Was Ancient Israelite Marriage So Patriarchal After All?

Scripture text: Genesis 2:24

It is an accepted truism in Christian circles that the society of ancient Israel was fundamentally patriarchal. Men ruled their families, their tribes, their villages. Women were second-class citizens.

One of the proof texts often claimed for this view of Israelite society is the story in Genesis 2 about the creation of Eve. God creates Eve by extracting a rib out of Adam’s chest. This seems to suggest that the female is derived from the male and must therefore be subordinate to the male.

That reading carries behind it the authority of none other than the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11, he argues that women should wear veils in the worship assembly for exactly this reason that the woman was created from the male.

Time-hallowed as this reading may be, I have always been troubled by what appears a counter voice in Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (RSV)

This is a reference to the practice of marriage. And in most patriarchal societies, marriage means a woman leaves her birth family and joins the family of her husband. When Rebekah marries Isaac, she leaves her family home in Haran and moves to Canaan to live with her new husband in Abraham’s compound (Genesis 24).

In first-century Judea, the wedding proper was the procession when the bridegroom led his betrothed from her father’s house to his. This is the social context for Jesus’ parable of the 10 wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25).

But in this verse in Genesis, we are told that it is the man who leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. That’s not what I would expect an author infused with deeply patriarchal assumptions to write.

Now the text does not say the husband physically leaves his parents’ home. He may still live with them. Yet…and this is an important yet…in some way he is expected to leave his parents to form a new family entity with his wife.

Marriage counselors will appreciate the psychological wisdom of this statement. Many marriage problems are caused by a husband or a wife bringing their birth family into the new marriage in the form of expectations they hold or psychological bonds and hang-ups that they bring from their birth families. To become one flesh a husband and wife must make a transition from their birth families to the creation of their own new entity.

The ancient Israelite view of marriage may have been patriarchal. Yet, here in this one verse, I wonder if we don’t see the glimmers of an early Hebrew challenge to that social assumption. I’m curious what others of you think.  

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