Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series

Were Ancient Israelite Women Subservient? The Bible and Archaeology

For many years I taught an undergraduate course on Israelite women in the biblical world. In the very first class, before students had read any of the assignments, I asked them to jot down their image of women in the world of the Hebrew Bible, that is, in ancient Israel. Here are a few typical examples of what they wrote:

  • Women were shrouded and quiet.
  • I think of women as being oppressed.
  • Women were vastly inferior to men in biblical times.
  • Subservience is what comes to mind.

These bright students were echoing popular views. The website of an organization championing religious tolerance says this about Israelite women: “Women’s behavior was extremely limited . . . much as women are restricted in Saudi Arabia in modern-day times.”1http://www.religioustolerance.org/ofe_bibl.htm

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Many scholars have likewise considered women severely restricted in biblical days. The influential feminist theologian, Rosemary Ruether, referred to the “enslavement of persons within the Hebrew family itself: namely, women and children.”2Rosemary R. Ruether, “Feminist Interpretation: A Method of Correlation,” in Feminist Interpretations of the Bible (ed. Letty M. Russell; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 119. Thankfully, most now reject this extreme view. Yet descriptions of Israelite family life continue to see women as second-class members of society.

The ‘Woman Problem’ of the Hebrew Bible

Perhaps these negative views were to be expected, given that, until relatively recently, the main source of information about ancient Israelite women was the Hebrew Bible.3For further discussion of the Hebrew Bible as a source of information about women, see my Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 18–27. Yet the Hebrew Bible is hardly a balanced repository of information on this topic. For one thing, women are not very visible. Fewer than 10 percent of the named individuals in the Hebrew Bible are women. Also, those who do appear tend to be exceptional women—royal women, the matriarchs, a few female prophets—not representative of the vast majority of ordinary women.

Then there’s the problem of the legal materials in the Pentateuch, where most of the stipulations that seem to favor men are found. Indeed, examples of the supposed subordination of women almost always involve Pentateuchal rules. Those “laws” cannot be viewed in the same way we look at jurisprudence today. They were not law codes in the modern legal sense. They did not function as society-wide regulations. Rather, they likely expressed the views and practices of a small, literate, urban elite and were not the regulations of the general populace.4See Raymond Westbrook and Bruce Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster) John Knox, 2009), 5. They ultimately became canonical and authoritative in the post-biblical period, but they did not function as such in the period of ancient Israel, the Iron Age (ca. 1200–587 BCE). We need to look at information from the Iron Age itself.

An Iron Age Source: Archaeology

Read more in Carol Myers’s book Rediscovering Eve.

The land of the Bible has been the focus of archaeological exploration and excavation for centuries. Understandably, the focus of archaeology has been the cities mentioned in the Bible. But the great majority of Israelites—as many as 90 percent—were rural farmers, not city-dwellers; and even many city-dwellers were really farmers whose lands lay outside the city walls.5Many of the so-called “cities” mentioned in the Hebrew Bible were really fortified agricultural towns and not true urban centers.

Fortunately, many archaeologists now pay attention to the setting for the farm families of ancient Israel. They do this by the careful excavation of dwellings and all the installations, tools, vessels, and other objects of daily life. In other words, they can reconstruct the daily life of ordinary Israelites by analyzing the material culture of their settlements.

But using archaeological data to recover the lives of Israelite women isn’t a straightforward process. The stones and bones, the pots and plow tips, are silent. They signal the processes of ancient agrarian life but not the gender of the people who used them. Who used which tools? What did they make? Answering those questions relies on hints in the Bible and other ancient texts. Furthermore, understanding the meaning of household activities relies on the perspectives of ethnographers who have observed pre-modern societies similar to ancient Israel.

Before considering an example of women’s household work, it’s important to understand the nature of an Israelite household. It included the dwelling, the people who lived in it, and also its lands, animals, and artifacts. The household was the basic and most numerous unit of society.  As such, it was the most important economic, social, and religious unit. It can be compared to the colonial-era American household, which has been described as an “organizational Swiss army knife—many institutions in one convenient package.”6Natalie Angier, “The Changing American Family,” New York Times (November 25, 2013). https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/health/families.html

Thus, unlike in the industrialized world today, the Israelite household was the living space and the workplace for all its members. Growing crops and raising animals, and then transforming the products of these endeavors into edible and wearable form, was a group effort, involving both women and men, and children too. In short, women had economic roles, and those roles had implications for social and religious life.

The Staff of Life

Perhaps the most important example of how this works is the production of grain-based foods. In the form of gruel but most often as bread, grains were literally the staff of life. Grains were so important that the Hebrew word for “bread,” leḥem, sometimes means “food” or “meal” in the Bible.7E.g., in 2 Kgs. 4:8, Elisha is invited “to have a meal,” but the text says literally “to eat bread.” More than 70 percent of an average person’s caloric intake would have come from grains. Sometimes bread dipped in oil and salt might constitute the entire meal.

Harvested grains are not directly edible; they must be transformed into flour (and then baked) for their nutritional value to be released. Producing flour was a laborious task in the days before the invention of milling. Using stone grinding tools, which are ubiquitous in the excavation of Israelite dwellings, it would take a person at least 2–3 hours every day to produce enough flour to feed a family of six.

Who used these tools? Women did, according to several biblical texts. For example, the woman of Thebes uses her grindstone to save her town (Judg 9:53-54; 2 Sam 11:21). In Isa 47:1-2 Babylon is personified as a woman who loses her royal status, becomes a peasant woman, and grinds grain into flour.

Archaeology provides additional important information about flour production. Several sets of grinding tools are often found in one house. This indicates that several women worked side-by-side to grind grain, thus making this time-consuming task less onerous. Ethnographic literature abounds with descriptions of women easing laborious activities by working together, singing and chatting. Note that Matt. 24:41 (= Luke 17:35) mentions two women grinding together.

Baking, another bread-making step carried out by women (e.g., 1 Sam 28:24; cf. 1 Sam 8:13), is also represented in archaeological materials. The remnants of domed clay ovens, similar to ones used in remote Middle Eastern villages to this day, are common. However, they are not always found in every dwelling. An examination of hundreds of ovens from biblical sites reveals that almost half are located in courtyards and in open places between dwellings.8Aubrey Baadsgaard, “A Taste of Women’s Sociality; Cooking as Cooperative Labor in Iron Age Syro-Palestine,” in The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (ed. Beth Alpert Nakhai; Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2008). This indicates that women from multiple households shared an oven. Doing so was fuel efficient and also labor efficient, for the work of collecting fuel and building a fire was shared. Ethnographic evidence indicates that such communal ovens have been part of life in biblical lands since antiquity.

Beyond Nutrition: Israelite Women and Bread

Preparing bread was an economic activity that provided essential nutrition for families in the biblical period. But it was more than that. It played a critical role in the social and religious lives of Israelite women and their households.

Let’s take a closer look at women working together to grind grain and bake bread. The many hours women spent together provided companionship and relieved the tedium of daily tasks. Just as important, it created a communication mechanism typical of traditional Mediterranean communities. Women socialized as they worked, sharing ideas and information. One ethnographer puts in this way:  “Women are the typical channels of social information. While they prepare the dough and bake the bread, they make an X-ray of the town.”9Carole M. Counihan, The Anthropology of Food and the Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power (New York: Routledge, 1999). 32–3.

These relationships among women at work were hardly casual or frivolous. Women’s familiarity with each other builds solidarity. Women who work together typically rally to each other’s assistance. They know if a neighbor has a problem, and they help. Sometimes the assistance is mundane, like lending a cooking tool. Other times it provides aid in a household mishap or emergency, like an illness or accident. Women working together formed what we might call mutual-aid societies. Crises in traditional societies without institutional social services are typically remedied in this way. Women’s shared bread preparation activities served an important social function in ancient Israel by contributing to the well-being and survival of their communities as well as their families.10Some of women’s other economic activities (e.g., producing textiles) also involved shared labor and contributed to female solidarity. See Deborah Cassuto, “Bringing Home the Artifacts: A Social Interpretation of Loom Weights in Context,” in The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (ed. Beth Alpert Nakhai; Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2008).

But that’s not all. Bread production involved religiosity. The biblical prominence of national religious institutions––priesthood, sacrifice, tabernacle, and temple––often means that household religious activities are overlooked. Yet those activities were arguably the primary and most common aspect of the religious lives of most Israelites, and women had essential roles in sacral household activities involving food and its preparation.

Sanctity related to bread production appears in the offering of a piece of bread dough to God (Num. 15:19-21) in order to secure God’s blessing for the household (Ezek. 44:30b). This bread-dough ritual reflects a belief about the sanctity of bread. Ethnographers have recorded similar women’s rituals associated with preparing bread among pre-modern Middle Eastern women. These rituals reflect the acknowledgement of bread as life, as a sacred commodity essential to survival.

In addition to the sacred task of making bread, women prepared special loaves and other foods for everyday and seasonal festivals.11Although the biblical writer disapproves of it, Jer 7:18 and 44:17 refer to women making a form of bread called “cakes” as offerings. From our twenty-first century perspective, preparing bread and other foods for household festivities may seem like a trivial aspect of religious life, but ethnographic observations indicate that, in carrying out household food rituals, women exhibited religious expertise in the household, no less than did priests in community shrines.12See Susan Sered, Women as Ritual Experts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Israelite Women, Bread, and Household Power

Many of the tasks required to make bread—and also other foods comprising the Israelite diet—required specialized knowledge and technological skills: how fine to grind the flour, how to knead the dough, how to heat the oven, and even how to make the oven!13Specialized knowledge and technological skills were also required for other tasks performed by women, notably transforming fibers into fabrics and then into garments and other household textiles. The preeminent anthropologist Jack Goody reports that, in traditional societies, women who transform raw materials into food are considered to have special knowledge––the ability to “work… wonders.”14Jack Goody, Cooking Class, and Cuisine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 70. Further, creating bread (and other commodities) in traditional societies where it can’t be obtained in any other way was a source of considerable household power.15David Sutton, “The Anthropology of Cooking,” in Handbook of Food and Anthropology (ed. Jakob A. Klein and James L. Watson; London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 351. Conversely, when food becomes available commercially, women’s household power decreases; see Carol Palmer, “Milk and Cereals: Identifying Food and Food Identity among Fallāḥīn and Bedouin in Jordan,” Levant 34 (2002): 192. Moreover, in organizing the daily activities surrounding the production of food and other essential commodities, the senior woman in the typical extended-family household functioned as a household manager. In today’s terms, she was the household’s “COO” (chief operating officer).

Preparing bread was not simply a domestic chore; it was a life-sustaining activity. It was no less important to household survival than was the work of men in growing grain. While men and women were not equal in all aspects of community life, they made equally important contributions to household life. Both women and men were “breadwinners.” In fact, women dominated many household activities and men dominated others. This is called gender complementarity.16See Counihan, Anthropology of Food, 37.

Recognizing gender complementarity in ancient Israel challenges views, like those cited at the beginning of this essay, that men controlled women in all respects. Moreover, it overturns the idea that women’s work was not valued. As ethnographers have noted, women earn considerable respect and status in traditional societies when their labors are essential for survival.

Israelite Women’s Household Power in Biblical Texts

As it turns out, several biblical texts confirm that women had household power. Consider the story of the Shunammite woman (2 Kgs 4:8‒37; 8:1‒6). Several features about her story are notable. First, she makes decisions autonomously, without first asking her husband: she invites the prophet Elisha to her house, has a room built for him, moves her household away to escape a drought, and directly appeals to the king for restitution when her household is overtaken by others. She interacts directly with the leading royal and prophetic figures of her day, and her requests are granted.

The control of household resources is also clear in the narrative of Abigail (1 Samuel 25). She has access to large quantities of foodstuffs and decides how to use them without consulting her husband. She saves her household by giving these foodstuffs to the future king David and by addressing him with wisdom and diplomacy. Micah’s mother (Judges 17) also has access to resources (200 pieces of silver) and uses them for the construction of a household shrine.

And let’s not forget the “strong woman” of Proverbs 31:10‒31.17“Strong woman” is a more accurate translation of the Hebrew than the “capable wife” of many English translations. These 22 verses portray a household manager. More than half refer to economic processes. She provides food and engages in textile production; she purchases land, has a profitable business, and sells the textiles she produces to merchants. Moreover, she uses some of her household’s resources as charity for the poor.

These archaeological and biblical images of women’s control of critical aspects of household life call into question the suitability of the term patriarchy, a term used to denote male domination, to designate Israelite society.18See my “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?”, Journal of Biblical Literature 133 (2014): 8–27. Men did not dominate women in all aspects of household life in ancient Israel.

The Hebrew Bible is not a monolithic document. It took shape over many centuries and had many different authors. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that the relationship between women and men in biblical texts is not always the same. The texts that have led to negative images of women must be set against those with positive images. It just so happens that the archaeologically generated information aligns with the texts depicting strong autonomous women. Both reflect the reality of agrarian life in the period of the Hebrew Bible.

End Notes

1. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ofe_bibl.htm

2. Rosemary R. Ruether, “Feminist Interpretation: A Method of Correlation,” in Feminist Interpretations of the Bible (ed. Letty M. Russell; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 119.

3. For further discussion of the Hebrew Bible as a source of information about women, see my Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 18–27.

4. See Raymond Westbrook and Bruce Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster) John Knox, 2009), 5.

5. Many of the so-called “cities” mentioned in the Hebrew Bible were really fortified agricultural towns and not true urban centers.

6. Natalie Angier, “The Changing American Family,” New York Times (November 25, 2013). https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/health/families.html

7. E.g., in 2 Kgs. 4:8, Elisha is invited “to have a meal,” but the text says literally “to eat bread.”

8. Aubrey Baadsgaard, “A Taste of Women’s Sociality; Cooking as Cooperative Labor in Iron Age Syro-Palestine,” in The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (ed. Beth Alpert Nakhai; Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2008).

9. Carole M. Counihan, The Anthropology of Food and the Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power (New York: Routledge, 1999). 32–3.

10. Some of women’s other economic activities (e.g., producing textiles) also involved shared labor and contributed to female solidarity. See Deborah Cassuto, “Bringing Home the Artifacts: A Social Interpretation of Loom Weights in Context,” in The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (ed. Beth Alpert Nakhai; Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2008).

11. Although the biblical writer disapproves of it, Jer 7:18 and 44:17 refer to women making a form of bread called “cakes” as offerings.

12. See Susan Sered, Women as Ritual Experts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

13. Specialized knowledge and technological skills were also required for other tasks performed by women, notably transforming fibers into fabrics and then into garments and other household textiles.

14. Jack Goody, Cooking Class, and Cuisine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 70.

15. David Sutton, “The Anthropology of Cooking,” in Handbook of Food and Anthropology (ed. Jakob A. Klein and James L. Watson; London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 351. Conversely, when food becomes available commercially, women’s household power decreases; see Carol Palmer, “Milk and Cereals: Identifying Food and Food Identity among Fallāḥīn and Bedouin in Jordan,” Levant 34 (2002): 192.

16. See Counihan, Anthropology of Food, 37.

17. “Strong woman” is a more accurate translation of the Hebrew than the “capable wife” of many English translations.

18. See my “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?”, Journal of Biblical Literature 133 (2014): 8–27.

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