January 22, 2011

Silenced Voices, II

I began this series, Silenced Voices, two weeks ago, to share with you my research on the roles of women in the Ancient Near East.  I've already covered a bit about what we know about women's voices in the social sphere from sources outside of the Old Testament (which you can find here).  Today we'll look at just a few outspoken women (or, simply, speaking women) within the Old Testament itself, in which we have clear evidence that God cares about the rights of women.  Let's jump right in, shall we?

Part 2 - Woman's Voice in the Social Sphere of the Old Testament

Numbers 27 tells the remarkable story of five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, who stood before Moses and the assembly of the Jews to make the case that, since their father had no sons, they ought to have the right to inherit their father’s property and carry on their father’s name (a justice which even "modern" 19th century England did not incorporate, according to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice!).  The purpose of this account was to clarify that in such cases, daughters would inherit.  According to T. Desmond Alexander,

This purpose could have been achieved simply by including the point within the general case-law, but the writer includes the story of these particular women, describing their ability to speak out on their own behalf in a lucid and persuasive way…. Moses, perhaps recognizing the validity of their position but also reflecting the unwillingness of a male-dominated culture to accept their demands, instituted a special consultation with the Lord himself.  It needed to be made clear that women were not to be deprived of their rightful inheritance within the community (903).

Such biblical stories relate to us that, even in such a male-dominated culture, God listened to the voices of women and acted out on their behalf.  “Phyllis Bird states that, although wives were included among a man’s possessions, they were not reckoned as property” (King 49).  And although Exodus 20:17’s “commandment against coveting… includes the wife as part of the household, along with the slave, ox and donkey,” Deuteronomy 5:21 does not include the wife “among the domestic property but... in a separate category” (ibid).  It is the difference between ownership and identity.  I belong to my husband, as he belongs to me, and as our children would belong to us if we had any.  I would not own them as an object to be bought or sold, but identify them as people uniquely connected with me, as part of my family. 

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
Although the family structure in the Ancient Near East was predominated by patriarchy, signifying “that the father (paterfamilias) [was] head of the family,” the domestic sphere of a given family was governed largely by the mother (King 38).  According to Stager, “besides raising children,” which involved “care, discipline and training,” women “were responsible for providing food and clothing.  They engaged in crafts that could be managed while caring for the children, such as basketry, spinning, and weaving tapestries and mats” (ibid 50).  They also baked cakes and breads, kept water troughs full, built fires, ground grains, worked in fields, milked sheep and goats, and tended flocks.  

This may sound like an "ideal" world straight out of Leave It to Beaver, but -- in this particular culture -- what these women were essentially doing was considered all within the realm of the family business.   It's not that the husband was the lone bread-winner, but that the husband, wife and children all worked together to make the bread.  In addition to such chores, women were involved in economic trade, selling their creations and buying necessities for the family.  There is a reason that most women get exhausted just reading about the “ideal wife” of Proverbs 31; she was one busy lady!  To think of primarily domestic-leading, home-making women of the Ancient Near East as we do of the typical modern home-makers in our Western culture, would be a drastic mistake indeed.  She wasn't a "housewife"; she was an integral economic contributor to her family.

Women’s voices in the home did not merely affect the home, however.  Often, their voices were heard by and made effects on their communities.  Esther stands out as a woman selfless and courageous, whose voice was the saving grace of the Jewish people.  Agreeing to go before King Xerxes unbidden, a forbidden act that might have resulted in her death, Esther rescued God’s people from certain death, an act still remembered in the Jewish holiday, Purim.  

"Ruth" by James Tissot
 Ruth also comes to mind as a strong voice for Jewish women of the Ancient Near East.  A Moabitess by birth, she left her home and even her religion in order to care for Naomi, the mother of her deceased husband, and to worship Naomi’s God, Yahweh, as her own.  One might wonder, when she made this decision, whether she knew what bold things she would do at her mother-in-law’s bidding.  Naomi advised Ruth to “‘uncover the feet’ of Boaz and propose to him (3:6-9).”  In this act, “both Ruth and Naomi [acted] in ways which radically [defied] traditional standards of patriarchy” (Craven 51).  Yet, in so audaciously doing, Ruth not only secured her and Naomi’s livelihood, but she also became another link in the Messianic line, speaking out in her social sphere, but being heard in the religious sphere.

Speaking of the religious sphere, well, you'll have to come back next week for that!  Part 3 of Silenced Voices is subtitled Woman's Voice in the Religious Sphere of the Ancient Near East, and it's definitely a part not to be missed!


Works Cited

Alexander, T. Desmond and David W. Baker.  Dictionary of the OId Testament: Pentateuch.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.

Craven, Toni.  “Tradition and Convention in Judith.” Semeia 28 (1983): 49-61.

King, Philip J. and Lawrence E. Stager.  Life in Biblical Israel.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.


  1. Thank you for this second part in the series. I am eagerly awaiting the rest!

  2. By the way...I hope you eventually put the links to all these posts in one post! I want to share this!