A Word about Life in a Patriarchal Society
We are an independent bunch. As twenty-first century U.S. citizens, we spend our lives swimming in the waters of individualism. But not all cultures are that way. Abraham’s day and culture was patriarchal, meaning that it was ordered around the rule of the father. The father’s rule extended to every area of life for those within his household, which included his immediate family and servants (Abraham’s household was estimated to be about 1,000 people in size; you can check out Genesis 14:14 for starters).
One of the most important things in the patriarchal system was the identification of a male heir who could perpetuate the family line, receive the family estate, manage family affairs, take care of parents in their old age and provide for their proper burial.
The Law Code of Hammurabi (1800 B.C.) provides us with detailed information about how that heir could be determined. For whatever reason, if a man was unable to father a son, he could adopt either a close male relative or anyone of his choosing (consider Genesis 15:2). The one drawback was that this adoption option didn’t allow one’s biological line to continue—which was a very important thing both then and for centuries to come. So the man was allowed to try for a natural-born son through a concubine, the maidservant of the wife (if offered by the wife) or in rarer circumstances, the man could take a second wife. As you might imagine, this is where the laws really get interesting and a bit complex.
This appears to have been a hot topic because the Code of Hammurabi, along with ancient Assyrian and Nuzi marriage contracts, all talk about “what to do if” scenarios.
- If the man’s primary wife gives birth to a son after the servant has given birth to a son (think Ishmael and Isaac), the son of the wife will become primary heir.
- If the wife is not pleased with her maidservant even after the maidservant gives birth, the husband can send the servant away (think Sarah and Hagar).
- If the man has other sons after the primary heir is officially declared then he is to give those sons a gift before sending them away, thus reducing any threat against the primary son’s receipt of the full estate (check out what Abraham did in Genesis 25:5-6).
Okay, so the stories we read in Genesis relate to the culture of that day. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph did not yet have the details of God’s law. All they knew was that God was going to bless them with land, offspring and, through them, bless all people groups on earth. At this point in history, as uncomfortable as it feels, we have to expect them to do what they had been raised to do and think as the culture around them thought.
Here is the BIG difference between us and them: the Patriarchs lived prior to the giving of God’s law; we live in full awareness of God’s law and His offer of redemption in Christ. Their conformity to the pattern of the world around them is understandable, but because of all God has revealed since then, we are uniquely commanded to no longer conform to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).
Let me close with a thought I am pondering. Just as the patriarchal system influenced their actions, our culture of individualism impacts the way we see ourselves, our families, our churches and our world. In what ways might God be challenging you to sit more fully before His revealed Word and allow His Spirit to transform your mind so that you might begin to more clearly see His pattern for your life, your family, your church and your world? Just a thought.
Next time, we’ll look at some of the rather interesting marriage stories and see if we can get things into a clearer focus by looking at them through a patriarchal lens.
Enjoying the journey with you,