The Shunammite Woman and the Patriarchy Problem
To be sure, the Bible is androcentric by any measure—the majority of its characters are male, and the male perspective appears throughout. Yet is it an accurate reflection of Israelite society of the Iron Age (ca. 1200–587 B.C.E.), which is not always the same as the Israel of the Bible? A close look at the two narratives of the Shunammite woman and a consideration of the origins of the concept of patriarchy and the problems it poses may lead to a rather different view of the purported gender hierarchy in ancient Israel.
The Woman of Shunem
The Shunammite narratives appear within the cycle of Elisha stories involving miracles. The woman of Shunem is not named, but her status is indicated. In 2 Kings 4:8 she is called gĕdôlâ (probably “great” or “distinguished”), a term usually describing esteemed people (e.g., 2 Kings 5:1; 10:11).
The first episode (2 Kings 4:8–37), which serves as the haftara for Parashat Vayera, begins by recounting how, when Elisha passes near her home, the Shunammite provides food for him and then decides to prepare a furnished chamber where he can spend the night on his travels. In return, Elisha offers to commend her to local authorities, but she refuses.
The prophet then, unbidden, announces that he will ensure that the childless Shunammite conceives, which she does. Sometime later, the son she bears becomes ill while in the fields with his father, who has him carried home to his mother, where he dies. She mounts a she-ass and rides to Elisha, who goes to her home and revives the lad.
The second episode (2 Kings 8:1-6) involves a seven-year famine. At Elisha’s urging, the Shunammite moves away with her household until the famine ends. When she returns, she finds that squatters had occupied her property. Appealing directly to the king, she has her possessions restored along with the income her fields would have provided during her absence.
Gender Dynamics in the Shunammite Narratives
Although the Shunammite’s experiences are embedded in narratives showcasing Elisha’s “great deeds” (gĕdōlôt; 2 Kings 8:4), they contain details of family life that have an air of authenticity. Several features of the episodes reveal gender dynamics in a well-to-do family.First, the woman of Shunem interacts readily with important figures: Elisha the prophet throughout, and the king at the end. In fact, the prophet comes to her with the warning to leave when famine begins.
מלכים ב ח:א וֶאֱלִישָׁע דִּבֶּר אֶל הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר הֶחֱיָה אֶת בְּנָהּ לֵאמֹר קוּמִי וּלְכִי (אתי) [אַתְּ] וּבֵיתֵךְ וְגוּרִי בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּגוּרִי
2 Kings 8:1 Elisha had said to the woman whose son he revived, “Leave immediately, you with your household, and go sojourn somewhere else…”
Second, she asserts that she needs no special favors from local officials, apparently because of her status in her community. Third, she makes decisions affecting her household autonomously—she, not her husband (who is also unnamed), is the one who recognizes Elisha as a holy man and offers him hospitality; she conceives of the home-improvement project that will provide lodging for the prophet; she decides to contact Elisha for help, despite her husband’s protests, when her son dies; and she alone appeals to the king for restitution of her home and property after the famine.
This woman exhibits the traits of a COO—chief operating officer—of the household. Other biblical figures show similar aspects of women’s managerial activities: Micah’s mother in Judges 17, Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, and the “strong woman” (’ēšet ḥayil) of Prov 31:10–31.They all have access to household resources and deploy them, without seeking spousal permission, for the benefit of their families.
These features of the actions and interactions of several biblical women call into question the idea of general subordination that is implicit in the patriarchy designation and may be indicative of a social reality that is often obscured by biblical androcentrism. A look at its origins reveals its limitations.
How Did the Term Patriarchy Originate?
“Patriarchy” is not a biblical term; it is a social science construct. Formed from the Greek words for “father” (pater) and “rule” (archō), it emerged—and entered the language of biblical scholarship and the accompanying study of ancient Israel—when the social sciences emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Three influential pioneers in the new field of anthropology (Henry Sumner Maine, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, and Lewis Henry Morgan) used the term to describe ancient families, notably those in Greek and Roman society. They mined classical literature, mainly legal sources, for information about family dynamics. The result? They formulated the idea of the patria potestas (“father’s power”), asserting that the father had complete and unlimited authority over the people and property of his household and that a woman was little more than a servant, with no household authority.
It didn’t take long for this concept of absolute male rule to enter the field of biblical studies. A large-scale history of ancient Israel published in the 1880s by the German theologian and historian Bernhard Stade was probably the first work by a biblical scholar to use “patriarchy” and “patriarchal society.” His reconstruction of Israelite society, which describes the great power of the Israelite pater familias, became influential in biblical studies.
Assumptions about biblical patriarchy persisted for generations in discussions of Israelite family structures. Notably, the French scholar Roland de Vaux, in his prestigious Ancient Israel, maintains that the Israelite family was undoubtedly patriarchal and that men were masters of their wives and children, even at times having the “power over life and death.”Many recent discussions follow suit.
Meanwhile, the patriarchy designation for families expanded by mid-twentieth century, becoming a designation for an entire society, this time under the impact of the new discipline of sociology. Max Weber’s Economy and Society, published posthumously in German in 1922, was especially influential on studies of ancient Israel, notably Martin Noth’s History of Israel, which became a standard text for generations. Noth calls both the Israelite family and “social order” patriarchal. This assessment, with patriarchy designating gender hierarchy in the family and in society, remains strong until today. But is this designation appropriate?
Problems with the Patriarchy Paradigm
The patriarchy concept originated in analyses of classical societies, and classicists have been at the forefront of questioning its validity. They make several important points. First, the images gleaned from legal sources hardly convey the nuances of social reality. Rather, “The stark image of the severe all-powerful, despotic father and husband” is an exaggerated, misunderstood, and misleading legal construct that “too easily ignores the complexities of human relationships in everyday life”; indeed, that image is the “stuff of legendary caricature, not to be mistaken for sociological description.”
Second, in classical sources the gendered term pater familias refers to household management and not biological fatherhood; consequently, it obscures the relative empowerment of at least some women in the Greco-Roman world. Third, analysis of a variety of non-legal ancient sources, including archaeological materials, reveals many aspects of daily life in which fathers do not exercise absolute authority.
In short, classicists have shown that the patriarchy concept was developed using incomplete and flawed evidence. They have challenged traditional hierarchical models of sequestered powerless women by providing evidence of female control of significant aspects of daily life.
The nineteenth-century theorists, and all who followed them, imposed Victorian household structures, with the (male) workplace outside the home, on ancient societies where the household was the workplace for virtually all family members. In traditional agrarian societies, women’s household activities contributed to the household economy just as did those of men.
Classicists have similarly shown that the expanded view of patriarchy, as absolute male control over society-wide institutions, must be modified. While not denying that male community roles were more numerous—and certainly more visible in ancient sources—than were women’s, they indicate that women were not categorically excluded.
For example, it is now apparent that women held leadership roles in certain festivals and mainstream public cults, not just marginal women’s cults. Using archaeological materials, women’s roles in other extra-household activities have also been identified.
Studies of Israelite Women
Scholars studying Israelite society lack the variety of sources available to classicists. There are virtually no written materials from ancient Israel other than the Bible, a problematic source for understanding gender, given that a male perspective dominates and that relatively little attention is given to women or to household dynamics. However, archaeological materials can fill part of this void, particularly when ethnographic observations of premodern societies similar to ancient Israel are used to interpret the archaeological remains of household life.
Until recently, most archaeological excavations in the land of Israel focused on the urban sites mentioned in the Bible and on the structures (palaces, fortifications, temples) associated with men’s activities. However, most people—as many as 90 percent—lived in small agricultural villages and towns (some of them walled).
Thus, in recent years, household archaeology has emerged on the archaeological scene, revisiting the published remains of older digs and excavating the structures and artifacts of daily life in the smaller agrarian settlements. The economic, social, religious, and political activities of agrarian households, which were the locus of everyday life for most people, have been identified. Moreover, as the gendered nature of many of those activities is ascertained, women’s contributions to household life become visible.
What did women do? The grinding stones, textile tools, ovens, loom weights, cultic objects, and other artifacts and installations found in the four-room (or pillared) houses in which Israelites lived in the Iron Age, provide evidence. Although the tasks of women and men sometimes overlapped—all family members, for example, took part in harvesting crops—women were responsible for maintenance activities, a term for the basic tasks of daily life, many of which required specialized knowledge and contributed to the welfare and survival of the household. Senior women in extended families made decisions about the organization of household activities and the use of household resources.
The results of analyzing archaeological data fit with the images of the Shunammite and several other biblical women (Abigail; Micah’s mother; the “strong woman” of Proverbs 31) and contest the idea that all women were subordinate in household life. Moreover, biblical evidence about extra-household roles shows women functioning in authoritative positions as prophets (e.g., Miriam, Deborah, Huldah), sages (the wise women of Tekoa and Abel of beth-maacah), mourners (Jer 9:20), royal officials (as gĕbîrâ, “great lady”), and even one judge and general (Deborah). Women were hardly subordinate in all community roles.
Many feminist theorists (but, ironically, not many feminist biblical scholars) have concerns about how the patriarchy concept is used in discussions of contemporary as well as ancient societies. A fundamental issue is that the focus on gender hierarchies obscures or ignores other kinds of social asymmetry (e.g., servitude, slavery, ageism, sexual orientation, ethnicity) that often put men as well as women in subordinate positions.
Another problem is that the patriarchy paradigm assumes that household dynamics are monolithic, when in fact men may dominate some aspects of household or community life and women others. The patriarchy label also assumes that social relations are static, with fixed sets of relationships, whereas social reality involves fluctuating patterns over the life cycle.
These critiques suggest that the patriarchy model is not flexible enough to reflect the shifting realities of household activities and the complex patterns of gendered life. However, claiming that patriarchy is an inappropriate and misleading designation does not mean asserting that there was gender equality in ancient Israel. Men clearly dominated in certain areas of life.
Patrilineality, for example, favored male descendants as heirs of household property and probably underlay the control of female sexuality reflected in the Bible. And male officials outnumbered women in community roles. Such areas of male dominance were undoubtedly real, but they were not absolute. Patriarchy, therefore, has outlived its usefulness; it is not a suitable social-science construct for describing Israelite households or society.
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Prof. Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor (Emerita) in the Religious Studies Department at Duke University. She received her A.B. in Bible from Wellesley College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. Her reference work, Women in Scripture, is a comprehensive look at all biblical women; and her book Rediscovering Eve is a detailed study of women in ancient Israel. She has co-authored (with Eric Meyers) two Anchor Bible commentaries (on Haggai and Zechariah) and also several major archaeological reports. She has been a staff member or co-director of numerous archaeological field projects, served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature and is currently a trustee of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.
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