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Old Testament Essays

On-line version ISSN 2312-3621
Print version ISSN 1010-9919

Old testam. essays vol.26 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2013


The dissolution of the monarchy, the collapse of the temple and the "elevation" of women in the post-exilic period: Any relevance for African women's theologies?1



Madipoane Masenya

Ngwan'a Mphahlele. University of South Africa





The profound changes which accompanied state formation in ancient Israel would have had a profound impact on the gender parity which, according to some feminist scholars, typified the settlement period. In the absence of the monarchy and the Jerusalem temple during the post-exilic period, the family, with woman as household manager, regained significance as the locus of divine authority. Based on the preceding claims, scholars such as Claudia Camp and Tamara Eskenazi argue that women's status was elevated during the post-exilic period. With the views of such scholars in mind and given the place enjoyed by the Christian Bible in many an African context, the present article will engage the following main questions: Could biblical women's lives have something positive to offer to African women today? If the alleged elevated status of women was usually linked with woman's position in the family, could such a link enable a woman-affirming African women's theology on the family?




The systems of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa found a limping animal but still let it climb a mountain! On account of gender disparities among others, African women's situation in the patriarchal, pre-colonial South Africa can be compared with that of a limping animal. The afore-mentioned systems, supported by a particular biblical hermeneutic and the emasculation of African men among others, served to aggravate the already vulnerable situation of women.

Wa re o e bona e hlotša, wa e nametša thaba is a proverb which reveals that a specific situation is being exacerbated. "When you saw it (the cow) limping, you still let it climb the mountain" is its literal meaning. The proverb comes to mind when the dynamics of power, economics, politics, religion and gender in ancient Israel are analysed. During the settlement period, the family household was the key entity in providing for almost all the needs of the members.2 With women as household managers and the many roles which they played towards the households' overall well-being, it makes sense that some scholars would argue that there was egalitarianism between women and men during the same period. However, with the introduction of male-controlled institutions such as the monarchy and the Jerusalem temple, female visibility and impact receded, and the limping animal was thus made to go uphill.

In the present article, I present the claims by scholars such as Camp and Eskenazi on the elevated status of women in Yehud. Attention will thus be given to female and family imagery in the book of Proverbs3 as well as selected texts from Ezra-Nehemiah.4

First, I give a brief background to the complexities brought about by the monarchy in Israel, complexities which allegedly tampered with the relative gender parity of the settlement period. I then engage the afore-mentioned scholars' works and conclude by suggesting the implications of women's alleged elevated status in Yehud for the construction of a woman-friendly African biblical hermeneutic.



According to Meyers, the pioneering conditions during the settlement period enabled some form of egalitarianism between women and men5. Throughout the years, Israelite economy firmly relied on agriculture. The hard work of farm families was thus pivotal for the successful running of a family household. As both a biological and economic unit, the household produced and processed all the food, clothing and implements, (except metal items), necessary for people's survival in the Palestinian highlands.6 A similar situation is clearly visible in the portrait of the 'ēšet hayil in Prov 31:10-31. Such apparent points of resemblance throw light on the commonalities between the settlement period conditions and the post-exilic period ones.7

Women's economic roles included outdoor farm work. Consequently planting, weeding and harvesting all depended on their involvement. As their tasks had to be compatible with child care, women were actively involved in gardening. The cultivation of fruit trees, vines, vegetables and herbs rather than field crops, took a significant portion of the time women spent outdoors.8

For food to be edible, it had to be processed. Women were thus involved in the time- consuming series of needed operations like soaking, milling, grounding and baking prior to food consumption. They were often engaged in the time consuming aspects of the provision of clothing such as the shearing of wool, the preparation of flax, the carding and spinning of thread, cloth weaving and the sewing of garments. Meyers reasons that on the average, for much of the year, many hours in a day would have been invested by Israelite women in some aspect of clothing manufacture.9 Two features come to light regarding women's economic involvement, first, they spent many hours in life-supporting activities per day and second, many of their tasks, if not all, involved some degree of technological expertise.10

Like in any other pioneering (and even non-pioneering contexts), Israelite women's roles as mothers and carers of children were pertinent. Meyers argues: "The raison d'être for large families was the labour-intensive nature of the agricultural economy of ancient Israel." Noteworthy is that women's motherly role was linked with their educative tasks. However, according to Meyers:

This educative role is not directly visible in scripture, where the presence of sages and elders gives the impression of a male monopoly on the teaching and inculcating of traditional practices and beliefs. Yet the day-to-day interactions of mothers with children in the household were of foundational significance in passing most aspects of Israelite culture from one generation to the next.11

Israelite women also had a share in the religious sphere. They participated in the multi-faceted religious life as organisers and participants in household based festivals. The following examples are noteworthy: Deborah received honour as a "mother in Israel" (Judg 5:7); as a judge and a prophet who at Yahweh's command summoned Israelite forces to war and accompanied them to the battle (Judg 4:4-10; 5:7, 12-15); Jephthah's virgin daughter "initiated" an annual ritual of mourning by Israelite daughters (Judg 11:34-40); Micah's mother commissioned an image for the shrine of the family. The latter was established by her son (Judg 17:1-13) and women as dancers at the yearly feast at Shiloh (Judg 21:19-21).12 The great hymns which were sung by them in celebration of Israel's victory (Judg 5) come to mind.13

Bird14 also reminds us of women's religious activities within the hidden spheres of the home: "Of possibly greater significance for an understanding of women's religious participation and the total religious life of the community is the hidden reality of women's rituals and devotions which take place entirely within the domestic sphere and/or in the company of other women."15 Such activities become even more critical, particularly where women are excluded from the central cultus.

The present South African context is not the same as the settlement period with its pioneering conditions, a blurred separation between the public and private spheres and a household economy whose success depended on women's tireless efforts. We may thus not appreciate the conditions as we ought to. However, if understood first and foremost within the context of their own time, the issue of gender parity raised by Meyers might make some sense. Men also played roles as hunters, protectors (cf. the military) and heads of households among others. For Meyers though, the work of women was at certain points more demanding and required some technological expertise.16

Given the active role which Israelite women played towards the overall welfare of the household unit, it occasions no surprise that scholars such as Meyers could claim that there was some egalitarianism between women and men during the settlement period? What is questionable though is the possibility of gender parity within a patriarchal household. The latter was a context in which despite the major role played by women in the household economy, they had no say in the distribution and inheritance of assets. The monarchy thus found a limping animal but still let it go uphill. How so? We now turn to this question.



The apparent17 gender parity during the settlement period was not to last long though. It was eroded by the complex forces which accompanied the formation and development of the Israelite state. The monarchy became a watershed event in the formation of hierarchies in ancient Israel. With the household losing power as the locus of authority, the relative gender parity was seriously tampered with.

Schlegel offers a helpful remark about forces leading to sexual stratification from a cross-cultural perspective. In her view, differentiation in sex roles is a response to both the internal dynamic of a society and to the external conditions to which a society must respond. It thus becomes pertinent to examine critically society's central institutions and the degree to which they favour one sex or the other: "Where the household or lineage is central, as it is among the Hopi and the Bontoc, or where the economic system involves more or less equal tasks and decision making roles, as on the Barbadian plantation or in the Israeli kibbutz, the relation between the sexes tends to be balanced and complementary."18 The preceding situation compares to that of the settlement period. However, Schlegel further argues ... "Where economic production favours male control, as in colonial Ghana, or where male-controlled military activities are central, as in the feuding pattern among Israeli Arab clans, male activities become predominant and men come to be the primary decision makers in almost all aspects of social life."19 The latter can be likened to that of monarchic Israel.

With the formation and rise of the state, there was a shift in the locus of power from the family household in which women played significant roles to a male-controlled public world. The nation state led to the growing prominence of the military, the growth of the state and religious bureaucracies with a hold on economic development. Whenever such male-controlled public institutions become significant, female prestige and power recede.20

A local comparable example comes to mind: in pre-colonial South Africa, the economy of the household has always formed part of the patriarchal household. The division of the public versus the private spheres was thus slim. Women's contributions towards the household economy were valued. The division between the two spheres only became significant with the introduction of capitalist economy by colonialists. Consequently, a new definition of labour as a way of earning money was introduced. The preceding situation resulted in Western wages (money) becoming more esteemed than African wages (crops, cattle among others). Also, work performed in the public male sphere became more valued than work done in the private female sphere. Even African women's contribution in the family's agricultural economy became undermined by the capitalistic government as large scale agricultural economy fell into the hands of the powerful few.21

With the centralisation of political power during the monarchy though, the powers of the father-husband as well as the local loyalties to extended family, clan or tribe, were weakened.22 As a result, the important activities which were performed in the patriarchal household during the settlement period became less and devalued as compared to the male activities of the public male-operated sphere. There also came a shift from the village to the city with its repercussions for the inactive role particularly of the wives of the elites towards the economy of the country.23 The monarchy also served to further marginalise women religiously in terms of their formal exclusion from significant temple duties. It must however be acknowledged with Bird24 that "... the (Israelite) cultus (was) an originally or essentially, male institution or association." Using the proverbial limping animal as an analogy, we may argue that the establishment of the temple served to let the animal go uphill as in the following examples: it meant the employment of male priests. The purification laws would then officially form part of an established religious institution, laws which scrutinised and sanctioned female biology to women's detriment. The effects of such laws continue to be felt by us even today.25 In Bird's view, the progressive movement from multiple cultic centres to a central site which ultimately claimed sole legitimacy and control over certain ritual events necessarily led to the limiting of women's participation in pilgrim feasts. It also restricted women's opportunities to seek guidance, release and consolation at local shrines.26

However, with the dissolution of the monarchy and the collapse of the temple, a new situation arose, one almost akin to that of the settlement period. The family regained power as a locus of authority. Hence, the claims by Camp and Eskenazi that the post-exilic period marked an era in which women's status became elevated. In the next sections, I present cases from the book of Proverbs and Ezra-Nehemiah to illustrate their claim.



In Proverbs, more clearly than anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, the resurgence of the socio-religious significance of the family becomes notable.27 Two major issues were significant for the returnees.28 First, a need arose for a functional family household to accomplish survival tasks and to rebuild society. Within a divided and contentious community, clear evidence of family identity was needed to establish claims to land and political power.29 Second, a need arose for the promulgation of pure and proper worship of YHWH, devoid of foreign cultic practice. Both issues were closely linked and reached moments of crisis as some members of the Golah married into foreign families. Foreign marriage, notes Camp,30 brought the danger of foreign gods, even as it threatened the family's stability. Proverbs' direct support of the individual family's integrity, contributes to its indirect support of the community's covenant relationsh