After Patriarchy, Part 2: The Story of a Model

Meyers, the feminist scholar, argues that Israel and her sacred texts are not patriarchal, that examination of the texts themselves indicates “patriarchy” is misleading

As a confessional presbyterian and a Reformed theologian, I differ with Professor Meyers on a wide range of matters, in this area and others. These include our views of Scripture, authority, evidence, gender, and ethics. Neither do I find her alternative to patriarchy sufficient, either to move past the problems inherent to the “patriarchy” model or to more faithfully describe the witness of Holy Scripture. I will come to this matter in the next post. Still, I suggest that her analysis is worth our very careful consideration, not least because her work as a highly regarded feminist scholar in biblical studies means her arguments push against the grain of her own scholarly world in a rather fundamental way.

 

If I had a flair for the dramatic, I would say patriarchy died on November 23, 2013.

There is some truth in that claim, though it’s a truth having more to do with the world of scholarship than the everyday realities many people live with. Instead of going that route, then, I will suggest that November 23, 2013 is one of the most important dates in the convoluted story of patriarchy in the world of biblical scholarship. It is at least a date students of the topic should try to remember.

On that date, Carol L. Meyers, Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University, delivered her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Fernando F. Segovia, the SBL Vice-President, introduced Meyers with a truly impressive report of her accomplishments in scholarship over many years. Her address was titled, “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?” (later published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 1 [2014]:8-27; I will refer to the pages of the published article).  She has published on the question in several places, and those familiar with the literature will know Meyers has long been at the forefront of biblical scholarship on gender and the Old Testament. But her 2013 address focused her thinking on the subject in a new way, placing it helpfully against the backdrop of scholarly work in various related fields.

In his introduction, Segovia highlighted several noteworthy features of Meyers’ career in biblical studies. Meyers entered the world of biblical studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the tumultuous heyday of the sexual revolution and political unrest. She started teaching at Duke in 1976, where she has continued to this day, and her now more than forty years of work bear the imprint of the rapidly changing ideology of feminism. “To my mind,” says Segovia,

“she represents an ideal signifier of the times — a product of and an agent in such years of transformation. In terms of faces and voices, she belongs to the first generation of women who break into the patriarchal world of the academy and the field of studies. In terms of method and theory, she stands with that circle of scholars who begin to reach out to other fields of study, such as the social sciences and feminist studies, for grounding and inspiration of the study of biblical antiquity” (5).

Her often-awarded, critically acclaimed, interdisciplinary publications bear this out. Her very many scholarly articles and essays, and particularly her highly influential 1988 study of women’s roles and everyday activities in ancient Israel, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford), and its later revision and expansion as Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (2013), remain important, even standard and representative examples of the best of feminist-oriented readings of the Old Testament. And they have proven valuable and insightful even for those scholars who work very far indeed from feminist ideology.

I introduce her at such length in order to make her credentials clear as a leading scholar shaped by, committed to, and fueling feminism in biblical studies. Arguably, then, as a representative and ground-breaking scholar identified with feminist hermeneutics, Meyers has as much interest as anyone could in the patriarchy reading of the Old Testament. After all, that critical, negative reading of Scripture’s allegedly patriarchal model of home and society is what gave feminist biblical studies its materials, its vision, its very raison d’etre.

And yet Meyers, the feminist scholar, argues that Israel and her sacred texts are not patriarchal, that examination of the texts themselves indicates “patriarchy” is misleading, and that therefore “patriarchy” in scholarly historical and biblical studies should be left behind.

In what follows I will outline Meyers’ reasons for reaching this conclusion, in which she is in fact far from alone, even among feminist scholars. But I will do so not because I believe Meyers represents the way forward for a more faithful understanding of the biblical text (she does propose an alternative which we will explore in our next post), but because such a highly qualified, scholarly voice against the idea of a biblical “patriarchy,” in the context of a programmatic, agenda-setting, state-of-the-question presidential address to SBL, should give us pause. And when we discover in the literature that hers is a conclusion long in the making, and has been voiced by a wide variety of scholars (both “conservative” and “liberal”), the “patriarchy” question becomes its own kind of educational window into biblical topics the wider literature has been exploring fruitfully for the last several decades.

Patriarchy as a Social Science Theory

Put most succinctly, “patriarchy” denotes the social-science concept of male dominance. In most dictionaries, patriarchy is a system of male power or authority in any form of social structure which, either as a matter of principle or only of practice, includes the relative or complete exclusion of women from that system of power. Meyers opens her lecture with a reference to its use as a descriptor in biblical studies for ancient Israel, a use which appears to date only to the late nineteenth century.

Incidentally, this timetable seems to hold true inasmuch as other scholars have noted how the impact of Darwin’s theories included the search for a biological grounding for traditional assumptions regarding the ontological superiority of males.

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