Moving the Stones: A sermon about patriarchy

Last Sunday, I was invited to share a sermon on patriarchy with Morgantown Church of the Brethren in Morgantown, West Virginia. It was a treat to get to visit with this brainy crowd, which now meets via Zoom and uses post-sermon breakout rooms to discuss the teaching. I’m grateful for the chance to be with them and for their commitment to learning about oppressive systems. Today’s text focuses on Judges 9:22-54, but it might be handy to read the whole chapter. If you read it and feel a little bored (it’s mostly military history), stick with it.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today, Morgantown Church of the Brethren. I’m grateful for the challenge of speaking today about patriarchy, the organization of society around the interests of men, which are seen as in conflict with the interests of others. Theologically, patriarchy is a sin, a way that the powerful have tried to consolidate power and enrich themselves at the expense of the vulnerable. It is a sin also because it distorts the image of God in God’s image-bearers, valorizing the violence, domination, and exploitation that Jesus rejects. It is a sin because it lingers in old, damaged and damaging ways of relating when we are called to new ways in Christ, in which “there is neither male nor female,” as Paul says. We know it is a sin because it bears bad fruit: domestic violence, including violence against children, militarism; environmental exploitation; and addiction, to name just a few of the social problems linked to patriarchy. Practically, patriarchy is dysfunctional, as it impoverishes whole societies by neglecting and even, when it can, eradicating the gifts of women, nonbinary people, and men who choose other expressions of masculinity, forms better than the violence and possessiveness that is at the heart of patriarchy. 

Today, I invite us to think about these deep, difficult problems that patriarchy causes for the world as stones, while, piled on top of each other, form walls that separate us and fortresses from which we hurt each other. 

We’ll delve into the topic through the book of Judges, a book I know that you have spent some time in recently. Judges tells the story of a budding nation choosing what it will be, who will lead it, and how it will engage with others in the world. Will it be a monarchy? How, if at all, will power be shared? How will it be transferred? We see in the last verse of Judges that the power struggle to settle these issues does not go well: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” 

Today, we pick up this crisis of national identity in chapter 9. Gideon is the greatest of the 15 judges who had serves as the political and military leaders of the confederation of tribes that made up Israel during this period. After his death, the question of who would inherit his power arose. Here is the first stone that patriarchy puts in our path: it seeks to consolidate power among men by using inheritance to pass along wealth, privilege, and status. This has been part of Western history for ages–that wealth and title is passed from father to first-born son. This practice of primogeniture was abolished in the US in 1777 but remained the law in England until 1925. Though we’ve officially abolished it here, it remains foundational to economic disparity in the US. In the US today, families save more money for their sons to go to college than they do for their daughters, resulting in higher levels of college debt for women, even as they graduate to lower-paying jobs. In their 30s, the gap continues, with parents giving money to their adult sons at a rate twice as high to their daughters. Men continue to inherit family businesses at a much higher rate, and ⅓ of family business owners feel strongly that such businesses should be passed to male relatives, not to women. In short, we don’t have mandatory gender-based inheritance systems, but, in practice, families invest, literally, in patriarchy.

But, back to our story: Gideon had, according to the first part of Judges 9, at least 71 sons, including Abimelech, whose mother is a concubine, and 70 sons with his wives. Abilech understands that his mother’s status typically would typically prevent him from inheriting his father’s power. He is an outsider to his own family, a lesser-favored child created with a lesser-favored woman. And so we see another stone that patriarchy places in the path to justice, peace, and reconciliation: it awards women status in the world based on their relationship to men, and the sexual relationships between men and women determine the social statuses of their children. Again, we see this sin appear in the US. It wasn’t until the 1970s in the US that a woman could get credit except through her husband, for example. You probably know that today, women continue to earn less, even for equal work, even with equal qualifications, than men, but you might not know that a significant part of this gap is based on motherhood: mothers earn 28.4% less than fathers, with single mothers earning even less,, but men who are fathers typically earn more than men who aren’t. We call these the “motherhood penalty” and the “fatherhood bonus.” We pay mothers less because we see childrearing as distracting them from work; we pay fathers more because we think that fatherhood stabilizes a man and makes him a more committed worker. The result is rampant child poverty in the US, with 16% of children in the US and nearly 20% in West Virginia living in poverty. 

This less-favored child is ambitious, though. He asks his mother’s family to support his bid for power. He explains it to them this way: You can either be ruled over by 70 of my brothers–none of whom are related to you–or by me, your flesh and blood. They agree that they’ll have more power if they rally behind Abimelech, so they provide him with money. 

And so here is another stone that patriarchy sets before us: it moves from shared power to consolidated power. It is the constant push to narrow who has power. Previously, the judges included Deborah, a woman. That won’t be the case if Israel moves to a monarchy, where power is transferred from man to man. And so it is today, that patriarchy always seeks to narrow who will have power. I want to be clear: this doesn’t mean that poor men or men of color don’t participate or benefit from patriarchy. It means that, as they do, they, to enter a dangerous zone, because patriarchy is always looking for ways to kick people out. The man who bullies women may be accepted for a bit, but he must bully other men, too, to gain or retain power in patriarchy. Abilmech’s maternal relatives are foolish if they think that a man who will betray his brothers won’t betray them. 

Here is what he does with their money: he hires some goons to murder nearly all his brothers. Each is slaughtered upon a stone. Only one, the youngest, survives to deliver this warning to his half-brother’s relatives: If they believe they did what was right, may God bless them. But if they did wrong, then Abilmelech will destroy them, and they will destroy Abimelech. 

And so here we have two more stones that patriarchy puts in our path: the stone of family violence and the stone of an intergenerational curse. By this, I mean that the rupture of trust caused by family violence lives on for generations. And we see this, too, today, in how family violence impacts families across generations. You might be surprised to learn that being a victim of domestic violence does not, in fact, increase one’s chance of growing up to be an abuser. But witnessing domestic violence increases the risk of being an abuser AND of being a victim. That is, children don’t do what was done to them: they repeat what their father did to their mother. That is the intergenerational curse of family violence. And while I use the word “curse” here, I don’t mean something magical and unbreakable. If this describes your family or your experiences, please know that this is a curse that you can break. We don’t have to live with family violence. But we are more likely to live with it if we live in a highly patriarchal society or a highly patriarchal family. 

Our reading today picks up after these events. Survivors of Abimelech’s family begin to plot against him, this usurper, this outsider who gained power over them, this bloodthirsty man. A cousin from Gideon’s family moves to town and emerges as a local leader, a rival to Abimelech. After a harvest feast one night, the wine is flowing freely, everyone is cursing their crummy king. “Who is Abimelech,” Gaal shouts, “and why should he be our king? Why should we be his servants? He and his friend Zebul, his toady, should be our servants. Down with Abimelech! Make me your king and you’ll soon see what happens to Abimelech! I’ll tell Abimelech, ‘Get up an army and come on out and fight!’”

He seeks to perpetuate this system of domination: you win or you lose, you are the king or the slave, second place is just the first loser, you are the lead dog or you just sniff ass. He promises not just to remove Abimelech but to humiliate him: You just wait to see what happens to him! And then, this drunken move: Come out and fight. You can just imagine him there, striking a T-pose, yelling at an imaginary figure or maybe a fence post he dressed up to look like Abimelech: Come and fight me! 

And here is another stone: the way that patriarchy sets the rules so that only violence wins. Notice that Gaal doesn’t suggest that they forgo the idea of a king in favor of judges. Instead, he only promises to be a stronger strongman than Abimelech. 

The mayor of the city, Zebul, is Abimelech’s toady. He overhears Gaal’s drunken threats and passes the word to Abimelech that he should come put down this potential revolt. He suggests this plan of attack: that Abimelech’s men divide into four columns and hide overnight in the fields around the city. In the morning, Gaal is waiting outside the city gates (I imagine him hung over but enjoying his position of power). He’s wheeling and dealing, discussing matters of the city. He looks up and could swear he sees the mountains moving. He turns to Zebul, who he detests but doesn’t suspect of encouraging violence against the city: Am I hallucinating, or are there men streaming down the mountain toward us?

No, says Zebul, that’s just shadows. Nothing to be concerned about. Just shadows.

And here we have another stone of patriarchy: the lies we tell to protect patriarchy, the lies we tell to trap others, the lies we tell in pursuit of violence. This kind of lie is gaslighting–telling someone not just an untruth but telling them that they can’t trust their own experiences. It’s not unique to misogyny, but it’s a common tool of the patriarchy. 

Gaal insists, but, by now, it’s too late: Abimelech’s forces are upon him. He turns accusingly to Zebul, who triumphantly reveals his villainous plans: “Now where is that big mouth of your? Who was it who said, ‘Who is Abimelech, and why should he be our king?’ The men you taunted and cursed are right outside the city! Go on out and fight!” This is beginning to look like a fight in the school cafeteria, boys pushed into violence by a crowd hungry for the drama of it. “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The demand that power is all-or-nothing and that it be determined by physical violence: another stone. 

The fighting is terrible: up to the very gates of the city, Gaal’s men are killed and injured. In the second day of battle, Gaal is again betrayed; another person reveals his battlefield strategy to Abimelech. Again, a stone in the path toward justice and peace, as someone within Gaal’s camp allies themselves with the likely victor to win favor with their future overlord. How often do we do the same. White women, in particular, we do this–we choose to curry favor with patriarchy, hoping that it will protect us, rather than solidarity with its victims. 

Abimelech captures the city of Shechem, where Gaal was fomenting revolt. He kills everyone in it and levels it. Why? Why not just rule over it? Again, a stone of patriarchy: threats to the patriarchy must be destroyed. 

The rural people of the area understand they are in danger and flee to an area fort. When Abimelech reaches Mount Zalmon, he instructs his men to bring bundles of firewood to the base of the fortress. They set the whole thing ablaze, killing the refugees seeking sanctuary inside. 

Another stone: Patriarchy kills the innocent. It claims to protect women and children, but it is their greatest threat. Murder by intimate partner is the leading cause of death among pregnant and post-partum women in the US. 

Abimelech’s men march on, to the city of Thebez. Again, the people have fled to the fortress inside the city. They have gathered on the roof to watch the battle and perhaps to put themselves as far from dangers as they can go should the fortress be breached. 

Another stone of patriarchy: forcing the most vulnerable to fight against each other for safety. 

They see Abimelech’s men gather wood once more. Surely, they have heard of the massacre at Mount Zalman. Perhaps they can even smell the smoke from it, from the deaths of other innocent victims to this feud. 

More stones: Community-wide trauma. Militarism. Environmental devastation. 

And the consequences of these today: Myanmar. Afghanistan. Palestine. Kashmir. Honduras. The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Again, it’s not that women cannot wage war or that men cannot resist it, but, in general, the more patriarchal a culture, the more warfaring it is. All forms of violence are connected, including war and patriarchy.

Abimelech approaches, showing his men again how to burn the place down. For no reason except his bruised ego. For no reason except to stop the potential spread of a threat against him– “the domino effect.” Two towns ago, there was a drunk man rousing anger at his rule, and now he’s on his way to burn down a third town, level it, and kill all the people. They have no idea why. They have nothing to do with this.

From above, a woman unceremoniously settles the issue. She drops a millstone on Abimelech and kills him. We don’t know her name, and we don’t know her strategy, but it seems to me to be an act of superhuman strength, like a mother picking up a car that has trapped her child underneath it and tossing it aside. In a depiction of her by the artist Kevin Rolly, he shows her pregnant, and I can believe it, because pregnant people are amazingly strong. I imagine that she scans the group below, identifies the leader, and accurately hurls this stone as an act of last hope. It’s this or they die. In fact, if she misses, they probably die in a more gruesome way, because patriarchy does not tolerate self-defense. It is, literally in Abimelech’s case, a scorched (and salted) earth orientation to relationship. 

Above, Gustave Doré’s depiction of the death of Abimelech, whose greatest shame isn’t his violence against his brothers or against the innocent but death at the hand of a woman.

She doesn’t kill him. She injures him, and he recognizes that he’s going to die. He calls for his swordbearer to kill him. “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his servant ran him through, and he died. 

What is worse than death? Being killed by a woman. 

And look at what his men do: When the Israelites saw that Abimelek was dead, they went home.” They were never motivated by principle, by anything of value. They wanted a strongman. When he disappears, they disappear too. Perhaps they look at each other sheepishly, wondering: What are we doing here? Murdering women and children? Chasing innocent people into a tower to set them on fire? Maybe they look at each other and recognize that they have secrets to keep: all the murders at Schechem and Mount Zalmon. How has their infliction of violence and destruction bonded them? What moral injuries might they be starting to recognize? How will they explain to others what they’ve done?

Or do they shrug and just walk home, explaining to themselves that this wasn’t their fault–they were led astray?

Or do they convince themselves that they were patriots?

We don’t know, but the text tells us something important here at the end, this unsatisfying lesson about patriarchy: 

“Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers.”

Abimelek’s initial crime was murdering his brothers, nearly ending the line of Gideon.What is a fair exchange for the snuffing out of an entire family line–of a hero of the faith, no less?

Death at the hand of a woman. 

Her power is so tenuous, of course–if she drops the stone and misses the king, she’s going to be killed for daring to raise her hand at him. Another stone: it turns women who exert their power into dangers rather than leaders. 

Seventy men’s murders are avenged by a lethal injury by a single woman to one man. Think about what that tells us about how men’s lives are valued, that they are so easily wiped out by a woman exerting power. Another stone: patriarchy kills men, whose lives are devalued and degraded by it. 

Another stone: patriarchy is so fragile. That fragility means it must be heavily defended, heavily policed, narrowly defined, and highly exclusive. It means that men as well as women are sacrificed to it. We look at the harm, and there is no math that makes this make sense: hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead, all in defense of Abimelech’s effort to seize and defend his power. One woman is as powerful as seventy men here–but only when her power is against a strong man. 

Abimelech’s youngest brother’s prophecy comes through: he’s a bramble king, to quote from earlier in Judges 9, a leader who is a danger to those he should serve. And, in the end, he destroys everything he touches, including those who enabled him. 

The stones of patriarchy are heavy. We struggle to move them. They are long-lasting; it often takes centuries of wind, sand, and water to change them. But they are also movable. Like our words, stones can help or harm–even the exact same words, spoken differently. All stones can be repurposed toward good. We can murder our brothers on a stone or thresh on it. We can launch an attack from a fortress or seek safety in it. The same stone can be a weapon or a millstone that feeds a community. 

I leave us today with these questions: 

  • I’ve listed many “stones” of patriarchy that stand in the way of justice. What are others? When have you experienced them? When have you thrown them in front of others?
  • How can we turn the tools of patriarchy into tools of liberation?
  • Is this story appropriate for the church today? For a peace church? If you’ve never heard this story before, why do you think the church has ignored it? If you’ve heard it before, what new thoughts do you have about it?
  • What would our society look like if we had dismantled patriarchy 2000 years ago? 50 years ago? What could our society look like in a generation if we dismantled it today?

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