I have been asked a couple of times why I chose to make the society that lived in Kephrath and the other three towns in In a Milk and Honeyed Land a matrilineal one. As Damariel says to the Egyptian priest Senenptah while in Gedjet (Gaza) “we reckon descent through the mother”. But more than that, houses in the four towns are the property of women rather than men. It is not the same as a matriarchy, where women rule the culture, though the two may in some places have gone hand in hand. The book makes clear that the four towns were customarily ruled by a male chief, and that those who served as seers and priests did so as married couples. Both sexes play key parts in the day-to-day organisation of the towns, but nevertheless households are defined by the oldest woman there, not the oldest man.
There are a couple of answers to this, depending if one is talking about the historical basis or the narrative purpose. History first. It seems clear from numerous archaeological findings, chiefly religious amulets and the like, that women in the Middle and Late Bronze Age (about 1800-1200BC approximately in the ancient near east) were regarded with much more equality and played a much more significant role in social decisions than was the case in the Iron Age (1200BC through to Roman times). So, since I am writing about a society that was still living in a Late Bronze style, I wanted the place of women to be recognised as crucial by the townspeople themselves. In this sense, chief Mahur-Baal’s desire to turn the four towns into a male-dominated kingdom was a little ahead of his time – by about the year 1000BC similar kingdoms were in place all around the region, including ancient Israel, and judging from archaeological relics, women then occupied a much more subordinate position.
We have no specific evidence as to whether the Gibeonite towns really did have a matrilineal society, and such detailed evidence is unlikely ever to be brought to light. The accounts in the Hebrew Bible of Jacob’s trip out to Mesopotamia contain some hints that this was the practice further east, at least in some places. For example, Jacob moves into his new wife’s house to live there, rather than setting up his own household or taking her back to his own father’s home. But the details here can only be seen through the editorial choices of the later scribes who collated earlier traditions into what we now call the Bible, and the process has left us with only some of the information we would like.
From a narrative point of view, the choice presented some challenges. First and foremost, it meant making sure that I stayed true to that particular vision of the society, and avoided slipping into a “normal” perspective. There were a great many times when I found that I had written that someone went to “his” house rather than “her” house. So the choice involved a lot of self-discipline, and discovering just how entrenched some verbal habits can be.
As well as that, keeping the roles of both men and women central as regards the culture of the four towns – while also keeping their roles quite different in other ways – has always seemed to me a key ingredient of the description of the land as ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The phrase evokes a setting of lavish and unashamed femininity, and serves in the Bible as a balance to what seems to some people a very male-centric world view. To make the land flow with milk and honey, I chose to have the four towns live in a way that defines the family households in terms of women.
So the choice seemed to me to be a credible one in terms of the history of the Gibeonites, and was definitely one that fitted the vision of their society that I wanted to portray. Let me know what you think! To buy In a Milk and Honeyed Land in kindle and other ebook formats, or in soft-cover and hard-cover, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.