Pursuing Partnership: The Blessed Alliance – Week 7
The Genesis of Patriarchy
By Carolyn Custis James
An obstetrical nurse who served in India recalled that, “When a son was born, a deafening jubilant celebration exploded from family and friends.” However, when the newborn was a girl, in place of noisy celebrating, there was only a stony silence. Worse still, she often had to persuade the baby’s mother to hold her newborn daughter. Historically, and despite medical research that proved the father determines a child’s sex, patriarchy blames the wife for failing to produce a son.
In her book Nine Parts of Desire, journalist Geraldine Brooks, tells the story of a young Palestinian girl who was the last of five daughters. Her parents named her Tamam. It meant “enough” or “finished” and signaled their desperation for the run of unwanted girls to end. Another twentieth century Palestinian father of daughters revealed the crux of the matter when he wailed, “I am nothing in this village without a son!”
Patriarchy (“father rule”) is a cultural social system in which boys are prized and girls don’t count. According to patriarchy, sons perpetuate their father’s name for another generation. Daughters marry and leave to build another man’s legacy. Barren women in the Bible aren’t begging God for daughters or simply for a baby. They are pleading with God for sons. A woman’s value is determined by the men in her family—her father, brother, husband, and especially her sons. Within patriarchy, sons are the gold standard for gauging the true value of a wife. Family survival depends on producing sons for the next generation. The highest accolade for a woman is to be “the mother of seven sons.”
The prominence of patriarchy on the pages of the Bible and the fact that beginning with Abraham, God chose patriarchs living in a patriarchal culture means patriarchy matters.
It has led many simply to assume the Bible is advocating patriarchy.
But patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”
Patriarchy (“father rule”), like every other human social system, is a far cry from the world as God intended (even in their most benign forms). Right away patriarchy undermines God’s creation vision, and the destructive impact is increasingly obvious.
First, patriarchy corrupts God’s vision of human rule. Instead of ruling jointly—outward over all creation and under God’s reign—humans conspire to rule over each other. God even warned the woman that her husband would seek to “rule over” her. But the impulse to rule over won’t stop with her. Before we reach the end of Genesis, men are ruling over other men, and both men and women own, enslave, and mistreat other image bearers. Patriarchy will ultimately escalate into unspeakable abuses of power and cruel domination over others that define human history.
Second, patriarchy diminishes the ezer-kenegdo. Even in the biblical text, the ezer begins to recede as men dominate the story. Only 10% of biblical characters are female. The woman’s job description narrows from “ruling and subduing” to motherhood alone. “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living” (3:20). Motherhood is a vital calling—a strategic kingdom front line. But God’s calling on his daughters is much broader.
God defined the ezer-warrior as indispensable. At creation, God emphatically declared that to be true and that for the man to move forward without her in any endeavor is “not good.” Although after humans rebel, the role of female tends to be diminished, among the few women who do appear we see some of the Bible’s most powerful ezer-warriormoments and produce glimpses of the Blessed Alliance in action.
Third, patriarchy proves destructive in men’s lives too. Primogeniture—described as the linchpin of patriarchy—privileges a man’s firstborn son. The firstborn son becomes something of a crown prince in the family. He is his father’s pride and joy. He will build his fathers legacy, perpetuate his father’s name for another generation, and expand his father’s standing and estate in the community. He will inherit twice as much as his younger brothers and has authority and priority over them.
In Genesis, primogeniture is tearing families apart. It is notable that in each new generation God will overthrow this patriarchal centerpiece. From Cain and Abel, to the sons of Jacob, God consistently bypasses the firstborn and chooses a younger brother. He chooses Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Tensions among Jacob’s sons reach a fever pitch when Jacob favors Joseph (son #11), bypassing ten older brothers. They are outraged and plot to kill him. Primogeniture ignites power struggles, murder, human trafficking, criminal cover-ups, and searing parental grief.
Although patriarchy is not the Bible’s message, however, patriarchy still matters because it is the cultural backdrop to the Bible’s message. Understanding patriarchy is key to unlocking the power of that message.
As a result, every time we open our Bibles we need to remind ourselves that we aren’t reading an American or western book. We are foreigners to the world of the Bible. Without significant help from people who understand patriarchy from the inside, we will misunderstand entirely and/or diminish the potency of the Bible’s message.
But, when we read and study the Bible against the patriarchal cultural backdrop, we will discover that the Bible’s gospel message is far more subversive, revolutionary, and transformative than we ever imagined.
In subsequent segments, we will see God’s ezers in action and witness the power of the Blessed Alliance.
 Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), 51.
 Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept Into the Currents of a Changing World, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015, 31.