I broke down Genesis 16 to explain the true source of the drama that is displayed between Hagar, Sarai, and Abram. And a major part of that explanation is that Sarai was trying to build her own household. It is because of this that Hagar and Sarai end up in a conflict with both women trying to assume the role of matriarch.
But what does this mean? I thought the Old Testament was nothing but a patriarchal society! After all, the Bible has lists upon lists of genealogies that surround men!
But I’m about to debunk what you think you know about the ancient world. Let me explain the most basic family unit in the ancient world. I’m going to make two statements. But the end of this post, you will be able to understand how these two statements are true.
Your mother is the head of your family.
Your father is the head of your clan.
But why is this?
In the ancient world, mankind does not live long. Men would die in their forties if they were lucky. While women who lived beyond childbirth could make it into their fifties if they were lucky.
Both women and men reached puberty at 14 or 15 (they didn’t have high-protein diets and hormones in their food). Girls were wed as soon as they got their period because making children was important and communities wanted to start that as soon as possible. Meanwhile men would continue to apprentice (and go to war). Their young, strong, bodies would be used to better the community while they still had eye-sight and fast-reflexes (remember, there are no glasses, hearing aids, or bone replacements in the ancient world). Only then, in their early twenties when their bodies started to slow down, did men they get married (and that was if they could afford it). This means that husbands were about 10 years older then their wives. (And if your wife died in child-birth, you would take another wife, and now that age gap becomes even wider).
So, once we do the math, we realize that men, who have done hard physical labor their whole lives are going to die in their thirties or forties, leaving behind a wife who is ten years younger with a longer life-expectancy and children who are, at oldest, prepubescent.
And so, these prepubescent children, who stayed home with their mother when they were young, learned the family history from her.
So when the young boys were finally old enough to apprentice and go to war (their rights of passage) their father is either an older man or dead. Therefore, it is the mother who keeps his memory alive – who tells his stories. She doesn’t need to tell her own because she is alive and living with them. Instead, she teaches her children who they are.
And she does this by teaching them who their father was.
This is why the Bible is full of stories about men and genealogies! It’s the women who do the telling, the preserving, the creating of the next generation! Don’t let feminists (or misogynists) tell you that women had no role in the Ancient world! We wouldn’t have much of the early Old Testament without their testimony! Yes, the scribes penned it – but they heard it from their mother, and their mother before them.
Am I trying to downplay the role of men? N0! In fact, the most influential men in a child’s formative years would be their mother’s brothers since they are closer to the age of their sister and haven’t married yet. So, a woman, knowing that the strong men in her children lives are going to be their uncles, would want to keep her children near her own blood family.
So what does this mean culturally? It means that women who are the tellers of the family histories are going to marry within their own clan structure. And a clan is made of a families who share blood through. . . . a patriarch! This allows the family histories to become the same while still maintaining a separate household. (We see this structure in Rachel and Leah sharing a husband.) Then these children will marry one another in order to maintain the identity of the clan and it’s not considered incestuous becasue they all have will have different mothers (AKA: a different family).
Remember, wives are expensive which means only land-owners and tradesman could afford to have wives. The average man did not get married. Instead, he worked for the clan’s patriarch who provided work. And many of these men would be brothers of the wives of the patriarch and they did have influential lives in the family clan which in turn creates a stronger clan.
This is how a patriarchy works.
And if we have a patriarch – there must be someone who knew him best and acted with him: the Matriarch.
I want to reiterate that in this ancient context the men are out in the fields, working in hard labor away from the camp. Meanwhile, the women, who are pregnant or nursing small children stay at camp. And since they are at camp, they manage life inside the camp: cooking, weaving and managing the buying and selling. The enterprise of a household cannot be done alone. Therefore, while the men of a clan answer to the patriarch, there is also a woman that must be answered to – for she is the head of the patriarch’s household.
This means that the matriarch is going to be one of two people:
- If your patriarch is old, she will be the head wife of the patriarch. She works along side him in a way that no one else does. She has been there when he was young, and manages all the other wives underneath her.
- If the patriarch is young, the matriarch will be the mother of the patriarch because she is the one who taught her son, the new patriarch, everything he knows –including the life his own father.
And this is how, in many ways, the matriarch is the most powerful person in a clan. She keeps the histories of both the men and the women. She is the bridge from the past clan leader into the new clan leader. And she, not her husband, will be responsible for finding a wife (AKA: the next matriarch) for her son. Remember, Sarai makes Isaac marry from her own family: Rebekah. And then Rebekah will choose the same thing for her favorite son: Jacob.
I hope this demonstrates why Sarai was so upset with Abram and Hagar (read previous blog post). Because this child of Hagar’s was supposed to be hers to nurture and teach because she was the one running the camp alongside Abram. But with Abram and Hagar in cahoots, Sarai would loose the ability to keep her family legacy alive. With Ishmael following after the ways of Hagar instead of Sarai, Sarai’s voice and familial legacy would be lost. And it would be Hagar’s voice who would teach Ishmeal about Abram. And Sarai would be cut off from her family (and clan) forever.
So what does this mean for Lot’s daughters? Why did they sleep with their father? Because they are women who had the burden of keeping a legacy alive. They had just watched their mother die. Where would they go? Their family was just destroyed in Sodom. They could have chosen Sarai and Abram – they are a part of Sarai’s family through Lot. But they chose to make their own linage instead of joining Abram’s clan. They wanted to keep both their own separate families and their clan alive. So they slept with their father to create a patriarchy out of nothing. And it clearly worked because their children did become great clans that the tribes of Isreal interacted with.
There was a lot in this post – I tried to keep it short and sweet. But I hope that you’ve seen the power of the hidden matriarchy and I hope it stays with you as you read our holy text. There is a reason wisdom and folly are depicted as wisdom in the Proverbs – because wisdom is a feminine force in the ancient world.