In these days when so many are afraid and aching for the people of Ukraine, and concerned about the lasting impacts of this war around the world, I cannot help thinking of the wise women of ancient Israel. These wise women, unafraid of confronting dangerous men, used their intelligence and storytelling skill to defuse violent situations between powerful adversaries and restore peace. May their wisdom be felt in the world now.
The institution of “wise woman” appears several times in the Bible. In the Book of Samuel, a wise woman (chachamah in Hebrew, from chochmah, wisdom) steps in when there is a war, or political conflict, to promote peace. In II Samuel 14, after King David’s son Amnon rapes David’s daughter, Tamar, the king does nothing. Tamar’s full brother Absalom takes matters into his own hands and kills Amnon, then flees to another country. David grieves for Absalom but won’t send for him. The wise woman of Tekoa appears before King David, pretending to be a woman whose sons fought, and one killed the other. The story she tells helps to reconcile King David with his son Absalom, at least temporarily.
The wise woman of Avel, in II Samuel 20, helps save her besieged city. She counsels executing a man who has rebelled against King David and throwing his head over the wall—thus satisfying David’s besieging army while not allowing any soldiers through Avel’s gates. This wise woman describes Avel as an oracle city, and one wonders if she herself is the oracle. The archaeologists Nava Panitz-Cohen and Naama Yahalom-Mack have studied the excavation of Tel Abel-Beth-Maacah, the city mentioned in this story, and describe a particular chamber in the city that contains divination tools (bones), wondering if this chamber might have been the sacred place where the wise woman did her work. Both the wise woman of Avel and the wise woman of Tekoa are known by the names of their cities, suggesting that they were well-known and/or that their positions were official ones, recognized by the powers-that-be.
In I Samuel 25, Abigail, wife of Nabal, also intervenes in an escalating conflict. Abigail, described as “intelligent and beautiful,” learns that her husband has offended David by refusing to compensate David and his men (who at this point are wanderers living in the field) for protecting his land. She sets out with a princely gift of bread, wine, raisins, and figs, and intercepts David, convincing him that attacking Nabal will do harm to David’s reputation when David becomes king. She placates David, and he puts aside his plan to harm Naval. “Blessed is your prudence,” David says to her in verse 23. He praises her for having interrupted his violent intentions.
In his comparison of the wise women of ancient Anatolia (which corresponds to modern-day Turkey) and ancient Israel, the scholar Michael S. Moore notes that the wise woman in Anatolia “enacts many roles for many reasons, but fundamentally she is a mediator, a culturally recognized expert in the art of conflict resolution” whether between combatants in this world or between the human and hidden worlds. Moore points out that the wise women of ancient Israel clearly do something similar, since women who are called “wise woman” or “intelligent” also seem to act decisively to avert lethal conflicts. Moore adds that in Anatolia, wise women are, in part, responsible for applying the myths of the past to the present: “As incantation-reciter the wise woman is responsible for preserving, interpreting, and applying the myths of antiquity to the needs of real people.” Some of the wise women of ancient Israel also do something like this, telling what Moore calls “homeopathic stories” meant to provide a cure for enmity: the story told by the wise woman of Tekoa has a strong impact on King David, and the words of the wise woman of Avel to David’s general Yoav seem to shift Yoav’s military intentions.
At the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, which I co-founded with Taya Ma Shere, we include the stories of these women in our curriculum, to see what we can learn about the role of the wise woman in biblical society. We observe that these women are flexible in their leadership, using multiple strategies (dramatic narrative, negotiation, and direct action) to achieve their goals. They are eloquent in speech and clever in their situational understanding. Most of all, the wise women of the Bible each reframe conflicts to decenter desires for dominance or vengeance and center the potential impact of the conflict on the people and the future. This reframing is desperately needed in our world today. What a gift it would be for the world’s leaders to learn from the wisdom of the wise women of the book of Samuel.
I close by noting that Ukraine has a strong tradition of wise women healers. According to scholar Sarah Phillips, these wise women act as meditators with supernatural realms “to simultaneously heal persons and communities” and “fill a role as healers, not only of bodies and psyches, but of troubled communities in a time of social upheavals.” May the hands of the healers be strengthened.
Moore, Michael S. “Wise Women or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” in Restoration Quarterly 35.3 (1993), 147-158.
Panitz-Cohen, Nava and Yahalom-Mack, Naama. The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah.” Biblical Archaeology Review 45:4, July/August/September/October 2019. https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/45/4/2
Phillips, Sarah D. “Waxing Like the Moon: Women Folk Healers in Rural Western Ukraine,” in Folklorica, vol. 9 no. 1, (2004).
BIO: Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, scholar, ritualist, poet, midrashist and dreamworker, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org), and co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org). She is the author of the just-released Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreaming as well as other books including Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. She lives in Manhattan with her family.