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Uncover the intricate structure of the Biblical Patriarchal Society in our comprehensive article. Explore the lives of the Patriarchs, their societal roles, and their enduring influence on biblical interpretation and understanding. Join us as we journey through the shadows of the past into the heart of biblical tradition.
“By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of the promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise.” —Heb. 11:9, ASV.
As the world society faces uncertain times, the Scriptures remind of Jehovah God’s mercy and foresight. Prophecy and contemporary signs point towards the imminent downfall of the current world ruled by Satan. However, the divine revelations preserved by God provide insights into the past, present, and future well-being of faithful followers. These revelations, as interpreted by God himself (Daniel 2:47, ASV), provide glimpses into the forthcoming age that will replace the existing wickedness. As such, diligent study of the Scriptures is necessary to gain insights into the principles, methodologies, and systems adopted by societies of God’s servants in biblical times.—Rom. 15:4, ASV.
A central focus of these studies is the patriarchal society. ‘Society’ represents a collection of individuals united for various purposes, typically living communally. For 856 years following the flood, God interacted with the patriarchal society. This period also includes the final 215 years, during which the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. A patriarch in these societies was the head of a family (Acts 7:8, 9, ASV). Hence, a patriarchal society was a group of individuals linked by blood, marriage, or adoption, living and working under the guidance of a male family head, forming a “family government.”
Among the earliest patriarchs after the flood was Noah, who demonstrated skillful leadership and organization of society. Approximately 40 to 50 years before the flood, Noah organized his family to construct the ark. This task required gathering resources, business interactions with neighbors, and the formation of contracts, setting a foundation for business ethics and rules. Additionally, the arrangement of animals to board the ark required careful planning and management. Noah’s organization and preparation were crucial for the survival of his family and the animals on the ark during the flood. —Gen. 6:13–8:19, ASV.
The pre-flood patriarchal society, under Noah’s leadership, was under God’s blessing and guidance. As this organized society entered the ark, so it emerged, remaining organized under a family government. After the ark landed, Noah made a burnt offering to God, who then promised that the earth would continue its seasons and would never again be destroyed by a flood. God also commanded Noah and his family to populate the earth with their descendants, and the rainbow was given as a symbol of God’s covenant with the post-flood society. —Gen. 8:20–9:17, ASV.
Noah, as the patriarch, led the post-flood society using the wisdom he gained through direct communication with God. During the 350 years after the flood, Noah guided the development of post-flood society and established precedents and customs aligned with God’s will. His experience as a servant and prophet of God made him a dependable leader for the new world. —Gen. 9:28, 29, ASV.
Rather than establishing a controlling supergovernment, Noah formed smaller family governments, or patriarchal societies, that would spread across the earth. This system prioritized the family as the central unit, ruled by its patriarch. When the family head passed away, the eldest son would continue the leadership. This system, established by Noah, was carried forward by Jacob’s sons, forming a clan of twelve families, which later developed into tribes and eventually a nation under God’s headship. —Gen. 46:2, 3; 49:28; 50:24, 25; Ex. 19:4-6, ASV.
Under Noah’s leadership, seventy nations emerged, all speaking one language and migrating as nomadic communities in various directions. Despite the emergence of rebellion against God, instigated by Nimrod, God’s mandate for spreading across the earth was fulfilled. Nimrod established the first kingdom government, with Babylon as its capital, and instigated a tower-building project in defiance of God’s command. However, God thwarted this rebellion by confusing the languages of the people, causing them to scatter across the earth. —Gen. 10:1-32; 11:1-9, ASV.
The Characteristics of Patriarchal Society: An Exploration
Investigating the complexities of patriarchal society is indeed a fascinating endeavor. Many legal features found in the Bible echo similar components in ancient non-theocratic legal systems, notably the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Hittite Code, and the Assyrian Code. These are three documents brought to light by recent archaeological discoveries. However, these correlations do not insinuate that the Hebrews simply adopted these elements from their pagan contemporaries. Instead, they signify the pagan nations’ continuation of numerous longstanding laws and customs from the Noachian legal and orderly system, which were preserved by the god-fearing Hebrew patriarchs (Ezekiel 14:12-14, 20, ASV).
As the developing tribes and nations progressively succumbed to Satan’s influence and his misguided concepts of governance, the primordial Noachian structure of law and order began to fade. Nevertheless, their foundational laws, entrenched in early Noachian principles, enabled righteous theocratic patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to interact with their pagan neighbors based on mutual legal customs. It’s noteworthy that many of these legal practices enacted by the theocratic patriarchs were later embedded in the Law covenant delivered by God to Moses, indicating a divine endorsement (2 Corinthians 6:14-16, ASV).
In the patriarchal society, the family, not the individual, was the societal unit. Personal property was typically restricted to a handful of personal effects, while all other property — including herds, household goods, equipment, and land — was collectively owned by the family, unified through birth, marriage, or adoption. This principle is embodied in the conversation between Rachel, Leah, and their husband Jacob when they separated from their father Laban’s tribal household to establish an independent patriarchal society. They stated, “Does he not count us foreigners? For he hath sold us and hath also quite devoured the money. For all the riches which God hath taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s: now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do.” This declaration found in Genesis 31:14-16 emphasizes the communal nature of their property.
In this family-centric structure, the family head, typically the father or eldest son from the oldest lineage, fulfilled a role akin to a modern corporation’s CEO. This is illustrated in Jacob’s scenario, where he acted as the spiritual guide for his family, liaising with God and leading his family in offering sacrifices.
The patriarch also served as a kind-hearted overseer and ruler, orchestrating daily activities and overseeing his children’s education. He entered into agreements with neighboring families, judged and punished his household for any transgressions against law and tradition, and exerted ultimate control over the lives and property of his household. As the family’s representative before God and mankind, the patriarch was accountable for his family’s behavior. He, and the family as a whole, bore the responsibility for any misdeeds committed by himself or family members against other families, and he might have been compelled to surrender a family member or provide restitution for wrongs committed (Joshua 7:24-25, ASV).
Much like modern corporations, which comprise numerous individuals yet are perceived as a singular legal entity responsible for any damages inflicted on others, the entire ancient family was regarded as a legal corporate entity tasked with rectifying any wrongs committed. This concept of “family responsibility,” present since the immediate post-flood era, gradually evolved into “community responsibility,” holding the entire group answerable for the misdeeds of any of its members. Because property was shared and lives were profoundly connected under their family head, these closely bonded, legally accountable families flourished in security and happiness, especially when their family head was guided by theocratic principles and served God wisely and lovingly (Genesis 24:1, ASV).
The Fascinating Processes in the Patriarchal Society
A remarkable method was utilized by the patriarchs for offering and transferring ownership of land. The prospective buyer would be guided to a high point from which the seller would articulate the exact boundaries and benefits of the property. Following elaborate negotiations, the seller would recite the precise four boundaries of the land for transfer. When the buyer affirmed, “I see,” it signified the completion of the deal and the establishment of a contract. This transaction occurred in the presence of witnesses, avoiding the necessity for a literal “handing over” of the land through a written deed. However, written contracts were also used. At times, the negotiation process itself was rather ceremonial (Gen. 23:3-16, ASV).
Interestingly, God adhered to this custom when He legally offered Abraham the Promised Land. From a viewpoint in Canaan, God outlined to Abraham the exact boundaries of the territory on offer. However, God refrained from allowing Abraham to legally acknowledge the transfer with the words “I see,” as it was not yet God’s designated time to grant legal possession (Gen. 13:14, 15, ASV). Nonetheless, the legal transfer was facilitated in 1406 B.C.E., roughly four centuries later, when Jehovah allowed Moses to “see,” or accept legal possession on behalf of the nation of Israel, just before they crossed the Jordan to claim the Promised Land (Deut. 34:1-4, ASV; also Deut. 3:27, ASV).
Satan, the emulator, also adhered to this offering method when he attempted to tempt Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:8, 9, ASV). Satan was indeed making a valid legal offer for Jesus to seriously consider accepting. However, Jesus, swiftly recognizing it as a legal offer, instantly and decisively rejected it, commanding, “Go away, Satan!”
In settling local family disputes, the patriarchs assumed the role of judges. In order to dispense justice, it was imperative for them to carefully examine the evidence related to the dispute. According to the King James and American Standard Versions, once the evidence was definitively determined, they would employ expressions such as “to know,” “to discern,” or “to acknowledge” while delivering their ruling. This legal jargon is akin to the modern practice where a judge or jury sits “to find” a person guilty of a crime based on the presented evidence. When Laban accused Jacob of stealing his teraphim, Jacob legally granted Laban the right to gather evidence of Jacob’s innocence, stating, “Before our brethren discern thou what is thine with me, and take it to thee” (Gen. 31:32, ASV).
An additional example is the case in which family head Judah presided as a judge over his daughter-in-law Tamar, who was accused of being pregnant out of wedlock (Gen. 38:24-26, 11-20, ASV). Judge Judah was compelled to legally admit that he was the father of her child due to the compelling evidence presented indicating that he had relations with the alleged harlot Tamar at an earlier date.
There were several other customs concerning birthright, parental rights in selecting wives for their sons, responsibility when one entrusts property to another, slavery, concubinage, redemption of slaves, and others. Many of these will be explored below. Thus far, in our examination of the patriarchal society, it’s clear that it wasn’t a rudimentary social order. Instead, it was a highly organized system well-suited to the nomadic lifestyle of these early family units who lived in tents and roamed the land, caring for their extensive flocks and herds. Faithful theocratic patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, among others, were content to live as temporary residents in the land of promise, awaiting the arrival of the promised Messiah, Christ Jesus, to establish the eternal kingdom of righteousness on earth (Heb. 11:8-10, ASV). Therefore, there’s significant relevance for us today regarding God’s interactions with His servants under the patriarchal system. As God’s legal ways remain constant, His legal actions back then are likely indicative of similar paths for the thousand-year reign of Christ that lies ahead. Hence, we should not underestimate these early days of humble beginnings (Mal. 3:6, ASV; Zech. 4:10, ASV).
Emerging Shadows from Antiquity
In the words of Paul in his letter to the Colossians, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17, ESV). The understanding from these words is that the prophetic shadows of the past hold in them a key to understanding realities of the present and future. While the Mosaic Law covenant was replete with such shadows pointing towards better things to come, so too were the centuries preceding it, the era of patriarchal law and customs. The focus of these shadows was primarily the servants of Christ Jesus, an anticipation confirmed by facts.
Guardianship Over Individuals and Assets
In the patriarchal society of Biblical times, well-defined laws and customs governed the guardianship of personal property and individuals. The act of guardianship was set in place when a property owner or a father entrusted his property or children to others. These assets or persons were transferred or loaned to another party for their protection or benefit. Often, the eldest brother was entrusted with the custody of his minor siblings. Being herdsmen or shepherds, Biblical patriarchs usually entrusted livestock as property. However, it appears that general rules applied to any object or person that could be placed under custodianship.
Consider, for instance, patriarch Jacob, who negotiated with his father-in-law Laban to safeguard the latter’s sheep. In accepting to feed and keep the flock (Genesis 30:31, ASV), Jacob assumed a legal responsibility for the sheep. The Noachian rules, later incorporated into the Mosaic Law covenant, provide a record of the responsibilities held by such guardians. According to these laws, the guardian had to provide adequate care to the animals, ensure they were not lost, and, in case they were stolen, compensate the owner (Exodus 22:1, ASV). However, if the animal died naturally, was injured without the caretaker’s fault, was forcefully stolen by raiders, or was killed by a wild beast, the guardian was not obliged to compensate for the loss.
An understanding of these laws and customs can shed light on the events that transpired between Jacob and his sons during the disappearance of Joseph. The eldest brother Reuben, the legal guardian of his younger brother, planned to return Joseph to his father to absolve himself of his custodial responsibility. However, the other brothers sold Joseph as a slave. Upon finding Joseph missing, Reuben, aware of his legal responsibility for his younger brother’s disappearance, was distressed. The course that the brothers took to evade legal responsibility involved convincing their father, who would act as a patriarchal judge, that Joseph was killed by a wild beast, which would absolve them of any guilt under the law of custodial care over persons and property.
Jacob, bound by the law and having no evidence of foul play, was compelled to pass a verdict of death by a wild beast, which absolved his sons of any penalty. Years later, when asked to entrust his youngest son Benjamin to his older brothers, Jacob refused until Judah, his fourth son, offered a solemn pledge of personal surety for Benjamin’s safety that went beyond the regular custody agreements. Jacob, still haunted by his declaration of Joseph’s death by a beast, finally allowed Benjamin to leave under the exceptional custodial guarantees offered by Judah (Genesis 44:32, 33, ASV).
Shepherding in Practice
The ancestral patriarchal analogy finds its manifestation in the archetype Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who was entrusted with the “sheep” of his Heavenly Father, Jehovah. Jehovah, the supreme Shepherd and Keeper of His “sheep,” has faithful Christian servants analogous to lost sheep that have found their way back to Him, the guardian of their well-being. (Psalm 23:1, ESV; 1 Peter 2:25, ESV)
Jesus Christ was appointed as the perfect shepherd to safeguard these sheep. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:11-16, ESV)
Over his three-and-a-half-year ministry, Jesus Christ exhibited remarkable care and dedication for his sheep, feeding them substantial spiritual nourishment. When one strayed, he left the ninety-nine to reclaim the lost one (Matthew 18:12-14, ESV). He helped those spiritually impoverished and ill regain their spiritual health. Even when spiritual sickness or death transpired despite his nurturing, he was not culpable before the Grand Owner of the “sheep,” Jehovah. His death served not as punishment for losing any sheep but as a means to rescue the lost. This devoted shepherd also protected the sheep from the savage assaults of the demons and Satan, who roamed “like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, ESV).
Jesus concurrently trained his disciples to become sub-shepherds while performing his shepherding duties. He diligently fortified their faith, preparing them to accept the responsibility of caring for God’s sheep. Prior to his ascension, Jesus stressed the significance of shepherding to Simon Peter. “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.'” (John 21:15-17, ESV)
Peter, following the footsteps of his Master Jesus Christ, became a dedicated sub-shepherd. To his contemporary sub-shepherds and equally to the true Christian ministers of today, Peter offered wise counsel. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2, 3, ESV)
Yet, in a broader sense, all Christians, as ministers, bear shepherding responsibilities in their respective churches where they help make disciples. There, within these communities, are many of the lost and spiritually weak prospective disciples that need to be tenderly cared for by the shepherds. If the negligence of the shepherds leads to the loss of any of these sheep entrusted to their care by the Grand Owner, Jehovah, they will be held accountable for such lives. “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his sin, but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezekiel 3:17, 18, ESV)
Paul, recognizing the deep obligation and the weight of the shepherding duty, knew that it was not a matter of personal choice but of divine calling. By faithfully preaching the gospel and tending to the spiritual needs of the flock, he was fulfilling the stewardship that God had entrusted to him. The warning he gives in 1 Corinthians 9:16 is telling, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
This statement underscores the significance of the responsibility that comes with being a spiritual shepherd. Paul was acutely aware that he had been entrusted with the wellbeing of the flock – the congregation of believers. Failure to guide, protect, and nurture them, to help them grow in their faith and stay on the right path, would have serious consequences.
This sense of responsibility and accountability is what drives the work of spiritual shepherds across the centuries, from the apostles’ times until today. They labor not out of a sense of duty or compulsion but out of love for God and for the flock they’ve been entrusted with.
The modern shepherd, therefore, is called to imitate these examples, to feed and care for the flock, to seek out and rescue the lost, to protect from dangers, and to offer healing and guidance. It’s a role that demands love, patience, kindness, humility, and great wisdom, all exercised under the watchful eyes of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to whom they will have to give account (1 Peter 5:4). Their reward, however, is great – the satisfaction of serving God faithfully and the joy of seeing the growth and spiritual prosperity of the flock they shepherd.
Slavery and Bond Servitude: An Examination from a Biblical Perspective
The issue of slavery and bond servitude carries a significant historical weight. It appears as early as Noah’s era, offering a potential solution to individuals and families confronting economic challenges. When a family faced insurmountable debt due to poor financial management or unpredictable crises, the patriarch could opt to sell himself and his family into slavery. The debt could then be offset by the sale of the family to the creditor or to another prosperous family willing to settle the debt. The individual who entered into such an agreement was commonly referred to as a bondservant.
In exchange for the services provided by the bondservant and his family, the wealthy family offered shelter, clothing, and sustenance. This arrangement provided a temporary survival strategy for the bondservant’s family instead of enduring the harsh realities of poverty. Though bond servitude required laborious tasks, it ensured the bondservant’s family met their basic needs with the aid of a more affluent patriarch or family. Genesis 39:1-6 (ESV) gives us an example of such a bond service, as exemplified in the case of Joseph in Egypt.
Ancient Near East laws allowed a slave to purchase his freedom if he subsequently received an inheritance or if a close relative redeemed him. The process of redemption involved negotiating a cost with the slave owner for the slave’s release. Once released, the slave and his family were entitled to receive gifts from their former master in recognition of their past services. In instances where redemption wasn’t an option, bond servitude could persist for generations, as illustrated by the experience of Jacob’s twelve sons. Having voluntarily entered Egypt, they later found themselves subjugated by oppressive Pharaohs. The Israelites languished in servitude for generations (Exodus 2:23, ESV).
During Moses’ era, many of the laws regulating voluntary servitude were incorporated into the divinely revealed Law covenant. Leviticus 25:39-41, 47-49 (ESV) provides clear guidance on these matters. Nonetheless, a more severe form of slavery also existed where war captives were enslaved and redemption was not a possibility. This oppressive form of slavery was likely established by violent rulers, possibly following in the footsteps of Nimrod.
Presently, humanity is subjected to a different kind of slavery: that of sin and death. Our progenitor, Adam, willingly enslaved himself and all his descendants to death by consuming forbidden fruit in an act of disobedience. Thus, death became a reigning force. This legacy of bondage to death has permeated all of mankind, resulting in a life fraught with hardship and uncertainty. Romans 8:20 (ESV) affirms, “For the creation was subjected to futility.” None have been able to meet the exorbitant cost of a perfect human life to secure their freedom from this lethal bondage. Romans 5:12, 14 (ESV) expounds, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.”
Satan, the original instigator of mankind’s forfeiture of freedom in Jehovah’s theocratic household, has endeavored to perpetuate humanity’s enslavement to both himself and death. As such, he has assumed the role of a harsh jailer and taskmaster over his organization of humans and demons. This means that almost eight billion (7.888 billion 2021) people residing on earth today live under the oppressive rule of their two masters: the deceiver, termed “god of this age,” Satan, and his accomplice, the entity of Death (2 Corinthians 4:4, ESV).
The Power of Redemption: Escaping Life’s Chains through Christ
The debilitating chains of sin and death have enslaved humanity since the fall of the first man, Adam. Nevertheless, there exists a divine escape route from this ensnared condition—redemption. Rooted in the patriarchal law, this principle allows a near relative to pay a redemption price, freeing his kin from servitude. Who, then, could meet the exorbitant cost required to liberate humanity from the power of sin and death? The Scriptures reveal the answer to be found in Jesus Christ, the perfect figure who became human to act as our kinsman-redeemer.
Jesus, referred to as the “last Adam” metaphorically, contrasts with the first Adam through His obedience where the first Adam was disobedient (1 Cor. 15:45 ESV). He also self-identified as the “Son of Man,” which is consistent with His mission to redeem humanity (Matt. 16:13 ESV). As the faithful Son of Jehovah God, He became the embodiment of God’s love and mercy, demonstrating this by His willingness to lay down His life for us. As proclaimed in John 3:16 (UASV), “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, in order that whoever believes in him will not be destroyed but have eternal life.”
In accordance with God’s justice, the redemption price demanded a perfect human life to compensate for what Adam lost—a principle encapsulated in the ‘life for a life’ and ‘life is in the blood’ divine laws (Ex. 21:23; Lev. 17:11 ESV). Jesus willingly gave His life, serving as a perfect man’s sacrifice to meet this exacting requirement. This act is highlighted in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (ESV), which states, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
According to the Scriptures, Jesus successfully completed His mission in Jerusalem around 33 C.E. However, the triumph of His adversaries was fleeting. On the third day, Jehovah God resurrected Jesus, conferring on Him once again an immortal life. Following His ascension into heaven forty days later, the merit of His sacrifice became available to all faithful followers, promising them eternal life.
The New Testament often refers to those redeemed by Christ as “children,” signifying their special relationship with Jesus and their newfound freedom from fear and death (Heb. 2:14, 15 ESV). True liberation from the consequences of sin is found only in Jesus Christ, the redeemer of humanity. Those who embrace this divine provision experience freedom from the power of Satan and the fear of death while also looking forward to complete liberation, either through resurrection or by surviving into the new world at Armageddon.
Once freed, Christians are exhorted to stand firm in their newfound freedom, resisting any return to the old yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1 ESV). This calls for a departure from the path of sin and a commitment to righteousness and obedience to God’s will (Rom. 6:16 ESV). Peter encourages Christians to live for God’s will rather than for human passions (1 Pet. 4:2, 3 ESV).
Paul contrasts the old life of sin with the new life in Christ, warning that those who persist in sinful practices will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21 ESV). Instead, he describes the “fruit of the Spirit” as evidence of genuine transformation and liberation in Christ (Gal. 5:22-24 ESV).
Beyond personal liberation, Christians are commissioned to spread the good news of redemption in Christ, mirroring Jesus’s mission as proclaimed in Luke 4:18 (ESV). In urging others to separate from sin and embrace the redemption offered through Christ, we fulfill this divine mandate (2 Cor. 6:17 ESV).
Revelation 18:4 (ESV) calls believers to sever ties with the sinful, fallen world of imperfect mankind, maintaining a moral and spiritual distinction. As the ultimate showdown of Armageddon approaches, the redeemed will not share the fate of the unredeemed. As we navigate our spiritual journey guided by the Scriptures, let us be vigilant and heed these warnings for our present and future well-being.
Biblical Law, by H. B. Clark, pp. 53, 125.
Ancient Law, by H. S. Maine, pp. 178, 179.
Biblical Law, by D. Daube, 1947, pp. 29-36, 39-56.