Patriarchy and the Hebrew Bible by Carol Meyers

Patriarchy may seem like an appropriate term to describe the ancient Israelites, the most prominent group in the Hebrew Bible. But patriarchy is not a biblical term, and its relevance as a description of Israelite social structures can be challenged.

What does “patriarchy” mean?

“Patriarchy” comes from the Greek words for “rule” and “father.” It usually means that the father had absolute control of families or clans. By extension, it also indicates male control of an entire society, with women excluded from community positions. The idea of patriarchy, as applied to the Hebrew Bible, is derived from social-science concepts. Anthropologists (e.g., Lewis Henry Morgan) began using the term in the nineteenth century. Drawing mainly on official legal texts from ancient Greece and Rome, they asserted that the father in classical societies was all powerful, controlling everything and everyone in his household. Influenced by these anthropological theories, biblical scholars began applying them to ancient Israel. They proclaimed that Israelite fathers had absolutely authority over their households. By the mid-twentieth century, drawing upon social science ideas about sociopolitical systems (e.g., Max Weber), scholars assumed that Israelite society as a whole was controlled by men.

Was ancient Israel a patriarchal society?

These ideas about biblical or Israelite patriarchy have now been challenged. Recent studies of ancient Rome, which consult many sources, not only legal texts, dispute the idea of the all-powerful father. They show that women actually had control over many aspects of household life and also had some public roles, even in religion. A similar development has occurred in the study of ancient Israel. Using sources other than the Hebrew Bible, studies show that women had considerable household power. Specifically, archaeological research and ethnographic comparisons have provided information about the farming households in which most Israelites lived. Women had a key role in the household economy as producers of food, clothing, and tools that could not be obtained elsewhere. As a result, they had control over many household activities. That is, they were household managers.

Several biblical passages reflect these revised ideas. Abigail (1Sam 25), a woman with access to resources, uses them cleverly to save her household; she acts without consulting her husband and gives orders to the household staff. The Shunammite woman (2Kgs 4:8-37; 2Kgs 8:1-6) also acts autonomously in inviting a prophet to her house, reconfiguring household space, moving her family to escape a drought, and negotiating with the king about family property. Micah’s mother (Judg 17) and the “strong woman” (NRSV “capable wife”) of Proverbs (Prov 31:10-31) show similar agency. In addition, information in the Hebrew Bible calls into question the idea that women were excluded from community life. About twenty different community roles were held by women. These included leadership positions, for example: Deborah, prophet and judge (Judg 4-5); Miriam, prophet (Exod 15:20-21); and the woman of Abel of Beth-maacah, sage (2Sam 20:14-22).

This challenge to patriarchy as an appropriate term for the Israelites does not mean that women and men were equal. Men still dominated, for example, in most community roles. Rather, it acknowledges that calling ancient Israel patriarchal prevents us from seeing the many ways that women contributed to family and community life. Moreover, because that term focuses on gender, it obscures other inequalities––based on social class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and/or age––in the world of the Hebrew Bible.

Carol Meyers, "Patriarchy and the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 18 Aug 2022]. Online:



Carol Meyers
Professor, Duke University

Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Emerita Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include: commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; an edited reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2013).


A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

male dominance in families and in society

one who studies human cultures and their development

the study of peoples and their cultures

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

scientific study of human society and social relationships

1Sam 25

Death of Samuel
1Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah.
Then David got up and went down to the wil ... View more

2Kgs 4:8-37

Elisha Raises the Shunammite's Son
8One day Elisha was passing through Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to have a meal. So whenever he passed ... View more

2Kgs 8:1-6

The Shunammite Woman's Land Restored
1Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Get up and go with your household, and settle whereve ... View more

Judg 17

Micah and the Levite
1There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah.2He said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver that were ... View more

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

Judg 4-5

Deborah and Barak
1The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.2So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan ... View more

Exod 15:20-21

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

2Sam 20:14-22

14Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Bichrites assembled, and followed him inside.15Joab's forces came and besieg ... View more

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