Women in ancient biblical times

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Jewish religious and cultural history and biblical authority have made the Bible one of the most important means by which woman’s place in society has been defined down through the centuries. Not only is the Bible itself a partial historical document of the Jews, the way it has been received and analyzed has its own intriguing historical chronology. It is nearly impossible to accurately posit a specific date to any books or verses in the Hebrew Bible.1 The Dead Sea Scrolls, most probably written by a minor sect, the Essenes, are the oldest extant pieces of scripture. Prior to their discovery at Qumran near the Dead Sea in the 1940’s, our oldest Hebrew scriptures are only one thousand years old. Yet invoking the Biblical text has been done to justify women’s subordination and devaluation to men. As the deity for the Hebrews came to be a “He”, this led to the exclusion of women from power in the family, the state, and public worship.

Women scholars of the Hebrew scriptures did not materialize until the late twentieth century. The famous women’s suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others attempted in the nineteenth century to get women commentators to explore and explain a woman’s perspective on the Bible. However, it was not until 1964 that Margaret Brackenbury Crook, a professor of Biblical Literature, published a study on the status of women in Judaism and Christianity entitled Women and Religion. When the women’s movement followed the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, an increasing number of women were able to attend seminaries. Now feminists’ study of the Bible is one of the most important areas in contemporary biblical research. There is not a single woman’s perspective on the Bible, but a rich variety of insights shaped by women’s culture, class, ethnicity, and religious community. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is the latest attempt to make the Bible gender neutral, but gender relating to God was not addressed. Ancient Hebrew and Greek pronouns do not allow for definitive determination of gender based on grammatical grounds. Therefore, God’s gender is a theological decision. The Bible remains androcentric in its subject matter, authorship and perspective. One way to measure this androcentricity is through names. In the Hebrew Bible 1426 names are mentioned and 1315 of them are men’s. Only 111 or 9% are women’s names. All authors identified by name are male. Biblical perspective is predominantly male. Issues pertaining to women’s lives are scarce. Ancient Hebrew or Jewish culture grew out of the societies of the ancient Near East. The language and style of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament continued the traditions of ancient Canaan. Biblical laws are part of the indigenous legal traditions of the ancient Near East. Stories of the creation of the earth, mankind, animals, and plants along with the flood recountings are similar to other non-Jewish stories. Wisdom literature in the form of prose and poetry of the Bible also shares many characteristics with other cultures similar genres. Ultimately the Jews developed their unique religious system and the concept of one God, but it was a gradual process. Current archaeological work is uncovering much of this transformation from polytheistic to monotheistic belief structure.

Scholarly and personal disagreements cloud much of the interpretation of ancient Hebrew life and Biblical narrative. For some it appears that the Jewish god Yahweh absorbed all the characteristics and functions of female goddesses. Some scholars refer to this as the hidden goddess in the Hebrew Bible. The name Asherah is mentioned forty times in the Hebrew Bible. The word Asherah in the Bible can refer both to the goddess herself or a carved wooden image, which was one of Asherah’s icons. Asherah was a mother goddess identifiable with other ancient cultures’ goddesses of similar names like Astarte, Ishtar and Inanna. Many scholars think that Asherah may have become the wife of Yahweh in the eyes of the Hebrew people. Two altars, one smaller than the other, have been found at archaeological sites in the Near East, and some scholars believe these represent Yahweh and his consort, Asherah. All Near Eastern goddesses, including Asherah, were given titles such as queen of heaven, and goddess of the sea and moon. In every major archaeological excavation in Palestine small naked clay female figurines have been found.

The goddess of wisdom or Sophia (the Greek word for wisdom) is mentioned in the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars state that the great goddess of Egypt, Isis, and Inanna of Sumeria were the foundation of the wisdom literature of the Bible.

Scholarly studies of the Bible illuminate the role of women in ancient Hebrew times. In the Old Testament there are stories regarding female heroic figures and women that have taken independent action, like Deborah or Jezebel. Generally though, the Old Testament delineates the gradual restriction of women’s public, religious, personal, and economic roles.

Some of the most powerful metaphors of gender in the Bible have been those of Eve, the first woman created from Adam’s rib, and Eve the temptress who caused humankind’s fall from grace. These metaphors have been cited as proof of divine sanction for the subordination of women. However, there are really two versions of creation in the Bible; in Genesis 1:27-29 “male and female created he them,” and in Genesis 2:18-25 “woman made from Adam’s rib.” Through linguistic analysis scholars maintain that the “rib creation” is about 450 years older than the creation in Genesis 1. Dates have been debated, but 850 b.c.e. and 400 b.c.e. are postulated for the two creation stories.i However, some of the fundamental churches in America have now concluded that the rib creation story is just a more detailed version of the other one. This belief is not justifiable based on scholarly research.

The creation of man and woman simultaneously parallels the Mesopotamian creation story, Enuma Elish. The Bible’s garden of Eden is similar to the Sumerian garden of creation. Blaming Eve for causing sin in the world through the wiliness of the serpent has been a long-held belief, but scholars are now assessing this differently. As the serpent was an ancient icon for goddesses, it appears that the biblical authors found it necessary to severe Eve from the snake.ii This step was also necessary to have only one god. Another interpretation that was used against women down through the centuries was that Eve was not created in the divine image but only in man’s. Since Eve was further removed from God than Adam, she was more prone to folly and vice. For many centuries women’s appeals for equal rights were denied on grounds women were created only as help mates to males. As one scholar noted, “Eve did not fall, she was pushed.”2

In Judges 4-5 in the Hebrew Bible, it relates that Deborah had a strong leadership position and heroic role; i.e. one of the Jewish judges. This “Song of Deborah” describes one of the oldest segments of the Bible, circa 12th century b.c.e. It was during a time of warfare between the Israelite tribes and the Canaanites, and Deborah provided political and military leadership. Deborah and her husband lived on a well-traveled road between the towns of Ramah and Bethel. Local people sought her advice as a prophetess and seer. Securing 10,000 men from various tribes, Deborah arranged for Barak, a seasoned fighter, and herself to head the army. Apparently Deborah was instrumental also in the planning of the location and the successful battle plans. Then Deborah and Barak composed a song about the battle that was sung around Jewish circles for a millennia.

Jezebel, one of the evil women of the Bible, and today her name is synonymous with evil, was actually a Phoenician princess from Sidon. She married Ahab, King of Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. During this time the worship of Baal and Asherah was spreading, and Jezebel would have participated in the religious practices relating to this polytheistic world. It is not likely that she plotted to eliminate the prophets of Yahweh, but the followers of Yahweh would have adopted the crusader mentality against worshipers of other deities. The prophet of Yahweh, Elijah, was determined to denounce non-Jewish religious practices. Jezebel represented a woman with political and religious power not a seductress.

It has been pointed out that in the time of the patriarchs, men and women tended flocks together, met at watering wells, worshipped together in the temple, shared public celebrations, and ate together. Segregation in the temple began only with the second temple (built 587/86 b.c.e.), where the woman’s court was located outside the temple. Jewish women could pray or study the Torah, but they could not take part in the administration.

It has been postulated that stories of the patriarchs in Genesis offer some indications of transition from matrilocal and matrilineal to patrilocal and patrilineal family organization in some of the tribes. The reference to man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife in Genesis 2:24 could be so interpreted. Jacob’s seven years of service to Laban for each of his daughters (Leah and Rebecca) would conform to the practice of matrilocal marriage or beena marriage as it is called in the Bible. Patrilocal marriage was known as baal marriage. The Story of Jacob’s courtship and his flight from Laban’s house could show this transition from matrilocality to patrilocality. Rachel’s theft of the Teraphim could also be viewed in this light. This passage has long puzzled biblical scholars. Some interpret Teraphim as house gods and possession of house gods signified legal title to the property. Thus Rachel, believing her father would deny her husband legal share in his estate, took the Teraphim. Rachel’s action again symbolizes the change from matrilocality to patrilocality.

The predominant family structure in the Bible was patriarchal. A wife would call her husband baal or master. A wife was listed among a man’s possessions along with his servants, ox, etc. In this patriarchal period, the father could sell his daughter into slavery or prostitution, just like in ancient Mesopotamia. Later, selling of one’s daughters was prohibited. While the Hebrews were still nomads and under the patriarchs, one wife was the law, but with as many concubines as he could afford. Once the Jews settled into Canaan and the monarchical period began circa 1000 b.c.e., then polygamy marriages were legalized. In this period, property now belonged to the clan and was considered inalienable. Women were never able to own property. Transference was done solely by inheritance. Since this inheritance usually fell to the eldest son, the foundations for the law of levirate in marriage was adopted by the Jews. If a father had no sons, then his daughters could inherit, but they then had to marry within their tribe, so land would not leave the clan. Thus, when the eldest son died without a son, the next son took as his wife his sister-in-law to keep the property intact and raise up his children as if they were descendants of his deceased brother. This was called a levirate marriage, a custom that the ancient Hittites practiced long before the Hebrews. The biblical story of Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, illustrates this levirate custom. Naomi’s husband and two sons had died so she went back to Bethlehem to find a relative to wed. Ruth accompanies her mother-in-law after refusing to return to her natal home. In Bethlehem Boaz marries Ruth and she begets a son.

As marriages were arranged, the wishes of a daughter were not considered. There is even the incident in the Bible, where after Dinah is raped, she is forced to marry her rapist, after he and his tribe become Jews. Later on though, Dinah’s brothers kill her new husband Schechem, accusing him of treating their sister as a harlot, but in essence it was her brothers who used their sister as a harlot to acquire great wealth. 3

A dowry was standard procedure for the Hebrews. While the Bible relates a perspective husband could work for his future father-in-law for seven years, it is thought that the usual term of servitude was one year. Jacob, who fell in love with Rachel, worked for seven years, only to be tricked by his father-in-law into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah. This indicates that the bride came to the marriage bed a virgin and covered with a veil. Another seven years of work was necessary before Jacob was able to marry Rachel. By the end of Jacob’s days he had sired children from four women.

As men did in ancient Mesopotamian societies, Hebrew men enjoyed complete sexual freedom within and outside of marriage. Concubines were acceptable, and especially if the wife was barren. Even the female slaves were sexually used by the husbands (Jacob), and if the husband personally owned her, then he was even able to give her away sexually to other male members of the family. While both husband and wife could be killed for adultery, the Jewish wife had less protection against false accusations of adultery than did her Mesopotamian counterpart. In Numbers 5:11-31, there is the description of a ritual ordeal that a wife must undergo if her husband suspects her of adultery. It was a bitter drink.

In the Hebrew Bible there are clear statements describing the ideal wife. She is to be industrious, a good manager, a wise counselor, but yet their was always fear of a strong woman or wife. In Proverbs 31:12 “She does him good and not harm all the days of his life”, suggests that women were capable of injuring their husbands. There is also the often-quoted passage in Proverbs that relates how valuable a good wife is: “Who can find a virtuous woman for her price is far above rubies...”

Divorce was obtainable by the husband, but never by the wife. In this respect Jewish law was more detrimental to the wife than Hammurabi’s law. This was true for rape too. Jewish law forced the rapist to marry the woman he raped, and he could not divorce her.

Biblical injunctions to be fruitful and multiply came at a certain time in Jewish history. It is thought that when the Jewish tribes were conquering Canaan, they experienced a real population problem. Fighting was endured by the Jews for a long time, and the consequence of war is death. Thus, it was important for women to be fertile. We now know that infant mortality in ancient cultures was probably 50%. The Jewish women would have needed to be pregnant many times to ensure adequate population growth. In addition, there was a 20% mortality rate for new mothers, and since the average life span for women was thirty, pregnancies had to be close. When the Bible says women were barren, it meant they had no sons. They could have had daughters. In Genesis, the language that is used when Yahweh brings a son to long-barren women like Rebecca, Rachel, and Sarah, is almost identical to the prayers that were said to Ishtar and other ancient Mesopotamian goddesses; “And the Lord saw that Rebecca was hated and he opened her womb.” Genesis 29:31, “and God remembered Rachel...and opened her womb.” Genesis 30:22-23. In the creation myth, The Enuma Elish, the goddess Ninhursag, “...opening the womb...she brought forth her issue...”

A recurrent leitmotif in ancient cultures and even in some today, is that a daughter was not as welcome as a son. For the ancient Jews this was true as well. The near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac when the Lord intervened in time, can be compared with Jeptha’s daughter in the Book of Judges 11:29-38, when his daughter was sacrificed. God did not choose to save the daughter of Jeptha, only the son of Abraham. Continuing this negative idea of a girl was the common Hebrew tradition that a woman was ritually unclean longer after the birth of a girl than a boy, Leviticus 12:6, 40, 80.

It was the uneducated mothers that taught their daughters. We do know that some females did learn to read and write.

Besides the rearing of children, women in the early centuries of the Hebrews contributed to the economic structure of society. When the Hebrews were herders of goats and sheep, women would have milked the animals, made yogurt and cheese, and processed items from the animals’ wool. As the Jews became settled farmers, then women would have continued their same roles with the addition of agricultural work, including planting, weeding, and harvesting, plus cultivating the local gardens and fruit trees. During these settled farming years, large families made farming more lucrative. Moving from small villages into large cities altered the economic role of women. In the cities most households were not self-sufficient, and this decreased the work women were expected to do. Smaller families now were possible, and this is when the Bible gives forth its negative statements about idle and gossiping women. Women now served as midwives, professional mourners, and musicians at the temples.

While the Bible focuses on public and communal practices of religion, it is evident that individual family celebrations took place. In the public performances, women were reciters and composers of traditional laments for the dead. Additionally, women performed as dancers, singers and musicians at major public events. Women sung great hymns in celebration of Israel’s various victories.

1 here would be a good place to include the latest scholarly debate on biblical dating and excavations than that the Hebrew Bible was by a priest during the Babylonian Captivity period, and thus projects a most minority opinion

2 W.W. Albright

3 Dinah is the heroine of a new best seller The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

i Serinity Young’s book An Anthology of Sacred Texts by & About Women. Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University Divinity School separates the two versions by only one hundred and fifty years.

ii in Minoan society, Goddess has snakes in her hands.

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