Carol Meyers 1988 Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context,
Oxford Univ. Pr., Oxford. ISBN 0-19-504934-9

Extracts ...

[Rogers'] description of the configuration of male and female behavior and ideology challenges the very core of the idea of patriarchy as a system of male dominance. The parameters of male dominance, at the very least, must be examined more closely than has been the norm. Rogers lists characteristics of a system in which the myth of male dominance is operative. These characteristics can be identified in a wide variety of peasant and even nonpeasant societies. Their value in cross-cultural analysis is therefore legitimate, and hence they can be used appropriately in considering another social group - tribal Israel - for which direct observation is not possible. What then are the features of a community in which the "myth" of male control is superimposed on a condition of functional nonhierarchy? The components are as follows:

  1. Women are primarily associated with domestic matters.
  2. The society is domestic-oriented; life centers around the home, and what happens in the home has implications for life beyond the home.
  3. Formal rights may disadvantage females; but the day-to-day infor mal interactions in which females can exert power in a small community are at least as important a force as authorized rights.
  4. A corollary and prior condition of item 3 is that males do have greater access to jural, political, and other formal aspects of community structure.
  5. Men are occupied with activities that are culturally valued.
  6. Males and females experience mutual interdependence in important ways, e.g., politically, economically, and/or socially; males may appear autonomous, but in fact can no more act or survive on their own than can females.

According to Rogers, the last point is particularly critical, for it means that both men and women will tend to perpetuate the system of social balance: of male authority offset by female power. This model is readily suggestive of a potential method for evaluating gender relationships in formative Israel. Items 3, 4, and 5 require no investigation. The "patriarchal" stance of the biblical canon establishes the androcentric nature of ancient Israel with respect to legal rights, formal positions in society, and prominent activities in the community. Item 1 can also be assumed in that females are all but invisible in the Bible with its public orientation. Viewed from another angle, those biblical books least overtly concerned with public and corporate life are the very ones in which females are, relatively, most visible. For the socalled "patriarchal" legends of Genesis, the social setting of family life and female characterizations in the persons of the "matriarchs" are essential parts of the narratives. Skeptics might argue, on the basis of literary analysis," that the females serve only to underscore the importance of certain male figures. Be that as it may, the dominant actions of the patriarchs cannot fully mask the active roles of their female counterparts. Other examples of biblical books with a nonpublic orientation and a concomitant prominence of females are the Song of Songs and Proverbs, although the latter involves glimpses of female qualities in opposition, with women both highly valued and also treated as sources of danger or objects of contempt. We shall examine below female portrayals in the Song of Songs (Chapter 8) and in Proverbs (Chapter 7). What about items 2 and 6? Can the combined resources of archaeology, the biblical text, and comparative sociology and social anthropology provide us with sufficient evidence for an evaluation of domestic orientation and mutual interdependence? My opinion is that, for Israel's formative period, an analysis of female and male interaction as a function of these two points is possible. The second part of this book (Chapters 6-8) will argue for the domestic orientation and gender interdependence of earliest Israel. Insofar as we are successful in doing so, we shall be able to conclude that there was a functional lack of hierarchy in Israelite gender relations. Even if a substantial amount of female power exists in any society, the accompanying lack of female authority is in no way to be condoned from a contemporary perspective. Rogers does not intend to be apologetic, nor do 1. The ancient or peasant configurations may indeed be functional and adaptive, although anthropological theory has yet to produce fully explanatory analyses. Clearly the maternal role of women in preindustrial societies is related to gender asymmetry, but any set of fundamental and predictable consequences of that relationship has eluded scholars. The great variation in the patterns of gender asymmetry that we have already noted is the norm and hence is part of the problem. Subtle nuances in the environment and history of individual societies create an infinite number of cultural and social forms that defy attempts to understand origins and establish typologies. The matter of apologetics deserves further comment. Functional nonhierarchy of at least some peasant societies is not synonymous with equality, because gender asymmetry is an intrinsic feature of such situations. Yet the balance between female and male power is not a trivial matter, even from the perspective of contemporary feminist ideology. The ability of women to determine the shape of important aspects of personal and group life, and the concomitant hidden value attached to the female persona, make the notion of legal or jural equality a moot point. Feminists who condemn or bemoan the apparent patriarchy of ancient or other societies may be deflecting their energies from what should be the real focus of their concern: the transformation of functional gender balance to situations of real imbalance. In other words, what happened to change the myth of male dominance to the reality of male dominance? What is there in the nature of urban and/or industrial life that alters the model of balance that exists for some peasant societies? If our position with respect to biblical or Israelite patriarchy is revisionist, this is not to idealize ancient Israel but rather to free feminist critics from a misplaced preoccupation with biblical androcentrism and allow them to search for the dynamics that led to the dichotomizing of gender attributes by early postbiblical times.


The strong and earthy meaning of the word tesuqa, translated as "desire," is clear, although its verbal root happens to be dubious. The noun is found in only two other places in the Hebrew Bible. In the Song of Songs, where the reciprocal nature of human love is the keynote, a short love song beginning in 7:11 has the woman telling of the man's "desire" for her. The ultimate consequence of the love attraction is sexual activity (7:12,13). What is fascinating about this love song is that intervening between the expression of the man's yearning and the statement that the woman will give him her love is a depiction of what the couple will do together in the interim (i.e., between the declaration and its sexual fulfillment). The mutual attraction of the couple is not simply a sexual meeting, because their physical union apparently follows a day's work. The man and woman rise early, first to make their way through fields, vineyards, and orchards, and then to make love. The use of "desire" in the love lyrics of the Song of Songs is thus associated with a rather leisured and altogether pleasurable venture into the agrarian milieu of the couple. If the Song of Songs is indeed a midrash, or exposition, of the Eden story, the presence of sexual desire along with a sharing of agricultural tasks is a striking echo of Genesis motifs. The idyllic world of Canticles (Song of Songs) recaptures the nonarduous labor of Eden. It also indicates the same interrelationship of sexuality and productivity that Genesis 3:16 emphasizes. Only the Song of Songs returns us to Eden, where the pleasure of sexuality stands out apart from the tribulations of its procreative aspect, and where the tending of a beautiful and productive garden does not entail great effort and anguish. Despite the broader aspects of "desire" in Song of Songs, one might be tempted to assign an exclusively sexual meaning to this word. Indeed, at least one scholar would translate it "desire for intercourse." Yet in its other (third) biblical usage the word lacks sexual connotations. Immediately following the Eden story, the Cain and Abel narrative uses "desire" to refer to the attraction that the demon sin26 holds for Cain, and consequently for all people, according to the symbolic role of Cain. As the first naturally born human, Cain is representative of human life and the problem of sinfulness. The concept common to this usage and to the sexual nuances of the Canticles and Genesis 3 instances is that of a strong urge of one being for another. "Desire" is an emotional and/or physical attraction that transcends thought and rationality. Consequently, it is an entirely suitable designation for the sexual nature of the mutual attraction of a female and a male. The strength of the woman's feelings for her mate is thus indicated in this line of Genesis 3:16 by "desire," which includes but is broader than sexual attraction alone.


Because the premonarchic period in ancient Israel lacked significant public life, this question needs to be addressed. With households managed by women, the decisions made by them will have great social impact. In short, female power will be as significant as male power, and perhaps even greater. To put it another way, in a prestate society in which the household is the fundamental institution and the primary locus of power, females may even have a predominant role, at least within the broad parameters of household life. This hypothesis brings again to mind the Victorian theorists who proposed the existence of a primary matriarchy. They did not actually suggest a matriarchal structure like the patriarchies they observed, with females simply reversing positions with males. Furthermore, they did not postulate the existence of matriarchies on the basis of public rule by females. Rather, they perhaps correctly recognized that women had an important place wherever public life is not significantly differentiated from domestic life. They erred in calling such situations matriarchies, but they astutely recognized the prominence for females in a world dominated by the very realms in which females most typically exert control. Ideally, we should ferret out some sign of female eminence in domestic life in the Bible. However, this is difficult to do because the biblical source itself (as pointed out in Chapter 1) is largely a product of (mate) public structures, of male-dominated civil and religious bureaucracies. Many scholars have nonetheless turned to such texts as the patriarchalor matriarchal-narratives of Genesis for information about family dynamics in ancient Israel. We have resisted using the Genesis narratives as reliable sociological data for earliest Israel and will look instead at other texts. However, the Genesis ancestor traditions combine two features relevant to our methodological perspective: first, they are oriented to the domestic or household world, with the interaction between the Hebrews and other peoples taking place through a single, eponymous "family" (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) over several telescoped generations; second, women play an especially prominent role in these narratives, with the outcome of critical family decisions determined by female activity and initiative. These observations imply that this literature reveals women exerting power in charting the course of family and, by extension, national well-being. Despite the intriguing possibilities of the matriarchal tales for recovering the social history of early Israel, the complexity of their literary formation and the highly crafted if not fictive nature of their final arrangement in the canon makes their relevance problematic.

It would be useful to look at some other biblical depiction of the nonpublic world of ancient Israel. And there is one such source, namely, that most "unbiblical" of all biblical books, the Song of Songs (also known as [Canticle of] Canticles or the Song of Solomon). As early as the mid-nineteenth century, the Song of Songs was noted for its special attention to women. More recently, the author of one of the most detailed commentaries on the Song of Songs, Marvin Pope, calls the eloquent exposition by his nineteenth-century predecessor a "pioneer manifesto on the emancipation of women." Though largely unaware of insights expressed over a century earlier, feminist biblical scholars have naturally turned to the Song of Songs as a source for affirmation of female worth. The mutuality of love in this book makes its representation of gender relationships stand apart from the impression of male dominance that permeates much of the Hebrew Bible. The question, then, is whether the gender relationships portrayed in the Song of Songs can contribute to our discussion of gender balance and female power in early Israel. One would first look to the date and context of the Song of Songs in order to answer that question; however, as for several other biblical books to which we have turned (e.g., Proverbs), this poetic work confounds the usual attempts of biblical scholars to pinpoint its origins. Nonetheless, some scholars have recently cast aside long-held views of a late date (Persian period, sixth-fifth century, or later) and instead suggest a date in the early monarchic period. Furthermore, even if the Song's final form is an achievement of the end of the Iron Age, it surely incorporates much older material and contains a significant number of archaic literary forms. Consequently, its value for the understanding of the premonarchic and early monarchic period is considerable. The Song of Songs is notable for its significant divergence from the urban public context of most other biblical writings. The poetry is uncommonly replete with natural imagery. Full of the language of human love (language so explicit that postbiblical Christian and Jewish commentators treated it as allegory rather than as reality) the activities of the lovers are set against a rural backdrop. Mountains and vales figure prominently. The metaphors and similes drawn from the natural world are not limited to pastoral or wild settings; cultivated orchards, fields, and vineyards receive playful and rich attention. Domesticated animals find their place alongside wild animals. Cities are not unknown to the poet or poets, but the countryside overwhelmingly provides the extravagant images that make the language of love so vivid. Indeed, the richness and variety of flora and fauna make the poem a kind of response or counterpoint to the Eden story of Genesis 2-3.37 The garden setting itself and also some specific stylistic features create remarkable congruences between the Eden and Canticle gardens. Even though there is a royal Solomonic presence at points in the Canticle, the relationships portrayed are entirely domestic and private. The language of close kinship is prominent: mother, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers-even though the love-struck couple is not explicitly identified as married. The love relationship is set apart from (and above!) the legalities of the contracted union that marriage was in the ancient world. The qualities of a relationship on its own terms operated apart from the words for husband (which as we shall see later may have hierarchical implications) and wife. Within this rural, private world, the relationship between male and female is entirely consistent with the principles of gender balance. The mutuality of the lovers seeking each other is striking. There is no stereotyping of either sex; neither male dominance nor female subordination is present. The female is as aggressive in the pursuit of her loved one as he is in seeking her. If anything, the female dominates in her interaction with her lover. The dominant role of the female is conveyed by various literary features. The reported speech of the female, for example, occurs much more frequently than does that of the male. Of the verses that can clearly be identified as spoken by one or the other, fifty-six are spoken by the woman and only thirty-six by the man. The woman is far more verbal. She dominates the spoken interchanges and soliloquies; and it is her utterances that open the Song and close it. Note, too, that "father" does not appear in the list of the terms of family relationships that appear in the Song of Songs, whereas "mother" appears a perfect-in Semitic symbolism-seven times. Just as the structural emphasis on the woman's speech elevates the female position, so too does the repetition of "mother" to the exclusion of "father." In addition, the supporting characters in the Song of Songs are largely female. The "daughters of Jerusalem" figure prominently in the poetry, but there are no corresponding male figures. There are two other fascinating uses of imagery with respect to gender. The first is the use of military metaphors. Although the language of gardens, hillsides, plants, and animals predominates, in a few instances military images and references to monumental architecture (towers and cities) are interspersed.1 Such images are exclusively attached to the female. She is compared to a "mare of Pharaoh's chariots" (1:9); her neck is like "the tower of David, built for an arsenal, whereon hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of war" (4:4); she is akin to "an army with banners" (6:4,10); her neck again is the subject of comparison, "like an ivory tower" in 7:4, with her nose "like a tower of Lebanon"; and she is a wall with "battlements" (8:9,10), her breasts "like towers" (8: 10). Apart from the question about whether or not the military imagery is flattering, its association with the female and not the male is striking. The second unexpected use of metaphoric language comes in the way faunal imagery appears. In the large repertoire of animals in the Song of Songs, only the woman is linked with the powerful ones, the lion and the leopard (4:8). Like the military images, the faunal images contain depictions of the female that are counter to stereotypical depictions. The architectural and animal images convey might, strength, aggression, even danger. That is, conventional or stereotypical aspects of gender portrayal have been reversed. The language of the military and of the hunt is nearly always male language, and here it is used for a woman. These associations of the female with power should not be taken literally, as meaning that women were warriors or hunters. Rather, those images are metaphors for power and control, and they are used in the Song to suggest female attributes. As literary images, they can be compared to certain graphic images found in ancient art: the appearance of bons or weapons of war in the iconography of goddesses in the ancient Near East. These visual symbols are not images derived from any projections of Amazonlike female behavior onto the world of the gods and goddesses. Rather, they convey the power attributed to the female deities. The many unusual aspects of gender portrayal in the Song of Songs mandate consideration of its social context. Another rare image alerts us to the Song's inherently private social milieu: the poem twice mentions bet'em, "mother's house" (3:4; 8:2). Nowhere in the Song is the mascufine equivalent ("father's house") used. The appearance of "mother's house" is striking in view of the overriding importance of "father's house" (bet'ab) as the biblical term for the family household, which was the innermost circle of Israelite life (see Chapters 5 and 7) and the major sphere of existence during the premonarchic period. "Mother's house" is a rare term not only in the Song but also in the Hebrew Bible as a whole. It is found elsewhere only in the domestic scenarios of Genesis 24:28 and Ruth 1:8. In addition, the so-called Woman of Worth of Proverbs 31, a poem considered premonarchic by some, repeatedly refers to "her house" (betah, in 31:21, 27). The industrious woman of that poem "not only runs the household but, in effect, defines it in a manner analogous to the more usual reference to the bet lab. " Interestingly enough, the strength of the woman of Proverbs 31 is portrayed mainly in terms of her economic functions. Because "father's house" is the normal term for the household unit, the use of "mother's house" demands close scrutiny. The term "father's house" is clearly male oriented and derives from lineage concerns, that is, from the way descent and property were reckoned along patrilineal lines. But here in the Song we encounter a situation devoid of such concerns. Rather, the situation is one of relationships, and the primary orientation lies with the female of the pair. Without the matter of lineage reckoning as part of the dynamics of the Song (or of Proverbs 31), the internal functional and relational aspect of household activity, in which females played a strong if not dominant role, is appropriately expressed by "mother's house" and not "father's house." The Song of Songs, standing virtually alone among the biblical books apart from the stratifying consequences of institutional and public life, reveals a situation of gender mutuality. There is no trace of subordination of female to male, and there is a presence of power images for the female and not the male. As a uniquely "popular" work, it reflects a setting in the family that predominated in the premonarchic period and that continued to exist, though perhaps in altered ways, thereafter (see Epilogue). The Song is a product of domestic life and not of the public world of kings and priests, bureaucrats and soldiers. It preserves a glimpse of the gender mutuality and female power that existed in family households. For the most part, the active role of women in household-oriented societies is not visible in the public written record. Even in this century, the place of women in such societies lacks visibility. Females in such settings do have real power. The cultural expression of female power in early Israel has miraculously survived in one small part of the official, canonical record of that society. Females and power images are prominently linked in the Song of Songs, the lyrics of love. Female power in a complex household can imply a significant control by females over so-called public or extradomestic functions,41 few as they may have been in a prestate society. Cross-cultural studies suggest that public roles for women, though neither formalized nor regularized, were not trivial. First, the very way in which reproduction was viewed in the context of public as well as domestic needs (see above, pp. 165-166) indicates a role for women in society at large. Second, the existence of female charismatics such as prophets, who were engaged in occasional public leadership activity, is a sign of the acceptance of females operating in areas affecting large segments of society. The few female prophets and wisdom figures visible in the Hebrew Bible are not questioned in their authoritative roles. Third, the elevation of the concept of wisdom and skill expressed as a female figure to semidivine status perhaps points subtly to the acceptance of female influence in public political and economic life. At the same time, however, since wisdom typically involves indirect influence rather than the exertion of formal control," the association of females with wisdom would be a signal of informal social power rather than legally recognized authority to act. Incipient gender hierarchies may have existed even in earliest Israel and were certainly present in the monarchic period. Yet, female power deriving from the various roles (economic and other) played by women in the complex peasant households enabled them to minimize or offset whatever formal authority was held by males. Assumptions of male dominance and female subservience in ancient Israel, derived from formal texts and from postbiblical traditions, may be part of the "myth" of male control masking a situation of male dependence. Gender relationships are the consequence of complex influences, involving specific social and economic arrangements; reconstructing the internal dynamics of a society thus is the only legitimate way to dispel the "myth" and to increase the visibility of Eve. Our examination of Israelite society allows us to see Eve as a figure no less powerful than her male counterpart.