The Rationale of Cultural Patterns
IN GENESIS 2:24 it is written, “Wherefore a man shall forsake his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife.” It is amazing how many repercussions in the cultural behaviour of people can hinge upon some apparently inconsequential fragment of the total behaviour pattern. That a man should leave his home and take up residence with his wife’s people rather than that a woman should leave hers and take up residence with his people seems on the face of it of not very profound consequence. And yet there stems from this single procedure a whole chain of consequences which can be traced in virtually every kind of culture in the world, both high and low, and which sheds a wonderful light on a surprising number of events in Scripture.
That it should be the first distinct reference to cultural behaviour in Scripture suggests that the writer recognized its prime importance. And, incidentally, it raises the interesting question as to how the passage got in at this place in Genesis, since it is reasonably certain that Adam himself did not insert it — unless under divine inspiration he was instructed to set down as a guide to marital conduct in the future something about which he could not possibly have had personal experience at the time.
For many years biblical scholars have held that the book of Genesis was originally composed of 11 brief histories which had accumulated from Adam to Moses and which Moses took and combined into a single narrative. This view holds that the first narrative was written by God Himself and terminated with the words (in Genesis 2:4), “This is the history (generations) of the heavens and the earth, etc.” That God should write such a record is by no means impossible. He wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets for Moses;
pg 1 of 11
and He wrote on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace. This first record was presumably put into Adam’s keeping who subsequently added an historical record of his own, a record which terminates with the words, “This is the book of the history (generations) of Adam. . . .” (Genesis 5:1). There are 11 of these in all, and when Moses put together the book of Genesis they formed the basis of his account. To these he added a few explanatory “editorial” notes, which, for example, recorded the identity of places which had since changed in name. To this History he then added the other four books, so that with complete justice the whole Pentateuch is credited to Moses, but with the significant restraint that no quotation in the New Testament from Genesis itself is ever actually attributed to Moses. It is therefore possible, but by no means certain, that Genesis 2:24 was added by the hand of Moses by divine instruction.
Why should the man leave his home rather than the woman leave hers? Primitive societies are primitive chiefly in the sense that their dominion over their physical environment rests on a slender margin. The term “primitive” has nothing to do with intelligence or wisdom in dealing with social problems. There are many anthropologists and sociologists who have expressed the belief that the most primitive people are often the most socially sophisticated. They do not always reason out why they have adopted some customs which contribute to the general well-being of their society, but perhaps they learned more quickly by trial and error than we tend to do. In the present context they saw very clearly that when the wife’s mother receives into her household the new husband, she has gained a son. By contrast if the wife moves into the husband’s home, his mother has “lost” her son. Since from time immemorial the feelings of the matriarch have carried more emotional weight in the home than that of the male, who is very likely to spend far less time at home in any case, it is a sound principle for the well-being of the community to take steps to lessen as far as possible the emotional conflicts which are almost certain to arise when a woman with rights enters the household of another woman with rights. The introduction of the man into the wife’s household rather than the reverse is a custom that is very widespread. It is worth noting certain things which follow from it as a principle.
Were each man to bring his wife into his own family circle, several brothers or a number of males within a village might well end up bringing together a number of women who were virtually strangers to one another and belonged to different tribes with somewhat different patterns of culture, who would then be called upon
pg.2 of 11
to live together in harmony when their husbands might, for one reason or another, be all absent from the village for long periods of time. In most societies of the world until very recent times, the males were likely to be away at war, hunting, or engaged in some form of work away from home. The woman is inevitably in such cases left to care for the children, the hearth, and the animals and the garden. When the husband has settled in his wife’s home, it comes about that the women in the community who must live together and work together rather closely will by this very arrangement already belong to the same basic family, sharing the same cultural idiosyncrasies of the tribe.
The consequences of this practice of residence had other interesting repercussions with respect to the children. Since the children grew up in their mother’s home territory, they naturally learned to behave as members of the mother’s tribe, and they were in fact accredited to her tribe and her family and not to his. As a consequence, when the husband happened to have inherited “property,” and by property is meant rights, titles, movable wealth, and so forth, he might be reluctant to see it pass out of his hands into the hands of his wife’s tribe. Now he could get around this difficulty, if he so desired, by adopting an orphan, or a slave, or a youth captured in war, as his own son, and then passing over to him, rather than to any of his own children, all his wealth. As we shall see, adoption of those who were not sons into full sonship occurs in Scripture. Indeed, when the husband is away for extended periods of time either trading, fighting, or hunting, there is always some question of whether all the children born to his wife are really his children. As a result, there has been a very widespread practice of having the father officially “adopt” his own children. And until this adoption has been publicly declared in some simple ceremonial way, even his own legitimate children cannot claim him as their father.
In our culture, we are very much concerned with physical paternity, that is, with the man’s role in conception. In many other cultures physical paternity is either not even recognized as a fact or is considered of little consequence. In almost all societies other than our own, children are so welcomed that the question of who is the legitimate father is very secondary. Indeed, an unwed mother who has a child, particularly a man-child, is likely to be sought eagerly in marriage because she has demonstrated that she is capable of bearing children. The Chukchee even had a particularly happy name for such an unwed woman: they called her a “fawn mother.”
A further point of logical consequence is that since the woman has not left her home, her brothers are present always while her
pg.3 of 11
children are growing up and they, so long as they remain bachelors, are likely to take a larger part in the education of these children than the father himself does. As a consequence, the children grow up with a rather special attachment to “uncles” as a class. Every daughter in a household looks forward to receiving a bride price from her intended husband, and in the natural order of things it has worked out generally that one particular brother becomes especially attached to one particular sister and that sister will probably turn over to him much of the bride price which she receives, so that he in turn will be in a position to find a wife for himself. This special brother-sister relationship persists throughout life, and since his sister will in all probability be married before he can be, she is apt to have children before he does, and as a result, he will take particular interest in her children as opposed to the children of other sisters in his family. He will be the one who will discipline or reward them. His sister’s husband will not be allowed to punish his own children, and indeed he will generally be very happy not to be required to do so. This uncle relationship is reflected interestingly in the Old Testament in certain important ways.
Another consequence of the matrilocal principle is that in many cultures which are polygynous — that is, in which the man may have a number of wives — his second wife, and indeed as far as possible all his wives, will be sisters. The reasons for polygyny will be considered briefly below, but the point I am trying to make here is that if a man married two women who were not sisters and if he was by custom to live with his wife’s parents, then he would logically have to live in two places at once. The fact is that many societies expect the man who has married one daughter to take in succession each of the other daughters, so that in the end the whole family stays together. The first wife will have the priority due to her, which is nothing less than the priority she had in her own family as the eldest daughter in any case. To marry one of the younger daughters first would, in the eyes of such a culture, give rise to an impossible situation in which a daughter who had been junior in the family would “lord it over” her seniors. The reader may see the relevance of this to one well-known biblical event. But as we shall show, every one of the points which we have considered thus far sheds light on events in Scripture — and this not only in the Old Testament but also in the New.
Because in a polygynous society a man’s wives are likely to be close relatives, the children as a whole will be apt to call any adult female “mother.” Indeed, since the father is common to them all, they not unnaturally look upon every female as a potential mother,
pg.4 of 11
and this is reinforced by the fact that in many such societies any one of the women will without hesitation suckle any hungry child. As a result, children will reserve the use of a given name only for their true mother in order to identify her. The child will, therefore, call every woman “mother” except the individual who happens to be his or her mother, and this individual will be addressed by her first name. By the same token, the women will refer to the child by the true mother’s name as a means of particular identification. It would not serve the purpose to identify the child by its father. Thus while Indo-Europeans habitually attach the determinative -son (i.e., John, Johnson, etc.), other societies in which physical paternity was not so critical used such a form as Mary, Maryson, etc.
But this is only one of many names which a child is likely to receive, names which identify the tribe, and which even summarize the individual’s personal history.
We cannot leave this subject without touching upon one particular concept of marriage which I believe must virtually be absent in every culture except that of so-called Western Man. This is the concept of romantic love as the basis for engagement. People in primitive cultures as well as high non-Western cultures do not marry for love except on rare occasions, and do not marry to legitimize sex. For the most part marriage serves two purposes which are clearly recognized: the first is that, by it, the individual achieves adult status, and the second is that the children may be legitimized. And by “legitimized” is meant here that the children will have a recognized relationship to everyone else in the community. They belong in an orderly way.
It should be emphasized that genuine love often develops between man and wife even when it has had little or no part in the original marriage. When I said that romantic love is not the basis of engagement, I meant only that it is not as a rule the reason for becoming married in the first place. But there are many accounts in the anthropological literature of strong attachment between two married people which has developed as the result of living together. It has been said that any two people of the opposite sex who are thrown together closely for a sufficient length of time and whose background makes them congenial to one another will have a tendency to become increasingly attached in the course of time. There is still much to be said for the once common practice, even in European society, of arranging marriages on the basis of over-all appropriateness rather than prerequisite affection. Unfortunately, all too frequently, romantic love is based upon too shallow a foundation to survive the stresses and strains of individual growth of the two parties.
pg.5 of 11
In many cultures, it is very firmly believed that in procreation the man provides the spirit of the child whereas the woman provides only the body. Since such societies are less materialistic than we are, it is honestly believed that at the time of birth the man makes a greater sacrifice than the woman does and is in greater danger. One interesting consequence of this concept of the relative roles played by the man and the woman in procreation is that the marriage of brothers and sisters is very often considered incestuous, and therefore abhorrent, only when the two children are the offspring of the same mother. Having the same mother, they are believed to have the same kind of body — which forms a dangerous union. On the other hand, having the same father is not nearly as serious. Two children of one father, then, whom we would therefore consider as brother and sister may marry legitimately, provided that they are the children of two different wives. A very interesting story in the Old Testament involving two of David’s children might have ended differently if the young man had realized the implication of his exact relationship to the girl he violated
As we have already noted, earlier cultures tried to make provision for the achievement of familial harmony by insisting upon the union in marriage of people who were related in a special way. They wished to see joined together people who were closely enough related by blood that the involvement of the equally closely related relatives would stabilize the marriage as far as possible with the least emotional disturbance for all concerned, especially when the husband was likely to be absent from home a large part of the time. But they also wished to avoid bringing into the world defective children, an eventuality which people had very early observed was more frequent if the blood relationships were too close. Since each brother in the family tended to be paired off in a special relationship with a particular sister, his sister’s children became of special concern to him. When these children grew up, it was often taken for granted that the ideal marriage partner for them would be one of his own children. Thus a man’s son would ideally marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, i.e., a cross cousin. This can be set forth diagrammatically as follows:
pg.6 of 11
However, among Semitic people another kind of cousin relationship seems to have been preferred. In this case the ideal marriage partner was not the mother’s brother’s daughter but the father’s brother’s daughter, a relationship known as parallel cousin marriage. This is set forth diagrammatically as follows:
Frequently, tied in with this parallel-cousin relationship, was a further principle which is as follows. If my brother marries a woman and dies at a time when his wife may still bear children, then I will assume the position of husband towards his wife. When this happens, his children would then become my children. However, since I am not related by blood to his wife, her children would not be considered related bodily to my children because they have received their bodies primarily from their mother. It thus comes about that although her children have now become my children and are thus counted as brothers and sisters to my children, since I am the appointed father of them all, yet it is perfectly legitimate in societies so structured in this way for such children to be joined in marriage. Indeed, a son may marry a “sister” so that his spouse is both wife and sister, a circumstance which illuminates one particularly well-known story in the Old Testament. He truthfully marries his sister; and yet because she is the daughter of his father (by a process of “adoption”) she is not the daughter of his own mother. It is this last fact which earlier cultures saw as being crucial. It depends entirely on the concept that incest is dangerous because of the close relationship of two bodies derived from the same mother, and not the close relationship of two spirits derived from a common father. This is why a man may not marry his own mother or his own sister by his mother.
It is abhorrent to us that a man should have several wives at once, and yet for thousands of years polygyny has been practiced very widely. One reason for this is that there was a tendency for the succession of wives to be sufficiently closely related that they were already well conditioned to living together. The notion of romantic love introduced a most disruptive of all forces in human relationships, namely, jealousy. And there is no jealousy as divisive as that which
pg.7 of 11
stems from wounded love. The jealousy which stems from wounded pride is bad enough, but there are often ways in which it can be compensated for on a social plane. The simple fact is that the practice of a number of women sharing a single husband does not automatically lead to family chaos. The rights of each wife and her children have almost always been protected by custom. And, curiously enough, it is not infrequently the women themselves who insist upon other women being added to the “community.” This is partly a question of social prestige, for as each wife is added all the previous wives move up in rank by one order. Moreover, a man who can support successfully a number of wives is generally considered to be a superior individual to the man who has only one or two wives. In addition to this is the plain fact that, in many such societies the women far outnumber the men. Not only do they tend to mature sooner and live longer, but the very occupation of men keeps the male population down. The hazards of war, hunting, travelling in general, cause a steady attrition of the male population. In some societies this is so serious in fact that the balance is preserved by destroying a large number of female infants at birth.
Only in Western culture are people comparatively indifferent to the plight of the widow. In non-Western cultures a widow would not be left to grow old by herself, she would be married to a man able to provide her with the associations of “family.” This factor also contributes to polygyny. In short, polygyny, unlike the harem, is a social arrangement not really prompted by sex at all.
There is a further extension of the connected lines of thought regarding marriage which is logical enough, granted the other premises. Since the element of romantic love does not usually enter into the contract of marriage, the marriage bond is in no way weakened seriously in the eyes of the community merely because the husband and wife are constantly at loggerheads. But there is one element in the union which is quite critical, namely, that the wife must bear children. In the event that she proves barren, the man may take one of several alternative courses of action. He may divorce his wife and reclaim in full the bride price, since the “contract” has been broken. As a second alternative, he may demand from the bride’s family the next oldest sister, not as a substitute for his first wife but as an addition to his household to bear his children. It is just such a possibility as this that in many societies leads to the feeling that the bride’s sisters are potential wives of the oldest sister’s husband. And this probably led in some cases to the potentiality becoming a reality, with the end result that the man by custom married all the sisters whether
pg.8 of 11
his first wife was barren or not. There is a third alternative, and this is that the wife who finds herself unable to bear children has the privilege of providing her husband with another woman to raise children for him, the children as they are born being laid at once upon her knees so that they accept her as true mother from the very first. The important point here is that the husband himself is not allowed, in this arrangement, to choose the second wife. And it must be supposed that the first wife will take care to ensure that the second wife will be one who will not forseeably compete with her own privileges as the first wife. The husband has no choice in this matter, it is entirely for the wife to decide and it is she who “gives” the substitute to her husband and not the husband who makes the choice himself.
The opposite of barrenness which is considered a breach of contract is the birth of more than one child at a time, which is frequently felt to be undesirable. The birth of twins has been interpreted in a number of ways by primitive people, some believing it is a good omen and others not a good omen. It is considered a good omen by those who desire only to have a large number of children in their household and who are not unduly superstitious, although in some circumstances even those who love children find it necessary to destroy one of them by exposure since the mother cannot support both because of the harshness of their environment. Those cultures in which the forces of evil are more manifest, and some societies like the Dobuans which are absolutely impregnated with black magic, the birth of twins is looked upon with distaste, suspicion, fear, or horror. Those who look upon the event with distaste are people who usually believe that it is most improper for a human being to parallel the behaviour of animals by bearing more than one child at a time. It is an animal, not a human, practice and is felt to be degrading. Those who look upon the event with suspicion believe that it is evidence of infidelity on the part of the woman. In order to bear two children at once she must have “known” two men, one of whom would, of course, not be her husband. In this case action is likely to be taken by the mother in order to avoid suspicion, and one of the two children may either be destroyed by “exposure” or farmed out to some other family. Those cultures which look upon the phenomenon with fear believe that no good can possibly come of such an event if the sex of the two children is different, since it implies in their mind that a brother and sister have been far too closely associated together in the womb. It is a kind of prenatal incest, which is taboo. Finally, and in the context of this Paper perhaps more significantly, those who
pg.9 of 11
view the event with horror do so because they believe that one of the two children is born of an evil spirit. They therefore destroy both children, being unable to tell which child is the evil one. It is possible that this particular belief arose in the course of time as a consequence of certain events in the early history of mankind which, as we shall see, may also be implied in certain passages of Scripture.
Although the father is not believed to be important in the physical birth of the child, he is believed to be nearly, if not wholly, responsible for the child’s spiritual soul. As a consequence physical malformation is blamed on the mother as a rule. On the other hand, where it happens that the child grows up to look like the father, it is either totally improper to draw attention to it or it is attributed to the fact that the father has played so much with him and been familiar with the child as he grew.
So close is this “spiritual bond” that when a child turns out to be notably good, it is credited entirely to the father, and when the child turns out to be particularly bad, it is blamed upon the father. This is not unreasonable, and it is reflected in interesting ways.
One final aspect of family life relates to the fact that in simpler societies, or in the higher cultures which have a very stable diet, all the members who “belong” have a tendency to develop the same characteristic body odour. A foreigner has a body odour which is different and for that reason apt to be unpleasant. Food has a tremendous effect in this respect when it is not varied from meal to meal and when washing of the body is not an important part of daily life. One of the first things that a man will do when he returns after a period of absence is to bury his nose in the necks of his children in order to delight in the familiar odour which is apt to be most readily detected here where the clothes are vented. Our noses are challenged with so many conflicting odours that we become comparatively indifferent. In biblical times it was not so.
In our culture a man’s will is not usually read until after his death, though he may reveal some of its content to those concerned while he is still alive. To many cultures this would appear to be a strange procedure, for it makes it impossible sometimes for those who are to benefit to make any long-range plans. And with us it is a rare thing for a benefactor to pass on his wealth to any of his children while he is yet alive, thereby anticipating the terms of his will. This again seems foolish to many peoples because the aged are robbed of the pleasure of seeing their wealth do some good and indeed of benefitting reciprocally themselves.
pg.10 of 11
Other cultures have often tended to adopt the principle of allowing children upon demand to be given their inheritance. Since the assumption is generally made in such societies that only sons will share the inherited wealth, if it happens there is only one other son, that other son automatically becomes possessor of all that his father has, a circumstance which is vividly reflected in a well-known New Testament parable.
We shall now consider these matters in somewhat greater detail, using illustrations drawn from cultures in many different parts of the world.
pg.11 of 11
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
Previous Chapter Next Chapter