Review of J. R. Ebeling, Women's Lives in Biblical Times

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Ebeling, Jennie R., Women's Lives in Biblical Times (London: T & T Clark, 2010). Pp. 192. Hardcover. £49.50 Paperback £17.99. ISBN 978-0-567-39830-7 (Hardcover) 978-567-19644-6 (Paperback).

One of the “problems” within academia is trying to make what we do palatable and accessible to a more general audience. Often times we ask ourselves (or others do it for us), “So what?”; “Why does our work matter?” It is not usual to find a scholar who attempts to step out of their academic comfort zone and make their work more approachable. Ebeling's book is a good example of how academic research into the world of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible can be made palatable to a general audience. It also demonstrates the potentialities of that research not just for other academics, but for a more broadly diverse audience.

Ebeling takes an unusual approach by drawing on scholarly research about female everyday life in ancient Israel and combining that research with an engaging narrative. Each chapter begins with a story about a fictional Hebrew woman named Orah, whose activities illustrate village life in the early Iron Age (1200–1000 b.c.e.). Each phase of Orah's life, from birth to death, is set within a different part of the agricultural calendar, thus allowing Ebeling to illustrate not only daily chores, but also significant life events and major religious festivals. If the reader finds him or herself wanting to read more about the activities covered, each chapter ends with a list of suggested reading on those particular aspects.

The introduction clearly and concisely addresses the issues that will inform the reader as to the following: why this type of book was necessary; the problems within past research of women's daily lives; the methods this book uses to help address said problems; and the setting of Orah's story within (what would have been) its historical context. From here, the chapters follow the life cycle of an ancient Israelite woman: birth, childhood, womanhood, marriage, childbirth, motherhood, and old age and death.

Chapter 1 (birth) begins with Orah's birth during the barley harvest and the Passover / Unleavened Bread Festival during the spring. The center of family life, the Israelite house, and its social component (the bet ʾab or bet ʾēm) is presented, as is one of the primary elements of ancient survival—food production. Aspects of production introduced include diet, economy, and the agricultural cycle.

Chapter 2 (childhood) is set within the end of the barley/wheat harvest and the Festival of Weeks in late spring. This chapter demonstrates the role of a female child within the household, primarily learning from the other women of the family about how to conduct important household chores: baking bread, brewing bear, making pottery, spinning thread, and weaving textiles—activities that she will need later on as a wife and mother.

Chapter 3 (womanhood) occurs during the grape harvest and wine making of early summer. In this chapter, Orah learns how to manage her first menstruation and explains how a household would have dealt with a girl transitioning into womanhood. Issues explained include menstruation and purity, perfume and incense, and household religion.

In Chapter 4 (marriage), the summer fruit is ready to harvest. Orah's parents have arranged for her marriage, and she moves into her husband's bet ʾab. Marriage arrangements, wedding customs, music and dancing, and clothing are discussed in this chapter.

Chapter 5 (childbirth) focuses on the importance of procreation to the ancient Israelite household and the danger (real or imagined) that came along with it. Orah gives birth to her first child in late summer, when the later fruits are harvested. Aspects of childbirth that are depicted in this chapter include midwives, the location and equipment of childbirth, amulets and jewellery, and basketry.

Chapter 6 (motherhood) is set during the olive harvest of early autumn and Orah's family travels to Shiloh for the Festival of Ingathering / Booths. Breastfeeding and weaning, olive harvest and the production of olive oil, hide working, and the shrine at and pilgrimage to Shiloh are explained.

The last and final chapter of Orah's life (chapter 7) illustrates her old age as a widow, grandmother, and matriarch of her household until her wintery death in her late 30s. Late in life elements discussed in this chapter include widowhood, health and medicine, funerary rituals, and the mortuary cult.

I was skeptical of the narrative element at first. A number of the “historical fiction” books about biblical characters have left me frustrated by their lack of research. However, I soon found myself engaged with Orah's story, wanting more, and sad to see her die. The fact is that in this case the narrative was used to illustrate the scholarly research Ebeling conducted; it was not the main point of the book, but it put the academic element into a more welcoming environment. Ebeling's research is solid; it is interdisciplinary but cognizant of the limitations such research can have. For instance, the issue of using the Hebrew Bible as a historical text is addressed in the introduction, especially important given the fact that the Hebrew Bible itself is not concerned with reflecting the daily lives of average Israelite women. What is not addressed, however, is how one does use the Hebrew Bible in researching such a topic despite its limitations, given that it is used as one of Ebeling's main sources. Because Ebeling's book was written with the general audience in mind, the inclusion of a glossary might also have been helpful to provide explanation of terms that the lay reader may be unfamiliar with.

Women's Lives in Biblical Times is a good foundational text for anyone interested in learning more about the daily lives of average Israelite women. I would also recommend this book to scholars who are interested in including a cultural-contextual element to their lectures on ancient Israel.

Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, William Jessup University

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