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The Enduring Olive Tree and its Precious Fruit: From Modern Day to Ancient Past1

While it is near impossible to coax out a distinct image for a specific woman from the Bible, there is at least one staple that was common to them all—the ever-present olive. In fact, as we shall see, its importance endures to this very day.

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Photo by Mary Hendren

Outside the store, simple iron shelves held two rows of terra cotta pots, each pot containing a miniature olive tree. Less than a foot tall, the tiny trees were placed to catch the pedestrian’s eye. Pruned in the manner of Provence, every tree bore six to eight bright green olives—intriguing that such young trees produced fruit.

Certain varieties of olive trees do well in containers. Likely the miniature olive trees in Provence were the Picholine cultivar, widely available in France. Dwarf varieties are very prolific with green fruit and produce a crop two or three seasons after planting. Full-sized olive trees usually bear fruit at the fifth year and reach full fruit production in seven to eight years, depending on the care given the tree and whether grew from seed or from cutting.[1]

Olives—green, brown, black, stuffed with garlic, combined in tapenade—delicious in many ways, are secondary in importance to olive oil. From earliest record, it is oil that has been prized more than the fruit. For cooking, flavoring, lighting, healing, offering and anointing, olive oil has an incomparable history. From the time of ancient Israel up to now, olive trees remain “the most important oil-producing plant in the world.”[2]

Native to the Mediterranean basin, olive trees grow best on rocky, well-drained soil in sunny climates. Olive trees flourish in parts of Africa, Arabia, France, Spain, Asia, and in the United States, in California and Texas, as well as others. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, accounting for the fact that family groves pass from one generation to another. It is said that olive trees have been around for thousands of years and that some of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane date back to the time of Christ. [3] Historian Oded Borowski states that olive pits (seeds) have been found dating back to 4000 years BCE.[4]

Olive trees in the traditional Garden of Geths...

Olive trees in the traditional Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Olive trees can be grown from seed (pits) but more successfully from cutting, potting and planting the shoots that spring up around an established tree. Psalm 128 likens children around a family table to healthy olive shoots ringing the parent tree. It is difficult to kill an olive tree by cutting it down because new sprouts arise from the roots of the stump. Isaiah probably had the olive tree in mind when he prophesied “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).

 

 Olive oil in a variety of bottles lined shelves at the front of the shop. Tables in the center displayed oil-based lotions, creams, and cubes of embossed soap. Elsewhere were cruets of glass and porcelain, painted coasters, posters and articles of olive wood—cutting boards, cooking spoons and bowls smooth as satin.

The olive tree is an evergreen with hard, durable, lovely-grained wood, pale yellow to green-brown. Artists prize olive wood for carving because of its swirled grain. (For an interesting video demonstrating modern woodworking with olive wood go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSkcKu8gmv8.) As olive trees age they take on a spirally, twisted growth pattern reflected in the grain. It is thought that the olive tree’s propensity to twist and spiral enables it to live so long. The tree turns away from the prevailing wind toward its less disturbed side. As the trunks twist they are less likely to break. This may or may not explain the gnarled, twisted appearance of old olive trees, but it’s an interesting supposition.[5] Because the olive trees are important to the olive-oil industry, they are seldom cut down. Farmers prune them to improve productivity and remove dead trees from the groves. The wood from pruning and dead trees is sold to artists, as is explained in the video.

The book of Revelation states that a voice from heaven commands the rider of a black horse, “Do not harm the oil and the wine” (Rev. 6:5). Why was oil one of the two commodities protected in a time of global scarcity? In part 2 we’ll look at the importance of olive oil.—Mary Hendren

 

[1] http://www.eHow, “How Long Does It Take for an Olive Tree to Produce Fruit?”

[2] http://www.Olivetreegrowers.com, “Olive Trees, Yesterday and Today.”

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-10-20/jerusalem-olive-trees-among-oldest-in-world/4324342, “Jerusalem olive trees among oldest in world.”

[4] Oded Borowski, Agriculture in Iron Age Israel (2009), p. 117.

[5] http://notesfromatuscanolivegrove.wordpress.com/

Sarah: Life with Abraham 2

Before continuing: gathering some strands

As is often the case when pursuing a Bible topic or figure, information is found in several sources, and it requires careful investigation to locate and compile the relevant scriptures. The same is true concerning the person of Abram.

For instance, his father is mentioned as an idol-worshipper (Joshua 24:1-5), but it is unclear whether either Abram or his brother Nahor (or Sarai, for that matter) was, though they were brought up in a pagan household. In fact, later in Genesis 26:5, the LORD reminds Isaac that his father “obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” At some point, the LORD and Abram began a relationship in Ur that lasted an entire lifetime.[1] One can only wonder as to when and how. It’s worth considering that Shem[2] himself may have influenced Abram in some manner since he lived until Abram was about thirty.[3] All that is known for sure is it happened, and that relationship became the dominant thread in the fabric of his life.

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustratio...

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is the New Testament deacon Stephen who adds a detail not found in Genesis: “And he said, ‘Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:2-4). While Genesis 11:31 records that Terah, as patriarch, took his clan from Ur intending to go to Canaan, this scripture presents the likelihood that it was done at Abram’s urging as prompted by God’s direction.

Introducing Sarai

According to his genealogy, Terah’s clan consisted of himself, his sons Abram, Nahor, and Haran, two daughters-in-law, Sarai and Milcah, and a grandson, Lot. Nahor’s wife, Milcah, is identified as Haran’s daughter (and Nahor’s cousin). Sarai is later identified as Abram’s half-sister (Genesis 19:12)—they shared the same father but different mothers (neither of whom is named). Was Sarai born to a concubine? Did Abram’s mother die, and Terah remarried? The record is silent.

As a daughter, Sarai’s early years were spent learning household tasks at her mother’s side, or perhaps from a slave or servant. Grinding grain, baking bread, gardening, spinning, weaving, going to market, cooking and preserving foodstuffs, drawing water, perhaps even shepherding if the family had livestock—all these activities would have filled her days.

Fashion and grooming

It’s not surprising to find that type of clothing in Mesopotamia was dictated by social standing. If Terah was wealthy, his daughter wore one-piece woolen or linen garments, stylishly woven with many different patterns and designs. Embroidered and tasseled wraps and shawls protected her in bad weather. Men and women either went barefoot or wore sandals; women’s footwear was often ornamented.

Both sexes were known to wear cosmetics, outlining their eyes with a form of mascara; and both applied perfumes (“made by steeping aromatic plants in water and blending their essence with oil”[4]) after the none-too-frequent bath. Grooming and appearance were important.[5]

Courtship

The relationship between Abram and Sarai began from the day she was born. If the genealogy presented is complete, the family was small by ancient standards—only three boys and a girl—and the sibling bonds were likely quite strong. He had always been a part of her life. He might have been one of the first to see his baby sister wrapped in swaddling clothes or the like, nursing at her mother’s breast, and, as the firstborn, felt especially protective of her from that day forward.

As Abram grew into a mature man (he was ten years older than Sarai), he watched his sister develop into a strikingly beautiful young woman, one whose beauty would last for decades, and probably in his eyes, until the day she died. While marriages arranged by parents were practical matters involving bride-prices, dowries, property and lineage, one can suspect that a strong romantic attraction evident early on between these two influenced Terah to choose this pairing, and not one outside the immediate family. That, and, more certainly, the direction of an unseen Hand guiding events according to a yet-to-be-revealed master plan. [6]

Marriage

According to Mesopotamian custom, weddings occasioned rejoicing and celebration lasting for days or even weeks. Also by custom, the newly married couple was expected to live with either the bride’s or the groom’s family[7] (in case of Abram and Sarai, nothing would have changed).

Dreaded words

What had been a happy beginning eventually changed into a life of growing frustration. Months of hopeful expectation turned to years of disappointment. There was seemingly no escaping their dreadful predicament—one fraught with intense longing, and for her especially, a loss of face: “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:10).

A woman in Sumer had certain legal rights—owning property, engaging in business, or appearing as a witness. But when it came to a binding marriage, a husband could divorce his wife easily for little cause, and if she had no children, he was free to marry a second wife. Perhaps a not-so-obvious testimony to Abram’s devotion is that there is no record of his considering any such options. (The episode with Hagar was at an impatient Sarai’s request. See Genesis 16:2). What an emotional hurdle for a young couple to face in a society where fecundity was everything! — KM

Next time: Abram, God, and life on the move

When Abram took Sarai as his wife, neither of them knew what lay ahead, nor how a series of promises would affect their long and eventful years together.  

 

 

[1] It is likely there were pockets of people who maintained a worship of God through Shem’s subsequent generations, and that practice could have been passed on Abram. A more generally accepted scenario is simply that God called Abram out of the paganism of which he had been an adherent.

[2] In Genesis 9:26, Noah refers to God as “the God of Shem,” indicating Shem’s allegiance to Him.

[3] There are several websites with charts of genealogies and time spans from Noah to Moses. Here are just a few: http://biblefocus.net/message/Adam-Shem-Abraham-bible-genealogy/index.html

http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/charts/Generations%20Adam-Moses.htm

http://books.google.com/books?id=lV3VfSVNHNEC&pg=PA98&lpg=PA98&dq=was+shem+alive+when+abraham+was+born&source=bl&ots=SQF4wO3dJi&sig=2qPrrfYu3DXDrZVSMsaUTqrscBA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wUnuU_3kH-e8gHy1YHoCw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAjgU#v=onepage&q=was%20shem%20alive%20when%20abraham%20was%20born&f=false

[4] S. Bertman, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (2003), p.291, as cited in online article, “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/, accessed September 2, 2014.

[5] It can’t be known whether Abram and Sarai conformed to such fashion statements of the day. However, if one considers Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:3, it’s obvious that Sarai’s core beauty did not depend on style and outward appearance but rather, it emanated from her attitude of heart. Also it’s hard to imagine Abram’s being unduly concerned with such transient matters when the LORD was in the process of lifting his vision to a much loftier plane.

[6] One might be inclined to raise an eyebrow given the fact that Abram married a close relative. Wouldn’t that be an incestuous union, and therefore, forbidden? The general consensus is that the law prohibiting such unions was not yet in place; it was enacted during the time of Moses (see Deuteronomy 27:22 and Leviticus 18:6-30; 20:11-12). Another point for consideration is that God accepted this union (and likely arranged it) and performed a miracle to provide an heir from it.

[7] Karen Nemet-Nijat, https://www.academia.edu/873588/Womens_Roles_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia/ , accessed September 2, 2014.

Rebekah Leaves Home 2

When Abraham’s servant met Rebekah, she was drawing water from the well. The shepherds of Nahor watered their flocks in the troughs adjacent to the well. Whether Rebekah intended to water Laban’s flock that day is less interesting than God’s interruption of her life. 

English: Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bilder...

English: Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Rebekah Gives Abraham’s Servant Water, as in Genesis 24:11-12 Deutsch: Holzschnitt aus “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Français : Gravure en bois pour «Die Bibel in Bildern», 1860. Português: Rebeca oferece água para o servo de Abraão. Gn 24:10-28. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now the young woman was very beautiful to behold, a virgin; no man had known her. And she went down to the well, filled her pitcher, and came up. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, ‘Please let me drink a little water from your pitcher.’ So she said, ‘Drink my lord.’ Then she quickly let her pitcher down to her hand, and gave him a drink. And when she had finished giving him a drink, she said, ‘I will draw water for your camels, also until they have finished drinking.

 God chose Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. He identified her exactly in the manner requested by Abraham’s servant: a young woman would give him a drink of water at the city well (Genesis 24:13-14). Why did God choose Rebekah and not one of the other women in Nahor? The Bible doesn’t say, but likely her background and character had something to do with His decision.

Her Name

At the time Abraham was seeking a wife for his son, Isaac was already a successful sheepherder. He owned thousands of small cattle (sheep and goats) and “continued to live as a nomadic herder, residing in a tent he inherited from his parents (Genesis 24:67) and wandering in the same circuit as his father.”[1] Rebekah’s relatives were also herders, and she likely tended flocks as a young girl.[2] Her older brother managed the family business, so it’s probable that Rebekah was a competent shepherdess at the time of her betrothal.

Rebekah’s name means a “row of tied animals” [3] and reflects her pastoral heritage. “Milking in preindustrial societies was done by setting the ewes and does one opposite the other and tying them in pairs by a long rope, creating two long rows.”[4] Perhaps Rebekah’s parents thought orderly rows of sheep a lovely sight because her name carries the additional meaning of captivatingly beautiful.[5]

Rebekah’s understanding of nomadic life, experience in tending sheep, and generous nature made her an ideal wife for Isaac. That they had an affectionate relationship and that Isaac took no other wives, handmaids or concubines speaks highly of their marriage.

Married Life

After marrying, Rebekah would have managed Isaac’s household. Instead of tending sheep, Rebekah would have dealt primarily with sheep products: wool, milk, meat and skins. “Dairy products constituted an important category of food in ancient Israel. Whenever possible, milk was drunk to quench thirst…and it was available in abundance for consumption and processing.”[6] Like the wives of other sheepherders, Rebekah would have made yogurt, butter, curds, and dry cheese. She would have prepared lamb and game for special meals that included meat.

Sheep were shorn once a year. “Shearing was an event that brought together many people who were engaged in controlling and shearing the animals, and like during the gathering of other crops, it was an occasion for great celebration (1Sam.25, 2 Sam 13:23-28) during which food and drinks were offered.”[7] Likely Isaac, Rebekah, Isaac’s employees and their wives enjoyed the festivities at shearing time. Once the wool was cut, it had to be cleaned, spun into yarn and woven into fabric—activities that would have been familiar to Rebekah.

Leaving Her Family

Did Rebekah have doubts about marrying a man she’d never met? Did she regret leaving Nahor and all that was familiar? When her mother and brother asked her, “Will you go with this man?” she answered, “I will go.” The decision was Rebekah’s, and, for several reasons, I believe she left with confidence in the future.

  1. She expected to marry and become part of her husband’s life. In Rebekah’s culture, parents arranged marriages for their children and formalized negotiations with gifts and pledges. Young women prepared themselves to become wives and mothers because the role of wife and mother was important, as her family acknowledged.

“Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them” (Genesis 24:60).

  1. God brought Isaac and Rebekah together. He identified Rebekah in a word-by-word fulfillment of the servant’s prayer. Everyone immediately involved—the servant, Rebekah, her brother, mother and father—acknowledged that God orchestrated the match.

“. . . The thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you either bad or good Here is Rebekah before you, take her and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the LORD has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

  1. Rebekah saw evidence of a good life ahead. Jewelry and clothing
    English: ABRAHAM'S SERVANT GIVING JEWELS TO RE...

    English: ABRAHAM’S SERVANT GIVING JEWELS TO REBEKAH.—Genesis xxiv. 22. Русский: Слуга Авраама дарит драгоценности Ревекке (Быт. 24:22) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    presented by a wealthy suitor paid for the privilege of taking a valuable daughter from her family. The splendor of the gifts the suitor presented was a foretaste of what was in store for the bride.

“Then the servant brought out jewelry of silver, jewelry of gold, and clothing, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave precious things to her brother and to her mother” (Genesis 24: 52-53).

  1. Rebekah didn’t make the journey alone. She had a support group. Her traveling companions (her nurse and her maids) had shared her life in Nahor and would share her life in Canaan.

“Then Rebekah and her maids arose, and they rode on the camels and followed the man” (Genesis 24: 61).

 Practical lessons drawn from Rebekah’s life

As the Christian’s life is about change, suggested reasons Rebekah left in confidence are helpful insights. Christians are dedicated to moving toward the Kingdom of God and becoming more like Jesus Christ. That often means leaving what’s comfortable for something new. Knowing this is God’s will, just as Rebekah did, leads to a wonderful future, and inspires confidence. When God provides a support group of like-minded friends to share the journey, it is particularly gratifying.—Mary Hendren

 

[1] Borowski, Oded, Every Living Thing, Alta Mira Press, 1998, p.44.

[2] Ibid., p.48.

[3] Ibid., pp.53, 44; also Lockyer, Herbert, All the Women of the Bible, p.135.

[4] Ibid., p.53

[5] Lockyer, p.135.

[6] Borowski, Every Living Thing, p. 54.

[7] Ibid., p.73.

Sarah: Life with Abraham 1

A familiar example

The name Sarah resonates with Bible readers, women of faith, feminists, and historians. More space is devoted to her than any other woman in the Bible. One of the most quoted passages concerning Sarah, and one which ultimately defines her, is 1 Peter 3:1-6:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.

Since Sarah is generally regarded in her role as Abraham’s wife (and eventually Isaac’s mother), in order to understand her more fully, it is necessary explore the world and the person of the man who enjoyed her honor, respect, and submission. The purpose of this series is to pull back the curtains of history and travel alongside them on their lifelong journey of faith.

Starting with the basics

Genealogy was of prime importance anciently, and it holds significance for us as well to note that their lineage stems from Shem, Noah’s oldest son (Genesis 10:10-26). Their father Terah and his clan lived in Ur of the Chaldees,[1] the dominant Mesopotamian city-state during his time, established by the Sumerians and located near the banks of the Euphrates River.

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in t...

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no hard fact concerning the family’s occupation at Ur. There are, however, opinions—one being they were semi-nomads who largely tended their herds and flocks on the outskirts of the city,[2] and another, citing a Jewish tradition[3] which casts Terah as an idolatrous priest who manufactured and sold idols.[4] The latter found inspiration from Joshua 24:1-5 where God through Joshua states that “your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”

Manufacturing and selling idols would have been a lucrative trade since Ur was a major center for worshiping the moon goddess, Nanna, divine patron of the city-state. The huge ziggurat built in her honor still exists at the site of the ancient city. “The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. As the Ziggurat [sic] supported the temple of the patron god of the city of Ur, it is likely that it was the place where the citizens of Ur would bring agricultural surplus and where they would go to receive their regular food allotments. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.”[5]

Dwellings

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español...

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español: Ruinas de la ciuad de Ur con el Zigurat de Ur-Nammu al fondo a las afueras de Nasiriyah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If indeed Terah’s sons were semi-nomadic herdsmen, they lived in tents near the great city, using it as their home base. If city dwellers, then they lived in houses. Excavations of ancient Ur have unearthed many such structures, the average being small, of one-story, made of mud brick. Its rooms were grouped around a courtyard. The wealthy lived in two-story, fired-brick homes, plastered and whitewashed inside and out, containing about a dozen rooms. There is one such building alleged by some to be Abraham’s house. It is huge—containing some twenty-seven rooms and five courtyards!

Cultural underpinnings

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Anti...

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Antiguas ciudades de Sumeria Magyar: Ókori sumer városok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since environment plays a pivotal part in life, shaping intellect and world view, Terah’s family was influenced by living in Mesopotamia, and Ur specifically. The Sumerians were an accomplished people, credited with impressive innovations and accomplishments over their approximate 1000-year span of influence.

Writing and order

They devised a system of writing on clay (cuneiform), which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some two thousand years.[6] They compiled the first known dictionary, and are recognized as being among the first to formulate and record laws and law codes in order to avoid misunderstandings, misrepresentation, and arbitrariness.

Focus on education

Sumerians valued education and had scribal schools throughout their territory. If Abram came from a wealthier family, he and his brothers probably attended one of these. While there is a record of one woman listed as a scribe, Sarai would not have attended classes with her male siblings. Women enjoyed almost equal rights, “but they were still not considered intelligent enough to be able to master literacy.”[7] [8]

Numerous tablets of school texts have been found containing tables (tabulations of reciprocals, multiplications, square roots, etc.) and problems (addressing such practical matters as excavating or enlarging canals, counting bricks, etc.), evidence of an advanced system of mathematics thought to have begun in ancient Sumer.

Science and industry

The oldest collection to date of pharmacopoeia in the form of fifteen prescriptions inscribed on clay tablets is attributed to the Sumerians. Women were the first doctors and dentists in ancient Mesopotamia until, some suppose, these occupations proved lucrative and were taken over by men.

Sumerian beer brewing has been confirmed going back to 3500-3100 BC. They loved beer so much they ascribed its creation to the gods. Knowledge of brewing went to the Babylonians who commercialized it and passed laws regulating it. The first brewers and tavern keepers were women.[9]

Sumerians invented a brick mold for shaping and baking river clay, thus creating more durable building materials and a system for manufacturing them. Archeologists have uncovered numbers of Sumerian bricks still intact.

The arts

Recovered Sumerian sculpture (a skill for which they are particularly noted) depicts ancient Sumerians, their appearance and their dress. No doubt writers, poets, actors, artists, fashion designers, jewelers, perfumers, and musicians found a niche among the artistic community of Ur as well.

Leaving

Abram, city dweller or not, could have interacted with merchants, laborers, shepherds, students, teachers, city administrators and workers, professionals, intellectuals and artisans, all busily going about the affairs of the day. His would have been a vibrant world, much like any modern urban center. With this brief exploration into the dynamics shaping a city-state such as Ur, it becomes clear that when Abram received God’s memorable instruction to “get out of your country,” it contained monumental implications. Leaving the comfort and security of the familiar. Leaving family property. Leaving the center of power, commerce, and influence for parts unknown. And ultimately, it meant trusting and yielding to his God’s direction implicitly.

The Bible simply records that Abram obeyed, and there is no evidence that Sarai objected or resisted. Thus Abram’s life-long journey of faith began, one which would find his beautiful wife always by his side.

Next time: Introducing Sarai

 

[1] http://www.ancient.eu.com/ur/  “In the Old Babylonian Period (c. 2000-1600 BCE) Ur remained a city of importance and was considered a centre of learning and culture. . . .The city continued to be inhabited through the early part of the Achaemenid Period (550-330 BCE) but, due to climate change and an overuse of the land, more and more people migrated to the northern regions of Mesopotamia or south toward the land of Canaan (the patriarch Abraham, some claim, among them, as previously noted). Ur slowly dwindled in importance as the Persian Gulf receded further and further south from the city and eventually fell into ruin around 450 BCE.”

[2] Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, Reader’s Digest (1974), pp. 34-35.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terah

[4] Josh 24:2: “It is not stated that Abraham himself was an idolater, though his fathers were. Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham while in Ur of the Chaldees was persecuted for his abhorrence of idolatry, and hence, was called away by God from his native land. (from Barnes’ Notes, Electronic Database Copyright © 1997, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

[5] http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/ziggurat-of-ur.html

[6] Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians, Their History, Culture, and Character (1963), p.4

[7] “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/

[8] Kramer says students attended school daily from sunrise to sunset. They devoted years to their study, remaining students from early youth to the day they became young men. Many clay tablets illustrative of school work and compositions have been unearthed at various archaeological sites (pp. 233-236).

[9] In the article, “Ancient Egyptian Brewery and Bakery,” beer is described as being “brewed by women in the home as a supplement to meals. The beer was a thick, porridge-like drink consumed through a straw and was made from bippar (barley bread) which was baked twice and allowed to ferment in a vat. By the year 2050 BCE beer brewing had become commercialized as evidenced by the famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur dated to that time” (http://www.ancient.eu/Beer/).

Life as a Shepherdess 1

In ancient Israel it was not unusual for women to work outside the home, young women at least. When a girl was eight to ten years old, she began leading the family herd out to nearby pasture. At the end of the day, the shepherdess brought her sheep back home. At night the animals were “housed in stone-walled pens attached to buildings or compounds, or on the ground floor of houses in the cities,”[1] or corralled in thorny, fence-like enclosures typical of nomadic enclosures.

A shepherdess with her flock, grazing - oil on...

A shepherdess with her flock, grazing – oil on canvas, 41 x 56.5 cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tending the family herd was reserved primarily for girls, and they continued this work until married at age fifteen or sixteen.[2] As a young shepherdess, Rachel met Jacob when she came to water her sheep (Genesis 29:9). Moses’s wife Zipporah was one of seven daughters who tended their father’s sheep (Exodus 2:16-21). Some scholars speculate that Rebekah and Leah were also shepherdesses.[3] In Solomon’s ancient love poem, he refers to the Shulamite as being dark skinned from a life outdoors, tending the vineyard and caring for her flock of goats (Song of Solomon 1:5-8).

Shepherdess walking with spindle in hand.

Shepherdess walking with spindle in hand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Besides pasturing the flocks, watering and watching them, tending minor injuries and sheltering them at night, a shepherdess also had the womanly duty of spinning. Equipped with her drop spindle and a bundle of wool, she could spin yarn during her hours in the field.[4]

Seeking greener pastures

In times when local grass was insufficient, men took the herds further afield. Abraham, Lot and Isaac moved about with very large herds. Commenting on the size of nomadic herds, Borowski states, “Herds can be very large, from 150,000 to 200,000 animals, and they are comprised of one species or are mixed.[5] The young nomadic women worked close to home.

Jacob: profile of a sheepherder

After working fourteen years for Laban as a sheepherder, Jacob established his own home and engaged in semi-nomadic herding. When necessary he moved his sheep away from home base to distant fields, camping out until bad weather brought herds and shepherds home.

Technically a shepherd is different than a sheepherder, although they share some of the same duties. Rachel was a shepherdess before she married Jacob who became a sheepherder. Jacob managed large flocks that belonged to others along with his own animals. He had the knowledge and experience to build and handle herds numbering many thousands of animals.

A sheepherder decided when to move the herds and found suitable grazing. He determined which animals to slaughter and sell. He strengthened the herd through careful breeding. He treated animal diseases, located lost sheep, and protected the flocks from wolves, hyenas, lions and bears. He disciplined subordinate shepherds and dealt with thieves.

Pros and cons of life as a shepherdess

Clearly the work of a shepherdess, though less extensive than that of a sheepherder, was important. It prepared her for marriage and independence from her family. It developed her sense of purpose and responsibility. It built her strength and health. It instilled the appreciation for quiet companionship… the sheepy kind, at least. However, Bible accounts indicate the lives of some shepherdesses also had a few downsides—mostly involving men.

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. And they came and drew water, and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock (Exodus 2:16-17).

I wonder how often Jethro’s daughters endured the scenario of laboriously filling the watering troughs from the well, pitcher-full by pitcher-full, only to have their flocks pushed aside by surly shepherds, too lazy to draw their own water. It must have been often because Jethro asked them why they were back home so soon.

An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds, and he also drew enough water for us and watered the flock (Exodus 2:18-19).

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father's Herds

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Access to water was a source of contention (Genesis 26:12-33). Because of the scarcity of water, communal wells were often protected. When Jacob met Rachel at the well, he questioned why all the sheep were laying around rather than being watered. Rachel pointed to the great stone that covered the well.

We cannot [water the sheep] until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, then we water the sheep…[so] Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother (Genesis 29:8-10).

Regular or occasional unmannerly treatment of young women at the wells, and the heavy stone barricades sealing off some of the water sources certainly presented major difficulties for the shepherdess.

A Awassi ram in Kuwait.

A Awassi ram in Kuwait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Part 2 to follow

As mentioned before, the Awassi sheep are excellent milk producers. In Part 2 we’ll note that Rebekah’s name relates to milking and consider what might have been done with the milk her sheep produced.—Mary Hendren

 

 

[1] Oded Borowski, Every Living Thing (1998), p. 45.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Her fat-tailed Awassi sheep were raised primarily for milk and meat. These hardy sheep were good grazers, but the quality of their wool is inferior by today’s standard. Awassi sheep are double-coated with only a thin layer of fleece under an outer coat of coarse hair. The wool of double-coated sheep is known as “carpet wool” in contrast to the fine wool of Merino sheep used in today’s expensive clothing. Happily, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zipporah and other ladies who spun the Awassi fleece had nothing to compare it with. Their wool well spun and woven was fine wool.

[5] Borowski, p. 43.

Solomon’s Feminine Metaphor for Wisdom

When Solomon succeeded David as king of Israel, he asked God for wisdom to rule the nation. Solomon’s humility pleased God, and by God’s beneficent endowment his request was granted.

  And God said unto him, Because you have asked this thing [for wisdom] and have not asked for yourself long life; neither have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies; but have asked for yourself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to your words: I have given you a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like you before, neither after you shall any arise like you (I Kings 3:11-12).

Solomon’s stunning wisdom, stirred within him a “consuming passion” for knowledge, and “he became the literary prodigy of the world of his day.”[1] He is credited with composing three thousand proverbs (I Kings 4:32) and being the principal writer of the book of Proverbs.

Wisdom literature

Solomon wrote three of the five books of biblical wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. The authors of wisdom literature write about how life works: how to tell good from evil, how to know God, how to live harmoniously with others, how to choose a right path, and how to recover from mistakes, along with many other human interest topics.

In writing Proverbs, Solomon started with a purpose: “to know…to perceive…and to receive the instruction of wisdom” (1:2-3) in order to live righteously, securely and free from fear (1:33). He arranged his sayings in the form of guidance for his son. Was he thinking of his son Rehoboam at the time? Or did he intend a larger audience when he began? I don’t know. Either way, his theme of fatherly advice is appropriate for imparting wisdom.

One study Bible notes that “Proverbs is probably the most down-to-earth book in the Bible. Its education prepares you for the street and the marketplace… it offers the warm advice you get by growing up in a good family: practical guidance for successfully making your way in the world.”[2]

I do wonder about the commentator’s statement “it offers the warm advice you get by growing up in a good family.” In my mind, warm advice involves conversation, questions, give-and-take discussion, and that is not the style Solomon chose for Proverbs. Each generation is taxed with teaching proverbs as warm advice, contemporary and engaging.

Mother and three children, oil on wood, 38.5 x...Feminine Metaphor

In the first nine chapters of Proverbs, Solomon stressed the importance of his own words and that his son would do well to heed them (5:1). Then moving away from himself, Solomon personified Wisdom using the feminine pronouns “she” and “her.” He likened Wisdom to a feminine presence that existed from creation, a mysterious “woman” who possesses the qualities of care, concern, love, and benevolence, and who appears and disappears in the narrative—as it suited him.

Ancient Wisdom

Solomon pictured Wisdom as having lived from ancient times.

  The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth (8:22-23).

Solomon depicted Wisdom as having an interest in mankind since the time God populated the earth …rejoicing in His inhabited world, and my delight was with the sons of men (8:31).

Solomon represented Wisdom as worthy to heed: Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways (8:32).

 Caring Wisdom

 Mom, you’ve got to come…I’m…

How many times have I been there for him? Have I gone when he was in trouble? He’s so edgy, with the wrong crowd, drifting, not hearing what I say. I’ve told him to break with those friends, but he hates to hear the truth. So brash and naïve, he’s ruining his life and doesn’t see the consequences. He thinks I’ll always be there to bail him out. Sometime I won’t be there…I’ll be gone…gone from him (1:20-33; 8:1-11).

I’ve greatly paraphrased Solomon’s picture of Wisdom’s concerned efforts for her children. Chapters 1 and 8 bring to my mind a mother watching, praying and waiting as her grown child moves further from her sphere of influence. Doesn’t every mother know there will be joy and sorrow when children leave home? Solomon portrays a particular, motherly grief when a child suffers from bad decisions.

 They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies. For the turning away of the simple will slay them (1:30-32).

Most youthful missteps are not fatal, thankfully. Many sons and daughters, momentarily errant, eventually “see the light” and return to safe ground. This is so beautifully illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. The father rejoiced when his son returned home, a humbler, wiser man.

Lady wisdom (2)

Lady wisdom (2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wisdom Rejoices

Like the prodigal’s elated father, Wisdom’s joy overflows when children turn to her.

I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently will find me…that I may cause those who love me to inherit wealth, that I may fill their treasuries (8:17, 21).

Solomon connected wisdom with generosity, abundance and riches (9:1-6). He portrayed Wisdom welcoming her child after a troublesome absence. She’s made everything ready—the fatted calf, fine wines and bread, important guests—and everyone gathers to celebrate the one who has chosen to “forsake foolishness and live” (9:6).

Reflections

After thinking about Proverbs 1:20-33 and 8:1-11, I wonder if Solomon taught his son in a one-on-one manner? Did he have a favored son or daughter that received his personal attention? As a royal father, did he make time sit down with them and explain how life works? If tutors educated the king’s children, and mothers imparted wisdom and integrity, it might explain why Solomon pictured the sadness and the joy of Wisdom as a woman.—Mary Hendren

 

[1] Halley’s Bible Handbook, Edition 23, p. 269

[2] The New Student Bible, NIV, Zondervan (1986), p. 568

 

 

Jael: Perplexing Participant in the Dark Side of History

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel (Photo credit: cod_gabriel)

When the tribes of Israel settled in Canaan, they failed to evict the resident peoples as God had commanded. This failure was a costly mistake. From then on Israel had to deal with the greatest danger posed by the culture of Canaan: idolatry. Inevitably, the religions of Canaan undermined the faith of Israel. In turning away from God, Israel suffered inescapable consequences: the Canaanites oppressed them, nations attacked them, and they fought one another.

Dangerous co-existence

In trying to co-exist with Canaanites, the people of Israel “led dangerous yet simple lives in which warlike pursuits alternated with ordinary peacetime activities.”[1] God sent judges to deliver Israel from their Canaanite enemies, but Israel never returned to God whole-heartedly. Regional judges were unable to unite the people under one authority, so the tribes functioned in a loose confederation. Lacking a central authority, tribes took matters into their own hands. People did what they wanted without the restraining influence of God’s laws (Judges 21:25).

When Deborah ruled in northern Israel, God sent word for Barak to lead an attack on the army of King Jabin and General Sisera. For twenty years Jabin’s kingdom “had harshly oppressed the children of Israel” (Judges 4:3, 6). Because Barak was reluctant to lead the Israelite forces, Deborah prophesied “there will be no glory for you…for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).

Intervention

From the outset God said He would win the battle. Working through Israel’s forces with the addition of powerful weather, God defeated the Canaanites. Not a man was left in Jabin’s army–except General Sisera. He fled to the tent of Jael, a woman who lived peaceably with the Canaanites. Jael agreed to hide Sisera, and in her tent he slept, exhausted.

 Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him (Sisera) and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died (Judges 4:21).

 

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Victor or Villain?

Somewhere in the story Jael switched alliances and “refused to remain neutral in this crucial conflict.”[2] As a tough, pragmatic Bedouin wife, she sided with Israel. As an ally of Israel, the general was her enemy because he was Israel’s enemy. In a lengthy poem describing the battle (Judges 5:24-27), Deborah praised Jael as most blessed among women for striking the blow that killed Sisera.

Not everyone agrees that she should be remembered with honor. Author Herbert Lockyer severely criticizes Jael with the words murder, revolting cruelty, treachery, foul, reprehensible, executioner. He states, “lacking courage, she dare not attack Sisera fairly.”[3] He adds, “Had Sisera attempted to rape Jael, and in defense of her honor she had killed him, that would have been another matter, but to kill him as an assassin kills a victim was something different.”[4] His most troubling phrase suggests condemnation: “she remains forever censurable for the cruel way she killed Sisera.?[5]

In the book Women of the Bible, Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda take a light approach in discussing Jael. They avoid the details of Sisera’s death and emphasize that Jael was decisive, courageous, and she seized the opportunity to slay an enemy of God’s people.[6] The authors focus on Jael’s strong qualities that women can apply today. Women learn from Jael’s decisive courage to stand up against their enemies. Courageous women need to stay close to God “in the midst of the fray.”[7]

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary discusses Jael in the setting of despair and disorder that characterized the times. “Between the days of Joshua and Samuel, Israel plummeted to moral and spiritual disaster.”[8] When the tribes came together to fight a common enemy, they believed that their enemy was God’s enemy. “Wicked, murdering leaders deserved to die” [9] and killing them was a way to glorify God.

Becoming a cautious observer of history

That God allowed Jael to kill the general is undeniable. Some Bible commentators question whether He approved of the way she did it? Did He favor, like, support, agree, accept, commend, esteem, endorse, back up, sanction what she did?It’s a bigger question than a tent peg execution. Hers was not the most horrific event that occurred in the time of the Judges.

Whether God approved of the way Sisera was killed, I wouldn’t want to comment. Can the word approve be applied to anything that is unlike God? At times God accomplishes His purposes through sinful humankind.

Readers may differ on how to think about the story, but scholars agree that the three centuries under the Judges was a dark time in history. Deborah, Barak and Jael figured in one of God’s merciful interventions in Israel’s past. Reading their stories reminds me to be a cautious observer of history.—Mary Hendren

 ***

( For more information concerning this time period see the dark period of the Judges.)

 ***

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 376

[2] Same source, p. 415

[3] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, p. 71

[4] Same source and page

[5] Same source and page

[6] Spangler and Syswerda, Women of the Bible, p. 115

[7] Same source, p. 121

[8] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 376

[9] Same source, p. 380

 

 

 

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