Patriarchy, the grounding term of both conventional masculinity and male hegemony, has a distinctly biblical resonance in our culture writ large, but perhaps especially for those Jews for whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob populate our personal imaginations as if they were mythic figures from our own families, beloved and flawed heroes who live in the web of familiar and familial lore, in relationship with equally familiar mothers, wives, and siblings (mostly brothers). Endlessly reinterpreted, from children’s books to High Holy Day sermons, from Renaissance paintings to TV miniseries, and for some of us in midrashim and fiction, the bequest of the patriarchy from father to son until Jacob begets the sons and grandsons from whom the eponymous tribes and lands of Israel will forever be named, is an internalized, dynamic saga.
The biblical patriarchy presumes paternal authority, primogeniture, and subservience of wives and mothers to the driving principle of Genesis: to create the lineage of the people Israel through a male line privileged by birth order and God. In story after story, however, patterns of barren mothers who conceive through divine intervention (when human fathers prove inadequate) and their younger sons who subvert norms of inheritance (against the expectations of their fathers) reveal an unconscious cultural anxiety about the power of mothers and wives to thwart patriarchal prerogatives. The controlling violence of patriarchy proceeds less from confident male authority than from the insecurity and sense of vulnerability exposed in our familiar biblical origin stories.
The birth stories in Genesis subvert the norms that undergird the social fabric. And younger sons who are oedipal victors (boys who align with their mothers at the expense of their fathers) inherit the narrative future because God, in cahoots with the Matriarchy, together overwhelm the preferences of the human father and the patriarchal system that the father represents. Positioned as eavesdroppers, listening in at the tent flaps of power, women are divinely sanctioned agents of small, consequential rebellions against rules. In the manner of carnival, however, these challenges to norms actually work to reinforce norms by their clear exceptionality.
Although these stories conform to the punishments for eating from the tree of knowledge, with working fathers and childbearing mothers, and most of all, the subordination of wives and daughters to husbands and fathers, patriarchal reversal narratives reveal the anxiety that there is, in fact, nothing natural about either these arrangements, or the sexual binary, or heteronormativity. The unjust consequences of that anxiety are, I would argue, the building blocks of our civilization. At the heart of the original patriarchal narratives is evidence that women in kitchens and bedrooms conspire with God to compromise men’s supremacy. With threats to reproductive rights and commodification of female bodies in places of high authority, we stand again on the threshold of terrifying efforts to confine women in controlled domestic spaces, kitchens and bedrooms.
After the promises of numberless progeny early in Genesis, the reader imagines that for umpteen generations men will beget men, and firstborn sons will be privileged inheritors. Except, whenever a hero is distinguished with a birth story (Isaac; Jacob; Joseph; Samuel; Samson), his mother benefits from God’s intervention. Against the backdrop of fertile women, often cowives, the mother of a hero is either too old to have a child or barren (never mind that a “barren mother” is self-contradictory) such that God reasserts Himself as Creator, with a miraculous intervention that will make the impossible, and therefore heroic, baby possible. Superficially, this pattern suggests that as in Eden, God is again jealous of women’s procreative power and asserts Himself in history to authorize heroes. But more deeply, it is the human father who is the loser in the textual unconscious: mother and God work together to create Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Samuel, Samson. God manages what the frustrated human husband/father could not accomplish, a frustration signaled by several of these patriarchal figures’ expressed distress that they are not enough for their beloved wives. Jacob angrily rejects Rachel’s blameful demand to give her children, asking whether he is in God’s place (Genesis 30:2), and Elkanah demands of Hannah: “Aren’t I as good as ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8). Elkanah’s question may be rhetorical, but the answer is, clearly, “no.”
The excluding conspiracy between matriarchs and God does not end with the interruption of her barrenness. Sarah’s decision to banish Hagar and Ishmael because she sees Ishmael and Isaac “playing” has God’s endorsement. Abraham’s preferences are irrelevant and unnoted. God says, simply: “Listen to Sarah.” Rebecca, like the matriarch mother-in-law before her, positions herself at the tent flaps to overhear the conversations between men in power. When Rebecca overhears her old, blind husband Isaac (blindness, a metaphor for impotence or curtailed male sexual power) tell Esau to hunt fresh game, she contrives to replace Esau with the younger, smoother son, famously, like Isaac himself, a man of the tent who loves his mother. It is Rebecca (ambitious for her favorite) who makes the stew and dresses Jacob up to mislead Isaac. Jacob expresses reluctance, a fear of being caught, but Rebecca speaks with the authority we later come to associate with Jewish mothers, promising that she will take the blame and assume the curse (Genesis 27:12–13). When her boys were in utero, God told the mother which son would be preferred, and Rebecca honors God’s intentions by manipulating Isaac. Because Jacob will go on to marry sisters who are her own nieces, Rebecca is the genetic winner of Genesis in tribal Israel.
The larger biblical context confirms this paradigm of preference for the younger, smaller, smarter son and the reversal of primogeniture: showy Joseph is hated by his older, outdoorsmen brothers, but Joseph’s dream visions are fulfilled when the brothers bow before his political authority; King David is conspicuously the youngest, smallest of his brothers, victor over a giant with his slingshot; and Solomon, too, is the son of the preferred wife Bathsheba, the wise son who inherits the kingdom because his mother works with the prophet to guarantee his pride of place, over David’s treacherous older sons. The masculinity and male authority of the patriarchy is thus undermined at its origins. But we should not be confused into believing that the pact between God and mothers and the manipulation of husbands by wives signals female power. Instead, it signals fear: fear that women—as mothers, wives, or seductresses—usurp male authority. This is the Hegelian master-slave dialectic: mothers, wives, and slaves are imaginatively invested with threatening sexual power to justify their containment.
When we hear the word patriarch, we may picture Abraham from a coloring book—large, white-bearded, strong, in control, a great man of God—from whom all future patriarchs and the patriarchy itself descends. The meanness and violence of patriarchy, the oppression of women, the rigid classification of humanity according to gender and family roles comes not from this empowered version of the Abrahamic patriarchy, but rather from the diminished Abraham who was admonished to “listen to Sarah.”