1 Faesar

Family Case Study Meaning In The Hebrew

The Hebrew Bible is, in many respects, a man’s book. Its authors are arguably all male, and even scholars who point to a few biblical texts that might have been authored by women must admit that these compositions have been transmitted through male scribal communities.1 The Hebrew Bible’s worldview is likewise overwhelmingly male: while Exodus 19:15 is ostensibly addressed to “all the people,” for example, men must in fact be the exclusive audience of the command given there to “not go near a woman.” The Bible’s main actors are in addition predominantly male: the patriarchs of Genesis, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the redeemer Moses, who is the principal figure of Exodus-Deuteronomy; the all-male priesthood that is part of Moses’ levitical line; the war leaders of Joshua and Judges; the kings of 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles, along with the prophets of these same books and of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic corpus; the leaders of the postexilic community described in Ezra and Nehemiah; and, according to tradition, poets such as King David (to whom many of the psalms are ascribed) and King Solomon (if one interprets Cant. 1:1 as identifying Solomon as the author of the Song of Songs). Indeed, over 90 percent of the 1400 or so individuals who are given names in the Hebrew Bible are men.2

Still, almost 10 percent of named characters in the Hebrew Bible are women, and there is also a significant corpus of texts that concern women not identified by name: the daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11:29–40, for example, or the women weavers of 2 Kings 23:7. Many of these women, moreover—whether named or unnamed—are among the most memorable characters in biblical tradition: Eve, whose creation is described in Genesis 2:21–23 and who is designated the “mother of all the living” in Genesis 3:20; the Genesis matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah; Moses’ sister Miriam, identified as a prophet and as a musician in Exodus 15:20–21; Deborah, likewise identified as a prophet and also a judge in Judges 4:4; and royal women, including King David’s wife Bathsheba, Esther, the wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus, and the many wives and concubines of King Solomon. Also, among Solomon’s wives are said to be foreign women, which calls to mind other notable foreign women of biblical lore, for example, King Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who is from the Phoenician city of Sidon, Rahab, who is a Canaanite, and Ruth, who comes from Moab.

These various women represent the many different roles women played and responsibilities women assumed within the Hebrew Bible and within the society of first-millennium bce Israel from which the Hebrew Bible emerged. In what follows, we will consider women’s position within ancient Israelite family structure; women’s place within their households’ economies; women’s religious lives and the opportunities available to women to serve as religious functionaries; and the women of ancient Israel’s royal families, as well as other women who served in leadership positions.

Women’s Position within the Ancient Israelite Family

Marriage

Ancient Israel was a kinship-based society, with kinship defined through the patriline, so that both genealogies and rights of inheritance were, with only a very few exceptions (e.g., Num. 27:1–11; 36:1–12), traced through patrilineal lines of descent. It follows that while polygyny is admitted as a possibility for men, or at least for elite men in the Hebrew Bible (Solomon, as noted above, is said to have had many wives, and Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and also fathered children by these two wives’ maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah), a woman must marry monogamously so that the identity of her children’s father is always clear and the integrity of the father’s lineage is guaranteed. Concerns regarding the integrity of the father’s lineage—and especially its ethnic integrity—also lie behind the Bible’s preference for endogamous marriage. This is most clearly seen in texts such as Deuteronomy 7:3 and Ezra 9:12 and 19:2, where marriage to foreign wives is condemned, and even in the book of Ruth, where Boaz’s marriage to the Moabite Ruth is put forward as exceptional. Likewise, in the book of Genesis, it is indicated that even though Abraham’s family had left their homeland to dwell in the land of Canaan, wives for Abraham’s son Isaac and for Isaac’s younger son Jacob, from whom the Israelites are to descend, must come from Abraham’s native Haran (also called Aram-naharaim). These wives, moreover, turn out to be not only of Abraham’s ethnos but members of his natal family: Isaac and his wife Rebekah are patrilateral parallel cousins, and Rachel and Leah are their husband Jacob’s matrilateral cross-cousins. Similarly, in Genesis 20:12, Sarah is said to be Abraham’s half-sister.

Elsewhere in the Bible, this preference for marriage within one’s family group is seen in Judges 12:9, where it is marked as unusual that the judge Ibzan “gave his thirty daughters in marriage outside his clan and brought in thirty young women from outside for his sons” (emphasis mine). What is not unusual here, however, is that Ibzan selected his children’s marital partners, as typically in Israelite tradition (although there are exceptions), the families of prospective grooms and brides took responsibility for arranging their sons’ and daughters’ marriages. It is Abraham, for example, who is said to secure Rebekah as a wife for his son Isaac (Gen. 24:1–67). Indeed, Abraham so takes on the responsibility for arranging Isaac’s marriage that Isaac himself does not even go to Rebekah’s family’s homestead in the land of Aram-naharaim to meet his prospective bride. Instead, a servant is sent from Abraham’s Canaanite abode to bring a wife home for Isaac (Gen. 24:1–9). What’s more, it is Rebekah’s brother Laban and her father Bethuel with whom this servant makes the marital arrangements (Gen 24:34–51), and although Rebekah is at some point consulted about these dispositions (Gen. 24:58), it appears she is asked only whether she is willing to relocate to Abraham’s and Isaac’s home, not whether she is willing to marry Isaac. Genesis 24:5, at least, seems to presume that if Rebekah will not consent to leave Aram-naharaim, the marriage could still go forward if Isaac were to come to her instead.

The expectation, to be sure, is that Rebekah, like any man’s daughter, will leave her father’s home in order to marry. A typical marriage in ancient Israel, that is, is not only endogamous but also patrilocal, as women routinely were required to go forth from their natal households to join the households of their husbands. Even Jacob, although he sojourned in the house of his father-in-law Laban for twenty years (Gen. 31:38, 41), ultimately took his two wives Rachel and Leah, and the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah, and brought them to his natal home in Canaan.

Marriage, it is to be noted, is the norm, for both men and women: there is no notion of, say, celibate religious functionaries in ancient Israel (although such traditions can be found among other cultures of the biblical world). Women from subservient classes, however, are not necessarily married: for example, Hagar, identified in Genesis 16:1–3, 5–6, 8 and 21:10, 12–13 as Sarah’s “maidservant” or “handmaid,” does not seem to have a husband until the barren Sarah, hoping to have children through her, gives Hagar to Abraham as a wife. Similarly, while legal materials from Exodus 21:7–11 stipulate some provisions due a female slave who marries, the slave woman’s marriage does not seem to be presumed. Biblical tradition also acknowledges that prostitution—and so unmarried prostitutes—were found within ancient Israelite society, and the Hebrew Bible in addition includes at least one narrative, 2 Samuel 13:1–22, where a woman who has been sexually violated, David’s daughter Tamar, remained afterwards—for the rest of her life?—“a desolate woman in her brother Absalom’s house.”

Legal materials concerning a woman who has been sexually violated, however, generally require the perpetrator to marry his victim (Deut. 22:28–29; see also Exod. 22:16–17), and while this dictum surely sounds horrifying to modern readers, what is indicated here is how highly prized virgin brides were in biblical Israel.3 Consequently, women who had been sexually violated, because they were deemed unmarriageable, could be left without the economic support provided for women by their fathers (before they reached marriageable age) and then by their husbands (upon the age of marriage). Likewise vulnerable, according to several biblical texts, are widows, because they are deprived of the economic support that their husbands had previously provided. It is not surprising, then, that only servant women, who are provided for out of the resources of their masters’ and mistresses’ homes; prostitutes, who assumed responsibility for their own financial well-being; and a king’s daughter like Tamar, who presumably could draw on the resources of the royal palace, are identified in the Hebrew Bible as being able to live independent of a husband.

Childbearing

Not only was marriage the norm in ancient Israel, for both men and women, the norm within marriage was for women to bear children. Sons in particular were important for maintaining a father’s lineage within ancient Israel’s system of patrilineal descent and for transmitting through the generations the landholdings that every Israelite family claimed perpetually to hold as its inalienable patrimony. In addition, both sons and daughters were an important source of labor on the self-sufficient farms that typically comprised a family’s patrimony and that were the means of livelihood for most ancient Israelites. Modern population studies in fact show that even in locales that might seem to nonagriculturalists to be vastly overpeopled, farm families seek to bear and raise as many children as possible, to the extent that they will eschew an increased standard of living in favor of an increased family size.4 For the ancient Israelites, fulfilling the first commandment given by God in the Bible—“Be fruitful and multiply”—was thus a need urgently felt. Yet as many as one out of two Israelite children may have died before reaching adulthood, or even before reaching the age of five.5

In the Hebrew Bible, the imperative placed on ancient Israelite women to bear children, along with the challenges this imperative imposes, are illustrated most vividly in six different stories about barren women. The first was noted above: the story of Sarah, the wife of Abraham (Gen. 16:1–6, 18:1–15, 21:1–7). The others are the stories of Rebecca, wife of Isaac (Gen. 25:19–25); Rachel, wife of Jacob (Gen. 30:1–8, 22–24); the unnamed wife of Manoah (Judg. 13:1–24); Hannah, wife of Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1–28); and the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8–17). Within these stories, the theme of the barren woman’s desperation repeatedly manifests itself: the barren Rachel cries out to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen. 30:1), and Hannah is described as embittered and vexed (1 Sam. 1:10, 16) due to her childless state. In the case of both of these women, as in the story of Sarah, polygyny is presented as a “solution”: just as Sarah gives her maid Hagar to Abraham, so that Hagar might bear Abraham a son, so does Rachel give her maid Bilhah to Jacob. Jacob also has sons through his other wife Leah and her maid Zilpah, and Hannah’s husband Elkanah likewise has sons by his other wife, Peninnah. Yet polygyny does not address the problem of reduced worth and status that seems to attend to a barren wife. Indeed, in the Sarah story, Hagar’s ability to bear a son while Sarah cannot is said to lower Sarah’s status even beyond the reduced status position already accorded to Sarah because of her barrenness (Gen. 16:4). Similarly in the Hannah story, Elkanah’s fertile wife, Peninnah, is described as a “rival” who “irritated” Hannah and provoked her to anger on account of Hannah’s barrenness (1 Sam. 1:6).

Hannah seeks recourse by engaging in a complex set of ritual actions: she prays to Yahweh, the God of Israel, according to 1 Samuel 1:10, 12, and 26–27 (the only woman in the Hebrew Bible explicitly said to do so), and she utters a vow in 1 Samuel 1:11 (one of only three times in the Hebrew Bible that a specific woman is identified as making such a pledge; the other instances are Prov. 7:14 and 31:2). She also, arguably, weeps and fasts as part of a ritual process designed to evoke some sort of divine oracle—which indeed results, as the priest Eli, who has been witness to Hannah’s petitionary performance, declares to her, “The God of Israel will grant the request you have asked of him” (1 Sam. 1:17).6 Rachel, too, seeks recourse from her barrenness by securing from her sister Leah “love plants” that Leah’s son Reuben has found in a field,7 in the hope that she might benefit from the love plants’ powers as an aphrodisiac and their ability to bestow fertility (Gen. 30:14–15).

According to some commentators, Rachel engages here in behavior analogous to the modern “medicinal” use of tea, or lemon juice, or chicken soup to treat various ailments, an act of “self-medication” in which the “love plants” serve as a “natural remedy” that “cure[s] infertility.”8 But Carol Meyers more persuasively argues that Rachel engages in a “magical act performed to promote fertility” (emphasis mine).9 While it has been a commonplace in the past, moreover, to separate emphatically the categories of magic, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, and to judge the former quite negatively in relation to the latter, scholars increasingly have argued—from the perspectives of both the study of religion as a whole and the study of the biblical world in particular—that “there is … little point in attempting sharply to distinguish magic from religion.”10 After all, magic, as well as religion, can be defined as “a form of communication involving the supernatural world in which an attempt is made to affect the course of present and/or future events by means of ritual actions … and/or … formulaic recitations.”11 Just as Hannah, that is, engages in ritual actions such as prayer, the uttering of a vow, fasting, and weeping, all in the hopes of reversing her barrenness and bearing a son, so too can we take Rachel to deploy magical ritual—the use of “love plants”—in order that she might conceive and give birth.

Another practitioner of reproductive magic may appear in Genesis 38:28, where the midwife who attends Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar ties a red thread around the hand of Tamar’s son Zerah as his arm emerges during parturition. To be sure, the purpose that is intimated in Genesis 38:28 for the red thread is not magical but pragmatic (it marks Zerah as the first of Tamar’s twin sons to have breached the womb). But Meyers again proposes that the thread has a magical significance, as it “may reflect a set of practices involving the apotropaic character of strands of dyed yarn, with both their red color and the fact that they are bound on the infant’s hand having magical protective powers.”12 Similar (although not identical) rituals of “knot magic” are found in Mesopotamian and Hittite birth rituals.

Yet however we interpret the red thread of Genesis 38:28, we should note that this midwife’s story demonstrates that women in the Hebrew Bible participated in the reproductive process not only as childbearers but as medical (or perhaps medico-magical) specialists who cared for parturient women. In addition to Tamar’s midwife, we can cite the midwife who cared for Rachel according to Genesis 35:17 and the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who serve the women of the Hebrew community at the time of these Hebrews’ bondage in Egypt (Exod. 1:15). While not explicitly designated as midwives, the women who attend Phinehas’s wife as she gives birth (1 Sam. 4:20), and the women who are seemingly present when Ruth delivers, along with Ruth’s mother-in-law (Ruth 4:14), likewise seem to perform midwifery tasks.

In certain cases, the midwife’s tasks presented few difficulties (according to the deceit of Exod. 1:15–21, the Hebrew women in bondage in Egypt are so vigorous that they deliver before a midwife even arrives). In other instances, though (most notably, the delivering of Rachel’s son Benjamin and of Ichabod, the son of Phinehas’s wife), the midwife must have had to draw on considerable skill, as both the mothers died giving birth. It appears, moreover, that midwives would have had recourse only to their own skills during parturition and not those of any other specialist, or at least any other male specialist, given what seems to be the Israelite tendency to separate men from a woman who is giving birth. Certainly, it seems clear that Israelite women were separated from their husbands during childbirth, given that word must be brought after delivery to the fathers of Jeremiah (Jer. 20:15) and Job (Job 3:3) that a son had been born to them. Furthermore, only women could have assumed responsibility for the other professionalized role associated with reproduction: that of the wet nurse. That said, wet nurses are mentioned only rarely in the Bible—in Genesis 24:59; 35:8 (Deborah, the wet nurse of Rebekah); in Exodus 2:7–9 (where the pharaoh’s daughter unknowingly ends up hiring Moses’ mother to nurse the baby Moses); and in 2 Kings 11:2 (where we read of the wet nurse of the royal heir Joash). Wet nurses are thus best understood as serving as child-care specialists only in aristocratic homes.

Women’s Place within Their Households’ Economy

As intimated just above, as well as elsewhere in the preceding comments, the majority of ancient Israelite households were not aristocratic, or even what we might think of as middle-class. Rather, at least during the pre-exilic period of Israelite history (c. 1200–586 bce), it is estimated that 80–90 percent of the population lived in the villages of the ancient Israelite countryside,13 in relatively small homes that seemed to function as self-sufficient farmhouses. These homes’ layout, for example—a central courtyard that served as the entry portal, flanked by three or so rooms that were arranged in a U-shape around it—provided space (in the central courtyard and in the broadroom that was located to the rear of the courtyard) for food-processing activities and for the significant amount of food storage that would be necessary within a self-sufficient agricultural household. Facilities for small-scale craft production (tool, textile, and pottery making, for example) may also have been present.

Many scholars—most notably Carol Meyers—have attempted to describe what gender roles may have been like within this agriculturally based, self-sufficient household economy. We can imagine, for example, that men undertook the physically demanding task of developing farm land for cultivation, both by clearing previously forested tracts of trees and stones to create fields for growing grain and by building the stone retaining walls that transformed the slopes of the southern Levant’s central hill country—the heartland of ancient Israelite settlement—into artificially flat terraces that were used for cultivating olive trees and grape vines. Men probably did the work as well of plowing and otherwise tending the fields and terraced gardens that they had created (see, e.g., 1 Sam. 8:12). Men also took primary responsibility for reaping, threshing, and winnowing their fields’ grain when harvest time arrived—but note Ruth 2:3, 8–9, 15–16, 22–23, where women, including Ruth, glean grain left behind by male reapers.14

In one verse in Proverbs, moreover, a woman is said to plant a vineyard (Prov. 31:16, although there is some ambiguity about the subject of the verb “to plant” in the text as it has come down to us). More important, though, are the tasks women most likely undertook in processing harvested grain and other foodstuffs, as is suggested by a 1973 ethnographic survey that determined that women do the work of food processing in all but three or four of the 185 societies world-wide from which data on human labor patterns were collected.15 Women’s role in food processing is in addition indicated by texts such as Leviticus 26:26; 1 Samuel 8:13; 28:24; 2 Samuel 13:8; and 1 Kings 17:12–13. The processes that pertained to the making of bread were especially labor-intensive. Meyers estimates, for example, that the task of grinding grain to make flour—identified as women’s work in Exodus 11:5; Isaiah 47:2; Job 31:10; and Ecclesiastes 12:3—would have occupied two or more hours of an ancient Israelite woman’s time every day.16 Meyers has furthermore argued that women, having undertaken this labor-intensive responsibility for grinding grain into flour and then using it to prepare dough and bake bread, along with preparing other foodstuffs for their families’ consumption, would have also undertaken the responsibility for distributing food, especially bread, within their households.17 This is indicated as well in biblical texts such as Leviticus 26:26, which speaks of women distributing bread by weight to those on whose behalf they had baked it.18

The same ethnographic survey that determined that women do the work of food processing in all but three or four of 185 societies world-wide further determined that women do the work of weaving and spinning in 84 and 87 percent, respectively, of the cultures surveyed,19 which corresponds to the many biblical texts—e.g., Joshua 2:6; Judges 16:13–14; 2 Kings 23:7; Ezekiel 13:17–18; and Proverbs 31:10–31—that associate women with textile production. Domestic pottery production, if ethnographic data (especially those from Cyprus and other Mediterranean and Levantine locations)20 are any guide, was another task assumed by women.21

Meyers has commented at length on the significance of these data, arguing that “women’s productive activities, carried out in … households, were dynamic elements in the social and political fabric of their communities,” so much so that “power accrued to women … because of their control of certain productive tasks.”22 Women, that is, because they played key roles in sustaining their households, made integral contributions to their households’—and so their communities’—economic well-being. Simultaneously, as already discussed, women, through their work as childbearers (and also through their kindred work in childrearing) made integral contributions to their households’—and so their communities’—demographic well-being. Nevertheless, because the Hebrew Bible, as noted above, is in many respects a man’s book, and because it is even more so a book of “great men”—warlords, kings, prophets, priests—the contributions women made to benefit the households of “ordinary” Israelites are only rarely visible within the Bible’s pages.

Women’s Religious Lives

Ancient Israel’s State-Sponsored Temples

Not only is the Hebrew Bible, in many respects, a book of “great men,” it is a book about these great men’s institutions: preeminently the royal palace, in the case of kings, and the great temple of Jerusalem, in the case of priests. This great temple was, however, so much the domain of priests that it seems not to have been particularly conducive to the exercise of women’s religious agency—or to the exercise of religious agency of most nonpriestly men. This is also the case regarding other temples that, like the Jerusalem temple, should be described as ancient Israel’s “state” or “state-sponsored” temples: for example, the two Northern Kingdom temples of Dan and Bethel that were the Jerusalem temple’s counterpart during the time of ancient Israel’s divided monarchy.

To be sure, women seem to find more of a place within the ritual life of the Jerusalem temple in the late exilic period (c. 625–586 bce) than they had in prior centuries, as well as in the so-called Second Temple of the postexilic period (this rebuilt temple was dedicated in 515 bce and destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce). This is because religious movements that sought to centralize worship in Jerusalem took hold beginning in c. 625 bce, and this centralized cult had more need than did its predecessors to find ways of incorporating all Israelites, including women. In Ezra 10:1 and Nehemiah 8:2; 10:28; and 12:43, for example, which are all texts from the postexilic period, women are counted among the “assembly” of Israelites who gather for religious purposes at the Jerusalem temple. Likewise, in several texts from Deuteronomy—a pre-exilic text that lays down the mandate for cult centralization—women are included in lists of those who are to participate in ritual celebrations at “the place that Yahweh your God will choose,” the common locution used in Deuteronomy for the temple in Jerusalem.23

Notably, however, in Deuteronomy 12:12, 18; 16:11, 14, where extended lists of individuals required to participate in ritual observances at the Jerusalem temple are found, those designated include “you” (masculine singular), plus “your [masculine singular] son,” “your [masculine singular] daughter,” “your [masculine singular] male slave,” “your [masculine singular] female slave,” and Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows resident in “your [masculine singular] gates.” These lists obviously include multiple members of a household’s immediate family, plus some nonbiological affiliates who would have been resident in a household compound. It does not, however, specifically mention the household’s wife. According to some scholars, it is “hardly conceivable” that the wife is not among those who are commanded to join in these otherwise quite compendious gatherings,24 and they thus argue the wife must be subsumed within the masculine singular “you” with which Deuteronomy 12:12, 18; 16:11, and 14 each begins. Yet there are verses elsewhere in Deuteronomy that make clear that masculine singular “you” need not include a man’s wife: most famously Deuteronomy’s rendition of the tenth commandment that decrees that “you” (masculine singular) should not covet your neighbor’s wife (Deut. 5:21). Moreover, there may be good reasons for Deuteronomy not to count a man’s wife as part of a collective “you” in verses such as 12:12, 18 and 16:11, 14 and thereby compel her presence on occasions of Jerusalem temple ritual. Perhaps, for example, a recently delivered mother might prefer—and be better off—staying home with her newborn child. Indeed, this is precisely the scenario described in 1 Samuel 1:21–23, where the previously barren Hannah, recently delivered of her miracle child Samuel, refrains from joining her family in their yearly pilgrimage to the Israelite shrine at Shiloh until her son is weaned (a period that may have lasted as long as three years; see 2 Macc. 7:27).

Other factors that may have constrained women’s ability to participate in the ritual life of ancient Israel’s state and state-sponsored temples, such as the temple in Jerusalem, include these temples’ highly institutionalized and bureaucratized nature, and especially the institutionalized and bureaucratized nature of their priesthoods. After all, studies of social and political organizations have shown that increases in organizations’ structural complexity compromise women’s ability to act as significant agents within those establishments.25 Also of concern are the laws of purity articulated by the priestly authorities of the Jerusalem temple that are found in Leviticus 12:1–8 and 15:19–30. Leviticus 15:19–30 deems a woman to be impure, or ritually (albeit not morally) unclean, for seven days during the time of her menses and, in addition, during times other than her menstrual period when a vaginal discharge of blood takes place or at times when a menstrual discharge extends beyond the term of the woman’s normal menstruation. According to Leviticus 12:1–8, postpartum discharges also rendered women who had recently given birth impure, for forty days if the newborn child was male and eighty days if the child was female. What it means, at root, to define someone as impure is to denote that individual as ritually unfit to enter into a space understood to be a dwelling place of Yahweh, as Yahweh, the Israelites believed, must not be exposed to the sort of cultic uncleanliness that characterizes the impure state. According to biblical tradition, moreover, Yahweh’s dwelling place is preeminently the temple in Jerusalem. The Leviticus purity laws would thus have significantly limited women’s access to the Jerusalem temple during their reproductive years (assuming here that that the purity dictates articulated in Leviticus were actually operative at some point in Israelite history and within some circles of Israelite society, as is in fact suggested by texts such as Gen. 31:19–35; 2 Sam. 11:2–5; Isa. 30:22; Ezek. 18:6; 22:10; 36:17; Lam. 1:8–9, 13, and 17).

Multiple circumstances, in short, may have inhibited women’s ability to participate in—or even gain access to—rituals that took place in the Jerusalem temple and in other of ancient Israel’s state-sponsored sanctuary complexes. Indeed, even texts that do admit to women’s presence within the Jerusalem temple compound can simultaneously suggest that women’s place within temple ritual must be carefully regulated. Psalm 68:24–25 (Heb. 68:25–26), for example, even though it describes women playing frame drums at Yahweh’s sanctuary, may suggest that Yahweh must be safeguarded from these women’s potential impurities by identifying the women as ălāmôt, “young maids,” a term that can indicate that the women are unmarried (as in Gen. 24:43) and so immune from the impurities that childbirth entails. Somewhat similarly, women who are described in Ezekiel 8:14 as performing ritual mourning within the Jerusalem temple compound sit at the temple precinct’s northern gate, a site significantly removed from Yahweh’s temple proper.26 Patrick D. Miller tellingly contrasts the male religious practitioners who are described in a succeeding verse (Ezek. 8:16), who stand in the temple’s inner court and, indeed, right next to its entrance, between the temple’s front porch, or dĕbîr, and its courtyard altar.27

Still, state-sponsored sanctuaries were not the only religious venues extant in ancient Israel, especially in the period prior to cult centralization in Jerusalem. The biblical tradition, as well as some archaeological evidence, points instead to several other types of sanctuary space. Of these, shrines located within households and household compounds and regional sanctuaries are of greatest interest for our purposes, first, because household shrines and regional sanctuaries would have been more readily and regularly available to most ancient Israelite women (and men) than were the state-sponsored temples of Jerusalem, Dan, and Bethel, which, at least for many, would have required a long journey from their homes. Also, some of the instruments that could constrain women’s religious agency at ancient Israel’s state-sponsored temples (such as purity concerns and institutional and bureaucratic complexity) were typically less a factor in household shrines and at regional sanctuaries.

Regional Sanctuaries

Regional sanctuaries, as their name suggests, can be defined as sanctuaries that were located around Israel, especially during the period before the cult was centralized in Jerusalem. Presumably, they were used by the inhabitants of a particular region—those who lived, say, within a radius of about 25–35 kilometers (15.5–21.75 miles), or about one day’s walk away.28 First Samuel 1:1–2:26 suggests that, during Israel’s premonarchic period (c. 1200–1000 bce), the preeminent Israelite regional sanctuary was Shiloh. Regional sanctuaries of the monarchic era might have included Gilgal (Hos. 4:15; 12:11 [Heb. 12:12]; Amos 5:5), Lachish,29 Carmel,30 Nebo,31 Dor,32 and Tel Reḥov,33 as well as the various sanctuaries that are described in the Bible using the term bāmâ (commonly, although surely mistakenly, translated as “high place”), which are referred to in 1 Samuel 9:11–14, 19, 22–25; 1 Kings 13:32; 22:43 (Heb. 12:44); 2 Kings 12:3 (Heb. 12:4); 14:4; 15:4; 15:35; 17:9; 23:5, 8, 19; Amos 7:9; Hosea 10:8; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; and Ezekiel 6:3, 6; 20:28–29.

As intimated above, a regional sanctuary like the one at Shiloh might have served as an extremely productive venue for women’s ritual activity, and it is at Shiloh that the barren Hannah engages in the complex set of ritual actions—offering up a prayer, uttering a vow, and petitionary fasting and weeping—in an effort to persuade God to open her womb and give her a son. First Samuel 1:1–2:26, where the Hannah story is recounted, further indicates that the women of Hannah’s household—Hannah, and also Hannah’s husband’s other wife Peninnah, and possibly Peninnah’s daughters34—typically (although not always) accompanied Elkanah, their household’s head, when the family went annually to Shiloh to celebrate what is arguably the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.35 As part of this celebration, according to 1 Samuel 1:4–5, the women of Elkanah’s household were invited to join in consuming the sacrificial meal that is the highlight of Sukkot observance, and 1 Samuel 1:24–25 further implies that Hannah is involved in some way in the rituals preceding the meal that give to God the deity’s assigned portion of the sacrificial offerings. Hannah, for example, is said to have assembled the offerings that her family brings to Shiloh (a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine), just as one might expect, given the conclusions that were reached above about women’s responsibilities for allocating foodstuffs from their households’ stores. Likewise, given what was noted earlier regarding women’s role in grinding grain, we can assume that Hannah played a major role in producing the ephah of flour that was then transported to Shiloh.

According, moreover, to the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 1:25, Hannah joined with her husband Elkanah in slaughtering the three-year-old sacrificial bull, although other ancient versions of the Hebrew Bible (the ancient Greek translation and the text of Samuel found among the Dead Sea Scrolls) describe only Elkanah as performing this task. These latter witnesses probably provide the more accurate depiction, as they parallel the description of Elkanah alone sacrificing in 1 Samuel 1:4, as well as biblical traditions elsewhere that depict only men as killing sacrificial animals (Gen. 31:54; 46:1; Judg. 6:19; 1 Sam. 2:13; 9:23–24). Still, the ancient versions of the Hebrew Bible agree with the Hebrew text as it has come down to us that Hannah was present alongside Elkanah when the sacrificial slaughter took place. It also seems possible that Hannah should be envisioned as joining together with Elkanah in approaching God’s altar to dedicate the deity’s assigned portion of the offering. Note in this regard Judges 13:23, where Manoah’s wife says to her husband regarding the sacrifice of a kid and grain that was offered to the divine messenger who had appeared to them, “Yahweh … took a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands” (emphasis mine)—and this even though Judges 13:19 clearly states that only Manoah performed the actual dedicatory rites at a near-to-hand rock-cum-altar. So too Hannah might be said to have joined with Elkanah to give God “our” offering at Shiloh’s altar, even as only Elkanah enacted, first, the slaughter and, then, the rituals of altar service.

Indeed, important to note here is that although the sanctuary at Shiloh is served by a resident priestly family (Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phinehas), no priest is said to be present in the 1 Samuel 1:24–25 account of sacrificial ritual. That is, Shiloh seems not to have a highly bureaucratized and institutionalized priesthood that takes responsibility for, especially, the altar-related aspects of sacrificial ritual. Hannah’s ability to participate as a significant actor within Shiloh’s sacrificial cult may result from this fact, given, as suggested above, that an institutionalized priesthood can constrain women’s potential to exercise religious agency. Other regional sanctuaries also seem to operate independent of an institutionalized priesthood and so independent of the constraints on nonpriestly religious agents (including women) that an institutionalized priesthood can impose. For example, 2 Kings 17:9–11 describes only the people of Israel as those worshipping and making offerings at the regional bāmâ sanctuaries of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. This point is likewise and repeatedly made in texts that purport to describe the religious practices of the regional bāmâ sanctuaries of the Southern Kingdom in the 9th and 8th centuries bce (see 1 Kgs. 22:43 [Heb. 22:44]; 2 Kgs. 12:3 [Heb. 12:4]; 2 Kgs. 14:4; 15:4; and 15:35). Even in the 7th and early 6th centuries bce, this situation may have persisted. According to Ezekiel 20:28–29, for example—a text that dates from c. 591 bce—it was the people of Israel, throughout their history, who had offered sacrifice at a sanctuary that “is called Bamah to this day.”

In short: at the regional bāmâ sanctuaries, just as at the regional sanctuary of Shiloh, the lack of an institutionalized priesthood seems to have made it possible for the worshipping community’s nonelites (including, perhaps, women) to take on significant responsibilities as ritual agents. Miller, moreover, has described the “symbols of … purity” as only “tangentially” operative in story of Hannah’s religious activities at Shiloh,36 and if this were the case at other regional sanctuaries, then this want of purity concerns could also have facilitated opportunities for the worshipping community’s non-elites (including, perhaps, women) to exercise a broadened degree of ritual agency.

Household Shrines

Household shrines can be defined as small-scale worship spaces that stood within individual Israelite homes or within multi-building household compounds. In Judges 17:5, for example, a man named Micah is said to have a shrine that appears to be a distinct structure within a larger residential complex that is called the “house of Micah.”37 This shrine presumably housed the ephod and teraphim—which seem to be objects used in divination rituals—that Micah, in the same verse, is said to have made.38

The ephod and teraphim, however, are not the only religious objects whose manufacture is described in the Micah story. In Judges 17:4, Micah’s mother is said to take two hundred pieces of silver and commission a metallurgist to cast a religious figurine. According to many commentators, we are to interpret this as an idolatrous act. After all, to make a religious figurine is something generally prohibited by biblical law. The figurine, moreover, is often regarded by commentators as tainted because it was cast from silver Micah had stolen from his mother and had only returned when threatened by her curse of the unknown thief. Many interpreters also indict the mother as stingy because she consecrates only two hundred pieces of her silver cache for the figurine’s manufacture, although there were said to be eleven hundred pieces in her original hoard.

However, as C. A. Faraone, B. Garnand, and C. López-Ruiz have shown, the two hundred pieces of silver that Micah’s mother consecrates for the making of her figurine is a perfectly appropriate and even expected amount within the context of ancient Mediterranean religious traditions.39 It is further of note that Micah’s mother is presented as able to make this decision—that a woman, that is, is presented as having control of what was surely a significant holding (the most significant holding?) within her household’s material resources. Despite the prohibitions that biblical law seeks to impose, moreover, we are arguably to understand the mother’s figurine as somehow representing the Israelite god Yahweh. Yahweh is, after all, the only deity mentioned in both the Judges 17:1–4 account that describes the cast-metal figurine’s production and the larger Judges 17:1–18:31 narrative of which 17:1–4 is a part. Also, the mother is explicitly depicted as a Yahweh worshipper. She utters a blessing in the name of Yahweh in Judges 17:2 and then declares she is consecrating her silver to Yahweh in Judges 17:3. In addition, the mother’s son Micah carries the divine name Yahweh in his name (this is especially evident in the long form of Micah’s name used in 17:1 and 4, Micaiah, which means “Who is like Yahweh?”). This is significant because in the Hebrew Bible, mothers are more often said to name their children than fathers.40 Therefore, an Israelite audience would likely have understood that the mother had bestowed upon her son a name that celebrates Yahweh as the object of her religious devotion.

Like the ephod and teraphim that Micah is said to have made, the mother’s religious figurine is most likely to be envisioned as having stood in Micah’s household shrine. Yet while the ephod and teraphim—presuming that, as previously suggested, they were used in rituals of divination—were surely objects of great significance within the ritual life of Micah’s household, they were seemingly of less monetary value than the mother’s cast-metal figurine (after all, no silver is said to have been used in their manufacture, and texts such as Jer. 2:27 and Hos. 4:13 may imply that teraphim were made of wood).41 More significantly, the ephod and teraphim—or at least the teraphim, about which we know more—were arguably of less religious value than was the mother’s figurine. Teraphim, many scholars have argued, are figurines of a family’s ancestors that were used to solicit supernatural knowledge that came from the world beyond the grave.42 Yet while this cult of the ancestors was extremely important within Israelite household religion, the mother’s cast-metal figurine went further in representing Yahweh as her household’s patron god. Indeed, teraphim texts elsewhere in the Bible—especially Genesis 31:19–35—suggest that a household such as Micah’s would have had multiple teraphim (representing a household’s multiple deceased ancestors), whereas Micah’s mother’s cast-metal figurine appears to have been the only representation of Yahweh found in Micah’s household shrine.

In short, Micah’s mother should be seen as having contributed to her household’s shrine the object that was its most valuable furnishing. Moreover, Micah’s mother’s figurine—given that it signified Yahweh—could well have served in Micah’s household shrine as a focal point for household members’ devotion and worship. Micah’s mother thus could—and should—be understood as her household’s shrine’s primary patron. Within their households’ shrines, moreover, Israelite women seem to have played a primary role in performing the offering rituals that were the core rites of ancient Israelite household religion: the making of grain and foodstuff offerings, libation offerings, and incense offerings (although not offerings that result from animal sacrifice, a rite that seems only to have been practiced at larger sanctuaries and temples). This is particularly indicated in Jeremiah 7:16–20 and 44:15–19, 25, where the prophet Jeremiah denounces Israelites of the late 7th and early 6th century bce for, among other things, worshipping a goddess known only as the Queen of Heaven. In 7:18, for example, we are told that “the sons gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven.”

Three points are noteworthy here. First, the location where these worshippers’ cake-making activities must have taken place is within these individuals’ households or within their extended household compounds, for, as seen in the discussion of the ancient Israelite household economy above, it was within individual households that the grain and other foodstuffs that would have been needed to make the Queen of Heaven’s bread cakes would have been stored, and it was within these houses’ central courtyards that this grain would have been ground into flour and the bread dough subsequently prepared. It was within these houses’ courtyards as well, or within their adjacent open-air yards, that the bread cakes would have been baked.

A second point of note is that despite Jeremiah’s focus on the worship of the Queen of Heaven in the late 7th and early 6th century bce, archaeological evidence from ancient Israel suggests that regardless of the deity or deities to whom they were directed, the modes of cultic practice that characterize the worship of the Queen of Heaven were typical of Israelite household religion throughout the pre-exilic period and perhaps in the postexilic period as well. In a space that archaeologists have identified as a dedicated shrine room from early 12th- through mid-11th-century bce Ai, for example, there was found a tall, cylindrically shaped clay stand with fenestrated sides, which seems designed for burning aromatic plant materials (these materials would have been burned within the cylinder, with smoke issuing forth from the fenestrations). Grain and similar foodstuff offerings would have been set in a bowl placed atop the stand. A channel in the floor in front of the bench on which the cylindrically shaped stand stood was presumably for draining away libation offerings. This evidence indicates that an Israelite household—or at least a pre-exilic household—would have expressed its dedication to Yahweh (or any other god) by making the same sort of grain, libation, and incense offerings as did the Queen of Heaven’s devotees.

This brings us to a third crucial point: that Jeremiah singles out women in his critiques of the worship of the Queen of Heaven. In Jeremiah 7:18, for example, the prophet specifically identifies women as kneading the dough for the Queen of Heaven’s offering cakes and, presumably, also baking them. These acts were surely more integral to a family’s fulfilling of this ritual obligation than were a household’s sons’ gathering of wood and/or a household’s father’s kindling of fire. Moreover, it is women alone who speak of making libation and incense offerings and cakes for the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah 44:19, and, somewhat similarly, in Jeremiah 44:15, while it is “husbands” who are the subject of the verse, it is their wives who are specifically identified as having burned incense to other gods. Also, in Jeremiah 44:25, although there are some grammatical problems, it seems most likely that when Jeremiah, speaking for God, condemns his audience for making offerings and pouring out libations to the Queen of Heaven, his subject is specifically the assembly’s women.

Why would Israelite women have special responsibility for making offerings within their households’ religious cult? The reason probably stems from women’s role, described above, in processing their households’ food, meaning both the roles women assumed in processing raw foodstuffs (such as grain) into edibles (such as bread) and their role in allocating the foods they had prepared to their family members (as in Lev. 26:26). These obligations regarding grain and bread distribution, as Carol Meyers has argued, might reasonably be expected to carry beyond the familial sphere and into the supernatural43—as indeed was the case in the story of Hannah discussed earlier, where Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1:24, takes responsibility for assembling the offerings her family brought to Shiloh for the sacrificial feast. We can imagine women doing much the same within their own households, so that alongside their obligation to prepare food in general and bread in particular for their households and to allocate these foodstuffs to their households’ members, they assumed the tasks of preparing food (and drink) offerings in general and grain and/or bread offerings in particular for their households’ god or gods and then apportioning these offerings to their households’ deities. Alternatively, they could apportion these offerings to other household members for these household residents to use in their own devotions.

Women Religious Functionaries: Magicians

In addition to being able to act as ritual agents in regional sanctuaries and, especially, household shrines, Israelite women could sometimes assume more official roles as religious functionaries. We have already seen, for example, that midwives served as medico-magical specialists, and biblical tradition elsewhere identifies other women as magical experts. Three biblical texts, for example—Leviticus 20:27; 1 Samuel 28:3–25; and Isaiah 57:3—speak of women necromancers, specialists who magically conjure up the dead to seek from them information to which their otherworld existence supposedly made them privy.

In Leviticus 20:27 and Isaiah 57:3, the female necromancers, whether real (Lev. 20:27) or metaphorical (Isa. 57:3), are castigated, even to the point, in Leviticus 20:27, of being subject to execution, and necromancy itself is also denounced in at least two and arguably three other verses in the Leviticus text of which Leviticus 20:27 is a part (Lev. 19:26, 31; 20:6). Curiously however, even though the author(s) and/or redactor(s) responsible for 1 Samuel 28:3–25 express qualms about the legitimacy of necromantic rites (in 28:3, 9), the woman necromancer in this text is represented sympathetically. The difference is probably attributable, at least in part, to date: Leviticus 20:27 and the kindred Leviticus 19:26, 31; and 20:6 all come from a textual corpus that biblical scholars call the Holiness Code, which many consider to come from the exilic or postexilic period. Isaiah 57:3 likewise comes from the early postexilic period. Leviticus 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27; and Isaiah 57:3 thus all arguably reflect the program of cult centralization that was enacted beginning in the late exilic period and that had as a major target, among other things, the ancient Israelite ancestor cult and the practice of necromancy that was one of this cult’s central rites. This is because the ancestor cult, which is so constitutive of family-based identities and loyalties, stands fundamentally in opposition to the goal of centralizing worship at the royally sponsored temple in Jerusalem. Note, however, that the necromancer in 1 Samuel 28:3–25 does not act, as a typical necromancer would, in the service of a family’s ancestor cult: the woman is related neither to King Saul, who asks her to perform a necromantic ritual on his behalf, nor to Samuel, whose deceased spirit the necromancer summons. Nor are Saul and Samuel related to one another. Thus, the necromancer of 1 Samuel 28:3–25 does not act in support of family interests; in fact, she acts in support of a king. This may be why she can be treated sympathetically by her story’s author(s) and/or redactor(s), even as necromancy is more generally condemned.

Women Religious Functionaries: Prophets

An analysis similar to that just advanced regarding women magicians might be offered regarding the various women who are identified as prophets in biblical tradition: Miriam (Exod. 15:20–21; Num. 12:1–15); Deborah (Judg. 4:4); Hulda (2 Kgs. 22:14–20; 2 Chr. 34:22–28); Noadiah (Neh. 6:14); the unnamed prophetess of Isaiah 8:3; and “the daughters … who prophesy” (Ezek. 13:17–23). Among these, Deborah and Hulda are depicted by the Bible’s author(s) and/or redactor(s) in generally positive ways, probably because they are understood to have acted in conjunction with and in support of the male authorities of their day. In Judges 4, for example, Deborah enacts the typical prophetic function of delivering a divinely decreed message on Yahweh’s behalf; the oracle Deborah delivers, moreover—a pronouncement that gives Yahweh’s sanction for an Israelite military engagement and guarantees its success—is a type of decree that prophets elsewhere in the Bible often articulate. Deborah’s commission of a man named Barak to take charge of this military engagement is also well paralleled in other prophetic accounts, as in 1 Kings 20:1–22, where an unnamed (male) prophet commissions King Ahab to undertake military action on Israel’s and Yahweh’s behalf. Hulda similarly speaks on Yahweh’s behalf, although in her case, the decree concerns religious rather than military matters. More specifically, it is Hulda who affirms for the political and religious leadership in Jerusalem that the religious reformations of cult centralization and related issues that begin to be enacted in the last quarter of the 7th century bce are in accord with Yahweh’s will for Israel.





If you were given the choice of a fast food meal or one from a 5 star restaurant, which one would you chose? Both restaurants provide food, but I think most people would choose the 5 star restaurant as it provides, better food and a better atmosphere than a fast food restaurant. This same analogy can be used for the Hebrew Bible. Reading an English translation of the Bible is like the fast food restaurant; you may still get fed, but doesn't have the same impact as the Hebrew text. Even if one doesn't know Hebrew, much can be learned by understanding .


This 4,000 year old was found in the land of Israel and is composed of two letters written in the ancient pictographic Hebrew script. The letter at the top of the inscription is the and is a picture of an ox head representing strength. Below that is the letter and is a picture of a shepherd staff representing authority. When these pictographs are combined the word "el" is formed meaning "the strong one of authority."

The Hebrew Bible (called the Tenack by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians) was originally written in this (as well as a modified form usually refered to as Paleo-Hebrew) by Hebrews whose and were very different from our own. Because of this, it is through the of the ancient Hebrew alphabet, language and culture we can better understand the Biblical texts.




The Ancient Hebrew language was written with , each written with a picture, such as an ox, tent, foot or a door. These pictographic letters are more than just sound identifiers, but also have a meaning. The best way to demonstrate the benefit of understanding the meanings of each pictograph is by looking at some Hebrew prefixes. The Hebrew language commonly uses five Hebrew letters for prefixes to provide additional information. Let us look at how these prefixes work and how the pictographs of the prefixes aid in their definitions. In each example below we will use the Hebrew word erets (), meaning land, and add the prefix before it.


The name of this letter is and has a "b" sound. This letter is a picture of a nomadic tent such as would have been used by the ancient Hebrews and represents what is inside the tent - the family. The meaning of this letter can be tent or within. When this letter is placed in front of the word erets the word e'erets is formed and means "within a land."

The has a "w" sound (called the vav in modern Hebrew with a "v" sound) and is a picture of a peg or nail which is used to secure or add things together. This letter is used to mean "and" in the sense of adding. When this letter is prefixed to the word erets the word e'erets is formed meaning "and a land."

The has a "h" sound and is a picture of a man with his arms raised up, shouting and pointing at a great site as if to say "behold, look at that". This letter is used to mean "the" in the sense of pointing to something of importance. When this letter is prefixed to the word erets the word a'erets is formed meaning "the land."

The has a "l" sound and is a picture of a sheperd staff which was used to direct the sheep toward a particular direction, such as that of water or pasture. This letter is used to mean "toward" and when prefixed to the word erets the word e'erets is formed meaning "toward a land."

The has a "m" sound and is a picture of a water. This letter can also mean the flowing water of man and animals, the blood. Blood is passed from one generation to another and can therefore mean "from." When this letter is prefixed to the word erets the word e'erets is formed meaning "from a land."




The most basic are formed by linking two Hebrew letters together and can be used as . Because each letter has a meaning, the meaning of these letters will assist in providing the Hebraic meaning of a word. Below are a few examples of nouns and verbs whose meanings can be closely connected to the meanings of the letters contained within these words.



The first letter is the (aleph - A), a picture of an ox. As the ox is strong, the letter also has the meaning of strong. The second letter, (bet - B), is the picture of the tent or house where the family resides. When combined these letters form the noun AB meaning "the strength of the house" and represents the "father."



The first letter is the (aleph - A), a picture of an ox. As the ox is strong, the letter also has the meaning of strong. The second letter, (mem - M) representing water. The two letters give us the meaning of "strong water." The Hebrews made glue by boiling animal skins in water. As the skin broke down, a sticky thick liquid formed at the surface of the water. This thick liquid was removed and used as a binding agent - "strong water". This is the Hebrew noun AM meaning "mother", the one who "binds" the family together.



The first letter is the (bet - B), a picture of a tent or house. The second letter, (nun - N) is the picture of a seed. The seed is a new generation of life that will grow and produce a new generation therefore, this letter can mean "to continue." When combined these two letters form the word BeN meaning "to continue the house" and is the Hebrew noun for a "son."



The first letter is the (aleph - A), a picture of an ox. As the ox is strong, the letter also has the meaning of strong. The second letter, (hhet - Hh), is the picture of a tent wall. The wall is a wall of protection which protects what is inside from what is outside. When combined these letters form the noun AHh meaning "the strong wall" and represents the "brother" as the protector of the family.



The first letter is the (lamed - L), a picture of a staff. The second letter, (kaph - K), is the picture of the palm of the hand. When the staff is placed in the palm one is going to go walk. The verb LaK means to walk or to go.



The first letter is the (resh - R), a picture of the head of a man. The second letter, (dalet - D), is the picture of the tent door. The roof of the nomad's tent was low and one needed to stoop down to enter or exit through the dooway and the verb RaD means to go down.



The first letter is the (ayin - A), a picture of an eye representing the idea of experience. The second letter, (lamed - L), is the picture of a staff but also represents a yoke as the staff on the shoulders. When combined, these two letters form the word AL meaning to experience the yoke and as the yoke is lifted up onto the shoulders this verb means to go up. When used as a noun this same two letter root means a yoke.



The first letter is the (quph - Q) and is a picture of the rising or setting sun at the horizon meaning to come together, or gather, from the gathering of the light at the horizon. The second letter, (hhet - Hh), is the picture of a wall which separates. Combined, these two letters form the word QaHh meaning to gather what is separated, to take.



The first letter is the (shin - Sh), a picture of the teeth meaning to press. The second letter, (beyt - B), is the picture of the tent or home. Combined, these two letters form the word ShaB representing a pressing to the tent and means to return.



The first letter is the (quph - Q) and is a picture of the rising or setting sun at the horizon meaning to come together, or gather, from the gathering of the light at the horizon. The second letter, (resh- R), is the picture of the head of a man. Combined, these two letters form the word QaR, a gathering of men, and means to meet or call out.



The first letter is the (dalet - D) and is a picture of the tent door, used for going back and forth. The second letter, (ayin - A), is the picture of the eye. Combined, these two letters form the word DA, the going back and forth movement of the eye in the sense of taking it all in and means to "know."






The Hebrew Bible was written by Hebrews 2,500 to 3,500 years ago, whose were very different than our own. When we read the Word of God as a 20th Century American, our culture and lifestyle often influence our interpretation of the words and phrases.

The word rain is a good example of how culture can influence one's view of a word. To a bride and groom preparing for an outdoor wedding, the news of rain has a negative meaning, but to the farmer in the middle of a drought, the same word has a positive meaning. For many of us, rain means a spoiled picnic but to the ancient Hebrews, rain meant life, for without it their nomadic life would end. Without a cultural understanding of the words in the Bible, much is missed or overlooked.

A language is closely tied to the culture of those who speak the language. In the case of the Hebrews who were a nomadic people of the Near East, their language is closely connected to their nomadic culture. Each Hebrew word describes an action that can be seen in the nomadic journeys of the Hebrews through the wilderness.

All modern day translations of the Bible are written from a very westernized perspective and have erased the original Hebraic, Eastern, perspective of the original words in the text. Once the Hebraicness of the text is restored, a common theme can be found throughout the Bible rising to the surface - our nomadic migration through the wilderness of life.

It is simply assumed by most people that everyone everywhere thinks in pretty much the same manner. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the thinking processes of different cultures are as different as day is from night. In this web site we will be examining Hebrew words and ideas so that we can better understand how the mind of the Hebrew works. Understanding how the is crucial in proper Biblical understanding. If we are to interpret the Biblical text according to our way of thinking then the interpretation will be contaminated with modern Greco-Roman thinking.

In my many years of research into the language of the Bible I have discovered three keys to proper interpretation of the words and ideas within the text.

The Culture

The Hebrew language, as is the case with every language, is closely tied to the culture the speakers and writers belong to. When reading the Bible, whether in Hebrew, English or any other language, it is essential that it be read through the eyes and mind of the Hebrew culture and not one's own culture. To illustrate this lets look at Isaiah 40:22.

It is he... that stretches out the heavens as a curtain

From our own culture we could conclude that this is a reference to the creation of the stars which we know to be giant balls of burning gas billions of miles from us. But, this perspective, as accurate as it may be, must be ignored and instead understood from Isaiah's perspective of the heavens. Inside the of the Hebrews the roof is black but the gaps between some of the fibers of the material allow for pinholes of light to penetrate through giving the appearance of stars in the black sky. For this reason, the Hebrews saw the night sky as God's tent stretched out over the world, his family.

Action

Our modern languages are the product of a Greco-Roman world where abstract words are prolific. An is a word or thought that cannot be related to one of the five senses; hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. However, each Hebrew word is related to a concrete idea, a substance of action. A good illustration of the differences is the word anger which, from a modern perspective, is an abstract idea. The Hebrew word for anger is aph[] but literally means "a flaring of the nostrils in anger," a substance of action. In fact, the word aph[H:639] is also the same Hebrew word for the nose. Throughout this web site you will be challenged to cease thinking abstractly and instead open your mind to the concrete meaning of words as they were understood from an Hebraic perspective.

Function

Hebrew thought is more concerned with function whereas we, and our Greco-Roman thought, are more concerned with appearance. When we read the Biblical text we are constantly creating a mental image of what the text is describing but the original author is not describing an image of appearance but an image of function.

and this is how you are to make it, the length of the vessel is three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.

Is this description telling us what the ark looked like? Not at all, it is describing its function by telling us that this ark is very large and capable of transporting a very large load of animals.

When keeping these three keys in mind while reading the text you will begin to approach the Bible from a Hebrew perspective rather than from the Greek perspective we have all been taught since birth.




There are many factors that go into a which are invisible and unknown to the reader of the translation. Most Bible readers assume the English translation of the Bible is an equivalent and exact representation of the original text. Because of the vast difference between the Ancient Hebrews' language and our own, as well as the differences in the two cultures, an exact translation is impossible. The difficult job of the translator is to bridge the gap between the languages and cultures. Since one can translate the Hebrew text many different ways, the translator's personal beliefs will often dictate how the text is translated. A translation of the Biblical text is a translator's interpretation of the original text based on his own theology and doctrine. This forces the reader to use the translator's understanding of the text as his foundation for the text. For this reason, readers will often , but are usually limited to Christian translations. I always recommend including a when comparing texts, as this will give a translation from a different perspective. Yes, it will be biased toward the Jewish faith, but Christian translations are biased toward the Christian faith as well. A comparison of the two translations can help to discover the bias of each.

The translator's task is compounded by the presence of words and phrases whose original meanings have been lost. In these cases, the translator will attempt to interpret the words and phrases as best as possible based on the context of the word and the translator's opinion of what the author was attempting to convey. When the reader of the translation comes across the translator's attempts at translating the difficult text, the reader almost always makes the assumption the translator has accurately translated the text. The following passage will give an example of some of the difficulties the translators face when attempting to convert the Hebrew text into an understandable English rendering.

Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. (Genesis 6:16 - RSV)

The above translation seems very clear, concise and understandable. The reader would have no problem understanding the meaning of the text and assumes this translation adequately represents the original text. Behind this translation lies the Hebrew, which must be a translator's nightmare. Below is a literal rendering of the same verse according to the Hebrew.

A light you do to an ark and to a cubit you complete it from to over it and a door of the ark in its side you put unders twenty and thirty you do.

This is not an isolated case, but occurs continually throughout the Biblical texts. In order to assist the English reader, the translator has supplied words, phrases, and even whole sentences to enable the reader to understand the text. The reader is rarely aware of the difficulties in translating a certain passage and assumes the translator has accurately translated the text.




Have you ever wanted to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language? Believe it or not, this is not an impossible goal as the Hebrew language is a fairly simple language.

Have you ever heard the expression, "Lost in the translation"? This is very true for any literary work, even the Bible itself. If you want to really "know" what the Bible says you need to learn how to read it in its original language.

In a short amount of time and a little dedication on your part you will be able to master the Hebrew language and within a short time you will be translating the Hebrew Bible for yourself rather than relying on a translator.

Just to show you how easy it is, let me introduce you to the word (The far left word in Genesis 1:1 above). The is pronounced "ha" and is commonly used as a prefix to words meaning "the". The word is pronounced "arets" and means "land". Now put them together and you have (ha-arets) meaning "the land".

Sound interesting? You can start learning to read this beautiful language today with the available here. Also, if you get stuck or have any questions along the way you can click on the "email" link at the top of any of the lessons and I will be more than willing to help you out.



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