January 8, 2011

Silenced Voices

 A Study of Women's Roles in the Ancient Near East

Since the creation of man, he has needed woman.  When God made Adam, the Master Creator admitted that His creation was incomplete without an “ezer” (translated “helper”), and wasted no time in forming Eve to be Adam’s companion.  In this perfect setting, man and woman depended on one another, harmonizing in perfect compatibility as they communed with one another and with God.  

God’s world, as He originally created and intended it to be, is a far cry from what creation became post-Fall: a “man’s world.”  In the last century, women have taken great strides toward claiming their equality with men, but just because they lived for millennia in a man’s world does not mean they had no influence on it.  History affirms for us that women have always had an undercover authority, even in ancient Biblical times, which we sometimes consider particularly misogynistic.  Though men certainly had the upper hand in the social sphere, women’s roles in the domestic sphere and beyond gave women more of a voice in ancient near eastern culture than we typically grant them.  

When I was a student at Moody, one of the classes I particularly enjoyed was "Life in Bible Times," which took a look at social, religious and other aspects of life in the particular time period of the Old Testament, spanning a few thousand years.  We looked not only at biblical texts, but also other sources such as the Hammurabi Codes, ancient mythological narratives, religious texts of other faiths and even personal letters in order to understand better the context of the Bible itself.  As a women's ministry major (and, simply, as a woman), I was very interested in understanding the context of the Bible insofar as it related to women's issues, and particularly authority issues between men and women.  The following writing was the result of this interest and several hours of study.  I'll have to chop my paper up a little to make it fit in the attention-span of the blogosphere, but I hope you find it as interesting as I do!

Part 1: Woman’s Voice in the Social Sphere of the Ancient Near East
From the earliest writings of our faith, the Pentateuch, come the voices of women.  Subtly and discretely, they dream and scheme, quite under our religious radar.  Then, suddenly, they stand up and speak, taking us a bit by surprise at times.  Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, is a grand example of this.  In Genesis 27, she connived to have her younger son, Jacob, receive Isaac’s blessing even though it rightfully belonged to Esau, the elder of the twins.  By means of a series of deceitful actions, she not only ensured blessings upon her favorite son; astonishingly, this woman actually rerouted the Messianic line!   (Not to the surprise of God, but certainly usurping the practices of man.)

"Isaac Feels Jacob as Rebekah Looks On" by James Tissot
According to King and Stager, “the mother’s authority was exercised in the household,” as seen in the cases of Sarah who “cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael (Gen. 21:20),” the Shunammite woman who “extended kindness and hospitality to Elisha (2 Kings 4:8-10),” and Rebekah, who, as mentioned, “perpetrated Jacob’s deception of his blind father Isaac” (50).  Although we should not trust the total authenticity of stereotypes, there may be a reason Jewish mamas have a reputation of being lovably overbearing.  Such conduct did not only affect their households, however, as may be obvious.  Their voices and actions also had an effect on their social lives and even our salvation history.

The women of the Old Testament do have voices of their own, but we can better grasp their roles in their culture and time by studying the lives and words of other women in the Ancient Near East.  A writing entitled, “A Letter from an Angry Housewife,” may strike us as thoroughly modern, but it is actually a Sumerian archival letter from the Ancient Near East, in which a woman defended herself “against charges of waste and mismanagement of her 
Prologue to the Hammurabi Cod
husband’s estate as dealt with in… the Laws of Hummurabi” (Hallo 3: 295).  According to these Codes, “If the wife of a man who is residing in the man’s house should decide to leave, and she appropriates goods, squanders her household possessions, or disparages her husband, they shall charge and convict her,” and, “if she is … wayward, squanders her household possessions, and disparages her husband, they shall cast that woman into the water” (Hallo 2: 344).  It is no wonder this woman, if innocent, was angry!  In her letter, she asked, “Why on account of the children does he demean my reputation?” (Hallo 3: 295).  She went on to account for every good, but it is clear that goods were not her concern.  By accusing her, her husband was disgracing her, bringing shame to her standing in the community.  It may be surprising enough to find that this was a concern to women, but this letter ensures us that it was, while clarifying that women did indeed have voices and did not hesitate to use them when they were displeased or afraid for their own well-being.

The elaborately detailed marriage contracts of the Ancient Near East also magnify to us the protection of women’s voices and rights in this time period and culture.  For instance, the “Document of Wifehood,” dated to 449 BCE, gives an intricate description of each possession (including the value of each) that the woman, Tamet, owned when she entered her marriage to Anani.  The contract says that should Anani decide he “hates” his wife, and thus decides to divorce her, “silver of hatre(d) is on his head.  He shall give Tamet silver, 7 shekels, 2 q(uarters) and all that, she brought in in her hand she shall take out, from straw to string” (Hallo 3: 172).  Apparently, even this slave woman was not considered worthless enough that she could be disposed of and left penniless should her husband so design.  

Despite what we may believe now about rights of women in the Ancient Near East, women were apparently given the right in most cases to retain and protect their own possessions.  Even so, there were what we would consider unreasonable accusations against women in particular marital circumstances.  For instance, “barrenness was unacceptable for the marriage and resulted in an alternative woman,” which was sometimes specified in the marriage contract (Hallo 3: 251).  One such Akkadian contract says, “[I]f she does not give birth after seven years, he (Idat[ti]) may take a second wife” (ibid 252).  Again, this seems like an obstinate requirement, but in a culture where procreation and thereby continuance of the family name and fortune were of first importance, this stipulation was apparently necessary. 
In the Old Testament itself, there is clear evidence that God cared about the rights of women.  As this installment is already pretty lengthy, however, I'm afraid I'll have to save that exciting part of the story for next time!  I'll aim to post the next section of my five-part series on Silenced Voices, "Woman's Voice in the Social Sphere of the Old Testament," some time next week.


Works Cited

Hallo, William W., ed.  The Context of Scripture: Vol. 2.  Boston: Brill, 2003.

Hallo, William W., ed.  The Context of Scripture: Vol. 3.  Boston: Brill, 2003.

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


  1. Thank you for posting this. I look forward to reading more. So often, we hear only of women being disparaged. Yet, that was not always the case. They also tend to confuse the way non-Hebrew women were/are treated with the treatment of Hebrew women.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading the rest. Have you done more research recently? Or is this all from school? I am missing classes so much now, and would love to get on board and research something again! :)

  3. This series looks great! I'll be watching for more. :)

  4. Linnea, this is all from school, so far. I'm with you on needing something new to research, though... Any ideas?

    Thanks, Abigail and Rachel!

  5. Hi Carrie, this is Jackie, that one-time guest lecturer for your course on Life in Bible Times at Moody. I'm happy to see that you're still reflecting on ideas from the course. I look forward to reading more!

  6. Jackie, wow! I remember you well and so appreciated when you came to teach us! While I have to admit, most of this is regurgitated from the paper I wrote for that class last year, I'm certainly still thinking much about these issues and how our understanding of them forms our perspective of God and what we believe is His perspective of women. I'm so glad you stopped by! Did Charles send you?