WISE WOMEN OF THE OLD-WORLD MIDDLE EAST

wise womanThe old-world Middle East, in the immortal words of James Brown, was man’s world. Maybe so, but women were noted for their wisdom. The book of Judges (5:29), for instance, mentions a wise [hakam] princess in attendance on Sisera’s mother, who advises her – incorrectly as it turns out – about her son’s whereabouts. But other texts call attention to women with some pretty outstanding wisdom.

In Proverbs, the “wise woman” who builds her house is contrasted with the foolish woman who tears her’s down (14:1). And Proverbs 31:10-31 seems to describe just such a wise woman. Also, significantly, the archetypal silhouette of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is feminine (chapters 1-9, especially chapter 8).

But wise women are also key figures in social and political intrigue. The book of Second Samuel (14:2) describes a “wise [hakam] woman” in the town of Tekoa. There, King David’s decorated general, Joab, needs help from her to pull off his elaborately devised negotiations concerning a particularly sensitive domestic political matter that revolves around the king and one of his sons. And Second Samuel (20:16) mentions another “wise woman.” She lived in the besieged town of Abel Beth Maacah and she negotiated a political settlement with Joab that prevented his army division from destroying the town. Her story, which shows the cooler heads of wisdom prevailing over the hotter councils of war, is reminiscent of “the poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes who saved his town from war.

It is unlikely that these two female sages were formally educated in the wisdom tradition or that they held privileged status as royal court officials within the formally recognized hakamim. Such political careers seem to have been a bridge too far in the patriarchal structures of old-world Middle East. But I think we are safe to assume it unlikely that Joab would have sought the council of anyone, male or female, who was not widely known for having the kind of outstanding wisdom needed for the diplomatic skills required to resolve a crisis. In fact, the narratives of the wise women of Tekoa and Abel Beth Maach each suggest, in their own ways, that both women were reputed for reliable diplomatic wisdom at a high level of society and politics.

ancient scriptThe Tekoa narrative suggests this in a most fascination way, which elsewhere I have called the art of diplomacy, which is vital to wise negotiations. In the Tekoa narrative, Joab, who, mind you, is a general, shows considerable theatrical talent as a playwright. And the wise woman shows serious acting talent, not to mention great nerve, in the theater of the real. After all, not unlike the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12), she was going to the king with a fiction, in a role in which the king could have had her head off after the performance.

Joab’s script calls for her to perform a dramatic one-act play, a family tragedy, by which Joab hopes to evoke the king’s fatherly instincts and so bring his son Absalom peaceably back home from exile. She agrees to play the part, learns her lines, and appears in mourning before the king. Even her appearance is carefully scripted, right down to a lack of makeup. It was powerful performance art. The king is deeply moved by the drama. His imagination has been opened to new possibilities. This is the power of good art. My son Absalom, the king proclaims, albeit not without some conditions, is to be peaceably returned to the capital.

In the narrative of the wise woman at Abel Beth Maacah (the texts do not name either of these two women), Joab has his memory prompted about the town’s renown. He is reminded that, in the regional lore, Abel Beth Maacah had over the course of time become a celebrated source for those seeking wisdom. This appeals to Joab. It inspires him to keep negotiating with the woman, who is speaking for the whole town (again, reminiscent of the “poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes).

After the general and the diplomat conclude their negotiations, the narrator explains that “the woman went to all the people” of the town with her “wise advice.” Of this, Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson writes that in the Hebrew the phrase translated “wise advice” appears to be a kind of technical expression which “indicates that she was a recognized leader with professional standing, perhaps like the ‘wise women’ who were found in the Canaanite court, according to the Song of Deborah” (Understanding the Old Testament; p. 492).

In the next post we will consider the desert wisdom Jethro, Moses’ his father-in-law, and the importance of that governing wisdom upon Moses and the exodus community.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Stuck in Customs (permission via Creative Commons)

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