When we look at the importance of the maternal line to the patriarchs , it is worthwhile to begin by discussing the men and women within the line and to see how they were related to each other. The importance of women to a group of people can be understood by looking at the behavior regarding marriage and family made by those people. The sorts of women that become wives, especially if there is a consistent pattern in those marriages, tell something very fundamental about the approach of a group of people, and the patriarchs of Israel (specifically Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had a great deal to say about what they valued based on their own marriage behavior. Let us look at what the Bible has to say about the connections that the patriarchs share with their wives, and what the patriarchs had to say about the marriage habits of others, as a glimpse into the biblical high regard for women and descent through the female line.
The first place where we see the connection between the paternal and maternal lines of descent in the story of the patriarchs is in the second of three “she is my sister” stories, about which we will have more to say shortly. In Genesis 20:10-13, we read: “Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?” And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”” Such close family unions were forbidden to the Israelites in Leviticus 18, but Abraham was married to his half-sister, and although she was long infertile, descent through Sarah was of such importance to God’s plan that He worked out a miracle so that the two of them could bear Isaac in their old age. Indeed, not long after this particular incident, when Sarah was 90 years old, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that Isaac would also marry a close relative, in light of this family tradition. Genesis 22:20-24 tell us: “ Now it came to pass after these things that it was told Abraham, saying, “Indeed Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: Huz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” And Bethuel begot Rebekah. These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore Tebah, Gaham, Thahash, and Maachah.” From this passage we can see that Abraham was Rebekah’s great uncle, and that Isaac was Rebekah’s first cousin once removed, because of the gap of generations due to Abraham’s lengthy wait for the promised heir. Here again the two were closely related, all the more closely since Isaac was related to Rebekah from both sides of his family.
And when we look at the marriages of Jacob to two sisters (another practice forbidden to Israel in Leviticus 18), it ought to come as no surprise that these young women, Rachel and Leah, were closely related to Jacob as well through the maternal line. Genesis 28:1-2 tells us: “Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, and said to him: “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and take yourself a wife from there of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.” That is exactly what Jacob did, marrying two of his own first cousins, who were second cousins once removed through his paternal line, out of whom came many of the tribes of Israel. Here we see that for three straight generations the patriarchs went to the same source, namely their own family, for their wives by covenant. To be sure, they had other children through unrelated concubines, but their children by promise came from closely related young women, to the extent that they looked down upon intermarriage with the people of the land.
Even Esau, not a man known for his moral sensitivity, was sufficiently aware of what his parents thought about worthwhile marriage partners to make at least one endogamous marriage of his own, recorded in Genesis 28:6-9: “Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Padan Aram to take himself a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and had gone to Padan Aram. Also Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan did not please his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife in addition to the wives he had.” Here Esau married one of his second cousins, giving his children through that wife a connection to Abraham through both of their parents. This is the sort of connection we will see in the future as a way of ensuring the close ties within families, especially royal families.
It is worthwhile here to ask a somewhat obvious question. What is it about the women of the land that the patriarchs were offended by? After all, we know that there was a specific desire not to marry into the daughters of Canaan. Genesis 24:1-4 gives clear voice to this hostility: “Now Abraham was old, well advanced in age; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”” One does not get much stronger of an expression of hostility than to make someone swear that they will not take a wife among a particular group of people. Genesis 27:46 makes the same point: “ And Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth, like these who are the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?””
A few motives for this strong desire for endogamous marriages within the family group easily present themselves. For one, marriage within a group would mark a strong desire to keep apart from one’s neighbors and to consider them as undesirable partners. For another, it would suggest a desire to keep away from the religious traditions of the Canaanites. It should be noted, after all, that God was reserving their judgment until their sins had reached a certain level, and so it is doubtless that moral reasons had a great deal to do with the hostility to such intermarriage. Genesis 34:8-10 gives an argument for such intermarriage: “But Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him as a wife. And make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters to yourselves. So you shall dwell with us, and the land shall be before you. Dwell and trade in it, and acquire possessions for yourselves in it.”” And the response of Simeon and Levi in verse 31 gives the chilling retort: “But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?”” It was not so much ethnicity, therefore, but morality that was at the heart of the distinction between the patriarchs and their neighbors, which strongly influenced their marriage behavior.
This may be seen by one more example, and that is the case of Judah and Tamar. Although from a Canaanite background, the moral fitness of Tamar to become a part of the privileged line of descent from Abraham is underscored by Judah’s praise to her in Genesis 38:26: “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” This profession of her moral fitness led her to become a notable heroine of the family line of Judah, to the point where she is mentioned both in Ruth 4 and Matthew 1 as being a notable ancestress of David and Jesus Christ, despite her Canaanite background. Let this be a reminder to us that it is ethics and not ethnicity that matters when it comes to godly marriage. After all, the prohibition against mixed marriages with unbelievers is something that still stands in the scriptures. As it is written in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God.” Perhaps believers nowadays are not so different from the patriarchs after all, if indeed we are continuing to follow God’s ways as they did.
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