I have saved the examination of the women in the two Hebrew nations of
Judah and Israel for
last, since we generally regard them as part of an isolated patriarchal society
which worshipped the male deity alone.
At this point it will be clarifying to compare the position of Hebrew
women not only with their contemporaries in Babylon and Egypt, cultures so
intertwined with their own, but also with the other women of Canaan, where they
In the city of
northern Canaan of the fourteenth century BC,
which was not a Hebrew community, there are records of a woman whose title was
translated as "Important Lady of the Royal House." She was known as the Adath (meaning Lady as
the female counterpart of Adon meaning "Lord"). The Goddess in this area was known as Anath,
which may be much the same word. The
texts of Ugarit (present-day Ras Shamra in Syria), where
legend of Anath were unearthed, revealed that this "Important Lady"
took an active part in political affairs.
Claude Schaeffer, co-director of the first excavation at
Ugarit, wrote in 1939, "The social status of women,
and particularly the mother of the family, thus appears to have been a high one
in Ugarit." Ugaritan documents of this same period reveal
that upon divorce or widowhood a woman kept her own property. Legal records read much like those of Elam, stating
that husbands let their possessions to their wives rather than their children;
these children are told not to quarrel but to respect and obey their
mother. As I shall explain in the
following two chapters, at Ugarit
there was a curious combination of the southern and northern cultures,
reflected in their religious myths.
There are accounts of many Indo-Europeans living in that city by the
fourteenth century, yet the status of women does not appear to have been
greatly affected by it at that time.
Among the Ammonites of Canaan, a people with whom the Hebrews were in repeated conflict, women acted in official capacities. In 1961 archaeologists G. Landes wrote of "the superior position of women being in agreement with nomadic practise." He stated that queens, such as the Queen of Sheba (about 950), at the times led Arab states or tribes and that this was also attested in the eight and seventh centuries BC.
In contrast to the economic, legal and social position of women all about them, the position of the Israelite women exhibits the effects of the almost total acceptance of the male deity Yahweh, and the patriarchal society that accompanied it. According to the Bible, though no archaeological evidence has yet been found to confirm this, the Israelite laws date from the time of Moses (about 1300 – 1250 BC). They continue as the law of the Hebrews of Canaan until the fall of the northern kingdom known as
Israel in 722 BC and the fall of the southern
kingdom known as Judah
in 583 BC. These same laws still appear
in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible to this day.
Through an intensive study of the Bible, archaeologist and priest Roland de Vaux made these observations about Hebrew women in his study of 1965, published as Ancient Israel:
The social and legal position of an Israelite wife was inferior to the position of a wife occupied in the great countries round about…all the texts show that Israelites wanted mainly sons, to perpetuate the family line and fortune, and to preserve the ancestral inheritance…A husband could divorce his wife…women on the other hand could not ask for divorce…the wife called her husband Ba'al or master; she also called him adon or lord; she addressed him in fact as a slave addressing he master or a subject, his king. The Decalogue includes a man's wife among his possessions…all her life she remains a minor. The wife does not inherit from her husband, nor daughters from their father, except when there is no male heir. A vow made by a girl or married woman needs, to be valid, the consent of the father or husband and if this consent is withheld, the vow is null and void. A man had the right to sell his daughter. A women were excluded from the succession.
De Vaux asserted that, unlike all the other cultures of the
Near East, there were no priestesses allowed in the
Israelite faith. He explained that:
…the suggestion that there were women among the clergy of the temple clashes with an important linguistic fact: there were priestesses in Assyria, priestesses and high priestesses in Phoenicia, where they are shown by the feminine of kohen; in the Minaean inscriptions there was a feminine form of lw' (priest) which some scholars would link with the Hebrew lewy, but Hebrew has no corresponding noun to kohen or lewy, no women ever held a place among the Israelite clergy.
I might add that according to Hebrew law a woman had no right to money or property upon divorce and since her vow was invalid, presumably she could not engage in business. Perhaps the most shocking laws of all were those that declared that a woman was to be stoned or burned to death for losing her virginity before marriage, a factor never mentioned in other law codes of the Near East, and that, upon being the victim of rape, a single woman was forced to marry the rapist; if she was already betrothed or married she was to be stoned to death for having been raped.
Perhaps the clearest explanation of the status of early Hebrew women was revealed by archaeologist D. Ussishkin in 1970. He described an ancient Hebrew tomb recently unearthed in
in this way: "Thus it seems that one body, almost certainly that of the
husband, was placed higher that the body of the wife, so that the women's
inferior status was also demonstrated after her death."
Despite the lowly position of women decreed by the Hebrew laws and customs, there were two incidents that reveal a possible revival of the ancient Goddess religion, even within the royal house of
Israel. Their association with the ancient beliefs
suggests that two queens may have gained power through the ancient matrilineal
customs, which had perhaps slipped back into Israel along with other
"pagan" patterns. Both
incidents involved women who were listed as Hebrew queens, on in Israel and the other in Judah.
The first concerns a woman known as Queen Maach, possibly a descendant of an Aramaean princess of the same name who was in the harem of Hebrew king David. The second Maacah was listed in the Bible as the queen of Rehoboam, king of
about 922 to 913 BC. His mother was not
Hebrew, but Ammonite princesses. This
king is recorded as having erected "pagan" golden calves. Murray
suggests that this name Queen Maacah was later the wife of the succeeding king,
Abijam, who is listed as the son of Maacah and Reboboam. Her suggestion is based upon the fact that
some versions of the Bible list Maacah as the mother of Abijam's son Asa. Other versions list Maacah as his
grandmother, but place her name where the name of the mother would ordinary be
listed and never mention who his mother was, a pattern quite unlike all other
descriptions of a royal Hebrew sons. Murray wrote, "They
only say that Abijam and Asa could have had the same mother, was by marriage of
Abijam with his own mother."
It was Asa who brought about many Hebrew reforms, suppressing the then very prevalent "heathen" practices, and who finally had Maacah dethroned. In light of the curious discrepancies in Asa's genealogy, the reason given in the Bible for the dethronement is all the more interesting. In I Kings 15:2-14 we read that Maacah had made a asherah, that is, a statue of the Goddess Asherah. Considering the repeated evidence of "paganism" during this period, it seems quite likely that
had taken up the religious customs of old, at the time accepting the female
religion and the female kinship succession to the throne. If this was so, then Maacah would have been
the royal heiress and held this position until Asa, possibly under the
influence of Hebrew priests, once again established the religion of Yahweh.
The second incident is dated about 842 BC, when Athaliah, daughter of Queen Jezebel, claimed the throne of
Judah as her own. According to Hebrew law, women were not
allowed to reign alone. Yet it required
a violent revolution to dethrone her. Jezebel
herself was closely identified with the ancient religion. Jezebel's parents, Athaliah's grandparents ,
where the high priestess and priest of Ashtoreth and Baal in the Canaanite city
reigning there as queen and king. The
murder of Jezebel, who had reigned alongside Ahab as queen in the northern
kingdom of Israel,
was actually a political assault upon the religion of the Goddess. This is made clear in the events that
followed her murder in the biblical account in Kings I and II. So it is worth noting that it was Jezebel's
daughter who ascended to the royal throne of Judah, the only women ever to rule
the Hebrew nation alone. Most
significant is the fact that, once Athaliah secured her rights to the throne,
she reigned for about six years, re-establishing the ancient "pagan"
religion throughout the nation, must to the distress of the Hebrew priests.
Through cause and effect between matrilineal decent, high female status and the veneration of the Goddess are often confused, we cannot avoid the fact that repeated evidence attests that the religion of the Goddess and a female kinship system were closely intertwined in many parts of the
Near East. Though
much of the material pertains to royalty, there is enough to suggest that
matrilineal customs were practiced in many areas by the general population as
well. In examining the transition from
the Goddess religion to the worship of the male deity as supreme and the
subsequent effects upon the status of women, we find certain patterns emerging.
From the beginning of the second millennium, the Assyrians were in close political and commercial contact with the Indo-European Hittites. Indo-European Hurrian princes appeared in various cities of northern
Syria from that same time on. By 1600 BC Babylon was controlled by the
Indo-European-led Kassites. By 1500 BC
Assyria was completely under the control of the Hurrians who had formed the . kingdom of Mitanni
Accompanying these conquests was the introduction of the myth of Marduk, who, we are told, murdered the Goddess to gain his supreme position in
Babylon. In Assyria
the same myth was told, the name of Ashur simply substituted for the name
Marduk. Throughout the second
millennium, the Indo-Europeans made further inroads into the lands of Canaan
and Mesopotamia and, as I Shall explain in the next two chapters, may have
played an important role in the formation of the Hebrew religion and laws.
It may be helpful at this point to summarize the changes in the laws as they affected various aspects of the lives of women. In Eshnunna (in
Sumer) at about 2000 BC, if a man
raped a woman he was put to death. In
the Old Babylonian period of Hammurabi, before the major incursions of the
Indo-Europeans, though many of the northerners were in Babyonia even at that
time, the same punishment was given. In
the laws of Assyria, which are dated between 1450 and 1250 BC (when Assyra was
under Indo-European control), we read that if a man rapes a woman the husband
of father of that woman should then rape the rapist's wife or daughter and/or
marry his own daughter to the rapist.
The last part of the law was also the law of the Hebrews, who added that
a raped woman must be put to death if she was already married or betrothed. Assyrian laws appear to be the first to
mention abortion, assigning the penalty of death.
The reforms of Urukagina (about 2300BC) refer to the fact that women used to take two husbands, though at the time of his reign that was no longer allowed. In the laws of Eshnunna a man who took a second wife, after his wife had given birth to a child, was to be expelled from the house without any possessions. In Eshnunna, if a woman had a child by another man while her husband was away at war, her husband was expected to take her back as his wife. No punishment for adultery was mentioned. In Hammurabi's laws, if a woman related to another man sexually she was expected to take an oath at the temple and return home to her husband. The Assyrian and Hebrew laws give the husband the right to murder both the wife and lover.
It is somewhat difficult to make comparisons between the various places and periods since the laws seem to have been included to codify very specific incidents and refer to varying situations. The major changes in the law concerning women affected their right to engage in economic activities, what they might or might not inherit, what they in turn were allowed to pass on to their children, the attitude towards rape, abortion, infidelity on the part of the husband or wife and, among the Hebrews only, the penalty of death – for women – for the loss of virginity before marriage. These laws, since they primarily affected the economic and sexual activities of women, point to the likelihood that they were aimed at the matrilineal descent customs. The very fact that so many of the laws concerned women suggests that both the economic and sexual position of women was continually changing all the time of the first attested northern invasions (about 2300 BC) until the laws of the Hebrews, probably written down between 1250 and 1000 BC – though, as I mentioned, none of the original Hebrew text have yet been discovered.
In questioning to what extent the female kinship customs and the reverence of the female deity affected the status of women, we may perhaps best judge by our observations of the women of the Hebrew tribes who had accepted the worship of the new male deity alone and the subsequent laws controlling their position and rights in the society in which they lived.
We might also want to consider the possibility that, in an even more personal way, just as the Hebrews prayed for sons and rejoiced when male heirs were born to carry on the family line (not so far removed from the attitudes of many families even today), in matrilineal societies the birth of daughters was likely to have been considered a special blessing. Female children may have been especially cherished for the same reasons. According to the curators of the Archaeological Museum of University of
Cambridge in England,
even today, "Among the matrilineal Asanti in Africa,
female children are especially valued because of their power to transmit blood
(mogya), to continue the matriline (abusua)." In ancient times the Sun Goddess of Arinna in
Anatolia was worshiped along with Her two
daughters and a granddaughter. The
Khasis of Assam worshiped their Goddess along with Her three daughters and a
wayward son. What emotional effects this
may have had upon the self-esteem and development of young girl at that time we
can only guess.
A consciousness of the relationship of the veneration of the Goddess to the matrilineal descent of name, property and the rights to the throne is vital in understanding the suppression of the Goddess religion. As I shall explain, it was probably the underlying reason for the resentment of the worship of the Goddess (and all this it represented) by the patriarchal invaders who arrived from the north.