February 26, 2011

Silenced Voices, III

Last month I began a series on the roles -- and specifically, the voices -- of Ancient Near Eastern women, a subject I studied while taking a course on Life in Bible Times.  The subject still fascinates me, of course, as a woman, as a student of the Bible, and as an avid believer in the rights of all people to speak up.  I believe our voices are our representatives to the world.  If a person cannot speak or does not have permission to speak, a critical part of her personhood, of her individual heart and mind, is lost.  And while we postmodern women were perhaps raised to believe that our voices were given to us by the Civil Rights Movement of our mothers and grandmothers (a campaign which I am 100% behind, by the way), I'd suggest that Someone else gave us our voices, Someone much more interested in our individual hearts and minds.  We certainly haven't always and won't always use our voices for the glory of God, but to believe that He has ever silenced women is to believe a lie.  

While I remind you that the following is an academic paper, I hope you may glean some "devotional" thoughts as you consider the history of woman's voice throughout sacred texts of our faith as well as those of other religions.  In this series, I've already covered Woman's Voice in the Social Sphere of the Ancient Near East (in general) and Woman's Voice in the Social Sphere of the Old Testament (in particular).  Without further ado, today I'm covering... (drum roll, please)...

Woman's Voice in the Religious Sphere of the Ancient Near East

In addition to the voices women had in the social sphere at home and beyond, like Ruth, they also had a say in the religious sphere.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, is a good illustration of the active involvement of women in leadership and worship of Yahweh among the Jews.  In Exodus 15:20, Moses recorded, “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.”  As a prophetess, Miriam used her voice to speak God’s word to God’s people, and as a song-leader, she used her voice to lift praises back up to the Lord.  1 Chronicles 25:5-6, Ezra 2:65, and Nehemiah 7:67 also all record women involved in the temple worship of Yahweh.

"Judith and Holofernes" by Giorgo Vasari, c. 1554
Besides these Old Testament examples of women’s voices used for religious purposes, we also have extra-biblical sources to guide us in understanding how women were involved in this sphere of life.  The apocryphal book Judith, for example, tells the powerful story of a daring woman who, totally trusting in Yahweh for victory, saved Israel from the Assyrians. Judith’s story is not strictly religious, but it is a story of social action informed by religious beliefs. 
Although Judith “punctiliously obey[ed] religious regulations,” she did not consider her womanhood to be a variable in preventing her from doing what was right in protecting Israel and Yahweh’s name. Toni Craven explains:

When Uzziah tells her to pray for rain, she responds by upbraiding his lack of faith, urging him and the other officials of Bethulia to listen to her voice (8:32; cf. 8:11). She decides for herself that she will go against the enemy with a planned deceit that culminates in an assassination (Judith 9 – 13). Unconventional conduct is not only permitted these women [referring to Judith, Esther and Ruth], but it is approved because through their acts tradition is being served.

The Book of Judith is non-canonical to Jews and Protestants, and deuterocanonical to Catholics and Orthodox, and many do not consider Judith’s story to be historical.  Nevertheless, it may illustrate for us some elements of truth in Jewish thought, including a certain respect for bold women in the religious and social spheres, or it most likely would never have been preserved.

Outside of Judaism, women of the Ancient Near East were quite involved in certain aspects of religious life.  In Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:19, Jeremiah condemned Judean women who were “making offering cakes for a goddess called the queen of heaven.”  Susan Ackerman notes that although this goddess was worshipped by men, women, children and people of very high political standing in Jerusalem, “the special stress on women as the makers of the queen’s cakes, as well as their role in pouring out libations and offering incense to the goddess (Jer 44:15, 19, 25), probably indicates that the queen’s cult was particularly appealing to females” (Meyers 327).  Ackerman also suggests that “the cult of the queen of heaven” may actually have been “an example of domestic or household-centered religion,” which would explain the significant role women played in a culture where “women were generally excluded from official or public religion” (ibid). 

Egyptian Priestess with sistrum, a musical instrument
There is also much evidence that women in Egypt were quite involved in the religious sphere. “In the Old Kingdom, the evidence for women of particularly high social rank reveals a wide variety of priestly positions” (Goslin 34).  Women served “in the priesthoods of both male and female deities. There is also evidence that women served in the mortuary priesthood of Cheops and for the god Ptah” (ibid).  Furthermore, women were among those who “performed in ceremonies for king Neuserre’s jubilee in the solar temple of Abusir” (ibid).  Goslin suggests that women’s involvement in Egyptian worship was less associated with harems and prostitution than we tend to believe, and more to do with their service to the gods as “devotee[s] to a divinity,” perhaps similar to Nuns of the much later Catholic tradition (29).

In Mesopotamia, women were particularly considered the “intercessors” of their husbands and families.  In addition to this, there appeared to be “cloisters in the Old Babylonian period,” – specific places of intercession – “rather than an economic motif to preserve the family capital. Rich and even royal families sent their daughter to this secluded place, where they prayed and made sacrifices on behalf of their relatives” (Stol 139).  Again, this seems to be quite like a monastic ritual, though specifically for the purpose of praying for one’s family.

Of course, when considering the religious association of women with Judaism specifically, one can hardly overlook the Wisdom Woman of Proverbs 1-9, especially in light of the fact that some people “see an indigenously Hebrew goddess beneath the surface” of this text, “hypothesizing this goddess to have been a vigorous participant in a quasi-Canaanite pantheon in prehistoric Israel” (Moore 148).  Obviously, this is not a Christian view, but this perspective should not be left out of this discussion.  Others consider the origins of this woman to be from Mesopotamia or Egypt, comparing the  “Wisdom Woman in Proverbs to Inanna in Sumer, Ma'at in Egypt, and even Athena in Greece” (ibid).

Another (more biblically coherent) view is that the Wisdom Woman is a personification of the wisdom tradition, and specifically of Yahweh’s wisdom.  Even so, the fact that Yahweh chose to reveal His wisdom by means of a feminine personification proves that it is impossible to believe that women had no voices in the religious sphere, for God apparently does not.  In using a woman to illustrate His attributes, He validated women in religious thought, ensuring that women had a voice.  As Moore notes, there were certainly examples of wise women in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely the “wise mediator” (Abigail) of 1 Samuel 25, “the ‘wise woman’ of Tekoa in 2 Samuel 14 and the ‘wise woman’ of Abel in 2 Samuel 20” (Moore 152).

God continued to hear and speak through the voices of women long after these wise women no longer walked the earth.  The New Testament was written in a Hellenistic culture which had its own opportunities and problems for women in both the social and religious spheres of life.  But that, my friend, is another subject for another day.  Stay tuned for my next and final say on Silenced Voices: Woman's Voice in the New Testament Era.  To read all of this series in one place, go here, where you'll find them in reverse order, thanks to good ol' blogspot.


Works Cited

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

                    Goslin, Sheldon L. "Female Priests: A Sacerdotal Precedent from Ancient Egypt."  
                            Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion  12.1 (1996): 25-39.

                    Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds.  Women in Scripture.
                            Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

                    Moore, Michael S.  "'Wise Woman' or Wisdom Women."  Restoration Quarterly
                            35.3 (1993): 147-158.

                    Stol, M.  "Women in Mesopotamia."  Journal of the Economic and Social History
                            of the Orient  38.2 (1995): 123-144.


Seemingly Appropriate Post Script:

You better believe it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Carrie. I look forward to the next installment.

    I was under the assumption that women played a mostly sexual role in religious worship outside of Judaism. Thank you for the info.