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“Esau Christianity” is a neologism we have needed for quite some time:
I’m thinking that what Douglas Wilson needs is a Bible study.
And won’t he be hacked off to discover that when God wanted to found a nation, he chose Jacob, the effeminate, namby-pamby mama’s boy over Esau, his manly, rugged, outdoorsy brother? It goes against everything he apparently believes about the masculine flavor of the faith.
Think of it, at the time God had two possible choices for who would become “Israel,” the founder of his First Testament people: Esau, or Jacob. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:27-28). In Wilson’s categories, Esau was “masculine,” Jacob “effeminate.”
- Jacob stayed inside and cooked, while Esau went out to the field and hunted.
- Jacob was a mama’s boy who participated in his mother’s schemes, while Esau was doing manly things on behalf of his father.
- Jacob had to be protected from Esau by his mother and he ran away from home in fear when his older brother got mad at him.
- Jacob went to his uncle’s house and worked for him. He was so weak and clueless that his uncle Laban took constant advantage of him and made him into his virtual slave for years.
- Jacob was so much of a wimp that he didn’t even recognize Laban had switched women on him on his wedding night!
- Jacob was hen-pecked by his wives Rachel and Leah and did whatever they said when they wanted children.
- Jacob tricked his uncle to get back at him and then had to run away in fear again. Laban chased him and would have whupped up on him, but God warned him against that.
- When Jacob returned to the land, he was shaking in his boots in fear that Esau was going to get his revenge and kill him.
- Jacob became “Israel” when he lost a wrestling match with a stranger. Clinging and crippled, he prevailed!
- Jacob was a weak father. He showed favoritism to one of his sons, Joseph, made him his own special robe (that really sounds effeminate, doesn’t it?), and protected him at home while his brothers were out doing the men’s work of tending flocks.
- Jacob’s own sons knew their father was weak, and so they tricked him into thinking Joseph had been killed, driving Jacob into grief and depression.
- In place of Joseph, Jacob then became overly protective of his youngest son, Benjamin, clinging to the boy lest he lose him too.
- At the end of his life, Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, crossing his hands and pronouncing the blessing on the younger son, to signify that God does not favor the firstborn or the strong, but chooses the unlikely.
Jacob the wimp, the mama’s boy, the effeminate one, the scaredy-cat, weak and insecure and ineffective — that’s who God chose to become Israel, the father of his old covenant people. Esau, the man’s man, the outdoorsman, the man of strength and muscle, the warrior who was unafraid of hard work or a fight didn’t make the cut. The very name of God’s chosen community is bound up with the story of an effeminate weakling!
You’ll want to make yourself some popcorn and go read the whole thing.
There has been a lot of blog chatter lately about the “historical Adam” and whether or not he actually existed. I suspect the real issue for some Christians is not so much what to do with the Adam we find in Genesis but the Adam we find in Romans—and how the two may or may not be the same. RJS phrases the question intriguingly: Does the gospel depend on finding Paul’s Adam in Genesis?
According to Peter Enns, whose book The Evolution of Adam RJS has been reviewing, Paul’s interpretation of Adam is unique owing to his starting point in Christology. Very interesting!
I’ve got to admit, the old quip about “Adam and Steve” was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the title of RJS’s post at JesusCreed. But don’t let my odd sense of humor keep you from reading the multi-part review of Peter Enns’s The Evolution of Adam, of which the third installment is linked above
“The beginning of God’s curse on Adam indicated that he fell because he heeded the voice of his wife, which contradicted God’s established order and represented the first biblical example of abandonment of male leadership responsibility.”
On the first or second day of every class, I explain to my students the difference between exegesis, or drawing meaning out of a text, and eisegesis, or reading something into a text. This is a clear-cut case of the latter. You can’t arrive at this interpretation by any kind of face-value reading of Genesis 3. You can only get there by importing a whole systematic theology of gender roles based on (let me charitably say) questionable assumptions about a host of linguistic, cultural, and theological issues.
By the way, did you know that neither Adam nor Eve are cursed in Genesis 3? The snake gets cursed in Genesis 3:14 (“cursed are you among all animals”) and the ground gets cursed in Genesis 3:17 because of Adam’s sin (“cursed is the ground because of you”). The linguistic similarities between these two declarations so parallel each other that any open-eyed reader ought to know what a “curse” looks like—and what one doesn’t. As far as the human beings in the story, there are no curses leveled, just frank warnings about what life will now be like in a sin-ravaged world.
I’m pretty sure I’ve met members of this group that seeks to ban the book of Genesis because of its questionable moral content.
(PS: For the humor-impaired, I’m about 95% sure this is a joke.)
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.
At the end of my previous post I suggested that wise women (in the Ancient Near East generally and in Israel in particular) often performed their services on occasions marked by liminality, the betwixt-and-between of important life passages. In this post, I hope to raise awareness of the activity of some wise women at one particular liminal occasion: childbirth. In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word for “midwife” is in fact chokhmah, “wise woman” (Shabbat 18:3; Rosh Hashana 2:5). In many corners of the ancient world, there is a strong connection between midwifery and wise women. I don’t mean to imply that all Israelite wise women were midwives. Deborah or Abigail were not necessarily out delivering babies on the side! Nor am I saying that all midwives were “wise women.” But it is nevertheless fair to say that, based on ancient cultural patterns, there was a significant overlap between these two classes of people.
According to Babylonian mythology, for example, goddesses who act as midwives are called “wise,” which seems to indicate that midwives belong somewhere in the ancient category of “wise women” (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 412).
Childbirth is a liminal experience for the baby, the mother, and the entire community. Everything changes when a new baby is born! Therefore, it is a time of potential spiritual danger as status and relationships get rearranged to accommodate the arrival of a new community member. In ancient cultures the liminal nature of childbirth calls for the involvement of women. John Gray explains,
It is perhaps natural that women should assist at birth, but there is a further reason, suggested by the fact, as among the modern Arab peasants, that the men including the father studiously avoid the very house where the birth is taking place. The fact is that in such a crisis the normal activity of the community is suspended and the men, who normally take the initiative, become for the moment nonentitites. In the Book of Ruth not only do the women assist at the birth but they hold the initiative right through until the time when they actually name the child and so integrate the new life with the community. (The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)
The religious nuances of the midwife’s calling is underscored by the fact that, like the goddesses of Babylonia, God is also depicted performing the duties of a midwife (Ps 22:9; see also Isa 66:9).
Midwives are rather thin on the ground in the Bible, but they appear on a number of important occasions. The first story that may come to mind is that of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the time Israelite slavery in Egypt (Exod 1). Like the wise woman of Abel, these women stand up to powerful men and intercede in such a way that their people are saved from destruction.
By the nature of their calling, midwives in traditional cultures were often the doctors, psychologists, and family therapists of their village. In that light it is instructive to read S. D. Goitein’s composite portrait of a traditional Yemeni wise woman:
This is a woman who keeps a watchful eye on her fellow villagers from the day of their coming forth into the light of the world until their death. It is she who helps during childbirth; she who knows the remedies and other treatments…required in case of illness; she who assists in matchmaking and, when necessary, who makes peace between husband and wife. Her advice is sought not just by her family but by her whole village. It is she who is most proficient at whatever craft is practiced in the district, and she, too, who is the poet who “declaims” before the women at weddings and other festive occasions and in mourning as well. (S. D. Goitein, “Women as Creators of Biblical Genres,” Pretexts 8  10, cited by Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own [Mariner, 1998] 102, n. 21)
This picture harmonizes nicely with the themes of motherhood, conflict resolution, and liminality that we have already explored.
Midwives also appear in two stories from the patriarchal period. In Genesis 35:17, a midwife is at Rachel’s side to comfort her as she is in hard labor with Benjamin. More interesting in terms of the wise-woman tradition is Genesis 38:28, where the midwife at the birth of the twins Perez and Zerah ties a scarlet thread around Perez to identify him as the firstborn. Though ostensibly to mark which baby came out first, the use of red thread as a protective amulet for both mother or child is attested in Mesopotamian and Hittite texts. (Carol Meyers, Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women [Fortress, 2005] 39; Marten Stol and F. A. M. Wiggermann, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting [Styx, 2000] 49, 56–58). Such customs are likely to have influenced Israelite practices. Indeed, tying a scarlet thread around the wrist of a newborn baby girl is a longstanding Jewish Kabbalistic practice intended to ward off evil spirits—despite the fact that the custom has been condemned since Talmudic times as pagan supersition (Michele Klein, A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth [Jewish Publication Society, 1998] 125).
Perez’s scarlet threat reminds us that in the Ancient Near East midwives had two categories of tasks. First, obviously, she performed the physical tasks involved in childbirth: preparing the necessary equipment, comforting the mother, and delivering the child. Second, she effected magical or religious protection of the woman and especially the newborn. Citing G. M. Beckman, Marsman explains, “[T]he midwife recites incantations on behalf of the new-born, beseeching the gods to remove evil influences and to grant a desirable fate to the child” (412). Midwifery is thus a religious vocation in the ancient world, surely no less so among the ancient Israelites.
In addition to the scarlet thread, we find hints of later Israelite birth rituals in Ezekiel 16:4: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.”
The implication of this verse is that certain ritual actions were performed upon a newborn. While some of these are obviously matters of simple practicality (e.g., cutting the umbilical cord), others seem to be ritualistic in nature. The word for “washed,” for example, is used only here in the Old Testament. Meyers suggests it may be related to an Aramaic cognate meaning “to smear,” and may reflect the application of protective ointment. The “washing with water” may then have had ritual and not merely practical significance. This is certainly the case for “rubbing with salt.” The prophet is thus painting a picture of a newborn baby for whom the expected rituals of childbirth were not performed, thus leaving the baby vulnerable to the forces of evil.
Even in modern times, a Jewish midwife might recite certain customary prayers on the way to attend to a woman in labor (Klein, 125). She tries to calm the cries of the laboring woman through words of encouragement, prayers, or simple incantations (Klein, 123). Alice Bailes, a modern Jewish midwife, relates the following testimony of her experience:
There are psalms that I sing to myself in Hebrew when I am attending a birth. If the baby’s head is a little big for the mother’s bones and it has to mold to fit through I sing “Min Ha Metzar, from the narrow place I call to God and God answers me in this great expanse of space.” I think that my singing these prayers helps the baby come.
In addition, midwives were often specialists in folk remedies and incantations. Klein notes that “The old midwife, the bubbeh (Yiddish for “granny”) who served Jews in the shtetl a century ago, kept her incantations a closely guarded secret, for fear of destroying their potency (Klein, 124–25).
Just as women are present in ancient Israel at the time of birth, they are also present at the time of death and bereavement. Therefore, the next installment in this series will thus focus on wise women’s roles as mourners.