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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 first chapter of Judges gets a little respect over at The Sacred Page.
Yet whatever the pre-canonical development of the text, what is often missed is the literary coherence of the Judges narrative. In fact, the structure of chapter one seems to anticipate the narrative which follows.
Having examined the evidence—what little there is—for military tactics in the Old Testament and comparing it to Robert Drews’ thesis in The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton University Press, 1995) that the shift from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age was marked in a radical transformation from chariotry to infantry as the basic offensive unit of ancient armies, we are ready to take stock of what we have found.
Remember, my point in this exercise has been to see whether the depictions of armed conflict in the Bible might serve either to verify or falsify certain revisionist theories about ancient chronology. According to the conventional chronology, the transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age tactics occurred circa 1200 BC, but there are several challenges to this chronology. Most famously, David Rohl has proposed a circa 300-year downdating which would place this transition some time shortly after 900 BC. Most recently, Pierce Furlong’s dissertation (“Aspects of Ancient Near Eastern Chronology [c. 1600-700 BC],” University of Melbourne, 2007) has argued for a downdating of nearly 200 years. Other theories gravitate between relatively modest adjustments to the standard chronology and sweeping revisions of the magnitude proposed by Rohl and Furlong.
So, where does the biblical evidence leave us? It seems clear that the campaigns against Judah launched by “Shishak” of Egypt (2 Chr 12:3-4) and “Zerah the Ethiopian” (2 Chr 14:10) take place in an Iron Age milieu. Since these expeditions are dated to the closing years of the 10th century BC (ca. 927 and 901 respectively by my estimation), Rohl’s 300-plus-year revision is ruled out as untenable. Ramesses III, representing the end of the era of Late Bronze Age chariotry, cannot have invaded Judah fifty or more years after the Iron Age transition!
Furthermore, the army the (frustratingly) unnamed Pharaoh sent against Israel during the Exodus (Exod 14–15) seems clearly to be a Late Bronze Age chariot force. Whether one prefers a thirteenth-century Exodus or a fifteenth-century one, this establishes a date after which the Iron Age transition occurred. A Late Bronze Exodus is to be expected in anyone’s chronology.
Between these two points, however, the evidence seems far more ambiguous than it should be on standard chronological assumptions.
Early in the period of the Judges, Deborah and Barak’s confrontation with Sisera’s chariot force in Judges 4–5 is described in ways that strongly suggest a Late Bronze Age milieu. When did this battle take place? Biblical chronology offers two possible answers, depending on whether one is calculating from an early Exodus (15th century) or a late one (13th century). On an early Exodus model, a date some time in the 1200’s BC is not out of the question, and once again is perfectly in line with conventional assumptions about the chronology of the ancient world, as this would still be prior to the Iron Age transition. On a late Exodus model, however, circa 1200 BC is probably the earliest possible date. “Twelfth century” is usually as accurate a claim as scholars are willing to make, although I’ve seen specific dates as low as 1120 BC for the judgeship of Deborah. Did those who passed on the oral tradition of this conflict preserve genuine memories of a Bronze-Age battle, or did they insert anachronistic details that would be alien to their own Iron-Age setting? On the theory of a thirteenth-century Exodus, the story of Deborah and Barak at least raises the possibility of downdating the end of the Bronze Age by perhaps 50-100 years.
Finally, the period of the United Monarchy seems to be a tangle of conflicting data. Both Saul and David operated militarily in a setting that seems at one point Iron Age and at another Bronze Age. At the dawn of this period, the prophet Samuel makes reference to (Late Bronze Age) chariot runners and implies that these are standard issue for the prosperous, “civilized” kingdoms Israel wishes to imitate. The presence of large infantry units and armored infantry, seeming hallmarks of the Iron Age, actually made their debut a century or so beforehand, leaving much of the evidence for Saul’s reign subject to varied interpretations. Likewise with David, a case can be made for either an Iron Age or a Late Bronze Age setting. Finally, Solomon—the last king of the United Monarchy period—seems to have a thoroughly Late Bronze chariot force!
The simplest explanation for this ambiguity is that the United Monarchy in fact overlaps with the time of the Iron Age transition in the Ancient Near East. If this transition took place in the decades around 1000 BC rather than 1200 BC, the descriptions of Saul and David’s battles would count as evidence of the contemporary state of flux in military tactics and technology. Samuel can envision his chariot runners, Ammonites can hire mercenary chariot soldiers from Mesopotamia, and Solomon can build his “chariot cities” at the same time the Philistines can field their armored infantry and mounted cavalry can appear on the battlefield for the first time in history.
By this hypothesis, Solomon’s (unused!) chariot force is at worst only slightly behind the geopolitical learning curve. Furthermore, the depiction of Sisera’s chariotry can fit comfortably even on a thirteenth-century Exodus model, since with a circa 200-year downdating of ancient chronology, the entire judges period is within the scope of the Late Bronze Age from beginning to end.
This conclusion enhances my estimation of the work of Jeremy Goldberg and Pierce Furlong, who have independently argued for chronological revisions of similar magnitude, and whose theories—insofar as they intersect with biblical history—I have summarized in the posts linked below.
We’re continuing to look at military tactics described in biblical texts as an indicator for the end of the Bronze Age and thus a test for or against various proposals to revise the chronology of the ancient world. There are two biblical passages that seem unquestionably to describe Late Bronze Age military expeditions as Robert Drews conceives them in The End of the Bronze Age. We’ll look briefly at each one.
Exodus 14-15 describe Pharaoh sending a chariot force against the Israelites after his change of heart regarding letting them leave Egypt:
So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. (Exod 14:6-9)
The emphasis is clearly‚ if not exclusively‚ on Pharaoh’s chariotry. In fact, verses 6-7 seem to equate the army with the chariot force. At any rate, if any foot soldiers were involved in this expedition, they were an afterthought in the mind of the biblical writer. What really mattered was the 600 chariot teams Pharaoh put on the field; the “army” (if we are to understand these as the infantry) is not numbered and may well have comprised runners or skirmishers meant to follow after the chariots and finish off any Israelites who didn’t fall to the chariot-mounted archers’ arrows.
By the way, Kevin Edgecomb has proposed a (mostly) consistent way of emending the text with respect to many of the numbers one finds in the Old Testament. I think his suggestions are largely spot on and I intend to shamelessly make make use of them when I think they’re right and emend his emendations when it serves my purpose to do so. 🙂 He is probably correct that Pharaoh had sixty elite chariot teams rather than 600, and that 600 is a likely number for the total number of Pharaoh’s chariots.
At any rate, and regardless of the size of Pharaoh’s chariot forces, the Exodus occurred in the Bronze Age by virtually any chronological scheme, and the depiction of Pharoah’s expedition to the Sea of Reeds confirms this. The widespread scholarly consensus links the Exodus to the time of Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh at the Battle of Kadesh (considered the pinnacle of Late Bronze Age chariot warfare). Some conservative Christians prefer a face-value reading of the chronological notices in 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26, which would set the Exodus some 200 years earlier during the reign (in the conventional chronology) of Thutmose III, who inaugurated his sole reign by facing a Canaanite uprising at the Battle of Megiddo‚ another key chariot battle.
Jabin and Sisera
The next battle described in the Bible involving chariots occurs during the judgeship of Deborah a few generations after the Israelite conquest/settlement of Canaan. At this time, Israel’s oppressor was Jabin, a Canaanite king whose capital was Hazor. The commander of Jabin’s army was Sisera, whose name has been interpreted to be either Hittite or Hurrian in origin‚ fitting for a man who lived in the “woodland of the gentiles” (Harosheth-ha-goyim).
Both Hittites and Hurrians were noted innovators in chariotry. The Hittites, in fact, seem to have been the first nation to capitalize on the military potential of chariot-mounted archers as early as the Middle Bronze Age (Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks [Princeton University Press, 1994] 105-106). The Hurrians were noted charioteers who, evidently led by an Indo-Aryan ruling class, had established the kingdom of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia. Kikkuli, a Hurrian, wrote an important manual for training chariot horses.
It may be, then, that Sisera was a foreigner hired by Jabin for his expertise in chariot warfare. Such chariot warriors dominated many Ancient Near Eastern societies and were collectively known as maryan(n)u. Sisera is said to have commanded 900 chariot teams, although once again I think Edgecomb is correct to read ninety (and only 1,000 foot soldiers for the Israelites). Either way, once again the chariots are numbered and clearly described as being the principal threat an enemy brought to bear against Israel:
Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. (Jdg 4:3)
Unlike the exodus story, here we can actually read some of the details of how the battle unfolded:
When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deobrah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left. (Jdg 4:12-16)
The chariots proved ineffective against Israel’s infantry, but this was not because of Barak’s superior tactics. According to the poetic retelling of the story in chapter 5, an unexpected storm flooded the wadi:
LORD, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured,
the clouds indeed poured water….
The torrent Kishon swept them away,
the onrushing torrent, the torrent of Kishon.
March on, my soul, with might? (Jdg 5:4, 21)
The biblical writer clearly wants us to see the storm and resulting flash flood as providential. A sudden onrush of water stymied Sisera’s chariot force. Some of it was “swept away”; others would have been bogged down in the mud, forcing them to flee on foot, just as Judges 4 describes. Although Sisera commanded a group of foot soldiers (whose numbers are never provided‚ an indication of their relative unimportance), they seem to have been ineffective against the Israelites. Sisera and his men had expected his chariotry to take the central role in the battle, and when the weather made this impossible, they panicked and fled.
We still seem to be firmly planted in the Late Bronze Age in this episode, although in the mainstream scholarly chronology, we should have entered the Iron Age by now. With a conquest/settlement late in the reign of Ramesses II or perhaps in the reign of one of his successors, it is a tight squeeze to get to Deborah and Barak’s era before the “Sea Peoples” invasion in year 8 of Ramesses III, and a date several decades after would seem to be the norm. If, however, one opts for a mid-15th century exodus, there is still plenty of time to fit this battle in before the “catastrophe” at the end of the Bronze Age, even with a conventional understanding of Egyptian chronology.
In the next post I’ll look for clear evidence for the beginning of the Iron Age in the biblical narrative.
Dr. Claude Mariottini has written a three-parter on the difficult text in Judges 11. As he explains, the difficulty is not so much what happened to Jepthah’s daughter, but how to make sense of it.
Somebody needs to for the intersections between this story, the Binding of Isaac, and the Greek legend of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia. I think you’d learn a lot about attitudes toward sacrifice (and not just human sacrifice) in the ancient world.
Nothing of great theological depth tonight, just a random thought:
I had a great grandfather who was a Civil War veteran. Jasper Jeffers Sr. was born in 1843 and served as a corporal in Company E of the 11th Tennessee Cavalry and the 9th Tennessee Cavalry. He married Elizabeth Newport in 1864. Their first child was born in 1865, but they didn’t get around to having my maternal grandfather, Jasper Jr., until 1884. Jasper Jr. also had a large family, of which my mother was the baby. I came along in 1963–exactly 120 years after Jasper Sr.’s birth.
This means that these three generational jumps (Sr. to Jr., Jr. to Mom, Mom to me) took an average of precisely 40 years. If I add another generation at the beginning (Robert G. H. Jeffers, born around 1800) and the end (my kindergartner Rebecca), the average generation length–five jumps in about 200 years–remains approximately 40 years.
We don’t usually encounter generation lengths that long. On the contrary, Rebecca is without question descended from a long line of old people! But neither are such lengths impossible, at least in the short term. Some people marry later in life (or remarry after divorce or the death of a prior spouse); others are descended from the babies of the family rather than the firstborn. Strange as they may seem, these family histories have as much chance of being accurate as something that “seems” more plausible.
In reading the genealogies in the Bible, it is worth keeping in mind that longer-than-usual generation lengths sometimes occur in real life. That doesn’t mean there are never any gaps in the biblical genealogies, only that sometimes, especially when all you have is a chain of names, it isn’t wise to assume that everyone’s family situation was “normal” or “customary” by the standards of that era.
This morning I was looking over my biblical genealogy material and decided that a little stretching of some generation lengths would yield a more plausible setting for the story of Ruth. With a forty-year average generation length counting back from David to his great grandfather Boaz, the events recorded in the book of Ruth line up nicely with the very end of an era of relative peace in Israel.
To be specific, this calculation puts Ruth and Boaz’s courtship around 1131 BC, shortly before the end of the judgeship of Jair (Jdg 10:3) and the tandem oppression of Israel by the Philistines and Ammonites (Jdg 10:7-8). If Ruth’s story took place any later, it would mean she and Naomi relocated to Israel at precisely the time it was being oppressed by foreign powers.
By my calculation, Jair was judge from 1151 to 1130 BC. If I’m right, a severe famine struck the land at the beginning of the final decade of his judgeship. Around 1142-1141, this famine drove Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons to Moab as refugees. Their sons married Moabite women. After “about ten years” (Ruth 1:4) they died. Naomi then returned to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth around 1132, where Ruth met Boaz and, in a flourish of genealogical data, the book of Ruth comes to an end.
Figuring an average father-to-son generation length of 30-35 years, we might propose that Obed was born in 1130 and his son, Jesse, was born in 1097. David, Jesse’s youngest son, was then born in 1041 when his father was about 56 years old.