Israel’s wise women held authority. The very use of the title “wise woman” without any further identifying comment in 2 Samuel 14 and 20 suggests that this was a familiar role at least to the original hearers of the stories (Claudia V. Camp, “The Female Sage in Ancient Israel and in the Biblical Wisdom Literature,” The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue [Eisenbrauns, 1990] 187).
Wise women in the mold of the women of Tekoa and Abel provide clear evidence of what might be called tribal or family wisdom. At the same time, their words and deeds suggest there is no absolute distinction between the tribal wisdom of the patriarch or matriarch and the courtly wisdom of the royal sage or diplomat. Camp notes that “[W]e must be alert to inter- and intra-tribal negotiation and conflict as possible Sitze im Leben for specific sapiential genres” (Camp, 188-89).
Deborah is clearly an authoritative figure in the same tradition. She was both a prophetess and a judge, and “tribal negotiation” seems to be an important aspect of her leadership. According to Judges 4:5, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.”
Furthermore, these stories depict women whose roles overlap with those of other Israelite leaders. The dramatic subterfuge of the wise woman of Tekoa has obvious parallels with the prophet Nathan’s parable of the ewe lamb (2 Sam 12). The verbal diplomatic tactics of the wise woman of Abel “are identical to those used by military leaders in three different incidents (2 Sam 2:18-23, 24-28; 2 Kgs 18:17-36).” To this we must add Deborah arbitrating disputes as well as her military involvement in recruiting Barak to lead Israel’s resistance to King Jabin of Hazor and even accompanying the troops into battle (Jdg 4). As Camp states, “These women, especially she of Abel, seem to be doing what we would expect elders to do, in particular, representing their people in national political-military situations” (Camp 189).
Wise women speak with authority. Indeed, their words are often their most powerful tool. The wise woman of Tekoa told the tale that Joab prompted her (2 Sam 14:1-12), but her accusing rhetorical question in 14:3 reveals one who seems accustomed to delivering this kind of rebuke—even to a king! Similarly, the wise woman of Abel is confident in her authority. The rebel, Sheba, has taken up residence in her city. David’s general, Joab, is conducting a siege. The wise woman negotiates with Joab, promising to hand over Sheba in return for Joab’s peaceful withdrawal. But she doesn’t tell Joab that she will consult with the (male) elders and get back with him. On the contrary, she boldly promises, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you” (2 Sam 20:21). Then she goes to the people and convinces them of her “wise plan” (v. 22) (see Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible [Brill, 1996] 50).
What is the nature of wise women’s leadership? Several scholars have suggested that wise women primarily lead out of their roles as mediators. After surveying the functions of wise women in ancient Anatolia, Michael S. Moore concludes
[T]he Anatolian wise woman enacts many roles for many reasons, but fundamentally she is a mediator, a culturally recognized expert in the art of conflict resolution. Behind all the rituals, incantation, and divinations, the reason that kings and commoners come to her is their fundamental need to resolve disputes with warring enemies. (“‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3  152)
This observation is in perfect harmony with what has already been noted about the importance of wise women in tribal negotiations and conflict resolution. In fact, several of the Bible’s wise women undertake a mediatorial role. Joab calls upon the wise woman of Tekoa to attempt to mediate the conflict between David and his rebellious son Absalom. Perceiving that this family rift has the potential to paralyze the entire nation, he does what other ancient leaders might do in such a crisis: he calls for a wise woman to help resolve the conflict (Moore, 153). We might easily imagine Deborah rendering similar services, although we never see her “in action” in this capacity in the book of Judges.
Often the wise woman’s mediation has the effect of protecting her family or community from outside threats. The wise woman of Abel manages to negotiate an end to a siege of her city by bargaining with Joab for the head of the rebel, Sheba. It should also be noted that nothing is said about the fate of Sheba’s followers. Are we to infer that the wise woman somehow won them a pardon in exchange for handing over their leader?
A further example of this theme is Abigail (1 Sam 25). Though never called a “wise woman,” she is “clever” (literally, “good of understanding,” v. 3) and has “good sense” (or “discernment,” v. 33). Like the wise woman of Abel, she takes on the role of “wise mediator” between David and her husband, Nabal. Though the story doesn’t end well for Nabal, Abigail’s initiative positions her to enjoy a favorable personal outcome.
Also to be considered are the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27), hailed as “wise women” by later rabbis. The Talmud states,
It was taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, they were exegetes, they were virtuous.
They [must] have been wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment; for R. Samuel son of R. Isaac said: [Scripture] teaches that Moses our master was sitting and holding forth an exposition on the section of levirate marriages, as it is said, If brethren dwell together. They said unto him: “If we are [to he as good] as son[s], give us an inheritance as [to] a son; if not, let our mother be subject to the law of levirate marriage!” And Moses, immediately. brought their cause before the Lord.
They [must] have been exegetes, for they said: “If he had a son we would not have spoken.” But was it not taught: “a daughter”? — R. Jeremiah said: Delete, “daughter” from here. Abaye said: [The explanation is that they said]: “Even if a son [of his] had a daughter, we would not have spoken.”
They were virtuous, since they were married to such men only as were worthy of them. (Baba Batra 119b)
In other words, the daughters of Zelophehad fulfill a mediatorial or intercessory role on their own behalf and on behalf of their deceased father. Like the wise woman of Abel, they “speak at an opportune time” for the sake of their father and his legacy. Like Deborah, they are competent jurists with astute legal prowess.
Wise women did not merely serve as mediators between individuals, families, and tribes. They also often served as “go-betweens” at the crossroads of life. In the ancient world wise women were present at most rites of passage. People also called upon them in times of crisis, plague, war, illness, and calamity. They are thus associated with liminal or “threshold” moments, the transition points between past and future states where the normal order of things is upended and spiritual, creative possibilities impinge upon the ordinary world.
Preindustrial peoples were acutely aware of the spiritual potentials and dangers of such times. For that reason, they consistently and universally marked the natural turning points of life—birth, death, marriage, puberty, etc.—with rituals of passage. These rituals continue to exist in many conservative cultures throughout the world. Whether the “official” theology or ecclesiology endorses them is irrelevant. Women in particular seem to take on an important role during these crises of life.
Thus (to foreshadow a theme I’ll take up in later posts) the avowedly Christian inhabitants of rural Appalachia continue to practice a “folk religion” that involves a body of lore about good luck, romance and marriage, healing, and protection from malevolent forces. It is naïve to assume that such was not also often the case in ancient Israel.
One particular liminal moment at which wise women seem to have present is the birth of a child, a topic I’ll address in my next post.