Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Women's Lives in Biblical Times

Since sexual ethics is an area of interest for me, it's critical to gain a solid understanding of gender relations in the Bible. Just how patriarchal were biblical times, and how does the Bible and did ancient Israelites view women? So, after wading through some reviews at RBL, I decided to read Women's Lives in Biblical Times by Jennie Ebeling, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Evansville.

Women's Lives in Biblical Times is an introductory text on the daily lives of women during Iron Age I (the period of the book of Judges). It is designed to be usable as a supplement for undergraduate courses in Hebrew Bible. There are seven main chapters covering seven major events or life stages in a woman's life - birth, childhood, first menstruation, marriage, childbirth, motherhood, and old age and death. Through these episodes the main aspects of women's life was explored (e.g., religious practices, food preparation, basket making).What sets Ebeling's work apart is the way she presents the material. Each chapter begins with a brief fictional narrative of a woman named 'Orah.' These sketches are one to two pages long and are based on Ebelings scholarly research. The rest of the chapter provides the backing behind every detail of her portrayal of Orah's life.

Ebeling reconstructs the life of a typical woman from a variety of sources. Her primary source is archaeology. The biblical text is a secondary source. There are a few reasons for that, but one striking one is that the Bible tells us virtually nothing about the daily lives of ordinary women. To a lesser extent she relies on other ANE texts and archaeological finds, iconography, and ethnography (in this case anthropological research done on 20th century Palestine).

For my purposes, the most significant result is Ebeling's claim in the conclusion that women were not as repressed as often assumed. One major reason is that the Bible was largely written later than Iron Age I and reflects urban culture, not the rural culture of the highlands discussed here, where women's contributions were too big to allow them to be totally marginalized.

On the whole, I found Ebeling's work to be very engaging. Using the fictional account served to make the material more memorable and enjoyable to read. The scholarly discussions moved along at a good clip and never weighed you down with too much data. Life is portrayed as it was (as best we can tell) without demonizing it, whitewashing it, or otherwise distorting it. My only quibble is that I didn't find the ethnographic studies to be helpful. Ebeling doesn't give much weight to it, but I don't see it as being of any more value than the fictional account she has already written. All in all, Women's Lives in Biblical Times is an excellent place to begin if one wants to understand what life was like for the typical woman during the time of the judges. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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