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Women in Ancient Israel

March 28, 2011

I have been putting off this article for some time as it required an extensive amount of research. However, having looked at women in power it is worth looking at what the life of a normal woman might be like in ancient Israel. What rights did she have? What responsibilities did she have? How much independence did she have?

Before we get to the specifics we need to deal with three problems. First, there’s patriarchy. When we say “patriarchal” we generally mean “male dominated”. However, a real patriarchal clan system isn’t simply male-dominated, it’s dominated by old men. Within a patrilineal family unit the oldest male is patriarch. Hebrew is even shaped to deal with this: the word for “father” is a word that can mean any male you are descended from, a convenient way of speaking when any male you are descended from on your father’s side is above you on the family hierarchy. Patriarchal systems aren’t very good for women but they also aren’t very good for younger sons or young people in general. When we look at how a man might rule a woman’s life, we need to ask whether that’s specifically because she’s a woman since plenty of men have their lives run by older men.

Second, we need to deal with language. In Hebrew the default is male and no term is grammatically neuter. Grammatical gender is assigned without a clear pattern to objects that don’t have actual genders, but for people and livestock grammatical gender normally indicates the actual gender of the subject. This makes it very hard to tell whether “a man” means a man specifically (the grammatical gender indicates actual gender) or just a person (the grammatical gender is the masculine by default). Even the addition of a word like “he” doesn’t help because the default pronouns are also masculine. This means that some things we might be interested in knowing, like whether the Law assumes that women might serve as witnesses in court (something later rabbis banned), is unanswerable. The Law speaks as if men are witnesses but we can’t tell if this means men only.

Third, there’s technology. In a culture where everything is muscle-powered (although sometimes those muscles belong to livestock) women are actually less capable, on average, of doing some tasks. It’s probably not coincidence that women’s liberation and powered machinery took off around the same time. This makes some promising leads into duds. For instance, Leviticus 27 discusses vows in which persons are given monetary values. However, it’s unclear what these values are. Are they values for someone to pay? Are they values for someone to buy themselves out of slavery (perhaps in a sense similar to that in which all firstborn males automatically belong to the Lord and must be bought back)? In either case the fact that women are worth less may be a statement about working and earning power. This would not tell us much we didn’t know.

For this reason we’ll be skipping around quite a bit in our survey. There’s some useful material in the Law but I’m interested not only in what the Bible mandates for women but also what it describes (including descriptions of people doing things opposite to the mandates). However, in the interests of keeping this article coherent I will attempt to group related information together.

Ceremonial Life

Women cannot be priests. Many surrounding cultures have priestesses but Israelite women do not have this option, at least without serving foreign gods. Women can be prophetesses (Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14) but they cannot be part of the official temple priesthood. Without doing a much more extensive survey on this subject I cannot say for certain but it does appear that there is some link between the sex of a god and the sex of that god’s priests. Priestesses, therefore, might be expected to serve goddesses. Whatever the reason, the position of priestess carried a great deal of authority in the ancient Near East but did not exist in Israel (except, perhaps, during the periods where Israel merged Judaism with the surrounding religions).

Despite the fact that a priest’s daughter will never grow up to be a priest, she does have a number of ceremonial rights while she lives in her fathers house. Leviticus 22:10-16 covers the eating of holy food and makes it clear that a daughter living with her father (including a widowed or divorced daughter) may eat holy food. This is a right denied to laymen but which covers all a priest’s household regardless of gender.

The inability of women to be priests fits with a general theme of the Law: a lot more responsibilities are placed on men. For instance, while a number of religious festivals require the attendance of men they do not require the attendance of women (Exodus 23:17). This may be a benefit (fewer obligations), an insult (no one expects sheep to attend festivals either), or a statement of the reality of women’s lives and their ability to travel with young children in tow.

When ceremonial life is discussed one thing that often comes up is the amount of time a woman spends ceremonially unclean. Women are rendered unclean by childbirth (Leviticus 12) and menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-22). The time a woman is rendered unclean by childbirth is doubled if she gave birth to a daughter. While these regulations are onerous they are also part of a general theme that expelling body fluids is an unclean activity (Leviticus 15). For instance, a woman is also made unclean by having sex with her husband. However, she is made unclean because he is made unclean by emitting body fluids and these fluids come in contact with her (Leviticus 15:18).

Property Ownership

Could women own property? One useful source, that is perhaps surprising to evangelicals accustomed to seeing it used (or misused) for other purposes, is Proverbs 31. The woman described here is clearly an upper-class woman (she has servants). However, she is also depicted buying property (a field) and selling mercantile goods (cloth). The ability to own property and make one’s own living is an important right. The fact that this is assumed of a women in this proverb suggests that it is one that women in ancient Israel enjoyed.

Additionally, in Numbers 27 a law is established that daughters can inherit property if there are no sons, although, because the husband’s clan would gain title to the property, daughters who inherit must marry within their own clan (Numbers 36). Originally I was going to add to this an ostracon concerning the disposition of the property of a man with a surviving wife but this ostracon and its more famous twin have now been shown to be fraudulent.

Of course, the idea of a single, independent woman working her own farm is anachronistic. Most people in the Iron Age in any society lived in groups out of necessity. Most of these groups also contained armed members for protection which almost inevitably meant men. This also brings up another important point related to the ownership of property: while women could buy, sell, and make a living they seem more limited in what jobs they could do. The story of Ruth is useful in this regard. While Ruth is consistently depicted as resourceful and a number of other virtues her options for decent work appear limited to gleaning, a short step away from begging. Without a house, a loom, and some starter money she cannot copy the Proverbs 31 woman and start a cloth business. Were this story about a landless man we would expect him to hire himself out to a local farmer or tradesman.

Women as Property

Throughout much of the ancient world both men and women could be sold as property. Israel is no exception. However, Israel bans particular types of sale. In Exodus 21:7-11 rules are laid down about selling female slaves. The main point of these rules appears to be to ban selling women as prostitutes. A man who buys a female slave may buy her as a wife for himself or for his son but he may not re-sell her. If he is unhappy with her he must let her be redeemed. In addition, the woman cannot be shared amongst male members of the family or cut off from support. This stance against prostitution is stated more clearly in Leviticus 19:29 which specifically bans men selling their daughters as prostitutes and cites the woman’s honor as one reason to avoid this. Deuteronomy 23:17 bans the practice of cult prostitution specifically. This is probably necessary as Hebrew uses entirely separate words for regular prostitutes and cult prostitutes indicating that these two roles may not have been considered similar. Despite this, prostitution certainly did occur in Israel. A number of passages mention prostitutes including Solomon’s famous verdict about a disputed child (1 Kings 3:16-28) and Hosea’s famous marriage (Hosea 1:2) and the practice does seem inevitable in city-building societies. Interestingly, Hosea 4:13-14 mentions the practice and promises even-handed justice: God will not punish unfaithful women since the men are visiting prostitutes!

Social Status for Women

Can women in ancient Israel gain status? Saying that a society is patriarchal is not immediately helpful. Does this mean all the men outrank all the women? If so, do the women still have rank amongst themselves or are they all the bottom rung of the social ladder? Thankfully, we’ve already dealt with the command authority of women in the Old Testament at the highest ranks. Women clearly could hold ranks above men but how usual was it?

A number of references to servants make it clear that women certainly had higher status than the people they hired or bought. In Genesis 16 Sarah clearly runs the life of her servant Hagar. In Genesis 30 Rachel and Leah similarly control their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah.

Women also outranked a number of men in their lives. The Ten Commandments famously commands one to “honor your father and your mother”. In Hebrew “honor your parents” and “honor your father, your grandfather, and your other male ancestors” are identical. The Law does not leave this issue up to interpretation: your mother must be honored (see also Exodus 21:15 and 17). What’s more, this is probably not a command restricted, or even primarily for, children. Instead, like the related commands against attacking one’s parents, it is probably aimed at the adult children in the household. For instance, most of the patriarchs are married off by their fathers, indicating a long span of parental control that extends well into adulthood. Jesus, centuries later, speaks to a Jewish audience about this same command and discusses what appears to be a then-current Jewish teaching that an adult is allowed to take money that would otherwise be used to support his parents and give it to the Temple (Matthew 15:4-6). This suggests that older women with children in ancient Israel might have significant social status as they would be due honor from their adult sons. Indeed, a mother outranked her sons’ wives as well: in Micah 7:6 daughters rebelling against their mothers are seen as parallel to daughter-in-laws rebelling against their mother-in-laws.

In general the sort of complete control over women’s lives that we sometimes expect out of patriarchal societies is logistically implausible for most ancient societies. An Israelite farmer could not afford to have dead weight on his farm. He had to give his wife control over some things so that his family would continue to live. Indeed, the sort of industry Proverbs 31 praises in a woman is a form of status. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly not carefully supervised by her husband. That’s the whole point – her industry allows him the room to do his work without worrying about hers. This sort of division of labor is not surprising. Some years ago I ran across an ancient Egyptian story about a man who demanded that his wife serve him more food. The wife refused and the man became angry. The story ended with commentary that this foolish man would starve. Didn’t he know that his wife had measured out the grain to last until the next harvest? (I would appreciate having a citation to this story which I cannot relocate.)

Indeed, women seem able to gain status in much the same ways that men do: age and wealth. In 2 Kings 4:8-37 we run across a wealthy woman who lends material support to Elisha. While the fact that Jesus’ ministry is at least partly bankrolled by women (Luke 8:3) is frequently commented upon I have never seen anyone note the contribution the unnamed Shunammite woman made to Elisha’s ministry or the blessing she receives from it. However, as in many of these stories, the power of the Shunammite woman is restricted by her husband’s willingness to let her do as she wishes. This important relationship will be the subject of our next article on women in the Bible.

However, it is worth recapping this article. Women in ancient Israel certainly did not enjoy the freedoms women in modern Western countries enjoy today. On the other hand, ancient Israel was not quite as grim a place for women as some other contemporaneous societies. In general, the differences between the place of women and men in society seems not to be one of hard-set, locked-in differences but in the work required for a woman to advance in society. Women seem to be perpetually in the sort of social situation faced by servants, children, younger sons, and landless people. Advancement out of this is clearly possible (as the positions of Athaliah and Deborah demonstrate). However, it seems to be harder and much less common.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Benjamin Redelings permalink
    April 5, 2011 6:23 pm

    Nice survey!

    I like your point about the “position of men in society” being a rather complicated thing. I’m curious how to evaluate “the position of X in society” in terms of either
    (a) how bad is the worst case?
    (b) how bad is the typical case?
    I would think that a lot of the laws prohibit worst cases, whereas the descriptions could give a more representative sample. Then, preventing worst cases would improve the typical case by (generally) pushing the bottom up, and (more specifically) by making it illegal for others to threaten them with things forbidden by law, I suppose.

    Really an interesting survey!

  2. May 17, 2011 11:25 am

    I really enjoyed reading this and found it very informative! I will deifnitely look out for more articles on the subject.

  3. Eric permalink
    May 17, 2011 2:03 pm

    Thanks! I’m working on the next one but it’s requiring a lot of research and I have a dissertation to be working on as my primary goal.

  4. Deni Fortuna permalink
    December 25, 2013 12:43 pm

    Thank you for the research you did. The information you provided was very insightful and helped me to better understand the society that women lived in.


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