Sometimes English gender treatment in translating from Greek or Hebrew brings about fundamental misunderstandings. So it is with the word "partriarchs." We understand in English that this word means "father-ruler" or "male-ruler."
But, in fact, the term "patriarchs" is often used as a translation for a term referring to our "ancestors" of both genders, those from whom we are descended. And it refers to both fathers and mothers. By translating this concept with the word "patriarchs" or "fathers" we are communicating a predominance of maleness, when, in fact, there was none in the original.
Here is Jacob, asking to be buried with his "fathers." Does this translation "fathers" make any sense in this passage, or should we think rather of the term which is used as a synonym, "my people?"
- All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. 29Then he commanded them and said to them, "I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah— 32the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites." 33When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people. Gen. 49 ESV
There is a family intimacy to this narrative which is completely belied by the term "patriarchs." Patriarchy, in English, is understood to mean that the father rules the children and the wife. The wife is under the rule of the husband. However, the "patriarchs" of the Hebrew Bible are simply the "parents", the ancestors, who, as couples, as mother and father, engender their children as a blessing from God, and who teach their children the Torah.
But you might ask me whether or not the Herbrew really says "fathers." It does, and it does not. In Hebrew, as in Greek, the common word for "parents" is the plural of the word for "father." But it is clear from its constant use for parents of both genders that this is its meaning - parents. In the English of today, the word "fathers" cannot refer to parents of both genders.
Here is an example. In contemporary Hebrew, the term for a seniors home is beit avot. There is no attempt to segregate the seniors into "men's homes" and "women's homes". But this is the impression you might get if this term was translated as "house of fathers." It would be bizarre and meaningless. The phrase refers to "parents" - a shelter or home for parents, or elderly people of both sexes.
In fact, much of the time the word avot in Hebrew ought to have a gender inclusive translation in order to carry the meaning over from the Hebrew.
The TNIV uses "fathers" in the passage above, but the NRSV uses "ancestors" and this, in my opinion, is the best choice, the one that communicates the meaning of the original Hebrew the best.