Excavations at Tel Abel Beth Maacah contextualize female seers in the Bible
In their article “The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Nava Panitz-Cohen and Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem investigate this biblical figure. Along with Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, Panitz-Cohen and Yahalom-Mack direct excavations at the site of Tel Abel Beth Maacah in northern Israel. Their excavations provide insight into the figure of the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah.
The Bible mentions two wise women: the Wise Woman of Tekoa (2 Samuel 14) and the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20). Both women appear in narratives connected to King David’s reign. They act wisely and authoritatively. They give advice, which is heeded by powerful men—King David in the first instance and Joab in the second.
Who were these wise women in the Bible? Were they just shrewd women, or did they fill a more formal role in society? Should we view them as female seers? Panitz-Cohen and Yahalom-Mack investigate the archaeological discoveries at Tel Abel Beth Maacah and the biblical text for the answers to these questions.
At Tel Abel Beth Maacah, the excavators have found several rooms with cultic paraphernalia in a large public building. One room dates to the late 11th or early tenth century B.C.E. (late Iron Age I). Another room, a stone-paved courtyard, dates to the late tenth–ninth centuries B.C.E. (Iron IIA). Notably, archaeologists uncovered a jar holding 425 astragali (ankle bones) of sheep, goats, and deer on a podium in the courtyard. Astragali have been found in excavations throughout the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world. Panitz-Cohen and Yahalom-Mack explain the different scholarly interpretations for their purpose: “They may have been used as game pieces, or they may have been used in ritual activities, such as divination, as well as in political advisory.” For example, astragali may have been used in cleromancy (casting lots to foretell the future).
Although the exact purpose of the astragali from the jar is unknown, the authors contend that such a large collection probably featured in a ritual activity. This fits well with their interpretation of Abel Beth-Maacah as a potential center of oracular wisdom, a place people visited to have their questions answered—something the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah herself asserts in 2 Samuel 20:18, when she tells Joab, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter.”Should then the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah and the Wise Woman of Tekoa be viewed as female seers? In the Bible, they are not called seers. However, the authors identify wise women in other ancient texts who were considered ritual experts:
Interestingly, wise women (sometimes termed “old women”) are also mentioned in Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) Hittite texts as ritual experts who operated based on folk knowledge, practicing a range of divinatory and magical tasks, which included fer¬tility rites, healing, and protection against plague or other misfortunes.
The comparison is interesting. Panitz-Cohen and Yahalom-Mack clarify that they are not claiming that the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah definitively practiced divination or served as spiritual leader—but she may have. Part of her authority likely stemmed from her town’s reputation as a place of wisdom.
Whether or not biblical wise women were seers, we can say that they filled a public role in society, which was political and authoritative. Learn more about the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah and the ongoing excavations at Abel Beth Maacah in Nava Panitz-Cohen and Naama Yahalom-Mack’s article “The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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