The struggle of the patriarchs: from matrilocal marriage to patrilocal

September 26, 2010

“If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” (Abraham to the servant whom he sent to his relatives in Nahor to bring back a wife for Isaac; Genesis 24:8)

In the first bloody battle we see in the Bible over ‘family values’ and the institution of marriage, the ancient Israelites finally succeed in eliminating the last vestiges of matriarchy when they replace matrilocal marriage with a patrilocal form. In the matrilocal marriage, the new husband goes to live with his wife’s family; in patrilocal marriage, the wife follows the husband to live with his family. In this post, we’ll see how the patriarchs struggled to free themselves from matrilocal traditions, though another powerful factor may be at work in their saga as well: In some of the stories chronicling this conflict, in Genesis and Judges, the women in question may have been priestesses, so the tradition may actually be more focused how these men wrested their religious practice from an older legacy of goddess worship, than on the institution of marriage itself.

The men in question are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samson, and peripherally, Jephthah. On Sarah as a priestess, I highly recommend Savina Teubal’s Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (though she talks quite a bit about Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, also). Teubal goes pretty far on not much evidence and I suspect that she’s pushed some of her arguments a bit too far. But much of her book had for me the solid ring of truth and it finally answers some of the most vexing enigmas in the stories of the patriarchs, most notably the weird episodes in which both Abraham and Isaac pass their wives off as sisters and allow them to bed local potentates. One of these dupes (Abimilech) does this with both Sarah and Rebekah; the story pretends that their beauty bewitched him (here we must pass up a fascinating sidebar on the depths of meaning in the Hebrew word for ‘beauty,’ which utterly transcends the superficial connotations of modern mass culture).

The Bible implausibly presents Abimilech playing the fool twice with the same family; many scholars think the second Abimilech was the son of the first to solve the problem of one guy being so dense or so driven by his gonads (though history is full of such fools). Teubal claims that they were priestesses of high status and that a “sacred marriage” was arranged. It’s worth quoting Wikipedia here for some possible background on one version of the sacred marriage between priestess and king in ancient Mesopotamia, the homeland of the matriarchs:

Zagmuk is a Mesopotamian festival celebrated around the winter solstice, which literally means “beginning of the year”. It celebrates the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, over the forces of chaos, symbolized in later times by Tiamat. . .

In Babylon, the battle was acted out at the royal court with the king playing Marduk, and his son-rescuer as Nabu, the god of writing. Once freed from the powers of the underworld, the king would enact the rite of the Sacred Marriage on the 10th day of the ceremony. During this rite, the king (or En, as he was known in Sumer) would perform sexual intercourse with his spouse, normally a high priestess who had been chosen from among the “naditum,” a special class of priestesses who had taken a vow not of celibacy precisely, but of a refusal to bear children. The high priestess was known as the entu, and her ritual act of intercourse with the king was thought to regenerate the cosmos through a reenactment of the primordial coupling of the cosmic parents An and Ki, who had brought the world into being at the dawn of Time. If an eclipse of the sun fell on any of the 12 days of the ceremony, a substitute for the king was put in his place, since it was thought that any evils which might have befallen the king would accrue to the substitute instead. On the last day of the festival, the king was slain so that he could battle at Marduk’s side. To spare their king, Mesopotamians often utilized a mock king, played by a criminal who was anointed as king before the start of Zagmuk, and killed on the last day.

In addition to the prisoner who was killed, it was traditional for one prisoner to be set free during this ceremony to provide balance. Thus, the background for what later became Easter is clearly visible here, for during Christ’s crucifixion the thief Barabbas was set free and Christ was crucified at the behest of the crowd.

So, as a pastoral nomad chieftain of a very large tribe, with lots of people and animals sojourning on another sovereign’s land at his pleasure, Abraham may not have been in a position to deny the Abimilechs access to his wife/sister, the priestess, who, in Sarah’s case, was famously childless (but by choice, according to Teubal, not because she was barren). The alternative for Abraham would have been some form of service, to pay for the privilege of pasturage and passage. (The word trespass comes from this necessity of pastoral economy, that one passage with your flocks across another person’s land is agreed to by contract/covenant, and this must automatically include a second passage, because you have to bring your flocks back; but a third pass—tres pass—is a crime.)

Throughout the stories of the patriarchs, their matriarchs have extraordinary power in the relationship, beginning with the fact that the patriarchs first live with them among their families. Jacob lives with Laban for fourteen years before he is able to escape, doing so under cover, and when he does, his wife Rachel ‘steals’ the household gods from her father. In fact, says Teubal, if I remember correctly, they actually belonged to her. This was no theft at all, but a working priestess taking the tools of her trade. Abraham buys a tomb for Sarah when she dies, and he is buried in her tomb, not vice versa.

But all three men do in fact escape the demands of matrilocal marriage by literally leaving with nowhere to go, even if they do not completely escape the power of their women. Centuries later, however, matrilocal marriage still persists among the ancient Israelites. This is most vividly illustrated in the saga of Samson in the book of Judges, another fellow portrayed as ruled by his sex drive. He might have been, but things are not so simple as this poor fellow seems. We still have powerful priestesses as partners, we still have the ancient myths of Mesopotamia as backdrop, and this time, we have a dramatic, bloody climax to a story intended to end the debate. The Samson saga is so rich with both humor and human drama, with both mythic dimensions and theological instruction, with narrative power and poetic symbol, and with riddles—riddles both sacred and profane, borrowed from folklore and yet loaded with mythico-religious meaning—there is so much going on in these three chapters of Judges that I plan to write a whole book about it, probably prose fiction—a ‘historical’ fantasy novel.

But we must leave Samson for the next posting. In his tragic story, the Bible seeks to close the first debate over the institution of marriage in the Bible—who will be head of household, the husband or his father-in-law?

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