Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Freedom of Action from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

Freedom of Action

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp. 123-151.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977


Since the family was the basic unit of ancient Israelite society, it is not surprising that much of the Old Testament material which we can use to reconstruct the status of woman describes her role and standing in the family. A study of the position of the male also would have to begin with his place in the family. Larger social structures — village, tribe, and nation — did exist, however, and we need now to review evidence indicating how women functioned in these areas. We will examine the woman's freedom of movement, her involvement in public affairs, her role in the economy, and her participation in the cult. This chapter will deal with the first three of these. The next chapter will examine woman's role in the cult.


The most elementary criterion for determining participation in society outside the home is freedom of movement. Wives confined to the home are automatically exeluded from much of the life of the community.

When we seek to describe this facet of the life of an ancient Israelite woman, we are influenced far too much by Arab seclusion of women.60 We find our preconceptions confirmed by the picture we seem to be given of Sarah eavesdropping on the conversation of Abraham with his guests from her seclusion in her tent (Gen. 18:9). If, however, we let the Scriptures speak for themselves, a quite different picture emerges.

A series of passages which are to be dated over a period of several centuries picture girls and women as moving quite freely outside the home. The Yahwist source in the Pentateuch twice reports unmarried daughters as coming alone to a well to draw water for their father's flocks. Both stories give the setting in which a future wife is met. One relates:

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. The shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. When they came to their father Reuel, he said, "How is it that you have come so soon today?" They said, "An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and even drew water for us and watered the flock." He said to his daughters, "And where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread." (Ex. 2:16b-20; see also Gen. 29:4-14)

Watering the father's flock seems to have been the girls' responsibility. They also seem regularly to have been driven away from the watering troughs by shepherds tending other flocks. Thus these unmarried girls carried a family responsibility outside the home which exposed them to the superior force of a group of shepherds. Both here and in Gen. 29:4-14 the girl is apparently expected to invite a helpful stranger into the home.

The report of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the court of Solomon (I Kings 10:1-13 = II Chron. 9:1-12) cannot be used as a portrayal of Israelite custom during the monarchy. She was not an Israelite. However, the laws in Deuteronomy dealing with rape also come from the period of the monarchy, even though they are later than the time of Solomon. Deuteronomy 22:25 prescribes, "But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die." This passage presupposes the freedom of a young woman to move about alone in the open country. This law is known as "case law." It arose out of a specific case and was preserved because the situation it described happened often enough to make the recording of a decision about it useful.

The "Isaianic Apocalypse" in Isa., chs. 24 to 27, often is dated by scholars between 550 and 450 B.C., and it thus comes from the age after the time of the monarchy. It provides still another witness to the freedom of ancient Israelite women to move about outside the village by describing them as gathering firewood in the wilderness (ch. 27:11).

The passages cited represent a span of time from at least the ninth to fifth centuries B.C., and they contain a variety of kinds of literature. The two from the Yahwist stratum are from sagas and reflect either folk custom at the time they were composed or the popular view then of life in former times. The law from Deuteronomy is case law, emerging out of a concrete instance and preserved because the situation arose often. An oracle of woe from a post-exilic apocalypse also was cited. In the light of the long span of time covered and the variety of literary types represented, we are justified in concluding that women in ancient Israel were free to move about outside the home, not only within the village but also in the open country. The freedom to move in the community at large creates the possibility of access to activities outside the home.


Women are reported as discharging various activities in ancient Israel which we associate only with the male: leading the community in peace and war, usurping the throne, building a city, and engaging in combat.

Three narratives report women as leading their community in peace and war. The oldest is Judg., ch. 5, an ancient epic poem telling of an Israelite victory over the Canaanites. Deborah and Barak were the Israelite leaders. Deborah's role is described twice in the poem:

The peasantry ceased in Israel, they ceased
until you arose, Deborah,
arose as a mother in Israel.
(V. 7)

Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, lead away your captives,
O son of Abinoam.
(V. 12)

A third allusion to Deborah appears in the roster of the tribes:

The princes of Issachar came with Deborah,
and Issachar faithful to Barak;
into the valley they rushed forth at his heels.
(V. 15a)

Deborah is pictured in these lines as having aroused the Israelite tribesmen and having sustained their fighting zeal. Barak appears to have been the military leader. The relationship between Deborah and Barak is reported in greater detail in the later prose version of the same campaign (Judg., ch. 4, esp. vs. 6 to 8).

A woman provided crucial leadership in the suppression of Sheba's revolt against David:

And Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Bichrites assembled, and followed him in. And all the men who were with Joab came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah; they cast up a mound against the city, and it stood against the rampart; and they were battering the wall, to throw it down. Then a wise woman called from the city, "Hear! Hear! Tell Joab, 'Come here, that I may speak to you.' " And he came near her; and the woman said, "Are you Joab?" He answered, "I am." Then she said to him, "Listen to the words of your maidservant." And he answered, "I am listening." Then she said, "They were wont to say in old time. 'Let them but ask counsel at Abel'; and so they settled a matter. I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city which is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the LORD?" Joab answered, "Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy! That is not true. But a man of the hill country of Ephraim, called Sheba the son of Bichri, has lifted up his hand against King David; give up him alone, and I will withdraw from the city." And the woman said to Joab, "Behold, his head shall be thrown to you over the wall." Then the woman went to all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, every man to his home. And Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king. (II Sam. 20:14-22)

Several details in this passage are interesting. The first is the ability of the woman living in a besieged city to summon the commander of the besieging army for a parley. This hardly conveys the impression that she was held to be an inferior either by Joab or by the narrator of the story. The second is her readiness to commit her city to a dangerous course of action. Her promise to have Sheba beheaded could not be kept unless the Bichrites, members of his clan and his supporters, were first disarmed. She is described as having gone "to all the people in her wisdom." We are given the impression of a woman gaining assent to her proposal because of widespread response to her sagacity. It hardly needs to be added that she could not have done what she did had she been confined to her home.

Lemuel, king of Massa, was taught proverbial wisdom by his mother (Prov. 31:1). The book of The Proverbs elsewhere links father and mother in the instruction of a child (e.g., l:8f.; 6:20). The picture of the Babylonian queen advising her husband in Dan. 5:10-12 conforms in several of its features to the story of the wise woman of Beth-maacah. The Book of Daniel is judged by scholars to be a description of the crisis in 168 B.C. during the Seleucid rule in Jerusalem, even though it is written as a narrative laid in the earlier Babylonian era. It thus would be better to see it as describing a Jewish author's understanding of the role of woman in 168 B.C. than as an accurate description of the place of a Babylonian queen.

Descriptions of the activities of wise women are few in the Old Testament. However, the stories describe "a wise woman," not "the wise woman." The absence of the definite article (the equivalent in Hebrew to our indefinite article) attests to the presence of an undefined number of women whose wisdom was prized. It was simply "a wise woman of Tekoa" (II Sam. 14:2), or of Abel of Beth-maacah, not "the [only] wise woman of Tekoa."

The two narratives in the Old Testament telling of political action by women involve queens. This is not surprising since both incidents occurred during the monarchy. The first is Jezebel's subversion of the judicial process in order to secure a plot of ground for her husband. The second is the usurpation of the throne of David by a queen mother who may have been Jezebel's daughter.

Elijah's contest with the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah in Jezebel's entourage (I Kings 17:1 to 19:18) is reported as a struggle which had political significance. Its culmination was the destruction of Ahab's dynasty (I Kings 19:15-17)! The political character of Jezebel's activities, however, is clearer to our eyes in the story of Naboth's vineyard, a narrative discussed earlier here as an example of the domination of a husband by his wife. When Naboth refused to sell land Ahab wanted for a garden, Ahab sulkily accepted the decision. Jezebel, however, bribed two rascals to charge Naboth falsely with treason and blasphemy. When he had been convicted and executed, she told Ahab to take possession of the land (I Kings 21:1-16).

This incident is reported as an instance of royal oppression arousing divine anger. According to ancient Israelite belief, the land, which belonged to the Lord, had been given to the families which held the usufruct of it. Only the exhaustion of the family line through poverty or death extinguished the usufruct. Thus Naboth's determination to retain possession of his family's inheritance was a solemn religious duty. God also guaranteed justice in the courts, as the many prophetic injunctions on the matter attest (Amos 5:15; Isa. 10:lf.; etc.), and Jezebel's perversion of the judicial system was a violation both of orderly legal process and of the divine sanction given it. She justified her action to Ahab with the query, "Do you now govern Israel?" The clear implication was that he did so only formally, and that she would show him how to make form become reality. Thus another dimension of the narrative is a clash of royal ideologies. Naboth and Ahab were acting within a concept of monarchy in accordance with which the king was as much subject to the laws and to the sovereignty of the Lord as was the commoner. Jezebel acted within an understanding of the nature of the kingship in which the will of the king took precedence over law. She was the daughter of the king of Sidon (I Kings 16:31), the name given to both Tyre and Sidon at this time, and Ezekiel reports that the king of Tyre thought himself to be divine (Ezek. 28:1-10). Jezebel probably believed that the king was divine and that his will was the will of a god. Thus an incident that appears in the Old Testament as an act of royal oppression was also a political intervention. Jezebel acted on Ahab's behalf as she believed a king should act. It was a partial usurpation of the throne dictated by an understanding of the monarchy alien to Israel.(61)

The second report of a woman engaged in political activity at the highest level is the account of Athaliah's seizure of the throne in Jerusalem in II Kings 11:1-3. This has already been discussed in our review of the status of the queen mother. The conclusions reached there need only be repeated here. Athaliah, a daughter of Ahab, king of Israel, and wife of Jehoram, king of Judah, was the mother of Ahaziah, king of Judah. When Ahaziah, who was visiting Joram, king of Israel, at the time, was killed during a revolt against Joram (II Kings 9:22-28), Athaliah seized the throne in Jerusalem and tried to kill all Davidic claimants to it. She carried out her coup at the same time that Jehu was wiping out Athaliah's own family in the course of his revolution in the Northern Kingdom. Thus it is difficult to picture Athaliah as a figurehead for a revolt in Jerusalem inspired by the new ruler of the Northern Kingdom.

All things considered, it remains simplest and most probable to acknowledge that Athaliah acted primarily on her own, and that she was able to command sufficient power to remain on the throne for six years. The Chronicler, writing long after the event and using the report in II Kings 9:22-28 as his source, explained the incident:"And the house of Ahaziah had no one able to rule the kingdom" (II Chron. 22:9b). As has been pointed out here earlier, the magnitude of Athaliah's achievement is to be measured by the fact that she was the only one in four centuries to succeed in the attempt to usurp the throne of David. Furthermore, Athaliah was the only woman to occupy the throne either in Jerusalem or Samaria (the capital of the Northern Kingdom).

A verse in one of the oracles of woe in the prophecies of Isaiah seems to imply a widespread belief that rule by a woman was equivalent to social decay:

My people — children are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your leaders mislead you,
and confuse the course of your paths.
(Isa. 3:12)

This verse cannot have been an allusion to the reign of Athaliah. Isaiah's ministry fell between 740 and 700 B.C. Athaliah ruled from 842 to 837 B.C., and Isaiah is unlikely to have described her reign as going on as he spoke. A close reading of the oracle suggests that Isaiah was predicting chaos when a child still governed by its mother occupied the throne. It was the immaturity of the child-king that was the affliction. Thus Isa. 3:12 hardly reflects a distrust of the capacity of a woman to rule in her own right.

The strangest chapter in a description of the participation of women in the public affairs of ancient Israel must surely be the one reporting women in military action. Three female warriors are mentioned. One was Deborah (Judg. 4:4-10; 5:1, 12-18), whose role has already been discussed. A second woman took an even more direct part in the conflict after the battle had ended. The commander of the defeated Canaanite army was Sisera. During flight following defeat, he took refuge temporarily with Heber, a Kenite. While he was resting, Jael, Heber's wife,

put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen's mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
where he sank, there he fell dead.
(Judg. 5:26f.; see also ch. 4:17-22

The Book of Judges reports another woman using a different kind of nonmilitary hardwear with lethal results. Abimelech, the son of Gideon (or Jerubbaal) and a concubine, had been elected "king" of Shechem. Three years later, Gaal the son of Ebed persuaded the Shechem-ites to turn away from Abimelech (Judg. 9:1-4, 26-29). Abimelech responded by destroying the city. He then besieged Thebez, which also had participated in the revolt, broached its walls, and drove its defenders back into a heavily fortified tower. During his assault on the tower, "a certain woman threw an upper millstone upon Abime-lech's head, and crushed his skull. Then he called hastily to the young man his armor-bearer, and said to him, 'Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, "A woman killed him." ' And his young man thrust him through, and he died" (Judg. 9:53f.). As has always been the case when professional military skills were being used against civilians, the civilians have had to respond with whatever was at hand. In this instance, military hardwear was no match for domestic hardwear.

Abimelech's fear of being known as a warrior whom a woman had killed proved to be justified. The incident was recalled centuries later by Joab, David's commanderin chief (II Sam. 11:20f.). It is impossible now to determine whether the offense in Abimelech's death was that the act was done by a woman or by a civilian who happened to be a woman. Joab seems to have viewed it as a case of poor professional judgment. We can view Judg. 9:50-53 and II Sam. ll:20f. in a somewhat broader perspective. We may conclude from these passages that women participated in communal defense when such defense was a common responsibility.

The last reports of the involvement of women in public affairs are enigmatic. Nehemiah 3:12 describes the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by various families under the direction of Nehemiah. One of those named is Shallum, whose daughters worked alongside him. The second is a genealogical notation:

And Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he called his name Beriah, because evil had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. (I Chron. 7:23f.)

One daughter built three villages (or cities). Other daughters helped their father rebuild a part of the wall of Jerusalem. Both notations are preserved without comment. We do not know whether the actions attributed to these women were exceptional or unexceptional.

One thing is clear. Even though men obviously dominated the public sphere in ancient Israel, that realm was not closed to women. It has been said that "instances such as these prove nothing more than that strong personalities will assert themselves, wherever they are to be found, regardless of the existing order."62 Were this the correct assessment of the evidence, we should find the "existing order" expressing itself in a fairly consistent condemnation of the yeasty females who had violated it. Such condemnation is absent (with the possible exception of Judg. 9:54). Therefore it would seem better to conclude that participation in public life was open to women. The relative scarcity of reports of their availing themselves of the possibility would better be attributed to their preoccupation with their more primary role in the family and its heavy demands upon them.


Ancient Israel was not an industrial nation, and there seems to have been little separation between life in the family and participation in the economy. Nonetheless, the kinds of relationships that would be characteristic of family life and of economic life would have differed enough for it to have been possible for a woman to participate in the one without sharing in the other. Everyone shares in economic life simply as a consumer. Every woman ate food, wore clothing, used household utensils, and, often, added adornment of one kind or another to her basic wardrobe (see Isa. 3:18-23!). But did women hold property, sell goods, and buy land? If they are reported as doing these things, then they were economic persons in their own right.

The information available to us is obscured by the reality of corporate identity, exemplified by the primacy of the family, in ancient Israelite thought. An adult male normally was identified as the epitome of the family's identity, just as the king was the epitome of the nation's identity; and the family property at times is described as having belonged to that male. There are enough instances in which a woman had become the epitome of a family unit and had property rights focused on her, however, to justify two conclusions. The first is that property belonged to a family rather than to an individual. The second is that both men and women could be the epitome of a family and thus could appear to be "owning" property. Since all the evidence available reports the same situation, it will be reviewed here in the order of its appearance in the canon. The span of time covered by the materials is hard to establish because of the problem of dating some of the passages themselves, but it appears to be great.

The first example of women holding property rights is the inheritance of Zelophehad. He is described as "the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph" (Num. 27:1). He had died during the wilderness wanderings, leaving five daughters and no sons. The daughters petitioned Moses to be given their father's share of land in Canaan since his name, or his line of descent, would die out for lack of an inheritance:

Moses brought their case before the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, "The daughters of Zelophehad are right; you shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them. And you shall say to the people of Israel, 'If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter.' " (Num. 27:5-8)

The heads of the other families of the tribe of Manasseh reopened the decision later, observing, "But if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; so it will be taken away from the lot of our inheritance" (Num. 36:3). Thereupon Moses received a second word from the Lord: "Let them marry whom they think best; only, they shall marry within the family of the tribe of their father. The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another; for every one of the people of Israel shall cleave to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers" (vs. 6f.). Joshua 17:3-6 then reports the assigning of an inheritance to the daughters of Zelophehad.

Numbers, chs. 27 and 36, are post-exilic (i.e., come from 500 B.C. or later) in their present form. Thus the laws described here represent a matured legal tradition. The situation is clear. Land belonged to a family and to the tribe of which the family was a part. When a male could not act as the epitome of the family holding the property, a female acted. In neither case did the land belong to the individual acting as the epitome. The land always belonged to the group of which the individual was the representative. As was said earlier, there was a differentiation of function between the sexes within the family. The female, of biological necessity, bore the primary responsibility for the physical survival of the family through bearing children. The male, having a less demanding biological role, carried the responsibility of being the epitome of the family. When a male was lacking, however, a female took over that role also.

Other examples of women holding property include Rahab, the resident of Jericho who sheltered Joshua's spies (Josh. 2:1-15), the mother of Micah, an Ephraimite plundered by migrating Danites (Judg. 17:1ff.), Naomi (Ruth 4:1-6), and Job's daughters (Job 42:13-15). Rahab owned a house, Micah's mother "eleven hundred pieces of silver," Naomi a plot of land, and Job's daughters a share of their brother's inheritance. In each of these cases, there was an adult male in the family.

The material we have surveyed seems to point toward two related conclusions. The ownership of land appears to have been vested in the family, and its continued possession was essential to the survival of the family. The individual responsible for the family's property in a given generation was the family's epitome. Normally this was an adult male. Lacking an adult male, the epitome could be a female. Personal property, which seems to have included a house, household goods, precious metals, and probably clothing, could belong to an individual (female or male). This kind of property could be inherited by a daughter as well as by a son.

Did women engage in production and trade? At least two passages in the Old Testament indicate that they could, even though we might at first sight find it difficult to see what is being reported in the first as economic activity.

The first is the instruction from the Lord given Israelite women immediately before the flight from Egypt:

And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her who sojourns in her house, jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; thus you shall despoil the Egyptians. (Ex. 3:21f.)

Exodus 11:2 repeats the instruction, addressing it both to men and to women. Seeking booty is not an economic activity normally found in textbooks on economics, but it continues to be one of the ways in which property is transferred from one owner to another!

Proverbs 31:10-31 gives us the most complete example of economic activity reported in the Old Testament:

A good wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from afar.
She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her maidens.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds her loins with strength
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
when he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she delivers girdles to the merchant.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all."
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.

This passage is a description of a wife given from the husband's point of view. It is stated several times that she lives within the family. Nonetheless, she acts on her own initiative in the economic world. She finds her wool and flax, she examines a field and buys it with money she has earned, "she perceives that her merchandise is profitable," and spins and weaves, selling the linen garments she makes. On one point, however, the passage is unclear. Does she keep the money she earns? Her husband is said to "have no lack of gain," but The New English Bible translates the phrase as "and children are not lacking." This much is clear: she does "provide food for her household," and its members are well dressed because of her labors.


Some evidence exists indicating that women had contacts with the royal court other than those available to them as daughters and wives. The evidence is scanty, but the activity attributed to them is an important witness to the degree to which they participated freely in society.

The first passage is one which reports that the doorkeeper of the "palace" of Ishbosheth, Saul's son and successor on the throne of the northern tribes, was a woman. The notation is one of the details included in the description of the assassination of Ishbosheth:

Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baa-nah, set out, and about the heat of the day they came to the house of Ishbosheth, as he was taking his noonday rest. And behold, the doorkeeper of the house had been cleaning wheat, but she grew drowsy and slept; so Rechab and Baa-nah his brother slipped in. (II Sam. 4:5f.)

And beheaded the king.

It is a bucolic scene. The royal palace was simply a house. There was a concierge at the door who also had domestic duties. The pressure of affairs of state was so great that the king met them prone. When the guardian of the doorway followed her master's example, the regicides slipped in. One of the pleasures of a vivid imagination is pondering what would have happened had she remained awake. A battle royal?

Four narratives describe women appealing directly to the king, either for help or for justice. One of them, which has been discussed in another connection here, reports the use of a wise woman from Tekoa to persuade David to clarify the status of Absalom by presenting David with a fictitious appeal for justice (II Sam. 14:1-24). A second is the famous report of the prostitute appealing to Solomon when her roommate had stolen her infant and had left her own dead child in its place (I Kings 3:16-28). A third is a grim narrative mentioned earlier in the discussion of the love of Israelite mothers for their children. During a siege of Samaria, famine became so severe that two mothers agreed to eat their children. After the first child had been killed, cooked, and eaten, the mother of the second child concealed her son. The woman whose son had been eaten then appealed to the king for justice (II Kings 6:24-31).

Still another description of a woman appealing to the king for help has been preserved in the Elisha stories. A widow whose son the prophet had revived had moved to Philistia during a famine in Israel at the suggestion of Elisha. Seven years later, when the famine had left Israel, she returned:

And at the end of the seven years, when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went forth to appeal to the king for her house and her land. Now the king was talking with Gehazi the servant of the man of God saying, "Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done." And while he was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life appealed to the king for her house and her land. And Gehazi said, "My lord, O king, here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life." And when the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed an official for her, saying, "Restore all that was hers, together with all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now." (II Kings 8:3-6)

We cannot be certain how reliable the picture of the legal rights of the woman reported here is because the power of Elisha seems to be the primary interest of the narrator. But if we take the story as told to represent the legal realities, we have further confirmation that a woman could own land, a house, and the yield of the land. We also again have reported for us an instance of a woman exercising the right to appeal to the king for justice or help.


The evidence surveyed in this chapter is slight in comparison with that available for a reconstruction of the status of the ancient Israelite woman in the home. Nonetheless, we have seen that there are passages which do describe women acting in society outside the home. The relative proportion of the two categories of data indicates that the family was the primary frame of reference for the woman, as it was also for the man. Outside the family, however, we found women being described as moving about freely, as exercising a role of leadership in the village and in the court, as holding personal property, as representing the family in its claim to the title to land, as engaging in economic activities, and as appealing to the king for justice.

At no point in the Old Testament are we given explicit answers to our questions about the role and status of woman. We have to deduce this from the evidence preserved for us for reasons having nothing to do with our questions. From that evidence, however, it now seems proper to conclude that the assessment proposed earlier here continues to stand. Women had a primary role in ancient Israelite society of the utmost importance. This role was the bearing and raising of children. It was a role essential for the survival of the people. By its nature, it was carried on within the family. There, the husband and wife were differentiated biologically but appear to have been granted equality within the differentiation.

Outside the home, women seem to have had access to nearly every activity we normally associate with men. We will find the single exception to this in the next chapter. The fact that fewer women than men ruled is most easily explained by the more dangerous and demanding role of woman within the family than by any hypothesis of the repression of woman in ancient Israel. Such a hypothesis makes the evidence of their participation in government and in the economy virtually inexplicable.


60. And by such later Jewish practices as those described by Louis M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1948, 1967), pp. 68-75.

61. In evaluating the role of Jezebel, John Gray, I & II Kings, A Commentary, 2d, fully rev., ed., The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 435, reports: "Fohrer assumes that the centrality of Jezebel does not quite correspond to historical fact, but rather reflects the intense hatred of prophetic circles which transmitted the tradition. For her to contrive the judicial murder of Naboth within the letter of Hebrew law, she would have been, Fohrer declares, 'a world's wonder of learning and resource.' " But one of the points of the story is that she subverted the law.

62. Mace, op. cit., p. 87.

Contents of “And Sarah Laughed” Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.