Since the 1970s feminist bible scholars have been reclaiming the stories of biblical women.
From Eve to Esther this lecture will draw on both biblical accounts and cultural representations to bring their stories to life. Whether wives, mothers, and sisters; sex workers and foreign agents; prophetesses and queens; wise women and witches; victims and heroes and so much more, their stories reveal to us not only who these women were, but how their stories continue to resonate in the modern world.
Support the show
A lecture by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris recorded on 25 April 2023 at Barnard's Inn Hall, London.
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/women-hebrew-bible
Gresham College has offered free public lectures for over 400 years, thanks to the generosity of our supporters. There are currently over 2,500 lectures free to access. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds. To support Gresham's mission, please consider making a donation: https://gresham.ac.uk/support/
As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was visiting my grandparents' house and was to peruse their bookshelves. I was an avid reader and my grandparents had a fine collection of books, particularly Jewish books. I was keenly interested in my Judaism, even as a young child, and so I found the collections of Jewish history and theology, Israeli picture books and much else an excellent source to pass the time during my holidays and as a girl, particularly one who even at a relevant relatively young age was looking for my place in the Jewish community. I remember looking for a reflection of myself in those books. Where were the Jewish women who could be my role models? Perhaps that is why the volume great Jewish women was so interesting to me. A book all about Jewish women where the first third of the book is devoted to the early years, which largely corresponds to the Hebrew Bible designed to demonstrate how each of the women discussed could serve as role models.
What more could I ask for published in 1940? This book was all about explaining how the women of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud and later history were just like 1940s Jewish women and sketches of some of the women were included along a short description of their stories skipped over were any women who were too worrisome or too unsavory, and even the ones that were included were sanitized in some fashion. Most of the women have some sort of Appalachian as appended to their names, such as Sarah, the mother of her people, or Esther, a star of good fortune only in the highly problematic story of Jeter's daughter, which I will mention later, did the author leave off an Appalachian? But all of these women are ultimately portrayed as good wives, mothers and daughters who sometimes fought oppression but only of a certain limited model. No one wanted a new generation of Jewish women to get the wrong idea about who they could become.
I have always held a kind of attachment to this musty, dried out volume. I ascribed to it a kind of turning point in my own personal narrative. I loved this book because it belonged to my grandparents, but I also knew somehow that it was hiding the real stories of these women stories that have become central both to my academic life and my personal ethno religious journey. In order for me to find role models within my own tradition, I needed to reclaim many of these and just at the point that I was old enough to do so, I discovered that I was very much not alone in my journey. Now, before I jump into taking us all on a journey around the women of the Hebrew Bible, a few words about terminology are required. You will note that I consistently use the term Hebrew Bible. A Hebrew Bible is decidedly not the same as an Old Testament and not merely because the order of the books it contained within each is different.
Names are always important as we shall see as they are so resonant with meaning. An Old Testament is predicated on the existence of a New Testament, which supersedes the Old Testament. A concept which Jews entirely reject are those Jews more generally refer to their holy scripture by the name [inaudible], which is a Hebrew word I will use the more commonly employed academic terminology of Hebrew Bible during the course of this lecture. For the purposes of clarity, a Hebrew Bible consists of three sections, Torah, prophets and writings, each of which is subdivided into other books. As you can see here, all of the women I will discuss today appear in one of these books. Additionally, all of the translations from the lecture are from the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible unless otherwise noted and it's publicly available at that website have then to begin.
A list of female figures in the Hebrew Bible would not only be dull for you to listen to, but also unfeasibly long as a starting point. Although most people can name some women in the Hebrew Bible, few realize just how many there are within the text. Many are named, but many are not. Some are Israelite, some are Preis, Israelite, some are non Israelite and sound transcend any such easy boundaries or categorizations. Some are wives, mothers and daughters and their stories are wrapped in those identities. Others are sex workers, queens, prophets, judges, foreign agents, and much more. Many of them just like real women, are more than one of these things. Questions abound of agency and consent, voice and silence, subjectivity and objectivity. Too many I'm afraid to address all of them here today. I will try to allude to all of these issues without any easy conclusions.
Alongside my lecture, you will see selected images of some of the women I'm discussing. Many of these images are by contemporary female artists, though not all of them are details of the titles, the artists and the dates of the of the works are going to be on the screen. These are images I have curated and are deliberately meant to be thought provoking, displaying the ongoing power of these biblical stories, but I will not have time to discuss each of these images and hope merely that as I speak you will be able to use these images in conjunction with my lecture to explore your own responses and views of these women. I want to begin, however, with the first mention of the female gender in the Hebrew Bible. Many people assume this means eve, but it does not. I shall return to her in a moment.
In fact, the first mention of the female gender in relation to human beings appears in Genesis chapter one, verse 27, and God created humankind in the divine image creating it in the image of God, creating them male and female. Starting here is important as is using the gender sensitive adaptation of the J ps translation. Biblical Hebrew is a heavily gendered language making, getting to the meaning of this verse complicated. Moreover, the exact meaning of the phrase the image of God demands a lecture in and of itself, but for our purposes I wanted to point out that in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Hebrew Bible at the crucial moment of the creation of human beings, gender is already clearly indicated as a reflection of the divine and it is both genders that accorded this divinity. I am of course hardly the first person to point this out as Elizabeth can Stan Cady Stanton writing in 1895 states, if language has any meaning in the Godhead, equal empower and glory with the mask, the the existence of the feminine element in the Godhead equal powerly and glory with the masculine precisely the reason I want to bring this account of creation to our attention.
The first women created are jointly created with the first men and together in addition to making up the first humans, they are both created in the image of God, neither privileged over the other, both with equal vitality and sanctity. If we take this first creation story as the beginning of the narrative of human beings within the Hebrew Bible, then we can begin to reclaim women as equally important to their male counterparts in the stories the text is about to tell us. So if the first creation tells us that men and women are both created equally in the divine image, then the second creation story, and yes, there are two creation narratives in the Hebrew Bible tells us a very different narrative. Here, a single human is created first, not a massive humanity. The first human being is known as Aun, which in Hebrew simply means a human being and only later in the story becomes the proper noun.
We now know as Adam, the Hebrew word is the same one used in the first creation story to refer to both men and women and appears to be a generic term. Presumably this confusion between the terms generic meaning and its use as a proper name is what enables the mid rush, which is an ancient rabbinic. These are ancient rabbinic collections of ex Jesus, of interpretation of the biblical text. To suggest that this first human is created, created in the second creation story was actually a hermaphrodite. The early rabbis imagined that this creature was half male and half female, and that when it was put into a deep sleep rather than that rib that we all know about being removed, the creature was simply divided in half a reading born out by the translation of the Hebrew word mik, which can mean from a rib but can equally mean from the side in this interpretation.
Again, the first human being is neither male nor female, but both and thus the woman is not subservient to the man but rather part of the original dual gendered human being. Of course, the second creation story goes on to create a very different narrative around the female human being. During the story, both the man and the woman eat from the tree of knowledge and the Garden of Eden, and I want to stress at this point that Judaism has no theology of original sin and after God dolls out the punishment only at that point is the woman named as Hak or Eve as she is known in English. It is a play on the Hebrew meaning of her name. The root of Hak is the same as the word in Hebrew for life. Hence, she is named Hak because she is the was the mother of all living in the story in the Hebrew Bible, both the man and the woman, both Adam and Hava are punished alongside the snake for transgressing, God's injunction against eating from the fruit of the tree.
Though they are punished individually with different punishments, the snake is published, punished for the man and the woman into transgressing and the man is punished both for listening to the woman and for eating from the tree. Curiously, the text does not list the reason why the woman is punished. We are simply meant to infer it, but while all of them are punished, much has been made of the woman's punishment, pain in childbirth, followed by the final section. Yet your urge shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you For millennia, this final part of the punishment has been used as a justification for the subjugation of women within the context of the hetero patriarchal framework of the Hebrew Bible. This verse stands as the backdrop to every other female character we will encounter making encountering Hava foundational to our journey to give us an idea of what biblical women may, may be less familiar with.
The next women mentioned chronologically by the biblical text include Cain's wife who is unnamed, ADA and zk, who are the named wives of Lama Nama, the sister of two volcano, although whom are mentioned within the span of five verses towards the end of Genesis four, about Kane's wife and Nama. We know nothing at all, but Lama speaks to his wives, granting us some little insight into Lama, but nothing at all about either ADA or zk. Rather than go through each named and unnamed woman as they appear in the Hebrew Bible, a task that would surely take longer than I have left, I propose instead to use the contents of a little known mid rush from the second century of the common era to help structure the rest of this lecture. In this extremely early rabbinic commentary, it has stated that there are seven prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible.
They are in the order of the mid rush, Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, Abigail Holder, and Esther. Some of these women may be more familiar to us than others. Some may be more of a surprise on the list than others. The list spans all of the three major sections of the Hebrew Bible and all of the major historical periods of Israelite history, making it a good jumping off point for us. I shall take each of them in turn discussing not only each of these women, but also some of the other women who exist at similar times and in the same books or sections of the Hebrew Bible, Sarah or [inaudible] as she is first named by the text before her name is changed. God is best known as the wife of the first of the biblical patriarchs. Abraham.
Abraham, uh, sorry. In turn, she is the first among the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leia who are often referenced thus in Jewish liturgy and who are themselves the wives of the other patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob. Although all four women are defined by their roles as wives and mothers, they are nevertheless strong characters and have voices that come through their stories. According to the rabbi, Sarah has ascribed the status of prophet test precisely for what she says. The proof text is listed as Genesis chapter 21 verse 12, where God tells Abraham whatever Sarah tells you do. As she says, the context here is part of a larger story arc to do with Hagar the Egyptian woman who is Sarah's servant. Initially during the many years when Sarah and Abraham were unable to conceive, Sarah told Abraham to use Hagar for her fertility to take her as a kind of secondary wife and to conceive a child with her.
In Genesis 16, Abraham responds by listening to Sarah's voice by doing as he is told Ishmael, and in turn, Sarah is lowered in hagar's esteem. The text is unclear, is Hagar's estimation of Sarah based only on Sarah's barrenness versus her own fertility or might Hagar also resent being passed to Sarah's husband to be used for her fertility without any thought to her own rights? Sarah realizes quickly the animosity between them and treats her gar more harshly until her gar runs away. Only the words of God's messenger forces her back. Later in Genesis 21, when Sarah finally has her own son, the one about whom she laughs, when she hears that she will conceive in her old age, at that point Sarah grows jealous of Hagar and her firstborn son again. This time she wants Abraham to throw both of them out of their home Apparently without any concern for what may happen to them, Hagar and Ishmael are now nothing more than competition for her own progeny, Isaac and thus for the inheritance rights.
Abraham is alarmed by her voice this time around and as with Hagar earlier, God is the one to quell Abraham's concerns insisting that Abraham do as Sarah tells him, jealousy, competition for fertility and inheritance, dysfunctional polygamous families and abusive power dynamics. Sadly, these are the themes that are repeated down the generations. While Rebecca is Isaac's only wife, her son's quarrel incessantly and endlessly and both she and Isaac play favorites with their twin boys. Ultimately, Rebecca's chosen son Jacob, who is second, not first born, will gain the birthright with the help of his mother. Conversely, Leah and Rachel, who are the sister wives of Jacob Le Leah is the elder of the two whom Jacob is tricked into marrying and though highly fertile, she is not loved by Jacob. Rachel is his beloved, but she has trouble conceiving the women squabble over conjugal rights and resort to giving Jacob their servants bill her in zpa, a secondary wives for their fertility in bearing yet more sons for him.
The animosity between Leia and Rachel is only ended by Rachel's death in childbirth, simply passing on the favoritism and dysfunction to a new generation like Sarah before them, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leia all speak in particular, Rachel is the only sorry. Rebecca is the only biblical woman to speak directly with God when the trends struggle within her womb. She demands of God directly to know what is going on and God replies to her directly explaining that she was not carrying two babies but two nations and that in time the older would serve the younger. Meanwhile, Leia speaks often for a much more common purpose in the Hebrew Bible to name her children. Indeed overall women are cited as naming their children far more often than men. As for Rachel, the first time the text relays her speech directly is in Genesis chapter 30 verse one, when she demands of Jacob, give me children or I will die again.
The twin themes of barness and fertility become the driving force of her narrative in voice [inaudible] and zpa conversely never speak, they simply soundlessly, conceive and bear children over and over throughout this early foundational period. In Genesis, the biblical text presents women whose stories primarily revolve around marriage, conception, childbirth, and motherhood. Their relationships with their men in their lives are largely constrained to these areas irrespective of whether their marriages are described as loving or not. Additionally, these stories already begin to raise issues of power and consent and how women were pitted against each other in the fertility competition. The next woman on our list is the prophetess Miriam, well known as the sister of Moses and Erin. She's also named by the biblical text as a prophet test in Exos. In Exodus 15, verse 20, where following the safe crossing of the sea of Reeds, Miriam leads the women in dancing a timber in her hand.
Miriam, alongside an impressive array of women, all plays central st roles in the story of the exodus from Egypt, Shifra and Pu early on are the midwives who refused Pharaoh's command upon birth to kill upon birth the male children of the Hebrew slaves they delivered. Not only did these courageous women defy Pharaoh, they lie to him under questioning about the matter. Moses's mother who's only given a name much later numbers 26 59, your heaven is also courageous as she braves the decision to set her baby son adrift in a wicker basket along the Nile River in order to save him from Pharaoh's newest order to drown all male Hebrew infants in the river, and it is Moses' sister unnamed at this point in the story who watches over him and tell his discovery downstream by Pharaoh's daughter. She pulls him from the river and adopts him as her own in a perhaps not so unpredictable twist.
Moses' own birth mother in this then entrusted as his wetness and once Moses is grown, having murdered an Egyptian task master who was beating a Hebrew slave, Moses flees ta midian. There he meets the seven daughters of the high priest of Midian, eventually marrying one of them sapora, she bears him a son and in much later on will save his life in a section of the text often referred to as the bride groom of blood passage. Here she takes a flint and circumcised his son on the road back to Egypt. All of these women, Shifra Moses' mother and Sistered Jo and Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter all here within the first two chapters of the Book of Exodus and all of them serve in one way or another as protectors. So what we might often think of this suction of the story as Moses's origin story, he is outnumbered six to one by the women around him and the courage each of them display in ensuring that he will thrive.
These women represent almost the full gamut of the types of female characters we find in the Hebrew Bible. We have named women and unnamed women, non-I, Israelite women and Hebrew women, royal women and slave women, girls and adult women, wives and mothers and daughters, women with leadership roles and women without what all of them share in common is that they are nurturers, they are women who care. Miriam herself goes on to have a more prominent role in this story. As it develops, she becomes the locus of much attention by later Jewish interpreters as well in the biblical text. In addition to her role leading women in song and dance after crossing the Sea of Reeds, the book of numbers also recounts an incident where Miriam and her brother Erin speak out against Moses in a matter regarding the Cushite woman who Moses had married. While commentators disagree with each other on the exact nature of this rebuke, what is perhaps most extraordinary is that both Miriam and Erin speak out to question Moses's leadership with the question, has the eternal one spoken only through Moses?
Miriam challenges. Moses' leadership here not from the position of wife or mother for the biblical text never describes her as having married or born children. Rather, she's described as a leader of equal standing to Moses. God does intervene, making clear that Moses is God's chosen leader and punishes Miriam. Miriam is stricken down with some type of skin ailment that causes her to be shut out of the Israelite camp for seven days, but the whole of the Israelite camp does not move for that entire week long period. Only when Miriam is readmitted do they begin to march again. Moreover, when Miriam dies in Numbers 21, she is buried properly. In the very next verse, the text tells us the community was without water. According to the Talmud, which is the foundational text of Jewish law and interpretation, dating from around the fourth century of the common era, we are taught three good leaders had arisen for Israel, namely Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and for the sake, for their sake.
Three good things were conferred upon Israel, namely the well, the pillar of cloud and the manor and the well for the merit of Miriam. Commentators link the lack of water following her death to the idea of the well. According to Russia, the greatest of the medieval Jewish commentators. This well followed the people for the whole of their journey through the desert. Until the point Miriam died, it was her merit that allowed it to travel with them. Other commentators linked the well directly to her standing watch over her bro infant brother Moses in his basket in the Nile. This version of Miriam continues the theme of women as nurturers, but not in the traditional role of wives and mothers. Instead, Miriam becomes the protector and provider for the whole house of Israel. A senior leader whose leadership provides the people with the life sustaining water in the desert throughout her lifetime.
The next generation of biblical women is more complex. According to our list, Deborah is the prophetess during the period of the conquest and settling of the ancient land of Israel. Deborah, whose story appears in judges chapter four and whose famous song appears in chapter five is named as a prophet test and Deborah, the wife of Ladot, was a prophet test. She led Israel at that time, but already the phrase the wife of Ladot is problematic other than this reference. Lapido is never mentioned anywhere else in the story according to the Tal mud, this phrase doesn't mean the wife of Lapido at all, but as the Hebrew word for wife and woman are exactly the same. Rather the phrase should be translated as a woman who made wick for torches in the sanctuary. Perhaps Deborah is not after all anyone's wife, but rather a prophets with a minor but important function at the sanctuary who led her people.
The next verse tells us that in her role she used to sit beneath a palm tree and the Israelites would come to her and ask her to serve as an arbitrator, a judge between people. Such a role would've been highly significant and suggests a woman of substantial standing and respect within the community. Moreover, when Cice an army commander for the local Canaanite king comes to attack the Israelites. Deborah takes charge. She summons Barack who appears to be some sort of local military leader and tells him what to do. Deborah sets out this strategy, but he is unwilling to follow her plan unless she goes with him. In that case, Deborah tells him Cice will not b die by his hand, but by the hand of a woman. Barak does not respond and Deborah goes with him. Ultimately, CICE is killed by Yael, the wife of Heber, the ken night when she pretends to offer him refuge from the battle and instead she puts him to sleep with a dose of warm milk driving a tent peg through his temple as he slept after the battle, Deborah Ember sing together the verses that comprise almost the hall of chapter five.
At the end of the text, it tells us the land was tranquil. For 40 years, Deborah has judged wisely, led brilliantly, and aided by a non Israelite female ally achieved military success through her strategy. The result is peace for a generation. Neither Deborah Noel are primarily mothers, wives or daughters. Neither of them is portrayed primarily as a carer or a nurturer. Neither woman is obsessed with her fertility and they work together not at odds with each other to secure peace and stability for their community. But not all women in this period are so lucky. The books of Joshua and judges are complex and the roles of the women in them are equally so. The stories these books contain speak to a Time First of conquest, and then as the Israelites attempt to settle the land, a time of decentralized governance, local politics, skirmishes and lawlessness, not unlike say, the Wild West during such a time, we should not be surprised to find that gender roles like so many other social boundaries are not rigidly enforced.
Women can be leaders like Deborah and Killers of enemy generals like Ya El, but they are also wives and mothers, prostitutes, spies and victims of extreme gender-based violence. The major female figure from the book of Joshua, for example, is Rayhab, a brothel keeper and perhaps herself a prostitute who provides cover for Joshua's spies in Jericho despite instructions from the king of Jericho to tell him when the spies arrive. She does not. Instead, Rayhab tells the spies that she understands the Israelites possess a divine authority to her conquer her city, and therefore she intends to help them in return. She wants protection for herself and all of her household. The spies swear and oath with her and Rayhab not only protects them from the king of Jericho, but also goes further to misdirect the king's men away from the spies. Once Jericho falls to Joshua Rayhab and her family are protected and we are told that Rayhab dwelt among the Israelites as is still the case.
In fact, the ancient rabbis imagined this afterlife explaining that she converted married Joshua himself and among their descendants is no less than Halda the prophet tests who we shall discuss in short measure, but not all of the women of this period fared so well among the other prominent female figures and judges. We find Delilah the Philistine spy, who seduces Sampson in order to discover the secret to his strength. Though Delilah is successful in drawing out the answer from him, ultimately the plan backfires when Samson then captive pulls down the Philistine temple killing everyone inside and defeating them. More problematic, however, are the stories of honor based killing, rape, rape, marriage and torture, including the story of Jeter's daughter, Levi's secondary wife and the women of Shiloh. These women are all women whose agency has largely been stripped of them and they are subjected to the very worst of male violence.
Jetta's daughter who he sacrifices as a result of an ill construed vow to God can do nothing more than postpone the event by going to the hills for two months to weep over her virginity great Jewish women. My grandparents' book concludes the Destroy by describing her as the girl who is willing to give up life itself for her father's honor. Given that in our contemporary world, honor based killing remains a major issue for women's safety, this summary is nothing less than deeply alarming. The story of this Levi's secondary wife is equally problematic. She runs away from her husband back to her father's house, but the Levi follows after her to recover her on their way back to his house. They stop overnight in the town of Gibe, the tribe of Benjamin, the house where they have been granted hospitality is surrounded by local townsmen demanding that the Levite be brought out so that they could be intimate with him.
Instead, the Levite shoves his secondary wife out the front door where she is raped and brutally abused all night, eventually dying on the doorstep in the morning. Levi uses this outrage for which he claims no personal responsibility as a pretext to begin an intertribal war against the Benjamin Knights, which ultimately results in the deaths of all but 600 Benjaminite men with no women of their own tribe left to marry. And with the other tribes having sworn not to marry their own daughters to the Benjaminite, the tribal leaders suddenly realize that the uh, tribe of be that the, that the tribe of Benjamin is about to die out. So these same tribal leaders find a single town that did not participate in the war. They slaughter everyone except for the virgin women and force these women to marry the remnant of the Benjaminite. But sadly, their masks are out and with too few women are found here they contrive to send the remaining Benjaminite off to Shiloh to await the virgin women who dance in the fields there annually.
The Benjamin Knights then abduct these women and force them into rape marriage. The Book of Judges finishes with the statement that in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did as he pleased in such a period. The possibilities and risks for women were more extreme. In a time when no centralized leadership or governance existed to be enforced, some women like Debra or Rayhab could traverse the normal boundaries and achieve great things for their communities and families. But equally many women were left completely unprotected from male violence like the nameless women of Shiloh and the Levi's secondary wife. The period of the early monarchy by contrast begins to provide clear boundaries for women's protection and roles within the hetero patriarchal structures of the Hebrew Bible. The prophet test of this period is Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Hannah's story is another story of a wife and a mother, another one who initially appears Baron Hannah is one of two wives of El her co wife Panina, who had many children were Tar Hannah.
And while the text makes clear that El loved Hannah and remained devoted to her, Hannah remained miserable and one annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah wept incessantly at the entrance to the temple. She prayed for a child and vowed that if she had a son, he would be dedicated to God throughout his life. Eli, the priest, observed Hannah and admonished her, assuming that she must be drunk, not paying for her child as she was. But Hannah stood up for herself explaining that she was praying and Eli departed from her asking that God fulfill her prayers. Hannah then did conceive and after weaning her son, Samuel brought him to Shiloh to serve Eli in his role as priest. The story then ends with Hannah's prayer. Hannah is the ultimate maternal figure, so desperate for a child that she's willing to give him up in service to God. But for the early rabbis, Hannah, and particularly her prayer and the way she interacts with Eli, teach us numerous legal precepts. Many of these legal precepts deal with the correct way to pray, establishing norms for prayer life that continue to be relevant in Jewish communities to this very day. Moreover, the rabbinic commentators of the Talmud make this extraordinary statement from the day the Holiness Blessed be God created God's world. There was no person who called the holiness blessed be God [inaudible], which means the eternal one of hosts until Hannah came along and called God [inaudible].
In other words, they declare that Hannah is the first person to call God by this formative name. [inaudible]. So while few women appear in the stories of the early development of the Monarchical period, Hannah stands as a foundational figure, not nearly in her role as mother, but rather in her role as creating the archetype for Jewish prayer life. One other woman of significance during this period is the so-called witch of Endor. Following the death of Samuel King, Saul goes in search of a strategic guidance in his forthcoming battle with the Philistines. But when Saul can find no other help, and despite having outlawed all forms of magic and sorcery, he goes in search of a woman who is able to summon the dead, the woman of the OB in indoor, the meaning of OB isn't completely clear and the translation of which is not particularly helpful. She is more likely some sort of Nero.
In any case, she's powerful but also hidden fearful of the kings sanctions against her practices. Yet this once powerful king seeks out her, she's able to communicate with Samuel for soul, but the result is disastrous for soul. So war her power appears to remain undiminished by her encounter with the decline in King, neither does the text endorser practices overall, the women of this period have a degree of personal agency while becoming increasingly circumscribed by the formation of a monarchy and the ensuing structures its establishments puts into place. This trend can be seen even more clearly as the Davidic monarchy is established and the women in these stories move back to a more traditional limited roles of wives, mothers and daughters, albeit once caught up within the context of royal intrigue and power struggles. The women of this period include the numerous wives of David Solomon and the numerous wives of the kings who follow on from them.
The Hebrew Bible tells the stories of David's wives, Abigail [inaudible], as well as his so-called bed warmer Aish and his daughter Tamar, followed by the stories of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as well as his numerous foreign wives. Later on we find the unnamed wife of Jbo Maka, the mother or maybe the grandmother of Asa Jezebel, who was co ruler with Ahab and a Thalia who was originally the wife, a Yara, and who eventually became Queen in her own right. The prophets of this period is Abigail who begins her story marriage. The unpromising named Nabel were fool when as the as of yet Uncrown David is marauding through the countryside demanding tribute. AAL declines to feed David or his men in the middle of the night. However, Abigail descends to David's camp along with copious provisions for him. She counsels David against getting blood on his hands by killing naval or harming anyone in his or more importantly, her household.
Instead, ensuring that David's anger is SubD drew through her wise words and offers food, makes offers of food and sustenance. David is quelled by her and refrains from harming anyone in the household when Nal mysteriously dies. There as soon thereafter of apparently natural causes David sends for Abigail in order to take her as a wife. While Abigail is named as a prophet test for her words of wisdom, the rabbis of the Talmud cannot quite believe that Abigail's wisdom and presence of mind is what saved the day. Instead, they concoct an elaborate interpretation of the text whereby Abigail reveals her thigh to David and so enthralled by it its sight is he, that he will in fact do anything for her.
In, in, uh, indeed, rabbi Naman, an early third century rabbi goes even further quoting what appears to be a popular proverb while a woman is in conversation, she spindles. In other words, while a woman may appear to be engaged in one activity, she's already thinking about something else. In this case, while Abigail May have appeared only to be thinking about how to save her household from David's wrath, she was already thinking about marrying him. While the rabbis may have looked for ways to undermine Abigail's conflicts resolution skills in the face of David's aggression, she typifies the position of many of the women during this period, women with limited agency, albeit often within the context of an elevated social class trying to negotiate their challenging circumstances. Even Tamar, David's daughter within the highly constrained limitations of her very desperate circumstances tries to do so after her half-brother arm non rape Hershey her, she pleads with him to marry her.
But Arman, whose lust turns to repulsion after the rape refuses causing an ugly, protracted and vicious war between David's sons. Many of the latter wives of kings become key players in the power struggles of the royal courts. The biblical text does not reward these women for taking power famously not in the cases of Jezebel or a Thalia. These queens are known for their brutality and vitality. Among the worst examples of corruption of power in the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel tries with nav the o, uh, against the nav, the owner of a local vineyard to have him set up for treason so the royal couple can appropriate his land and nalia upon learning of the death of her son. Hak promptly kills off anyone else with a claim to the dynastic line in orders that she can claim power for herself. But this period also recalls the story of two wise women, the wise women of Teko and the wise women of Abel, much like Abigail herself, these unnamed wise women resolve complex and present excessive deaths.
Towards the end of this period, we find the sixth of our prophet test is holder. According to this lesson known story, we fi uh, the high priest finds an unknown scroll in the temple, which is passed on to King Josiah. After reading the scroll, Josiah sends a group of priests and ministers to the prophet house holder to verify the scroll in its contents. Over the course of five verses, she speaks verifying the contents of the scroll and also prophesying the ultimate destruction of the people for worshiping false gods. However, because Josiah in line with the contents of the scroll has returned to the one true God, he will not live to see the destruction of the temple. Aside from the repetition of this story in Second Chronicles holder is never mentioned elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, she plays a crucial role in authorizing this scroll, and in doing so, the tax grants are both substantial power and authority.
Our final prophet test is Esther set during the period of the Persian exile, Esther, as the story of a young Jewish woman who rises to the rank of Queen of Persia, enabling her to save the Jewish population from certain deaths at the hands of the king's Vier, who has a grudge against them. According to our mid rush, Esther is a prophet for the most extraordinary reason, at least within the context of the Hebrew Bible, which is that according to Esther 9 32, she is described as writing the events of this story down in a scroll, rendering her literate at a time when few people were let alone women. This attestation is more than merely noteworthy. It is boundary breaking. Indeed, many of the women of the third part of the Hebrew Bible known as the writings are boundary breakers from the Moabite born prescribed foreign, a Ruth who becomes the grandmother of King David to the passionate female lover.
In the Song of Songs, many of these women defy the stereotypes found in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, alongside the women of Jerusalem collectively speak more lines in the book of Ruth than all the men combined. Indeed so fierce is Ruth's commitment to Naomi that at least since the mid 1990s, many lesbians have come to view Ruth and Naomi as their prototypical queer ancest. The nameless female lover of the Song of Songs is equally vocal describing her male lover in exquisite and erotic poetry. The Book of Lamentations also contains a clear female voice, the personified Jerusalem, who eloquently lashes out against the disproportionate and sexually degrading punishment of God in the destruction of the city. On the other hand, the book of Proverbs contains some of the most essentialized and stereotypical female voices in the whole of the Bible, in the form of the personified figures of wisdom and Lady Folley who are pitted against each other.
The strange women, women is o women is also ified much in the same way that Ezra and [inaudible] will rail against the foreign wives of the returning exiles in their autonomous books. But perhaps most problematic of all is not a real woman, but the art an archetype found in the book of Proverbs, described at the end of Proverbs as the most perfect woman in the whole world, the [inaudible], the woman of valor, she works herself to the bone burn before dawn until well into the night. She runs a perfect household managing all of its affairs. She bears numerous children. She gives to the poor, she makes clothes for everyone. She provides so well that her husband has no responsibilities by sitting at the gates of the city with other men, and most of all, she's happy with her place in the world. Perhaps worst of all, she is recounted as having been described as such by another woman, the mother of Le Moel, a nameless woman herself and traditionally in Jewish communities.
This poem is recited by husbands to their wives every Friday night perpetuating this idealized form of womanhood down to the centuries. So what can we do with all of these diverse women and so many more that I have not yet had time to discuss? Clearly, the Hebrew Bible does not present a single view of women, nor is there a dearth of female Bible characters to discuss the issues that face these women are in fact strikingly similar to the ones faced by countless women across history right into contemporary times. What if any limitations should be placed on one, a woman based on her gender? How can she deal with the procreative demands of a heteronormative society? In what ways can women wield power and authority? How do women love and desire? How does sexual violence affect and constrain the lives of women? How do women relate to their spiritual selves? The Hebrew Bible addresses these and many more questions as a text that has been a cultural force for more than two millennia across large swaths of the world. I am proud to help ensure literacy about these women and their stories. My grandparents book, great Jewish women, for all of its historical limitations, opened up this world to me as a young girl. I hope that this brief introduction has done the same, albeit I trust from a far more contemporary standpoint.
Thank you very much, rabbi Dr. Uh, Deborah Kah Harris. Um, I have a few questions from online first, and then perhaps we can go to the room in a second. Um, so the first question from moment line, um, can you please tell us how feminist Hebrews Bible scholars are approaching the Bible and these stories, um, today?
Okay, invite me back. I can do a whole, um, it's from a whole range of perspectives. So you have feminist people, bible scholars who are linguists, who are anthropologists, who are literary critics, who are engaged in, um, not just feminist theory, but queer theory as well. Um, you name it. So there's, you know, deep engagement with the language of the text in trying to understand how contemporary society has treated women in trying to listen for the lacuna, for the absences in the text, because often what we are not told is as important as what we are told, but most importantly, they're doing it from the standpoint of saying for two millennia, all of the major Jewish commentators on the Bible were men. What questions would a woman ask?
Thank you very much. Can you please tell us about women in the Talmud <laugh>?
Sure. And that really is another lecture. Um, there are lots of women in the childhood, so, and again they are named and unnamed, and they are Jewish women and non-Jewish women, and they are Roman and they, there are lots of women. Um, there are daughters of the rabbis, uh, some of whom like Baria are well-known in Jewish communities and quite famous. There are ro the Roman matron who, who engages the rabbis in conversation. There are daughters and mothers and real and imagined women. I mean, it's a very, the Talmud is multi volumed and large and diverse. So it, it re there are lots of them. Um, and probably since the 1980s certainly there's been increasing awareness of how much they've been overlooked in the study of the Talmud. Um, and there is now feminist commentary on the Talmud, which is it, um, because the TALs very, very long. There are some volumes of it already, but there are many more in production.
Amazing. Can we go to the room please? Are there any questions in the room?
Uh, when was it to become forbidden from man to marry more than one woman and did it reflect a change in the status of women when that rule came in?
Thank you. Um, yeah, so polygamy is entirely normative in the Hebrew Bible and was only outlawed in what's known as Ashkenazi Jewish communities. So those are kind of western and northern Jewish communities by what's known as gertna, which is like the eighth, somewhere between the eighth and 10th century. And I can't quite remember off the top of my head. I'd have to look it up. And it's probably as a result of living within Christian communities where polygamy wasn't normative in other Jewish communities, particularly, um, in more Middle Eastern cultures and in in really up to fairly contemporary times. Uh, polygamy was normative until into the 19th and early 20th century. So, um, did it result in a difference status of women in reality, outside of what we're told in the biblical text, very few people were genuinely polygamous because you had to be able to afford to be polygamous.
So it, you know, and there are very strict rules about marriage and how you have to treat your wives, et cetera. I'm not clear that it changed a, a great deal. I don't know. I mean, I'm not an a sociologist or an anthropologist of those sort of medieval period to be able to give you a really clear answer on that. Um, it's very clear that polygamy within the Hebrew Bible does not have a great outcome for women. I mean, virtually all of the examples of polygamous marriage in the Hebrew Bible are either the women have no voice, or when they have it, they're at each other's throats. So it's, it's not, it's not wonderful in the bi biblical text. Um, but I mean, you'd have to really talk to somebody's, a medieval scholar to understand what it was like for, for women in the that period.
Um, I think we have time for one more question.
There's, uh, rabbi there's been a great, uh, interest in Ruth. The prophet is, yes. Uh, is it, is it true that she also had a book? Yes. The books of Ruth?
Yes. The Book of Ruth is an entire book of the Hebrew Bible. It's four chapters long, um, and it, it's, is it, there are three main characters in the book of Ruth, um, Ruth, Naomi and Bo. Um, but it's called the Book of Wreath, which is, uh, certainly whoever named it, it's their way of telling you who they think the main character is. And she's quite an important figure, uh, because she is, uh, a Moabite, which is theoretically, um, Israelites we're not allowed to marry MOA bys, but she nevertheless ends up married to bars who is in Israelite, and she becomes the ancestor of King Ancest of King David. So, and that genealogy is at the end of the book of Ruth. Um, so she becomes quite an important figure and she in, in some spaces is seen as an archetype for, uh, what it means to be a convert.
But her story with Naomi is also quite an intimate and very committed, uh, story. Um, and her, her language in the Book of Ruth when she, when she speaks to Naomi's going to, has been in Moav, settled with her husband and two sons, her husband and sons die, leaving Naomi with her two Mobike daughter-in-laws. And eventually Naomi says, you know what? I'm, I'm going back to Bethlehem, but you guys go home, go back to the house of your mother's. And, um, one of her daughter-in-laws goes, Ork. But Ruth says, no, I'm staying with you and I dunno what you're thinking. And Ruth says, wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, you will, I will lodge wherever you know your God shall be, my God, wherever you die, I will die and be buried there and let nothing but just separate us basically.
So, um, this is also why there's been a lot of research or a lot of thinking about the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, and there's certainly a lot of of lesbians who think that this is a kind of something embedded in the text that would've been, uh, as, as a role model for them really. Although those words are equally used in lots, lots of people in heterosexual marriages think those are great sort of love words to be said as well. So it's, it's quite an interesting text and she's a very interesting figure. And in fact, my new book is coming out, is on the Book of Fruit.
Um, before we, before we go into, thanks to, um, rabbi Dr. Deborah Kah Harris, I just want to draw attention to the next lecture in this series, which is Women in World Religions and which is coming up on the 9th of May. Um, it's called Women Islam and Prophecy, and it's by Dr. Sherk Nagi. And you can sign up on, on the website now, um, or, uh, grab one of our brochures as you leave here. Um, thank you so much Dr. Debra Carl Harris for such a fascinating lecture and, uh, we, we have really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me.