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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.
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.