Tuesday, October 9, 2007

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING: Address 7: The Shame of Patriarchy (Gen 9:18-29)

Address 7: The Shame of Patriarchy (Genesis 9:18-29)

I wonder how many of you here today grew up in a home headed by a father. Increasingly in certain socio-economic groups in the USA children grow up in a female-headed family and a matriarchal culture, where boys and men are allowed to act in antisocial ways. Among poor urban blacks, more than 70% of children are born out of wedlock. This is not simply a result of poverty: fifty years the figure was 20% among the same group. Almost all psychologists and sociologists are agreed that a family pattern like this is both personally and socially destructive and also self-perpetuating. A boy from a fatherless family is likely not to become a responsible father himself.

Now I have less data on families in Uganda, but it seems to me that there is a similar crisis brewing, if it is not already here. Men, and fathers in particular, are retreating from their role in the family, the clan and the society. Polygamy, of course, is one cause, but it may even be that old-fashioned polygamy, where the father took economic responsibility for all the wives and children, is giving way to a more casual type where men simply move from woman to woman and leave the rest behind (e.g., when it comes to paying school fees). Divorce is not yet fashionable in Uganda, but in customary marriages, separation is easy and socially acceptable.

The causes of this social trend may be variable, but certainly one major cause is what I shall call the decline of patriarchy. Patriarchy, the rule of men in families and societies, has been the widespread norm across history and cultures, although there are a few matriarchal exceptions and many permutations on how patriarchy works itself out. It is still the norm in Muslim societies, and in some atheist societies like China that have tried social engineering (one child per family), it has led to lopsidedly masculine populations.

But in the Western societies, patriarchy has been under attack politically for the last half century, and even before that philosophically. Feminism has taken patriarchy to be its Enemy #1. In most western societies, women have attained legal equality and in the more advanced ones, social and economic equality. However, feminism has brought with it social consequences – e.g, high divorce rates, low birth rates – and psychological consequences – men who are simultaneously morally weak and physically violent. After a half century of the Sexual Revolution, many people, even some feminists, are asking: Are we happier today than we were under patriarchy.

The brief passage from Genesis today highlights the birth of patriarchy and its downfall.

Noah the Patriarch

The first sons of Adam through Cain and Seth are often called Patriarchs. But in another sense Noah is the Patriarch of Patriarchs, being a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and walking with God (6:8). Noah also is literally the father of the human race after the Flood.

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth. (9:18-19)

We might notice earlier in Genesis that when Noah left the ark, it puts it this way: “So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him” (Genesis 8:18). The priority is: patriarch, sons, then wife and sons’ wives. This is how patriarchy thinks: the wives are not slaves or property, but they do take second place to the heir or heirs, who are male.

Having said this, the arrangement of the sons in verse 18 is strange because is not ordered by age: Shem is the middle son, Ham the youngest and Japheth the oldest. The most probable reason for this order is that Shem is the patriarch of the people (the Semites) from whom the people of Israel comes; Ham represents their nearest neighbours in Canaan and Egypt; and Japheth is the more distant peoples to the north. So while the Bible accepts patriarchy as a necessary social order, it adds a local dimension: our tribe, our clan is to be preferred over others. We may see this as the birth of tribalism.

But the preference for Shem is not just tribal: it is moral, as we see from the story that follows. Shem and Japheth are commended for their response to their father’s nakedness, whereas Ham and his son Canaan are cursed. Let’s look at this incident more closely.

To be a patriarch is to have respect. I can tell you from my experience here in Uganda that the patriarchal mindset is much stronger than in the USA. Students and staff, even my closest colleagues here, refer to me as Vice Chancellor, even on informal occasions. Ugandans love titles and observing protocols, deferring to “His Excellency” and “My Lord Bishop” in a way that is very strange to us from egalitarian societies. And while respect is given to women in authority, it is still clear that men are the primary persons of respect. For instance, the Church of Uganda has had women priests for twenty years but never had a woman bishop and certainly not a woman archbishop, as we now have in the USA.

Having observed your President for some years, if I had one phrase to describe his attitude toward governance, it would be patriarchal. He sees himself as the father-figure of the people of Uganda. This may explain his staying in office so long: fathers do not retire, they die. I once heard President Museveni joke that in his culture the only way for younger people to move up was to poison their elders.

Patriarchy is based on and calls forth unequal relationships within the family. The commentator Leon Kass describes this tension thus:

The highly complex aggregate of mixed feelings and attitudes made son-to-father relationships [in a patriarchal society] very unusual. They certainly made difficult, if not impossible, any easygoing friendship, which usually requires and fosters equality; one cannot simply be friends with someone one holds in awe…. Precisely because he is capable of inspiring awe as well as security, shame as well as orderliness, emulation as well as confidence, and fear as well as hope, the father is able to do the fatherly work of preparing boys for moral manhood, including eventually their own fatherhood. (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, page 199)

Family Shame

Respect and awe, however, do not simply come naturally. They have to be earned, or at least not to be squandered. Many a father has shamed himself in the eyes of his sons and in so doing created a crisis in their own self-identity. Thus it was with Noah and his sons, as the story continues.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. (verses 20-22)

Like Adam before him, Noah started out righteous but ends up debauched. We may wonder if it was wise for him to take up vine-growing. Was there a libertine part of his personality that was tired of being “righteous altogether” and wanted time to “kick back and enjoy!” So it seems, and the end result was the old man sprawled unconscious and naked on his bed, exposed to anyone who might peep in his tent.

And peep he did, Ham, the youngest son. We are not told whether Ham accidentally saw his father in this state, or whether he was in fact a “peeping Ham,” looking for disgraceful sights. (Surely voyeurism is one characteristic of emerging male sexuality. It is what fuels the business of pornography.) The fact that Ham rushed out to tell his brothers suggests that the shamefulness of the father was matched by the shamelessness of the son. Just as Eve felt compelled to pass on her sin to Adam, so Ham insists on degrading father Noah before his kin by word if not by sight.

However accidental Ham’s act may have been, it calls down the curse of the father:

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." (verses 24-25)

Note that the curse is pronounced on Ham’s son Canaan. It is the first case of “the sins of the father being visited on the children.” As I mentioned earlier, social scientists have noted that fatherless sons prove deficient fathers themselves. Ham, in following his lowest impulses, has rebelled against his father and will become the father of slaves. (Let me hasten to add that this verse offers no justification, as some racists have claimed, for the practice of slavery, of Africans or anyone else.)

Piety toward the Father and toward God

In contrast to Ham’s base behavior, the two other brothers, led by Shem, choose to “overlook” their father’s sin and in fact to cover it over rather literally.

But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father's nakedness. (verse 23)

In one sense they cannot blot out of their mind the words of their brother Ham describing their father’s shameful condition. But they act as if they have never seen it. This is the painful act of loyalty which many children are forced to do when they find their fathers acting badly, for instance in betraying their mother for another woman or when their father is convicted of a crime and sent to prison. It is the great burden of the Fifth Commandment to honour one’s father and mother – even when they are not very honourable.

This Commandment reminds us that honouring parents is related to honouring God. There is a sense in which we honour God in the parent. Noah seems to have made this connection when he turned to Shem and Japheth, his righteous sons.

He also said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave." (verses 26-27)

Noah prophesies that Shem’s line will know his name, the LORD Jehovah. Japheth will know the deity only as God. Canaan’s gods will be projections of his lusts (the so-called fertility gods). This is a prophecy of the times to come, when the line of Shem (Abraham and his offspring) will find themselves living in the fleshpots of Egypt and Canaan.


Patriarchy, according to the Bible is a natural outgrowth of the fallen race of Adam. It will be necessary for women to look to their husbands and sons to their fathers. Let us acknowledge that there is legitimate reflection between the patriarchal human father and God the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Ephesians 3:14-15). There is a legitimate headship of father to mother to children (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1-3). Speaking from some personal experience, I want to say that being a good father in an egalitarian society is as fraught with pitfalls as being a good father in patriarchy.

Having said that, the Bible also unmasks the claims of patriarchy to godlike power and purity. Noah, one of the greatest men of the Bible, was also a drunkard and an embarrassment to his sons. If he recovers his dignity enough to bless and curse his sons, he also forfeits the claims of righteousness that had first earned him favour with God. Likewise, the family of Shem, while he is the preferred son, will itself be plagued by poor role models, like Lot and Ishmael and Esau, not to exclude the famous patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had their own serious failings as fathers and servants of God.

So patriarchy is neither the source of the problem of human society, as some feminists argue, nor the solution. Genesis portrays a human condition which can only be remedied by one God the Father of utter power and purity, and one Lord Jesus Christ, who alone came to do His will.

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