Wise women played socially important roles in virtually every ancient culture. In Rome, ten Sybils—prophetesses—are mentioned by name in the prologue to the Sybilline Oracles. Oliver Gurney notes at least thirteen (perhaps as many as thirty-two) of these women by name in the Hittite literature (Michael S. Moore, “‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3  150).
The Old Testament relates two stories about wise women. In 2 Samuel 14, the “wise woman of Tekoa” figures in the story of David’s banishment of his rebellious son Absalom. A few chapters later, the “wise woman of Abel” intercedes for her village and succeeds in stopping a war (2 Sam 20). Other biblical women flesh out our understanding of the Hebrew wise-woman tradition, as we shall see.
Let’s begin by attempting to set this tradition in its historical context. According to Carol L. Meyers, several women—Deborah preeminently—are “pivotal figures” in the premonarchic period. Meyers writes,
All emerge as strong women with no negative valuation, perhaps because during the period of the judges, a time of social and political crisis, able people of any status could contribute to group efforts. In the rural, agrarian setting of the period of the judges, with the family as the dominant social institution, the important role of women in family life was more readily transferred to matters of public concern than during the monarchy, with its more formal and hierarchical power structures. Deborah as a strong woman reflects her own gifts as well as a relatively open phase in Israelite society. Carol L. Meyers, “Deborah,” Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 1993) 161.
This is an important clue to understanding the roles, and indeed the lives, of Israel’s wise women. They were mainly women of the country, not the cities, and their leadership was related to their roles and contributions in that setting. And to be sure, women by their nature had advantages in certain leadership capacities in a tribal setting. Within a cluster of extended families grouped in a rural village and functionally interlocked through intermarriage, women would be the natural “bonding elements” between families and even between villages. As Claudia V. Camp explains,
They were intimate with at least two family groups and trained, however informally, to function as interfamilial diplomats. Such factors—combined with the pre- and early monarchic periods’ decentralized leadership and its demands for the contribution of women to the survival of the community—would have expanded the scope of the wise mother’s potential authority. (“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] 188)
Precisely because of their roles in society as wives and mothers, therefore, women were well placed to serve as mediators of family and tribal conflicts. In fact, this is a role wise women undertake in other ancient cultures as well. For example, Moore relates the case of Mastigga, a wise woman from Kizzuwatna in Anatolia, who uses folk wisdom and sympathetic magic to help resolve domestic conflicts:
To identify the evil which poisons her clients she takes soft wax and molds it into the shape of human tongues. Then she magically transfers the evil from her clients into these wax images by a series of incantations. After this, she burns these contaminated images in fire in order to release her clients from the “evil of the tongue.” Finally she brings in a sacrificial animal, makes the disputing parties spit into its mouth, and slaughters the animal to make doubly sure the evil is removed. Thus, by means of both substitutionary and expulsionary magic, the wise woman resolves the dispute. (151–52)
In this light, note the maternal imagery that both the wise woman of Tekoa and the wise woman of Abel employ. The wise woman of Tekoa assumes the role of a grieving mother in order to capture King David’s attention. The wise woman of Abel notes her city’s reputation as a “mother in Israel” in her appeal to Joab. The judge and prophet Deborah, a wise woman in all but name, is also called a “mother in Israel” (Jdg 5:7). Although this imagery is metaphorical, it does suggest a connection between the teaching and leading functions of the wise woman and her primary social role in rearing children and managing the patriarchal household (Camp, 188).
These leadership roles were available to Israel’s wise women because of at least two cultural factors: integration of the public and private spheres—think of the patriarchs and the way they both ruled their families and negotiated with their foreign neighbors—and decentralization of leadership (Camp, 186). The leadership of wise women was therefore generally informal, but for that reason no less legitimate or publicly recognized. And because of the informality of their leadership, it had greater flexibility to withstand and endure change (Camp, 187).
At this point we should take stock of the picture that seems to be emerging. We note the rural, down-to-earth aspects of the wise-woman tradition. It is far more at home in remote villages like Tekoa or Abel than in the royal capital with its highly institutionalized, and therefore highly patriarchal, concepts of authority. In fact, centralization and institutionalization of power would have tended to erode the authority of wise women. As Camp explains,
Roles such as “judge,” which were once part of the official but probably fairly informal structure of village-tribal authority, now become appointments made by the king, and laws promote the nuclear family at the expense of the extended family. Under such conditions, the authority of wise women would almost certainly be minimized as their base of power is eroded. (190)
All social change tends to proceed more quickly and thoroughly in the city than in the country. The city may demand specialization, centralization, and clear lines of authority. In the countryside, however, traditional folkways live on. A case in point is the English word “pagan,” which comes from Latin paganus, literally “someone from the country.” Originally the word had nothing to do with the religious beliefs of a person but rather with his or her cultural horizon. That we use the word today to describe polytheistic, pre-Christian religions testifies to the relatively greater success Christianity experienced in the cities of the Mediterranean world as opposed to the persistence of older belief systems in isolated, rural areas.
In Israel, these rural areas continued in the ancient tribal customs. And therefore there remained there a place for wise women to exercise their leadership.
Who were these women, and what were they like? The data are admittedly scarce, but it is not impossible to construct a profile of Israel’s wise women by examining a number of biblical texts. Obviously, we must begin with “wise women” explicitly so-called:
- The Wise Woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14) interceded for Absalom with his father, David.
- The Wise Woman of Abel (2 Sam 20) interceded for her village with Joab during Sheba’s rebellion.
- Jeremiah refers to women mourners as “wise women” (Jer 9:17ff)
- Camp seeks to find inklings of real-life female sages behind the female personification of wisdom in the book of Proverbs (192–93). At the very least, there is one reference to a “wise woman” in Proverbs 14:1, and the “woman of worth” described in Proverbs 31:10-31 embodies one particular vision of what a “wise woman” should be like.
Next, I would suggest at least a glance at two groups of women called “wise” in later Jewish tradition:
- In the Mishnah, the term “wise woman” is used where the context is clearly speaking of midwives (Shabbat 18:3; Rosh Hashana 2:5). In this regard, we might mention Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who protected the male babies from Pharaoh’s death decree (Exod 1).
- The daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27) were hailed as “wise women” in Talmudic times (Baba Batra 119b).
Finally, there are a number of women who are never called “wise,” although the term clearly fits:
- Deborah (Jdg 4–5) is never called a “wise woman,” although she is depicted in such a way that she can hardly be neglected in this study.
- Abigail is likewise never called a “wise woman,” although she is called “clever” (1 Sam 25:3) and praised for her “good sense” (1 Sam 25:33). P. Kyle McCarter thinks the affinities are strong enough to read the story of Abigail intertextually with the story of the wise woman of Tekoa. (2 Samuel, The Anchor Bible [Doubleday, 1984] 345).
- The Medium of Endor (1 Sam 28) is clearly within the scope of Israel’s wise-woman traditions, as I shall demonstrate in a later post.
Having thus assembled a database, in the posts that follow I’ll attempt to identify some common characteristics of Israel’s wise women, their roles, and their experiences.