Biblical Archaeology Review 40:6, November/December 2014

“Eves” of Everyday Ancient Israel

By Carol Meyers

Women are vastly underrepresented in the Hebrew Bible. Named men outnumber women by about ten to one. And the women who do appear are mostly exceptional or elite women, not the majority who were farm women.

Not only are women underrepresented, but they are depicted by writers who were mostly elite urban males; built-in Biblical biases often preclude a balanced perspective.

Complicating matters still further, many Biblical texts were written down generations if not centuries after what they purport to describe.

What was life like for ordinary women in ancient Israel? If we are to understand the position of women in the Iron Age (c. 1200–587 B.C.E.), we must take into account what can be learned from sources in addition to what is in the Hebrew Bible.

Interpretations—or misinterpretations—of Eve in the Eden tale (Genesis 2 and 3) are paradigmatic of the rest in a sense typical of the problems in understanding the Biblical texts as related to ordinary women’s lives. For example, the first woman is often said to have “tempted” the first man, but the word for “tempt” never actually appears in the text. Traditional translations are similarly problematic. Consider the first line of Genesis 3:16, God’s command to the woman just before the expulsion from Eden. Virtually every version has “pain [or pangs] in childbearing” in that line. These and other traditional interpretations and translations of the Eden tale often occlude our vision, leaving us unable to see the way the text actually presents the first woman.

A careful exegesis of the Eden story, especially Genesis 3:16, reveals that Eve’s life after Eden would not be characterized by childbirth pain. Rather it would involve hard work and many pregnancies, two prominent features of the lives of most Israelite women. The word typically translated “pain” is actually the word for “work,” the same Hebrew word God uses in Genesis 3:17 in telling the man what his life will be like after Eden: “in toil you shall eat of it [the ground].” Moreover, the word usually translated “childbearing” is actually the word for “pregnancy.” Thus God says, “I will make great your toil and [many] your pregnancies.”

More than two decades ago, I wrote a book about all this called Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context1 in an effort to shift the balance a bit by doing a careful reading of the Eden tale and also by examining the lives of ordinary women. Information about the lives of ordinary Israelite women, I believed, could significantly illuminate the Biblical text.

But how do we get to know these women? Clearly, reconstructing the daily lives of ordinary women cannot be accomplished using Biblical texts alone.

What sources do we have in addition to the Bible? BAR readers will no doubt anticipate that archaeology is one source. But Biblical archaeology has traditionally focused on the large sites mentioned in the Bible, not smaller agricultural settlements. And in digging these large sites, excavators typically seek to uncover monumental structures—fortifications, palaces and temples associated with male elites—rather than small dwellings in which ordinary people lived.

In addition, excavators often focus on determining the chronological history of sites in order to link them to Biblical events or people who figure in the Bible. Even when the archaeologists (mostly male) do excavate dwellings, they seldom expose the entire structure, with the result that the lifeways of its occupants cannot always be determined.

Also, published excavation reports only rarely present all the artifacts found in a given structure, let alone exactly where in that structure they were discovered. As a result, often they do not provide the kind of data necessary to reconstruct household life and thus women’s daily lives.

Even when archaeologists’ excavation reports do provide information about the living spaces and artifacts of daily life, this information must be interpreted. How can we relate the discoveries of the excavators to the lives of women? How do we even know which artifacts were used mainly by women? Ancient objects recovered in excavations are not “gender noisy.” More recently the situation has changed, but still there are clear limits.

Another important source is the work of anthropologists. They can help us, for example, to identify women’s tools and thus women’s activities.

As ethnographic studies from the 19th and early 20th century show, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean agrarian communities at that time had ecosystems similar to that of ancient Israelite communities. Used cautiously, analogies provide clues to women’s daily tasks in ancient Israel. With this anthropological help, we can identify women’s artifacts. For example, women were the ones who ground grain into flour in traditional Middle Eastern countries, suggesting that the grindstones discovered by archaeologists were used mainly by women.

Of course, anthropologists also note that most household activities are not performed exclusively by one gender.

Depictions of women at work in ancient art from neighboring peoples, although rather scarce, are also suggestive. An example is a third-millennium Egytian statuette of a woman grinding grain using a quern (lower grindstone) and a rubbing stone (upper grindstone). Although this image predates ancient Israel by millennia, the technology of grinding with an upper grindstone and a lower grindstone remained the same until the invention of far more efficient milling machines in the Hellenistic-Roman period.

Textual references, including the Bible, are also illuminating. For example, Leviticus 26:26 refers to ten women baking bread in a single oven, and they dole out the bread by weight. Proverbs 31 refers to women working with wool and flax (v. 13) and planting a vineyard (v. 16). Although the Bible may have its biases, details of daily life are largely realistic. Because Biblical authors intend to communicate with an audience, they surely used background information that rang true.

Anthropological studies can also elucidate women’s relationships with other members of their family, especially their husbands. Were women really as subordinate in Biblical times as many people think? Anthropological studies from societies similar to ancient Israel provide useful analogies. Interactions between household members are an example. Because women often have critical roles in maintaining household life, the senior woman in an extended family is often in a position of parity and interdependence, not subordination, with her husband for most aspects of household life. This is an especially significant observation for ancient Israel because the household was the major unit of society for most Israelites.

I think Discovering Eve was successful in showing how social science models and data can provide significant insights and play an important role in Biblical scholarship. Still, that was long ago. Clearly, a new edition of the book was needed. But as I began working on it, I realized that the changes would be so sweeping as to constitute a new book rather than a revised book. While the basic format, goals, and methodology are the same, the new edition is really a new book, although on the same subject—the Eve of the Eden tale and the “Eves” of everyday life. It incorporates significant developments in all three sources—Biblical studies, archaeology and anthropology.

Feminist Biblical study has grown exponentially in the past 25 years. Recent studies have identified ancient traditions that changed, sometimes subtly and sometimes more blatantly, the meaning of passages about Eve. Particularly important are those dealing with the trajectory of translations (beginning with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the third–second century B.C.E.) and intepretations (by the church fathers and ancient rabbis) of the Genesis tale. For example, one recent book provides a detailed analysis of the rabbinic and patristic exegesis of several verses of Genesis 3.2 And another deals specifically with how issues of gender are handled in translations of the opening chapters of Genesis.3 Looking at these and other studies, it became clear to me that the negative images of Eve that persist until today can be traced to ancient sources beginning in the Greco-Roman world. Those images were influenced by ideas about women that were current in Greco-Roman times but not in Iron Age Israel.

Fundamental changes have also occurred in the archaeological picture. As I noted, well into the 1970s archaeologists were interested mainly in large sites, not agricultural villages. When I wrote my book, the archaeological information about agrarian life came mainly from the Iron I period (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.) before the establishment of larger Israelite settlements. A number of small highland villages of that period, often associated with the Israelite settlement in the land and the sporadic rule of the Judges, had been excavated. So those were the sites that provided information for my book, which focused mainly on that period.

During the 1990s, however, archaeologists became more interested in what has become known as “household archaeology.” Influenced by New World archaeology, Middle Eastern archaeologists began paying more attention to dwellings, where people lived, not only from the Iron I but also from Iron IIb, the period of the Israelite monarchy. It also became clear that even though many sites are called “cities” in the Bible, they were really walled agricultural towns rather than true urban centers. Those “cities” became relevant to reconstructing the agrarian lives of the women who lived there.

Thus the description and analyses of women’s roles could draw on a wider array of archaeological materials from the entire Iron Age, not just Iron I.

More than 90 percent of the ancient Israelite population was agrarian throughout the Iron Age down to the sixth century B.C.E. In other words, most Israelites were farmers, not the urban elites, royal servitors, military personnel, priestly establishment and other small groups that figure so prominently in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, they were “peasant farmers,” small-scale independent agrarians who produced mainly for their own needs and not for sale or profit. To be sure, large estates did become progressively more common in Iron IIb (c. 900–600 B.C.E.), especially in the northern kingdom of Israel. And some agriculturalists probably developed specialty crops for markets, but subsistence agrarian life continued as the norm for most people. The majority of ordinary women thus were farm women.

Another fundamental change over the past generation has been the increase in attention to gender issues. Gender archaeologists are careful to avoid the tendency of some excavators to see everything through male eyes. They try to recover specifically women’s activities in the archaeological record. With the help of ethnographic analogies, gender archaeologists are able to reconstruct the roles of women in ancient societies. Their work has provided a sounder basis for reconstructing the lives of Israelite women.

For example, the discovery of several sets of grinding tools in a single dwelling can be interpreted with respect to the social interactions of the women who used them. Multiple sets of grindstones indicate that ancient Israelite women often worked together in their daily tasks. Similarly, a single oven serving multiple households indicates that women shared tasks. Women who work together form informal social networks that significantly affect community life. They know when a nearby family has problems. They can help when another family cannot perform essential tasks like harvesting or food preparation. In effect, they act as a mutual aid society.

Another example involves women’s religious activities. Today we know much more about the nature of household religion and the prominent role of women in maintaining the ritual behaviors that were central aspects of ancient Israel’s religious life on a daily and seasonal basis. Most festivals were celebrated in the home or in the local community, even though the Biblical emphasis on pilgrimage festivals might imply the opposite—that is, that everyone, or at least all men, went to Jerusalem (e.g., Deuteronomy 16:6, 14, 16). These household festivals (e.g., Exodus 12:4–7) involved feasting, and the preparation of special foods for these celebrations was likely a woman’s task, a task that had important ritual meaning.

Advances in social science scholarship on women have also contributed to our understanding. Here are examples:

Social scientists alert us to what they call “presentism,” the phenomenon in which perspectives and ideas that we take for granted in today’s world affect how we understand the past. We tend to read the present into the past anachronistically, which can lead to misunderstanding the past. It is surely true that human beings have much in common throughout time, but there are also sometimes basic differences, and these must be taken into account. For example, today cooking and cleaning and caring for young children are often seen as unpaid housework. These chores may be undervalued, even trivialized. But in a pre-modern peasant society without supermarkets and daycare centers, these tasks have significant economic value. They are essential for household survival, and they earn women positive regard.

Similarly, “presentism” can affect how we view the division between work and family, between what is public and what is private. How these divisions are understood may be very different between a post-industrial capitalist society, on the one hand, and a pre-modern agrarian society, on the other. In the latter, the household is the workplace for both women and men, and household activities of both women and men were connected to larger community and kinship structures.

Consider the concept of patriarchy. Typically this concept has been taken to imply near total male domination in families and other social institutions. But anthropologists, classicists, feminist theorists, theologians and others who have more recently studied the concept have shown that this understanding of patriarchy does not take into account that women often had considerable agency in certain aspects of household life and that women’s groups and institutions had their own hierarchies. Moreover, focusing so exclusively on the supposed subordination of women can result in overlooking other inequalities that were a result of social class or caste. Servants, slaves and people of other ethnicities held inferior positions in ancient Israel. And men who were not of the priestly tribe were excluded from the national priesthood.

To get a balanced view of Israelite society in the Iron Age, the broader picture must be considered. Patriarchy is a term that was invented millennia after the Iron Age and is probably unsuitable for characterizing ancient Israel.

A more accurate term, although it may initially seem to be a jarring neologism, would be what recent anthropologists are calling “heterarchy.” This concept allows for multiple but different ranking systems in any given society. Heterarchy recognizes the existence of inequalities in multiple areas of life but also understands that these inequalities were not necessarily all-pervasive.

It was developments like these that led me to conclude that, rather than a new, second edition, I had to write a completely new book. This one I called Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context.4