What Biblical womanhood looked like
People of faith have long wanted to lead Biblically based lives. This naturally flows into an attempt to determine what it means to be an “Everyday Eve.” There are a plethora of interpretations and understandings regarding what Biblical womanhood is and what it looks like. Rachel Held Evans recently spent a whole year trying to live by the rules that governed Biblical womanhood and wrote a book about the experience. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood maintains an active website and attempts to provide definitive definitions of these phrases. However, what one notices even between these two examples is a vastly difference understanding of the phrase Biblical womanhood. Those who wish to gain insight into Biblical womanhood often begin with the Bible and with the character Eve, as she is the first woman, wife and mother.
While most turn to Scripture to find Biblical womanhood, this is not an easy task. As Carol L. Meyers points out in “‘Eves’ of Everyday Ancient Israel” in the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, women are significantly underrepresented in the Bible, and thus very little of their lives can be gleaned from the material.
Beyond the sheer lack of literary material, the other challenge that people face when trying to gain a Biblical understanding of womanhood is one of hermeneutics, or, simply put, the strategy one uses for interpreting a text. It has become clear that the readers’ presuppositions affect the meanings that they derive from the narratives. For example, through many periods of history, male superiority was an understood norm. Thus interpreters from this period argued that women should be seen as subordinate to men because the first woman was created out of the first man. However, Phyllis Trible famously demonstrated the fallacy inherent in this logic when she pointed out that the first man was made from dirt and thus would be subordinate to mud (see “If the Bible’s So Patriarchal, How Come I love It?” in Bible Review, October 1992).
Perhaps even more challenging for the average reader is the translation effect that occurs within the Biblical text. Most often in North America the Bible is being read in translation and the readers do not know Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. This has also come into play when trying to understand how to be an Everyday Eve. In Genesis 2, God says that Eve is to be a “helper” to Adam. In English, “helper” tends to be subsidiary or even subordinate. Yet the Hebrew word—ozr—contains none of that connotation—and in fact, the word is used mostly of God. If one were to assign a subordinate role to Biblical womanhood because of this designation as a “helper,” that person would actually be adding something to the text that is not there and at the same time would be missing the important attribute that is present.
Does this mean that attempting to determine the Biblical approach to something is fruitless? No. It does mean that one needs to have a certain amount of self-awareness and an eye for the details within the text. In addition, there are other avenues of exploration available. We have texts from other ancient cultures that can help round out a reader’s view of the ancient world, and we also have the archaeological record, which is particularly important when trying to better understand daily life in ancient Israel. The women that do appear in the Biblical text are the extraordinary and the exceptional (not always for a good reason), and because of this, they might not provide the best insight into the Everyday Eve.
For more on what daily life would have been like for the average Israelite woman, read the full article “‘Eves’ of Everyday Ancient Israel” by Carol L. Meyers in the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
BAS Library Members: Read “‘Eves’ of Everyday Ancient Israel” by Carol L. Meyers as it appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 20, 2014.
Ellen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), is senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society. She has taught at five universities across the U.S. and Canada and spent research leaves in Germany and Romania. She has also been actively involved in digs at various sites in Israel.
Ingrid D. Rowland, “Etruscan Women—Dignified, Charming, Literate and Free,” Archaeology Odyssey, May/June 2004.
Tal Ilan, “How Women Differed,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1998.
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