Episode 4

The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner, Part 2

Published on: 29th December, 2020

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy!  I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.

Today we are going to resume our discussion of Gerda Lerner’s book, The Creation of Patriarchy. Written in 1986, this book  analyzes ancient texts in great detail, chronicling the development of patriarchal systems from humans’ prehistoric past through the time of the ancient Greeks. My reading partner for this book is Sherrie Crawford, and she’s joining me again today for the second half! Hi, Sherrie!

Sherrie: Hi, Amy!

[Amy: Before we start the discussion today I have to tell you: this past week my girls came to me and said someone had posted on Instagram a quote by Phyllis Schlafly that says 

“The claim that American women are downtrodden and unfairly treated is the fraud of the century.” 

And someone we are close to had “liked” that post on Instagram. So my family (including my husband and son) all talked about it - how did that quote make us feel and why? Was there any truth to it? How do we respond? And after feeling hurt and angry but trying to understand why Schlafly said it and why this person had “liked” it, we thought that one response would be to agree that American women are not nearly as downtrodden and unfairly treated as they used to be. And we should feel grateful for that. Sherrie, that’s how you ended the last episode of the podcast - with your gratitude for how much better things are now. And, that gratitude for continued improvement goes to our foremothers and their male allies for fighting for those changes, every step of the way. People are too quick to forget those battles and praise the heroes or heroines of the past who, in their time, were villainized and told they were too progressive and were ruining society, and whose “scandalous” work is now taken for granted.

So that experience this week reminded me how important this project is to me - when I encounter a quote like that and it makes me feel hurt and misunderstood, but I also kind of doubt myself… I want to be armed with knowledge about the past and facts about our present situation. And that is the purpose of this podcast.]


Ok, so last week we talked about the Agricultural Revolution, and we dug into some of humanity’s earliest written records, like the Code of Hammurabi, and we ended by talking about the ancient goddesses Inanna/Ishtar and Asherah. We talked about how those goddesses were subjugated by the male gods of other, male-dominant religions, which of course reflected the beliefs of the people who were conquering the goddess-worshipping people at the time. And that’s where we are going to pick back up today. We’ll talk about some really fascinating chapters on the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the ancient Greeks, and we’ll cover some of Lerner’s conclusions.

Amy: Overview of Hebrew Civilization/Bible as a historical document

[So we’re going to start today with the Hebrew Bible. Lerner points out that many of Western Civilization’s metaphors and definitions and ways of viewing gender come from the Bible. Kind of like the analogy I used last time of an ancient city where generation after generation builds their town along the same grid created thousands of years ago, human beings have thought about themselves and each other along foundational tracks that were laid thousands of years ago by this one particular group of people called the Hebrews. 

So who laid down these foundations that we still build on? When? What were the circumstances?

I want to tread gently here, because I grew up believing that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch, which in Judaism is called the Torah. I believed that God spoke to Moses, and Moses wrote a record, and that that record hadn’t been changed except in more or less accurate translations, and I trusted that it was literally true. The stories of the Bible were sacred to me. So I want to say here that we are going to be discussing the Bible as a foundational historical text and a way to understand the beliefs and culture of the people who wrote it. But there is still room to believe that the Bible is an inspired text, with many, many stories to learn from and live by.  

I also want to say that the facts that Lerner presents about Biblical authorship are consistent across several sources that I’ve studied in the past few years, from graduate courses at Stanford to Karen Armstrong’s book The History of God to reputable history sources online to Wikipedia. There’s a historical record that you can fact-check really easily. So here’s a brief summary from The Creation of Patriarchy, which I’ll summarize in my own words.

In terms of timeline, remember that written language began in Sumer in 3,000 BCE. Abraham was thought to have lived in around 2,000 BCE, and Moses is supposed to have lived around 1,300 BCE. The stories of the Bible - the Creation, the flood, Abraham and Isaac, Moses rescuing the Hebrews from enslavement in Egypt, etc., were not authored by one person, but by many people over the course of four hundred years, between the tenth and the fifth centuries BCE. Prior to that these stories existed only as oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation. Not for decades, not for centuries, but for thousands of years. 

Scholars believe there are three main threads of authorship of the book that Christians call the Old Testament, who lived hundreds of years apart, and separately they wrote down the ancient oral traditions of their people. (This is why when you read Genesis you get two different creation stories, one where God creates Adam and Eve in “their” image, male and female, and one where God creates Adam first, and then makes Eve out of his rib, as a helper so he won’t be lonely. Two different stories, two different authors, from two different times, reflecting two different worldviews. And they’re just kind of pasted into the book next to each other.) Anyway, scholars have names for these different authors - one is known as “J,” because of his use of the name “Yaweh, which is sometimes spelled with a J, and another author is called “E” for “Elohist,” referring to another of God’s names, and then another author “P” stands for priests. And this author was not just one person, but a whole collection of priestly scribes, working on this project for many years. All the records were finally fused into one book in about 450 BCE under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the kingdom of Judah was under Persian domination and they needed a cohesive volume of their laws and practices and identity. Just for a frame of reference,that’s around the time of Pythagoras in Greece, and Confucius in China.

[Sources: A History of God, Karen Armstrong, 1993


So that’s just a brief introduction to where this text came from.

Sherrie: This is important information as we approach this text. To our knowledge, all of the authors, from beginning to end, were male, and these stories were gathered and embellished and changed over many centuries by different groups of men, absorbing attitudes and practices from those men and from the surrounding cultures. In fact Lerner points out that the Code of Hammurabi and the Middle Assyrian Laws had a big impact on Hebrew law. She says, quote, “The Biblical narratives of genesis, composed between 1200 and 500 BCE, reflect a social reality similar to that described in the Babylonian sales contract in 1700 BCE.”


Ok, so for the rest of the discussion, we chose what we thought were the most important points from Lerner’s analysis of the Bible. I’m going to take the Creation and Fall of Adam and Eve, then Sherrie will talk about a woman’s worth being defined by Motherhood, then I will talk a little about women’s legal standing in some scenes that involve violence against women, and then Sherrie will talk about the Abrahamic Covenant. After that we’ll switch gears and I’ll share some highlights about how women were viewed in ancient Greece. Sound good?


Amy: The Creation and Fall

Lerner suggests that when we look at any religion’s creation narrative - and all humans, in all places at all times, have them! we can ask three questions to help us understand the values of that culture.

“By articulating how things were in the beginning, people… make a basic statement about their relationship with nature and about their perception of the source of power in the universe.”

  1. Who creates life?  
  2. Who brings evil into the world? 
  3. Who mediates between humans and the supernatural (Or, to whom do the gods speak?)

Remember during the last episode we talked about the goddesses. Who created life in those origin stories? A mother goddess, in partnership with a father god.

We didn’t talk about who brought evil into the world,

But we briefly mentioned that gods spoke to both men and women through priests and priestesses, prophets and prophetesses, male and female oracles. 

Lerner suggests that we keep those questions in mind as we look at this text and what it says about the authors’ beliefs and attitudes. 

  1. Who creates life?

The Bible says “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. The account follows where God says “let there be light,” and He separates water from land, creates animals, then creates Adam, and tells Adam to name all the creatures. This is a male, Father-God - there is one “they” that refers to God, and Elohim in Hebrew technically means plural gods, but the pronoun is always masculine and the overwhelming conception of this person is male. There is no Mother God creating alone or creating with the help of a male. She’s just completely absent.

To the question “Who creates life?”, Genesis answers, Yahweh and the God-like male he created. (193) [And in the Mormon temple it’s even more explicitly a team of men, with no women in sight.

***[You would think that Eve, the mother of all living, should have some kind of role in the story of creation. But she is superceded by Adam, who names her, the same way he names the animals, and thus controls, and defines her power. 

  1. Who brought evil into the world?

First of all, we’ve talked in previous episodes about the goddesses, and how they were represented by snakes and by trees - remember in our first episode Malia and I talked about the ancient symbol of the snake, and last time Sherrie talked about Asherah, the goddess of wisdom, being represented by trees. 

Let’s read the account as it appears in the Bible, just so we have the exact words in mind. Sherrie, would you mind reading this part? 


Genesis 3: 1-6

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying,

Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

20 And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.


So who brings evil into the world? Woman. A snake, symbol of feminine power tempts Eve, the first woman, with a promise of wisdom. The woman takes a fruit from a tree, a symbol of Asherah, Goddess of Wisdom, and that brings about the fall of humankind. 

I have a lot to say about this story and the way it has impacted women’s lives throughout history, but instead I’m just going to read two quotes from Lerner’s book and let them stand on their own.

  • The consequences of Adam and Eve’s transgression fall with uneven weight upon the woman. The consequence of sexual knowledge is to sever female sexuality from procreation. God puts enmity between the snake and the woman (Gen 3. 15). In the historical context of the times of the writing of Genesis, the snake was clearly associated with the fertility goddess and symbolically represented her. Thus, by God’s command, the free and open sexuality of the fertility-goddess was to be forbidden to fallen woman. The way her sexuality was to find expression was in motherhood. Her sexuality was so defined as to serve her motherly function, and it was limited by two conditions: she was to be subordinate to [RULED BY] her husband, and she would bring forth her children in pain. (196)
  • The divine breath creates, but human naming gives meaning and order. And God gives the power of that kind of naming to Adam. ...God granted that power specifically to the human male only. ...after the creation of Eve, Adam names her, as he had named the animals. “And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; and shall be called Woman because she was taken out of man’ “ (Gen. 2:23). The naming here not only is a symbolic act of creativity, but it defines Woman in a very special way as a “natural” part of man, flesh of his flesh, in a relationship which is a peculiar inversion of the only human relationship for which such a statement can be made, namely, the relationship of mother to child. The Man here defines himself as ‘the mother’ of the Woman; through the miracle of divine creativity a human being was created out of his body the way the human mother brings forth life out of her body. (181)

Sherrie is going to talk more about the covenant a little later, but really quickly, let’s just answer the third question: 

  1. Who mediates between humans and the supernatural (Or, to whom do the gods speak?) Lerner says:

The Old Testament male priesthood represented a radical break with millennia of tradition and with the practices of neighboring peoples. This new order under the all-powerful God proclaimed to Hebrews and to all those who took the Bible as their moral and religious guide that women cannot speak to God. (179) [I would add here that of course the Bible is full of women praying to God, the same way men do, and God answers their prayers on an individual basis, the same way He does with men, so if it stopped there it might be equitable. But added to those individual relationships, only men are entrusted with leadership in the religious hierarchy, and only men preside over their wives, who have to obey them. So to whom does God speak? He speaks to men.


So Sherrie, let’s talk about women’s value being defined by motherhood in the Bible.

Sherrie: I personally remember the fear of not ever being able to bear children as a young married woman. I didn’t have words for it then, but now I understand that it was fear of worthlessness, fear of devaluation. These concepts were very much alive in my family heritage and young Mormon girl heart.  The two main points are: 

  1. [Jewish law: “Yibbum” is the form of levirate marriage found in Judaism. As specified by Deuteronomy 25:5–10, the brother of a man who died without children is permitted and encouraged to marry the widow.]

I remember reading about this as a teen in seminary, and again as a young married woman.  No shade to my brothers-in-law, but this would simply NOT work. The law could be seen as benevolent, making sure she’s not cast out into the streets and alone, but why not create a society where a widow has better options than either marrying her brother-in-law or being destitute? 

Also, Lerner points out that a woman has to get married again in order to fulfill her purpose as a woman. She quotes L. M. Epstein’s explanation, “The family had paid for her [their son’s widow] and the family owned her. Family property was not allowed to lie fallow, so this woman, bought and paid for and capable of wifehood and childbearing, could not be allowed to be without a husband.” (118) 

Women really were seen as breeders. Used for their uterine capacity.  Used. Used as an object, void of feeling, opinion, intelligence...

  1. If you think your only worth is in fertility, then barrenness is worse than death.

The story that unifies 3 major religions begins when the childless, aging Sarai urges Abram to have intercourse with her maidservant Hagar:

And Sarai said unto Abram: “Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her.” And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.”

[So Abraham has sex with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, who conceives and gives birth to Ishmael. And then Sarah becomes so jealous, she makes Abraham kick Hagar and Ishmael out of their family and out into the desert. Hagar believes Ishmael is the heir of the Abrahamic covenant, and Islam traces their lineage through him. But of course then Abraham and Sarah had a baby in their old age, named Isaac, and...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.