Women in the Ancient Near East: Multiple roles in varied contexts

Many descriptions of the Ancient Near East appear to see all cultures as functioning in the exact same way and all peoples within those cultures experiencing the same circumstances. That’s not an accurate picture of how things were.

First off, while the peoples of the Ancient Near East shared many traits, there were cultural differences between nations and even between clans. Remember that God’s people were frequently told that they were not to be like the peoples around them, that the practices of others was an abomination to the Lord, that false beliefs and false religion had distorted God’s intent for mankind. That should be a powerful clue to the fact that we will see diversity as we examine the different nations.

Plus, the Bible points out unique practices of different peoples, including people within the nation of Israel (like the Rechabites in the book of Jeremiah).

In addition, ancient societies had multiple strata. Royalty lived in a sphere apart, with almost unlimited power. Rich and powerful families carried out their lives in a way that the poor could never dream of. Religious practitioners were often afforded privileges that others didn’t receive.

What does all this have to do with a discussion of gender in the Bible? Just this: I think we make far too many blanket statements about the situation of women in the ancient world.

For example, I hear some affirm that no one would accept a female leader, which flies in the face of numerous biblical examples, not to mention the writings of history. Power was often associated with certain bloodlines; the daughter or granddaughter of a king could easily sit on the throne. In some cases (like Athaliah), the queen mother could even take over upon the death of her son. While certainly less common, female rulers existed in Old Testament times.

Note too that no apology is given for the description of Deborah’s leadership. The only one who seems to make an issue of gender is Deborah herself, when she warns Barak that the credit for the victory will be given to a woman. (Interestingly enough, the biblical record doesn’t bear that out; it’s Barak who is credited in later writings — 1 Samuel 12:11; Hebrews 11:32)

Priestesses and prophetesses were also common occurrences in the ancient world. This was more common in religions that worshiped goddesses, but existed in multiple places in various cultures. Again, even the Bible mentions prophetesses without fanfare; their existence was neither unexpected nor unwelcome.

Please note that the New Testament context shows much of the same, from the prominent women of Greece to the priestesses of Asia Minor (and numerous examples in between). While women as a whole were in a severely disadvantaged position in society, there were numerous women who rose above that.

All of this to say that the idea that the idea that male leadership was imposed on the Bible (specifically the Law of Moses) by the culture of the time doesn’t fit the evidence. Were the Israelites especially hard-headed as regards women in leadership positions? Possibly. Is that why the Law and general practice favored men taking the lead? Maybe. Though I would say that at some point, we either have to completely disregard the writings of Scripture because they are a mere human invention, or we have to allow for the possibility that God shaped His people through the laws that He gave them.

I see male leadership being established before the fall and being confirmed by later practice and legislation. Despite what some would argue, this didn’t happen because of a lack of cultural alternatives. It’s my belief that it was God’s design from the beginning.

1 thought on “Women in the Ancient Near East: Multiple roles in varied contexts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.