A while back, I did a book review on A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman, by Holly Beers, PhD (you can find that review here). Written as story, with breakout boxes giving the archaeological research and background, the life of a young woman is described, living in Ephesus when the Apostle Paul came to teach.
This book is similar—both in size and in style—but involves much more archaeological content. Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, by Jennie Ebeling, PhD (there is no Kindle preview available, but you can check out the book following this link), portrays a much earlier time in Israel’s history, the Iron Age. It is a fascinating era in the development of Israel, coming right around the time when the tribes approached the prophet Samuel to anoint a king. The Philistines were already in the Iron Age, but they kept their metallurgical technology a secret, forcing the twelve tribes to come to them to purchase iron, and have their iron implements repaired.
However, about the time David became king, Israel also seems to have mastered the smelting of iron, and Orah’s story begins.
Ebeling takes us through every aspect of a woman’s life from three thousand years ago, living in a comfortable family with their own grapevines, ability to press wine, and living among several villages made up of extended families. Her research is stellar, describing the iconic four-room house of that time period, how each of the rooms were used, and how the flow of family life was lived out.
Much of what Ebeling includes has to be theoretical, based upon the artifacts that have been excavated, and how similar items are used even to this day by Bedouin people living much in the manner of that ancient time.
Because a preview of the book is not available, here is an abridged table of contents:
Birth, the four-room house, women’s spaces, the diet and economy of a typical home, and the agricultural cycle families followed is all depicted.
A girl’s childhood is described: how a daughter would be educated, what literacy people typically had in that time, the importance of baking and brewing (the woman’s domain) including the back-breaking and time-consuming work of daily grinding wheat. Also included are the crafts of pottery-making, spinning and weaving textiles.
Orah’s emergence into womanhood is portrayed, including menses and purity, marriage rituals, the grape harvest and making of wine, and ancient recipes for perfumes and incense. The household gods, and typical religious rites of Canaanite/Israelite households are also introduced.
We know that polytheism was spread throughout the tribes during this time, for it is spoken of often in the scriptures. Ebeling takes this fact at face value and describes—from the archaeological record—what that may have looked like in a typical home.
Orah’s own marriage is described in detail, of how families arranged for and joined their grown children in their own marriages, wedding customs, special adornments, music and song of that time, the importance of dancing and clothing.
Having first described Orah’s birth, now Ebeling pictures Orah’s first birthing, the vital role of midwives and their arts, the centrality of amulets and jewelry, and the craft of basket-weaving.
Motherhood, considered the pinnacle of a woman’s experience and her honor in the family, clan, and village, is explored in detail. Breastfeeding and weaning, as well as the training up of children, the importance of the olive harvest and crucial olive oil production, and the working of animal hides into leather are all outlined.
As is indicated in the Bible, even though polytheism was pervasive throughout Israel, the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh was of highest importance. The tabernacle was at Shiloh, as was the copy of God’s Law, to be ready yearly at the annual feasts. Eberling faithfully characterizes this regular pilgrimage.
The final chapter of Orah’s life chronicles old age which, for women, also often meant widowhood. Health and medicine of that ancient time are recounted, and finally the rituals of death, including the funeral and mortuary cult.
Honestly, this held me spell-bound from start to finish. Archaeology has long reported on the palaces of kings and temples of gods, but not on the ordinary lives of people, let alone women. This research is golden, greatly enhancing Bible study and understanding.