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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/).

Hair

 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil (Luke 7:37-39).

Luke didn’t name the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but Simon said she was a sinner. Weeping, she stood behind Jesus, let down her hair and wiped His feet. Her extraordinary behavior disturbed the men. “Among the Jews it was a shameful thing for a woman to let down her hair in public.”[1] In adoration, she kissed His feet and massaged them with oil.

Simon thought that if Jesus were truly a prophet, He would have known the woman was a sinner. Responding to Simon’s thoughts, Jesus reminded him that a host customarily greets his guests with a kiss, provides water for washing their feet, honors them with anointing oil—all of which Simon had neglected to do. The woman, however, in heart-felt humility, fulfilled every courtesy Simon had neglected. Jesus called attention to the proportion of her love in comparison to Simon’s: Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47).

Cut

The woman’s hair was very long, long enough to wipe Jesus’ feet. I didn’t find any references to Israelite women cutting their hair for stylish purposes. There are references to women shaving their heads and cutting their hair in connection with vows. If a woman took a Nazarite vow, she couldn’t cut her hair for the duration of the vow. When the woman completed her obligations, she shaved her head and presented the hair in the Temple as part of an offering. A woman cured of leprosy shaved her head (Lev. 14:8). An Israelite soldier that took a foreign woman captive shaved her head, trimmed her nails, gave her new clothing and allowed her a month of mourning before consummating the marriage (Deut. 21:10-13).

Washed

Women in ancient Israel didn’t wash their hair with the regularity we do today. “How widespread and how frequent non-ceremonial bathing was in Israel is impossible to determine.” [2] Bathsheba bathed, Naaman bathed, Levites and priests washed before serving in the Temple, and men and women cured of leprosy bathed (Lev. 14:8). In the time of Jesus, some religious leaders made a great show of washing their hands. However, there’s no mention of soap for bathing the body or shampoo for washing the hair.

In the ancient middle-east “oil served a hygienic purpose prior to the invention of soap and shampoo.” [3] Although the Babylonians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans used a compound made from oil, fat and caustic soda to wash clothing, the compound was harsh and tended to burn skin and hair. Women made a body scrub from oil mixed with natron, a mineral deposit that resembled baking soda. The natron scrub had some anti-bacterial properties but gummed up the hair and was difficult to rinse out. It is said that Egyptians washed their hair and their wigs in diluted citrus juice, but I found no references that citrus hair-washing was practiced in Israel.

Arranged and Colored

Isaiah, in warning ancient Israel, refers to “well-set hair.” Israel had defied God and would suffer for it. As part of the nation’s punishment, women who prided themselves on beautifully arranged hair, scarves, veils and turbans would experience the baldness of poverty and famine.

1024px-Beautiful_Greek_woman_statue

Beautiful Greek woman (public domain)
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Wonderlane at http://flickr.com/photos/71401718@N00/4258937618. It was reviewed on 12 September 2011 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

On occasion women in Egypt and Israel colored their hair. Solomon may have been referring to the use of henna as a coloring agent in Song of Songs 7:6. Your head is like scarlet [or Carmel] and the locks of your head like purple. “Some scholars suggest that this refers to the purplish sheen of hennaed black hair, since elsewhere the woman’s hair is described as black. It is certainly possible that henna was known in the Biblical period as a hair dye. In fact, the earliest evidence for henna use in the Land of Israel are wigs of henna-dyed hair, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1550 BCE), which were found in the excavations of Jericho; furthermore, Greek and Roman historians specifically mention henna from the Land of Israel being used to colour hair.”[4] 

Women paid attention to their hair—covering it, wrapping it into buns, folding, curling and braiding it. They wove ribbons into their braids and fastened them atop their heads with ivory pins. They twined pearls and jewels into their hair. They added gold dust and metallic plates to catch the sunlight.[5] In writing to Christians in Asia Minor, Peter stated that a woman’s outward adorning of arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel (I Pet. 3:3-4) should never overshadow the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. The Nelson’s Study Bible states that Peter “is not condemning women who wear jewelry” [6] or dress in an attractive manner. He encourages a woman to appear and conduct herself worthy of one called to inherit a blessing (1 Pet.3:9).

One woman’s hair and humility

All four gospel accounts mention the occasion of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman before He was crucified, but with some variations (indicated in italics).

  • The accounts in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 agree almost word-for-word. Both writers say that an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head with fragrant oil while He was at dinner in the home of Simon the Leper. Some disciples criticized the woman for wasting the oil on Jesus rather than selling it to help the poor. Jesus stated that the woman had done a good work by anointing Him prior to His burial. The act would be remembered as a memorial to her.
  • Luke states that Simon the Pharisee hosted the dinner (Luke 7:36-50). The unnamed woman was a known sinner from the city. She wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped the tears with her hair. She anointed His feet with fragrant oil. Simon criticized her in his thoughts. Jesus drew a lesson about love and forgiveness from the woman’s devotion. He acknowledged that the woman was a sinner, and He forgave her sins.
  • John is the only writer that identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8). Lazarus, Martha and Mary hosted the supper. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiped them with her hair. Judas questioned why the oil was not sold to help the poor. Jesus stated that Mary had the oil in preparation for His burial and that the poor would always be there.

Postscript: Who was the woman?

Some scholars say that the differences in the four accounts reflect what the writers saw and remembered, which is the nature of eyewitness reports. These scholars believe there was only one occasion when a woman anointed Jesus, and details from the accounts can be accounted for. Their reasoning is based on speculations:

  • Simon may have been related to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and may have owned the home where the three friends prepared supper.
  • Simon may have been a Pharisee and a recovered leper.
  • The unnamed woman may have anointed Jesus’ head before she anointed His feet.
  • Simon may have condemned her in his thoughts while Judas and the disciples criticized her openly.
  • Jesus may have addressed Simon’s self-righteous lack of love privately and corrected the disciples in public.

Other commentators believe that Mary of Bethany and a different unnamed woman anointed Jesus on two separate occasions. “There is no Biblical evidence whatever for identifying this sinful woman with Mary Magdalene or with Mary of Bethany as some commentators have done…as for Mary, sister of Martha, what is said of her devout spirit is strikingly adverse to that of a harlot of the streets.”[7] Lockyer’s argument rests most strongly on his confidence that Mary of Bethany, the dear friend of Jesus, could not have been the unnamed, sinful woman.—Mary Hendren


[1] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, on-line note on Luke 7:38

[2] Archeological Study Bible, Zondervan, “Bathing,” p. 456

[3] Same source, “Perfumes and Oils,” p. 1746

[4] hennabysienna.com/henna-in-the-bible.html

[5] On-line commentaries: Barnes’ Notes, and Adam Clarke’s, notes on 1 Peter 3:3

[6] Nelson Study Bible, NKJV, Second Edition, note on 1 Peter 3:3, p. 1986

[7] Herbert Lockyer,  All the Women of the Bible, p. 231

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