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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 Lukan and Matthean accounts of Jesus’ genealogy diverge after David. Matthew traces Jesus’ line through Solomon (and thus traces the royal Davidic line as it is found in the Bible and in Seder Olam). Luke traces a line through Nathan, also a son of David by Bathsheba.
The two lines come together once more in the generations following the deportation to Babylon, where both lines include Shealtiel (Greek, Salathiel) and his son, Zerubbabel (Mt 1:12; Lk 3:27). The generations around Shealtiel and Zerubbabel mark the first major dilemma in untangling the genealogy of Jesus. Three problems may be noted:
- In Matthew, Shealtiel’s father is Jechoniah (aka Jehoiachin). In Luke, Shealtiel’s father is Neri.
- In both Matthew and Luke, Shealtiel is the father of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3:19, however, the father of Zerubbabel is Pedaiah.
- Following Zerubbabel, the genealogies of Jesus once again diverge, with Matthew tracing a lineage through Abiud and Luke tracing a lineage through Rhesa. Presumably, these are two sons of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3, however, the sons of Zerubbabel are listed as Meshullam and Hananiah.
Let us take these issues one at a time.
The Father of Shealtiel
As with Joseph himself, the Matthean and Lukan genealogies both purport to identify the father of Shealtiel, but the two lists disagree! Is Jehoiachin the father of Shealtiel, or is Neri? Seder Olam follows the Old Testament in describing Jehoiachin as the father of Shealtiel with no apparent need for any elaboration on the matter. Luke complicates matters by adding Neri son of Melchi (and his immediate ancestors) to the mix.
Is there any reason to question Jehoiachin’s paternity? Jereremiah 22:30 reports that Jehoiachin (called Coniah in this passage) was condemned to die childless:
Thus says the LORD:
Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.
The early death of Jehoiachin’s son Zedekiah may well have been understood to be the fulfillment of this curse. But if Jehoiachin was childless, this fact at least raises the possibility that, while Shealtiel was the legal heir of Jechoniah, he was not his biological descendant. How can this be?
In Hebrew thought it was a terrible fate for a man to perish without sons to carry on his name. Therefore, several strategies are described in the Old Testament for avoiding this situation:
- If a man died childless, the custom of levirate marriage provided for his widow to marry his brother. (Levir is the Latin word for “brother-in-law.”) The firstborn son of this union was legally reckoned to be the son of the dead man (Deut 25:5-6).
- If a man had daughters but no sons, the custom of Zelophehad adoption permitted him to legally adopt the husband of his oldest daughter (Num 36:1-13), provided they marry within the tribe of their father. The children of this marriage would be considered the grandchildren of their mother’s father.
- If a woman was unable to conceive, there was a custom in the patriarchal period whereby she would provide her husband with a female slave by whom to father children (Gen 16:1-2, 30:1-4). There is no evidence this custom prevailed into exilic or postexilic times.
In light of ancient marriage customs, there are a number of ways a son could be reckoned the legal heir of a man who was not his biological father. This include:
1. Levirate marriage. One possibility is that, once Jehoiachin was imprisoned in Babylon, his wife contracted a levirate marriage with Neri. The firstborn child of this union, Shealtiel, would legally be the heir of Jehoiachin. But one must then ask why there are six others also listed as sons of “Jechoniah the captive” in 1 Chronicles 3. By the levirate custom, the children after Shealtiel would be considered merely sons of Neri and would not appear in the 1 Chronicles genealogy at all.
2. Zelophehad adoption. By this theory, Neri was Shealtiel’s grandfather—the father of his mother. If Neri had no sons, the Zelophehad custom permitted him to adopt the sons of his eldest daughter. If this daughter were married to Jehoiachin, then Shealtiel could be called both the son of Jehoiachin and the son of Neri. By this theory, the line from Shealtiel back to Nathan (Lk 3) represents the ancestry of Shealtiel’s mother, while the line back to Solomon (Mt 1) represents that of his father.
3. Simple adoption. It is possible that Shealtiel was adopted by Neri after the death of Jehoiachin. Assuming he was a minor at the time, Neri may have taken him into his home and raised him as his son. Thus, though biologically the son of Jehoiachin, he became the legal heir of Neri, his distant relative. Alternatively, the adoption might have gone in the other direction. Although I cannot vouch for its accuracy, the Loeb family tree website, a compendium of ancient Jewish (and specifically Davidic) genealogy, offers the following explanation:
King Jeconiah…married Tamar, his cousin, her second marriage, the daughter of the late crown-prince, Johanan, his uncle [i.e., a previously unknown son of King Josiah—DJP], and begot Zedekiah, the crown-prince. The early death of the crown-prince was the fulfillment of “Coniah’s Curse”, placed on King [Je]Coniah’s off-spring by Jeremiah “The Prophet”.
The king adopted his step-sons, the sons of his wife, Tamar, by a previous marriage since they too were of the “royal seed”, that is, her first husband was a Davidic prince.
Some of the details of this report are questionable. Most blatantly, Zedekiah was the son of Josiah and thus the uncle of Jehoiachin, not his son! The remainder is logically coherent, although certainly not proven. For what it’s worth, this report makes Neri’s mother the first wife of a woman who went on to marry Jehoiachin. The king subsequently adopted Neri and Tamar’s children after the death of his own son, Zedekiah (presumably after his release from prison in Babylonia in 561 BC).
I leave it to the reader to decide which, if any, of these alternatives makes the most sense of the data.
According to the book of Jeremiah, God pronounced a curse on Jehoiachin’s line. This is most clearly expressed in Jeremiah 22:28-30. There God declares that none of Jehoiachin’s offspring would ever sit on David’s throne. Jeremiah 36:30 makes a similar pronouncement concerning Jehoiachin’s father Jehoiakim. Some scholars take this pronouncement to describe a permanent condemnation of Jehoiachin’s line. Others believe that Jeremiah’s words were only intended for the near future—the lifetime of Jehoiachin himself.
The theory that the curse upon Jehoiachin was only temporary is buttressed by several facts recorded in the Bible and early Jewish tradition. First, Jehoiachin apparently repented while in exile. The last chapter of 2 Chronicles records how he was elevated from prison and given special honors at the Babylonian court. Although he was not permitted to return to Judah, he is recognized by the Jews as the first Exilarch or ruler of the exiled community in Babylon.
Second, there are also rabbinic sources that indicate God removed the curse on Jehoiachin, which they attribute to his repentance while in prison. For example, according to Leviticus Rabbah 19:6:
The Holy One, blessed be He, then said: “In Jerusalem you did not observe the precept relating to issues, but now you are fulfilling it,” as it is said, As for thee also, because of the blood of thy covenant I send forth thy prisoners out of the pit (Zech 9:11) [which means], You have remembered the blood at Sinai, and for this do “I send forth thy prisoners.” R. Shabbethai said: He [Jeconiah] did not move thence before the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned him all his sins. Referring to this occasion Scripture has said: Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no blemish in thee (Song 4:7). A Heavenly Voice went forth and said to them: ‘Return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings'” (Jer 3:22).
Pesiqta Rabbati 47 records the following:
R. Joshua ben Levi, however, argued as follows: “Repentance sets aside the entire decree, and prayer half the decree. You find that it was so with Jeconiah, king of Judah. For the Holy One, blessed be He, swore in His anger, As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on a hand, yet by My right—note, as R. Meir said, that it was by His right hand that God swore—I would pluck thee hence (Jer 22:24). And what was decreed against Jeconiah? That he die childless. As is said Write ye this man childless (Jer 22:30). But as soon as he avowed penitence, the Holy One, blessed be He, set aside the decree, as is shown by Scripture’s reference to the sons of Jeconiah”—the same is Assir—Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron 3:17). And Scripture says further: In that day … will I take thee, O Zerubbabel…the son of Shealtiel…and will make thee as a signet (Hag 2:23). Behold, then how penitence can set aside the entire decree!
According to these sources, the curse was lifted because of Jehoiachin’s repentance. (See also b.Sanhedrin 37b-38a; Pesiqta de Rab Kahana; and Numbers Rabbah 20:20.)
In any event, the Bible is unanimous in casting Zerubbabel as the rightful heir and legal successor of Jehoiachin. Later rabbinic speculation insisted in no uncertain terms that the Messiah would be a descendant of Zerubbabel. The medieval Tanhuma Genesis states:
Scripture alludes here to the verse, “Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? Thou shalt become a plain” (Zech 4:7). This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David…. From whom will the Messiah descend? From Zerubbabel.
Any plausible claim on behalf of Jesus’ messiahship would have to involve descent from Zerubbabel (Hag 2:21-23), regardless of any irregularities surrounding the legacy of his grandfather Jechoiachin.