Today it is not uncommon to ask a new acquaintance, “Do you work?” This usually provides a hook for further conversation. The obvious answer is yes, for all women work carrying out the necessities for daily life. The subtext of the query is, are you employed and what do you do?
Working for survival
Working away from home for money is rather a modern concept in the history of women. After all, it was only during and after World War 2 that women began to figure prominently in the workplace in the United States. For thousands of years women (and children) of the world have worked in the home and alongside men in their fields or businesses in order to keep family and community alive.
How good is the pay?
It is likely that if Old Testament women received pay for their labors it was in the form of rations of food and grain, thereby shoring up reserves necessary for survival until the next growing season.
Much of a woman’s time anciently was spent tending a family, and growing, cooking, and preserving food. If she was not diligent in carrying out her responsibilities, the results could be deadly.
Carol Myer, a Professor of Religion at Duke University, comments in her book Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context: “The amount of labor needed for processing food and cooking would take up most of the women’s time. However, just because the women worked mostly in the home to provide food did not mean that it was an insignificant job. Actually, it was a very important job…because it meant that women were in charge of rationing the food that the family had. If the woman could not ration the food appropriately, then the family would starve come winter.”
New Testament times
By the time of the first century, women had ventured further into arena of business and commerce. Author Lynn H. Cohick observes, “We must not imagine women, especially poor women (who with poor men made up the vast majority of the ancient world), tucked away in their homes, secluded from economic activity. Inscriptions, epitaphs, and visual art all suggest the active presence of women in the economy of the ancient world” (Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 2009, page 241).
Here are a few examples of women who worked in various positions within their communities:
- Nehemiah 3:12 Shallum and his daughters “made repairs” during the rebuilding in Jerusalem.
- Judges 4:4, 4 Deborah functioned as a judge.
- Exodus 1:15, 16 Shiphrah and Puah were midwives.
- Proverbs 31 contains several examples of a woman skilled not only in managing a home but one who was knowledgeable in the world of trade, real estate, and commerce.
In the next posts, Mary Hendren will visit a couple of New Testament women known for their commercial ventures. Much discussion of women during the first century focuses on these two, Lydia and Priscilla, as they are the prominent examples of businesswomen of the time.