In the Old Testament, there are several instances where when it comes to taking care of a young woman, usually with regard to who she will marry, it is the brothers of the girl that make an effort to stand up for her, or make the deal regarding her marriage, or take revenge on someone who has wronged her. Wouldn't one expect the father to be the one taking part in these dealings/situations?

I've heard that this is a trope, or a device to clue the audience in on what kind of story is taking place. If so, what purpose does this one serve? We usually already have the story framed prior to this trope occurring so it doesn't really help us know what to expect...

Some examples:

3 Answers 3


Families in those days tended to be much larger, especially in regards to kings. David had many wives, each probably bearing multiple children. It would not be difficult in such a situation to see two important details:

  1. Due to having many children, David would not have been as intimate with all of his children. It's simply a matter of running a kingdom, fighting wars (and traveling, therein), sleeping with a dozen (or more) wives, and having dozens (or more) children does not leave time to have an intimate relationship with each and every single one of them.
  2. Due to having so many children, the children would have spanned many years in ages - decades, even.

Because of (1), it would be reasonable to conclude the onus of protecting and caring for the single women would fall on their brothers, probably their older brothers. And because of (2) those older brothers could possibly be old enough themselves to be of a fatherly age (some of them might have even had wives and children of their own). Depending on what "marriageable age" means, some of the brothers might have actually had daughters the same age as their sisters. Definitely a far cry from modern societies!

This is true not only for kings (David) - but Abraham also. Although he had only one child, he was very old, and his brother (Nahor) had grandchildren of marriageable age. It's likely in that time, where there were much fewer people on the planet, and civilizations were mostly genetic clans with very immediate, traceable lineage; that men were accustomed to having significantly more children. So the same two concepts above apply.

Also the same for Jacob - who, having two wives, bore many sons and daughters. Being a patriarch, he had to run not only his family but oversee slaves/servants, control large numbers of flocks and land, interact with surrounding clans, be prepared for war, etc.

As such, I don't think this is a trope as much as just being a standard in that culture. When a young girls' father has dozens of children, and her brothers are twice her age, it's not difficult to see how the onus for protecting, caring for, and marrying the sister would fall on the brothers more than the father.


I'd always taken your first two examples to be showing the hot-headedness of young men. By the time someone is a father of a woman of marriable age one is likely to have calmed down somewhat and be more mature, not risking civil war or clan war to revenge one person. Having lived within a tribal culture in Africa for a few years, it was my experience that when there was some community tension it was the elders were always-calming and wanting to talk things through so no-one would get hurt, whereas it was the younger people (men and women) whom they were trying to calm down.

As for Rebekah's father, he seems to be sidelined perhaps through incapacity; I don't see this as being in a sufficiently similar category for a consistent argument.

I don't see any positive evidence for this being a narrative device.

  • So you're saying that this is simply an accurate portrayal of the culture of the time? The original readers would not have been surprised by the fact that it's always brothers, and never fathers, that are involved in these things? I've added another example by the way.
    – Nacht
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 1:26

Malina addresses this in The New Testament World, chapter 5: Kinship and Marriage:

...as in all societies that exalt bonds between males and masculine lines of rights, the new wife...is like a "stranger" in the house...

...Daughters are welcome but burdensome, since they can plague a father's honor...

...Further, a female is not a stranger when she is a sister, especially with brothers. Brother and sister share the most intense cross-gender relationship in this sort of cultural arrangement, so much so that the brother readily get highly incensed when an unauthorized male approaches either his wife or his sister. Should a woman misbehave sexually, the father will hold his daughter responsible, while the brother will seek out the other party and attempt revenge...

It's difficult to convey the four chapters that lead up to this in a paragraph or two, but in short:

  1. These societies lived in a world where nearly every good thing was limited and therefore worth competing over.
  2. That competition was the domain of men, abstracted into honor which could increase and decrease, whereas the shame of women could not be regained once lost.
  3. The collective honor of the group eclipsed the desires of the individual.
  4. During the patriarchal period the Abrahamites, being minorities in Canaan, adopted a conciliatory marriage strategy with their more numerous and powerful neighbors.

Therefore, daughters were given to more powerful groups by the patriarchs to increase their political protection or economic advantage by becoming aligned with the more powerful group. From the father's point of view, the anger at the defilement is tempered by such responsibilities. The sons are expected to maintain the group's honor (symboled in the father as the head) but may not have the same temperance.

To the specific passages (in chronological order, which is important):

  • Genesis 24: Rebekah's brothers and the servant of Abraham. This only touches on the subject because Laban was first on the scene. In verse 50 it is Laban and Bethuel who accept the offer. But note it is the brother and mother, not the father, who seek to delay her departure.
  • Genesis 34: Dinah and her 2 brothers. Jacob in verse 30 makes plain that he is more worried about being destroyed by his neighbors than righting the injustice. Simeon and Levi's response marks the beginning of a more aggressive marriage strategy (see below).
  • 2 Samuel 13: Absalom and Tamar. This is a defilement within the group, and David is "very angry", but there is no agonistic competition for honor within the group. Her father and her brothers would attempt to minimize the effect on the public perception of their group's honor, and indeed Absalom shuts Tamar up in his home. Almost certainly they attempted to keep Amnon's actions a secret so as not to make their collective dishonor public. Absalom takes two full years to kill Amnon, possibly having his need to protect the group honor worn down by Tamar living in his house over that period, whereas David did not have the same constant reminder.
  • Song of Songs 8: The Shulamite's brothers. This is not the conciliatory marriage strategy from the patriarchal period, but is from the pre-exilic Israelite period, which adopted an aggressive marriage strategy: daughters were to be taken from other groups but kept in one's own group. The more women in one's own group, the more honor. The brothers here continue in their role to advance the collective honor by making their sister attractive, with the intent that she will attract a son-in-law who will increase the honor of their family.

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