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What Can We Know about the Role of Women in Ancient Israel?

People lived in households.  Most people were agrarians, agriculturalists, farmers, and the economic, political, religious, social aspects of life were all primarily in the household but for both men and women.  What archeologists have discovered in some really wonderful, careful excavations in the past couple decades is the assortment of artifacts that appear in different spatial parts of a dwelling.

And in a sense to the great surprise of many investigators, there were spaces in the household in which the implements of food preparation and consumption, that is where food was prepared and eaten, are found in the same physical space as small objects having to do with religious practices, with religious rituals, which leads us to the belief that ritual was part of meals, of household meals.  And we do know by using biblical texts and other ancient near eastern texts and iconography that women were responsible for most of the transformation of agricultural products into something that you could eat or drink.

They baked the bread, and they prepared the stews and so on.  So that linking women’s practices of food preparation with the ritual objects that are found in the same spaces and households gives us an idea that women were intrinsically involved in household religious practice.  Now, even though the Bible focuses on national or communal religious practice—sacrifices at shrines in the temple, the tabernacle—those were large in the Bible, but in terms of the experience of most people, those things were quite removed.

So by looking at the household as the fundamental space for religious experience and linking specific practices to the roles of women, women become as important actors in the religious lives of Israelites in terms of the household as priests are on the national or communal level.

  • meyers-carol

    Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Emerita Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include: commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; an edited reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2013).