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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Women's Lives

For biblical writers, then, whether they approved or disapproved, the period of the judges was a time without centralized or permanent religious, political, and military administration, a time in which there was considerable disruption from external powers. This stands out when we consider the descriptions of women in this period, because in many societies such features are characteristically major determinants of women's access to public power and authority.

The biblical books of Judges and 1 Samuel provide much provocative information about women's lives in premonarchic Israel. The society they describe is not a stable, centralized, hierarchical society, and we would not expect it to be, given the material remains so far discovered. Rather, it is a segmentary tribal society, in which concentric circles of kin relationships determine responsibility toward others; only at a higher level of organization, beyond the level where most members of the society are likely to know precise details of kin relationships, is kinship a convenient and elastic metaphor for group definitions and exclusions. In such a society, one's first allegiance is to the closest circle of kin, perhaps the extended family, but local at any rate. Many important decisions are made on this local level, and studies of women's history have shown that women have greater participation in decision making when it is localized rather than centralized over a large area.

Such studies also demonstrate that women and marginalized members of society are more likely to wield public power in times of disruption than in times of peace and stability. This clarifies the series of unlikely rulers who are the heroes of the era of the judges. Thus, rather than a stable and hereditary monarchy, within which one's next leader is known while the old leader is still alive (his eldest son will take his place), we are shown a society that operates locally rather than globally, and in which leadership positions are filled by whoever can get the job done. We see women in power, as well as sons who are neither from the top of the primogeniture ladder nor from the wealthiest families or tribes (Deborah, Jael, Abimelech, Jephthah, Saul, David): people who prove themselves by their abilities to be the person of the hour, whatever the hour may demand. Such power is charismatic rather than regularized.

Our sources provide additional insights into the lives of women in this period in Israel and among the Canaanites. Jephthah's daughter comes out to meet him—to her misfortune—“with timbrels and with dancing,” and we know from other texts that it was the women in Israel who sang the victory songs for the returning warriors (see Exod. 15.20–21; 1 Sam. 18.7 ; and among the Philistines, 2 Sam. 1.20 ). The old poem about the battle at the Wadi Kishon in Judges 5 is literature with a decidedly female focus. As in the case of Jephthah's daughter, we are not surprised to have an Israelite woman singing a victory song, but Judges 5 is mostly about women, from the women who participated in the battle, Deborah and Jael, to the women who wait for news of the Canaanites' troops (Sisera's mother and her ladies, 5.28–29 ), to the women who are the inevitable victims of war, as assumed and imagined by Sisera's mother ( 5.30 ). Judges 5 is one of the few passages in biblical literature in which we do not have to ask: “But what did the women do?” In this poem, we are left wondering where the men are.

First Samuel 2.22 gives a tantalizing hint of a religious role for some women. Here (and in Exod. 38.8 ) we hear about “women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting,” although we know little else about their function. In 1 Samuel they are connected to the sexual misconduct of the priest Eli's sons, and in Exodus they are said to have mirrors. That Eli's sons were abusing their priestly offices by having intercourse with these women does not necessarily mean that the women's function was sexual; they may instead have been minor religious functionaries.

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