Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Structure and Role of Women in the Hebrew Society

We can learn from the narrative provided in Judges chapters 4 and 5 in the Old Testament a few different things about the structure and role of women in the Hebrew society of the time.  Maxwell and Hayes[1] state that the social settings and atmosphere depicted by the narratives in Judges reflect and support that of an Early Iron Age Palestine, which is supported by archaeological evidence.  Also, the Bible is regarded as being very heavily patriarchal in nature, with the leaders, prophets, and important figures all being male.  From the account of Deborah as a judge of Israel, however, we see that the society of the time was willing to let a woman lead them when she possessed the appropriate skills.  In fact, Deborah was important enough and well respected enough that Barak was unwilling to go to war with Sisera unless she accompanied him[2]. 

The Israelite women of the premonarchic period as depicted here in the Song of Deborah were of very strong character.  Deborah was a judge in a patriarchal society and well respected.  Jael, when faced with the opportunity to slay Sisera, did so without hesitation[3].  Sisera’s mother, however, is depicted as pining and waiting for her son whom shall never return[4].  This could be part of a tact used to insult, demean, or demoralize the Canaanites (whom Sisera was) while at the same time bolstering the Israelites known as a riposte[5]. 

These women are very likely to have existed.  According to Ackerman, the amount of women that are found in Judges as opposed to the other Hebrew biblical texts supports and coincides with the archaeological research of Meyers in the Judean area for the Iron I period[6].  This research lends credence to the plausibility that women of this era did have the responsibilities of managing communities, being leaders, and even had the roles of prophetesses and war commanders. 

Due to the structure of the Song of Deborah, it is regarded as being one of the oldest parts of the Hebrew bible.  It is possible that the stages of transmission for this narrative would have started out as oral communication, possibly part of the Israelites’ folk traditions.  Later, as the significance and importance of these events were recognised, they were most likely written down.  The exact dates of the Song of Deborah being recorded, or how it came to be incorporated into the book of Judges is not known[7].
The Song of Deborah might have been regarded as highly important due to it both depicting a significant military victory over the Canaanites after a period of many years of being downtrodden, or it could have been remarkable due to the fact that Deborah was the military leader and prophetess at the time; both roles that were usually occupied by men[8].  Further, if the Song of Deborah had been incorporated into the folk traditions of the Israelites, it could stand to reason that it had become a very popular story in the culture, and as such received the attention of the authors of the book of Judges, subsequently resulting in its inclusion in the literary record. 


Ackerman, S.  2003.  "Digging up Deborah: Recent Hebrew bible scholarship on gender and the contribution of archaeology" Near Eastern Archaeology , 66:4, p. 172-184

Ackerman, S.  1998.  Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel.  Doubleday, New York, NY.

Holy Bible, The.  King James Version.  1989.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Salt Lake City, UT.

Miller, G. P.  1996.  “A Riposte Form in the Song of Deborah”.  As used in Matthews, V., Levinson, B., & Frymer-Kensky, T. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East.  T & T Clark International, London.  P. 113-127

Miller, J. and Hayes, J.  2006.  A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2ed.  SCM Press, London

[1] Miller and Hayes, A History, p. 84
[2] Judges 4:8, Bible
[3] Judges 4:21, Bible
[4] Judges 5:28-30, Bible
[5] Miller, Riposte  p.113
[6] Ackerman, Digging Up Deborah, p. 176
[7] As discussed on the discussion board for HST155 week 3 “Point me in the right direction, please” thread, 15 & 16 Sept, 2011.
[8] Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, p. 5

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