Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

García Bachmann, Mercedes L., Women at Work in the Deuteronomistic History (International Voices in Biblical Studies, 4; Atlanta: SBL, 2013). Pp. xv + 413. Paperback. US$54.95. ISBN 978-1-58983-755-3.

A revised version of García Bachmann's dissertation, this book sets out to investigate the lives of female laborers in the Deuteronomistic History. The objective is to find in the intersection of liberation feminist perspectives and exegetical study a portrait of the voiceless women in Israel. These are the women who gave their lives to tasks necessary to the survival of the community, but whose stories were never told, either by the original authors, or by the generations who have studied the Deuteronomistic History since (p. 17). The author seeks to define the social categories into which these women were placed by their own communities (p. 7), and to identify their own unique perspectives as “lower-class, hard-working women,” especially regarding how their values might differ from those of the middle and upper class female (pp. 3–4, n. 7). She proposes accomplishing this investigation by means of a thorough socio-historical, linguistic, and gender-based study of the Deuteronomistic History. García Bachmann's thesis is compelling, and her agenda has much potential for contributing significantly to the study of the biblical text. Unfortunately, this book disappoints on several fronts.

The introduction and first chapters of the book are, logically, designed to define the focus of the study: who are the “working women” of Israel? But the author's categories are amorphous, shifting so frequently that the reader struggles to identify exactly who it is she is pursuing. She speaks of her study being targeted at “those serving household needs, as opposed to religious and political occupations” (p. 9), yet circles back to include qedēšîm (i.e., sacred prostitutes, p. 11) and palace servants (p. 9). The stated goal is women who were forced to work outside their own homes, “economically dependent and thus bound to work for others and/or depend on others' good will” (pp. 1, 3, 5, 7), yet much is made of women belonging to a patriarchal system (i.e., the bêt ʾāb of Israelite society). As a result, the reader is too-often confused over the identity of the target of this study. A similar confusion permeates the book regarding genre and corpus. Although the book is an investigation of the Deuteronomistic History, the focus regularly shifts into the Pentateuch (pp. 14, 101, 118, 178, 221, 271, 279–80), the post-exilic prophets (pp. 109, 174, 179, 322, 340), and the Writings (pp. 26–27, 99, 148, 167, 179, 285–91). As these boundaries of corpus and historical era are neglected, the cultural profiles necessary to any study of this sort evaporate, leaving the reader with the impression that the discussion has no anchor in any particular incarnation of the Israelite experience. And as the definitions desired will, of course, be embedded in culture, this methodological error seriously impedes the success of the author's objectives.

Chapters two and three focus upon current scholarship regarding the broader contributions of feminist and gender studies as well as societal conditions in ancient Israel and how these would affect female laborers both slave and free. Building upon the concept of “peasantry” (Erik Wolf and Theodor Shanin),[1] García Bachmann attempts a model of a working woman's place in Israelite society by pursuing conditions in various eras and settings in Egypt, the Hittite Empire, and Mesopotamia. The author concludes with three categories in Israel: “indentured servants” (ʾāmâ, šiptâ), dependent women away from paternal protection (neʿărâ), and “captive women” from the hapax in Jdg 5:30 (raam raămātaîm). Her research here is uneven, with general anthropological themes and Mesopotamian society handled more carefully than material directly addressing Israelite society. (For example, the works of Johannes Pedersen and Timothy Laniak are presented as competing models of social-scientific interpretation of “honor and shame,” as opposed to models differentiated by seventy years of research).[2] Conspicuous lacunae here are contributions from the current social scientists of the Old Testament world: Carol Meyers, Lawrence Stager, Mary Douglas, David Hopkins, Israel Finkelstein, Rainer Albertz and Rüdiger Schmitt, etc.

Chapters four through six are dedicated to a survey of the various Hebrew terms that may or may not be attributed to female laborers. A necessary aspect of García Bachmann's study, here the reader finds some clarification regarding her categories (e.g., “Unfree Labor in the ANE,” pp. 91–114). But clarification is hindered by the author's curious approach to Hebrew language word study. Her discussions of Hebrew and Semitic linguistics are difficult, belaboring the most elementary aspects of Hebrew grammar (pp. 23–29). In combination with the privileging of older lexicons (e.g., pp. 26, n. 18; 179, n. 44; 189, n. 76), lengthy quotations from the theological word books (p. 178, n. 41), the regular juxtaposition of Akkadian qadištu and Hebrew קדשה without labelling or distinction (pp. 270–78), the reader is left with the impression that the author is less than comfortable with the application of Hebrew language to her research.

Chapter seven, “Prostitutes and Other Sex-Workers” is the strongest section of the book. As might have been gathered from García Bachmann's opening paragraph, the victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution are a particular concern for this author (p. 1, cf. p. 11). The author asks what sort of prostitution might have stood behind the narratives of Rahab (pp. 311–17) and Delilah (pp. 306–11) and what might have been the recognized social location of these biblical women. Her, corpus, however, is once again not the Deuteronomistic History. Rather, much of the chapter is dedicated to texts outside the DH (pp. 277–99). Her concluding chapter rehearses some of the female roles identified earlier in the book and leaves the reader with a call to recognize these biblical women for their contribution to their societies as opposed to simply their sexuality (p. 344).

In conclusion, García Bachmann does not say much in her 413 pages. The reader is repeatedly told that there is insufficient data available, or that the data needed was inaccessible to the author: “I see a problem here but cannot solve the puzzle alone” (p. 29); “Studies on labor available to me have been few” (p. 66); “I have only been able to check on the pages of the book available on the internet” (pp. 75; cf. 22, 78, 270 n. 8, 278 n. 26); etc. Unfortunately, the sources utilized for much of the gender and labor and socio-historical discussion are quite dated. Stylistic issues abound. The greatest contribution here, and one that deserves attention, is the author's perspective and the questions she asks. Who are the Women at Work in the Deuteronomistic History? How would they self-identify? How would their societies identify them? These are important questions that need to be asked . . . and answered.

Sandra Richter, Wheaton College

[1] Erick Wolf, Peasants (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996); Theodor Shanin, “Introduction: Peasantry as a Concept,” in Theodor Shanin (ed.), Peasants and Peasant Societies: Selected Readings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 1–4. reference

[2] Johannes Pederson, Israel, Its Life and Culture (2 vols; London: Oxford University Press, 1926); Timothy Laniak, Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998). reference