Astuzie femminili in the Old Testament

by
D. E. Bynum

- Protocol -

Following a study of named heroines in the modern South Slavic epic tradition,¹ the present text considers likenesses between them and the far more widely known stories of women in the Old Testament.

A conspicuous distinction in the South Slavic case is between women who marry by polite arrangement, and those gotten contrastingly by bride-capture. The story of Tamar in Genesis 38 catches the eye as an interesting example of the former kind—a ‘negotiated’ bride—whereas her namesake, Absalom’s sister Tamar, is an abortive bride-by-capture in 2 Samuel 13-14. Both their ‘marriages’ are conspicuous failures, and not only because both ‘husbands’ perish without issue. The Tamar in Genesis is precariously positioned from the very beginning of her story.

Judah’s Tamar

Jacob’s son Judah takes a Canaanite woman named Shua to wife. She bears him three sons, the first of whom is Er. When Er is of age, Judah finds a wife for him named Tamar. But Er dies before his marriage with Tamar has issue. Judah imposes the leviratic duty of ‘redeeming’ Tamar on his second son, Onan, who however temporizes until he too dies without issue by Tamar. Recognizing the apparent threat to his own lineage posed by the hapless Tamar, Judah declines to treat his third and last son in the same fashion as he did Er and Onan, and sends Tamar home to her paternal kin as an ‘unredeemed’ widow.

Ignored now by Judah and his remaining son, Tamar resorts to a trick. She dresses as a veiled whore, puts herself in Judah’s way, and gets a solicitation from him. Exploiting his uncircumspect lust, she extracts from him both his direct redemption of herself, which Judah was unwilling to provide her through his youngest son—namely her pregnancy by Judah—and also a set of material objects (Judah’s identifying seal, cord, and stick), which she uses subsequently to compel his admission of paternity. Thereafter, one perfectly understands, her support and that of her child will flow no longer from her father, but from her deceased husband’s father, Judah. Thus the woman Tamar secures by pretense (posing as a prostitute) from a male who does not support her (Judah) a provision for herself which she transfers to the estate of another man whose ward she will henceforth be (namely the estate of her real husband, Judah’s first-born son Er).

Absalom’s Tamar

Superficially, the case of Absalom’s sister Tamar is rather different; but typologically speaking, there isn’t really enough difference to matter. King David’s first-born son and favorite amongst his numerous progeny is a fellow named Amnon. This Amnon is rather like Judah in his subjection to reckless lust. He lures Absalom’s virgin sister Tamar into his inner chamber alone with him, and rapes her. Then, having done what he wanted to do, in an equally impulsive fit of disgust, he turns her out. Thus disowned as dishonorably as was Er’s Tamar in Genesis 38, Absalom’s Tamar too resorts to a bit of play-acting. She adopts the attitude not of a prostitute, but rather of a mourner as for one deceased, and thus makes herself terribly troublesome to her brother. (If one were to doubt Tamar’s mourning as a piece or ‘play-acting’ or ruse, one has only to ask oneself what sort of funeral it would be where the only mourner is the corpse). Absalom begs her to stop, pointing out to her what anyone can understand about her position without having to be told, namely that Amnon, after doing what he has done, really has no choice at all but to marry Tamar now, and if Tamar will only calm down and stop pretending someone has died, it can all be worked out and Tamar settled honorably in Amnon’s house.

But Tamar will have none of it, clearly preferring to remain Absalom’s ward rather than depend on the capricious Amnon for her well-being in years to come. So she persists in her pose as a woman scorned virtually to death until she so exacerbates relations between Absalom and his brother Amnon that the former assassinates the latter. As a consequence, Absalom is in bad odour with his father King David for a couple of years; but David being the man he was, Absalom—marvelous to relate—not only is rehabilitated at court but becomes precisely what Amnon was before Absalom killed him, namely King David’s fair-haired favorite amongst all his numerous sons. This preferred status at court has effectively been transferred by Tamar from Amnon, whose care for her Tamar could not dependably rely upon, to Absalom, whose protection and devotedness to her are unshakable, and this has been accomplished by means of Tamar’s pose as the wailing mourner. Who could fail to realize that Absalom’s power to take good care of his poor ruined sister Tamar has been wonderfully increased by Tamar’s own actions in supplanting Amnon with Absalom?

So the shared scheme of the two Tamar stories runs like this: By an act of assumed identity or ‘play-acting’ on her part, a woman secures from one male a prize benefit for another man, who will be responsible for her well-being thereafter. The process of the transfer of prize from the one male to the other is very perilous for one or both of the males concerned, who may forfeit life itself during their manipulation by the woman, as Amnon did, and as did Judah in the loss of his second son Onan.

Is the common type of these two tales uniquely the property of women named Tamar in the Old Testament? No, it seems that it is not.

Let’s back up a story or two in Genesis—by-passing the genealogies and the king lists—and notice next the story of Dinah. (The reference in Genesis 35 to Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, names another woman, but there is no story about her, whereas there is a ripping good yarn about Dinah.) Dinah’s is another ‘marriage’ that did not succeed.

Jacob’s Dinah

Dinah “captivates” the Hivite chap named Shechem, Hamor’s son, and he takes her for his wife by bride-capture, pure and simple. Never mind the anachronism: observe simply that it’s the Amnon-Tamar story all over again, except that far from turning the woman out after having his way with her, Shechem the Hivite is eager to do the honorable thing and make Dinah his negotiated bride, not just his captured bride. But a fatal impediment to his intention is the fact that he is Hivite, and that fault destroys both him and his whole town. Just as Tamar’s ‘trick’ of mourning cascaded into the further trick of Absalom’s tricking Amnon to attend a feast putatively for reconciliation, but really for the murder of Amnon, so Dinah’s ‘captivating’ Shechem leads to her brothers’ trick of pretending reconciliation with Hamor and his people only in order to ambush, destroy, and plunder them. Together, this pair of tricks—theirs and hers—brings about the transfer of extensive material wealth from the males of the Hivite country to Dinah’s brothers, whose ward we certainly understand the poor ruined Dinah will have to be thereafter. But her dowry, as it were—namely the compensation wrested from the uncircumcised Hivite males for the benefit of Dinah’s brothers while they serve in loco mariti—is no mean endowment: (Genesis 34:28-29) “They took away their flocks, cattle, donkeys, and whatever there was in the town and in the countryside. They carried off all their riches, all their little children and their wives, and looted everything to be found in their houses.” Dinah may be a ruined woman, but her ruin was richly profitable to the men who will keep her subsequentially. And, of course, there is danger both for the Hivite males—who were simply annihilated—as also for Dinah’s own brothers (since military action always entails mortal peril for even the canniest ambushers, for whom in the very nature of ambuscades there is always the risk that something might go quite disasterously awry).

So, do such tales of tricks-by-women, males-deprived, males-enriched, and women’s-subsequent-dependence-on-enriched-males regularly attach only to thwarted matrimonies? Well, no; they don’t seem to be restricted in exactly that way either. Another step backward in the Book of Genesis brings us to the next—i.e., the previous—story about a named woman, who is of course Jacob’s Rachel—or should one say, Laban’s Rachel. There’s no problem about her marriage, except perhaps that it took inordinately long to accomplish, both as to the wedding and as to the progeny gotten from it for Jacob’s lineage. But aside from those blemishes, it is a real marriage with all the advantages that good Israelite endogamy and careful prior negotiation can impart to it.

Laban’s Rachel

Feminine trickery, transfer of property from male to male, and subsequent feminine dependence on the winning side of the transfer are all too obvious in Rachel’s story to need any lengthy analysis. Rachel’s future cannot lie lifelong in Laban’s wardship of her; her readiness to have Jacob shows her sensible awareness of that. So she purloins Laban’s household idols as she departs his house with Jacob, the man who will be her lifelong guardian thereafter. Her famous trick is of course her concealment of Laban’s heathen gods amidst her menstrual rags, from which she deceptively refuses to rise—not, so she pretends, because she has anything of Laban’s to hide, but only because, well, because she is menstruating, and Laban therefore would not want to see what she’s sitting on anyway. So it is that Rachel too, like all the other Old Testament women we’ve noticed, in foresightful anticipation of her future dependency not on Laban but on Jacob, by a ruse transfers everything of value that she possibly can from Laban to Jacob. And what then for poor Laban? Whatever will he do—how can he survive and prosper without his household gods, who may not matter much in Canaan (though even there they may have some residual efficacy), but who surely are not negligible in Laban’s Harran? Laban without them is clearly endangered, and so he clearly needs the compact he immediately makes with Jacob over the monumental cairn at Galeed, since it is Jacob who now possesses whatever advantages the godlings from Harran might be able to confer.

Nor does the male endangerment end with the endangerment of Laban. From his parting with Laban, Jacob proceeds straight to the most perilous familial encounter he could possibly experience on return to his native land, namely his reunion with Esau, whom he has not seen since he conned Isaac out of Esau’s birthright, which was of course the defining moment requiring his exile to Laban’s country in the first place. If anyone of humankind might now probably destroy him, it must be Esau. And as though to make doubly sure that he does not escape the full weight of peril associated with his complicity in Rachel’s typical woman’s trick, sandwiched into the danger of meeting Esau is the truly weird and frightful encounter with the praeternatural person beside the ford at Jabbok. One cannot suppose that any of this juxtapositioning of perils is merely coincidental, secondary, or otherwise negligibly related to the foregoing story of Jacob; on the contrary, the standard narrative pattern involving Rachel and her trick with Laban’s fetishes inescapably involves and requires an immediate sequel of mortal danger for Jacob both with the named mortal Esau and with the nameless praeternatural terror of his noctural wrestling-match. This was surely from its origin one story, and no mere editorial compilation in aftertime.

There is another piece of the present story-pattern or ‘type’ which we would also do well to notice now rather than later (since sooner or later we’re going to have to notice it and define its place in the emerging pattern anyway). That is the element of Rachel’s trickery of the other woman—or the other women—namely Leah, and the two slave girls Bilhah and Zilpah, whom Rachel and Leah commit to concubinage with Jacob. They and their teeming progeny are also immediate parts of the tale about the stolen household gods, for it is the exhausting, manifold quest through all their pululating campsite that buffers Rachel until the time of Laban’s last, forlorn inquiry as to whether, all other places having failed to disclose anything useful, his treasures might possibly be underneath Rachel? No trace of any of them having appeared elsewhere, it is not likely, and so in the end Laban forsakes his quest at the very threshold of discovery. Those three other, aboundingly fertile women are thus, however unwittingly, Rachel’s instruments—or, in effect, her accomplices—in her thievish ruse. So too was the Canaanite woman Shua a necessary precondition for Tamar’s deception of Judah in Genesis 38, for without Shua’s complicit fertility in first bearing Judah’s three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah, Tamar could never have achieved in the first place the standing in the scheme of Judah’s lineage that gave occasion and meaning to her subsequent deception of Judah. If this seems a strange or contrived idea, be patient; plentiful further recurrence and confirmation of it as a systematic piece of the story-pattern await.

Marching on resolutely backwards, we come next to the woman before Rachel, who was of course Laban’s other woman, not his daughter Rachel (or Leah), but his sister Rebekah. Oh yes, there is, to be sure, some mention also of a woman named Keturah (Genesis 25); but there is no story about her, and we can’t describe the pattern of her story when we have no story. This is another of those things that happen repeatedly in Old Testament narrative; a woman is named, but the narrator neglects to tell us what she did (or what any other woman did in proximity to her. That such a woman merely bore a child or children, as Keturah did, I take to be truly no narrative at all about what she did, because as anyone who has ever seen it happen must appreciate, to a great degree bringing a child into the world isn’t somehow anything a woman so much does as it is something done to her (the whole process being by nature profoundly involuntary once it has begun), and a thing which, as the English word aptly says, she either bears or not, as the case may be.) So we skip Keturah and consider Rebekah next.

Isaac’s Rebekah

There is no uncertainty about the identity of Rebekah’s ruse either; it was of course her thievish deception in the matter of Esau’s birthright. What a fine piece of flim-flam on Rebekah’s part to transfer that valuable asset—Esau’s birthright—from Esau to Jacob! And why did she do it? Well, there were two reasons, neither of them sufficient without the other. First, Esau had married a pair of Hittite women, which upset both Isaac and Rebekah no end. But that unpleasantness on Esau’s part must practically have mattered quite a lot more to Rebekah than it did to Isaac, who grew so old and failed in his faculties that he hardly understood anything that was happening around him any more. In fact, he got to the point where he wasn’t long for this world; and when he was gone, it wasn’t going to matter any longer to him whom his son Esau had married. That left Rebekah, who was certainly still in full possession of her faculties, with the nasty prospect of having to live on for who knew how long after Isaac’s time in the keeping of her elder son Esau, and all the while at the mercy of Esau’s plural alien wives, since her other son Jacob, who up to that time had certainly shown himself to be decidedly too passive about making a place for himself in the world, hadn’t yet even married! What was she to do?

What she did was play upon male passions, just as the two Tamars later did, and as Rachel did too in exploiting Laban’s squeamishness. Isaac had a weakness for hunter’s stew, and Rebekah faked it with lambs’ meat. Then she hid Jacob in the likeness of what he was not, coached Jacob in as nicee a piece of play-acting as ever was, and so bamboozled both Isaac and Esau out of the most valuable possession either of them owned. And why did she do all this? Because plainly Rebekah meant to make her home as a future widow not with Esau, but with Jacob; and so it was to the man whom she anticipated and desired to be her guardian in time to come that she transferred Isaac’s legacy by her ruse. The cost to Esau was more than merely the birthright; by Rebekah’s swindle he lost not only that, but also his very place long-term in the Israelite line of agnation, and so in the sequel he became in effect an unrecoverable exile from his own people. And what a lot of trouble it brought down on that callow homebody Jacob’s head, who was just incredibly lucky (and, so the redactor would have us understand, divinely protected too from the ghastly potential aftermath of Rebekah’s deception. One does not forget that this is the first two-brothers tale following the story of Cain and Abel, and the likeness would scarcely escape the notice of even a moderately circumspect man, much less a cunning mother bent on securing preferment for a favorite son.)

Did Rebekah’s scheme succeed? It had its intended effect on Jacob, of course; but did it succeed in her own interest? We have no explicit narrative regarding her fate after Jacob’s flight to Harran; but after his safe return to Canaan and his establishment of himself at Bethel with all his multitudinous family (all of whom were women of her brother Laban’s ilk and their children, as seen from Rebekah’s female point of view), we hear in Genesis 35 that Rebekah’s nurse Deborah died and was buried. So Rebekah’s nurse at least didn’t go wandering off to Seir as a member of Esau’s entourage (Gen. 33). In amongst all the other give-and-take between Jacob and Esau in that chapter about who is and who isn’t going where to live with whom, the narrator has neglected to tell us some rather interesting details about persons in Esau’s company who evidently elected to join Jacob’s band. It’s a pity we don’t have that bit, because it probably contained some additional entertaining example(s) of feminine dodginess. Nevertheless, since in the nature of things a woman’s nurse must inevitably be elder to the girl whom she has nursed; so it is surely a fair surmise that Rebekah indeed lived to enjoy the result of her swindle many a day in the house of the man whose ward she thereby elected to be, namely her son Jacob’s house.

Finally, were there any (unwitting) female accessories in Rebekah’s beguilement? They must surely be the other named women in her story, the Hittites Judith and Basemath, whose estrangement of Esau from Rebekah created the situation requiring Rebekah’s tricky action in the first place. The names of such accomplices are quite regularly included in Old Testament tales of this pattern, whether or not the accomplices are aware of their complicity.

Abram’s Sarai (and Pharaoh)

Abram’s Sarai is a manifold trickster of no different kind, though sometimes with, and sometimes without, named accomplices. Her lengthy story—generally coextensive with that of her husband—contains three fine instances of beguilement.

[1] The first of her ruses is too obvious: it is the bamboozlement of Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 12:11-20), who takes Sarai into his harem because she makes him suppose she is unwed. Fooling him in this way, Sarai accomplishes an extraction from his wealth and transfer to Abram (as bride price) of copious “flocks, oxen, donkeys, men and women slaves, she-donkeys and camels,” so that when Abram and Sarai return from Egypt to Canaan “Abram was a very rich man, with livestock, silver, and gold” (Genesis 13:2). This costs the losing man Pharaoh great forfeit however beyond the mere transfer of wealth to Abram, including no doubt much loss of life, since (Genesis 12:17) “Yahweh inflicted severe plagues on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai.” But Sarai’s own future as Abram’s sole wife (rather than Pharaoh’s one-amongst-many) is assured, and Abram’s ability to support her well is simultaneously assured by what she has done to Pharaoh with Yahweh’s complicity.

Abram’s Sarai (and Haggar)

[2] Indeed the most striking difference in Sarai/Sarah’s tale as compared with others is not any devagation from the general pattern we have been tracing, but rather that Yahweh himself figures as an active co-conspirator in all three of her beguilements. The next in the series is the matter of Hagar and Ishmael; and here again “the other woman” who is named in the story is an unwitting accomplice or tool of the tricky woman’s scheming. Sarai’s device in this instance is to get her childless husband an heir (just as earlier she got her destitute husband wealth by her ruse in Egypt). Yahweh cooperates with Sarah indispensably by keeping Hagar in Abram’s household with Ishmael as Abraham’s heir-apparent until Sarah’s own son Isaac is weaned (particularly in the scene by the well at Lahai Roi, Genesis 16:7-16). Then Sarah duplicitously turns against Ishmael, and uses Abraham to take away Ishmael’s expected legacy and convey it instead to Isaac (acts ratified again by Yahweh at the site of another, less conspicuous well in the wilderness of Beersheba, Genesis 21:15-21). There is horrendous peril in this change both for Ishmael’s and for Jacob’s lineages, which will ever after be in contention with one another. The general rule in polygynous cultures of the Middle East—as also widely in black Africa—was that a mother’s standing in the patriarchal order rose or fell with her son’s fortunes, and the culture of the ancient Israelites as depicted in the Old Testament was no exception. Thus, no matter what hazards lay in it for the males concerned, for Sarah, her position as chief amongst the women of Abraham’s household was definitively assured by the expulsion of Sarah’s only conceivable rival during her lifetime, namely Ishmael’s mother Hagar with her male champion Ishmael.

Abram’s Sarai (and the Cave of Macpelah)

[3] Finally, even in death Sarah is fit for one last beguilement, which is plainly the greatest of her three. When she died, Abraham purchased ground for her sepulchre at Macpelah, the first and only land he himself ever owned in Canaan (Genesis 23). Yet more than merely the body of Sarah reposes in it, for Sarah’s presence in it concealed from the beginning also a tacit claim to right of ownership not solely of the cave at Macpelah, but of all Canaan besides, to which the children of Abraham are expected to return (and where, incidentally, they may be expected subsequently to tend dead Sarah’s gravesite as assiduously as Abraham cared for the living Sarah whilst she lived). So she is put to rest like secret seed for the return of Abraham’s posterity to that place. Their eventual return is not however a pretty or an easy prospect, for the future change of dominion in Canaan will not be by purchase; it will bring with it instead the infinite pain and peril for males of attempted yet never decisively finished armed conquest on the one side; and of partially defeated, yet never decisively ended armed resistance to conquest by the other side. More males on both sides will die in consequence of this, Sarah’s last beguilement, than anyone can count.

From Sarai backward to Adam’s Hawwah I find no other named woman with a tale attached to her. There is, to be sure, Lot’s wife, who is however nameless; and elsewhere too there are other such unnamed women as Manoah’s wife who was Samson’s mother; or Potipher’s wife (in the story of Joseph); or Pharaoh’s daughter (in the story of Moses); or the two prostitutes in the Judgment of Solomon; or the Queen of Sheba; or Solomon’s uniformly anonymous seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines; or the nameless woman whose dead son Elijah resurrected (or again, that one’s double, the variant ‘woman of Shunem,’ whose dead son Elisha resurrected); and the like. The most interesting fact common to all of them I find to be that their stories systematically do not conform to the pattern which I have been describing here. Nor do the named women of Milcah’s kind, for example, conform; and that is just because they have no stories, and hence they cannot conform to anything. Many women named in the Old Testament fall into this latter category; in 2 Samuel 3:1, for example, the several wives of David at Hebron: Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Macaah of Geshun, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah; or, later, Jeroboam’s mother Zeruah, or Manasseh’s mother Hephzibah; and so forth. But if women happen to be 1) named, and 2) there is some story about their own deeds, then I find no instance in which women in the Old Testament stories are not either examples of the tricky woman herself, or else that type’s accessory in a beguilement.

So I think we’ve dealt now with all the named women who have stories told about them in Genesis—well, all but one. We’ll return to her presently.

Moses’ Zipporah

In Exodus, the story of Moses’ wife Zipporah is thoroughly botched, no matter whether she was the Midianite Reuel’s daughter (Ex. 2), or Jethro’s (Ex. 3:1, 4:18, 18:1 ff), or the Kenite Hobab’s (Judges 1:16, 4:11). The only intelligible fragment of it has her, like Hawwah, cheating Yahweh with a ruse. Yahweh has chosen Moses as a victim in Ex. 4:24; but Zipporah circumcised her son with her own hand, using a primitive scalpel, a piece of flint. As any obstetrician or pediatrician knows, it is a poor tool for the purpose because it will cause unnecessarily copious hemorrhaging (severance by constriction being the less bloody way). But hemorrhage is the fountain of Zipporah’s trickery; she conveys her infant son’s consequently very bloody foreskin to Moses, whose genitals she smears with the gore so as to make him too appear to be (though in reality he is not) freshly circumcised. In this deceptive fashion she takes Yahweh’s intended victim away from Him, and secures Moses’ continued life for Moses instead, who will be her protector and support in times to come (whereas Yahweh, who was about to take away her husband and leave Zipporah a widow with an orphaned son of tender age, was certainly not a person upon whom she could sensibly rely for her future welfare). The peril for Moses is prodigious all the while; and Yahweh, had he destroyed Moses, might have lost the very person he had himself just called and equipped for dealing with Pharaoh in the matter of the Israelites’ promised liberation. Until the woman achieves her purpose, all the males in the story with her are at risk.

The affairs of kings and priests supply little or no occasion for stories about named women in the Old Testament; but heroes’ affairs regularly do. The Sinai is accordingly not the only big arid desert between Zipporah in Exodus and Deborah in the Book of Judges. There is but a pair of small oases, all too soon passed over, that I have been able to find in that great unheroic wasteland. The women named in the first of those two little incidents don’t actually do anything; they only make a short speech in a court of common pleas, so it is stretching the scant meat of the text about them to treat their episode as a proper story at all. Nonetheless, the incident coincides with the general pattern we have been discovering.

Zelophehad’s Daughters

In Numbers 27, the five daughters of Zelophehad—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglath, Milcah, and Tirzah—jointly obtain their father’s legacy either for their own use—or, perhaps more plausibly, for their (eventual) husbands’ benefit—at the expense of their father’s male kin. The perils of dispossession for the male kinsmen who are affected by the five women’s successful joint plea to Moses is patent; and, to make matters worse, those present unnamed persons’ loss Yahweh extends as valid judicial precedent to all future probate cases of the same character. But if anyone thinks for a moment that the conflict between women’s male consanguines and affines occasioned by this legal precedent will ever cease, or be free of deadly consequences in future generations, I fear he is quite mistaken.

Still, there is no explicit woman’s trickery in the little story of Zelophehad’s daughters, is there? Or is there? They are at pains to argue to Moses (Num. 27:3-4): “Our father died in the desert. He was not one of the company of those who conspired against Yahweh, Korah’s party; it was for his own sin that he died without sons. Why must our father’s name be lost to his clan? Since he had no son, give us some property among our father’s kinsmen.” So the five women acknowledge their father’s sin, while effectively concealing its character. In such a case, how can anyone know whether Zelophehad’s sin merited not only the punishment of terminating Zelophehad’s agnatic lineage, but also the eventual dispossession of his daughters? To be sure, it could not have served the five women’s interest in their own futures to expose the exact nature of their father’s sin (presuming that they even knew its exact nature); and of course, what is not disclosed is not necessarily concealed, so long as no one knows what it is. If the same Yahweh who either was deceived or let himself seem to be so by Zipporah’s deception with Moses’ genitals is the Yahweh of ultimate juridical authority in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, then surely the possibility cannot be ruled out of successful feminine dissembling once more in the matter of Zelophehad’s mysterious peccancy. It was not, moreover, the biblical redactors’ habit anywhere in their text to dwell overmuch on the exact method or details of the feminine deceptions and ricks which they report time and time again with stolid aridity. If therefore you can’t see that the five Zelophehad girls were as deep as all the others we’ve been noticing here, may the Lord’s blessing be with you! You’ll probably soon need it.

Heber’s Jael

Deborah in the Book of Judges tricks no one; she is only (as usual) the unintentional accessory of another tricky female, who is also named in the same story with her. That other woman in Deborah’s case is Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. Memorably (in Judges 4:17 ff) she deceived Barak’s opponent Sisera into believing she was his friend and protectress, only to drive a tent stake into his skull whilst he slept under her concealment. Then she triumphantly turned Sisera’s lifeless corpse over to Barak. Deborah, indicating to her man Barak at exactly what propitious moment to attack Sisera and his army, sets Jael up for the kill as a good accomplice should (no matter how unwitting).

But exactly what was in it for Jael? Well, think about her position, which is amongst a third, minority people who were a force to be reckoned with neither in Jabin the Canaanite’s hegemony, nor in the Israelite supplantation of the older Canaanite population under Deborah’s vatic and Barak’s military leadership. A woman caught in the grind, as Jael was, between two greater contending powers in the land must provide for her own future somehow, for (Judges 4:11) “Heber the Kenite had cut himself off from the tribe of Kain and the clan of the sons of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses; he had pitched his tent near the Oak of Zaanannim, not far from Kadesh.” Such mere detached sojourners in any land need friends amongst whichever party dominates the country. It is her husband Heber from whom alone Jael can hope for protection and support of herself in future time, and so it is from the hapless refugee Sisera that Jael plucks Barak’s goodwill towards her husband Heber and his people (including especially herself) by killing the hunted man Sisera, and then displaying his lifeless remains as a trophy to Barak. But the real trophy of the tale is of course Jael’s and her husband Heber’s new position as willing allies of the Israelites in their ascendancy. Meanwhile the peril for males associated with the deceptive woman’s trick is, as usual, at least twofold: Sisera is slain outright by the tricky woman Jael; and Heber with all his people are in mortal peril of Barak’s enmity so long as Sisera is a live refugee in Jael’s tent.

No One’s Delilah

Superficially, Samson’s Delilah may not seem an instance of named femininity very parallel to Jael, Zipporah, Laban’s kinswomen, the Tamars, or the others of their kind; but typologically speaking, she certainly is. Her great swindle was to counterfeit the sweet intimacy of personal secrets shared between lovers not because she adored Samson as she seemed to do, but rather because she saw in him an opportunity once-in-a-lifetime of whoring to provide for herself in a way that would make her ever again taking another man into her lap unnecessary. (Go ahead; ask any professional prostitute what she would like most in all the world if she could have it, and see for yourself whether it differs much from Delilah’s dream-come-true.) A flabbergasting sum of money was to be hers—eleven hundred silver shekels from each of her plural Philistine instigators, a prodigious dowry for a whore’s years of retirement—as the wages of her success in deceiving Samson and teasing the secret of his strength out of him, if she could do it. Was there ever in the world’s history so grand and apt a challenge to a prostitute’s skill in ‘faking it’ as this? And she was equal to it! Multiply duplicitous, she successfully dissembled not merely her own feelings: in her house were successfully concealed also the Philistine constabulary (disguised, one has to suppose, as other girls’ clients), ready to leap out when summoned to subdue and arrest Samson as soon as Delilah’s trick had unmanned him. Dangerous for Samson, her manifold guile ultimately cost him his very life; but the other males in her story, the Philistine constabulary and their chiefs, might also have perished in a trice at Samson’s hands, had he been even for a moment sufficiently unbefuddled by Delilah to have been aware of their presence. So Delilah by her guile conveyed the power of Samson into the power of the Philistines for her own benefit.

Someone’s Rahab

I have deliberately put off to this point mentioning that other whore, Rahab of Jericho in the Book of Joshua, because she is typologically such a neat middle term between Delilah and Heber’s wife Jael. Rahab’s story (Joshua 3) is another of those too well known to be dwelt upon for long. She conceals Joshua’s pair of spies under stalks of flax on her rooftop, deceives the King of Jericho concerning the concealed Israelite spies’ whereabouts, and makes a precise contract with the spies about her own future and that of the other people close to her (i.e., those upon whom she must depend in future time). Thus from Joshua, who holds her kinsmen’s lives in his hand to give or take, Rahab secures them in her own interest. Whore she may be, but protect and support her in the future they must. For the rest of the male citizenry of Jericho whose fellows Rahab’s kinsmen are, however, there is only death in store, as there is potentially too not only for the pair of Israelite spies, but also for the whole of Joshua’s army, which—like any army in time of war—may suffer casualties numbering anywhere from one to all, even if they are victorious. Like Delilah, Rahab takes in alien manhood; but oppositely to Delilah, she conserves it for her own benefit rather than trading it to other, inimical males for their purposes. Like Jael, on the other hand, she takes in alien refugees and treats them in a manner best calculated to serve her own future; but whereas Jael is an honest wife, Rahab is a whore.

Elimelech’s Naomi

The woman of Thebez who broke Abimelech’s pate (Judges 9) doesn’t qualify for our study, because she has no name—and, as may well be predicted from that fact alone, she has no profitable ruse either. Nor are any of the dancing girls of Shiloh named (Judges 21), nor the concubine of the Levite of Ephraim (Judges 19-20). So we come next to Ruth and Naomi—or, as typologically they ought rather to be sequenced—Naomi and Ruth; for Naomi is the tricky one in their tale, and Ruth is her accessory, who as accomplice differs from the other accomplices we have recognized only inasmuch as she is rather more witting of her complicity than they. Naomi doubly insinuates Ruth into Boaz’s sleeping place—puts the younger woman ‘under cover’ there, and does so under the additional cover of darkness. It’s a good thing Boaz was willing, for his position on waking and discovering Naomi’s guileful placement of the young widow in his bed would have been fraught with trouble for him if he hadn’t wanted her. This bit of concealment leads straight on to dispossession of an unnamed man who ranks before Boaz in right of leviratic redemption, but who (foolishly) prefers his own inheritance to that of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelech. So, unforesightful as he is, that man is done out of the place that Boaz subsequently comes to hold in the agnatic chain of David’s ancestry.

Naomi’s trick of tucking Ruth into bed with Boaz while the man’s head is full of alcoholic spirits thus effectively deprives another man of both Elimelech’s field and daughter-in-law, appropriating them instead to Boaz, who will (as the narrator uses Ruth’s own words to assure us) provide for Naomi thereafter. But in order for this to happen, other men have had to perish: both Naomi’s husband Elimelech and both her sons, Mahlon and Chilion. What named woman’s success-story anywhere in the Old Testament doesn’t cost some man or other his life?—and usually more than one! (I do not mean to imply by this observation that Ruth or Naomi was somehow responsible for the three male deaths; as always in traditional narrative, it is not the reasons for things that primarily determine a tale’s content, but rather the simple logic of habitual association that induces juxtaposition of the same elements in a traditional story-pattern, whether or not a narrator can think of any reason for it.)

A little more remains to be learned from Ruth and Naomi before we move on. In addition to its conformity with the story pattern that we are discovering here, the tale of Ruth and Naomi is also one of two outstanding examples in the Old Testament of what I have previously described elsewhere as the pattern of the ‘cosmogonic triad.’² For Ruth is to ’areş as Naomi is to tehom as Boaz is to elohim in Genesis One, the earlier triad being coefficients in the origin of the world, while the later triad originates the lineage of David. Replication of narrative patterns in this manner is one of the more interesting effects of what I like to call narrative ‘modulation.’

Elkanah’s Hannah

Now we can move ahead to Samuel, whose story at its beginning is the story of his cunning mother, Elkanah’s wife Hannah. She goes to the temple at Shiloh, where she makes a brazen spectacle of herself remonstrating with Yahweh about her barrenness (2 Sam. 1). The presiding priest, Eli, in turn remonstrates with her about the unseemliness of her demeanor, which he attributes to her drunkenness. Hannah soberly explains to him however that she has a terrible problem, and that her egregious behaviour in Yahweh’s presence is due to no other cause. But she completely conceals from Eli both the specific nature of her problem and the solution to it which she has proposed to Yahweh. Perpending nothing of the woman’s secret plan, Eli nevertheless blesses Hannah, desiring aloud to her (and to Yahweh) “...may the God of Israel grant what you have asked of him.” But what she has asked of Him is in reality that she may place an interloper in the temple—her yet-to-be-born child Samuel—who will in due course displace not only Eli but also Eli’s whole unsatisfactory male posterity in the priesthood! And who is to be the male beneficiary of this ruinous manipulation of Eli’s male fortunes by the deceptive Hannah? It is Yahweh himself, of course, who makes great use of Samuel for his own ends; but who also soon recompenses Hannah with the reward of five children to replace Samuel in hers and her supporting husband’s lives. It is as good a provision for her own future as any woman could want, though it costs Elkanah a son, and it costs the man Eli everything.

Did Hannah thus deliberately ensnare Eli in a misunderstanding of her, and hence in a religiously powerful but unwitting complicity in his own ruinous dispossession and his sons’ disinheritance? Or was it all just Yahweh’s mighty providence, incomprehensible to everyone concerned until after it was accomplished? Who can say? Who cares? The pattern of the narrative is not altered a jot by either supposition, for regardless of whether one wishes to think of it as Hannah’s conscious guile, or as Yahweh’s hidden will expressed through her actions, its locus was unmistakably in the woman either way, exactly where our emerging story pattern predicts that it would be.

Saul’s Michal

We have no stories about any named wife or other kinswoman of Samuel or of Saul except Saul’s daughter—and David’s wife—Michal. If the manifold narrative about Saul’s rivalry with David were plain folktale, the centrality of Michal to their quarrel would be greater than in the biblically redacted telling. Fathers-in-law and sons-in-law engaged in deadly games of hide-and-seek with one another are mainstream figures in oral tradition, and in such tales the one or the other’s fitness to be husband is the main issue (see examples of this other story-pattern here). Accordingly, to tell how David supplanted Saul as monarch without the former’s marriage to the latter’s daughter would be unthinkable, as would the eventual success of the bridegroom without the bride’s conspiratorial assistance against the father-in-law. This is the basic mold in which Saul’s daughter and David’s wife Michal is cast. But here again—as in the case of Ruth—stock narrative patterns intersect, and Michal is also a guileful woman who extracts her own future well-being from male peril.

Michal varies Rachel’s trick with household gods (2 Sam. 19:11-17), and instead of concealing her teraphim so that it can never be found, she only disguises it as though it were David on his sickbed long enough for the the real David, who is perfectly well, to reach a safe distance from Saul’s enmity. By this ruse she deprives Saul of his intended victim (as Zipporah deprived Yahweh of his intended victim Moses); while David, whom she thus enables to survive, is also thereby enabled to remain in contention with Saul until he gains the latter’s throne. Such women are not forgotten by their beneficiaries; Michal thereafter comes into David’s keeping at Hebron (2 Sam. 3:12-16), which is certainly an improvement for her over the necessarily more paltry provision she can have as a wife of Palti(el), son of Laish (2 Sam. 25:43-44). David’s subsequent support of her is, moreover, lifelong: she is still maintained in his household after the relocation of his capital to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 2:20-23), despite the fact that she is as barren of posterity as Abraham’s Sarai was (and despite her remaining without any such singular relief from that condition as Sarah ultimately obtained).

All David’s significant wives were someone else’s wives before they came permanently to be his, and all coincidentally conform to the pattern at hand. There are in sum six episodes of the present sort attached to three of his wives.

Nabal’s Abigail

Completely concealing her actions (and also her blatant violation of his policy) from her foolish Calebite husband Nabal, the woman Abigail (1 Sam. 25) transfers a prodigious quantity of prepared foodstuffs from Nabal to David: two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five measures of roasted grain, a hundred bunches of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. As for male peril: Nabal is dead within a fortnight, and David gives thanks for his narrow escape from a crime of bloodshed of the same sort he and his family were later punished for severely in connection with Bathsheba. Abigail comes soon thereafter into David’s keeping, where she remains throughout his transition from mere captain of irregulars in the wilderness to king at Hebron (2 Sam. 3:3). As second in the progression of David’s significant wives from barren Michal to the ultimate mother of his heir to the throne at Jerusalem, Abigail is named as mother of a single son by David, a son who is however never a contender in competition for the crown.

Eliam’s Bathsheba (and Uriah)

[1] Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba is magnificiently cunning in 2 Sam. 11, as befits the mother-to-be of Solomon. It is hardly colorable that cunning Bathsheba knew no more than Susanna did who might see her at her bath, or what, given the identity of her spectator, the probable result would be. Even young women of quite ordinary intelligence and no unusual beauty have a keen awareness of what privacy they may or may not enjoy at such moments; and if—as sometimes surely happens—they forego it, the exposure can never confidently be understood as other than deliberate, no matter how artful the innocence with which it is done. Indeed, a sweetly feigned innocence is nothing short of essential if the lure is to succeed well. And Bathsheba was neither stupid nor ugly. She certainly comprehended who would observe her, and from what vantage, and so she set her cap to catch a king, skillfully contriving to surprise and fix David’s gaze on herself just at eventide, that most sentimental and sociable phase in everyman’s circadian cycle.

Nor must one shed too many tears for her man Uriah, who in fact behaved more foolishly than even Abigail’s Nabal. For if Nabal did not understand the need to be hospitable, Uriah failed as badly to obey a soldier’s imperative not to go away to war till his wife at home had children by him to keep her busy, whether still in the womb or of tender years. Not only did such provision protect the man himself against the kind of personal maltreatment Uriah suffered at David’s hands; it was, more largely, his civic duty that he do so. For if he were killed and left no children, who would replace him in the ranks of the state’s soldiery in the next generation? So the issueless Uriah went off to fight, having tended satisfactorily beforehand to neither aspect of his marital business, either public or private.

Unfortunately wed to a man so neglectful of provision for the future, what was a young, beautiful, and still childless woman to do for her own protection and security in years to come? Why, just what Bathsheba did, of course, with her deeply concealed motive in the revelation to David of herself a-bathing. It was a good trick, and it very effectively transferred Bathsheba herself as progenetrix of Solomon from the unfecund husband Uriah to the better lifelong provider and protector of her interests, King David. Not even Yahweh Himself censured her personally for what she had done, though it cost Uriah his life, cost herself and her new husband their firstborn—and cost both David’s male allies in his own time and his agnates ever after far, far more in the long run, as Yahweh sent the prophet Nathan to tell David explicitly (2 Sam. 12:7-15). But none of these women’s tricks are ever much regardful of longer-term consequences; it is just the provision for her own lifetime that the woman seeks and gains. What ensues across the span of generations or other male networks is a male problem, since agnatic kinship is masculine, and hence no matter to women, whose characteristic affairs are contrastingly the affairs of their own era alone.

Eliam’s Bathsheba (and Adonijah’s crown)

[2] And yet, because she is younger than David and longer-lived, Bathsheba’s era extends beyond David’s, and so out of male resources she must extract a provision once more for the time when she will outlive her husband. She does soskillfully, feigning independent intelligence and independent counsel to the declining king, when in reality she and the prophet Nathan are conspirators together to seat a new monarch before the present one is quite dead (2 Kings 1:11 ff). No King Lear, David has retained the crown beyond a time when he is truly any longer fit for its duties, and so the object of Bathsheba’s second great dissemblance must be to strip both David of the monarchy which he can no longer exercise satisfactorily and a self-appointed pretender, the man Adonijah, of the royal power which he is in the very process of usurping. Her ruse succeeds, and David removes the crown from Adonijah to Bathsheba’s son Solomon, who will of course be Bathsheba’s guardian ever after (a thing he surely could not have been had Nathan’s foreboding about Adonijah’s destruction of Solomon come to pass). Thus does Bathsheba’s dissembling to David secure her own future as Queen Mother after David dies. And no sooner indeed does David commission Solomon than he does die (2 Kings 2:10); for the story-pattern is hardly ever fulfilled without some male death or other. Then (2 Kings 2:12) “Solomon was seated upon the throne of David, and his sovereignty was securely established.” It is just what Bathsheba had aimed at, because she personally needed it.

Eliam’s Bathsheba (and Adonijah’s life)

[3] Bathsheba’s second trick in her own best interest is not perhaps so clever as her first; but her third one is. It comes immediately after the coronation of her new guardian Solomon. As though recognizing her preeminent power in king-making, Adonijah goes to Bathsheba seeking her intercession with Solomon to obtain for Adonijah marriage with the deceased David’s last but never consummated concubine, the nubile young woman Abishag of Shunem. The symbolic significance of such a wedding, were it to happen, is not lost however on either Bathsheba or her son Solomon. And Bathsheba’s handling of Adonijah’s petition to her is brilliantly crafty. Far from revealing to either Adonijah or Solomon the least inkling of what must be any perspicacious person’s appreciation of the danger inherent in fulfilling Adonijah’s wish, Bathsheba again plays the guileless innocent, and conveys Adonijah’s petition directly to Solomon in just the way Adonijah expressed it to her. But Solomon, being Solomon, sees through Adonijah’s implicit plotting against him just as Bathsheba could not help but know that he would.

So Solomon destroys Adonijah for high treason, thereby removing from him conclusively the possibility of any further pretence to dynastic legitimacy, and thereby terminating also the last lingering shadow of threat to Bathsheba’s own standing in the royal household. For her security under the care of the man whom she preferred to be her protector, namely her son Solomon, Adonijah paid with his life. In accomplishing this, her last trick, Bathsheba had of course the help of a second female, Abishag, who, though conjecturably unaware at any time of her part in the affair, nevertheless did create the occasion for Bathsheba’s successful ploy. Notice how, like Leah’s unintentional complicity in Rachel’s trickery, or Hagar’s in Sarah’s, the second, instrumental woman’s rôle turns upon some implementation—whether real or only mooted—of matrimony other than the tricky woman’s own.

Ahab’s Jezebel

The next two women named in stories of the strictly canonical books are less savoury characters than David’s wives. One is Ahab’s infamous Jezebel (2 Kings 21). By a fraudulent indictment and secret corruption of public officials, she got from the man Naboth of Jezreel a piece of the hapless fellow’s inherited real estate that her husband Ahab wanted but could not legitimately obtain. Her strategem cost Naboth not only his land, but also his life, and it came very near to destroying Ahab too. Nevertheless, Ahab’s support and protection of Jezebel thereafter outlasted even his own lifetime by some thirteen years, until finally Jehu put an end to her (2 Kings 9).

Jehoida’s Jehosheba

There is a misshapen adduction of Athaliah’s story in 2 Kings 11-12, where a certain Zibiah is also named, but without any narrative attached to her. The bad Athaliah of 2 Chronicles has a superficial aspect as wicked as Jezebel’s. Unlike Jezebel however, Athaliah had no trick up her sleeve, and is accordingly the accomplice—certainly unconscious—of a craftier other woman who figures together with her in the same story. The other woman too is named, and it is really all her story. She is Jehosheba, whose manifold dynastic ties are described in detail (2 Chronicles 22:11-12). By concealing a boy named Joash from his would-be assassins, Jehosheba purloins dynastic legitimacy out of the House of Azahiah, with the unintentional assistance of Athaliah, whose previous murder of all the other royalty of Judah assures that there will be no other pretender to the throne of Judah when Joash shall come of age and be ready for coronation.

As regent de facto in Judah during Joash’s minority, Jehosheba’s husband, the priest Jehoida, is the real beneficiary of his wife’s deceitful hiding of Joash, and it is of course Jehoida who will take care of his wife Jehosheba ever after, except that as a result of Jehosheba’s estranging the Judean royal destiny from Ahaziah’s legacy, he will be able to do that far more ably than he could otherwise have done.

So long as Jehoida lived, all went well for the other beneficiary of Jehosheba’s conspiracy, namely Joash himself. Jehoida survived for a hundred and thirty years, which must certainly have been long enough for his wife Jehosheba’s needs. But after Jehoida’s death, Joash behaved badly and came to a bad end, assassinated at last by a pair of murders whose mothers are named in 2 Chronicles 24:26-27—Shimeath the Ammorite woman, and Shimrith the Moabitess. But while the career of Joash is thus framed between a pair of named women at beginning and end, we have narrative about only the former pair and none about the latter.

By my count there are not many more named women’s tales left now, and all four of them are in the either uncanonical or merely deuterocanonical Books of Tobit, Judith, Esther, and Daniel.

Raguel’s Sarah

In Tobit (3:7 ff, 7:10-11, and 10:9-11), Raguel’s daughter Sarah conceals within herself a certain Asmodeus (“that worst of demons”), wherewith she deprives seven other men, who have prior claims to it, of half her father’s worldly property, which is her dowry. It’s not that she means any harm; she isn’t vicious, but the demon hidden in her is, and death awaits each of her attempted bridegrooms until with a certain amount of rigamarole, a dead fish, and an angel’s help, Sarah is able to bring about transfer of the wealth to the eighth of her suitors (and the first to survive that status), Tobit’s son Tobias. Thereafter Sarah harbours no further dark secrets worth telling, and Tobias is the man who will ever after be Sarah’s guardian and supporter, although for a time his parents suppose that he too has perished in Raguel’s country. The contingent real loss of seven other male lives in addition to the imminent peril of her ultimately successful suitor is all very lamentable male endangerment, but that, one way or another, is what always happens in these tales.

Manasseh’s Judith

Except that she did not need to go as far with it as Delilah did (and, we are assured, certainly did not, since she was a woman of a different character entirely), Judith too feigned affection to ruin a man. Too vain and concupiscent to suspect anything so dangerous to himself as Judith’s ruse, Holofernes was destroyed by it, as were contingently also a horde of other men who had been his followers.

A young widow of such singular qualities—both so beautiful and so charming as Judith was, and so rich! (8:7-8)—may not long after her husband’s passing find widowhood a difficult condition. How can such a woman fend off many individual suitors whom she may not want without so antagonizing the male community at large in the place where she dwells as to make her position in the community practically untenable? Judith certainly understood, as did Homer’s Penelope, the utility of a prolonged display of funereal garb in such circumstances, and the value too of keeping herself secluded indoors (8:4-6). But after a while such weeds wear thin and such withdrawal unravels. Then what is a good woman to do? Above all, she must keep herself out of any man’s debt and show goodwill to all, but partiality to none. If only there were something of surpassing value she could give to them—to all of them at once, equally and indivisibly—then they might be forever in her debt rather than she ever in theirs. Judith was surely not the first nor the last woman who, having had and lost a good husband—or even one not so good—might sanely not want or need another to make her life complete thereafter. What could she possibly do to secure her own future as she wished it to be?

To that end she could—and she did—take away from Holofernes and his men, who already virtually possessed it, the city of Bethulia itself, and she transferred it into the keeping instead of Bethulia’s own collective manhood, whose desperate peril theretofore was such that they were already practically dead men at the moment when she restored to them both their city and their ability to continue living in it. Her intervention and conversion of the property from the one male group to the other occurs at the last possible moment before the impending conquest would have ruined the property together with all its implicit value for Judith’s own future. By this transfer, as the text of her story expressly says, she gained (16:21 ff) “...great reputation throughout the country. She had many suitors, but all her days, from the time her husband Manasseh died and was gathered to his people, she never gave herself to another man. Her fame spread more and more the older she grew in her husband’s house; she lived to the age of a hundred and five years.” So from her victim Holofernes came preeminently future security for Judith herself, and not merely in the form of intangible goodwill amongst her own people. For when Holofernes’ army fled from it (14:11) “The people looted the camp for thirty days. They gave Judith the tent of Holofernes, all his silver plate, his divans, his drinking bowls, and all his furniture. She took this, loaded her mule, harnessed her carts, and heaped the things into them.” Like Er’s wife Tamar, Judith is thus able both to enrich her deceased husband’s estate and to avoid ever having to forsake it, for it will sustain her to the end.

Abihail’s (or Aminidab’s) Esther

Next to last comes Esther, whose case, like Ruth’s or Abramic Sarah’s, is again too well known and too obvious to bear overmuch comment. Esther’s potent and well concealed secret is her Jewishness—hidden from male understanding not only during Esther’s progressive displacement of her unwitting female accomplice (Ahasuerus’ former Queen Vashti [or Artaxerxes’ Astin]) but also concealed at the heart of her twice extended banquet mystery until, in an act of perfect timing, its revelation can most certainly dispossess a disadvantageous male (Haman, whose assets Esther desires to expropriate) and most certainly secure her own future in the keeping of another male (Mordecai), to whom by Esther’s cunning contrivance those same assets are to accrue. Haman, son of Hammedatha from the land of Agog, loses not only the office of grand vizier, but also his very life, as Esther’s fellow Jew and life-long protector Mordecai replaces him next-in-rank to the King, thus assuring Esther’s future well-being together with that of all her people thereafter.

Hilkiah’s Susanna

Susanna and the elders is our last Old Testament tale—well, almost the last—of a named woman. Hilkiah’s daughter and Joakim’s wife Susanna has everything a woman can want in the culture of the Book of Daniel: a prosperous and politically powerful husband; children; virtue; beauty to make old men dream. She has everything for her present and future needs—everything, as it happens, except an invulnerable reputation; but who does, until it has been tested? And so Susanna’s is tested.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand the nature of the test. Simply put, Susanna’s story is a traditional bawdy tale upon which some prude has imposed a straight face. The laughter which the basic story is meant to provoke is never far from the surface, ready to break out into loud merriment at the slightest hint of insobriety—as it must, for example, during the episode of the two elders’ mutual discovery of their inflamed passion for Susanna. That episode is pure slapstick; and so too, but for a determined suppression of further laughter, is everything else in the two old fools’ behaviour.

The two dirty old men alone with Susanna in her garden try to steal her reputation as an honest wife from her. It happens this way. She desires to bathe in her garden on a hot day. So she secures the garden gates in order not to be surprised during her ablutions by anyone from outside, and she sends her maids-in-waiting indoors to fetch requisite olive oil and unguents. But while they are away, the two licentious elders, who have hidden themselves in the garden before she closed it, confront Susanna and demand that she submit to be futtered by them. Should she refuse, they promise to invert the trick of Potipher’s wife, and accuse her of adultery with a fictitious third and younger man than themselves.

The key to understanding Susanna’s story is the mission she imposes on her maids to go indoors and bring things for her bath out to her in the garden. Without that detail, it would be impossible to detect the nature of Susanna’s pretence, or to realize that Susanna’s case is somewhat more complicated than any other named Old Testament woman’s, inasmuch as she must make an astute choice amongst several alternative beguilements before she can put any one of them into effect. But once we have been told about the maids’ errand, we can perceive straightway that Susanna’s initial plight is the usual opening to a well-known type of humorous folktale. In further episodes of the folktale, the challenged woman (who is still hot and dirty, not having bathed yet) should warn the two ridiculous old lechers that her maids, whom she has sent to fetch appurtenances for her bath, will surely return to her momentarily. Any so gross impropriety as the two elders have proposed in the scene which those other women might observe on their return to the garden would be ruinous for all concerned. The old men should accordingly go away now, and return to Susanna later that night, or at some other more ‘convenient’ (or cunningly contrived) time—a time when Susanna, having bathed, will be even more delicious than she could be in too great and dangerous haste at the present instant. So she might gratify their desire later in a more leisurely and personally more hygienic as well as less perilous manner; for as everyone certainly knows, a leisurely pace is what old men need most in such matters.

In the interval between that later hypothetical scene and the present one, Susanna (or her modulated counterpart in a thousand tellings of the folktale) should—with suitably anguished mien—disclose privately to her husband everything that has happened, and should urge that he and his henchmen meet the culprits as substitutes for herself in the pending assignation. This they should do, discovering and undoing the bad elders. Or else, more amusingly, the husband—or the threatened young wife herself—might arrange instead to have the miscreants’ old wives meet their husbands at the trist, and leave old women to wreak condign vengeance on old men. Or else—but enough of this; modulations abound, and it is not those other stories that concern us beyond a useful recognition of how they determine the possibilities of Susanna’s career. For although Susanna’s problem is only a modulation of all those other folktale heroines’, it remains nonetheless Susanna’s own peculiar problem.

Susanna’s peculiar problem is just this: her husband, like Rebekah’s old Isaac, Bathsheba’s Uriah, or Hawwah’s Adam, is crucially flawed as a benefactor and guardian of her. Her Joakim is not, namely, the sort of husband who implicitly trusts his wife, and who in any question of honour automatically comes to her defense, more confidently believing her than others. To do as some other classic folktale heroines may do in such a plight is not therefore a servicable strategy for Susanna. First, such a strategy might conceivably fail: what if the two comically addlebrained elders, sensing danger for themselves despite their obsessive yearning, were to shun the subsequent trist after all? For this too is a valid modulation of the folktale pattern. And even were they to be successfully tricked in that fashion, it would be a pyrrhic victory for a woman whose fundamental innocence is doubted even by a husband whom she has not previously wronged or given any other excuse for mistrust. The text of Susanna’s story as it stands in the apocrypha explicitly confirms that she has not. Yet any woman discovered to be so devastatingly guileful as Susanna would have been had she followed the stock folktale script in destroying a pair of unwanted old adulterers might well also be recognized by an uncertainly trustful husband as clever enough to get and conceal any more welcome young adulterer any time she might happen to feel like it. The sum of this and suchlike tales everywhere in the Old Testament demonstrates nothing else so conclusively as the reality that whereas guile is indispensable to women, they must also never be discovered in it.

Susanna’s needs are therefore twofold; she must both fend off the dirty old men and win for herself better esteem on her husband’s part than she evidently enjoys. She needs, in other words, not to wait, but rather to seize the present opportunity instantly, and to extract from it her own future well-being without further parley. So she resorts to a variant of Absalom’s sister Tamar’s tactics; she does a bit of pretending that the wicked males’ offense against her is not exactly what it really is, but something else. The comical old men have, it is true, made a nasty indecent proposal, but Susanna pretends that it was much more than mere words; she cries out for help as though the two had actually made a physical assault on her. Thus trapped by Susanna’s womanly pretence even before her maids have returned to the garden to put a safer if less dramatic end to the old men’s importunity, the elders do all they can to fend off the looming peril to themselves: they join with Susanna in her outcry, claiming afterwards only that their reason for it was different from hers (as indeed it was).

Having tried thus to ruin her good reputation, the two evil elders next attempt to use a property that is uniquely theirs to destroy the rest of Susanna. That property is their office as magistrates, and the reputation for probity which of course attends it. In this way Susanna’s rejected extra-marital lovers try to become instead her rivals in guile. But when Susanna tells the boy Daniel, among others, her honest secret as to what really happened to her in her garden, Daniel uses it to take away the wicked elder’s own reputations (for magistratic honesty) and consequently also their office of judge, which he himself assumes in their stead. The two errant elders forfeit their very lives in the process. All this Daniel achieves with wise and incontrovertible proofs of Susanna’s necessary innocence. So Susanna’s good reputation is not only restored to her, but also secured for the future by Daniel’s concurrently risen reputation for judicial insight, which certainly far surpasses that of her own husband Joakim. Never again will anyone accuse Susanna of such misdeeds without having to reckon with Daniel’s amazing powers of discernment, and so Susanna will be henceforth harmless, despite her own Joakim’s manifest inadequacy of judgement.

Now we have considered all but one of the named women with stories of their own in the Old Testament, whether strictly canonical nor not. I have deliberately put off the remaining one because she belongs to the very beginning of things, and we didn’t start at the beginning. She was...

Adam’s Hawwah

...who admitted her guilt to Eden’s owner, but deceptively blamed its causation on the serpent. Truly the serpent did suggest to her pilferage of the Lord’s forbidden fruit; but just as truly she reflected on the beast’s proposition, and made a deliberate decision in her own best interest. One cannot forget that Yahweh had never undertaken any commitments to her whatever; it was the man who was his gardener, and who therefore, in the usual way of male relationships, had a male employee’s (or servant’s) set of rights and duties with respect to a male employer (or master) as provider for his welfare. But what of the woman Hawwah’s position? Whom could she rely upon? She held no commission in the Lord’s service, and had been invented solely as an accommodation and companion for Adam, not because any deity cared one way or another about her personally. And I ask you: what responsible, self-respecting woman whatever could long put up with that? Stories like hers make it plain that even though the Old Testament may not greatly succeed in explaining the God’s mysterious ways to mankind, it must be taken very seriously as an explanation by apt examples of human nature to deity.

So Hawwah did what she had to do; she contemplated the serpent’s suggestion carefully, and upon due reflection: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge it could give” (Gen. 3:6). Plainly too, Adam needed help in regard to both knowledge and wisdom if he was going to be fit to care for her and her interests in after time. So she transferred understanding from the male who formerly had sole possession of it (Yahweh) to the male (Adam) whom she could expect to be her loyal support in the future, and she accomplished that in such a way as to make the stolen property irrecoverable to its former monopolist; just as she also hid the anatomical organs that securely linked her with the male whose ward she elected to be in preference to the other male whom she could not depend upon, perfectly concealing all the while her real motive from the male loser in her manipulationtion. As things turned out, her womanly interest in making humans by other, more complicated means than Yahweh’s crude technology with mud and ribs produced specimens both more diverse and more inventive than the Lord’s old clod Adam ever was; but the latter stayed nevertheless protectively by her as her provider and support while she was about her woman’s business of ‘making men.’ And oh, it was surely a perilous episode for Adam, who lost both his life and his erstwhile easy living in the process. Nor did the Lord himself escape with no more loss than his purloined fruit of the tree of understanding. With it went his gardener too; and it would seem that the fenced paradise at Eden wasn’t very viable after the man’s departure, for despite great improvements in geographical knowledge since Noah’s time, no one has ever found a trace of Yahweh’s garden.

The Pattern

To recapitulate the underlying pattern one last time; an Old Testament tale narrating the deeds of any named woman entails:

  1. A device of concealment, ruse, pretence, or other trickery employed by a woman, with or without the assistance of other female ‘accomplice(s);’
  2. thereby a male person or persons
  3. loses a valuable masculine property
  4. to another male or males
  5. who will provide for the woman’s well-being subsequently, and
  6. masculine coefficients of the transaction either perish outright or are mortally imperiled, or both.

As the tales where we have found the pattern routinely display, moreover, there is also a seventh element which we have noticed from time to time, but not yet sufficiently analyzed, and it is, namely:

  1. a matrix of extended male alliances and interdependencies subsisting on one, or the other, or on both sides of the transaction occasioned by a woman’s guile.

That recurrent pattern of male network is however quite another story, awaiting consideration another time.

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Notes

  1. Use the link provided to access the hypertext version, or see the printed “Comparative Observations” in: Serbo-Croatian Heroic Poems; Epics from Bihac, Cazin, and Kulen Vakuf, translated and annotated by David E. Bynum, New York and London, 1993, pp. 675-788; or use this link to access the hypertext version.

  2. David E. Bynum, The Daemon in the Wood; a Study of Oral Narrative Patterns, Cambridge, MA, 1978, pp. 277-299; or use this link to access the hypertext version.

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