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Actually, what I discussed was textual criticism and how we are sometimes guilty of wrestling to understand the wrong biblical text! But it’s more fun to talk about David and Goliath, so that’s the way I did it.
For those who are interested, here is the PowerPoint presentation I used: “Opponents of Unusual Size.” Enjoy!
I was also informed (in jest, I’m almost certain) that a rumor had started that I was doing a Bible study on bestiality. I can only say that, if I were writing a book, that is exactly the sort of rumor I would hope someone would get started!
The Spirit-woman of Endor
First Samuel 28 tells the story of the eve of King Saul’s death. The night before his final battle against the Philistines, distraught and having come up short in all of the normally available means of divine guidance, Saul takes the desperate measure of seeking out a medium to put him in contact with the spirit of the prophet Samuel, now dead, who had been his spiritual advisor until the two had a falling out over Saul’s failure to complete the massacre of the Amalekites. Saul finds such a woman in Endor and skirts past the enemy encampment at Shunem to consult with her. She does indeed summon the spirit of Samuel, but the prophet merely confirms that God has rejected Saul and that the king is destined to meet his end.
How are we to understand this strange story? And how are we to understand the “strange” woman, traditionally though inaccurately called the “witch of Endor,” at its center? My contention is that it is fruitful to set her within the spectrum of what I have been calling Israel’s wise-woman tradition. To be sure, she is never called a “wise woman” in the text. Rather, she is called an ‘eshet ba`alat ‘ob, literally “a woman who is the mistress of an ob” (i.e., a ghost or spirit). NRSV translates this expression by the word “medium.”
Furthermore, this woman practices necromancy, an occult practice specifically forbidden in the Torah (Deut 18:9-14). Continuing to approach the wise-woman texts phenomenologically, let us set aside for now the fact that there is a spiritually unsavory undertone to her profession. First we must seek to understand what she is doing and how it fits within Israel’s wise-woman traditions. (Claude Mariottini posted a student paper on the Medium of Endor that I commend to you as excellent background reading.)
I would argue that it is indeed appropriate to connect her with the wise-woman tradition. First of all, we have already seen that Israel’s wise women may have been associated with folk-religious rituals, especially those involved with childbirth and mourning. Of these, the clearest biblical evidence pertains to the rituals of death and bereavement, since, as we have seen (1) women mourners are specifically called “wise women” in Jeremiah 9:17 and (2) the wise woman of Tekoa makes verbal allusions to rituals related to mourning and honoring the dead in her conversation with David.
The practical and spiritual ministrations surrounding both birth and death were laden with ritualism in the ancient world—and indeed continue to attract ritual accretions even in the practice of thoroughly orthodox religious adherents today. We can probably safely suppose that, in addition to their skills in leadership and conflict resolution, Israel’s wise women were acquainted with various forms of ritual symbolism, parallelism, homeopathy, or even sympathetic magic. This was certainly the case for their non-Israelite sisters.
A second reason to identify the woman of Endor as a wise woman is that her actions harmonize well with the “core” of the wise-woman tradition. She is first and foremost a mediator figure. Obviously, her profession casts her as a mediator between the living and the dead. On an even more basic level, in her ministration to King Saul she “attempts to resolve a dispute between Saul and Samuel—a difficult task inasmuch as one of the parties to this dispute is already dead” (Michael S. Moore, “‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3  152). Just as Joab enlisted the aid of a wise woman to help resolve the conflict between David and Absalom and as Abigail stepped in to attempt a reconciliation between David and Nabal, so does Saul seek out someone who can achieve a reconciliation between himself and Samuel—and God.
The conclusion of the story also suggests that the woman of Endor was in some sense a motherly figure. In Saul’s distress, she offers him “a morsel of bread” to eat. When he refuses, she practically forces him to eat something (1 Sam 28:22-23). Then she sets before him what can only be described as a royal feast, providing a whole fatted calf for Saul, two servants, and herself (v. 24-25)! She takes care of him in his moment of crisis. In the process, she demonstrates the kind of compassion and hospitality one might expect in the rural, tribal traditions of the patriarchs.
But does being a “medium” or a “wizard” (1 Sam 28:3) cohere with the identity of an Israelite wise woman? Certainly not in the sense that all wise women practiced these forbidden techniques. As with midwives and mourners, it is impossible to make a compelling case that all wise women were versed in the occult arts. One could possibly argue that all or nearly all of them practiced more benign forms of folk magic—comparable to an Appalachian “granny woman” who puts a knife under the bed to take away labor pains or advising placing a Bible under one’s pillow to drive away nightmares—but that is not what this story is about. At best, necromancy is on the fringes of the Hebrew wise-woman tradition, at least as it is portrayed in Scripture.
One should note, however, that the attempt to divide “good” magic from “bad” is also found in later Judaism. Geoffrey Dennis notes that magical incantations, for example, even appear in the Talmud—and therefore are presumably sanctioned by at east some of the early-medieval sages. Most of these incantations have to do with healing. Other forms of magic, love spells, curses to inflict upon one’s enemies, etc., are never endorsed. In general, the rabbinic sages are far more tolerant of spells that enhance praiseworthy goals: healing or assistance in learning the Torah, for example.
Last time we looked at Israel’s ancient cult of the dead and saw how at least certain aspects of that cult eventually came under severe condemnation. Why might this cult be a part of the wise woman’s interests? It may be precisely because of the importance of family and tribal traditions. As King and Stager point out,
Nurturing the dead was a way for family members to maintain the relationship between one generation and the next. In other words, cult of the dead emphasized the continuity of kinship. (Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel [Westminster/John Knox, 2001] 376)
Israelite folk religion envisioned consulting the dead through ritual objects or religious specialists, a class of people outlawed in several passages of the Pentateuch and apparently by Saul as well. In Israel sorcery seems to have been practiced chiefly by women. King and Stager suggest this may have been to compensate for the fact that they had no role in the official cult (King and Stager, 380), although the prominence of female magical practitioners seems to be almost universal in the ancient world—even in cultures were formally installed female priestesses were commonplace.
Evaluating the Wise Woman of Endor
One might assume that extrabiblical evaluations of the medium of Endor would be uniformly negative, but this is not the case. Timothy Beech states,
Outside of the biblical narrative, the evaluation of the medium appears to have been both positive and negative. Pseudo-Philo, for example, associates her with Israel’s enemies by identifying her as the daughter of a Midianite diviner who had once lead Israel astray (64.3), and completely eliminates the oft regarded details of her hospitality and tenderness. [Ps.-Philo also gives her a name: Sedecla—DJP] Josephus, on the other hand, hesitates to say anything negative at all about her, but instead praises her character as a model for all to emulate (Antiquities 6.340-342). (“Witch of Endor,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture [Sheffield Phoenix, forthcoming])
Josephus’ positive attitude toward this woman is surprising. In Antiquities 6.342 (= VI.14.4) he says,
Now it is but just to recommend the generosity of this woman, because when the king had forbidden her to use that art whence her circumstances were bettered and improved, and when she had never seen the king before, she still did not remember to his disadvantage that he had condemned her sort of learning, and did not refuse him as a stranger, and one that she had had no acquaintance with; but she had compassion upon him, and comforted him, and exhorted him to do what he was greatly averse to, and offered him the only creature she had, as a poor woman, and that earnestly, and with great humanity, while she had no requital made her for her kindness, nor hunted after any future favor from him, for she knew he was to die; whereas men are naturally either ambitious to please those that bestow benefits upon them, or are very ready to serve those from whom they may receive some advantage. It would be well therefore to imitate the example and to do kindnesses to all such as are in want and to think that nothing is better, nor more becoming mankind, than such a general beneficence, nor what will sooner render God favorable, and ready to bestow good things upon us. (Emphasis added)
According to Josephus, the woman of Endor had a number of positive traits. Following on Josephus’ lead, we might suggest the following:
- She is hospitable. Though Saul is a stranger, she welcomes him into her home.
- She is forgiving. Josephus imagines that Saul, having banished mediums and wizards from his kingdom, has deprived this woman of her livelihood. Even so, she consents to help him.
- She is compassionate. When she sees Saul’s distressed state, she has compassion on him.
- She is nurturing. She comforts Saul in his distress.
- She is practical. She encourages Saul to eat and regain his strength.
- She is generous. Even though her fatted calf was all she had, she offers it to Saul and his servants.
- She is selfless. She seeks no reward or compensation for her services.
Therefore, Josephus says, we should imitate her example in these things.
From the point of view of Deuteronomic theology, the only “good guy” in this story is Samuel—and he is dead and only appears under protest! If Josephus has it right, however, perhaps we are meant to see positive traits in the “bad guys.” (Following his praise of the woman of Endor, Josephus goes on to praise Saul for his bravery in going out to battle the next day even though he knows he will die.)
I’m reminded of the story of King Abimelech in Genesis 20. This was the Philistine king whom Abraham feared would kill him for the sake of his wife, Sarah. Therefore, he concocted the lie that she was really his sister. Abimelech brings Sarah into his harem, but God warns him not to touch her. When Abimelech protests that he didn’t know Sarah was a married woman, God agrees, saying “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6). Here we see a non-Israelite, a worshiper of foreign gods, who speaks with God, whom God keeps from sinning, and whose character God personally endorses. By the end of the story, we are left to contemplate how a pagan king can be more righteous than the chosen patriarch. Similarly, by Josephus’s reading 1 Samuel 28 perhaps forces us to consider the possibility that a necromancer can demonstrate greater sensitivity to the things of God than a reprobate king.
Perhaps, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, pagan is as pagan does.
Singers of Dirges
In addition to presiding over births, a wise woman may also have a role at the liminal time of a death in the community. This is also a role with broad cultural currency in the ancient world. According to John Gray, not only at birth but
at death too it is the women who play the significant part as, for instance, the professional “keeners” in Jeremiah ix, 16 ff., who incidentally are also called חכמות “wise women,” a term reminiscent of the Skilful Ones, kṭrt of the Ras Shamra texts. (John Gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)
In Jeremiah 9, the prophet calls upon the female mourners to lament for the coming destruction of Jerusalem:
Thus says the LORD of hosts:
Consider, and call for the mourning women to come;
send for the skilled women (חכמות) to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. (Jer 9:17-18)
Once again, I would advise readers that I am not implying we should understand all the Bible’s wise women as “professional” mourners, any more than I would claim they were all midwives. If you want to know what I think the “core” of ancient Israelite wise-womanhood was all about, you’ll find it in my first two posts (mothers, mediators). Having thus established the “core,” however, it is fruitful to explore as well some possible variations suggested by the roles wise women play in other ancient cultures.
In many ancient cultures mourning was a distinctively feminine function. The women who performed this function were often religious professionals. (I note in passing that all of the hospice workers of my personal acquaintance happen to be women.) In any event, mourning was often considered the domain of women. In ancient Israel as in many traditional cultures, women prepared the body of the deceased for burial: bathing it, trimming the nails, wrapping it up and applying perfumes and spices. Then, women led the public lamentation.
In the Ugaritic Legend of Aqhatu, for example, Anatu weeps for Aqhatu and perhaps also sings a dirge, accompanying herself on a lyre (KTU 1.19:I.1-8) (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 523). Similarly, in the Legend of Kirtu there is reference to the dirges of female mourners that would soon be heard when Kirtu is dead (KTU 1.16:I.3-5) (Marsman, 523). In this same text, Kirtu’s daughter Thatmanatu’s mourning for her father is narrated in great detail—far moreso than the mourning of Kirtu’s son Iluha’u. “We may conclude,” writes Marsman, “that, although both men and women mourned the dead, women were more prominent in the performance of wailing rites, often in a professional capacity” (525).
In ancient Greece as well women—both professional religious practitioners and female family members—traditionally sung lamentations at a person’s death. Mourning was, in fact, one of the few ways women wielded public power in Greece. Some even theorize that Solon and other early Greek legislators condemned professional mourning precisely in order to restrain the public voice of women.
Women were no less the “mourners, musicians, and teachers” of Israel at times of bereavement (Angela Bauer, “Death, Grief, Agony, and a New Creation: Re-reading Gender in Jeremiah after September 11,” Word & World 22/4 [Fall 2002] 380). In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find women weeping, singing dirges, or reciting laments at public funerals in Judges 11:40 and 2 Chronicles 35:25 (where “singing women” are paired with “singing men”). As Jeremiah 9 reveals, the image of women dirge-singers was so culturally familiar that the prophet could evoke it to call the people to national lamentation. In the book of Lamentations, the fallen city of Jerusalem is itself depicted as a female dirge-singer (Lam 1:16).
As with the event of childbirth, it is perhaps possible to discern something of the “folk religion” surrounding death and dying in ancient Israel. This will be our focus in the section that follows.
The Cult of the Dead
No less than birth, death is a passage that seems in every culture to generate rituals by which a community reorients itself to new realities. Unfortunately, discussions of a “cult of the dead” tends to evoke images of occultism, rank superstition, or low-budget horror movies. My goal in the remainder of this post is to approach the topic phenomenologically. This means I won’t attempt to evaluate the beliefs and rituals of ancient Israelite folk religion in theological terms. (The Hebrew Bible condemns many of these elements; that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. On the contrary, it is proof of their pervasiveness.) Rather, I simply want to approach these aspects of early Israelite faith on their own terms and hopefully discern their underlying internal logic.
By way of example, consider the following rituals associated with dying and the dead:
- Loved ones gather at the home of the deceased to sing hymns and recite prayers. A religious professional may conduct a brief ceremony involving additional hymns and prayers before sunset on the night before burial.
- The body is removed from the house feet-first in the belief that if the head faces backward the deceased may influence another member of the family to follow him or her in death.
- The body is carried to the burial site in a wagon pulled by steers or oxen. It is considered bad luck for a new bride to meet the funeral procession.
- Before burial mourners, even young children, honor the dead by stooping to touch or kiss the body.
- At the graveside a religious professional performs a lengthy, dramatic, and often emotional interpretation of the central myth of the cult. This ritual is meant to assure loved ones that the deceased has completed the necessary initiations to safely enter the afterlife.
- Offerings, most often flowers but sometimes other items of personal significance, are placed on or near the grave.
- Loved ones periodically return to the burial site, either on the anniversary of the person’s death or on public days of commemoration. At these times, additional offerings are performed.
- Though the dead are honored, they are also believed to pose a potential threat to the living. Surviving loved ones therefore light candles or lamps in their front windows to prevent the spirit of the deceased to return to their home.
- Charms may be worn or simple rituals performed to protect oneself from ghosts: throwing salt on the hearth fire, carrying the left hind foot of a rabbit caught in a graveyard, carrying a snakeskin bag containing a toad’s eye, etc.
Are these the beliefs and rituals of an ancient pagan culture such as Egypt or Babylonia? No, in fact they are part of the folk religion of conservative Christians—namely, the rural folk of Appalachia (described here, here, and here)—albeit described in more-or-less clinical language. Greater connection with the modern world has wiped out many of these traditions; others show no sign of going away soon. Offering flowers at the graves of deceased ancestors on “Decoration Day” (what most of the country calls Memorial Day) is still a significant tradition in many Appalachian families. None of these rituals has the slightest bit of biblical warrant, but that is precisely the point: humans invent rituals to help them to cope with mystery, and death is one of the greatest mysteries there is. Where the Bible is silent, folklore tends to fill in the gaps.
Therefore, let us examine the folk religion of ancient Israel with respect to death and the dead. Elizabeth M. Bloch-Smith has examined the archeological and Scriptural evidence for Israelite death customs (“The Cult of the Dead in Judah: Interpreting the Material Remains,” JBL 111/2  213–24.) Based largely on her work, the following patterns may be suggested:
(1) When a person died, he or she was honored with lamentation (2 Chr 35:25; Jer 22:18), the erection of a burial marker (Gen 35:20; 2 Sam 18:18; 2 Kgs 23:16-18; Isa 56:5) and sacrifices of food, drink, and other commodities (Isa 57:7, 9; 2 Chr 16:14).
(2) Remains of food and drink offerings are in fact prevalent in Israelite tombs throughout the Iron Age. Grave goods discovered in Israel and Judah include “vessels for foodstuffs, liquids, perfumes, spices, and oil for lamps, plus jewelry, tools, household and personal items, and talismans” (Bloch-Smith, 222). Such offerings, of which ceramic vessels were by far the most common, were thought of as a way of caring for the dead. A possible technical term for such care, פקד (pqd), is found in a number of Old Testament passages. In Mesopotamia, a paqidum was one who provided regular food and drink offerings for a deceased father or other relative (Bloch-Smith, 220). Bloch-Smith concludes,
Proper postmortem care (*pqd) was probably not a foreign practice but an integral aspect of Judahite and Israelite social organization. Moses denied proper care to the accursed Korahites (Num 16:29), and in a play on the root *pqd Jonathan attributed David’s absence in court to a trip home for a family ancestral sacrifice (1 Sam 20:6). (220–21).
(3) The dead were regarded as “divine beings” (אלהים, [‘elohim] in 1 Sam 28; Isa 8:19), possessing supernatural powers. Therefore—although the Deuteronomist(s) severely condemned the practice—they might be consulted through various types of intermediaries (see Isa 8:19), including human magico-religious specialists (“diviners,” “necromancers,” etc.) and cult objects such as the teraphim, often understood to be ancestral figurines. In this light, it may be relevant that there are a couple of stories where women traffic in teraphim. In Genesis 31:19, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim as she flees with Jacob and the rest of his family. Much later, Michal helps her husband, David, escape from her father, Saul, by hiding a teraphim in his bed as a decoy (1 Sam 19:13).
(4) In addition to divination, the dead were credited with the power to give life (Elisha’s bones, 2 Kgs 13:20-21; Hannah’s prayer for a child in 1 Sam 1:11—assuming this took place at some sort of ancestral sacrifice.)
(5) The dead may also have been thought vengeful and able to harm the living. Such a belief may explain David having the hands and feet of Ishbaal’s already dead murderers cut off (2 Sam 4:12). Was this done to avert the possibility of revenge from beyond the grave?
There may be additional oblique references to rituals associated with death and dying in the story of the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14). At two points in her encounter with King David, she uses expressions that suggest familiarity with the mortuary rituals of the wider Ancient Near Eastern culture.
First, she seems familiar with the use of cultic coals in exorcisms and purification rituals. As Michael S. Moore explains,
To communicate the depth of her dilemma the wise woman uses a revealing metaphor. She describes the clan’s demands as an attempt to “quench my coal which is left.” Rykle Borger has pointed out that this phrase is similar to an Akkadian phrase which describes a man without a family as one whose “cultic oven as gone out.” Thus it does not seem coincidental that the Hebrew word for “coal” in this text (gahelet) is also found in the Isaianic tradition in a passage mocking the use of cultic “coals” in Babylonian purification rites [Isa 47:14], or that the Akkadian word for “cultic oven” is a standard fixture in neo-Assyrian exorcistic ritual. (“‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3  154)
Another mourning ritual involves pouring out water upon the ground. At a later point in the wise woman’s exchange with David, she portrays Israel’s fate with the words, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up” (2 Sam 14:14). This metaphor also seems to have its roots in the technical language of ancient mortuary cults. In the previously mentioned Legend of Kirtu, when Kirtu becomes ill he tells his son Iluha’u not to mourn for him. Instead, he entrusts this task to his daughter Thatmanatu “because she is well-practiced in putting ‘her water in the field…the issues of her lifebreath on the heights’” (Moore, 156). Although the Ugaritic ritual texts give few details, the metaphorical connection between death, mourning, and pouring out of water suggest there is some kind of connection. (Might a similar ritual lie behind David’s actions in 2 Sam 23:13-17?)
Bloch-Smith argues that although the Torah attempts to regulate the cult of the dead, it doesn’t try to abolish it outright. The concern of the prophets and preeminently the Deuteronomist(s) is with the centralization of the cultus at the temple in Jerusalem. According to Bloch-Smith, the temple personnel never denied the dead’s powers nor the people’s right to honor them. “Individuals could still feed the dead,” she argues, “but not tithed food” (see Deut 26:14). And though they might continue to consult the dead in private, they were forbidden to enlist professional help in doing so (223).
This reconstruction could be right or it could be wrong, but in any event it seems clear that not every aspect of Israel’s religion is codified in Scripture. For good or ill, certain rituals (prayers, songs, symbolic acts) and presuppositions surrounded birth, death, and most likely other liminal junctures. All of them fall under the rubric of “folk religion,” the informal beliefs and practices passed down from generation to generation quite apart from any official endorsement. For various reasons, women were often the bearers of these traditions. They were part of the “tool kit” of at least some of Israel’s wise women.
What, then of the darker or less savory aspects of this picture of Israel’s “cult of the dead”? In my concluding post, we’ll look at one last wise woman and the way she used officially forbidden rituals in the service of others.
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.
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.
The story of David and Goliath is one of those tales we love to tell. It’s also a story we love to embellish in the telling, and often with a humorous slant.
As a musical parody based on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Finally, just a fun piece of musical storytelling from the acapella group Take 6:
What is it about this familiar story that seems to inspire lighthearted re-interpretation? For one thing, we love to identify with the underdog and see a bully get what’s coming to him. The exaggerated details of Goliath and his armor and weaponry in 1 Samuel 17 probably add to the appeal. This is a real-live fairy tale—or perhaps a “Jack tale,” with little David playing the role of Jack, the Everyman, who somehow comes out ahead even when it looks for all the world like he’s outmatched in every way.
What do you think? What makes David and Goliath a good candidate for these kinds of re-tellings?