I have been in many discussions among Christians where the patriarchy was discussed as one of the earliest sins. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are considered patriarchs, and some consider them oppressors. They acted within the traditions and contexts of their time. One can certainly find situations in the book of Genesis in which the patriarchs are oppressive, cowardly, and unjust, and there are also occasions when they behave as righteous people.
When we discuss patriarchy and matriarchy in ancient times and today, it is helpful to have a mutual definition. Patriarchy is the system when most of the major decisions in a family are made by men, while matriarchy is the system when most of the major decisions are made by women. As I read Genesis, I am aware that I come from a specific ethnic context. In fact, one can argue that the entire Latin context (French, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish) is patriarchal. If you come into a gathering of Romanians, patriarchy is very visible. Men are seated first at the table while the women are still in the kitchen. Sometimes the entire meal is served without the women ever coming to the table. My wife is American born and raised, and this tradition was a great shock to her when we moved to Chicago where I served in a bilingual church.
However, when you study culture at a deeper level, the patriarchy is less definitive than it may appear. The man is often the head of the house, and words that describe courage are derived from man/husband while descriptors of gentility and care are more feminine. However, a frequent joke in these cultures is that the man may be the head, but the woman is the neck, and the neck turns the head. For many families, there is a public perception that the man always makes the decisions. In private however, there is more discussion and both the husband and the wife may be open to persuasion.
While I have been an egalitarian and a feminist since my seminary days in the early seventies, I find that both patriarchy and matriarchy are used well and are used to damage others in the book of Genesis. Sarah’s beauty is described often. Her husband Abraham was afraid that her beauty will make her tempting to the local royalty, so he lied to prevent her being taken away. The Bible tells us that Sarah called Abraham my lord, but she was able to turn Abraham in the direction that she wanted, sometimes even against the promise of God. Sarah knew that God told them that they would have a child of promise, but she thought God was tarrying too long and advised Abraham to sleep with her servant so Abraham would have an heir. Abraham knew God’s promise, but he followed a custom of that time so he would not displease his wife. When Hagar had Abraham’s child, Sarah despised Hagar and sent her away twice. Both Abraham and Sarah made decisions to gain or keep control and power over their situation.
Isaac seems like a better patriarch because we know less about him. He is in between the more glamorous patriarchs–Abraham and Jacob. Isaac’s servant was dazzled by the beauty of Rebekah when he met her at the well. Isaac and Rebekah’s relationship seems solid for a time. But when Isaac wanted to give his blessing to their son Esau, Rebekah went into deceitful mode and tricked her blind husband. Trickery or deceit seems to be a part of the family culture. Their son Jacob received the blessing, but he had to run for his life. He spent a great part of his life away from his family before coming back to ask for forgiveness.
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Jacob lived within his culture, so he was a polygamist who married two sisters. Each sister was accompanied by a servant, so Jacob was actually married to four women. It seems that God intervened by making Rachel barren, while Leah had four sons. Leah hoped that she would be loved by Jacob because she gave him sons, but Rachel was Jacob’s favorite. When she eventually gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, they became the favorite sons. Jacob favored Joseph and made him special clothes; this did not endear Joseph to his brothers who sold him into slavery.
The patriarchal families of Scripture do not jump off the page as model families. The best that we can say about them (and then about us) is that the families are models in the making. The men ruled in a certain way, but the women also had their ways of gaining power and control. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel knew how to use their beauty and charm to get what they wanted. I have heard preachers preach that Isaac and Rebekah are great examples of a monogamous family. That is true, but they had problems with rivalry between their sons and there is no way around the fact that Rebekah deceived her husband. She taught her son to lie to achieve a blessing.
Edith Schaeffer, the wife of well-known 20th century evangelical apologete Francis Schaeffer, was of the opinion that every woman can charm her husband. While hundreds of students came to see the great theologian, he would have been a very lonely professor without the wife who created their beloved home L’Abri in the Swiss Alps. More than that, Edith invited other couples to come live with them so that they could see how Christian homes are formed. The Schaeffers ran their household outside the bounds of patriarchy and matriarchy, with both making decisions and Francis teaching future historians while Edith taught young couples.
After 50 years in the ministry, I am convinced that patriarchal, matriarchal, complementarian, and egalitarian styles can work well if the two people involved are committed to improving and refining their relationships. I have heard people piously say that they will bring 50% to their relationship and their spouse will bring their 50% and together they will make a perfect 100%. It sounds great but it is very unrealistic. My advice has always been to bring your whole self – the good, the mediocre, and the less desirable. Bring your patriarchy and your matriarchy. Learn how to work with one another. Just as there are no perfect couples within the pages of Scripture, there are no perfect families today. We must all commit to learning and improving our relationships with guidance from the Lord.