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

Women in the Cult

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp. 151-178.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977

A segment of the scholarly community has long held that women were virtually excluded from the worship of the God of Israel. It is alleged that their deities were the gods and goddesses of fertility. Georg Beer wrote:

Only a few religious leaders appear among the names of women in the Old Testament. This is due to the deliberate exclusion of women from the public cult. The religion of Israel, and also of Judaism, was in general a man's religion. For this reason, the oldest laws of worship (Ex. 23:17; 34:23; Deut. 16:16) explicitly address themselves only to the men and demand of them at least three appearances at the shrine yearly at festivals corresponding to our three major festivals, Easter, Pentecost, and Harvest Festival.(63)

Since ancient Israel had a theocentric culture, participation in the public cult is a crucial index of status. The Old Testament reports the official cult as the veneration of the Lord and describes the worship of all other gods as apostasy. The status of woman in the Old Testament will be heavily dependent on her participation in the worship of the Lord. If Beer's statement be correct, the provisional conclusions defended thus far will have to be altered significantly.

The importance of the issue of women's participation in worship has long been recognized, and it has been reviewed carefully in Ismar J. Peritz' "Women in the Ancient Hebrew Cult," and in Clarence J. Vos's Woman in Old Testament Worship. This presentation will examine the evidence under four major categories: women as members of the sacred congregation, women as officials in the cult, the participation of women in cultic events, and the standing of women before the Lord.


The presence of women when "the people of the LORD" appeared in God's presence is basic to the standing of women in the cult. If they were excluded, it is difficult to see how they could have had anything but second-class standing. If they were present, then the possibility exists that they may have participated in other ways.

As Beer pointed out, Ex. 23:17; 34:23; and Deut. 16:16 stipulate that all males must appear before the Lord three times each year: "Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel" (Ex. 34:23; see also ch. 23:17). Deuteronomy 16:16 adds the names of the festivals: "at the feast of unleavened bread, at the feast of weeks, and at the feast of booths." If these passages alone be considered, we would have reason to believe that women had no place in the sacred congregation.

Other passages, however, attest to the presence of women. Deuteronomy 29:10-13 describes a solemn convocation of all the people of God gathered to make (or to renew) its covenant with the Lord. Wives are explicitly mentioned as being present (v. 11). Deuteronomy 31:12 stipulates that wives are to participate in the Festival of Booths (see vs. 10f.), even though they were not mentioned in Deut. 16:16 (cited earlier here): "Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law."

After the Babylonian exile, a solemn convocation of all the people was held in Jerusalem. "And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month" (Neh. 8:2). It then was read. Presumably, "all who could hear with understanding" meant children old enough to comprehend, although it might refer to those who knew enough Hebrew to understand. The solemnity of the occasion is clear. This is the sacred congregation, the whole of the people of God. It also is clear that women were included.

Two other post-exilic passages also state that women were members of the holy convocation. One passage is an oracle proclaimed by Joel in which the people are summoned into God's presence during a plague of locusts (Joel 2:16). Not only were brides summoned, but also nursing infants. Their presence would have made for an unruly congregation unless their nurses were there also! Finally, a late commentary on the Deutero-nomic history (Judges, Samuel, Kings) reports that Je-hoshaphat and "all the men of Judah" appeared in the temple to appeal for divine help during an attack by Moabites and Ammonites. They were joined by "their little ones, their wives, and their children" (II Chron. 20:13).

The dates of these passages vary. The three laws that mention men only are very old. Exodus 23:17 is from the Covenant Code, the oldest of the law codes. Exodus34:23 is from the ritual decalogue which now is part of the Yahwist source, the oldest narrative strand in the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy 16:16 belongs to the original Deuteronomic law code. However, vs. 10f. of ch. 16, which includes women among the participants in the Feast of Weeks, is of the same date as Deut. 16:16. The other passages cited are from after 586 B.C.


There were no priestesses in ancient Israel. The feminine form of the word for priest does not appear in the Hebrew Old Testament. This, however, is the only cultic office reserved to the male. Since other peoples in the ancient Near East worshiped in cults which used priestesses, their absence in the Yahwism of ancient Israel must have been deliberate. Explanations have been offered for this,(64) but all are conjectural.

Several cultic offices were held by women. One of them, servitor at the door of the Tent of Meeting, is mentioned twice. In the older reference, women servitors were involved in a scandal: "Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (I Sam. 2:22). The later reference to this group appears in the P stratum in the Pentateuch in the midst of the description of the manufacturing of the implements for the tabernacle (Ex. 38:8). Neither passage tells us what this group normally did, and once again scholarly conjecture has ranged over a wide spectrum of possibilities. All are conjectures.

The feminine form of the Hebrew word for prophet (nebi'ah) is applied to five individuals in the Old Testament. One of them is the wife of the prophet Isaiah (Isa.8:3). The other prophetesses are Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah.

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is called a prophetess in a very old passage in which she is described as leading a victory song (Ex. 15:20f.). She is mentioned along with her brothers in Micah 6:3f., a late passage. The longest reference to her as a prophetess reports a family squabble in which she and Aaron base their protest to Moses' Cushite wife on their prophetic authority (Num. 12:1-8). This evoked a divine response which subordinated them to Moses without denying their prophetic standing:

Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? (Vs. 6-8)

The activity of Deborah is reported both in an ancient victory song (Judg., ch.5) and in a later prose version (ch. 4). She is called a prophetess in the prose version (ch. 4:4). It continues:

She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, 'Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.' " (Judg. 4:6f.)

When the Israelites had mustered out, "Deborah said to Barak, 'Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the LORD go out before you?' " (v. 14). In both oracles, Deborah is reported as speaking and acting as the Deuteronomic historians elsewhere picture male prophets as speaking and acting (see I Sam. 15:2f.; I Kings 12:22-24; 22:6, 15-17; II Kings 3:16-20; 13:14-19; 20:13f.). We cannot here enter the discussion of the differences, if there were any, between these prophets and such figures as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. It will have to suffice to say that the Deuteronomic historians felt it proper to identify Deborah as a prophetess, and to describe her as acting in precisely the same way as six male prophets are reported to have functioned.

Huldah is the major prophetess. A law code which contained ominous threats had been found during the remodeling of the Temple. King Josiah ordered its finders to consult a prophet about it:

So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Sha-phan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter); and they talked with her. And she said to them, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read. . . . But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel. . . . Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place.' " (II Kings 22:14-26)

Huldah was married, yet she was known in her own right as the most reliable prophetic figure in Jerusalem, even though Jeremiah had begun to prophesy in 626, five years before this consultation. Her words were preserved, even though her prediction about the way Josiah would die proved to be wrong, and she used the same words to introduce her oracles as did Jeremiah (compare II Kings 22:15f. with Jer. 2:2, 5; 4:3; 6:9; etc.). It is clear that Huldah was a major cult official, and her reputation in her own time probably was greater than Jeremiah's.65 The prophetess Noadiah is mentioned as one of those who opposed Nehemiah's rebuilding Jerusalem after the exile (Neh. 6:14), and an oracle by a post-exilic prophet simply assumes the presence of both female and male prophets:

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
(Joel 2:28)

Miriam and Deborah are also described as cult singers (Ex. 15:20f.; Judg. 5:12). Other examples of this role will be reported later here in another context.

The data mentioning Israelite women as personnel in non-Yahwist cults falls primarily into three categories: cult prostitutes, witches (or necromancers), and mourners for alien gods. The first of these seems to be a part of the basis for the claim that "pure Yahwism" was primarily a man's religion, since cult prostitutes served either in Baalism or in a debased Yahwism.

There are two terms in Biblical Hebrew for prostitute. Zonah, a feminine participle from the verb meaning "to fornicate," appears twenty-six times in the Old Testament. A zonah could be what we today would call a prostitute, or she could be a participant in ritual promiscuity (as, apparently, in Hos. 4:13f., to be quoted below). Qfdeshah is the feminine form of a noun designating a cult prostitute. It is formed from the same root from which the Hebrew term "holy" (qadosh) comes. The feminine form of the term for cult prostitute appears five times in the Old Testament (Gen. 38:21 [twice], 22; Deut. 23:17; Hos. 4:14). The masculine form appears six times (Deut. 23:17; I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; II Kings 23:7; Job 36:14): The book of The Proverbs uses the phrase "foreign woman" to refer to a promiscuous woman who might also be a prostitute.

The frequency with which the technical term for cult prostitute appears in the Old Testament is almost equally divided between male and female functionaries. Deuteronomy 23:17 indicates the evenhandedness of the condemnation of the office: "There shall be no cult prostitute of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute of the sons of Israel." Hosea 4:14, which is earlier than the Deuteronomic legislation just quoted, uses both zonah and qedeshah:

I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot [zonah],
nor your brides when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with harlots [zonah],
and sacrifice with cult prostitutes [qedeshah],
and a people without understanding shall come to ruin

Genesis 38:15-22, part of the story of the patriarch Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, also uses zonah and qedeshah interchangeably. Judah is said to have thought Tamar to be a zonah in v. 15, but he and his men refer to her as a qedeshah three times in vs. 21f. This narrative, incidentally, is the oldest of the passages being reported here.

The evidence available suggests that there were both female and male cult prostitutes attached to shrines in Palestine in Old Testament times. Both men and women participated in a cult in which sexual intercourse was a part. Such ritual promiscuity and the cult personnel used in it were condemned by spokesmen for strict Yahwism at least from the time of Hosea onward. An estimate of the prevalence of the cult based upon the frequency of the appearance of the terms for cult prostitutes alone would be wrong. Allusions to it using other than the technical vocabulary cited here (such as Jer. 3:2f. where zonah is used), and the prevalence of figurines of the mother goddess in excavations of Israelite cities, indicate that the cult was widespread. The evidence of the appearance of the term for cult prostitute (both female and male) makes it clear that both men and women participated in cultic promiscuity. Therefore an inference sometimes drawn from the presence of fertility worship, that it was primarily a cult for women, must be rejected.

A second kind of non-Yahwist cult leadership in which women participated is reported to us in Lev. 20:27: "A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them." This is one of several references to the worship of ancestors in the Old Testament. The calling up of the dead was done to gain knowledge of the future. If the spirits of the dead had accurate knowledge of the future, it was because they controlled it. Such authority over the course of future events conflicted with the belief that the Lord ruled the people's history. Thus the worship of ancestors, or necromancy, was another cult competing with Yahwism in ancient Israel.

I Samuel 28:3-25 reports how the cult operated and confirms the role of women in it. As the story opens, Saul is facing a major battle with the Philistines. Saul's strict Yahwism is reported to us in the comment that he had expelled the mediums and wizards, the personnel of the cult of the dead, from the land (v. 3). Samuel, who had earlier mediated to Saul the word of the Lord about the future, had died. The inference is that Saul had no guidance about the outcome of the impending battle. In his urgency, Saul turned to a necromancer to bring back the dead Samuel, hoping to get from him information about the Lord's plan for the battle. This, by the way, may be an accurate report of the way in which the essentially competing religions in the land constantly fused into unstable union.

The story is eerie. Our concern, however, is not with the degree to which it reflects religious practices in early Israelite history. We are concerned solely with the fact that the cult official was a woman, the well-known Witch of Endor. In an hour of national crisis, the king turned for help to a female cult official, just as Josiah and his court turned to the prophetess Huldah during a later and different crisis.

Other bits and pieces of information about the role of women in non-Yahwist cults have survived in the Old Testament, but they are too fragmentary to be very clear. The strangest is Ezek. 13:18f.:

Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the women who sew magic bands upon all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature, in the hunt for souls! Will you hunt down souls belonging to my people, and keep other souls alive for your own profit? You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, putting to death persons who should not die and keeping alive persons who should not live, by your lies to my people, who listen to lies.

Walther Eichrodt probably is correct in seeing here Israelite equivalents to magical practices described in more detail in Babylonian sources.(66)

Ezekiel also described women sitting beside the north entrance to the Temple "weeping for Tammuz" (Ezek. 8:14). This was probably ritual lamentation in the cult of a dying-rising god of fertility. Jeremiah 44:15-19 reports that Israelite women burned incense to "the Queen of Heaven" (the Canaanite Astarte), poured out libations to her, and made cakes displaying her likeness. II Kings 23:7 reports that women "wove hangings for the Asherah" which were put in the quarters of male cult prostitutes.

The passages we have just reviewed demonstrate that Israelite women served as personnel in the worship of the Lord and in other cults. Women are also reported as participating in the rites of the cult even when they are not described as cult personnel. In reviewing this evidence, note that none of these acts of worship is reported to have been restricted to females only. We are again dealing with passages in which men and women are described as engaging in the same actions.

It seems reasonable to believe that a theophany, a divine visitation, was a very important cult event. Such visitations are reported at important points in the Old Testament, such as just before the giving of the law at Sinai (Ex., ch. 19) or at the time a person became a prophet (Isa., ch. 6). In my opinion, it would be difficult to maintain that women shared fully in the worship of the Lord if they were excluded from this primary cultic event.

There are three reports of women receiving theophanies(.67) Hagar is the recipient of two of them. After she had fled into the desert to get away from Sarah's anger,

the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, "Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?" She said, "I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai." The angel of the LORD said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit to her." The angel of the LORD also said to her, "I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude." And the angel of the LORD said to her, "Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen."So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "Thou art a God of seeing"; for she said, "Have I really seen God and remain alive after seeing him?" (Gen. 16:7-13)

This is the earliest of the narrative strands of the Pentateuch. The second oldest strand also reports a the-ophany to Hagar after Sarah had her driven out (Gen. 21:17f.). Both of these passages reveal that the two narrators and their auditors took it for granted that a woman could receive a theophany. Only the use of the messenger (the angel) sets the structure of these incidents apart from similar theophanies to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-5).

We find a third account of a theophany to a woman in Judg. 13:2-25. Here again, the divine visitation is mediated through an angel. The story opens:

And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, "Behold, you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son."

When her husband asked God in prayer for a repetition of the visit, the angel was sent a second time, again to the woman (vs. 8f.). Only when she summoned her husband did he participate for the first time in the theophany. The husband's words after the angel had left recall the response of Hagar in Gen. 16:13: "And Manoah said to his wife, 'We shall surely die, for we have seen God!' " (v. 22).

God visited a woman by means of an angelic intermediary in all three accounts. In two of the three (Gen. 16:13 and Judg. 12:22), the visitation is described as a theophany. The third of the stories differs from the first two only in recounting one visitation to the wife alone, followed by a second to both wife and husband. The fundamental significance of these stories is that they make it clear that the ancient Israelites felt it as appropriate for a woman as for a man to participate in a the-ophany, the most important of all cultic events.

The experiences of the prophets which started their careers (such as those reported in Isa. 6:1-8; Jer. 1:4-10; Ezek., chs. 1 to 3; and Amos 3:8) also were theophanies. They seem to be the basis of the prophet's right to say, "Thus says the LORD." If this be valid, we also can infer that the statement by Huldah, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: 'Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD ...' " (II Kings 22:15), implies that she also had been granted a theophany.

The cult provided various methods for consulting the Lord. The priest's oracle seems often to have been given by means of the casting of the sacred lots, the urim and thummim. The interpretation of dreams and consulting a prophet also were used. Women as well as men were free to consult prophets. In the story of Rebekah, we are told simply that she "went to inquire of the LORD," and the means used are not given (Gen. 25:22f.). The wife of Jeroboam I, at his urging, went to consult with a prophet when her son became ill (I Kings 14:1-18), and the wealthy Shunammite who had befriended Elisha brought her dead child to him (II Kings 4:18-37). In all three of these instances, women inquired of the Lord on behalf of children, born or unborn. This is further confirmation of the relationship believed to exist between the role of the woman as childbearer and the activity of God among the people of God.

We have already determined that women were included in the sacred congregation that gathered to celebrate the great festivals (see, e.g., Deut. 5:14; 16:10f.). The passages upon which this conclusion is based, however, do not stipulate the presence of wives and mothers. This calls for explanation. Three possibilities come to mind: that the mother was excluded from sacrificial rites for reasons now lost, that the wife is included in the commandments as a daughter in the extended family in which she could be identified as either daughter or wife, or that the wife was free to attend or to absent herself because of the demands made upon her by child care. The first of these possibilities cannot be discussed since there is no evidence available. The second seems unlikely because of the importance of the wife and mother throughout the Old Testament. There is one important narrative which supports the third possibility.

The story of the birth of Samuel is an early witness to the place of women in strict Yahwist circles. Samuel is the prophet active at the time of the emergence of the monarchy. He became, for later generations struggling against royal tyranny, the epitome of opposition to Canaanite monarchical tendencies. The birth legend has been preserved for us by Deuteronomic historians, a later but strict Yahwist circle. Thus the birth narrative may report not only early Yahwist attitudes but also the views of Yahwism in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

Hannah, the barren wife, prays urgently for a son, promising to dedicate him to the Lord if her prayer is heard. She is heard and bears a son whom she names Samuel:

And the man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, "As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the LORD, and abide there for ever." And Elkanah her husband said to her, "Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only, may the LORD establish his word." (I Sam. 1:21-23)

When Samuel had been weaned and presented to Eli to serve the Lord under him at Shiloh, Hannah resumed going to the shrine with the rest of the family (I Sam. 2:19).

The narrative tends to confirm the conjecture that the absence of the wife and mother from the list of those expected to be present at the great feasts may have been due to the demands of childbearing. If this single example can be taken to reflect custom, the wife was allowed to remain home at her own discretion until the child had been weaned. This receives further support from the summons of "even nursing infants" in Joel 2:15f. to an extraordinary convocation before the Lord.

We have explicit evidence that daughters, maidservants, and widows were included in the celebration of the Sabbath, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths. Thus woman as such was not excluded. The legend of Samuel's birth (and Joel 2:15f.) suggests further that mothers were excused from participation because of the demands of childbearing. Obviously, therefore, the great festivals were not cult events for men only.(68)

Women are portrayed twice in the Old Testament as initiating a cultic occasion. The first is reported as part of Jezebel's plot to kill Naboth and take his family's inheritance. Her instructions for the trumped-up trial were: "Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people; and set two base fellows opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, 'You have cursed God and the king.' Then take him out, and stone him to death" (I Kings 21:9f.). This, of course, was a special event. The Book of Esther, however, reports that Esther and Mordecai instituted the Feast of Purim:

Then Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim. Letters were sent to all the Jews, to the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, in words of peace and truth, that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther enjoined upon the Jews, and as they had laid down for themselves and for their descendants, with regard to their fasts and their lamenting. The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing. (Esth. 9:29-32)

Sacrifice was an important part of the cult in ancient Israel. A priest normally officiated, and the Priestly Code of the Pentateuch elaborates his role in great detail. All Yahwist priests were male. To the degree, therefore, that we discuss officiating at a sacrifice, we describe an exclusively male cult act. This also, however, is a cultic act from which the majority of men were excluded. Their part in the sacrifice was the right to bring offerings and to receive the appropriate benefits. When we discuss sacrifice as a rite in which a worshiper made use of a priest, we find that women could sacrifice as well as could men.

Several different steps were involved in sacrifice. At least three can be distinguished today: the presentation of the offering to the priest, the preparation and offering up of the sacrifice by the priest on behalf of the worshiper, and the sacred meal in which the worshiper ate designated parts of certain sacrifices at the shrine. When we ask about the participation of women (and of the average male Israelite), we are asking whether or not women could present sacrifices and whether or not they could eat the appropriate parts of certain sacrifices after they had been offered up by a priest.

The story of the birth of Samuel just cited provides a report of a woman bringing a sacrifice:

And when she [Hannah] had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine; and she brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slew the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. (I Sam. l:24f.)

Presumably, the personnel of the shrine killed the bull. The legend of the birth of Samson, cited earlier here as an instance of a theophany to a woman, reports that husband and wife together offered the sacrifice at the conclusion of the theophany (Judg. 13:15-20). No priest is reported as being present.

The narrative of Hannah offering a sacrifice is confirmed by legislation which specifies the obligation of a woman to bring a sacrifice under certain circumstances. The best-known of these laws are those which end her "uncleanness" following childbirth:

And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. (Lev. 12:6f.)

Should she be unable to afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves can be substituted (v. 8). One writer has observed that the 'adam and nephesh used in Leviticus prior to ch. 12 (where sacrifices appropriate to a woman are described) to refer to the persons bringing sacrifices have a generic force and mean mankind.69 Even without accepting this, we have ample evidence that women regularly brought sacrifices.

It also is clear that they ate the part of the sacrifice returned to the person bringing it. When the childless Hannah wept during the sacrifice at Shiloh, "Elkanah, her husband, said to her, 'Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?' " (I Sam. 1:8). Certain parts of some sacrifices were reserved for the priest. Numbers 18:19 specifies that the priest's daughters could share such food: "All the holy offerings which the people of Israel present to the LORD I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD for you and for your offspring with you." (See also Lev. 10:14f.; 22:12f. Lev. 7:31-35 seems to restrict access to the holy food to the priest and his sons only.)

A vow is a binding promise made to God. The ability to make a vow is a convenient index of the individual's status in the cult. Only those accorded standing before God could make a vow either to God or in the Lord's presence, and only those who had some autonomy could make a vow with a measure of assurance that they would be able to fulfill it.

At least three passages in the Old Testament bear on the ability of a woman to make a vow. One of them is restrictive:

When a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. Or when a woman vows a vow to the LORD, and binds herself with a pledge, while within her father's house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father expresses disapproval to her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her, because her father opposed her. (Num. 30:2-5)

Verses 6 to 8 assign the father's role to the husband of a married woman, but v. 9 asserts that "any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her." Thus all women could make vows. Vows made by a woman living in a family with a male head could be voided by that male if he acted on the same day on which he learned of the vow. Women were held accountable for all vows not so voided.

This law can be given various interpretations. It could be alleged to reflect the belief that women are capable of thoughtless decisions, or that a woman had the right to make any vow she wished (even if she did not always have the right to keep it!). The vow of Hannah, reported as having been made without the knowledge or consent of Elkanah (I Sam. 1:11), has been cited as evidence that Num. 30:2-15 is a late law representing a restriction of the greater autonomy once given women.(70)

It might be well to remember the magnitude of the vows that were possible. Numbers 6:1-6 specifies that both men and women could take the vow to become a Nazirite and thus to espouse an ascetic life, and Judg. 11:30 reports Jephthah's vow to sacrifice the first living being he met upon returning home after a battle. A wife's vow of chastity could prevent "building up the family's name" unless her husband took a second wife. No such consequences for a family would follow upon a vow made by either a widow or a divorcee.

We probably are not far from the truth, therefore, in concluding that the partial power of father or husband to void a woman's vow reflects more the primacy of the family in ancient Israel than an inferior status of woman before the Lord. The absence of a law protecting the right of a wife to void a husband's vow suggests an inequality within the family, as does the husband's right to void a wife's vow. But the woman's capacity to make vows, and her ability to keep vows once made and not voided, indicate that she had standing in the cult.

Prayer is mentioned fairly often in the Old Testament, although the liturgical laws neither describe it nor prescribe for it. Solomon is pictured as praying on behalf of the nation at the time of the dedication of the royal chapel in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:22-54 = II Chron. 6: 12 to 7:1), and Jeremiah prayed for the people (Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11;37:3).

One of the few instances of private prayer is in the story of the birth of Samuel. After the annual family sacrifice had been offered up and eaten,

she [Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. ... As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard; therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, "How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman sorely troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD." (I Sam. 1:10, 12-15)

Eli thought Hannah to be drunken, a detail in the story probably intended to underscore the intensity of her praying. The tale of the contest in fertility between Leah and Rachel contains hints that women may often have prayed intensely for children (Gen. 29:33; 30:17). It seems likely also that some form of prayer accompanied sacrifice, and thus we perhaps should picture women offering up prayers each time they have an offering to present.

Since circumcision was performed only on males in ancient Israel, we would expect that it would have been the exclusive domain of men; yet one of the two narratives describing it reports a woman officiating:

At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him [Moses] and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, "You are a bridegroom of blood" because of the circumcision. (Ex. 4:24-26)

The passage is murky. The Revised Standard Version inserts Moses' name into the phrase "touched Moses' feet with it," and this adds clarity. Our interest in the verses is confined here to the fact that a woman performed the rite. No explanation of her doing it is given, and we are not told why she had the right to do it. Zip-porah was the daughter of the priest of Midian. It might be argued that Moses' intimacy with her violated some sanctity attached to her person which could be removed only by the rite. But this is only conjecture. The other story in which circumcision plays an important part is the report of the rape of Dinah (Gen. ch. 34). Nothing is said there about women participating in the rite.

Women are reported as mourning for the dead several times. David handed over the male descendants of Saul to the Gibeonites. They then executed them to avenge Saul's attack earlier in Gibeon. Thereupon Rizpah, the mother of two of the men, "took sackcloth, and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens; and she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night" (II Sam. 21:10f.). Rizpah's mourning attests to the enormity of David's offense against the family of Saul. Shamed by it, David made what amends he could. He gathered the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and the bones of the other sons of Saul, and gave them a proper burial (vs. 11-14).

Other forms of mourning for the dead (excluding songs of lamentation which will be reported separately) included cutting off the hair (Isa. 3:24; Amos 8:10) and beating the breast (Nahum 2:7). If we include women in legislation addressed to "the sons of the LORD your God," as we have found reason to do several times in this study, we might add laceration (Deut. 14:1), although all other references to this in the Old Testament seem to be confined to men only (e.g., I Kings 18:28; Jer. 16:6; 41:5; 47:5; etc.). We would expect to find most of the rites of mourning shared by both men and women. Presumably the mourners were the survivors, rather than men or women only

We have already had references describing Miriam and Deborah as singers (Ex. 15:20f.; Judg. 5:12). This role continues throughout the Old Testament. One of the pro-David incidents inserted into the report of the reign of Saul pictures women as chanting,

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.

In the late post-exilic period, the Chronicler reported that both the sons and daughters of Heman were temple musicians (I Chron. 25:5f.). Elsewhere the Chronicler speaks of singing men and women (II Chron. 35:25). At this late date, any attempt to assign a specific musical function to one sex or the other is impossible.

Singing songs of lamentation, however, seems to have been primarily the domain of women. The lament over the death of Saul is attributed to David, but the act of lamentation reported in it is assigned to women:

Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you daintily in scarlet,
who put ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
(II Sam. 1:24)

Several centuries later, Jeremiah mentioned women who were especially skilled in lamentation (Jer. 9:17-21), and Ezekiel repeated the picture of women singing laments a few years later (Ezek. 32:16). Since the Lord was believed to be acting in a woman's womb to bring new life to the people of God, it was appropriate that those same women should be the ones who mourned before the Lord on behalf of the people at a time of death.

Thus, far from finding women to have been excluded from the worship of Yahweh, we have seen evidence that they participated in many different roles and in many cult acts. They are never described as having served as priests. All other offices in the cult, and all cult acts other than the technical acts involved in offering up the sacrifice, are attributed in the Old Testament both to men and to women. We can only conclude, therefore, that women were full participants in the worship of the Lord.


Because women participated fully in the veneration of God, we may conclude that they, like men, had standing in God's sight. Thus they could be judged righteous or sinful. In strictures against apostasy, men and women are treated alike:

If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, entices you secretly, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods," which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples that are round about you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him; but you shall kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Deut. 13:6-10)

Here again, incidentally, we find the masculine singular pronoun taking both men and women as antecedents.(71)

We do need, however, to give special attention to material which describes women as unclean. Such passages fall into five categories according to the cause: diseases, bodily discharges, childbirth, contact with the dead, and sexual intercourse.

In four of the five categories, men and women are dealt with alike. Laws prescribing the diagnosis of diseases making one unclean and stipulating the rites of purification seem to have applied to men and women without distinction. A regulation from Leviticus is an example of this:

When a man or woman has a disease on the head or the beard, the priest shall examine the disease; and if it appears deeper than the skin, and the hair in it is yellow and thin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an itch, a leprosy of the head or the beard. And if the priest examines the itching disease, and it appears no deeper than the skin and there is no black hair in it, then the priest shall shut up the person with the itching disease for seven days.... (Lev. 13:29-31; see also ch. 12:38f.)

Leviticus, ch. 15, describes the ritual condition of those who have had a bodily discharge and prescribes for their cleansing. The discharges of both male and female are described. In both cases, all that the unclean person has touched becomes unclean (vs. 2-12 for the man and vs. 19-27 for the woman). Both are unclean for seven days (vs. 13 and 28), but the man only is required to wash his clothes and bathe. On the eighth day, the man

shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and come before the LORD to the door of the tent of meeting, and give them to the priest; and the priest shall offer them, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD for his discharge (vs. 14f.)

With the exception of a change of the pronoun referring to the person bringing the offering, the ritual prescribed for the woman is precisely the same (vs. 29f.):

Uncleanness following childbirth involved only the mother:

If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days. (Lev. 12:2-5)

Thus the mother is twice as "unclean" following the birth of a daughter as she is after the birth of a son. However, the same offering is to be made for son or daughter after the period of purification has ended. Martin Noth observed: "The sexual processes, especially birth, were also reckoned 'unclean' far beyond the circle of Israel, because mysterious powers were seen to be at work in them, having little or no connection with the official cults."72 This is not an entirely satisfactory explanation for a literature which elsewhere views Yahweh, the God of Israel, as intimately active in all stages of birth from conception to delivery. The mother's uncleanness may have been the result of the afterbirth being regarded as a bodily emission, or the woman who had just given birth to an infant may have been "unclean" because she had been too closely involved with the work of deity. She would need a period to be de-energized, so to speak; and that period would need to be twice as long for the birth of a child which might become capable in its turn of bearing children as for a male child. This the law specifies.

Contact with a dead body defiled man and woman alike. The law specifying purification following contact with a dead body seems at first sight to apply only to males (Num. 19:11-22). We have already seen examples in which the masculine singular personal pronoun assumes bisexual antecedents, as well as passages (e.g., Gen. 1:27) in which 'adam (man) means humanity. Numbers 5:1-4, a law dealing primarily with leprosy, specifies that "every one that is unclean through contact with the dead; you shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell" (vs. 2b, 3). Thus we would seem to be justified in concluding that the laws of purification after contact with a dead body in Num., ch. 19, applied to men and women in precisely the same way.

Two narratives imply that uncleanness was associated with sexual intercourse. The people are commanded, "Do not go near a woman," in preparation for the theo-phany at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:15). Many years later, when David requested of a priest food for his band,

the priest answered David, "I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women." And David answered the priest, "Of a truth women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy, even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?" (I Sam. 21:4f.)

These two narratives appear to be illustrations of the law found in Lev. 15:18: "If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until evening." Thus the impurity present in sexual intercourse was the contact with a man's bodily emission. It was not the woman who made the male unclean, but rather the male who made both himself and the woman unclean.(73)

Thus the uncleanness of woman essentially parallels that of man. Both were unclean by reason of some kinds of illness or because of the bodily emissions characteristic of their sex. Both became unclean if they touched a corpse. Since a male bodily emission occurs during sexual intercourse, and since contact by others with either a man's or a woman's bodily emission defiled them, sexual intercourse defiled. The one form of uncleanness restricted to woman was that which followed childbirth. It was suggested here that this uncleanness may have been a result of too close a contact with God.

Little more needs to be added. Woman in ancient Israel seems to have participated fully in the worship of the Lord, to have had standing in God's sight equal to that given the man, and to have borne no unusual onus of uncleanness. In other words, the woman's status in the cult was equal to that of the man. The single exception to this is the role of the priest. We saw in an earlier chapter, however, that women had had reserved to them their own unique and crucial kind of intimacy with God: the bearing of children. This status seems to reappear once more in the laws of ritual uncleanness.


63. Beer, op. cit., pp. 34f.

64. As by Vos, op. cit., p. 193: Only men supported families and the priesthood provided an income; some priestly duties required a male's strength; a mother was preoccupied with maternal duties; a woman became unclean periodically; and restricting the priesthood to one sex would discourage the intrusion of baalistic fertility worship practices. All are conjectures.

65. Vos, op. cit., p. 186, describes Huldah as "a relatively unknown figure in Israel's history," although he adds: "In this period of Israel's history there was little if any prejudice against a woman's uttering a prophecy. If she had received the gift of prophecy, her words were to be given the same authority as those of a man."

66. Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel, A Commentary, tr. by Cos-slett Quin, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 169.

67. The Lord's visit to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18: 1—15) is a theophany in which Sarah shared. It is not discussed here. The theophany to Samson's mother in which her husband shared (Judg. 13:2-25) will be discussed.

68. Peritz, op. cit., pp. 122f., adds two other examples: Judg. 21:6-25 and II Kings 4:23.

69. Vos, op. cit., p. 79.

70. M. R. H. Lohr, Die Stellung des Weibes zu Jahwe-religion und -kult untersucht (Leipzig: Hinrichs', 1908), pp. 38f.

71. See also Hos. 4:13f.; Jer. 7:17f.; 44:7-10, 15-27; Deut. 17:2-5; 29:18f.; II Chron. 15:13.

72. Martin Noth, Leviticus, A Commentary, tr. by J. E. Anderson, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1965), p. 97.

73. So Vos, op. cit., pp. 103, 129. For the traditional view, see R. S. Peake, "Unclean, Uncleanness," in James Hastings et al. (eds.), A Dictionary of the Bible (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), Vol. IV, p. 827.

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