Patriarchy and Matriarchy        

The paper that appears below was presented at the SUNSTONE SYMPOSIUM of 23-26 August 1989, Salt Lake City, Utah.  It was not published, hence publication rights are the author's.

This paper was presented just a few days after my father's death.  My father loved the books I had given him by Hugh Nibley.  He was as dazzled by the man's depth of knowledge and his astuteness with ancient texts, languages and lore as I was.  

I told my father I had sent an article critical of a recent (at that time) article by Nibley, to both Nibley (for comment) and to the SUNSTONE SYMPOSIUM (for acceptance).  He was not so sure that I should give this paper, since it was critical of Professor Nibley and Nibley was also scheduled to speak at this symposium.  He thought I was looking for a confrontation, and that was not good, not nice.

I said we should discuss this when we saw each other again.  But my next view of him was of his ashes in an urn.  

In addition to writing this paper, I had also gone to the University of Chicago library in my spare time and looked at some citations about the eternal marriage concept in Egyptian codexes (I looked at English translations of works that Nibley had translated himself).  

I found a good citation for one that was missing from his book on the life of Abraham (see citation 6, below) that mentioned the subject, but I also found that the English translation I was reading did not say what Nibley said it said.  I wrote to Nibley suggesting fixes for a next edition, adding a reference and adjusting some of the very surprising declarations that caused me to go and verify them, and that then seemed unsupported to me.

I heard nothing back from Nibley on either of these two topics, until I saw him at the Sunstone Symposium.  

He did not attend my lecture.  But he did remember receiving my correspondence, and with a warm smile and firm handshake thanked me for them.  Then he said something like it is gratifying to see that his writings were inspiring others to go and do their own research.  When I suggested that in some instances I found he was wrong, his facts did not square with the sources, he corrected me by saying that I had proven nothing of the sort, we simply disagreed on the evidence, and it was fine to disagree, that is what moves scholarship forward.  He said again that we just disagreed, let go of my hand and then turned to the next person in line waiting to shake his hand.

So, Nibley, my idol for many, many years, and I disagreed, and it was fine to disagree.  I wanted my father to know that.  Oh well.  Too late.

Here is the talk I gave at the symposium:

Nibley's Patriarchy and Matriarchy:A Reevaluation

                        Abraham Van Luik

Hugh Nibley's essay "Patriarchy and Matriarchy" was a lecture given on February 1, 1980 at a Brigham Young University Women's Conference.  In 1986, it was reprinted as Chapter 5 in Old Testament and Related Studies (Nibley 1986 pp. 87-113).  In this essay, Nibley asserts that men and women need to be organized so that power is shared in unity (Nibley 1986 pp. 93, 96, 98-99, 103-105, 113), and claims that this is the design of the Gospel plan (pp. 96, 113).

According to Nibley, the historical struggle for power between men and women is the apostate struggle between patriarchy and matriarchy, and this struggle has had devastating effects in many ages (pp. 93-98, 99-103, 105-113).  Nibley claims that both patriarchy and matriarchy are perversions (p. 94) and neither will be the government of heaven (p. 87-88, 113).

In this world, however, Nibley claims a need for placing the man in a position of pre-eminence to balance the natural superiority of the female claim to power through procreation, her unassailable claim to maternity (pp. 95-96).  Nibley calls for unity of the sexes, and suggests that the basis for this unity is in the Gospel plan as presented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) (p. 113).

Paradoxically, the LDS formula Nibley endorses for achieving unity between the sexes is patriarchal!

In this reevaluation, it will be shown that matriarchy is nowhere to be found in the historical material Nibley cites to describe the apostate struggle between matriarchy and patriarchy.

It will also be shown that Nibley's arguments for the world's needing a benign form of patriarchy are not well founded.

Finally, it is suggested that the Gospel-plan patriarchy Nibley advocates may not be as benign as Nibley characterizes it.

In beginning the substance of his address, Nibley discusses Gen. 2:22-23, which is Moses 3:22-23 in the LDS scripture The Pearl of Great Price (P of GP).  He suggests that the words "one flesh" indicate the perfect unity between the original human pair.  He expounds on the figurative nature of the "rib" story and mentions that the rib was a powerful metaphor for inseparability and companionship.  The figurative nature of the creation account and the special unity of the original human pair has been noted by others, such as the feminist theologians Phyllis Bird (Bird 1974 pp. 73-74, and Phyllis Tribble (Tribble 1979 pp. 75-76), and the non-feminist religious leader Pope John Paul II (John Paul II 1981 pp. 63, 73-74, 80).

Where Nibley and the feminist theologians part company is the all-important judgment of Gen. 3:16.  Bird and Tribble decry the descriptive (not prescriptive) "he shall rule over thee" as patriarchy, a result of the fall and a perversion of the former, ideal, pre-fall unity between Adam and Eve (Bird 1974 p. 75; Tribble 1979 pp. 80-81).  Nibley, on the other hand, suggests the judgment of Gen. 3:16 should be understood as a prescription of the principles upon which that original unity was founded: he adds words into his interpretation that come from the LDS temple ceremony and contrasts this prescribed relationship with patriarchy: "There is no patriarchy or matriarchy in the garden; the two supervise each other.  Adam is given no arbitrary power; Eve is to heed him only insofar as he obeys their Father--and who decides that?  She must keep check on him as much as he does on her.  It is, if you will, a system of checks and balances in which each party is as distinct and independent in its sphere as are the departments of government under the Constitution--and just as dependent on each other." (Nibley 1986 p. 93)  

This analogy is catchy, until one seriously answers the "and who decides that?"  The woman's judicial power over the man only exists when the man chooses to cooperate with and respect that power.  In addition, "each party," meaning the male and the female, being "distinct and independent in its sphere," partakes of the idea that men and women inhabit separate, albeit mutually dependent, spheres.  In practice, this doctrine means women are excluded from male spheres of power, and placed where power in society is out of reach except through a husband or children.

Nibley has re-described patriarchy.  Moreover, the lack of arbitrariness in Adam's power is not comforting given D&C 121:39: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

Nibley goes on to say that Adam and Eve lived righteously in this order, but a great apostasy began among their posterity resulting in the ubiquitous corruption that required the earth to be cleansed by the flood.  Nibley asserts that: "Central to the drama was a never-ending tension between the matriarchal and patriarchal orders, both of which were perversions." (Nibley 1986 pp. 93-94)  Nibley is playing a word game.

In essence, Nibley implies that within the LDS tradition, which continues the patriarchal tradition of Adam (P of GP Abraham 1:26), a non-oppressive, benign form of patriarchy is practiced which recreates the unity that existed between Adam and Eve in the pre-fall Garden of Eden.  This is what Nibley calls "the celestial order established in the beginning," (Nibley 1986 p. 113) and the "perfect and beautiful union of Adam and Eve" (Nibley 1986 p. 88)  

Patriarchy practiced outside the Mormon, early Christian, ancient patriarchal, or Edenic traditions, on the other hand, lacking the checks and balances imposed by revelation, and are apostate perversions of the "celestial order."

Nibley explicitly asserts that righteous relations between man and woman were illustrated between Sarah and Abraham (Nibley 1986 pp. 98-99), and that Christ taught such relations again, citing the marital relations among Jesus' followers and citing the Gospel of Philip's stating that Christ came to earth to reunite Adam and Eve, and all men and women, through a marriage rite which Nibley identifies with the modern LDS concept and practice of "celestial marriage." (Nibley 1986 pp. 103-104, 113)  

In this vision of Christ's teaching an ideal male-female unity that returns us to the blessed state of Paradisiacal unity, Nibley is joined by Pope John Paul II (John Paul II 1981 p. 177).

The reason Nibley can say that "one must choose between patriarchy and matriarchy until the Zion of God is established," and that "the patriarchal and matriarchal orders" are both "perversions" (Nibley 1986 pp. 113, 93-94) is that he has taken Mormon patriarchy out of the definition.  He did this with these words:  "The gospel sets absolute limitations beyond which patriarchal authority may not be exercised--the least hint of unkindness acts as a circuit-breaker.  'Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.' (D&C 121:37)  Without that sacred restraint, patriarchal supremacy has ever become abusive." (Nibley 1986 p. 96)  

Nibley recognizes priesthood to be a patriarchal authority, but asserts that it is a benign patriarchy because of the revealed 'circuit-breaker.'  Without that circuit-breaker, patriarchs, according to Nibley, become "arrogant, dictatorial, self-righteous and oppressive." (1986 p. 96)

But why is any form of patriarchy necessary?  It is instructive to note that LDS scriptures describe the priesthood as an "order ... handed down from father to son," ... .  "This order was instituted in the days of Adam, and came down by lineage" ... . (D&C 107:1-3, 40-41)  More to the point: "I [Abraham] became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers. ...  I sought for mine appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed.  (Abraham 1:2-4)

In order to show "rightful" heirship, one must know that one's life legitimately derives from the "seed" of one's father.

Nibley gives this as the reason for accepting patriarchy, in its modified state within the Gospel plan: "There is rarely any doubt as to who a baby's mother is, but paternity must always be challenged.  In the end the only assurance we have of a true patriarchal succession is the word not of the father but of the mother, as the Egyptians well knew--Maat is the official approval of the mother, without which no dynasty could be secure.  To assure a true patriarchal succession therefore requires something in the way of checks and controls on the women, a stricter moral code than that required by the matriarchy, which ... tends to become lax and promiscuous with the passing of time." (Nibley 1986 pp. 95-96)

The implied moral superiority of patriarchy, because of its "checks and controls on the women," is an absurdity: it ignores the 'double standard' so characteristic of patriarchy, the lack of control on the men so typical in patriarchal societies as evidenced, for example, in Old Testament laws demanding premarital purity and marital faithfulness of women but not of men.  We will return to the alleged promiscuity of matriarchy, but first it should be noted that the "seed" that defines the all-important patriarchal legitimacy of "lineage" is a clear reference to the male contribution to the reproductive process.

"Seed" is an ancient and exaggerated symbol for sperm, a symbol reflecting the ancients' nonawareness of the female egg's equal genetic contribution.  Nevertheless, even in our own day possession of the "seed" determines eligibility for the priesthood, excluding women from this source of power and relegating them to temporal and eternal marginality (a status that is auxiliary to the main line of power) as a matter of course.

Nibley seems to approve of the marginalization of women into a separate sphere away from the main line of power, citing heavenly precedents.  In an aside, he addresses the odd question "Why are all the angels male?"  (Nibley 1986 p. 91)  He begins his answer by citing from an ancient religious romance that a man, before coming to earth, is embraced by his "heavenly mother" (his source, however, deifies her with the title "the Mother of Life").  She does not embrace him again until he returns to heaven, although he does receive messages from male angels while on earth.  From this Nibley concludes: "So we have a division of labor.  The angels are male because they are missionaries . . . ; the women are engaged in another, but equally important, task: preserving the establishment while the men are away."  (Nibley 1986 p. 91)  Rather than being a reflection of Heavenly reality, this story probably reflects the patriarchal assumptions and customs of its time.  

Nibley notes that this division of labor "is pervasive in the tradition of the race," and then goes on to illustrate this using a couple of sentimental quotes.

Nibley cites the story of Odysseus and Penelope to clinch his argument regarding the ubiquitous nature of the division of labor between the sexes: "Odysseus must wander and have his adventures --it is his nature.  But life would be nothing to him if he did not know all the time that he had his faithful Penelope waiting for him at home.  She is no stick-in-the-mud, however, as things are just as exciting, dangerous, and demanding at home as on the road." (Nibley 1986 pp. 91-92)

It seems not to occur to Nibley that if Penelope is capable of meeting the same demands and dangers as Odysseus, there's precious little difference in their natures, and the division of labor they illustrate may only represent an artifact of patriarchal rule: the division of human effort into separate spheres of "world" and "home," with women invariably being assigned to remain at home, limited.  It is this limiting aspect of patriarchy that is ultimately immoral: patriarchy limits the development of woman by limiting her experience and self-expectations.  

The benign, Gospel-plan version of patriarchy advocated by Nibley limits woman's spiritual self-expectations: she is denied a full range of spiritual leadership, or priesthood, experience in this life.  I believe that this restriction serves to make her fit for being marginal, or auxiliary, to Godhood experience in the next life.

Returning to Nibley's assertion that promiscuity is associative with matriarchy, it may be noted that his description of the archetypal matriarchal culture is fantasy-based.  Nibley asserts that matriarchies are "sedentary ... that is, agricultural, chtonian, centering around the Earth Mother.  The rites are mostly nocturnal, lunar, voluptuous, and licentious. The classic image is that of the great, rich, corrupt, age-old, and oppressive city Babylon, queen of the world, metropolis, fashion center, the super mall, the scarlet woman, the whore of all the earth, whose merchants and bankers are the oppressors of all people." (Nibley 1986 p. 94)

Nibley grouped things together that clearly do not belong together: Babylon is in no significant sense matriarchal, its cruelty and oppression in conquering its neighbors and bleeding them of their riches caused the scribes of one of its patriarchal victim states to call Babylon nasty names, and the nastiest names that came to mind were "queen" and "whore."

As to the supermall, scarlet woman, whore and fashion center images, they are equally associative with patriarchy: they represent the spheres open to women in societies where they are marginalized to being consumers or minor merchants if they have means, and whores and temptresses if they desire to obtain means from those who have them.

Nibley suggests that things anciently associated with women: nature, the moon, the earth, fertility, and sex sum to an immoral society.  At the beginning of his talk, however, he seemed to speak approvingly -if not reverently- of the central rite of Sumerian/Babylonian religion: "a great creation-drama rehearsed at the new year to celebrate the establishment of divine authority on earth in the person of the king and his companion." (Nibley 1986 p. 87)  The king's "companion" in this great creation drama, which includes the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage rite that restores fertility to man, field, and beast,is not the king's wife, however.  She is an official representative of the goddess: a priestess (Lerner 1986 p. 126).

When "king and his companion" celebrated the king's investiture with divine authority, this was a patriarchal rite.  The king's need for a legitimating blessing from the Goddess is a parallel to pharaoh's securing legitimacy from mother Maat (Nibley 1986 pp. 95-96). The rite, which includes sexual intercourse to unify Heaven and earth so that the earth can be healed, is only "promiscuous" to the unbeliever.

Nibley's characterization of patriarchal societies is also a caricature:  "It is nomadic. ... Its gods are sky gods with the raging sun at their head.  Its depredations are not by decay but by fire and sword. As predatory and greedy as the matriarchy, it cumulates its wealth not by unquestioned immemorial custom but by sacred and self-serving laws." (Nibley 1986 p. 94)   

The inappropriateness of this urban/nomadic way of splitting matriarchy from patriarchy is illustrated by the patriarchal society of Israel, wherein women judges and prophetesses were known in the more nomadic times, but not in the later times with the advent of kingship and urbanization.  That the ancient Celts swarming into Europe had female sky gods may be of interest as a counterexample to Nibley's characterization of nomadic patriarchies.  King Hammurabi's law code, which was in force in Babylon, was patriarchal yet allowed for the worship of the Queen of Heaven and Earth, Inanna/Ishtar (Hathor in Egypt) and regulates the lives of her priestesses.

Sarah's "royalty" (Nibley 1986 p. 99) and use of Hagar seem suspiciously in accord with Hammurabi's law regulating a class of priestesses, usually appointed from among the daughters of kings and nobles, which directs them to have their husband use a servant girl or secondary wife for the purpose of having children, particularly sons. (Lerner 1986 p. 93)

Nibley characterizes matriarchy and patriarchy as being mirror-images of each other: man in charge or woman in charge (Nibley 1986 p. 94).  He declares that they must always be antagonistic: "matriarchy and patriarchy must always be mortal enemies."  The reason given is that: "The suffix archy means always to be first in order, whether in time or eminence; the point is there can only be one first." (Nibley 1986 p. 95)  

The historian Gerda Lerner observed that "It may be noted that I am defining matriarchy as the mirror image of patriarchy.  Using that definition, I would conclude that no matriarchal society has ever existed." (Lerner 1986 p. 31)  If Lerner's assertion is correct, Nibley's observation: "matriarchy ... tends to become lax and promiscuous with the passing of time" (Nibley 1986 pp. 95-96) may be seen as flight of male fantasy at best.

In the examples Nibley gives of the apostate "archaic order," matriarchy is never illustrated.  Women are portrayed who are vying for power in patriarchal societies, but such power-struggles do not represent attempts to overthrow patriarchy.  A female head of state does not define a matriarchy.

The first example Nibley uses is the scriptural account of Lamech's wives' rebellion, which resulted in Lamech's nefarious secrets being broadcast throughout the land, putting Lamech in danger of his life.  Nibley says this story gives an "infallible insight" into the new chaotic order, and interprets this enigmatic story as saying that "from now on the king in his ambitions has to cope with equally ambitious females."  (Nibley 1986 p. 95)  It is not clear whether the king's ambitions, the queen's ambitions, or both, would represent the new, chaotic order.  More fundamentally, it isn't clear how "equally ambitious females," chosen by Nibley to define the new, chaotic order, are illustrated by the rebellion of plural wives against an extremely evil husband.  This story could just as well be used to illustrate the principles of the "celestial order," under which the wife has the right to judge the degree to which she owes obedience to her husband by evaluating his obedience to God's law.

Given the lack of detail in the story, it is also possible that in exposing the husband's evil ways the wives' spreading of this malevolent evil may have been inadvertent.

The poor fit between Nibley's thesis and his supporting evidence becomes clearer in his example of a "wonderful insight into the archaic order" from the Book of Mormon's Book of Ether, chapter 9.  In this chapter, a man desires to gain his father's kingdom and his daughter suggests she dance for a rival king so that he will desire her to wife.  The girl's father is then to grant that desire, on the condition that this new son-in-law assassinate the girl's grandfather.  Serial murders are the result, and Nibley interprets: "And it all began with a woman". . . .  He then generalizes: "all the troubles of the race are but a perennial feud between the matriarchy and the patriarchy; between men and women seeking power and gain at each other's expense."  (Nibley 1986 p. 97)

This is an inappropriate interpretation and generalization of a girl's offering to serve her father's ambitions, probably to thereby secure for herself queenly status.  The feud is here between a father and a son, however, which is typical of patriarchy, which is, literally, father rule.  The girl serves her father and then becomes subservient to another king.  Matriarchy is nowhere to be found in this story.

Nibley bolsters this latter point, of historical evils being the result of vicious power-grabbing between men and women, with a mythical story from Shakespeare based on Greek mythology, and another sampling from Greek myth. (Nibley 1986 p. 98)

Nibley's using these tales to bolster serious historical argument throughout his essay (1986 pp. 95, 98, 100-103) is problematic.  Greek mythology is noted for its misogyny (Bullough 1973 p.53), and myths that support the legitimacy of the Greek patriarchal order should be classed with the "sacred and self-serving laws" which Nibley says are typical of apostate patriarchy (Nibley 1986 p. 94).

Nibley cites the story of Abraham and Sarah as illustrating a "better way."  The story of Abraham and Sarah is characterized as one that interjects the notion of romantic love and interdependence into the marital relationship.  Sarah, as other women in her family, has "her own name, genealogy, royalty, and fortune, and as much bargaining power as the man." (Nibley 1986 p. 99)  

Nibley details the humility of Abraham in asking his wife to lie to protect him, even though this makes her eligible to become the consort of kings, and he relates the humility of Sarah in giving Abraham another woman whereby to have children.  But, in actuality, I believe Sarah and Abraham better represent the strife between matriarchy and patriarchy: she dominates and he is marginal until the new covenant is established.  Then Abraham becomes dominant and almost sacrifices his son, a drama Sarah does not seem to be made aware of, but which earns Abraham great promises (Gen. 22:16-18).  These promises were essentially those that had already been made to Abraham and Sarah, however, at the time her name was changed from Sarai (Gen. 17:15-21).

Nibley asserts that Abraham and Sarah's relationship is a revelation of romantic love.  But how can romantic love possibly flourish between two people who are so distraught, supposedly, over being childless that they resort to polygamy?  Is there anything that can kill romance more effectively than polygamy, especially when it is colored by the cruelty of slavery?  The slave-woman Hagar is owned by Sarah, her life and her sexuality are subject to her master's dictates.  Is a kindling of romantic love between Hagar and Abraham possible or even desirable, given the master-slave relationship?  Is this part of the "better way?"  It seems to  be easily forgotten that Hagar was also a child of God, yet, allegedly by God's command (D&C 132:65) she was used sexually for her reproductive capacity.  Then, for the crime of asserting her self against her owner she was discarded and sent out to die.

Yet, Nibley lauds the marital practices of Abraham and Sarah as a return to the unity of Adam and Eve.  He casually explains polygamy as a necessity brought about by women being more righteous than men: "they were too busy having children to get into all that elaborate nonsensical mischief.  Seven women could see the light when only one man could." (Nibley 1986 p. 91)  Not only does this assertion contradict the idea that "all the troubles of the race" can historically be traced to women fighting with men over power, but it also suggests the marginality of women in patriarchal society: since she is kept on the margins of power, she can not effectively participate in the unrighteous exercise thereof.

Nibley's explanation of polygamy ignores the fact that LDS scripture declares that polygamy is an integral part of patriarchy under the Gospel plan, and not some anomaly that sought to provide for righteous women who were deprived of a righteous husband because there weren't enough to go around during times of apostasy.  In the revelation restoring polygamy, the priesthood is invoked as the medium by which this principle is being restored: "For I have conferred upon you the keys and powers of the priesthood, wherein I restore all things," .... (D&C 132:45)  The law of polygamy is then explicitly labeled as part of "the law of the priesthood," (D&C 132:58) and a threat of destruction for women who do not cooperate in polygamy refers to polygamy as: "the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things," .... (D&C 132:64).  

This should make it abundantly clear that among the Mormons polygamy was an integral part of patriarchy, and the restoration was, in turn, the restoration of true patriarchal rule to earth.

The benign nature of LDS patriarchy is called into question where the woman is concerned who refuses to obey and allow her husband to take additional wives: God promises to "destroy" her.

This controversial part of the "law of the priesthood" reads: "And again, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law." (D&C 132:64)  It would be irresponsible to fail to point out that this is a "sacred, self-serving law."

This unfortunate revelation is in large part a communique' from Joseph Smith to his wife Emma, as is made clear in D&C 132:52-56.  Here God demands, on Joseph's behalf, that she recognize his plural wives and grant him yet more.  If she refuses, God personally threatens her destruction.  God promises Joseph exaltation and many wives regardless of her reaction.

This revelation is "arrogant, dictatorial, self-righteous, and oppressive."   Its tone and content call into question the "absolute limitations" and the "circuit-breaker" that the Gospel plan imposed on patriarchal authority according to Nibley (1986 p. 96).

Be that as it may, the use Nibley makes of the scriptural "golden calf" story (Nibley 1986 pp. 101-102) as a commentary on the warfare between patriarchy and matriarchy deserves expanded criticism.  Nibley claims that "In Egypt, Israel lived under a matriarchal monarchy from which they were delivered under Moses." (Nibley 1986 p. 101)  

And what evidence does he draw on to call the pharaoh's reign matriarchal?  The prominence of women in the story of Moses' deliverance, his deference toward his wife's father, his difficulties with his wife Zipporah, and Israel's return to the matriarchal golden calf --the symbol of the young pharaoh's submission to his mother-- and the matriarchal revelry and debauchery that accompanied that return (Nibley 1986 pp. 101- 102).  The killing of male firstborn offspring is also presented as evidence of blows against male succession.  But this evidence has been turned on its head by Nibley.

First, attempts to kill each other's male offspring is a blow against male-succession, as Nibley states, but dependence on male-succession is a mark of patriarchy and not matriarchy, as Nibley has noted (1986 pp. 95-96).  It is the word of the mother that is the final arbiter of legitimate male-succession, according to Nibley (1986, p.96), so the worship of a calf that celebrates the submission of a son to his mother is just the flip-side of this same patriarchal coin.

Recognition of and obeisance to goddesses in Egyptian religion does not suggest matriarchy.  A modern parallel is the Roman Catholic celebration of the Assumption of the Mother of God, making her Queen of Heaven, which does not make the Catholic Church matriarchal.

Second, the decision and ability of the prominent Egyptian women to hide and take care of Moses suggests their marginality to the seat of power: they were in their own quarters and could have cared less about the threat to power represented by Israelite male babies.  The case for a matriarchy in Egypt is thus extremely weak.  The prominence of the wife of Moses, Zipporah, and the sister of Moses, Miriam, may well reflect the degree to which Egyptian women were allowed to participate in cult and commerce.

Undoubtedly there was variety in the civil liberties allowed to women and other marginal classes in the totalitarian states of these times, and Egypt may well have been more liberal than the later Hebrew state, for example.   That this was so is hinted elsewhere by Nibley, when he cited an expert on Egyptian jurisprudence to substantiate "that the Egyptians were the first and long the only people in the world" to bestow individual legal rights "equally to male and female" (Nibley 1981 p. 92).   This same source is cited by Nibley as asserting that patriarchal tradition and organization were the foundation for Egyptian society (Ibid.).  The fact that pharaonic succession still relied on the word of the mother for its claim to legitimacy (Nibley 1986 p. 96) strongly suggests that pharaonic Egypt had not yet seen fit to impose "something in the way of checks and controls on the women," (Ibid.) to as stringent a degree that the law of Moses was to do.

This is not to suggest that Egypt was not patriarchal, but just that the "close rules, safeguards, and vigilant surveillance" (Ibid.) of a more severe patriarchy had not been implemented.

Last, Nibley neglects to mention that LDS scripture declares the first pharaoh to have diligently tried to implement patriarchy: "Pharaoh, being a righteous man, ... seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father," ... . (Abraham 1:26)

Nevertheless, Egypt appears to have been a place where women maintained significant power for many millennia (French 1985 p.55), and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are supposed to have continued these matricentral and matrilocal (but not matriarchal) traditions.  It is speculated that the reason Abraham could marry his sister is that descent was reckoned in the Egyptian way, through the mother.  Although they had the same father, they had different mothers and, hence, were not related in such a way as to prevent marriage (Ibid. pp. 55-56).  Marilyn French points out that to this day Jewishness descends from the mother (Ibid. p. 55).  Surely this does not evidence matriarchy.

The statements Nibley makes about the evidences for matriarchy in the Israelite camp are particularly troublesome.  Skipping the reference to the matriarchal significance of the bull already noted, Nibley argues along these lines:

We will return to this "consecration" theme momentarily, but first it should be noted that the actual account does not assign this debacle to matriarchal mischief as Nibley does.  In Ex. 32:1 it is "the people" who demand that Aaron make them "gods" to lead them.  Aaron's instructions to "the people" are to "Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me." (Ex 32:2)  Thus "the people" are fathers and husbands, and it is Aaron who decides what form this god is going to take. Aaron is a man.  

As to the licentious matriarchal celebrations, they began with "burnt offerings" and "peace offerings" as prescribed in Ex. 24:5 (Ex. 32:6).  But then "the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." (Ex. 32:6)  God tells Moses that his people "have corrupted themselves" and lists their building a calf and worshipping it as their sin. (Ex. 32:7-8)  But Moses discovers additional sins: they are "singing" (Ex. 32:18), "dancing" (Ex. 32:19) and "the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:)" (Ex. 32:25).  The blame thus lies squarely on Aaron and "the people," and "the people" have wives, sons, and daughters, suggesting they are men.  Nowhere is Nibley's contention of women running amok here supported at all.  They were likely participants in the revelry, since they contributed to the building-fund, but we must assume they were, since it is nowhere explicitly stated.

Nibley invokes Ex. 16:2 to implicate the women, where it says "And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses in the wilderness." However, in Ex. 19:6 the Lord says for Moses to speak to "the children of Israel" regarding their receiving the law on Mount Sinai.  One would think that "the children of Israel" includes both men and women, but in their purification instructions the clause "come not at your wives" appears (Ex. 19:15), and in the law itself it is clear that men are being addressed, since they are being charged with seeing to it that their households keep the sabbath (Ex. 20:10).  This suggests that "people" and "children" are men.  

But granting that women did participate, even though it is not explicitly stated, the reason for the butchering of all the participating men --and not the women-- was not a patriarchal blow against the forces of matriarchy.  This killing of men signified that men were responsible before God's law while the women were under the authority of their husbands or fathers.

This is the same idea of women being accountable to their husbands, and the husbands being accountable unto God as in Eph. 5:22-24.  Nibley declares that under Gospel-plan patriarchy "Eve is to heed him only insofar as he obeys their Father"... (Nibley 1986 p.93). In Moses' day, however, this benign patriarchal principle meant the men were accountable for the debaucheries of the day, for disobedience in the camp, and it is only their blood that is shed.  Women are not patriarchy's only victims.

Returning to the theme of "consecration," Nibley suggests in the context of Ex. 32:29 that a "solemn rededication to the patriarchal order" takes place after a massacre.  But Ex. 32:28 makes clear that verse 29 is describing the massacre itself as being the act of consecration: "Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day."  This scriptural picture of men consecrating themselves by hacking away at their kinsmen with bloody swords, to restore patriarchy and thereby secure God's favor, does not support Nibley's assertions regarding the benign nature of patriarchy when it is exercised under God's watchful eye.

Finally, even this violence doesn't buy God's favor: "And the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made." (Ex 32:35)  No doubt even the women finally got their due.

Nibley's article ends on a note that is difficult to criticize.  His observations on early and modern fiction, and on the real world, are much in tune with Marilyn French's main thesis in her book Beyond Power (French 1985).  French pleads for an abandoning of the globally suicidal quest for power, and its medium of exchange, and calls for a new morality wherein human and humane values are supreme.  So does Nibley.


1)  Bird, Phyllis. 1974. Images of Women in the Old Testament, pp. 41-88 in: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Religion and Sexism,Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. (Simon and Schuster, New York)

2)  Bullough, Vern L. 1973.  The Subordinate Sex, A History of Attitudes Toward Women.  Written with the assistance of Bonnie Bullough. (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois)

3)  French, Marilyn. 1985. Beyond Power, On Women, Men, and Morals, (Summit Books, New York,  New York)

4)  John Paul II, Pope. 1981.  Original Unity of Man and Woman. (Daughters of St. Paul, Boston, Massachusetts)

5)  Lerner, Gerda. 1986.  The Creation of Patriarchy, (Oxford University Press, New York, New York)

6)  Nibley, Hugh. 1981. Abraham in Egypt, (Deseret Book Company,Salt Lake City, Utah)

7)  Nibley, Hugh. 1986. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 1, Old Testament and Related Studies. Edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum and Don E. Norton (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah)

8)  Tribble, Phyllis. 1979. "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread," pp. 74-83 in: Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising, A Feminist Reader in Religion, (Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco, California)

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