"Weren't OT women WORSE off than even their Babylonian counterparts?"

[Note: This is a simple summary of the detailed data in the syllabus. Refer there for sources/discussion. Updated: 01/02/97]
The feminist scholar Gerda Lerner, in her book The Creation of Patriarchy makes the following statement (WS:TCP:171):
"In general, the married Jewish woman occupied an inferior position to that of her counterpart in Mesopotamian societies. Babylonian women could own property, sign contracts, take legal action, and they were entitled to a share in the husband's inheritance."
Now, we have already documented that women in the OT "could own property" and "take legal action." We don't have much information about "contract signing"--even for males, but the fact that marriage was called a 'covenant' and that women had to 'consent' to this covenant in the OT, would provide at least SOME data of contracting-powers for women. (Also, the real-estate lady of Proverbs 31 would have to have had at least SOME power of attorney/agency.)

As to the "share in the husband's inheritance", I cannot see why the case of the widow (such as Naomi in the book of Ruth) would not be exactly this. But, even if that is not a counter-example, all it means is that there is no biblical data ONE WAY OR ANOTHER--and so the original statement is simply unfounded.

So, the OT documents (pre-exilic) provide evidence AGAINST Lerner's statement.

Now, let's look at some post-exilic data (from archeology)...

Lerner admits that she 'stepped out of her field' in writing this book, and was dependent on outside counsel in Assyriology, and so perhaps her omission of the important data from the Elephantine papyri is understandable. But consideration of the data available in it should have radically 'arrested' her argumentation.

Instead of a general 'constriction' of women's 'rights' over time, the Elephantine data indicates a much freer situation that Lerner might suppose.

The Elephantine texts can be found in ANET:222-223 and the below citation is from WS:WBC:118:

Persian-period contracts and letters in which women figure quite prominently give evidence concerning the diversity of Jewish women's roles and powers. The Elephantine documents unambiguously show that Jewish women in the postexilic era had more power and privileges than biblical texts and later traditions suggest. These documents come from the Jewish colony in Elephantine, Egypt, and can be precisely dated (sixth to fourth centuries B.C.E.) They contain original contracts and letters, many belonging to Jewish women. From this store- house of information about actual postexilic practices among one group of Jews, one can reconstruct social and economic realities of women's lives.

Various contracts from Elephantine show that these Jewish women were able to initiate divorce, buy and sell property, and inherit property even when there were male siblings. The Elephantine documents also illustrate how women were able to climb the social and economic ladder. An interesting example is the case of an Egyptian slave named Tamut (or Tapmu)l and her daughter. Tamut married a Jewish temple official and eventually gained some kind of position in the temple (the precise nature of her title is unclear). Her daughter (born during slavery as a child of either the master or the mother's future husband) became wealthy and important in the community. Tamut's daughter, not only her son, was a designated heir to the parents' property, belying the notion that women could inherit only when there were no male descendants (cf. Numbers 27).

Marriage contracts from Elephantine are particularly fascinating. They list what each woman brought into the marriage and state that she retained control over such possessions. In cases of divorce, her belongings remained hers. The marriage contracts also indicate that either partner could initiate divorce. Some even specify procedures and financial responsibilities in cases of abuse.

This data is from the Persian period--matching the data from Ezra/Nehemiah in our study. That such an 'advanced' situation for women obtained in a Jewish military outpost (!), could NOT have been an isolated situation. It simply could not have DEVELOPED from some alleged "harshly-restricted" situation in mainstream Palestine of the day...

[The data we have from scripture (describing this specific period) do not go into this much detail, but certainly doesn't contradict such a 'high view' of women's status in the period.]

So, the data from post-exilic Jewish life provide evidence AGAINST Lerner's statement.

And finally, although this is outside the time-frame of Lerner's work, we may note that women had ALL THESE PRIVILEDGES in post-70ad Jewry.

The data from this comes again from archeology--the Babata archive. This is composed of 35 papyri in Greek, Aramaic, and Nabatean, dating from AD 93-132. They document the life and "trials" of a Jewish woman and her family in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. (These documents have only been published within the last ten years.)

Chestnutt (WS:EWEC:127-130) discusses the import of these, and the quotes below indicate some of the relevance to our study:

"Babata's archive reveals a sad and complicated family history. Widowed twice, she spent most of her life in litigation. However, Babata's misfortune is the modern historian's fortune, for Babata did not discard the documents recording her marriages, lawsuits, and property transactions, but meticulously arranged them in four bundles and packed them in a leather pouch, which she wrapped in sackcloth and tied with ropes. The result is "the largest single collection of ancient documents ever found in the Holy Land'' and a priceless source of legal, historical, geographical, and linguistic information on Palestinian Jews in the Greco-Roman period. Especially fortunate for purposes of the present study is the fact Babata and other women figure prominently in the social and legal maneuverings reflected dramatically in these documents.

"Women's ownership and management of property is well-documented in the Babata archive. In a deed dated AD 120, Shimeon (Babata's father) endows Miriam (his wife and Babata's mother) with his property in Mahoza, a village at the southern end of the Dead Sea in the Nabatean region, although Shimeon retains the use of the property during his lifetime. Later Babata inherits this property from her mother. A document from AD 127 has Babata, accompanied by her second husband, going to the capital of Moab to register her extensive holdings of property before the Roman district commander. By AD 130, Babata's wealthy second husband, who owned property in both En-Gedi and Mahoza, has died and Babata has become the owner of several palm groves which had belonged to him. A record of her selling crops of dates from these orchards is preserved, as are records of litigation over the rightful ownership of the grove in Mahoza.

"Babata's incessant involvement in litigation spans the entire period covered by the Greek and Aramaic documents from her archive. In court, she defends her interests against claims from various members of her late husband' s family, including the other wife of her second husband and the guardians of her son by her first husband. The legal capabilities and initiative of Babata and other women in these documents are striking.

So, the Post-OT data provide evidence AGAINST Lerner's argument.

What this nets out to is that we have three data points in time: the Pre-exilic OT data, the Post-exilic Elephantine data, and the Post-70ad Babata archive--ALL that provide evidence against Lerner's statement.

These three data points span some 1500-2000 years and there is no indication of a 'break' in the trendline, nor of a 'constriction' of rights of Hebrew women. If Babylonian women WERE 'better off', it would NOT be because they alone had these legal powers!


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