I seldom, in doing book reviews, venture far from biblical studies or theology. I wouldn’t normally attempt to review a professor of archaeology. But Jennie R. Ebeling, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Evansville, has written a book that beautifully marries the two, and I feel able to assess its worth and impact on the genre at least of biblical studies.
My deepest thanks to Continuum Books, and T & T Clark Publishing for making a copy of her book available to me., Women’s Lives in Biblical Times.
Anyone who has spent any time studying the bible is surely aware that women’s lives are difficult to determine and assess when reference is only given to the bible itself. Let’s face it, the bible was written (so far as we know) by men, about men. Women play at best tangential roles, except in a very few instances. It was a world of patriarchy and thus it is men’s story that is retold.
Professor Ebeling, seeing the usual false portrayal of women in much of fiction dedicated to the time of ancient Palestine, seeks to give us a better picture of women’s lives. In doing so, she has chosen to join a number of disciplines to accomplish her goal. This is no doubt in keeping with much that is going on in science these days. Much is interdisciplinary, giving in the end a fuller and more complete picture of whatever focus is intended.
Her methodology involved the collection of evidence from several sources. First of course, she draws upon the best of biblical scholarship and linguistics to understand as best as can be done today what exactly was being said in regards women. She then adds her own speciality, archaeology to the mix, absorbing the latest conclusions deduced from dig sites throughout the biblical region. She then includes the texts of documents originating from comparative Near Eastern and Egyptian sources, insofar as they treat of women’s lives.
While she determined to speak to the Iron Age I period, (roughly 1200-1000 BCE), she found it useful to include the iconography of Iron Age II (roughly 1000-586) sites in the region. Finally, she added ethnographic studies of the region dating from the 19th and early 20th century.
Professor Ebeling then merges all this accumulation of facts and evidence and forms charming stories about a mythical woman called Orah, who was born, raised, and died in the highlands of what is now Israel. More specifically, the area is in the vicinity of the ancient holy city of Shiloh, location of the Ark of the Covenant in the times of the Judges, before the Monarchy.
She divides the chapters into the major life events of Orah, and ties them to the seasonal changes in the village. These various harvests and plantings of course were tied to the various ancient festivals.
A warm delightful story is woven from the information now at hand for what life was like in those small villages. Following the “update” on Orah’s life, for instance, as she moves from childhood to womanhood, and then marriage and childbirth, Ebeling adds specific information to substantiate the points of the story.
References to the bible are replete throughout, as are to her other sources. In a word, each “conclusion” about the life of Orah, is well documented with evidence and reasonable inferences thereof.
One comes away with a genuine pride in the value and power of women of that time. Surely they were not accorded much formal power to be sure, but they were essential to the well being of the community and household. Patriarchy ruled, as we said, and when Orah was of marriageable age, she was betrothed and ultimately went to a new village to live in the home of her husband. If her husband’s father was still living, the father was the ultimately authority. Even if her husband’s mother was alive however, authority passed to the son upon the father’s death.
However, within the house, women ran things. They did the balance of the cooking and pottery making and textile manufacture. They cared for the family vegetable plot. They took care of all childbearing duties and probably most funeral arrangements. All this and they still assisted with the plantings and harvestings.
As many already know, Yahweh was the main God to be worshiped, and most women like Orah made pilgrimage to Shiloh at least a couple of times in their short lives. (Few reached beyond 40 years of age.) Still, however, there were many other gods who were worshiped locally and we can be sure that Orah and her family kept a sacred space within the home for fertility god worship.
What I wish to speak principally about here is how valuable Ebeling’s book is the average layperson. While she has no doubt (and it is quite clear to me she has), made a seminal contribution professionally, she offers the layperson valuable information and a “sense” of life in ancient times that proves most valuable to our worship and meditation upon scripture.
I can only relate that this very weekend, listening to the Gospel readings about Jesus and Martha and Mary, the extension of hospitality and the serving of Jesus and his disciples was deeply enriched by what I had learned of what those homes were like and what those “womanly” duties were.
Coupled with a new interpretation offered by our rector as to the story’s meaning, I saw Martha and Mary in new light. Our rector’s interpretation dovetailed simply perfectly into the world that Professor Ebeling created for me of women living in ancient Israel.
I can further sense that I have a new outlook on all that I read whether scriptural or commentary on these times. So clearly do I have this vision of these women, these homes, these relationships, these cares and these seasonal events, that I will never read the bible the same again.
Professor Ebeling is to be commended for her work. While she is modest in her claims, and always indicates when the evidence is thin and she is making extrapolations and from where, one is left with some serious assurance that she has struck near the mark of reality for that time. As she points out, only time and more evidence will clarify and expand our understanding. For now, this is a brilliant step forward.