Forgotten, Betrayed, Reviled: The Lost Women of the Bible

By Ann Swinfen

It is a truism that history is written by the victors.

Western history and culture have their roots deep in the Judaeo-Graeco-Roman tradition, and it is a strongly patriarchal tradition. Archaeological evidence points to earlier matriarchal cultures which preceded the pervasive patriarchal bias, but by the time written literature began, this matriarchal culture had been suppressed, pushed to the margins into folktale, superstition, and myth. The patriarchal principle had won the battle for social dominance.

And men wrote our history.

One of the earliest written records is, of course, the Bible. Assembled over several centuries, it is not simply a testament of faith. The Old Testament is an historical record of a nomadic people’s wanderings over the Middle East and North Africa followed by their settlement in Judaea. It also contains a carefully preserved genealogy of families and tribes, and a collection of some of the world’s most memorable stories. The New Testament takes matters forward into the birth of the modern world and the foundation of Christianity. The world’s three great faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are all rooted in this extraordinary book, a book which has outsold every other and whose influence on our thoughts, culture, literature, and history is incalculable. Would our individual perceptions of ourselves be the same without this influence? Difficult to say.

In this piece, I am not planning to look at the Bible as a religious work, but in those other three aspects: a history, a genealogy, and a collection of stories.

Where are the women?

Have you noticed how few ‘good’ women there are? By and large they are found in the New Testament. This reflected the kindlier, more humane face of the new dispensation. Women even played a major role in the early Christian church, preaching, travelling through Gentile lands spreading the word, and perishing for their faith in the Roman arena. Until, that is, the church fathers seized control of the church hierarchy and turned it into the mirror image of the male secular power of the time, the Roman Empire.

However, the majority of women in the Old Testament who are sufficiently honoured as to have their names recorded for posterity are ‘bad’ women. So bad, indeed, that their names have become bywords for evil. And how the authors rub their hands in glee over their horrific ends!

If you ask the average person brought up in our modern secular society (which still has its roots in the Christian tradition) to name women from the Bible, the answers will go something like this. From the Old Testament: Jezebel, Delilah, Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Ruth . . . er, Moses’ sister . . . was she called Miriam? A few might remember Judith, the heroine who slew Holofernes. The list is unlikely to extend much beyond that. From the New Testament: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Salome. Some will recall that John the Baptist’s mother was called Elizabeth. Then there was that widow with her mite. What was she called? What indeed.

If we examine the many genealogies in the Old Testament, which can make parts of it very tedious for the modern reader, we have to ask: Where are the women? X begat Y begat Z ad infinitum, but only the generations upon generations of men are recorded. Who gave birth to all these generations? All these men had wives and mothers, but the women remain nameless, lost for ever in the mists of time. They constituted half the Israelite population, those women. They wandered with the men, living in tents, herding the sheep and goats, cooking over open fires, giving birth to their children and sometimes burying them. They fed, clothed and reared each successive generation of the nation, yet they are ignored as if they never existed.

Just occasionally one woman is glimpsed for a moment, usually because it is obligatory to mention her in order to clarify the links between families or tribes – for example Sarah, wife of Abraham [Genesis 11:29 ff.]. There is just a whiff here of the ancient matriarchal culture which still held sway at the time. Though Abraham is credited with elevating the strictly masculine Yahweh to pre-eminence in Israelite religion, the fact is that Yahweh was not the only god of those early Israelites, and he had a spouse, Asherah, equally powerful, equally exalted, the Great Mother, who was still being worshipped centuries later, when Hezekiah tried to suppress her cult around 700 bc.

Sarah’s granddaughter Dinah, only daughter of Jacob amongst his thirteen children by two wives and two concubines, also receives a tiny mention [Genesis 34]. Dinah achieves fame because she is raped by Shechem, a prince of the Hivites, who loves her and wants to marry her. In Genesis Dinah is seen as a victim and then disappears from the story as her brothers wreak a terrible and sadistic vengeance, betraying their own promise to the Hivites to forgive them and allow the marriage if the Hivites agree to be circumcised. The Hivites keep their part of the bargain, but are then slaughtered to a man by Dinah’s brothers. I’ll be returning to Dinah later.

In a slightly later period, the period of Judges, there was one remarkable woman, Deborah, whose historic deeds do earn a mention [Judges 4-5]. She was herself both a prophetess and one of the Judges, part civil, part religious leader, and that is remarkable in itself. She was also a military leader, which is even more surprising. With her general Barak she attacked and defeated the Canaanites, who were long-standing and aggressive enemies of the Israelites. The Song of Deborah [Judges 5] is one of those extraordinary things one encounters in the Bible, a paean of triumph and national fervour, a wonderful work of literature in its own right, like the Song of Songs, which is surely the greatest love poem in world literature. The Song of Deborah is possibly the earliest surviving example of Hebrew poetry and has been dated from linguistic evidence to the twelfth century BC.

Occasionally the Israelites encountered foreign women of power, like Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued the infant Moses. The most memorable, of course, was the Queen of Sheba, who came on a state visit to Solomon [I Kings 10:1-13 & II Chronicles 9:1-12]. Clearly she fascinated the Israelites with her beauty, power, and riches, as she has fascinated people ever since. Yet she and her country remain mysterious. And she is nameless.

In the earliest religions practised in the area, the Great Mother or the Earth Mother seems to have been the foremost deity. Statues of her appear all around the Mediterranean basin, far surpassing any images of male deities at the time. Women, who give birth and so perpetuate mankind, were reverenced. Yet all this changed. By the time the book of Genesis came to be written down, Eve had been named as the First Woman and, above all, the villainess who brought about all man’s suffering, his exile from Eden, his mortality, his monstrous fall from grace [Genesis 3]. It was her fault that women suffered great pain in childbirth. Convenient, that. The men of Israel could point the finger and say: It’s all your own fault for eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Interesting that we would have been better off, would have remained in Eden, if we had also remained ignorant. More of that later.

Eve’s villainy was of a fairly mild variety; she merely yielded to temptation. So did Adam, but he doesn’t appear to have carried so much of the blame. Later on in history we find some real, full-blown villainesses, of whom Jezebel and Delilah are the most notable examples. What strikes me about both of them is that they were foreign women of strong character who came from a different religious and cultural background to that of the authors of the Old Testament.

Jezebel [Kings 1 & 2] was a Phoenician princess, daughter of the King of Tyre and married to Ahab, King of Israel (the northern kingdom of the Holy Land), in what was clearly a dynastic and political marriage intended to cement an alliance between the two kingdoms. Israel was always keen to acquire access to good sea ports on the Mediterranean coast, while Phoenicia wanted an agricultural hinterland together with overland trade routes. Ahab and Jezebel had two sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram, who were the natural heirs to the crown. Under the joint rule of Ahab and Jezebel, the religions of both peoples were tolerated. This was the ninth century bc, before the worship of Yahweh was established as the approved religion of the Israelites. Ba’al, one of the gods of the Phoenicians, was also one of the ancient gods of the Israelites. After the death of Ahab, his sons succeeded to the throne, but Elisha – leader of the Yahwehist faction – who had slaughtered 450 priests of Ba’al, now had the usurper Jehu crowned. Jehu then murdered Jehoram, son of Ahab and Jezebel, as he fled for his life.

The queen mother, Jezebel, a strong woman of royal blood, was a danger to Jehu, so he and Elisha incited some of the court officials to murder her by throwing her out of a palace window and further dishonouring her by leaving her unburied body to be eaten by dogs. The fact that Jezebel dressed in her royal finery to confront her murderers has been vilified by the puritanical, but it reminds one of Cleopatra’s similar defiance in the face of political murder. If this were a modern crime novel, wouldn’t we expect the investigator to look a little more closely into the circumstances of her death, instead of simply accepting the official version which was put out by her political enemies who wanted to be rid of her? And as in the case of all murders, shouldn’t we ask: Cui bono? In whose interest was it to portray Jezebel in the form that has come down to us? She was painted as an evil woman by the usurping victors. (Common practice: compare the propaganda put about by Henry VII who had usurped Richard III’s crown.) Yet seen from the Phoenician point of view, their royal princess and her sons were the victims of a politically motivated coup d’état. An interesting footnote to her story is that Josephus [Against Apion 1:18] tells us that she was the great-aunt of Dido, queen of Carthage. A strong but unhappy lot, these Phoenician princesses.

If Delilah’s story [Judges, 16] had been written down by the Philistines, it would have had a very different angle. She would probably have been cast in the role of a national heroine, like the Israelite Judith, but one whose life ended in tragic sacrifice. Her origins are obscure. Her nationality is unclear. She was said to come from the Valley of Sorek or Soreq, which has not been identified. ‘Soreq’ means vine, and so is probably symbolic of Samson’s fall from grace. As a dedicated Nazarite, he was forbidden to drink wine or cut his hair. It’s likely Delilah was a Philistine, or had some connection with that country which, like Phoenicia, lay between the Israelite kingdoms and the sea. The tensions over access to the sea shaped Israelite politics for centuries. Delilah yielded to the temptation of the bribe offered to her if she discovered the secret of Samson’s strength. She was foolish and perhaps greedy, but may not have realised the magnitude of what she did. In any case, it ended tragically. The whole story reads like an allegory. The woman from the valley of the vine cuts off the hero’s hair, that is, Samson, through lust for a woman, betrays his vows as a Nazarite.

I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. Perhaps they were both evil women, but we don’t hear their side of the story. Consider a much more recent example, where we do know both sides. Jeanne d’Arc was a heroine to one of the political factions in her own contemporary France. To the opposing faction – who handed her over to the English, then ruling a large portion of France – she was a dangerous insurgent (terrorist, if you like) and a witch. Nowadays she is generally regarded as a heroine, but that was not the universal attitude at the time.

Ruth, however, is one woman from the Old Testament whom most people can name and whose story is both poignant and positive. In a time of famine, a family from Bethlehem flee to Moab: Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, who marry the Moabite girls Ruth and Orpah. After the deaths of her husband and two sons, Naomi decides to go home and urges the two young widows to return to their families, who will find them new husbands. Orpah sadly does as she is bid, but Ruth makes one of the most famous pledges in literature:

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God. Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. [Ruth 1:16–17]

Together the two women make the perilous journey from Moab to Bethlehem, where Ruth gleans in the fields to support them both and is eventually married through Levirite practice to a kinsman of Naomi’s family, becoming the great-grandmother of King David. Even the Israelite author of her story – painting her glowingly for her conversion – seems to have recognised what it had cost her, this exile and loneliness, where she has to labour like a pauper in the fields and risk the attentions of reapers, until Boaz gives orders: ‘Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?’ The implications for a young foreign girl working in the fields are clear.

Enough about those women whose names are generally remembered. Perhaps the most intriguing of all, despite being the most elusive, are the nameless women. All those wives, mothers and daughters who are blocked from our view by an intransigent male presence. Sometimes they are mere shadowy ghosts, hovering in the background. Sometimes their existence is acknowledged through their husbands, sons or fathers. When Noah was selected to survive the Flood [Genesis 6-9], he took into the Ark, besides all those animals, his wife (unnamed), his sons (named: Shem, Ham and Japheth) and his three daughters-in-law (unnamed). Did he have any daughters? If so, no one bothers to record them. Now we have to ask ourselves, who did the cooking? Who provisioned the ship? Who packed the clothes, made sure there were blankets and cooking pots and fuel for the stove and a means of lighting it and a supply of fresh water? Did the men organise the animals’ feed? Or did the women do that as well? Nobody would have survived on that stinking ship for forty days and nights (and longer before they were able to disembark) without the women looking after the demanding problem of feeding everyone. When the ordeal was over, ‘God blessed Noah and his sons’ [Genesis 9:1].

But not the women.

Then there is the daughter of Jephthah [Judges 11:30-40]. Jephthah had made a vow that if God gave him victory over his enemies in battle, then ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’ When Jephthah does return home, it is his daughter who comes out to meet him ‘with timbrels and with dances’ – his only child. Submissively she accepts her fate, but asks for two months’ grace, so that she can go up into the mountains with her friends to ‘bewail her virginity’, as she will never live to have a marriage and children. When she comes home, Jephthah carries out his vow. In this brutal story, Jephthah is given the distinction of a name, but his daughter is not. Unlike Isaac on a similar occasion, she is not saved at the last minute. Interestingly, at the end of the story the author mentions that it was the custom that ‘the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gildeadite four days in a year.’ So although she remained nameless as far as the writer was concerned, she was not forgotten by the girls who came after.

Most of the women I have been discussing occur in the Old Testament. However, in the New Testament there is this intriguing reference. When Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Nazareth, his neighbours, annoyed at his presumption, say: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?’  [Matthew 13: 55-56] Once again, the sisters are nameless, although his four brothers are named.

If we turn to the Protoevangelium of James, we find that two sisters are indeed named there as Melkha and Eskha. Were they his only sisters? Matthew refers to ‘all’ his sisters. Perhaps there were more.

In recent years, some of these women of the Bible have begun to be rescued from obscurity. And one of the Old Testament stories in which a woman plays the part of a villain has been turned on its head.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has achieved worldwide fame, been translated into numerous languages, gained many awards and provoked considerable controversy. Set in a world parallel to our own, and moving in and out of other worlds, it has as its central character Lyra, a clever, unconventional, courageous and unruly girl whose destiny (whether she likes it or not) is to save mankind. The enemy is obscure but takes the form of a kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pullman appears to be attacking not innate spirituality but the kind of organised religious bureaucracy which denies mankind intellectual and spiritual freedom. Thus Lyra becomes a latter-day Eve, who has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and is celebrated for it. Pullman is saying that eating the fruit of knowledge is what has raised mankind above the beasts and should never, ever, be seen as a fall from grace.

It is through knowledge, not ignorance, that mankind is redeemed, becomes godlike.

I’m not alone in wondering what really went on in the Ark. I’m taking the story literally here. Though we know there was never a flood which covered the entire earth, there is geological, archaeological and literary evidence that there was at least one major flood in the Middle East in ancient times. (Amongst other early references, it is mentioned in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.) So there seems to be a germ of fact in the Noah story. Geraldine McCaughrean has taken the original text and developed it into the novel Not the End of the World, in which she explores the minutiae of daily life aboard the Ark: the stench, the fear, the illness, the growing tension between the passengers. The central character is a daughter of Noah, for, after all, who is to say that he did not have a daughter? This is no idealised version of the story. Above all it confronts the cruelty involved as Noah and his sons smash the fingers of their drowning neighbours who cling desperately to the ship, begging for their lives. Noah’s daughter is appalled by the whole experience and manages to rescue two children, whom she conceals amongst the animal pens. The five women on board, Noah’s wife, daughter and daughters-in-law, all play major roles in the novel. Often at loggerheads, at the last minute they are united in an action which defies the ruthless cruelty of Noah and his two eldest sons.

The story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, has been turned on its head by Anita Diamant in The Red Tent, where she takes as her premise the idea that Dinah was not raped, but was in love with Shechem and wanted to marry him. The murder of Shechem and all his people by her brothers is seen as a preliminary to their attempted murder later of their brother Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. However, this episode involving Shechem occurs well into the novel, which starts by exploring Dinah’s upbringing by her four ‘mothers’ (Jacob’s two wives and two concubines). As the only girl in her generation, Dinah is instructed in all the female lore handed down from mother to daughter. It is a remarkable reconstruction of women’s lives, beliefs and everyday work in this early Israelite period, right down to their religious practices involving Asherah and other ancient goddesses who were still worshipped, although this was the period when monotheistic Yahwehism began to gain ground. In the latter part of the book, Dinah makes a new life for herself in Egypt, where her brother Joseph also famously made his mark.

Something which has intrigued me for many years is the real-life background to Jesus’s life. He did not appear on the public stage until he was about thirty – what was he doing in all those missing years? And what would it have been like to be part of his immediate family, a peasant family living in a village amongst the hills of Galilee? In particular, what would it have been like to be his sister? Those nameless sisters, brushed aside by history. One day Mariam, sister of Yeshûa (Aramaic for Jesus), simply walked into my head and started talking. I knew about the nameless sisters [Matthew 13: 55-56]. It was only later that I discovered Melkah and Eskah, but Mariam came to me complete with her name and I sensed she had been written out of history for some compelling reason. Fired up, I began to do research into the period and discovered that far more was known than I realised. I also needed to know about domestic life – houses, food, clothing – in order to understand the daily life of a Galilean peasant girl. One part of the story which has always baffled me was why Yehûdâ (Judas) would have betrayed Yeshûa. I read the recently transcribed Gospel of Judas. And then I realised that Mariam might have been betrothed to Yehûdâ, her brother’s oldest friend, while the ‘betrayal’ was the result of a painful but inescapable bargain between the two men. I brought these strands together in my novel, The Testament of Mariam. What has been remarkable has been the response, including astonishing warmth from men of the cloth, some of whom shared my mystification at the Judas story and said my version suddenly made sense of it. The novel has also been praised for depicting the important part played by women in the story.

So: Where are all the lost women, the named, the vilified, the nameless?

In recent decades, both historical fiction and non-fiction have reached out to cover a much wider field than the traditional one of ‘great’ deeds performed by kings and generals. Interest is constantly growing in the lives and experiences of ordinary people. And once writers began to look at the majority of humanity, it became impossible to ignore the female half. Recent research by historians and archaeologists has brought to light a vast amount of detail about the daily lives of our ancestors, which has enhanced our perception of the past and made it possible to write about them with conviction and credibility. Those lost women of the past, so often neglected and ignored, are stepping out of the shadows and making their voices heard.

Ann Swinfen is the author of The Anniversary, The Travellers, A Running Tide, and, most recently, The Testament of Mariam. She lives in Scotland with her husband David, a cocker spaniel called Sasha, and two Maine Coon cats, Tirza and Tobias, named after two the characters in A Running Tide. You can learn more about Ann and her books at www.annswinfen.com.

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Published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.15 no.2 (Nov. 2011)

Posted by Richard Lee

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