There is another way of appreciating the stories of women in the patriarchal setting if one casts aside a preoccupation with the oppression of women. The stories are legend like tellings of the origins of civilized familial relations, or at least what would seem required to make family relations recognizably current in the court of an oriental despotism such as the Persia of the Exile. How, the redactoress might have imagined, could this primitive people have moved themselves beyond being primitive in those sphere of activities recognized as being under the influence of women? The redactoress is remarkably insightful about what makes families workable as distinctive units caught up in the larger social structure.
It is Jacob’s mother, after all, who sees to it that Jacob is the one who inherits leadership of Isaac’s tribe. In what might be a garbled conflation of the practices of succession, he is the one who gets his father’s blessing, first because he “bribed” his brother with a bowl of porridge to relinquish his right, which shows that Ishmael was not suited for the responsibility, and then because Jacob got the liturgically appropriate blessing of his weak sighted father by clothing himself in a skin so as to seem as hairy as his elder brother. A ritual made with a lie might not seem to be legitimate, but his mother knew which of her sons should inherit and so had suggested the stratagem. As a prediction of things to come, this foretells a time where legitimacy is symbolized by ritual but not created by it. Rather, the right of succession is established by the wisdom of the mother (or, more broadly, the elders) who know who might be more capable. Succession is a family matter rather than a ritualistic one.
Sarah, for her part, is usually understood as having had no good reason to be jealous of Hagar. Fathering Abraham’s child would not make Sarah subject to abuse but was akin to a tribal leader having multiple wives some of whom bore children who would, like Ishmael, not be able to inherit his father’s holdings. Rather, it seemed that Hagar and Ishmael lived at peace within the tribe for a good number of years before Sarah raised an objection to her based on the fact that Hagar acted haughty. That might have been dismissed as a personal failing or of no great moment but it led to her being sent to a death in the desert rather than some form of relocation were it not for God having intervened to save the woman and child.
So what is going on here? Sarah can be understood as introducing something new into the structure of families. She is demanding deference on the part of servants to replace the hauteur that might accompany being a second wife who has limited but real privileges. There are not degrees of legitimacy but only legitimacy and illegitimacy, however much certain favors are provided to the illegitimate. And why would Ishmael have not been a threat to Isaac? After all, he presumably had been conceived not for companionship but for some function he would play in tribal life. Otherwise, Sarah would not have suggested the conception take place.
The story of Lot’s daughters can also be considered as introducing something new into social life, or at least ratifying what would only seem proper: a connection between morality and modesty. This is a theme and insight that reaches back to Adam and Eve who reveal that they have eaten of the tree of knowledge because they now know themselves to be naked. Why would this be the fundamental insight of the First Family upon their arriving at moral consciousness? Perhaps it was that clothing is what differentiates them from the animals; perhaps it was an awareness of the power of sexuality over even a mind awakened to consciousness. Whatever the reason, the association between hiding vital or “private” body parts is regarded as fundamental to being fully human. This is certainly true of those tribes revealed to us by anthropology. Breasts in some tribes may go uncovered, but pubic areas never are, and skin and faces are disfigured by scarring, tattoos, and unnatural developments of ears and lips and there is also circumcision as a way to make people not like animals. Primitive peoples therefore also have a sense of modesty.
This modesty is given very modern meaning by the story of Lot’s daughters. Notice that they go into their father separately, so that by this time it is to be assumed that sex goes on in private, though when that started taking place is lost in prehistory. Moreover, they each go into him properly clothed for a sexual encounter: they are wearing what married women do when they go into their husbands. The costume is alluring and also legitimizes what is to take place. So the daughters are doing their best to adopt sexual decorum to their present situation, and that means they have preserved their modesty, that understood to mean not having revealed themselves when it was inappropriate to reveal themselves, which is as good a definition as any of nudity as opposed to pornography. We get naked in front of our doctors and husbands because that is an appropriate occasion for doing so, even as it is not appropriate for a stranger to look up a woman’s skirt. Even nuns can privilege married women as being modest, however different are the standards for the two roles.
The story of Lot’s daughters also provides a deep insight into the nature of a secular world, one in which God is not apparent but whose occasional appearances are troubling at the least and often enough apocalyptic. The early commentators saw this well enough even if they used it as a way to excuse Lot’s daughters for their transgressions. But, again, fix on the facts provided. Faced with a world in which mankind had presumably been destroyed, they clear headedly took action to restore humanity. They did not wait for God to tell them what to do, as Noah had. They are very different from Judith, who insists that her seduction of the general she would assassinate did not cross the line into sexual intercourse, and so become an immoral action. Lot’s daughters are willing to flaunt decorum. They just do what has to be done to accomplish their practical end. Means are to be evaluated in terms of the ends sought, and here the ends are so significant, nothing less than yet another restoration of the human race, that failing to do what has to be done seems like prudery.
Let’s put in a comparison to the role of women in the age of the patriarchs. What happens when major decisions are left in the hands of men? Consult the story of Dinah, a daughter of Jacob who wishes to marry Shechem. Her brothers turn down the offer whereby an entire people will become circumcised and so become part of Dinah’s tribe. Instead, Jacob’s sons kill every one of them as punishment for having seduced Dinah and when Jacob returns home, he decides that his tribe will have to move on, remaining nomads, rather than settle down and so become like other tribes. Ancient commentators as well as modern ones regard what might seem a genocidal punishment as required by justice or at least as a necessary action for the maintenance of a people.
The story can be read in quite a different way. The brothers pursue vengeance even though they were offered far more than they could expect in compensation for the rape-- offered, indeed not only a solution that would meet Dinah’s needs but also the subsequent history of Israel. The brothers disparage covenants with God already undertaken and those that would be undertaken. By allowing the brothers to pursue vengeance as an ultimate goal, the story points out the futility of vengeance and how it compromises the people who collectively pursue it.
The rape of Dinah’s is reported by the biblical authors in one sentence that does not go into motives or details or whether the rape could have been avoided or circumvented if Dinah had not travelled about among the strange tribe or had tried to talk Shechem out of it. Nor does the story deal with the rape itself, to isolate or immortalize it, or to provide it as a frozen moment just before it happened so as to emphasize the severity of the crime. There is no attempt to revive the rape, to re-experience the act so that it can become the source of memory by recreating the emotions that were felt at the moment of the crime. Rather, the story moves on to what happens after the rape. This movement of the story so directly to the aftermath is a way of saying that the event was not as important as the negotiations and vengeance which came afterwards.
Shechem says to his father that he loves Dinah. This is the first time that word has been used in the Bible, which had previously referred only to sex and modesty and people lying with one another. The Vulgate translation catches this idea when it refers to Shechem as “cleaving” to Dinah, their souls attracted to one another. So this is a man who loves the woman he rapes. How that complexity of feeling is possible is never explored, only the problems it creates for him and his family and the family of the woman who, we later learn, is living with him.
Shechem turns to his father for help. He says he wants to marry Dinah. One might expect that the father would be willing to arrange a shotgun marriage, though even that would be a move to a higher order of marriage, where a girl taken out of wedlock is legitimized. But that would be a good solution in that the son would get the woman he wants, his own family would avoid conflict with a powerful and aggrieved family, and the bride would come at a cheap price because her family would want her married off quickly.
There is no father in Joseph’s family to deal with the negotiations. The brothers are more hot-headed than the father might be. Shechem makes a substantial offer right off, which suggests that he is not trying to get off cheap. He will allow them to set the bride-price; he will allow them to live among them as part of a consolidated tribe rather than as owners of only a particular piece of land; their children will intermarry and so the two people will be merged. All this to settle one rape.
Jacob’s sons, the Bible says, negotiate “deviously”. Now that is hard to do because the idea of negotiation includes the idea that you do not provide your final price right off and that you provide only partial information about what is being traded so as to conclude a deal that is advantageous as possible to yourself. The sons still manage to be devious and so make this a false negotiation. They may already have decided to kill Shechem and his brothers and so anything they say is a false negotiation. They are also devious in that they appear to be making an offer when they are not because of the way their counter-demand is worded. They say that they cannot settle down among the uncircumcised. Shechem, because he is so smitten with love, takes that as the hurdle the negotiation must overcome. And so they undergo circumcision presuming that to be what has to be done to amalgamate the tribes. It may seem foolish not to have spelled out whether this is a sufficient condition for a settlement. Shechem and his people are either naive or simply characters in an exemplary tale where one side goes to unreasonable lengths to show itself worthy just so as to emphasize how unworthy is Jacob’s tribe. But since what is being offered is nothing less than the consolidation of the tribes, it might seem unsuitable to look too closely at the details, while that would be acceptable if one were simply negotiating the terms of sale of a parcel of land. No consolidation would be possible if it depended on a haggling point by Jacob’s sons. But Jacob’s sons do kill every one of Shechem’s people, including the women and children.
The horror of such an act is established in three ways. Dinah’s brothers are so comprehensive in their vengeance, killing the innocent along with the guilty, that there can be little claim of justice. The brothers also take Dinah away from the house in which she had settled. That shows they were not doing her any good while a marriage would have made her a respectable woman. And, third, they kill while the Shechemites were still in pain from their circumcisions, which is a sign of the good faith of the victims and the bad faith of the killers because, one would think, a holy condition is not to be violated any more than are the prayers of Claudius.
Jacob, when apprised of these activities, does not dwell on them, does not scold his sons, but reaches for consequences. He understands that he and his sons will have to move on before the assembled relations of those murdered gather themselves to revenge what has happened and present a force that Jacob cannot prevail against. What this means, more grandly, is that Jacob and his tribe are spiritual wanderers and not merely nomads in that they are unwilling to amalgamate with another people and settle down. The peculiarity of the Israelites as a set of wanderers is established as a result of a crime, just as the exile of Cain was the mark of a crime.
Why should his sons have not incorporated these others, Jacob asks? The answer is brief and frightening. “They had turned their sister into a whore.” This is an overstatement because Shechem was willing to marry her and she may have been disgraced but was not permanently disgraced. Her brothers were so focussed on the insult that was past that they could not deal with possible futures or evaluate options in the present. That condemnation also serves as an understated tagline. It is anomalous and unanswered as if it needed no answer when the whole story was about why it is a false way to cast the story rather than a summary of what had to be. That leads to the moral of the story, which is not that Jacob’s sons had reason to be stiff-necked, but that people given to vent their rage rather than their reason will remain a characteristic of the Hebrew people, down to and past the time when they so soon mistrust Moses that they worship a golden calf, and it is this that leads them to suffer again and again, driven out of one land into another.
The Cain and Abel story is another story that shows how brothers can badly mishandle social arrangements. That is not always the case, mind you. Abraham and Lot, his cousin, are able to divide their families so as not to eventually come into conflict with one another. But the only solution for Cain and Abel is murder. Cain is an agriculturalist and so offers plants as a tribute to God while Abel is a pastoral nomad and so offers animal sacrifices. God judges that sometimes the efforts of agriculturalists turn out well and sometimes they do not. God punishes Cain for killing Abel by saying that Cain has to become a nomad. Cain regards this as more than he can bear because it means exile from his way of life and because a wanderer will be killed for having attacked his own kinsman. God says Cain will not be killed and establishes a law that whoever kills him will suffer sevenfold, which suggests that there is already a cash equivalence for the loss of a life. Cain goes off and founds a city.
The Cain and Abel story evokes a sense of people even more primitive than those that will be found in the Noah story who, as has been noted, have a settled way of life complete with vineyards. That is because there does not yet seem to have developed at the time of Cain and Abel a sense of the division of labor in society. Why can’t pastoralists and agriculturalists get along, each engaged in producing what can gainfully be traded with the other? At least sheepherders and ranchers in the Old West had a reason for their distrust of one another: sheep ate the roots and so made the land not fit to be grazed by cattle.if it had never occurred to these two tribes that they could exchange products with one another and so let each other live. That makes them very primitivAccording to Talcott Parsons, the family, over time and in general, becomes autonomous of the institutions that surround it and from which it emerges. That is different from the view that the family is the fundamental unit of social structure, the nuclear version of a community of families. Durkheim makes us sense the family as always ratifying what the community does. Families endorse and perpetuate group values and are overwhelmed by appeals to patriotism or whatever the larger society throws their way except to the extent that the family is already attuned to those values. Parsons’ alternative theory is that families take on the ability to administer the functional prerequisites on their own, and that is what it means to say that the family is autonomous.
Apply this to the patriarchal families. Abraham may take onto himself the duty imposed by God to deal with Isaac as a sacrifice. The duties of the family as a unit, on the other hand, are initiated by women. Sarah sees to it that the internal structures of the family are designed by her and instituted for the family insofar as her family, which is Abraham’s family, is to be distinguished from the tribe of shepherds which it employs. Rachel sees to it that the line of succession is determined by rituals that answer to the needs of the family rather than just to the rituals themselves. Abraham sees to it that his herds and those of Lot are separated so that the two families do not come into conflict, but it is Lot’s daughters who see to it that the interests of the family in the form of its continuity are seen to even if that means having to put aside decorum for the sake of necessity.
Women attend to different things than do men: they deal with the internal dynamics of the family rather than the relation of the family to its externalities, whether that is God, or conflict with other tribes, or the need to bring all of Jacob’s sons together to the land of Egypt so as to please the one who acts in the Pharaoh's name and who turns out to be their brother. The family saga of the patriarchs has been made into a story that feeds on itself, each generation trying to sustain itself against the surrounding environment, as when Dinah’s brothers make sure that the sons of Jacob are not absorbed into a larger community, and then, having preserved their self definition, the Israelites, as we shall see in a discussion of “Exodus”, have to come to terms with having been too long visitors in the country of others. Why do these people insist on being on their own?