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Monthly Archives: August 2014

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

 

 

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