“Abraham, the family head, . . . By faith he resided temporarily in the land of the promise as in a foreign land, and dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the very same promise.”—Heb. 7:4; 11:9, NW.
1. Why do Christians today find it timely to examine some of the shadows and systems of earlier societies?
GOD-fearing people earth-wide are aware of the present disintegration of the corrupt old world society. Bible prophecies and the sign of the times prove conclusively that these old world systems of things will make their permanent exit in a low bow of total defeat in the immediate future. Fortunately for the generation of the righteous now on earth, Jehovah God in his great mercy and foresight has preserved a record of his divine revelations which contain a host of secrets pertaining to our present and future welfare. By the force of events many of these secrets are now being unlocked by the Great Interpreter himself. (Dan. 2:47) From these it is possible to obtain a clearing vision of the details which will operate in the new world order of things. Actually the new order of things is already taking shape and will be fully operating at Armageddon time to fill the vacuum left after the cataclysmic disappearance of the old order. For this reason God’s witnesses on earth are now diligently studying the Holy Scriptures to fully examine the numerous shadows, principles, methods, procedures and systems employed by societies of God’s servants in Biblical times. God’s dealings with those ancient societies foreshadowed many developments in the new world order of things.—Rom. 15:4, NW.
2. What is meant by “patriarchal society”? When did such a form of Biblical society exist?
2 Our present purpose is to make an examination of patriarchal society. To commence with we should know what the word society generally means. Society means an organization of persons associated together for various purposes with the individuals generally living together as members of a community. For 856 years after the flood the form of human society that Jehovah God had dealings with was that of a patriarchal society. However, the last 215 years of this patriarchal era found the Israelites in slavery as a patriarchal society subservient to Egypt. A patriarch was a family head. (Acts 7:8, 9, NW) Therefore a patriarchal society was the organization of individuals related by blood, by marriage or by adoption who lived and worked together in a community under the leadership of a male family head. Such a patriarchal society formed a “family government”.*
FAMILY HEAD NOAH
3. Describe Noah’s organizing activity.
3 The first great patriarch or family head of the immediate post-flood society was Noah. From the Bible’s account of Noah’s activities and from later evidences of his leadership, we observe that Noah was a great organizer of society. For about 40 or 50 years before the flood, Noah organized his family of three sons and their wives and his own wife for the building of the ark. This was a prodigious project necessitating the gathering and assembling together of much timber and other materials. All this required negotiations with neighboring peoples, payment in money for goods and services and making of contracts which brought into play rules of conduct and business. Likewise the marshaling together of the host of animals which later entered the ark required planning and orderly handling. Noah, the 599-year-old shrewd organizer, after caring for all preliminaries, went into the ark in 2370 B.C. with an organized society of which he was the head. For a year and ten days he maintained order and the well-being of this community in the ark while the flood waters held sway over the earth.—Gen. 6:13–8:19.
4. What did God do for human society right after the flood?
4 Jehovah God had blessed and guided this preflood patriarchal society under Noah’s headship. Just as this society had gone into the ark fully organized so they came out fully organized under a family government. Having disembarked safely on dry land in 2369 B.C., Noah immediately led his family in making a gigantic burnt offering of praise to their deliverer Jehovah. Jehovah was pleased with this evidence of gratitude and proceeded to give Noah instructions for continuing human society. God promised man that never again would he curse the ground and that the earth would continue to enjoy its seasons. Also a divine command was given to fill every part of the earth with families of his descent. By direct revelation God began to give man divine law through the instrumentality of Noah. The rainbow was set in the sky as a sign of God’s great covenant with surviving society under Noah’s leadership. Hence Jehovah God as the great Superior took steps to give man a righteous start upon a cleansed earth. God gave righteous man a law around which to develop his post-flood government.—Gen. 8:20–9:17.
5. How was Noah equipped to give a proper lead to human society after the flood?
5 By reason of his having been in direct communication with God many times and having received revelations of the divine will, Noah as a keen lawyer and organizer was in the authoritative position to guide the expansion of human society after the flood. And that he zealously did during the 350 years he continued to live after the deluge. A man of great wisdom, foresight and of long experience in ways theocratic, Noah could be relied upon to set the proper lead in matters of post-flood government. When new problems arose he would be able to make clear right principles, establish proper precedents, initiate wholesome customs and give sound judgment in harmony with the mind of the Lord which he enjoyed as God’s confidential servant and prophet. How fortunate human society was after the flood to have had such a well-trained theocratic organizer as their counselor!—Gen. 9:28, 29.
6. What governmental pattern did Noah set for society after the flood?
6 Did Noah seize the opportunity after the flood to become a king of a supergovernment to rule over all the rapidly increasing number of his descendants? No. Noah was a God-fearing man of faith in the promised Seed who was to be sent as King to establish a new world government over all mankind. (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 11:7) Kingship was not Noah’s assignment. Rather Noah proceeded to set a pattern of developing small units of family governments or patriarchal societies, which family groups would live independently of each other and migrate into all parts of the earth. The unit of this arrangement was not the individual but the family, a group of related individuals ruled by its family head, the patriarch. After the death of a family head, the oldest son would continue the headship of that unit and permit the other sons to move off, as did Esau and Jacob, in later history, to start separate societies. Later in time, the sons of a family head held together after their father’s death under the leadership of an outstanding brother as did the twelve sons of Jacob and thus became a “house” or a clan of twelve families. In time each family of Israelites developed into a tribe, and finally these kindred tribes grew into a nation under the headship of Jehovah.—Gen. 46:2, 3; 49:28; 50:24, 25; Ex. 19:4-6.
7. What did Noah live to see? How did Satan try to interfere with God’s post-flood purposes, and what resulted?
7 Under Noah’s wise supervision the typical divine mandate of populating the earth proceeded to the point where eventually seventy nations were in operation all speaking one language but migrating as nomadic communities in all directions. Twenty-six of these nations sprang from Noah’s son Shem, fourteen from his oldest son Japheth and thirty from his youngest son Ham. (Gen. 10:1-32) Noah also lived to witness the beginning of a cancerlike growth of rebellion against the great Sovereign Superior, Jehovah God. It all began with a young great-grandson of his by the name of Nimrod who was not honored as among the seventy family heads of the seventy nations. By defying God’s rainbow covenant, by using war to put men in fear of himself, and as a tool of Satan, Nimrod rebelled against the Noachian system of rule. Instead he set up the first kingdom government with Babylon as the center. This upstart tried to make himself greater than Noah by proclaiming himself as the first human king. He embarked on a religious tower-building project to keep many of the families from spreading to the four corners of the earth as God purposed. God expressed his wrath against this rebel movement by confusing the tongues of these tribes under Nimrod, thus forcing them to migrate abroad in accord with his original will. Having lived a long life as a counselor among many ancient nations, organizer Noah finally died, in 2020 B.C., at the ripe age of 950 years. Before his death he witnessed God’s mandate carried out in spite of Satan’s thwarting efforts by uniting man under governments opposed to Jehovah God.—Gen. 11:1-9.
8, 9. (a) From where did the Hebrew family heads get their customs and law? (b) How was it possible for the theocratic patriarchs to deal with their pagan neighbors according to a common legal procedure? (c) What argument is there for thinking that many of these customs were of a divinely sanctioned origin?
8 We will now proceed to examine several interesting features of patriarchal society. At this point it should be understood that while many legal features found in the Bible are also found in the ancient nontheocratic legal systems such as the Babylonish Code of Hammurabi, the Hittite Code and the Assyrian Code, all three codes having been found in recent times by archaeologists, such are no evidences that these features were borrowed by the Hebrews from their pagan neighbors. Rather, expressly to the contrary. These are evidences that heathen nations have carried over many ancient laws and customs from the Noachian system of law and order, which pattern the faithful Hebrew patriarchs followed.—Ezek. 14:12-14, 20.
9 As the early tribes and nations came under greater control of Satan and his false theories of government, the Noachian structure of early law and order receded somewhat into the background. Nevertheless, since it was a fact that many of their basic laws were still of early Noachian origin, this made it possible for faithful theocratic patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to deal with their pagan neighbors according to common customs of legal procedure. It is also well to state at this point that, since many of the legal features practiced by the faithful theocratic patriarchs were later incorporated in the Law covenant dictated by God to Moses, it strongly indicates that they were of a divinely sanctioned origin. For surely God would not have incorporated laws and customs which originated with Satan’s demon-empowered governments.—2 Cor. 6:14-16, NW.
10. How was property held in patriarchal society? Explain.
10 As already alluded to, the family rather than the individual was the unit in patriarchal society. Generally there was no holding of individual property aside from a few personal belongings. All property as to herds, household goods, equipment and lands was held in common by the family, since they were all related to one another by birth, marriage or adoption. This is confirmed in the statement made by Rachel and Leah to Jacob their husband and family head on the occasion when they separated with all their goods from their father Laban’s tribal household to commence an independent patriarchal society. “Rachel and Leah replied [to Jacob their husband and head], ‘What share or possession is left for us in our father’s house? Does he [Laban their father] not treat us like aliens? He has sold us, and he goes on to spend all the price of our marriage! All the wealth that God has taken from our father now belongs to us and to our children; so do whatever God tells you.’” (Gen. 31:14-16, Mo) Thus by holding their wealth in common, as noted above, the small family government formed what might be likened to a modern corporation with its official head being the father or the oldest son in the oldest line from the common ancestor if several families lived together in a “house” or tribe. We also see in Jacob’s case how the family head served as a priest communicating with God. Furthermore, as a representative of God the family head led in offering family sacrifices.
11. What responsibilities fell upon the family head?
11 The patriarch further served as a fatherly ruler and overseer. He gave commands as to the family’s daily work and carefully supervised the training of his children, as he was fully responsible legally for their every violation of law. He made contracts with neighbors and also judged and punished his household for any violations of law and custom. Actually the family head completely controlled and governed the lives and property of all the members of his household organization. Being the family’s spokesman before God and man, the patriarch was furthermore held responsible for the conduct of his family. He and the family as a whole were answerable for trespasses and offenses committed by himself or by members of his family against other family units. The family head might be required to deliver up a member of his family or pay in property to make satisfaction for wrongs done.—Josh. 7:24, 25.
12. To what in modern times may the patriarchal family unit be likened? Explain.
12 As in the case of modern corporations made up of many persons where the whole corporation is considered just one artificial legal person to be sued for any damages committed against others, so the entire ancient family was considered a legal corporate person* to make retribution for wrongs done. Thus right from the beginning after the flood there was what is called “family responsibility” which later expanded into “community responsibility” holding the entire body responsible for wrongs done by any member. This was so viewed because all jointly owned the property and their lives were bound up closely to their family head. It is noted from the Bible that these closely knit, legally responsible families prospered greatly with security and lived in much happiness wherever their family head was theocratically minded by serving Jehovah. Such ones ruled their households lovingly and wisely.—Gen. 24:1.
13. Describe how possession of land was transferred.
13 The patriarchs had an interesting way in which they offered and transferred possession to land. The prospective buyer would be taken to a vantage point where the seller would describe the precise boundaries and the advantages of the land being offered. After lengthy bargaining back and forth, the seller would finally recite the exact four boundaries of the land for transfer. When the buyer said, “I see,” then the deal was considered closed and a contract made.* The conveyance was made in this manner before witnesses without a literal “handing over” of the land by means of a written deed. However, written contracts also were used. At times the bargaining process itself involved quite a ceremony.—Gen. 23:3-16.
14, 15. (a) How did Jehovah conform to this custom of land transfer? Explain. (b) How did Satan? Explain.
14 Jehovah God himself conformed to this custom when he made a legal offer to Abraham of the Promised Land. At a vantage point in Canaan, God pointed out to Abraham the precise boundaries of the territory offered. But God did not permit Abraham to say, “I see,” and thus legally accept the transfer, as it was not God’s due time to grant legal possession. (Gen. 13:14, 15) However, the legal transfer was made in the year 1473 B.C., some four hundred years later, when Jehovah caused Moses “to see” or to accept legal possession on behalf of the nation of Israel just before they crossed the Jordan to take the Promised Land. “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto mount Nebo, . . . And Jehovah showed him all the land . . . And Jehovah said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, . . . I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes.”—Deut. 34:1-4, AS; also Deut. 3:27.
15 Notice that Satan the mimic also conformed to this method of offer when he approached Jesus in the wilderness to tempt him. “Again the Devil took him [Jesus] along to an unusually high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him: ‘All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me.’” (Matt. 4:8, 9, NW) Satan here was actually making a genuine legal offer for Jesus to consider seriously of legally accepting. Even though Jesus quickly recognized it as a legal offer yet he lost no time in utterly rejecting it by saying, “Go away, Satan!”
16, 17. (a) As judges how did the family heads determine evidence? (b) Give Bible examples.
16 In settling local family disputes the family heads served as judges. To render justice it was very necessary for them to sift out the exact evidence in the matter under dispute. According to the King James and American Standard Versions, when the evidence was clearly determined they used the expressions “to know”, “to discern” or “to acknowledge” in giving their ruling on the facts. This legal language would be similar to our time when a judge or jury sits “to find” a man guilty of crime according to the evidence submitted. When Laban accused Jacob of having stolen his teraphim Jacob legally gave Laban the right to search out the evidence as to Jacob’s innocence. Jacob said, “Before our brethren discern thou what is thine with me, and take it to thee.”—Gen. 31:32, AS.
17 Another example is the case where family head Judah sat as a judge to hear the case of his daughter-in-law Tamar who was accused of being illegitimately with child. “And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff. And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She is more righteous than I.” (Gen. 38:24-26, 11-20, AS) Judge Judah was forced to admit legally that he was the father of her child by the clear evidence presented that she was the supposed harlot that Judah had relationship with some time previous.
18. Why did the faithful theocratic patriarchs continue to live as temporary residents in the Promised Land?
18 There were many other customs involving birthright, the right of parents to choose the wives for their sons, responsibility when one places property in the custody of another, slavery, concubinage, redemption of slaves, and others. Several of these will be examined in the succeeding article. At this stage in the examination of patriarchal society it can be seen that it was no crude social order. Rather it was a system highly organized adapted to the nomadic life of those early family units. They dwelt in tents and wandered over the land in the care of their large flocks and herds. The faithful theocratic patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the others were content to live in the land of promise as temporary residents awaiting the time for the promised Messiah, Christ Jesus, to come as King to establish the everlasting kingdom of righteousness over the earth. “For he [Abraham] was awaiting the city having real foundations and the builder and creator of which is God.” (Heb. 11:8-10, NW) So we see there is much of particular interest for us today as to God’s dealings with his servants under the patriarchal system of organization. As God’s legal ways change not, his legal actions back there are bound to indicate similar ways for the new world system of things. So let us not despise these early days of small beginnings.—Mal. 3:6; Zech. 4:10.
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.