In a book mostly written by men and about men, what is the role of women? Over 90% of the people named in the Hebrew Bible are men. Finding out about women’s experiences is not an easy task, but scholars have been able to figure out a lot by carefully combing through the text. While women were largely confined to the household, they also were a critical part of a society’s social, political, and economic well-being, since the sustainment of the household was so vitally important to ancient life. To better illustrate this, we compiled some interesting facts about what life was like for women in ancient times:
1. Hard work wasn’t just for the men in the ancient Israelite household. Women were responsible for transforming raw materials into food and clothing. It’s been estimated that every day it took women two or more hours just to grind grain to make flour alone.
2. Women may have had a significant amount of control of the household’s material resources.
3. Mothers were more likely to name their children than fathers.
4. In ancient Israel, women functioned as medical specialists, primarily as midwives. Child birthing was dangerous and midwives had to possess considerable skill.
5. Many of the social, political and especially religious institutions excluded women. For example, women had to perform their morning rituals significantly farther away from Yahweh’s temple proper than the men. In Ezekiel 8:14, women pray by the temple’s northern gate; while men participate in the service in the temple’s inner court between the temple’s front porch (dĕbîr) and its courtyard altar (Ezek. 8:16). The Leviticus purity laws restricted women’s access to the temple during their menses and postpartum discharges.
6. Women nonetheless found a place in the ritual life of ancient Israel. They were responsible for preparing many of the customary, religious offerings. They prepared grain and foodstuff offerings, libation offerings, and incense offerings.
7. Women were responsible for the musical performances during rituals and celebrations. Moses’ sister Miriam led women of Israel in celebration of the Israelites’ successful crossing of the Red Sea; other similar celebrations can be found in Judges, Samuel, and Psalms. Women were also portrayed numerous times being in charge of musical festivities during the autumn harvest festival of Ingathering, or Sukkot.
8. Women had better religious opportunity in less bureaucratic institutions. Regional sanctuaries did not constrain women’s potential to practice their religion as much. Hannah is depicted in the Bible going to Shiloh to engage in complex rituals to ask God for a child and is invited to join in the sacrificial meal of Sukkot with the other women of her household at Shiloh. Moreover, Hannah was likely involved in the sacrificial offerings that preceded the meal.
9. Miriam, Deborah, Hulda, Noadiah, the unnamed prophetess of Isaiah 8:3, and “the daughters … who prophesy” are all women identified as prophets in the Hebrew Bible.
10. Female prophets portrayed as coming into conflict with male authorities are depicted negatively. Miriam, Noadiah, and “the daughters … who prophesy” were all examples of this in the Hebrew bible. Though Noadiah is named a prophet, virtually all we know about her is that she opposed the rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls that was being championed by Nehemiah and disparaged for this stance in Nehemiah 6:14.
11. Women held important leadership positions as queen mothers. Israel’s queen mothers “seem to have served as official functionaries within their sons’ courts.” They also played an important role in naming their husbands’ heirs to the throne. When David was on his deathbed, Bathsheba persuaded him to appoint Solomon as the next king of Israel, instead of having his oldest living son, Adonijah, inherit the throne.
Featured image credit: “Isaac’s servant tying the bracelet on Rebecca’s arm” by Benjamin West (1738-1820). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.