Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Carol Meyers, Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women (Facets; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).  Pp. viii + 105.  Paper, US$6.00, CAN$8.50.  ISBN 0-8006-3731-3.

Carol Meyer’s latest book is an expanded version of her 2001 keynote address for the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament. Her mandate was to explore the impact of sociology and gender studies on Israelite religion.

In the Introduction, Meyers traces the history of women in relation to Israelite religion. This is not an exhaustive exploration of the history of the topic, but it does set the stage for the current discussion and has the merit of pointing the reader to other sources for more detailed information.  She clarifies that her approach will not focus on theology, which she claims is a masculine approach, but will examine the practice of religion where the experience of women is more evident.  She also highlights what she perceives as flawed means of interpretation. The next chapter explains how she will avoid these traditional pitfalls and the benefits of exploring the religious culture of women, rather than the religion of women. This distinction is important for Meyers, because she incorporates both beliefs and practices (or responses) in the first term.

By using an integrated anthropological approach to discover the ethnohistory of her group, Meyers finds that women’s cultic role was largely magical. She claims her study is unique because it avoids preconceived notions regarding the role of the father and the effect of patriarchy on religious expression.  She uses archaeology to support her claims, as she rejects the position that the female pillar figurines represented a goddess. Instead, she claims that they were magical talismans used in the religious culture of reproduction. Because such pillar figurines are often found in conjunction with Bes figures, she claims that they must also have reproductive symbolism. These considerations do not explain why these figurines are often found in tombs. After all, one is no longer concerned about fertility, pregnancy, and lactation after death. (Meyers attempts to explain the matter in chapter 6)

Much of her thesis regarding women and their religious connection with magic comes from her use of ethnographic data. Despite the fact that Meyers claims the text of the Hebrew Bible does not explicitly refer to women’s religious culture, she does find expressions of women’s religious culture in biblical narratives and proverbs, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern texts, particularly those that refer to magico-medical issues. She finds expressions of women's religious culture in ritual activities and apotropaic behaviours.

Her conclusion begins by debunking two common assumptions. The first is that the home is a tertiary social unit. She demonstrates, as she has done elsewhere, that it is in fact the primary unit of Israelite society. The second has to do with the ideas that revolve around western beliefs about patriarchy and its implications for social structure. After tackling these stereotypes, Meyers explains how social structure led to an informal network of women that helped deal with the immediate concerns of life and death. Finally, she concludes that ancient Israel should be viewed as a heterarchy, a system not based on ranking, or in which ranking is not static.

On the whole this is an excellent presentation of the religious culture of reproduction and, by extension, of women’s religious culture. However, a few of Meyers’ assumptions should be challenged. The first is that the religious culture of women is the same as that of reproduction. Whether intended or not, the book appears to leave women no cultic role outside of reproduction. She might have concluded thus, but she has not demonstrated that women did not participate in the cult in other ways.

The second weakness is the brevity of the work. Many times it would have been helpful for her to give more detailed explanations. However, this problem is somewhat overcome by her notes, which refer the reader to more detailed explanations elsewhere.

In sum, this book points at a vital piece of the Israelite religion pie.

Ellen White
University of St. Michael’s College