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Subservience to Women from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

Subservience to Women

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp. 88-112.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977


Those in the household with whom the wife dealt were children, servants (including slaves), other wives, the husband, and the husband's parents.

Relationships between wives in a polygamous family seem to shed little light on the standing of woman in ancient Israel, and the evidence describing it is not presented here. The exception will be instances in which a wife who is a freewoman is relating to a wife who is a slave. This will be dealt with as the relationship of the wife to a slave. The implications of the existence of polygamy for the standing of women have already been discussed. The relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law, described only rarely in the Old Testament, was discussed in the last chapter. Also considered there were those cases in which the wife could be described as being subservient to the husband.

In this chapter, we will deal with the relationship between mother and child, the authority of the woman over servants (including slaves), and a group of passages in which the wife either seems to have a higher status than the husband or appears to be exercising authority over him.


The influence of a mother over her children is reflected in several passages in the Old Testament. When the author of Judg., ch. 5, an ancient victory song, described the death of Sisera, the Canaanite commander, he pictured Sisera's mother and not his wife as awaiting his return with a bit of plunder for her (Judg. 5:28-30). Abimelech, the only son of Gideon and a concubine, appealed for the loyalty of the men of Shechem, his mother's home, on grounds of maternal kinship when he and the other sons of Gideon sought to rule that city (Judg. 9:1-3).

The Samson legends, also quite ancient, provide an example of maternal influence that deserves to be quoted:

And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, "You only hate me, you do not love me; you have put a riddle to my countrymen, and you have not told me what it is." And he said to her, "Behold, I have not told my father nor my mother, and shall I tell you?" She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted; and on the seventh day he told her, because she pressed him hard. Then she told the riddle to her countrymen. (Judg. 14:16f.)

Amusement with this picture should not blind us to the hierarchy of relationships described. Samson initially rejected his wife's request because he saw no reason to tell a wife something he had not yet told his father and mother. The son's relationship to both parents was closer than his tie with his wife. Nor are we told that the wife resented Samson's bond with his parents, perhaps because she was trying to betray him to the Philistines in order to save her father's house!

Solomon's respect for Bathsheba, his mother, is another illustration of the status of a mother in the eyes of her children. When Bathsheba entered the throne room, Solomon "rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king's mother; and she sat on his right" (I Kings 2:19). Each of Solomon's movements reveals the extremely high status Bathsheba had in his eyes and in the mind of the one reporting the scene. He rose from his throne (the symbol of his royal power), bowed before her (an act of homage throughout the ancient Near East), and had her seated on his right (the position of honor).

Two songs that may have been used in weddings imply the high standing of a king's mother. One (Ps. 45:9) mentions the presence of the queen and describes her splendid robe. The second song attributes an act of major symbolic importance to the king's mother:

Go forth, O daughters of Zion,
and behold King Solomon,
with the crown with which his mother crowned him
on the day of his wedding,
on the day of the gladness of his heart.
(S. of Sol. 3:11)

There are features of the Old Testament that continue to baffle scholars because so little is said about them either in the Scriptures themselves or in the literature of neighboring ancient Near Eastern peoples. Some of these cryptic references have been cleared up by archaeologists,(40) and this has encouraged students to believe that explanations eventually will be found for other examples. A case in point is the presence or absence of a reference to a king's mother in editorial summaries of reigns in the books of Kings and Chronicles. The data is given in tabular form on pages 92 and 93. No Biblical citation is given if the mother is not named.

Several comments can be made about this table. The first is that the names of the mothers of the sons of Josiah (Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah; Jehoiachin was a son of Jehoiakim) prove that Josiah had at least two wives. Jehoahaz' mother was Hamutal, who also bore Zedekiah. Jehoiakim's mother, however, was Zebidah. The second comment is that only one queen mother in the history of the Northern Kingdom (the Kingdom of Israel) is named—Zeruah, the mother of Jeroboam I. As was noted in a footnote to the chart, Jezebel was identified as the mother of Jehoram in a narrative but not in the editorial summaries with which we are dealing. The mother of Ahaziah, an older son of Ahab who preceeded Jehoram on the throne, is mentioned but not named. She may have been Jezebel. This is uncertain, however, since the size of Ahab's family requires a harem (II Kings 10:1). The mother of Ahaz, one of the kings of Judah, is neither mentioned nor named. Since Ahaz was the king who introduced the worship of an Assyrian god into the royal shrine in Jerusalem in place of the veneration of Yahweh (II Kings 16:10-16), it could reasonably be concluded that Ahaz' mother was ignored because he was judged to be evil. However, the Deuteronomic historian gives the name of the mother of Manasseh, a ruler condemned bell, book, and candle by that same historian (II Kings 21:2-16)! Furthermore, the Chronicler gives us the name of the mother of Rehoboam (the Deuteronomic historian does not), even though his folly was the immediate cause of the revolt of the northern tribes against the house of David. Finally, the Chronicler fails to name any queen mother after the reign of Hezekiah, even though all of them are identified in II Kings, the primary source used by the Chronicler.


King of Judah

King of Israel

Mother's name

Book of Kings

Books of Chronicles




  2 Chron 12:13


Jeroboam 1


1 Kings 11:26  




1 Kings 15:1f  


  2 Chron 13:1f




1 Kings 15:9f  










Jehoshaphat   Azubah 1 Kings 22:41f 2 Chron 20:31





1 Kings 22:51f  



2 Kings 3:1f  








2 Kings 8:25f 2 Chron 22:2






2 Kings 12:1 2 Chron 24:1












2 Kings 14:1f  



  2 Chron 25:1

Jeroboam ll





2 Kings 15:1f 2 Chron 26:3












2 Kings 15:32f 2 Chron 27:1












2 Kings 18:1f  


  2 Chron 29:1




2 Kings 21:1  




2 Kings 21:1  




2 Kings 22:1  




2 Kings 23:31  




2 Kings 23:36  




2 Kings 24:8  




2 Kings 24:18  

* Mother mentioned but not named
** Mother (Jezebel) named elsewhere (ll Kings 9:21-26).

The names of the mothers of Abijam (Abijah), Amaziah, and Hezekiah differ slightly in Kings and Cronicles. Both forms of the name are given, each with the appropriate citation


It is difficult to provide a single explanation for the evidence. The mere fact that so many of the queen mothers are named indicates that they were important. Their status makes it likely that the failure to name them was intentional. The most consisten pattern is the failure to name the motheres of the kings of the Northern Kingdom. This may be attributed fairly confidently to a defense of the legitimacy of the claim of the Davidic Dynasty to rule all Israel. Jeroboam l's mother may have been named because of the tradition that he was an adverary raised up the the Lord to punish Solomon for his apostasies (I Kings 11:9-13; 12:21-24)

It is possible that the second motive is present: queen mothers were not named when the historians judged the sons' reigns to be exceptionally evil. The Deuteronomic historian does name Manasseh's mother even though he condemns Manasseh strongly. It may be, however, that Manasseh's sins did not loom as large in the Deutero-nomic historian's eyes as did those of Jehoram and Ahaz (both of whose mothers are ignored). The Chronicler so magnifies the reforms of Hezekiah that he makes them overshadow the reformation carried out later by Josiah, in contrast to the Deuteronomic historians who believed Josiah's reformation to be the greater. The consistent silence of the Chronicler after Hezekiah thus may be mute testimony to his view that all subsequent rulers had fallen away from the righteousness attributed to Hezekiah.

The naming of the queen mother seems to indicate her high standing in the kingdom.(41) We may also conclude, with some caution, that she was not named when the author held her influence to be evil as demonstrated by the conduct of her son. Each of these conclusions tends to be confirmed by additional evidence.

The importance of the queen mother is revealed more or less inadvertently in two incidents. The first is part of the report of Asa's reformation:

And Asa did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as David his father had done. He put away the male cult prostitutes out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made. He also removed Maacah his mother from being queen mother because she had an abominable image made for Asherah, and Asa cut down her image and burned it at the brook Kidron. (I Kings 15:11-13)

This was one of the steps, culminating in the reform of King Josiah, by means of which the worship of the Da-vidic court was gradually purged of its Canaanite traits. Maacah seems simply to have continued the kind of idolatry attributed also to Asa's "fathers." Her action must have carried so much weight that her reformer son had to destroy the idol she had caused to be put up and to demote her from her position in the court in order to carry out his reforms.

A second example is even more impressive. The reigns of the Davidides in Jerusalem were interrupted only once from the time that David captured the city until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The disruption came when Athaliah, a daughter of Ahab (and possibly of Jezebel), the queen mother in Jerusalem, seized the throne at the time of the death of Ahaziah her son and tried to have all of the males of the Davidic line killed:

Now when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family. But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Joram, sister of Ahaziah, took Joash the son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king's sons who were about to be slain, and she put him and his nurse in a bedchamber. Thus she hid him from Athaliah, so that he was not slain; and he remained with her six years, hid in the house of the LORD, while Athaliah reigned over the land. (II Kings 11:1-3)

What was the basis of Athaliah's power? Even though she might have killed her grandsons herself, she alone could not have ruled the kingdom for six years. She seized the throne after her son Ahaziah, who had been visiting the king of Israel, had been killed during a revolt in the Northern Kingdom which destroyed all of Athaliah's family and its supporters (II Kings 9:16 to 10:12). The new ruler of Israel would hardly have supported her!

A part of the explanation probably lies in the personality of Athaliah. Even an imperious and able woman, however, would have needed some base upon which to build her seizure of the throne. The only one known to us would be the position held by the queen mother. Athaliah's revolt and her retention of the throne for six years suggests that the queen mother may have been even more powerful than the other evidence available to us would lead us to suspect.

Two passages in Jeremiah in which the king and his mother are linked in oracles of woe suggest that the queen mother may have been held accountable for the kind of king her son was. Both are addressed to Jehoia-chin and Nehushta, his mother, although she is not named.

Say to the king and the queen mother:
"Take a lowly seat,
for your beautiful crown
has come down from your head."
The cities of the Negeb are shut up,
with none to open them;
all Judah is taken into exile,
wholly taken into exile.
(Jer. 13:18f.; see also ch. 22:26)

All the prophets, including Jeremiah, saw disasters present or pending as justly deserved punishment from the Lord. Thus the linking of mother and son in an oracle predicting disaster carries the implication that the mother was being held responsible for the kind of son she had reared.

This was said both of royal mothers and of the mothers of commoners. Saul's attack on Jonathan, when Jonathan displeased him, was, "You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness?" (I Sam. 20:30b). Like mother, like son! Years later, when Jehu, the candidate of the prophetic party for the throne of Israel, met Joram, king of Israel and son of Ahab, Joram said: " 'Is it peace, Jehu?' He answered, 'What peace can there be, so long as the harlotries and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?' " (II Kings 9:22b). Once again, like mother, like son. What was held to be true of a relationship out of which came evil also was held to be true of a felicitous one.

O LORD, I am thy servant;
I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid.
Thou hast loosed my bonds.
(Ps. 116:16)(42)

With the mother's responsibility for her son, of course, went the son's (or daughter's) responsibility for the mother. During his years of flight from Saul (or, perhaps more accurately, his years as a leader of a band of outlaws being pursued by Saul), David

said to the king of Moab, "Pray let my father and my mother stay with you, till I know what God will do for me." And he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold. (I Sam. 22:3b, 4)

The theme of The Book of Ruth has as one of its motifs the care given by Ruth, a young widow, for her widowed and bereaved mother-in-law (Ruth 2:11).


The bond between parents and children, and especially between mother and son, was so important in the fabric of ancient Israelite society that it became a recurring theme both in the wisdom literature and in the law codes.

Proverbs 31:1-9 is a brief, self-contained group of words of advice entitled "The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him." It opens:

What, my son? What, son of my womb?
What, son of my vows?
(Prov. 31:2)

This verse is difficult to translate. The New English Bible reads:

"What, O my son, what shall I say to you,
you, the child of my womb and answer to my prayers?"(43)

In either translation, the verse conveys a sense of the intimate bond between a son and the mother who instructed him.

Exhortations to heed parental instruction appear elsewhere in the book of The Proverbs:

Hear, my son, your father's instruction,
and reject not your mother's teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck.
(Prov. l:8f.)

In reading Hebrew poetry, one is tempted to seek for a different meaning for each line. The basic structure of Hebrew poetry, however, is called parallelism. The two lines in each verse of this proverb, for example, parallel each other. In Prov. 10:1 the two lines are antithetical. The same content is conveyed in each statement:

A wise son makes a glad father,
but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.

This proverb cannot be cited as evidence that the author believed the father could take credit for a wise son but a mother should be blamed for a foolish one. No contrast between the relationship of father and son, and mother and son, is intended. Husband and wife are given parity, as they are also in Prov. 17:25; 23:22; 28:24; 30:11f.

Even though the wisdom literature stresses the obligation of the sons to obey their parents, it does not neglect the responsibility of the parents to discipline the son:

The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
(Prov. 29:15)

Laws demanded what proverbs encouraged. The best-known statement of this appears in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Reverence for parents appears elsewhere also, however, as in Lev. 19:3: "Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the LORD your God." In both the Ten Commandments and Lev. 19:3, more is asked than filial obedience. The son is to honor or to revere his father and mother. A fundamental attitude akin to religious veneration is urged from which more than simple obedience would result.

At the same time, other laws stipulated penalties for specific conduct as harsh as the punishment prescribed for offenses against God. Death was ordered for striking one's parents (Ex. 21:15), cursing father or mother (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9; cf. Prov. 20:20), or disobedience (Deut. 21:18-21). A curse was taken very seriously. It was the attempt to harm another by supernatural agency. A curse on one's parents, therefore, was extremely grave. Even more serious would be such a communal curse on a wrongdoer as, "Cursed be he who dishonors his father or his mother" (Deut. 27:16a).

This is not the place to review the significance of the death penalty for violations of the covenant with God. It will have to suffice to say that the maintenance of a correct relationship with the deity upon whom the total life of the people depended was so crucial that extreme measures were believed to be justified in dealing with those who alienated God. The same severity of punishment appears in dealing with violations of the authority of parents over children. Thus the penalty prescribed in the laws just mentioned here is evidence of the importance for ancient Israelite society of the authority of the mother and father over the child. It also needs to be noted that there is no discrimination in favor of father and against mother. The mother's authority over the son is as great in the law codes as is that of the father.

By this time, we should have come to expect that a relationship as fundamental as that between mother and son would appear in similes. Such is the case. When the prophet Jeremiah tried to find a way to convey to others the anguish he felt when his proclamation of the word of the Lord was rejected, he said: "Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me" (Jer. 15:10). A psalmist, believing himself to be receiving evil from others in return for the good he had done them, described how he had lamented when they were ill, concluding:

I went about as one who laments his mother,
bowed down and in mourning.
(Ps. 35:14b)

The relationship between mother and son was used most often as a simile in the proclamation of judgment. The Second Isaiah likened Jerusalem to a bereaved mother (Isa. 51:18; see also v.20; Jer. 15:5-9):

There is none to guide her
among all the sons she has borne;
there is none to take her by the hand
among all the sons she has brought up.

The evidence available describing the influence of the mother over her sons, and thus the subservience of the sons to their mother, supports the conclusion that husband and wife shared the position of authority and its responsibilities. In many passages, particularly in laws and proverbs in which the self-conscious will of the society was carefully stated, no distinction is made between husband and wife. In the inadvertent witness so important to the historian, however, matters seem to be different. When the place of the queen mother is examined, it becomes clear that she occupied a unique and elevated position. Her husband, the king, had died, and a new king, her son, reigns. The son thus becomes the titular head of the family. But she to whom the king pays homage must have wielded great power and received widespread respect. The evidence supports this conclusion.

Royal families are distinctive and do not necessarily reflect the norm for the society as a whole. The royal family in ancient Israel seems to have remained polygamous even when the majority of the population was turning increasingly to monogamy, and the tie between mother and son in a polygamous family might have been closer than the mother-son bond in a monogamous marriage. For the latter, we have primarily the legal and proverbial statements which place husband and wife on an equal footing.

It is best in the end to conclude, therefore, that children were expected to be subservient to both mother and father. The wife was not inferior to the husband. In a polygamous marriage, she may have exercised more authority and have had more influence than did the father.


The mistress exercised a good deal of authority over slaves. We are told several times that wives of the patriarchs made their personal female slaves their husbands' concubines. Sarai and Rachel did it when they were barren, and the child born to the slave could be counted to be the son of the mistress.

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I shall die!" Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" Then she said, "Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her." So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, "God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son"; therefore she called his name Dan [i.e., "He judged"]. (Gen. 30:1-6; on Sarai, see Gen. 16:1f.)

Since the number of children born to a woman increased her standing, a mother who had ceased bearing could assign her female slave to her husband and claim the issue as her own (Gen. 30:9-13).

Should the once-barren wife have a child after assigning her slave to her husband, a further demonstration of the wife's power over the slave became possible. We are told that Hagar, Sarai's slave, "looked with contempt" on her mistress when the slave conceived. Sarai responded in a way that seems to be an instance of personal pique:

And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my maid to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!" But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her as you please." Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her. (Gen. 16:5f.)

Had we only the Old Testament as a resource, we might surmise that the wrong alleged by Sarai was that her slave was expressing contempt for her barren mistress by claiming the child as her own. The Code of Hammurabi, however, contains a provision dealing with this situation:

If a man has married a priestess and she has given a slave-girl to her husband and she bears sons, [if] thereafter that slave-girl goes about making herself equal to her mistress, because she has borne sons, her mistress shall not sell her; she may put the mark [of a slave] on her and may count her with the slave-girls. If she has not borne sons, her mistress may sell her.(44)

Here, a slave girl remains the property of her mistress even when she has been assigned to her owner's husband as a concubine. A significant degree of relationship is believed by scholars to have existed among various ancient Semitic legal traditions. (45) As a result, it is entirely possible that an action reported in the Old Testament may reflect a legal situation reported in the Code of Hammurabi. Such seems to be the case here. (46)

If we are correct in thinking that the law quoted from the Code of Hammurabi reports the legal background for the story of Sarai and Hagar, matters become much clearer. Hagar had acted as if her pregnancy had made her a freewoman. Sarai asked Abram to confirm Hagar's legal standing. Abram responded in terms of the ancient Near Eastern legal tradition preserved for us now in the Code of Hammurabi. Hagar, even though a concubine and pregnant, remained Sarai's slave. She thus remained subject to Sarai's authority.

We can conclude this section with a psalm in which the dependence of the righteous upon God is likened to the dependence of servant upon master and maidservant upon mistress:

Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he have mercy upon us.
(Ps. 123:2)


The most unexpected chapter in the story of the relationships of husbands and wives in ancient Israel is the one that describes the wives as superior to their husbands.47 In a few cases, wives appear to have been the social superiors of their husbands. The Egyptian Pharaoh is reported as having given his daughters in marriage to cement alliances to Solomon (I Kings 3:1) and Hadad of Damascus (I Kings ll:19f.). Solomon married two of his daughters to officials placed in charge of two of the administrative districts into which the kingdom had been divided (I Kings 4:11,15). As princesses, these wives may have outranked their husbands. Ben Hadad's Egyptian wife bore him one son, who was reared in the court of the Pharaoh (I Kings 11:20), but we are given no information about the other marriages.

If there were parity between husband and wife, we should find instances in which the wife prevailed over the husband. Examples of this are rare in the Old Testament, and this seems to be significant until we remember that examples of the domination of a wife by her husband also are rare.

When Sarah became a mother and saw her son playing with the child of Hagar, Sarah's bondwoman, "she said to Abraham, 'Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac'" (Gen. 21:10). Even though Abraham did not want to comply, he did so. The Biblical narrative reports that God persuaded him to assent. The Babylonian law quoted earlier here, however, suggests that Sarah demanded and got her legal rights.

A more striking example is the story of Abigail and Nabal in I Sam. 25:2-38. Nabal was a wealthy Carmelite of whom David asked a gift because his band had done Nabal no harm. Nabal refused, and David decided to give Nabal a demonstration of what he had been spared. Abigail, Nabal's wife, heard about the matter and gathered two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five measures of dried grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs and sent them ahead by her own servants while she followed. When she and David met, she made peace with David. The raid was canceled. When Abigail returned home, she found her husband feasting and drunken. "And in the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone. And about ten days later the LORD smote Nabal; and he died." (I Sam. 25:37f.)

Jezebel is the wife whose domination of her husband receives the greatest attention in the Old Testament. She is reported to have slaughtered the prophets of her husband's god (I Kings 18:13) and to have maintained a staff of 850 professional servants of her god at court (v. 19). She is at her most vivid in the story of Naboth's vineyard. King Ahab wanted Naboth's vineyard for the palace vegetable garden, but Naboth refused to sell his family's inheritance. Thereupon Ahab "lay down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food."

But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said to him, "Why is your spirit so vexed that you eat no food?" And he said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite, and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it please you, I will give you another vineyard for it'; and he answered, 'I will not give you my vineyard.' " And Jezebel his wife said to him, "Do you now govern Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite!" (I Kings 21:5-7)

What is a wife to do when her husband won't play his part? Jezebel trumped up charges of blasphemy and treason against Naboth and had them pressed by false witnesses. When Naboth had been dealt with according to the deserts she had decreed for him, she advised her husband to seize the property, and he complied (I Kings 21:8-16).

There also are a few reports in the Old Testament of a wife giving her husband advice. The most detailed is the least historical, the angelic visitation to the wife of Manoah which announced to her that she would bear a son who was to be dedicated to the Lord. When the sequence of extraordinary events culminated with the angel ascending to heaven in the flame of the sacrifice offered up by the nervous couple,

Manoah said to his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God." But his wife said to him, "If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a cereal offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these." (Judg. 13:22f.)

Did the conversation between husband and wife lend an air of reality to the legend because the conversation reflected a well-known marital relationship?

Two other fictional narratives also report the wife advising her husband. The first appears in the prose prologue and epilogue for the poem which makes up the bulk of The Book of Job. This has often been held by scholars originally to have existed independently from the poem because the style and content of the two differ so much. The prose narrative tells of the testing of a righteous man by Satan, an angel, to determine whether or not he will remain righteous under undeserved tribulation. Job first lost property, sons and daughters, then his health. In the midst of this calamity, his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die." But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9f.)

Three features of this story merit notice. The wife does not hesitate to advise her husband on one of the major problems of the Old Testament: are the righteous rewarded by God? Nor does her advice conform to the pious stereotype of a wife. And Job's reply avoids another stereotype, the picture of all women as foolish. The image conveyed is of a wife able and willing to advise her husband, and of a husband who respected his wife's advice and thus protested when she spoke foolishly.

In The Book of Esther, Zeresh, the wife of Haman, is described as advising her husband twice. It was she and his friends who suggested that Haman, infuriated because Mordecai refused to pay him the homage due him by royal edict, should build a gallows and advise the king to execute Mordecai on it (Esth. 5:13f.). When Haman received his first hint that he had been outmanoeuvred by Esther, he went home.

And Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had befallen him. Then his wise men and his wife Zeresh said to him, "If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him but will surely fall before him." (Esth. 6:13)

Here, Zeresh is reported as acting in concert with the wise men who advised the man who advised the king.

All three of these narratives picturing a wife as advising her husband are fiction. The dates assigned them range from early to late. Thus the motif of the wise wife was a stable one in ancient Israelite culture. Furthermore, the theme plays different roles in these examples. In the first, the sagacity of the wife is the means by which the authenticity of the blessing given in the theophany is established. In the second, the recommendation of Job's wife is the statement of the commonsense response to Job's sufferings over against which he is enabled to affirm his faithfulness to God. In the third, the wise wife and friends play the role of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, underscoring or accentuating the thrust of the story. It therefore seems likely that the motif of the wise wife reflected a commonplace reality in ancient Israelite culture.

Finally, we have a series of examples of wives manipulating their husbands. This way of influencing a husband has been magnified wholly out of proportion. Johannes Pedersen's comment about it is typical of many:

The will of the husband is the will of the house; the woman must often act by underhand means and use cunning in order to have her way. A typical example of this kind of woman's cunning is when Rebekah makes the blind father give Jacob his blessing.(48)

If Rebekah's deception of her husband is an example of "woman's cunning," then some of the men whose cunning is described in the Old Testament suffered from a sexual identity crisis! The list of such "feminine" males would include Abraham tricking the Pharaoh into believing Sarah to be Abraham's sister (Gen. 12:10-20 and the parallel narratives in chs. 20; 26:1-11), Jacob tricking Laban, his father-in-law, in order to build up his own flocks (Gen. 30:25-43), Saul's attempts to kill David (I Sam. 18:17-27), David's plot leading to the death of Uriah after less lethal tricks had failed (II Sam. 11:6-25), and the ruse used by Joab, the commander of David's army, to secure the return of Absalom to Jerusalem after that prince had ordered the killing of his brother (II Sam.14:1-21). This list is incomplete, but it should be enough evidence to refute the contention that cunning was a female trait in ancient Israel. The evidence already presented here describing situations in which wives exerted influence or domination over their husbands by other means is also proof that cunning was not the only avenue (or even the chief one) open to the wife to influence her husband.

There are at least six examples in the Old Testament of women using cunning to gain their ends: Rebekah's deception of lsaac (Gen. 27:5 to 28:5), the Israelite mid-wives' evasion of the Pharaoh's commands (Ex. 1:15-19), Samson's defeat at the hands of his wife (Judg. 14:15-18) and his mistress (ch. 16:4-21), Bathsheba's manipulation of the senile David (I Kings 1:11-31), and Esther's campaign to remove Haman from her royal husband's favor (Esth. 5:1 to 7:10). Each of these is a lively tale, and only the fact that all illustrate the same point justifies selective reporting. Fortunately, nearly all of them are discussed in a different context elsewhere here, and we can report one only as representative of all of the group.

The Book of Esther opens when Ahasuerus, king of Persia, demotes Vashti, his queen, because she disobeyed him. After an extensive search, Esther, a Jewish maiden, becomes Vashti's successor; and Mordecai, her guardian, takes up his position near the gate of the palace in order to be able to advise his ward. In the meantime, Haman has been elevated to a position in the court second only to the king and uses his position to exact the homage he judges to be suitable to his new position. Mordecai, the Jew, refuses to grant it, and Haman's pique against Mordecai becomes a monstrous plot to exterminate all of Mordecai's race. The king trusts Haman's guidance and grants him the authority to carry out his plan. Royal couriers carry the necessary edicts throughout the empire.

When Mordecai learns of the plan, he advises Esther to act. She secures an audience with Ahasuerus and asks that she be permitted to have the king and Haman as dinner guests. Her petition is granted, and Haman jubilantly announces his most recent honor to his wife and friends. His triumph is marred only by the continued refusal of Mordecai to pay homage to him. He is advised to build a gallows and persuade the king to hang Mordecai on it. That same night, the king, unable to sleep, reviews the royal chronicles and reads there of Mor-decai's help earlier in thwarting a plot against the throne. When Haman arrives to take up the day's duties, the king asks his advice on how to reward "the man whom the king delights to honor." Haman thinks himself to be that man and describes fulsomely what should be done. He is ordered to carry it out with Mordecai as its recipient. He returns home to seek consolation from his wife and friends just as the summons to Esther's dinner arrives.

The dinner swiftly becomes a catastrophe for Haman. The king is so pleased with the dinner that he asks Esther what further petition he may grant her. She asks that the sentence of death against her and her people be revoked, identifying Haman as the author of the plot:

Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen. And the king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden; but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that evil was determined against him by the king. And the king returned from the palace garden to the place where they were drinking wine, as Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was; and the king said, "Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?" As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman's face. (Esth. 7:6b-8)

Haman is executed on the gallows he had caused to be raised for Mordecai; a new royal edict authorizes the Jews to avenge themselves on those who had sought their death; and Esther and Mordecai institute the Feast of Purim to honor the deliverance of their people. The wilier Esther had triumphed over the wily Haman.


In this chapter we have reviewed the evidence which indicates that the ancient Israelite woman wielded power in the home at least equal to that exercised by the husband. Oddly enough, it is necessary to introduce a com-monsense corrective in our summary of our findings in order to support the conclusion just stated. The position of the queen mother (and presumably its equivalent in a nonroyal family) was unique. A queen became queen mother only after her husband had died. Then the authority over children which husband and wife had once shared passed entirely to the mother.

In general, the picture that has emerged is strikingly modern. Husband and wife seem to have lived together in an essential parity within which differentiation of function based on sexual identity was present. The parity, however, was not so rigid that it made impossible the domination of the marriage by a stronger will or the deference of one to the other in areas of admitted superiority. The wise wife was far from unknown, just as a husband noted for his wisdom was also not unknown.

Marriage did not condemn the woman to a life of servitude. She did not lose control of slaves given her by her family, even when she assigned a slave to her husband as a concubine. She did not surrender the right to engage in business on her own (see Prov. 31:10-27), or to dispose of family goods. There is no evidence that she was sequestered, and the clear implication of several of the laws bearing on her conduct is that she moved freely throughout the community. She shared fully with her husband the responsibility over the children, exercising it alone when she became a widow; she played an active public role when queen mother; she had significant oversight of servants in the household; and she participated freely and as an equal in decisions involving the life of her husband or her family.

The naming of children has been taken by anthropologists to be one index of the division of authority within the family between husband and wife, with the right to name the child an exercise of authority. The act of naming a child is mentioned forty-seven times in the Old Testament. The mother named the child in twenty-four instances (Gen. 4:25, 19:37, 38; 29:32, 33, 34, 35; 30:6, 8, 11, 13, 18, 20, 21, 24; 35:18a; 38:4, 5; Judg. 13:24; I Sam. 1:20; 4:21; I Chron. 4:9; 7:16; Isa. 7:14), and the women of the village once (Ruth 4:17). Men named children sixteen times (Gen. 4:26; 5:3, 29; 16:15; 21:3; 35:18b; 41:51, 52; Ex. 2:22; II Sam. 12:24; I Chron. 7:23; Job 42:14 [3 daughters]; Gen. 25:25 [masc. pl.]). In four instances, prophets named their children as acted signs conveying the word of the Lord (Isa. 8:3; Hos. 1:4, 6, 9), raising the total in which men named a child to twenty. Once an angel instructed a woman to name a child (Gen. 16:11), and once God directed a man (Gen. 17:19). If the last two instances be eliminated, women name children twenty-five times and men twenty, (49) a ratio which reflects the description of the relationship of husband and wife being presented here far better than it does the traditional patriarchal picture of the Hebrew family.


40. References in the Old Testament to Hittites are an example of this. The existence of the Hittites was questioned by historians because of the silence of other ancient sources. Now we know enough about them to quote from their laws because archaeologists have recovered extensive remains from their culture.

41. Batto, op. cit., pp. 8-21, describes the great power exercised by Shibtu, the wife of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari and a contemporary of Hammurabi. I know of no equivalent description of the power of the queen mother in the ancient Near East, although it may well exist.

42. The fragmentary condition of a Hittite law dealing with the relationship between mother and son gives an intriguing but ambiguous impression: "If a mother casts out the garments of her son, she expells her son; if her son comes back and takes his door and throws it out [side] he takes his ... and his ... and casts them out, then she may take them back, and her son shall become her son once more." ("If a Vine," sec. 171 in Neufeld, op. cit., p. 47.) The precise meaning of this passage is best left to the imagination. It is to be hoped that each Hittite house was surrounded by ample open space! The Old Testament makes no provision for disowning a child.

43. For a brief discussion of the problems, see McKane, Proverbs, p. 408.

44. Code of Hammurabi, secs. 146, 147. G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, Edited with Translation and Commentary, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952, 1955), Vol. II, p. 57.

45. De Vaux, op. cit., pp. 144-46; Eissfeldt, op. at, pp. 27-29.

46. This explanation is offered by Von Rad, Genesis, p. 187, and E. A. Speiser, Genesis, Translated with an Introduction and Notes, The Anchor Bible (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), p. 117.

47. Passages reporting the domination of husband by wife have been dismissed by some scholars. Ecclesias-ticus (Sirach) 25:16-18 is such a passage:

I would rather dwell with a lion and a dragon
than dwell with an evil wife.
The wickedness of a wife changes her appearance,
and darkens her face like that of a bear.
Her husband takes his meals among the neighbors,
and he cannot help sighing bitterly.

George Beer wrote that these lines suggest that the husband often was "de facto the slave of a lawless wife" (op. cit., p. 24). Ecclesiasticus is one of the writings in the Roman Catholic canon assigned to the Apocrypha by Protestants.

48. Pedersen, Israel I-II, p. 69.

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