The study of gender issues with respect to Hebrew Scripture includes the investigation of cognate literature and the archaeology of the Levant during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages and involves, first and foremost, paying attention to women in the Bible and to evidence for their presence in the archaeological record. Surely it also calls for the recognition of the range of sexes that occupy the ground between male and female and for a discussion of what constitutes masculinity in any given culture, but the first step in the discussion of gender has been to recognize the roles and contributions of women in antiquity. Biblical studies and archaeology continue to struggle with this initial inquiry. For example, Beth Alpert Nakhai (2007) demonstrates that over the last 100 years very little effort has been made “to document Israelite ritual and belief as experienced by women.” While women did matter in ancient religions, “they have not mattered to most modern scholars.” She argues that “Just as men dominate leadership positions in contemporary religion, so have they dominated the study of ancient Israelite religion.” In addition, she demonstrates that modern female scholars, including those who focus on women’s issues in the Bible and in archaeology, are treated as less than equal in the academic world. In addition, the academy’s relative disinterest is the case whether the scholars studying gender are women or men.

As well as these hurdles, the study of gender in ancient society is complicated by the difficulty archaeologists experience when drawing connections between specific artifacts, or classes of artifacts, and specific gender roles. “Gender” as a concept is differentiated from “sex” precisely to show the way in which gender is a socially constructed category that varies among groups and changes between epochs. When archaeologists attempt to understand typical femininity and masculinity for a specific time and place, they are frequently thwarted by the lack of evidence which can be understood to speak clearly to this issue. In this instance ethnographic analogy is dangerous as evidence since it is unclear how much information can be imported from one social construct into another.

This fundamental archaeological problem has not prevented scholars from reading stereotyped premodern gender roles into both artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations and the biblical narrative. Typical is Nehama Aschkensasy’s work, which reads meaning into plaques uncovered in western Asia, on which a female face or figure is framed by a window: “Women usually stayed indoors, leaving the public domain to the man. Yet they probably spent much time at the window, joining public life vicariously, as spectators rather than active participants. . . . Thus the suggestion is of closed horizons which may be searched by the gazing eyes, but not explored freely by the mobile person” (1998, pp. 14–15). A similar description of gendered space is offered by Karel Van der Toorn (2003, p. 394) in his attempt to visualize life in Iron-Age Israel: “Early in the morning all the men would leave the village, most of them to work in the fields, some to take care of the herds. . . . Men and women lived in almost separate worlds.”

Fortunately, scholars of the ancient Near East have several important textual sources, including the Hebrew Bible, which reveal details of gender roles as they appeared in daily life. These texts do not always provide the breadth of information for which the historian might wish, nor are they written from the variety of perspectives that the study of gender might call for; but they still form an indispensable starting point for the discussion of gender in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Public and Private Lives.

Assessments of gendered roles and gendered space can be evaluated alongside biblical narratives that are set in the context of daily life in ancient Israel. One example is the story about Abraham’s trusted servant’s first encounter with Rebekah. First, in Genesis 24:11, “He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.” Then, in Genesis 24:17–18, “Then the servant ran to meet her and said, ‘Please let me sip a little water from your jar.’ ‘Drink, my lord,’ she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink.” Similarly, Genesis 29 relates Jacob’s journey east, where he encounters three shepherds at a well. Rachel, caring for her father’s sheep, brings them to the well and is given water by her future husband. Contrary to traditional scholarship, then, which reconstructs separate spheres for men and women, these three biblical stories indicate that women typically went outside their cities or villages to draw water from wells and that they could be counted on to extend hospitality to strangers, including men.

Texts from Late Bronze Age–II Ugarit also depict women responsible for drawing water from a well and bringing it home. In the Epic of Danilu and Danatiya, their daughter Pughatu is called “bearer of water,” suggesting that it is her task to provide the family with water in the rainy season (tablet IV, lines 28 and 36). She is also called “collector of dew” (line 37), suggesting that in the dry season she was expected to utilize dew rather than rain for the family’s daily water. The Epic of Kirta, another Late Bronze Age–II poem from Ugarit, depicts drawing water from a well and gathering straw (for heating and cooking fuel or for brick making; see Exod 5:7–8) as women’s work, while chopping wood is shown to be men’s work (tablet II, columns 4–5). Interestingly, all these activities require both women and men to leave the confines of their homes.

These texts do not reveal an entire reversal of a pattern in which women in ancient Israel spent a much larger proportion of their time within the household. Indeed, as the example from Genesis 24 indicates, there was a time when women came out to draw water. However, these texts do provide an interesting map of space open to both genders. Wells, usually located just outside the city gates, can be investigated as a space of interaction, neither male nor female, but used and contested by both genders. And the use of a well outside a city further would require passing through the city gate, implying access by both men and women to this primary judicial setting in Iron-Age Israel. Indeed, it is such access that Elisha assumes when he instructs a poor widow to sell her oil, pay the debts she has incurred, and live on the proceeds from her sale (2 Kgs 4:7).

Conversely, maleness was not always connected with life outside the house. Perhaps the most interesting text for variations in male roles in the Hebrew Bible is Genesis 25—27, where the twins Jacob and Esau represent two divergent paths, one centered on the field and one within the tents; one favored by the father, the other by the mother; one arriving back from the hunt, the other making pottage. Similarly, a most fascinating Ugaritic text, the Epic of Aqhat, identifies those domestic tasks that a family depends upon a son to perform (tablet I, column 1, lines 27–33, 44–48; column 2, lines 1–8, 16–23). They include supporting the parent when the latter is drunk, daubing the roof with mud plaster to prevent water running into the living space during the rainy season, and washing the laundry.

Parents and Children.

The Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 demands that one honor one’s parents. The commandment appears again in Proverbs 23:22, where the synonymous parallelism indicates that father and mother are to be equally regarded. It is repeated, as well, in Leviticus 19:3; but here mother is placed before father. Disrespect for aging parents is a disaster that leads to the disintegration of society (Micah 7:1–7). Inasmuch as both parents are inculcated in the cultural legacy of Israel, they are obligated to inculcate their children (see Deut 6:7, 11:19), who receive instruction from both parents (Prov 1:8, 6:20, 23:22–25). Deuteronomy 21:18–21 shows that mothers and fathers are together responsible for the proper upbringing of their children as both parents present a disobedient child to the elders of the city. In Deuteronomy 22:13–19 both parents defend their daughter, a slandered bride.

Hannah dedicates her son Samuel to the service of the lord at Shiloh, so “the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli” (1 Sam 2:11). He began his service among the male priests just after he was weaned, at the age of two or three years. This story highlights the agency of Israelite wives and mothers in the child-rearing process. Not only was the child under her primary control until weaning, but Hannah was able to make fundamental decisions about the boy’s future occupation. As the story of Samuel progresses, Eli’s sons are deposed from the priesthood because they “lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1 Sam 2:22); that is, Hophni and Phineas sexually exploited those women (briefly mentioned in Exod 38:8) who served in some ritual capacity in the shrine at Shiloh. The presence of these women may mitigate the impression made by 1 Samuel 2, which suggests that children could be raised without a female presence; alternately, Samuel may have been raised in an exclusively male environment. According to the book of Esther, when Esther’s parents died her cousin Mordechai adopted her and became her אomen (male deliverer of child care).

Preparing Food and Eating in the Home.

One of the most time-consuming and critical tasks in the household was the preparation of food. Some ancient texts describe this task as a joint project. For example, when Abraham and Sarah entertained three unexpected divine guests, Abraham asked Sarah to prepare cakes while he selected a calf, which was prepared by a servant. Abraham himself served the food to their three guests, who sat under a tree (Gen 18). But more frequently texts describe the daily baking of bread for the household as something done by women in the ancient Near East. Examples of this typical pattern abound, from Leviticus’s assumption that famine will force 10 women to bake in one oven (26:26) to the prediction in 1 Samuel that the king will take daughters as cooks and bakers (8:13).

Rarely do the texts record the tasks involved in the preparation of a meal. When Abraham’s nephew Lot unexpectedly entertains two divine guests, it is Lot who “made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate” (Gen 19:3). The text is silent about the role of Lot’s wife or daughters. In the same way, the “king’s table” is ascribed to the beneficence of the reigning monarch, only occasionally describing the work necessary to provide the spread of food (1 Sam 20:29, 2 Sam 9:11–13, 1 Kgs 4:27). Presumably, the female bakers of the palace (1 Sam 8:13) played a role in this endeavor; the king hardly did it himself. In the Ugaritic Epic of Danilu and Danatiya, when the birth goddesses visit the couple, who desperately want a son, it is the man of the house who is given credit for the food given to his guests during their six-day stay (tablet I, column 2, lines 27–38). Later, however, when the god Kothar visits the happy couple, whose son is by now grown, Danilu asks that his wife Danatiya prepare a goat from the flock for their guest. It is she who wines and dines the divine visitor.

According to the Bible, bread making did not always take place within the household setting. Individuals, both men and women, might bake small portions for themselves or for a small group (women: 1 Sam 28:24, 2 Sam 13:8; men: Isa 44:15, Ezek 4). In addition, cultic groups baked sacred food. Male priests baked the sacred bread of the temple service (1 Sam 22, Ezek 46:20), and some women baked cakes for the queen of heaven (Jer 7:18). Finally, in some of the larger cities baking became a full-time occupation for some people, moving the task out of the household entirely (Jer 37:21).

Carol Meyers (2002) studied the baking of bread by women in Iron-Age Israel and documented the vital importance of this time-consuming and complicated activity to the ancient Israelite family. Jennie Ebeling (2010, pp. 49–50) notes bread baking in antiquity “required the use of a number of specialized tools and installations, many of which do not survive in the archaeological record of Syro-Palestine.” The interpretation of archaeological evidence from the excavation of Bronze- and Iron-Age houses (specifically, the so-called four-room house of the Iron Age) is aided by the kinds of texts described here. Ample evidence for the preparation of food, which includes tools such as mortars and pestles; vessels such as pottery for cooking, serving, eating, and drinking; and installations such as fire pits and bread ovens, is found within these houses and/or in their contiguous courtyards. It is significant that these houses were also the venues for textile work, another typically female endeavor, for which there is ample archaeological evidence in the form of loom weights, whorls, needles, and so forth. These houses were also the locus for the many child-care and health-care activities that typically fell under the purview of women.


The Ugaritic Epic of Danilu and Danatiya tells of an encounter between Aqhat (the long-awaited son born to Danilu and Danatiya) and Anat (Canaanite goddess of war). When Kothar we-Khassis, the deity in charge of creating tools and weapons, visited the couple and their two children, he left Aqhat a composite bow that had, apparently, been designated for Anat. Anat visited Aqhat and offered him gold and silver in exchange for the bow. Aqhat refused to give it up, suggesting instead that Anat ask Kothar we-Khassis to make her another bow and a quiver of arrows. He even went so far as to suggest that Anat, being female, had no need for a bow: “Bows [belong to] warriors. Have women taken up hunting?” (column 6). Anat had two henchmen attack Aqhat. Ultimately, it is Aqhat’s older sister Pughatu who put on a warrior’s outfit and strapped on a knife and a sword, over which she wore a woman’s garment (tablet 3, column 4, lines 43–46). She headed off to avenge her brother’s death by attacking Anat. This text highlights both the typical pattern used in Aqhat’s critique of Anat—it surely was the common male responsibility to fight and hunt—with the place of Anat as the most feared warrior in the Ugaritic pantheon. Anat’s legacy appears in the early Iron Age in the highlands of the southern Levant, where her name is inscribed on some bronze arrowheads from el-Khadr and elsewhere, along with the names of their owners. All of the names of the warriors on the arrowheads are male, but on several occasions the warrior is a “son of Anat,” as is “Shamgar son of Anath” (Judg 3:31).

A similar mixing of genders in the context of battle is made explicit in Judges 5, where Deborah, Jael, and even the mother of Sisera are given the key roles in a victory whose formal phase consisted entirely of armies of men (also 1 Sam 8:11–12). However, this involvement is unusual, a point made clear in the prose of Judges 4. The more typical pattern is described in 1 Samuel 17—18. There, the clan of Saul snares the three oldest sons of Jesse of Bethlehem. Later, after David unexpectedly becomes the hero of several battles, he encounters female musicians. Exodus 15:20, Judges 11:34, and 1 Samuel 18:6–7, 21:12B, and 29:5 all indicate that it was customary for women to greet men with dancing and the beating of drums when they returned home victorious from battle. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, the lament that the prophet Jeremiah composed on the occasion of King Josiah’s funeral was studied by “all the singing men and singing women…to this day.” An understanding of the phenomenon is greatly enhanced by examining the Neo-Assyrian pictorial and written records of this phenomenon. Female musicians were common throughout the Near East, often playing in groups made entirely of women but sometimes with men as well. In Assyrian art they are depicted in the dress of the queen, playing pipes, drums, and lyres; and in one eighth-century C.E. list two groups of female singers were provided with regular wine rations. In Assyria, while music was played on many occasions, some images show specifically martial overtones. In one the musicians appear to welcome (or bemoan) a conquering army. In another, women beat drums and clap hands while stationed in the ramparts of a city watching a fully armed warrior leave for battle. The pattern is clear: the armies were made up of men, but everyone participated in the warfare of the ancient Near East.


The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel mention at least three professions, priest, prophet, and sage (Ezekiel’s elder), which mediated God’s will to humans (Jer 18:18, Ezek 7:26). That women served as priests in ancient Mesopotamia is well known. In fact, the Near East’s earliest identified poet, Enheduanna, daughter of King Sargon the Great (r. ca. 2316–2279 B.C.E.), was priestess at the Temple of Ur (ca. 2300 B.C.E.). Akkadian tablets from Emar describe the installation of female priests in two distinct offices (1310–1087 B.C.E.). Iron-Age Phoenician inscriptions refer to female priests, as do later Punic and Neo-Punic inscriptions.

Evidence in Near-Eastern cuneiform texts and in Hebrew Scripture for male and female prophets in the Middle to Late Bronze and Iron Ages is abundant. Female prophets from Mari (1793–1761 B.C.E.) include Hubatum, Innibana, Ayala, Zunana, and others who are unnamed but designated by their prophetic offices, apiltum, qammatum, and muhhutum. Texts from Nineveh dating to the reigns of Esarhaddon (r. 681–669 B.C.E.) and Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.E.) mention nine female prophets: Ahat-abisha, Baya, Dunnasha-amur, and Sinqisha-amur of Arbela; Ilussa-Amur of Assur; Issar-beli-אadini, Mullissu-kabtat, Remutti-Allati of Dara-ahaya, and Urkittu-sharrat from Calah. Some evidence points to transgendered individuals since Baya and Ilussa are referred to as both male and female (see Parpola, 1997, pp. xlix–l).

Hebrew Scripture attributes the office of prophet to at least six women, four of whom are named. Those named are Miriam (Exod 15:20), Deborah (Judg 4—5), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14, 2 Chr 34:22), and Noadiah (Neh 6:14); the unnamed include the wife of Isaiah (Isa 8:3) and a female prophet identified in Micah 6—7. The medium at Endor (1 Sam 28), though not orthodox for the writer of Samuel, should be counted among this group as well. Prominent among the sages are two women, whose stories are found in 2 Samuel 14 and 2 Samuel 20:16–22. Their very anonymity points to the possibility that female sages were rather common.

Gender, Bronze and Iron Age

Image of ivory box with female musicians. Kim Walton, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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It is exceedingly difficult for archaeologists to determine which gender used the many religious artifacts recovered from the Bronze and Iron Ages. At the same time amulets, figurines, and pictorial inscriptions add new dimensions to an understanding of the religious practice of women and men. Amulets depicting Egyptian fertility deities such as Bes or Sobek are often linked to the daily lives of women who confronted the hazards of childbearing; they and the babies they bore faced high rates of mortality. The most common figurines of the Iron-Age highlands, the so-called pillar figurines, are female to an exaggerated degree, while male figurines are quite rare. The purpose for the pillar figurines’ pronounced breasts is uncertain, and it is unclear whether these objects were venerated by people of just one gender or more. Still, this female expression of religious devotion was a common part of daily existence in the Iron-Age highlands. Even more, inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom, describing Asherah’s connection with the god of Israel—either as a consort or as a piece of cultic paraphernalia—add new complexity to the relationship between ancient Israelite men and women and divinity.

Class Distinctions.

Both Hebrew Scripture and archaeological data point to a segment of Israelite society that lived well above the subsistence level. These elite men and women employed hired help, indentured servants, and chattel slaves of both sexes to produce its food and clothing. Psalm 123 suggests that women owned female slaves, while men owned male slaves; this is corroborated by some of the Genesis narratives. Affluence broke down some traditionally gendered tasks for the patriarch and matriarch of the household and created a new group of women and men who were employed and even exploited for the benefit of others, as described in Amos 4–6 and Isaiah 3–4. Freedom from daily labor may have afforded some among the elite, women and men alike, the opportunity to become literate. Archaeologically, these differences are visible in jewelry, ivory inlays, and expensive cosmetic sets. However, the story of Nabal and Abigail (1 Sam 25) indicates that even the rich found precise gender roles to be a subject of ongoing political intrigue.


The relatively new disciplines of gender studies and gender archaeology have shown how gender can be conceived along sharply different lines in different societies. Likewise, the renewed awareness in postmodern times of issues of transgenderism and hermaphroditism suggest that when ancient records refer to the Assyrian prophets Baya and Ilussa as both male and female, they may be documenting ancient awareness of gender issues rather than scribal errors. In Late Bronze–Age Canaan and Iron-Age Israel gender roles and gender boundaries show some shared ideals, but daily life was often a dynamic and personal negotiation of gender roles between the household and the public square, priests and prophetesses, husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves.



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  • Avigad, Nahman. Bullae and Seals from a Post-Exilic Judean Archive. Qedem: Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1976. A classic collection of data that includes testimony about women in business in Judah in the Persian period.
  • Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Provides the theoretical background for the assumption that spindle whorls found in Early Iron–Age sites in the Levant testify to work by nursing mothers.
  • Ben-Barak, Zafrira. Inheritance by Daughters in Israel and the Ancient Near East: A Social, Legal, and Ideological Revolution. Jaffa, Israel: Archaeological Center Publications, 2006. A comprehensive analysis of the biblical account of the plea of five sisters in the time of Moses to inherit against the background of inheritance by daughters in later biblical texts and the meticulous investigation of inheritance by daughters in various civilizations of the ancient Near East.
  • Ben-Barak, Zafrira. “The Status and Right of the Gebira.” Journal of Biblical Literature 110 (1991): 23–34. The classic study of the role of the queen mother in the world of the Hebrew Bible.
  • Bird, Phyllis A. Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1997.
  • Camp, Claudia V. “The Wise Women of 2 Samuel: A Role Model for Women in Early Israel.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981): 14–39. One of a series of studies of female sages in Hebrew Scripture.
  • Demsky, Aaron. Literacy in Ancient Israel. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2012 (Hebrew). Demsky deals extensively with the evidence for women in business in ancient Judah and the probability that they received formal education.
  • Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005. A discussion of the numerous female figurines recovered from eighth-century B.C.E. Israel and of the inscriptions which indicate that the God of Israel was considered to have a consort.
  • Ebeling, Jennie R. Women’s Lives in Biblical Times. London: T&T Clark, 2010. A fictional reconstruction of the day-to-day life from birth to death of a woman in a small village in Israel during the early Iron Age.
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  • Meyers, Carol L. “Having Their Space and Eating There Too: Bread Production and Female Power in Ancient Israelite Households.” Nashim 5 (2002): 14–44.
  • Meyers, Carol L. “Mother to Muse: An Archaeomusicological Study of Women’s Performance in Ancient Israel.” In Recycling Biblical Figures, edited by Athalya Brenner and Jan Willem van Henten, pp. 50–77. Leiden, Netherlands: Deo, 1999.
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  • Van der Toorn, Karel. “Nine Months among the Peasants in the Palestinian Highlands: An Anthropological Perspective on Local Religion in the Early Iron Age.” In Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past: Canaan, Ancient Israel, and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palestine, edited by William G. Dever and Seymour Gitin, pp. 393–410. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2003.

Mayer I. Gruber