Click here to download the .doc of my dissertation with full bibliography and footnotes.
Unravelling Threads: Contextualising the Women of the Hebrew Bible, and their Impact.By
Student No: 421005532
Supervised by Dr. Dan Levene.
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the BA (History) degree at the University of Southampton.
I acknowledge that this dissertation is my own work. I have read and understood the definition of plagiarism and the details of possible penalties for plagiarising in the History Handbook or at http://www.history.soton.ac.uk/handbook6.htm.
Table of Contents.
Chapter 1 – Women and Worship 13
Chapter 2 – Women and Work 25
Chapter 3 - The Transmission, Uses and Abuses of a Female Tradition. 37
The Song of Questions
Mother, asks the clever daughter,
who are our mothers?
Who are our ancestors?
What is our history?
Give us our name. Name our genealogy.
Mother, asks the wicked daughter,
if I learn my history
will I not be angry?
Will I not be bitter as Miriam
Who was deprived of her prophecy?
Mother, asks the simple daughter,
if Miriam lies buried in sand,
why must we dig up those bones?
why must we remove her from sun and stone
where she belongs?
The one who knows not how to question
she has no past,
she has not present,
she can have no future
without knowing her mothers,
without knowing her angers,
without knowing her questions.1
“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.
This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well – known history of my father, Jacob and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother. On those rare occasions when I was remembered, it was as a victim…It’s a wonder any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again. But some did. Maybe you guess that there was more to me than some nameless cipher in the text…No one recalled my skill as a midwife, or the songs I sang, or the bread I baked for my …brothers. Nothing remained except a few mangled details about those weeks in Schechem.
There was far more to tell…If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and listen carefully.”2
The extract above is from The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant. It is an imaginative interpretation of the lives of the main female characters of the Jewish Pentateuch. It is written from the perspective of Dinah, the daughter of Leah, infamous in the Judeo – Christian tradition for being raped by the prince of Shechem, and the violent retribution of her brothers upon the city. It provides a type of illumination into the lives of women in Pre – Exilic Canaan, a life of agrarianism, textile production, childbearing and goddess rituals. Women through thousands of years have lived with the stories of these women in the religions of the Abrahamic traditions. However, the scriptures portray these women in a very different way compared to The Red Tent. One could go as far to as say that The Red Tent attempts to fill the silences of the scriptures. Quite simply there is very little biblical information on the lives of women in these ancient worlds. Nevertheless, the female characters of these stories have been used as both role models and examples of undesirable behaviour by society. Within the full spectrum of thought, from orthodox and conservative to feminist and liberal, people have tried to appropriate these figures for their causes, recognising their inherent powerful authority. The tales of the women in the Pentateuch have become Sunday School and Cheder fodder trying to interest young girls in religion. They have become the focus of practitioners of the arts who also use them to comment on their contemporary societies. Something is compelling and universal about the experiences of the women of the Bible, which makes them the focus of such attention. This can be seen in the prefacing passage, from a feminist Passover Seder published in the second – wave feminist magazine Ms.3 There is sizeable amount of modern literature that tries relate the women of today to the women of the Bible. Like the questioning daughters of the passage, The Red Tent tries to give a sense of common past through the biblical texts; that a woman’s life is somehow enriched through learning these ancient stories.4
An examination of historical literature shows an increased interest in the women of the Bible and their roles in wider society of the Ancient Near East in recent times. However, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. John Lee Thompson in his work; Writing the Wrongs; provides an overview of the exegesis and comment on biblical women from the traditional Jewish midrashim, to the Christian writers of the Reformation.5 Moreover, David Gunn outlines a short of history of scholars, authors and artists in the early modern and modern periods who have explored the place of women in the Bible. These include the poetic works of Peter Abelard (1079-1142) on Jepthath’s daughter of Judges 11 and the moralists of the nineteenth century Clara Lucas Balfour (1808-1878) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) disagreeing over the motives of Jael of Judges 4. 6 This century in particular shows an increase in writing by women on the subject, in all probability due to the movement during this period towards better access to education for women. As a result, during the women’s movement of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, a sense that women needed to read the Bible being self aware of their status as women came to the fore, with proponents such as the temperance leader, Frances Willard.7 An example of this is the book Women of Israel, or Characters and Sketches from the Holy Scriptures and Jewish History written by Grace Aguilar in 1889. It outlines the female characters in the Bible, and uses each one to educate women in a supposedly ‘biblical way’ of behaving.8 However, it does so in way that would not have caused any upset to a rabbi or priest at the time. The example below outlines what lessons a woman can learn from the behaviour of Esther;
"That the Bible does give both sympathy and encouragement, even to the most constitutionally weak, is proved by the sweet, gentle feminine character of Esther. Strength of herself, indeed she had none; but it was asked and granted; and so it will be unto all…Every woman should take it to her own heart, and remember, with holy joy and thankfulness, than the preservation of her people, which …was, under the Eternal, the work of a woman not stronger, not more gifted than herself. God might equally have worked by other means; but that He did choose so weak and frail an instrument is right, indeed, to be a source of consolation and rejoicing unto us; and strengthen each and all of us in the hope that we too may be come instruments of his hands for good."9
This trend of writing continued with the explosion in writing on the subject in the later twentieth and the first part of the twenty-first one can be somewhat explained by the rise of feminism as a more mainstream social, political and cultural force, particularly in the western world. This study will concentrate on works from this later era, as they provide the reader with some of the more radical ideas in contrast to the ideas on women based on biblical portrayals that stem from a more conservative, established tradition. Phyllis Trible and Alice Ogden Bells have been hugely influential in this field, both examining the Bible in detail for references to women and reinterpreting it through the lens of feminism.10
This study will attempt to examine the major roles of women as outlined in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, through examination both of the texts themselves as historical sources and the use of primary and secondary sources from a range of disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology and, of course, history. This is in recognition that - whilst holy scriptural books for many people - these texts were not written outside of time and other influence. They are clearly also somewhat historical in nature, and provide the scholar with a departure point from which to at least partially uncover and explore the lives of women in the Ancient Near East and what roles those women played in their societies. It will also examine how these categories have been interpreted over time by different groups of people, with case studies from different groups. It will observe the conflict between groups who have used these roles as a way of influencing the behaviour of women . It is possible to contrast the use of female biblical characters by conservative religious groups with feminist liberal groups, particularly in the arena of literature for women and girls. There has been a movement in recent years to ‘rehabilitate’ and ‘reclaim’ certain women of the Bible, to change the general perception of these stories. Finally, this study will consider the historiographical and philosophical ramifications of such interpretations as it examines them, before briefly delving deeper to explore both the phenomenon itself and the methodologies used.
When reading the Bible as a woman, or reviewing standard literature on the Bible, the voices of the women seem to be silenced. Women are definitely part of the biblical narrative, but so often the female characters appear to be in supporting roles to the male characters in stories told from a male perspective.11 How far is it possible to uncover female voices in the biblical texts? Certainly, the traditional, conservative Judeo – Christian ideas on women, that claim to be based on the Bible reinforce this view. For example , Proverbs 31: 10 - 31, which is used to this day by both Jewish and Christians alike as the model for the perfect woman.12 Michel – Rolph Trouillot, when writing about the production of history, noted that;
“Silences…are inherent in the process, both as part of production itself and as part of its result.”13
According to Trouillot, silences in history occur when facts or sources are created, when these facts are collected together, when collections of facts are made into narratives and finally when these narratives are given retrospective significance. 14 Examining silences allows the historian to identify the power of the various groups involved in producing history, how accessible the means of making history were to these groups, and how the means of history making were controlled and by whom.15 As this study will explore, women’s roles in the Ancient Near East, the historical and geographical context of the writing of Bible, to some extent inhabit the sphere of the hidden and unrecorded. Two clear strands of focus emerge: one of women’s worship, and one of women’s work. The former is more familiar, containing the narratives of those exceptional women who are named in the text, and the latter is more domestic but more opaque to us today. This is because the majority of the female experience was removed from the priestly and scribal institutions that lead to the recording of narratives, laws and writings. 16 This study will make use of the work of Carol Meyers who has sought to illuminate the part the everyday women played in Israelite culture to investigate whether the voices of women in the Bible have been consciously silenced consciously by the writers of the Bible, or by the context of its creation or indeed by those who have interpreted it since. Women in Ancient Israel were involved in all aspects of society, but that their status was closely linked to the nature of society in which they lived. In light of this, the next two chapters of this study will explore these foci of work and worship in an arbitrary order, with neither one being given privilege over the other. The final chapter will examine the synchronicity of thought surrounding these two streams, and the transmission of traditions regarding women.
Chapter 1 – Women and Worship
Exodus 15:20 - 21
The Song of Miriam
20 “Then the prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them:
‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” 17
The extract from the book of Exodus above describes Miriam leading the women of the Israelites in song after the destruction of their pursuers in the Red Sea. It is one of the first examples in the Bible of women being involved in worship. In the pre – exilic period, before 587BCE, the Bible provides evidence of women having a certain amount of involvement in religious practices.18 Women in the Bible participated in a range of observances. They stood alongside men at public gatherings and expositions of law, for example as in Exodus 35:1 and Deuteronomy 29:9, 31:12 – 13, and took part in festivals, as in 1 Samuel 2:19, 2 Kings 23:21, and 2 Chronicles 35:25. They sang and danced as a part of public corporate worship as in the example from Exodus, and also in Jeremiah 31:4, Psalms 68:12, and Judges 21:21. Women were in attendance at shrines as “sacred prostitutes”.19 Miriam, in the quoted extract is described as a “prophetess”, נביאה. Other women are described with the same title, such as Deborah in Judges 4:4, Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14 and the anonymous Woman - Prophet in Isaiah 8:3.
Indeed, it is interesting to note that the two recorded songs of women, the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15:20 – 21 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, are considered some of the oldest formulations preserved in the Bible, with the latter being considered by some as being contemporary to the era it portrays, c.1200 BCE.20 With this sort of provenance, it is not surprising that the involvement of women in public worship recorded in the Bible is supported by evidence from other historical sources from and archaeological study of the other cultures Ancient Near East.21 Women with religious responsibilities appear in Mari, an Amorite city during its golden age c. 1900BCE. The qabbātu were considered mouthpieces for the deities, much in the way that Deborah in Judges 5:12 recounts a message from YHWH. 22 The āpiltu was considered a ‘respondant’ who actually entered into dialogues with her deities.23 When we return to Miriam and her song at the Red Sea in Exodus 15:21, the Hebrew word used to describe her actions is vata’an, ענה. This word can mean ‘to sing’, but also can mean ‘to respond’.24 If this reading is used, Miriam here is answering the action of destruction by YHWH with the song and dance with which she led the Hebrew women. In the Neo – Assyrian period, during the reigns of Esarhaddon (681 – 699 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 BCE) and that of Manasseh in Judah, female religious practitioners are also recorded in Ninevite oracular material.25 The Raggintu, recorded in the Ninevite material, are translated into English as an ‘oracle priestess,’ a ‘conjuress’ or a ‘female magician.’26 These women seemed to function in the same way as the female prophets of the Bible, as both theological and political advisers to kings, the difference between politics and religion being negligible at the time. A very good illustration of this is visible when Huldah in 2 Kings 22, under orders from King Josiah gives her prophesy to the high priest Hilkiah.
However, how much of what is recorded in both the Bible and these other historical sources can be considered representative of the realities of the religious lives of the women of that era? The historian must be aware that the portrayal of women in the Bible especially, and other sources may not be an accurate reflection of the average woman’s experience, in much the same way that the biblical portrayal of kings is different to the way in which those kings governed their provinces in reality.27 The disparities between the accounts of the siege of Jerusalem in 701BCE during the rule of King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:13 – 15, and that recorded by Sennacherib’s scribes on the Taylor Prism leave myriad possibilities as to what actually happened. The author’s reasoning behind the production of a text is often lost to the historian, allowing only hypothesis on its origins. This is especially the case for ancient texts, where what survives in textual material is not always what the historian wants to know.28 The largest problem encountered when writing about women in the Ancient Near East is that whilst involved in public life in various capacities over time, women were on the whole illiterate. There is some evidence for female scribes in Mesopotamia, which has been collated in Samuel A. Meier’s informative article.29 The Sumerians did not have words to distinguish between male and female practitioners of the same crafts. The Akkadians developed a formal distinction later, thus gendering the word for scribe. 30 However it is hard to distinguish just how many women were involved in the process due to many works being anonymous. Just as we cannot know how representative the roles of women that have been recorded in the Bible are; the few texts that are attributable to women do not tell us if such texts are the norm or the exception. The roles played by women in the Bible examined so far have been public roles. It is possible that in a patriarchal society only the actions of women that were extraordinary for the norm were recorded. Feminist writer Aviva Cantor Zuckhoff posits that women stepping outside the patriarchal norm were only acceptable when their actions were of good for the Jewish people. 31 Such a woman is Jael, who not only breaks the commandment ‘though shalt not kill’ but through plying Sisera with hospitality, somewhat embodies the negative image of foolish temptresses in Proverbs, who tempts men with sweet words and deeds. Nevertheless, because she acted thus to help Israel, her act of murder is almost considered an act of worship
Jeremiah 44:15 -19.
“15 Then all the men who were aware that their wives had been making offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: 16‘As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. 17Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. 18But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.’ 19And the women said,* ‘Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her; do you think that we made cakes for her, marked with her image, and poured out libations to her without our husbands being involved?”32
So far this study has considered how women were involved in public worship in the Bible. The example from Jeremiah above outlines an example where men and women were worshipping a goddess, “The Queen of Heaven”, and trying to defend their religious actions in the light of Jeremiah’s criticism. This helps support the idea that Leonie Archer proposes that the involvement of women lessened as later Judaism became more ‘rigidly monotheistic’.33 Earlier Israelite religion seemed to encompass more of both male and female elements. The Jeremiah extract illustrates this whilst bringing out the idea of women worshipping privately amongst themselves. Anita Diamant uses this idea in her novelisation of the lives of the women of Genesis. Whilst a work of fiction, it is useful for the historian, as an eye opener to non -traditional possibilities. She outlines a range of religious practices woven within the everyday lives of her characters. They make offerings of food whilst cooking, and ask blessings over food before and after eating. These practices would not seem strange to a Jewish woman today who observes Halakah in her daily life, for they are commandments from the 613 mitzvot that all Jewish people are called to follow. For example, Deuteronomy 8:10 commands that a grace should be said after meals, and Numbers 15:20, that a piece of dough should be set apart whilst baking bread, for the kohein.34 What is of most interest to this study is that these practices today are done to honour YHWH, where as Diamant has her characters performing them in honour of Mesopotamian goddesses, such as Innana, Queen of Heaven, who later is known as Ishtar, Anath, the goddess of love and war and Asherah, who some saw as a consort for YHWH.35 Her characters also make cakes in honour of their goddesses much like the example in Genesis. 36Examples of goddess worship can be found in the Bible, usually referring to Asherah, and always in a negative way such as the prohibitions in Deuteronomy 16:21, and the mention of worship of Asherah in Judges 3:7, which is condemned as “evil in the sight of the Lord.” The great Solomon of Israel himself is accused of worshipping Asherah in 1 Kings 11:5, which does not seem so shocking when the power of kings in Sumer was considered dependent on the king satisfying the ‘Queen of Heaven’, Innana.37 The episode of Genesis 31:19, where Rachel steals her father’s household gods or teraphim is cast by Diamant as a daughter taking control of the forces that controlled her world. Such female figurines, thought to represent goddesses, have been excavated in Palestine and been dated to pre-, early, and middle biblical times, recorded by Raphael Peter.38
However, the low frequency and overall negative tone regarding goddess worship in the Bible is indicative, according to Peter Ackroyd, of the negative attitude of those recording such events in the Bible.39 Nonetheless, interestingly, there are still incidents of worship of goddesses in the two books of Kings and Chronicles, which date chronologically to c. 6th Century BCE.40 Other sources attest to some sort of goddess worship in the Ancient Near East around this time. Ackroyd proposes that there were male and female divine elements and deities in the Israelite religion, but over time, the female element was subsumed into the male element and became a consort as mentioned previously.41 This idea is supported by an inscription from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in Sinai reads “may you be blessed by Yahweh, or protector and his asherah”.42 This idea can further be supported by the archives from Elephantine, from c. 5th Century BCE, where there instances of this community of Jewish mercenaries in contact with Jerusalem choosing to record oaths sworn in the names of goddesses such as Anath – Bethel, Ishum - Bethel, Herem Bethel and Anath - Ya’u.43 The latter is of the most significance here, as Ya’u is considered by scholars to be the way in which the Elephantine community rendered the name of YHWH. If this is the case, then Anath - Ya’u could be read as Anath of Ya’u or in other words the consort of Ya’u or YHWH. The women of Elephantine also seemed to enjoy greater personal freedoms than their Israelite sisters, something which will be touched upon later in this study. A feminist writer could speculate with hope that these freedoms were a result of the goddess traditions remaining in Elephantine religious life, possibly under the influence of their Egyptian neighbours. However due to lack of more tangible material, this must remain pure speculation.
Israelite women are recorded in playing some sort of role in public worship in the Bible, particularly in the pre - exilic period. However, the larger involvement in the pre - exilic religious life of the Israelites did not translate to the Temple cult.44 They are associated with the cults of the aforementioned goddesses and with temple prostitution which is banned in Deuteronomy 23:18 – 19, 1 Kings 15:12, and 2 Kings 23:7. The increasing desire of the priests to centralise worship of YHWH was realised with the purity laws that limited the participation of women and other ritually unclean people in society as a whole.45 It is possible to argue that such laws could be a way of preventing competition from female practitioners of goddess worship, though there is little evidence to prove that besides the many commandments against the erection of Asherah, sacred poles and sacred groves and the way such edifices are condemned.46 One can also posit that the banning of other sacred places and shrines in the Deuteronomic reforms also would have aided the aim of centralisation of religion. Come the revision of law after the rebuilding of the Second Temple, women were excluded further from religious practice by laws that prevented them from going further than the outer court of the temple. If menstruating they were banned from the temple altogether. This could go some way to explain why female involvement in Israelite religion lessened as time passed and it become more focused on YHWH, ministered to by male priests alone. 47 Women were also excluded from the programme of religious education that was developed during this time.48
In such a climate, it is not surprising that female traditions of worship became forced underground. Whereas once Hannah prayed at the temple at Shiloh, women became so separated from religious life that they were not even allowed in the outer courtyard of the Jewish temple by the Hellenistic era.49 Some of this reasoning could be behind the exclusion of women from worship in the thousands of years that have followed. Nonetheless, it is possible to bring another element of women and worship into the discussion. Carol Meyers has investigated the aforementioned clay figurines thought to be representations of goddesses. They display no symbols of deity, are made from simple materials and are often broken.50 Meyer feels that this means they are more likely to be votive figures, part of a magical practice related to the mystery of human reproduction and fertility.51 She goes as far to suggest that they are physical representations of the prayers of women, specific examples of a women - only religious practice due to the fact that there are no equivalent male figurines.52 There is further evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, where the Egyptian god Bes, a grotesque monster thought to scare evil away from expectant mothers and babies, appears on a jar with ‘controversial renderings’ of YHWH and a consort variation of the goddess Asherah.53 Small figurines of Bes have been found in household contexts throughout the Syro – Palestinian area.54 There is enough evidence to suggest a whole world of private, female religious practice that is lost to us today, mainly due to the illiteracy of women. We cannot tell whether this took the form of mainly goddess only worship, or whether it was worshipping both the female and male aspects of the singular divine. The fact that such religion is tied to reproduction, something that would have seemed very mystical and magical during in antiquity, and has its own ritual practices that men may not have been parry to, could explain why it was treated with such distaste and seen as heretical. Diamant again illustrates this in her text, where her Jacob character is disgusted by the coming of age rituals celebrated by his wives and the women of his camp.55 Jacob in the novel takes issue with the sexual component of this fictional ceremony, much in the same way that temple prostitution was banned in the temple as means of controlling religious and sexual behaviour. In the next chapter, the importance of sexual behaviour, reproduction and motherhood will be explored further in light of women working as midwives amongst their communities, a role with a large mystical, magical component.
Chapter 2 – Women and Work.
“When she was in her difficult labour, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.”56
“While she was in labour, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ ”57
“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”58
“The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ ”59
The four quotations above are some of the few biblical verses that explicitly mention midwives. Midwives in antiquity were both skilled medical practitioners and religious figures. Charged with helping new life enter the world, their skills were incredibly specialised, and as far as is possible to tell, practiced exclusively by women. It is somewhat surprising that there are no more explicit references to midwives in the Bible given how important reproduction, children and childbirth would have been to the Israelites, with their status as a “frontierspeople”.60 Struggling to establish themselves in new lands, a large family, whilst entailing more hungry mouths, was preferable. A large family would have meant more help when hunting, farming and trading.61 The family unit became the focus of society for this reason.62 However there are some less explicit, references to the work of midwives in the Bible, which help illustrate how well regarded the role of the midwife was in Israelite society, due to such information being included in what is a non familial and domestic text, produced for a mainly male audience.63 In Psalms 22:9, God is compared to a midwife;
“9Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.”64
Leonard Swidler renders this verse as “Yet you drew me out of the womb”65 In both translations, God is referred using the imagery of midwifery. A further example of this can be seen in Isaiah 66;
“9Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.”66
Returning to The Red Tent, Diamant highlights the significance of the role of the midwife when birth was incredibly dangerous to both mother and child. The midwife is portrayed as using charms, incantations and amulets to protect them both from death and demons.67 There is both biblical and extra biblical evidence for her ideas. In Genesis 38:28 – 30, where Tamar gives birth to Perez and Zerah, the midwife ties red thread around the hand of Zerah that emerged first from the womb. The use of red thread as a protective amulet for both mother or child is attested in Mesopotamian and Hittite text, which whilst not Israelite, are likely to have influenced the practice of Israelite women.68
Ezekiel 16.4 at first seems to be a simple condemnation, the target not being given the correct treatment at birth. However, Meyers outlines how not being “washed”, “rubbed with salt” or “wrapped in cloths” would actually have meant that the target was cursed in a greater way.69 The word that is translated to mean ‘to wash’ in the English is למשעי which only appears once in the Bible and Meyers thinks to be related to the Aramaic word ‘to smear’, and probably applies to the application of a protective ointment. The application of salt is also thought to be a protective measure, and the swaddling of the child in cloths today is know to make the baby feel safe and secure whilst regulating its body temperature.70 Whilst these practices contain a large magical element, trying to control the unknown through ritual, rather than relying on God to provide, the role of women during the birthing process has continued in a similar way in to recent times.71 Susan Starr Sered outlines in great detail how elderly Jewish women in Jerusalem worked as both midwives and averters of the evil eye through use of amulets.72
Besides midwifery, the Bible provides examples of women working in other roles. As we shall go on to examine, women worked in various ways in Ancient Israelite culture, sometimes in single sex groups such as midwifery, sometimes alongside men. The importance of women’s work in midwifery is linked to the more accepted, and therefore more textually prevalent, roles as wives and mothers. The imagery of motherhood abounds in the Bible, from the barren women who miraculously conceive like Rachel and Hannah, to the imagery in Isaiah 66:7 – 12 where Jerusalem is described as a mother that will nurse the people of Israel. As touched upon before, a woman’s ability to reproduce was incredibly important in ensuring the survival of the family, through creating a larger labour force. One can argue that motherhood was a woman’s right in such a setting. This would account for levirate marriage, as seen in Genesis 38 - where Tamar tricks her father – in – law, Judah into sleeping with her - and the way in which Sarah and Rachel try and have children through their handmaidens.73 There are other biblical examples that show how motherhood was the ultimate role for women, the pinnacle of a woman’s life. God is described in motherly terms in Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 66:9. Moses compares himself to a mother in Numbers 11:13, when complaining to God about trying to provide for the Israelites. The latter here contains something most interesting to this study. In comparing himself to a mother, Moses’ speech reveals other important aspects of the work of the woman in Ancient Israel, that of production and provision.
Proverbs 31:10 – 31 sets out the ideal woman in the Wisdom literature of the Ancient Israelites. Wisdom literature is literature that urged the Israelites to work in a certain way, the way of life that leads to prosperity and a relationship with the Lord.74 Written for a courtly audience, probably by priests or scribes, it outlines what work a virtuous woman would do in her role as a wife. The perfect wife works with wool and flax, brings food from far away to provide for her household, buys fields and plants vineyards. She is also physically strong and perceptive. She spins thread, clothes her family in good cloth to protect against snow and sells her linen garments and sashes to make profit for the family. She is a veritable superwoman by today’s standards as she raises a family alongside her business concerns and caring for the poor. Nevertheless, all her good works appear to be for the glory of her husband’s name, especially when the passage is read superficially.
However, verse 31 states;
“31Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.”75
This would seem to be recognition of the importance of the work done by a woman in the household, allowing the woman some ownership over what she had worked hard to produce. This is with good reason. Alongside the biological role of producing offspring for the family, women worked in other roles within the household, producing resources for the family to both consume and trade. Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s comprehensive work Women's work : the first 20,000 years : women, cloth, and society in early times outlines the place of textiles for trade in women’s economic contribution to the household the Ancient Near East.76 Women’s lives would have been almost completely taken up with the business of “life supporting daily activities”, such as agriculture, food preservation and textile production for the family.77 Women seem to have had quite a lot of independence in the domestic sphere during the biblical period. When extra-biblical textual sources are considered, the Elephantine community in Egypt in the 5th Century BCE provides support for this, painting a portrait of a community where women did business amongst themselves and made decisions for their households when the men were away.78 The Elephantine archive contains records of bequests and grants of housing, and a grant of a life estate of usufruct to women, sale of housing by women and women exchanging inherited shares of property. 79 This is similar to verse 16 of Proverbs 31, where the woman is praised for her ability to buy and sell land as she sees fit. The Elephantine women however appear to have had more freedom than the women of, what was by that time, Judah in that they had the right to instigate divorce and to leave the marriage with their dowries. This is in direct contrast to the Judean practice that became enshrined in the rabbinical law that reaches us today, where only a man can instigate divorce.80 There is evidence of oaths being sworn to local goddesses in Elephantine material, and extrapolating from that, one could hypothesize that the place of goddesses in the life of the Elephantine community may have had something to do with the ‘strange rights’ enjoyed by women in Elephantine.81 However, this is pure conjecture given how fragmentary the material available to us, but is somewhat pleasing when considered with the ideas of polytheism or the male and female divine in early Israelite religious practice, outlines earlier in this study. Barber examines letters from Assyrian traders’ wives who continue the business in their absence, much like the wives of mercenaries in Elephantine. Some were –
“in business for themselves, acting as textile suppliers to their menfolk six hundred miles away in Anatolia and taking considerable profit from there to use for their own purposes.”82
Of course, whilst these women are not Israelite or Judean, they help illustrate that the ideals of the sages who wrote the scribes were realities for some of the women of the Ancient Near East.
Besides their domestic role, with its familial and trade elements, other more public occupations were fulfilled by women. 1 Samuel 8, where Samuel tried to warn the people against having King on behalf of God, he states that a king would take the daughters of Israel to be “perfumers and cooks and bakers”.83 It is possible to extrapolate, therefore, that women performed these roles in a more urban setting, but that women working in this way was somehow considered bad, especially as it is recorded alongside examples of the king taking one – tenth of Israel’s wealth. Taking valuable labour away from families for courtly purposes would have decreased the production of a household substantially. However, women working in more public, semi – religious roles seems to have been more acceptable. Semi – religious roles fulfilled by women include musicianship, mediumship and divination. This study has already examined Exodus 15 where Miriam led the Israelites in song after victory. 1 Samuel 18:6 has all the women in the towns of Israel coming out to meet King Saul with “songs of joy and with musical instruments”.84 This is another example of women leading victory celebration, though it is unclear if these songs were religious in content. 2 Chronicles 35.25 also records the “singing-men and singing-women” lamenting over Josiah.85 Some of the more religious or magical work done by women, whilst forbidden by biblical law, seems to have had some social respectability. Weaving is mentioned as a cultic practice in 2 Kings 23:7, during the Josianic reforms, where Hilkiah is removing polytheism from the Judean religion.
“7He broke down the houses of the male temple prostitutes that were in the house of the Lord, where the women did weaving for Asherah.”
Mediumship, conversing with the spirits of the dead, also called necromancy, is forbidden throughout the Bible.86 In a slightly ironic turn of events, Saul, in disguise, consults a female medium in 1 Samuel 28 to converse with the spirit of Samuel, after having cast out all the mediums in Israel. Divination would seem to have been a female concern, whether through conversation with the dead, or through discerning God’s will as in 2 Samuel 20, when a wise woman discerns a battle plan that brings success to the Israelites. Samuel A. Meier argues that the biblical references to wise women in 2 Samuel 14:2, 10:26 can be equated to the female messengers and scribes of Mesopotamia who were consulted for instruction.87 Deborah, the Judge also falls into this semi – religious work category. She is consulted to settle disputes, and receives word from God that Barak should lead the Israelites into battle. She even accompanies him into battle.88Nonetheless, the Deborah’s place at the head of society, must been seen as falling into the category of being acceptable because her actions were in defence of Israel in a time of social dysfunction, much in the way that the morally ambiguous actions of Tamar, Esther and Jael are condoned.89
In trying to explain why some women’s work was more acceptable, it is necessary to return to the ideas of the previous chapter. Wifehood and motherhood were important for the survival of the Israelite people, through providing both people and produce for the family unit. The use of religious practices in these roles, such as amulets and incantations used by midwives, was probably overlooked by reforming priests as they did not directly threaten their control of society. This is also a possible reason for such rituals surviving into recent times. However, the other public work done by women infringed on the area of work of the priests and male prophets, and was therefore deemed unacceptable.
Chapter 3 - The Transmission, Uses and Abuses of a Female Tradition.
In attempting to illuminate and contextualise the role of women in the Hebrew Bible, this study has examined both the place of women in religion, and the type of work done by women in the communities. Whilst doing so it has touched upon how the Bible, like all texts, is subjective, written with specific purposes by certain groups. Nevertheless, the historian must ask why the place of women in the societies of the Ancient Near East who began producing a religious text circa 1200BCE is worth studying.90 The simple answer to that question is that what is recorded about women in the Hebrew Bible still has an effect on the lives of women today. As Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe write in the introduction to their Women’s Bible Commentary:
"Increasingly, it is difficult for a woman, whether she is a member of a religious community or not, to read the Bible without some sense of the role it played in shaping the conditions of her life."91
The Hebrew Bible has helped shape the western world. The roots of most law codes can be seen in the Ten Commandments. The biblical text has been appropriated through history for political, social and cultural aims. The first crusaders went to supposedly liberate Jerusalem on the strength of Pope Urban’s appeal that drew on biblical imagery of Zion that the crusaders would have been familiar with from church services.92 The key to understanding why historians are compelled to unravel the threads of the lives of the women of the Hebrew Bible lies with this intertextuality.
“"intertextuality recognises that the texts do not exist in isolation but are always in relation with one another:…any text is a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another...”93
Other texts have emerged in our history that attempt to fill the gaps in the text of the Hebrew Bible to make it more understandable, from the earliest Aramaic Targums to the Women’s Bible Commentary of today. Indeed, this study is one such document. What matters here is that when a person reads the Hebrew Bible today, they do so, to borrow from the New Testament, “through a glass darkly”. They are doing so through the lens of thousands of years of interpretation. These interpretations exist in texts, the biblical narrative and context being ‘transformed’ with the ‘absorption’ of other traditions that have grown up around the original text. Regarding women in particular, as Newsom and Ringe go on in their introduction;
"Through out the centuries, … the Bible has been invoked to justify women's subordination to men. But it has also played a role, sometimes in surprising ways in empowering women."94
Numbers 12 provides the ideal case study of the phenomenon of “seeing through a glass darkly”.
Numbers 12:1 -2.
“1While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); 2and they said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the Lord heard it.”95
Miriam’s Cup: A Passover Story by Fran Manushkin.
“Every year at Passover, we tell this story of our deliverance. As we remember our ancestors, we should also remember Miriam’s faith, and courage… how she lead all the women as they sang the Song of the Sea…”96
Noah and her Sisters: Genesis and Exodus according to Women by Miriam Therese Winter.
“Miriam stood up in the midst of the people and challenged the authority of Moses to do as he had commanded. She said he did not understand the religious ways of women. She said that women worshipped one Godde, whom sometimes they called Asherah, or Anat, or Shekinah, or Shaddai. YHWH, she said, was another name that God had revealed to Moses and to the patriarchs before him, while Shekinah was the presence of Godde experienced by women. She asked, “Has S/HE spoken only through Moses? Has S/HE not spoken also through us?”97
When delving into the traditions that surround the figures that are named to us, Miriam is held up as an example to women and girls today, as can be seen in the quotation from the children’s picture book, Miriam’s Cup. This book aimed primary school aged, primarily female children, and gives the sense that it is trying to make the Passover Seder more accessible by emphasizing elements with which the intended reader can empathise, such as the femininity of Miriam, her faith, and her role among women.98 However, in doing so, it is possible to read it as reinforcement of the traditional, conservative views of what a woman’s place in religious practice is deemed to be. Miriam reminds her father of his marital duties to fulfil the law, showing her holiness, as in the Talmudic idea that a woman is intrinsically more holy. Her saving of Moses is not viewed as a brave and caring act on her own part, but remembered because it saves the great leader of the Israelites. When she led the women in song after the crossing of the Red Sea, the explicit demarcation that she led the women only seems to be in stark contrast to Miriam being described as a prophetess, who would have influenced the lives of men as well, as is seen later in the case of Huldah in 2 Kings 22.14 and 2 Chronicles 34.22. The most notable silence in the book comes when it skips straight from a generic tale of the Exodus journey to the tale of Miriam’s well, overlooking a major section of her part in the Exodus narrative. Miriam stands up to Moses in Numbers 12 and in doing so she is punished through contracting a skin disease. This act of silencing, where there is a complete absence of defiance in the picture book provides an excellent example of how the mainstream tradition could be considered to have carefully manipulated biblical characters when portraying them and reinterpreting them as a way of controlling behaviour. Young girls are to emulate only the characteristics of Miriam that are deemed acceptable, rather than growing up to question their leaders as Miriam did. Ideas are easily applied to the female, according to feminist scholarship, as women are disembodied by their lack of status as subjects in the symbolic order of a patriarchal system.99 This is somewhat supported by the ideal of Wisdom being designated female form in the book of Proverbs. Nevertheless, it is possible to read Miriam’s Cup as the mainstream, traditional Judaism beginning to recognise some of what this study has highlighted in the first chapter by incorporating Rashi’s ideas that Miriam was granted a magical well that followed the Israelites through the desert into the Passover Seder.100 This certainly seems to be the case from an interview with the author, who talks of trying to write something for herself as a child, who lacked the religious education given to her brothers.101 The cup of water in the contemporary seder that represents the deeds of women would not have made it to the table if historical scholarship had not begun to uncover as best it could how women were actually involved in the lives of the Jewish ancestors.
Returning to the mainstream view of the Hebrew Bible, the patriarchal elements of the society of the Bible’s authors have been amplified by later users of the texts. Even within the period of the Bible’s creation, the Josianic reformers clamped down on non-monotheistic ritual practice by banning other shrines, and thus removed women from their place in public religion. Adrien Bledstein asks, in a culturally cued reading of Genesis:
"Why, then, has Torah been read for proof of women's inferiority? Why did the earliest rabbis see Adam as so beautiful that Eve was an "ape" in comparison? What mutual frustrations pricked Maimonides to conclude that "the wife should wash her husband's hands and feet and serve him at table or be beaten"?”102
For Michael Carden, studying the reception of the Hebrew Bible rediscovers rejected or marginalized readings, allowing the reader of today to ‘challenge the assumptions of the dominant pre – text’ that upsets Bledstein so.103 Noah and her Sisters: Genesis and Exodus according to Women by Miriam Therese Winter is one such challenging reading. The excerpt here completely changes the focus of the passage from Numbers 12. Just prior to this excerpt, Winter has Miriam challenging Moses over the hypocrisy of him banning foreign wives when he himself has one, before going on to explain in the passage above that women experience God differently, and that God has spoken through her as well. Much feminist scholarship, both historical and literary has been produced that tries to insert a more, or in some cases solely, female perspective into the Hebrew text. For example, in Winter’s text, God is always referred to as ‘S/HE’ and identified primarily as a female creative life force. This re - writing of the text is much in vein of Lynn Davidmann and Shelley Tenebaum’s ideas on feminist scholarship. Feminist scholarship challenges objectivity claiming that objectivity somehow reinforces the status quo.104 Winter’s text on Miriam’s defiance posits that women experience God differently. It is wise here to bring in the ideas of Julia Kristeva on time. She considers men and women to experience time differently, men’s time being linear and female time being cyclical, governed by their menstrual cycles.105 If this is the case, with time being integral to our experience of the world, it is not too hard a leap to make to hypothesise that women working in a different time frame to men would therefore experience God differently. Furthermore, men would not accurately be able to record the experiences of women, even under the guise of objectivity. All this is an attempt to recognise that the life of the ancients is not necessarily the way life should be lived in the present, taking what is good from the traditions without allowing them to cause harm.106 In trying to illuminate these ancient texts, some feminist scholars go as far as to rewrite the narratives of the Hebrew text, almost excusing female characters of their actions, sometimes turning the inherent plot lines of the stories on their heads. Jezebel becomes a role model. Miriam’s disobedience is lauded.107 Why is this? Winters is attempting in much the same way as Manuskin to encourage women and girls to see themselves in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. They are merely approaching it from different ends of the spectrum.
Proverbs 31:10 – 31, touched upon before in this study as an example of the work done by women in Ancient Israel, will provide the final case study, weaving together again the threads unravelled by the investigations of this work. The Orthodox Jewish community, the Christian Right and the Feminist movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have tried to use this famous passage of the Hebrew Bible as exemplary of how a woman should behave. This passage celebrates both religious and work elements, from the mysterious lamp left burning by the virtuous woman in what is thought to be a metaphor for divine protection, to praise for the work of her hands that sustains the family in trade.108 For the Orthodox Jewish authorities, this woman provides the perfect example of a homemaker who keeps to halakaic law, observes all rituals, educating her children the process and is blessed because of it.109 The women of the ‘Bible Belt’ are striving to be the perfect wives, running small business from their homes whilst raising children in an attempt to emulate this virtuous woman, a way of bringing honour to their husbands.110 Feminist writers utilise this text as example of women with independence in Ancient Israel, despite the overriding patriarchal nature of the Bible, especially when taken in the context of communities like Elephantine.111
In so many ways, women are being encouraged in continuing in the roles of their Ancient Israelite ancestors, as the spiritual guardians, and performers of rituals. 112 Dinah in The Red Tent learns her family history, religious practices and life skills from her mothers. This primordial element of womanhood has not changed in thousands of years. Women are the primary caregivers and thus mothers are the first point of exposure to both religion and work for most people. The poem of the preface stresses the importance of the mother in giving her children a sense of where they have come from. As parts of the Hebrew Bible are influencing actual lives in the present day, the historian has the important job of filling the silences of the Hebrew text by whatever means available, be that archaeological, anthropological, ethnographic or literary.113 Wild leaps into the creative and imaginative have their place. It is true that one must delve into the blank spaces of what is not recorded as well as the recorded to illuminate the past. However, the historian, the feminist biblical scholar, and the literary critic must come to the point of recognition that sometimes the vastness of this space is so great that one must accept that we simply cannot know and further hypothesis could actually be detrimental. This is not to say there is not always more work to be done, but that the clichéd ‘ common sense’ should be used. However, by showing how goddesses and the female divine were once worshipped in Ancient Israel, and finding evidence for women in leadership in both Israel and its neighbours, there is a chance that the historian can make a real impact in today’s society through weaving the unravelled threads of the women of the Hebrew Bible into a new textual cloth of reconciliation between the mainstream and the radical, rather than leaving the women of today with Phyllis Trible’s “terrible dilemma” of having to choose between a patriarchal God of the Fathers or a God of the Sisterhood.114
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