Is the Bible Patriarchal?

It’s been a while since I blogged about the role of men and women in the family, church and the larger society. Since I last wrote about it, I realised the issue was more complex than I had imagined and so I decided instead to take my time to learn more before I wrote about it again. One thing I observed in my study hiatus from the gender role debate in Christians circles is no matter the position a person took, they all more or less assume some form of patriarchy existing in the Bible as something to be either defended, modified or out right resisted in one way or another. All the major positions, which all make for ridiculously big words, complementarianism, egalitarianism, and the so-called biblical patriarchy, are all oriented in relation to the existence of the social phenomenon known as patriarchy as a given. So for me the pivotal question became “is the Bible patriarchal?” Barely over a day ago, wandering through the massive backlog of unread pages in my RSS feed, I stumbled upon the answer. Andrew Wilson of THINK writes:

Was ancient Israel a patriarchal society? Carol Meyers, from Duke, argues in the Journal of Biblical Literature 133:1 that the answer is no. She identifies the category of “patriarchy” as a nineteenth century, Victorian concept, and then subjects it to critique from three angles: classical studies (which demonstrate that, although legal texts sound hugely restrictive to women, the reality on the ground was more complex), Israelite studies (which, similarly, show women with all sorts of responsibilities and rights within a household context that, in our industrialised and non-household-based society, we are not apt to notice), and feminist studies (which problematise the idea that all early societies were patriarchal, for various reasons). She concludes:

I began with a question, Was ancient Israel a patriarchal society?; and my answer is no, ancient Israel should not be called a patriarchal society, for the term “patriarchy” is an inadequate and misleading designation of the social reality of ancient Israel. I conclude with another question and a brief reply. If the patriarchy model has outlived its usefulness as a social-science model for representing Israelite society, is there another model that can better accommodate the diversity of women’s experiences and acknowledge their control of certain household and society-wide functions? Let me suggest a more recent social-science model. Many anthropologists now invoke the concept of heterarchy. This concept, which has been productively employed by gender archaeologists among others, concedes the existence of hierarchies but does not situate them all in a linear pattern. Rather it acknowledges that different power structures can exist simultaneously in any given society, with each structure having its own hierarchical arrangements that may cross-cut each other laterally. As a far more flexible model than patriarchy, heterarchy is a heuristic tool that perhaps can better accommodate, at least for now, the complexity of gender dynamics and thereby acknowledge that Israelite women were not dominated in all aspects of Israelite society but rather were autonomous actors in multiple aspects of household and community life.


Dr. Carol L. Meyers is an emeritus professor of Old Testament at Duke University, a distinguished archaeologist (think Raiders of the Lost Ark, literally) and former president of the Society of Biblical Literature. In fact she delivered this particular issue was the subject of her presidential address which youncan download and read in full here. You can hear her for yourself below talking about her ground breaking work in feminist studies in the Bible on the issue of patriarchy. Learning about this I realise it has profound implications for the global social debate on gender.

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