Patrilineal descent: Before Deut. 7:3

I just read a great book. In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah by Judith Antonelli makes an interesting anthropological case for how the Israelites lived in their Near Eastern context. I think the author is Orthodox, but in any case she made it clear in the introduction that she intends to show that the [divinely revealed] Torah is not sexist, but it is later commentators who are.

In doing so, she unearthed a bit of evidence that I am loading into my expanding patrilineal arsenal. (I’m converting no matter what I uncover about this; this is fun to me anyway, so?) And it’s about incest.

Further indications of the matrilineal definition of incest are found in the statements that “a Noachide was permitted to take his daughter” (Nachmanides) and “idolators do not recognize paternity” (GR 18:5; San. 58a). Only with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai did patrilineal definitions of incest become operative. p. 45

So this is saying that incest was only defined then by matrilineal relationships, and only with the giving of the Torah were patrilineal relations also made incestuous. She makes the argument that this is why the categories of “forbidden relationships” are the way they are. It seems like a good, albeit preliminary, proof to me that the Israelites weren’t using matrilineal descent/and everyone else patrilineal. So at the very least, we’re not going to argue that matrilineal descent is miSinai.

Shlomit’s son from the rape is the subject of the second passage (Lev. 24:10-11); he was later stoned to death. The subject of the quarrel was his matrilineal descent: he went to pitch his tent with the tribe of Dan and was told by an Israelite man that he had no right to be there because tribal descent was patrilineal. Shlomit’s son took the case to Moses, who judged that he was wrong (Rashi). No wonder he was so angry! He was Jewish, because his mother was, but the Israelites rejected him—as Dinah’s brothers had rejected Asnat—because his Jewishness was not patrilineal. p. 144

Here’s another interesting case, where even though Antonelli says “He was Jewish, because his mother was!”, this statement wasn’t part of the story. The Israelites were actively rejecting Shlomit’s son because he didn’t have patrilineal tribal status (regardless of matrilineal status). I also find odd the argument that makes the case that the Israelites were using matrilineal descent while keeping patrilineal tribal lineage (and don’t say there was no intermarriage and it didn’t come up).

With regard to incest again:

Before the Torah was given, only maternal relatives were described as incestuous. Thus, a man could not have sexual relations with his mother, his maternal sisters, or his maternal aunts. p. 291

It seems like, if anything, the giving of the Torah initiated the recognition of patrilineal descent by describing such relations as incestuous.

Last one:

Sarah could marry Avraham because he was her paternal uncle, and Amram could marry Yocheved because she was his paternal aunt. After Sinai these relations, too, became incestuous.

That Isaac, Miriam, Aharon, and Moses came from relationships that we now rightly view as incestuous is startling, but no more so than the fact that Lot’s incest with his daughters generated the lineage that will culminate in the Messiah.

Feminists should therefore champion, rather than criticize as “male-dominated,” the Torah’s emphasis on patrilineal descent, for the lack of a patrilineal incest taboo in the ancient world is precisely why the Levitical sexual code placed so much emphasis on the father—not because a “patriarchal God” sought to validate male ownership of women.  p. 292

Even if her argument is that patrilineal emphasis is only a temporary concession to get people away from incest (which she doesn’t say explicitly so it may very well not be), the sudden departure by the rabbis because of that one prooftext is still strange, given all this.


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