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Many women in Bible days faced betrayal. Lord, help me endure this betrayal with grace and patience, keeping my eyes on you, praying always. You saw the injustice. You know what they did. This is in Your hands. You fight for me. Help me remember this in every cell of my being.
Luke 22:47-53 Amplified Bible (AMP)
Judas Betrays Jesus
47 While He was still speaking, a crowd came, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve [disciples], was leading the way for them. He approached Jesus to [a]kiss Him. 48 And Jesus said to him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 When those who were around Him saw what was about to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” 50 And [b]one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus replied, “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched the ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders [of the Sanhedrin] who had come out against Him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber? 53 Day after day when I was with you in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power and authority of darkness are yours.”
- Luke 22:47 A kiss on either the hand or cheek was usually an act of homage and a common gesture of greeting and reverence given to a rabbi by his disciples, but done here to identify Jesus.
- Luke 22:50 John names Peter as the assailant and Malchus as the victim.
Amplified Bible (AMP)
angel card# 174
Deck Women in the Bible
Love conquers all
Rachel means ‘ewe’, a female sheep, a symbol of prosperity and security for nomadic people
Leah means ‘cow’
Jacob means ‘he who grabs’, either his brother’s heel at the moment of birth (see Rebecca) or his brother’s inheritance later on; the name also means ‘deceiver’
Laban means ‘white’; it was often linked with leprosy
Reuben means ‘look, a son!’
Joseph means ‘increaser’
Main themes of the story
- The foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are united (they have a common origin) and separate (the descendents of Jacob’s twelve very different children)
- The consequences of sin – in this case, lying. Laban’s deception causes destructive rivalry – between two women, the beautiful Rachel and her plain sister Leah, and between two men, Jacob and his father-in-law Laban.
The story has five episodes:
1 Rachel meets Jacob at the well, Genesis 29:1-14 It was love at first sight for Rachel and Jacob
2 Leah and Rachel marry Jacob, Genesis 29:15-30 Jacob was tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. Eventually the two lovers married, but Rachel found it hard to conceive; she longed for a child.
3 Rachel has a son, Joseph, Genesis 29:31-15, 30:1-24 Finally she conceived and had a son, Joseph. Jacob’s other wives, though less loved, were more fertile; between them they had ten sons
4 Rachel and Leah leave with Jacob, Rachel takes the household shrine, Genesis 30:25-43, 31 Jacob could not forgive his father-in-law Laban, and eventually the two went separate ways. When they did, Rachel stole the statuettes that were sacred to her family.
5 Rachel has a son, Benjamin, and dies soon after, Genesis 35:16-30 Later on Rachel bore a second son, Benjamin, but died in childbirth. The twelve sons of Jacob were the forefathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
For a short version of Rachel’s story, see Bible People: Rachel.
Rachel meets Jacob at the well
Every afternoon, Rachel watered her flock of sheep at a well near Haran, an outpost of the ancient city of Ur. Wells had a practical use, but in story-telling a well was a symbol of the feminine and of women’s power to produce and nurture life.
Looked at realistically, they were also places where young men and women could meet their future marriage partners.
Wells were covered with a broad flat stone that cut down on evaporation in the heat. Since it was too large for one man to move, the shepherds who gathered there waited until there was a group to move it.
On this particular afternoon, a young traveler called Jacob was there as well. He chatted with the shepherds, telling them that his family had originally come from this same area. They pointed towards a woman in the distance, saying she was the daughter of his mother’s brother.
While they waited for her to arrive, Jacob observed that it is too early in the day to fold the sheep, a not-very-subtle way of saying they were slacking at their job, but a signal to the reader that Jacob had already developed the work ethic. He did not need a master to tell him what should be done, and would thus be a good provider for the woman who chose him.
The text suggests that Rachel may have heard this interchange between Jacob and the shepherds, and been favorably impressed.
When Jacob saw Rachel at close quarters, he was smitten. In an act of bravado, he removed the great stone single-handed, hoping to impress the young woman. He was successful.
The reader is again aware of the sexual symbolism of his action, and knows that removing the lid from the well has shown he will be her lover and husband.
‘Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban … he went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.’
Jacob introduced himself, becoming quite emotional in the process. He had made a long and arduous journey of about five hundred miles, and now found himself at journey’s end, with the woman of his dreams. He was in the right place, with the right person, and his emotions spilled over.
In response, Rachel ran to her father’s house and told him about the young man. Her father, Laban, ran out to meet Jacob, welcoming him warmly. The text keeps repeating that Jacob is the son of Laban’s sister: in many ancient societies, the relationship between a child and its mother’s brother, the maternal uncle, was considered even more important that between a child and its father. This makes Laban’s later betrayal of Jacob even more repugnant.
Jacob stayed with Rachel’s family for a month, and during this time he fell deeply in love with Rachel.
Read Genesis 29:1-14
Leah and Rachel marry Jacob
Rachel and Jacob were in love, so Jacob approached Laban for permission to marry her.
Money was involved in a marriage. A Jewish family tried to provide each daughter with a dowry, which was property handed over by her family and afterwards owned by the wife. It was her share of the family inheritance, enough to act as an income for her should she be abandoned or widowed. A prospective bridegroom was expected to give financial compensation to the family of the bride, to make up for the loss of their daughter. (You can read more about this at Money and Marriage.)
But Jacob had come empty-handed, and could not produce the normal bride-price for Rachel.
So Laban agreed that his daughter might marry Jacob but stipulated that, as a bride price, Jacob must contract to work for him for seven years (the seven year cycle was a sacred one in the ancient world).
Jacob agreed, and he and Rachel settled down to wait. He loved her so much, the story tells us, that the seven years seemed only like a few days.
What neither of them realized was that Laban had agreed to let ‘his daughter’ marry Jacob, but had not specified which daughter it would be. Rachel had an older sister Leah, not so beautiful, and Laban had quietly pointed out that the older sister in a family was usually married before her younger sister.
Neither of the young lovers had understood the implications of this statement.
When the seven years were over Jacob demanded his bride, and Laban prepared a wedding feast – though the Hebrew words suggest it was more of a drinking banquet. The bride was dressed in the finest clothes, including a rich head-dress and veil that covered her face.
When the feasting was over her father led her, still veiled, into the room of her bridegroom, and the bride and Jacob made love. By this time, Jacob may have had a considerable amount to drink.
What Jacob didn’t realize until the morning dawned was that the bride in his bed was not Rachel, but Leah. He had been tricked into marrying the wrong sister.
Jacob, who had with the help of his mother outwitted his brother Esau (see the story of this deception at Bible Men and Women: Jacob ) was now outwitted by someone even wilier than himself. Moreover, he had been fooled with the same trick: he had pretended to be his brother Esau, and now he had been fooled when Leah pretended to be her sister Rachel. Who says the Bible has no sense of humour?
It was a terrible start to their marriage: his new wife Leah had colluded with her father to deceive him. This soured their relationship from the start.
Where Rachel had been while all this was happening, we are not told, but it is hardly likely she willingly agreed to go along with her father’s plan.
The furious Jacob confronted Laban. ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’
But there was not much that could be done. During the night he had taken Leah’s virginity, and in tribal society this meant she was his wife, like it or not. But he never forgave her for what she had done – she is usually described as ‘unloved’ in the English translation of the story, but the original Hebrew word is better translated as ‘hated’.
The upside was that polygamy was acceptable, and Jacob now insisted that Rachel become his wife as well. Agreed, said Laban, but you must work another seven years for her. Jacob had no choice, and had to accept Laban’s bargain. So after the ceremonial week of the wedding to Leah was over, Rachel married Jacob, becoming his second but most-loved wife.
Read Genesis 29:15-30
Rachel has a son, Joseph
Rachel may have been the more loved of the two women, but she was not the most fertile. Though she and Jacob were deeply in love, she did not conceive for many years.
In primitive times, women hunched themselves over a hole hollowed in the ground, standing on bricks or stones placed at either side. They gave birth in a squatting position, with relatives and friends taking turns to support them under the arms.'Childbirth in ancient times
Leah on the other hand had no problem in bearing children. Almost immediately after marrying Jacob and despite the fact she was ‘unloved’, she became pregnant and gave birth to a series of male babies.
This was important for her, since a woman’s status depended to a large extent on the number of male children she produced.
This may seem sexist to modern eyes, but it was practical at the time. In nomadic society there was no-one to enforce the law, no police, no protection from outsiders, and a woman was better off if she had a number of males to defend her – the more the better.
Leah’s own story is filled with pathos. She bore Reuben, then Simeon, then Levi, then Judah. Each time she had another son she prayed that Jacob would finally love her. He did not.
Her pitiful words emphasize her isolation and longing for love, love she would never receive, no matter how many sons she gave Jacob. He would never trust her, and Rachel was still the one he loved.
Read Genesis 29:31-35
Rachel faced a different problem. No matter how she prayed to God, no matter how much she was loved by Jacob, Rachel did not conceive. In desperation she gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob, so that he could conceive a child with Bilhah as a surrogate mother for Rachel. This practice was common in the ancient world; the woman became a concubine instead of a servant, and it was a step up the social ladder for her. She might become the mother of the future tribal leader.
Bilhah had a son, whom Rachel named Dan. Then she had a second son, and Rachel called him Naphtali. In response, Leah gave her own maid Zilpah to Jacob, and this resulted in yet more sons: Gad and Asher. A bitter rivalry grew up between the two women.
Read Genesis 30:1-13
One day, Leah’s son Reuben found some mandrake roots in the fields. Mandrake roots were a popular aphrodisiac in the ancient world, probably because they looked like the sexual organs of a well-endowed man. Reuben took the mandrakes to his mother, and when Rachel saw them she asked Leah if she could have some of them.
Leah agreed, on condition that Rachel commanded Jacob to have sexual intercourse with Leah that night. Rachel complied, and this resulted in a fifth son for Leah. She called him Assachar. Later, another son arrived for Leah, whom she called Zebulun. Finally, she bore Jacob a daughter, Dinah.
Only then, at the end of this long wait, did Rachel finally become pregnant.
She conceived and bore a son and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’
Read Genesis 30:14-24
Rachel and Leah flee with Jacob
The birth of Rachel’s son Joseph seemed to jolt her family into action. All of them decided to break away from Laban’s tribe and go out on their own.
Jacob first asked Laban’s permission to leave and take a proportion of the flocks with him as his wages. A certain amount of haggling ensued and once again Laban tried to trick Jacob.
Because of the mutual suspicion between the two men and double-dealing on both sides, there could be no amicable resolution of the matter. Jacob won the battle of wills because he was quick-witted and skilled in animal husbandry. He knew about cross-breeding techniques for his flocks and was able to develop a particular type of animal that Laban had previously agreed Jacob might keep. Naturally, Laban and his sons resented Jacob’s success.
Rachel steals the sacred household icons
At this stage, Jacob felt God calling him to return to his homeland. Rachel and Leah were also dissatisfied by the way things were panning out financially, and felt they are not getting what they were entitled to as Laban’s daughters. It was time to go. They both urged Jacob to take action.
Read Genesis 30:25-43, 31:1-21
It seems that Rachel in particular was still angry at her father for what he had done to her. Before they set out, she took the small figurines that represented the spirits of ancestors and the protective deities of her father’s family (the teraphim), telling no-one at all what she was doing. See Bible Archaeology: Ancient Religions for information about ancient religious beliefs and practices.
This was not a random act of malice, for years ago on what should have been her wedding night, Laban had stolen Rachel’s happiness. Now she stole something that was precious to him – pay-back for a life-time of bullying.
But her act had wider significance than this, because the teraphim were a form of title deed, and the person who possessed them could claim the tribe’s wealth. Ownership of the household deities was the prerogative of the head of the family, and by taking them Rachel secured this position for her husband.
The whole family group assembled, ready to return to the land of Jacob’s father, Isaac. They crossed the Euphrates and headed towards the hill country of Gilead.
But it was not going to be as easy as that. Laban pursued them, caught up with them, and confronted them. Where were the household gods? They were missing and Laban wanted them back.
This was news to Jacob. He did not know Rachel had taken them, since she had kept them hidden and had not told anyone what she had done. Jacob then made one of those foolish pronouncements that give the reader a hint that something bad is coming: he indignantly denied knowledge of the theft, and said that whoever had done such a thing should die.
Laban searched the tents of Jacob, Leah, and the two maids to find the teraphim- each woman in a polygamous marriage had her own separate tent.
For interesting images of tents used by nomadic herders like Jacob and Rachel, seeBible Architecture: Housing.
'The front section of the tent was used for work. It was the public area, open to visitors. The men of the family lived there. The second or rear part of the tent was private. A dividing curtain separated it from the front area. It was here that the women, children and babies lived and slept.' Nomadic Tents
Laban found nothing. Then he went into Rachel’s tent, where the teraphim were hidden. What he did not know was that Rachel had hidden them in the saddle-bags of her camel. She greeted her father respectfully but did not rise from where she was sitting. She explained demurely that she could not do so, since she was menstruating.
‘Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.’
This meant that the cloth on which she was sitting was ritually unclean, and could not be touched by anyone. Most ancient tribes had customs that allowed menstruating women to withdraw from physical contact with the tribe while they had their periods, and women welcomed this time of rest from their usual tasks.
Rachel’s manner towards her father was so sweet and yielding that Laban did not argue or tell her to move, and the upshot was that he left her tent empty-handed. She had used the laws of ritual cleanliness to her own advantage. The irony was that it was a lie. She was already pregnant with a son.
Since Laban could not find the teraphim, he had to back down. The two men made a face-saving covenant, and early the next morning Laban said good-bye to them all, and left.
Read Genesis 31:22-35
Rachel has a son, Benjamin, and dies
When Laban was gone Rachel’s family moved on, and on the way to Ephrath she went into labor. This time things did not go well for her. The pains were very bad, and Rachel suffered terribly. To comfort her the midwife told her it would be a boy. It was, but Rachel would not live to see him grow. She died in childbirth.
Read Genesis 35:16-30
Earlier in the story, Rachel said she would die if she had no sons (Genesis 30:1). In the end it was having sons that killed her.
angel card# 175
Deck Women in the Bible
- Abigail means ‘my father’s joy’
- Nabel: means ‘an animal skin for holding wine’, a drunkard — an insulting nickname
- David means ‘beloved’
Main theme of the story
Be careful when you make life choices. In Bible times, a woman was married at a very young age to a husband chosen by her family. In this case they chose Nabal, and Abigail cannot be blamed for this bad marriage. Modern women however are usually older when they choose a husband: they should try to be wise in their life choices.
The story has four episodes:
- David, Nabal and Abigail. Nabal, a rich landowner; Abigail, his beautiful treacherous young wife; and David, a handsome, ambitious bandit.
- David’s request/demand. David needs food for his gang. Nabal is unwilling to hand over the goods.
- Abigail’s betrays her husband. Abigail betrays her elderly husband, gives food to the handsome young bandit.
- Nabal’s death, Abigail and David marry. Nabal dies of apoplexy when he learns the truth. Abigail marries the young David. Thus the story tell us how David acquired land in Judah, and how his royal royal harem began.
Location of Adullam, where David and his followers lived in a cave
Map showing location of events in David’s life
Abigail, Nabal and David
Abigail’s story began in about 1060 BC when Samuel died. He has been David’s main protector and counsellor at the court of King Saul, and without him David is in real danger. David is a clever, opportunistic young man, and Saul knows it. Saul has little option but to expel him from the court.
Right from the beginning of this story, the writer is taking sides. He tells us that Samuel is much mourned by the thousands of Israelites who trusted him to guide and control Saul. But we know from other chapters around this story that Samuel lost trust in Saul and favoured the young David instead. Thus as far as the writer is concerned, Saul = bad, David = good.
There is another character introduced at this point: Nabal (bad and rich) and his young wife Abigail (beautiful and clever).
It is shearing time, and the mood is similar to a harvest festival: boisterous, unruly, lots of food and wine. David, expelled from King Saul’s court, is now living rough in the hills above the pasture land on the plains. He has became a magnet for every malcontent in the area – there are about six hundred of them altogether, a sizeable force of men.
Knowing that the shearing festival promotes a certain largesse among owners of sheep and cattle, David sends some of his followers to one of the richest men in the area (Nabel) with a request for some payment for his services. David does not shrink from extorting money from his own countrymen, or from raiding neighbouring Philistine villages where he slaughters all the men, women and children and loots their village. The world David inhabits lends itself to violence not required by the circumstances, violence out of all proportion to the provocation.
What has David done to deserve payment? He and his men have refrained from attacking Nabal’s shepherds and flocks. In other words, it is a protection racket, and Nabal is required to pay protection money. According to the Bible text the request is politely worded, but it is a threat nevertheless. Nabal quite properly refuses, pointing out that he has no obligation to feed bandits.
At this point David must stand his ground or lose face with his followers. He orders four hundred of his men to gather up their arms and follow him down from the hills to attack Nabal’s house.
Cave in the Judean hills near Adullam, the area where David took refuge
Abigail betrays Nabal
Meanwhile, a young man in Nabal’s household goes privately to Nabal’s wife Abigail and tells her what is going on. He says that since David’s followers have refrained from attacking the shepherds or stealing their flocks, Nabal ought to pay for the favour. He explains that he would go to Nabal himself, if only her husband were not likely to get angry at this suggestion. Can she, Abigail, help?
Abigail is not only beautiful: she is quick-witted and shrewd. She knows her husband will refuse David’s demand, so without letting her husband know what she is doing, she gathers up several donkey-loads of food – wine, bread, dried fruit and grain. Since David’s band numbers at least four hundred, the food is merely a gesture to show whose side she is on. She is trying to prevent a confrontation that would be disasterous for both David and Nabal.
David is on his way to Nabal’s house when he meets Abigail with her laden asses. He is still full of bluster and threats, but she is charming – an apparently docile, beautiful woman begging for forgiveness for her husband’s ‘blunder’.
Abigail, with some rather cross-looking asses, meets David: medieval manuscript
She falls to the ground, bowing low, begging forgiveness for a husband she describes as a dolt. Her beauty and her flattery – and perhaps also the sight of the food – win David over. In a lordly speech he forgives Nabal for objecting to extortion, and forgives her as well for being married to a man who has refused to submit to his demands. It is a telling speech. We see a glimmer of the way David was so often able to charm his way out of awkward situations.
Nabal dies, Abigail marries David
Abigail leaves David and goes to her husband Nabal – to tell him what she has done behind his back? The text is not clear.
The riotious harvest festival is going on. Nabal, along with everyone else except Abigail, is drunk. She is stone cold sober. Seeing that she will get no sense out of her husband, Abigail retreats to her quarters and waits for her husband to sleep it off.
In the morning she goes to him and tells him what she has done: taken authority into her own hands in direct defiance of his wishes, and given food supplies to the bandit David. When he hears about his young wife’s treachery, Nabal suffers a stroke: ‘his heart died within him and he became as a stone.’ About ten days later he dies.
On hearing of Nabal’s death, David immediately makes an astutue statement that absolves him of all blame. The gist of it is that it was Nabal’s fault anyway. He brought it on himself.
Abigail is now a rich widow, and David loses no time in turning the situation to his advantage. He sends his servants (he does not go himself since he would almost certainly have been killed by Nabal’s clansmen) to ask Abigail to marry him. He already has a wife, King Saul’s daughter Michel, but he has abandoned her when her usefulness came to an end.
Abigail, now most unwelcome in her own home, accepts his offer gracefully. She leaves her home accompanied by her five maids, travels to David, and becomes his wife. This might seem like a happy ending for Abigail, but at about the same time, David marries another woman, Ahinoam of Jezreel; she later gives David his eldest son, and Abigail later gives him his second son.
We hear no more of Abigail after this. She seems to have been relegated to a secondary political status in David’s court.
It is hard to like any of the people in this story. All of them, including David, behave badly: a reminder that the Jewish Scriptures often describe people as they are, not as they should be.
angel card# 179
Deck Women in the Bible
Athaliah, the Bible queen, means ‘God is great’.
Jezebel means ‘Where is the prince?’- the ‘prince’ is Baal, the spirit/power of water.
Jehoiada means ‘Jehovah knows’.
Athaliah’s story has 3 parts:
1 Athaliah, queen mother in the Bible, is the most powerful woman in Judah. She is the only woman in the Bible to have reigned as a monarch
2 Athaliah resists Jehu’s grab for power. She becomes ruler of the kingdom
3 Athaliah is hunted down and murdered by Jehu and his foreign soldiers
Athaliah – Bible queen’s struggle for power
The Divided Kingdom: Israel in the north, Judah in the south
Athaliah was probably the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, rulers of the rich northern kingdom of Israel (see map at right). Athaliah was married at an early age to King Joram of the southern kingdom of Judah. The marriage cemented an alliance between the two countries.
When Joram died and her son Aziah became king, she became ‘Gebirah‘, the highest-status woman in the kingdom. As the mother of the reigning king she out-ranked any of the wives and concubines of her son, and was an extremely powerful woman.
But her son Aziah only reigned for one year. When he was 22 he was assassinated by Jehu, who had usurped the throne of Israel.
At the time, Aziah had been visiting his cousin Joram, king of the northern kingdom. It was a perfect opportunity for Jehu to kill both of them together, and seize Judah.
Aziah’s desperate flight
First, Jehu killed Joram. Then he wheeled his chariot around to pursue Aziah. Aziah had seen Joram being murdered, and knew he was outnumbered. He turned and raced his chariot away from the frightful scene. There is a heartrending account of his desperate flight up the hill towards safety in the fortress of Gur. He did not make it. He was shot by arrows as he fled . He later died at Megiddo.
Ancient ivory plaque with the famous ‘Woman at the Window
Ancient ivory plaque showing the famous ‘Woman at the Window’
On that same day, Queen Jezebel was killed, thrown down from a high balcony of the palace and smashed on the stones of the courtyard. She was left to die there, and the dogs ate her body.
All of Athaliah’s male relatives in Jezreel, capital city of Israel – the seventy boys and young men in the royal family, were rounded up and beheaded. On Jehu’s orders their heads were placed in baskets at the city gate. Jehu then herded forty-two of Athaliah’s adult male relatives into a pit and slaughtered them at Betheked. It seemed as if he had killed anyone in Israel and Judah who might be able to claim the thrones of these kingdoms.
Athaliah takes command
But there was one survivor in this terrible carnage: Athaliah. Spared because she was, after all, just a woman, she now took command of Judah – there were no surviving adult sons or grandsons to do so – and became its queen.
Photograph of another tough ruling woman: Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain
Photograph of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Like Athaliah, a strong woman in a tricky political world.
Such a thing had never been done before. Women might influence politics, but they had never ruled in their own right (see at right the photograph of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose power also outraged male politicians).
This of course infuriated the Temple priests, who had supported Jehu’s double coup d’état and certainly helped plan it. These priests were the ones who later came to write and edit Judah’s history, which is why Athaliah is portrayed as the greatest villainess of the Bible.
Who murdered Athaliah’s grandchildren?
When the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah were finally written, Athaliah was accused of murdering all the children, including her own grandsons, so that she could be queen. But it is hard to see why she would have done so if there had been a surviving boy or young man to take over. It is much more likely that Jehu’s agents killed the boys and that the biblical historian shifted the blame onto Athaliah, who was no friend of the Jerusalem priesthood.
Once in power, Athaliah attacked the Yahwist priestly party who were behind the attempted coup in Judah and the successful one in Israel. She suppressed worship of Jahweh and promoted worship of the old agricultural gods. This was popular with the ordinary people, but not with the Yahwist priests whose power was diminished.
Athalia is betrayed by Jehoiada
Ivory carving of a winged cherub
Ancient ivory carving of a winged cherub. The symbolism of these images is shrouded in mystery.
She held on to power for six years (842-837? 849-842?) the dates are disputed), but eventually the leader of the Yahwist party, Jehoiada, counter-attacked. He produced a male child whom he said had survived the massacre seven years ago, and who was supposed to be a royal prince saved from death by the action of Athaliah’s own sister Jehosheba, who also happened to be Jehoiada’s wife. Jehoiada said his wife had hidden the boy when all his male relatives were being killed.
There is no way of knowing whether this boy really was one of the royal family, or a substitute conveniently produced at the right moment. Everyone in this story was ruthless enough to do anything they thought necessary to gain or hold onto power.
Jehoiada’s coup was well-planned. He assembled a group of foreign mercenaries to guard him and the boy – the Jerusalem soldiery seem to have been loyal to Athaliah and therefore useless to Jehoiada. At a time when the palace and Temple were relatively quiet, he surrounded himself and the boy with these soldiers and proclaimed the boy king.
Athaliah is murdered
Spreading pool of blood.
Athaliah heard the sudden commotion, and was taken by surprise. She tried to escape but was hunted down like an animal, pursued by the mercenaries then assassinated at the Horse Gate of the palace.
The boy, firmly controlled (at first!) by Jehoiada and the Temple party, succeeded to the throne.
Who was the murderer?
The question is, did Athaliah kill all her young male relatives, as described in the Bible? What would have been the motive? There is certainly a precedent in ancient Israel for killing all other possible heirs to the throne, but the boys she is said to have killed were her own grand-children and their survival would have guaranteed her powerful position in Judah. It is more likely that they were killed suddenly, swiftly, by foreign mercenaries like the ones who later killed her.
The Bible text 2 Kings 10:12-27, 11:1-16
12 Then he set out and went to Sama’ria (capital of the northern kingdom of Israel). On the way, when he was at Beth-eked of the Shepherds, 13 Jehu met the kinsmen of Ahazi’ah king of Judah, and he said, “Who are you?” And they answered, “We are the kinsmen of Ahazi’ah, and we came down to visit the royal princes and the sons of the queen mother.”
Bible Women: Athalia, stele of her favored god Baal
A stone pillar or stele, showing the rain/water god Baal.
14 He said, “Take them alive.” And they took them alive, and slew them at the pit of Beth-eked, forty-two persons, and he spared none of them.
15 And when he departed from there, he met Jehon’adab the son of Rechab coming to meet him; and he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart true to my heart as mine is to yours?” And Jehon’adab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. And Jehu took him up with him into the chariot. 16 And he said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD.” So he had him ride in his chariot.
17 And when he came to Sama’ria, he slew all that remained to Ahab in Sama’ria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the LORD which he spoke to Eli’jah. 18 Then Jehu assembled all the people, and said to them, “Ahab served Ba’al a little; but Jehu will serve him much. 19 Now therefore call to me all the prophets of Ba’al, all his worshipers and all his priests; let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Ba’al; whoever is missing shall not live.” But Jehu did it with cunning in order to destroy the worshipers of Ba’al. 20 And Jehu ordered, “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Ba’al.” So they proclaimed it.
21 And Jehu sent throughout all Israel; and all the worshipers of Ba’al came, so that there was not a man left who did not come. And they entered the house of Ba’al, and the house of Ba’al was filled from one end to the other. 22 He said to him who was in charge of the wardrobe, “Bring out the vestments for all the worshipers of Ba’al.” So he brought out the vestments for them. 23 Then Jehu went into the house of Ba’al with Jehon’adab the son of Rechab; and he said to the worshipers of Ba’al, “Search, and see that there is no servant of the LORD here among you, but only the worshipers of Ba’al.” 24 Then he went in to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Now Jehu had stationed eighty men outside, and said, “The man who allows any of those whom I give into your hands to escape shall forfeit his life.” 25 So as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guard and to the officers, “Go in and slay them; let not a man escape.”
So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Ba’al 26 and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Ba’al, and burned it. 27 And they demolished the pillar of Ba’al, and demolished the house of Ba’al, and made it a latrine to this day.
1 Now when Athali’ah the mother of Ahazi’ah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family. 2 But Jehosh’eba, the daughter of King Joram, sister of Ahazi’ah, took Jo’ash the son of Ahazi’ah, and stole him away from among the king’s sons who were about to be slain, and she put him and his nurse in a bedchamber. Thus she hid him from Athali’ah, so that he was not slain; 3 and he remained with her six years, hid in the house of the LORD, while Athali’ah reigned over the land.
4 But in the seventh year Jehoi’ada sent and brought the captains of the Carites and of the guards, and had them come to him in the house of the LORD; and he made a covenant with them and put them under oath in the house of the LORD, and he showed them the king’s son. 5 And he commanded them, “This is the thing that you shall do: one third of you, those who come off duty on the sabbath and guard the king’s house 6 (another third being at the gate Sur and a third at the gate behind the guards), shall guard the palace; 7 and the two divisions of you, which come on duty in force on the sabbath and guard the house of the LORD, 8 shall surround the king, each with his weapons in his hand; and whoever approaches the ranks is to be slain. Be with the king when he goes out and when he comes in.”
9 The captains did according to all that Jehoi’ada the priest commanded, and each brought his men who were to go off duty on the sabbath, with those who were to come on duty on the sabbath, and came to Jehoi’ada the priest. 10 And the priest delivered to the captains the spears and shields that had been King David’s, which were in the house of the LORD; 11 and the guards stood, every man with his weapons in his hand, from the south side of the house to the north side of the house, around the altar and the house.
Ancient coffin portrait
of a young boy
12 Then he brought out the king’s son, and put the crown upon him, and gave him the testimony; and they proclaimed him king, and anointed him; and they clapped their hands, and said, “Long live the king!”
13 When Athali’ah heard the noise of the guard and of the people, she went into the house of the LORD to the people; 14 and when she looked, there was the king standing by the pillar, according to the custom, and the captains and the trumpeters beside the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets. And Athali’ah rent her clothes, and cried, “Treason! Treason!” 15 Then Jehoi’ada the priest commanded the captains who were set over the army, “Bring her out between the ranks; and slay with the sword any one who follows her.” For the priest said, “Let her not be slain in the house of the LORD.” 16 So they laid hands on her; and she went through the horses’ entrance to the king’s house, and there she was slain.
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Deck Women in the Bible
Born to be bad: Delilah
Delilah is a play on the Hebrew word laylah, which means ‘night’; it can also mean ‘flirtatious’, or ‘sexy’. Delilah’s morals were lax. She was probably a high-class prostitute – in today’s jargon, an ‘escort’.
Samson means ‘the sun’. Because their names mean ‘night’ and ‘day’ the story may be based on an ancient myth about the struggle between night and day, sun and moon, darkness and light. This theme was common in Middle Eastern mythology.
Main themes of the story
- The unending contest between good and evil, order and chaos. The story of Samson and Delilah may have originated in ancient Mesopotamia, in myths about the daily struggle between DaDay/night, yin/yangy (Samson) and Night (Delilah). God shows his power over all creation, including darkness (evil), in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. This theme is continued in the story of Delilah and Samson.
- The value of repentance. Delilah triumphs at first but Samson, after truly repenting his sins, overcomes his weakness – physical and moral – and regains the strength to continue the fight – even though it means his own death.
The story of Delilah has four episodes:
Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, Chronicle of Rudolf von Ems. In the Bible the Philistines, not Delilah, cut Samson’s hair
Delilah and the Philistine lords, Judges 16:4-5.Delilah was loved by the strongman Samson. She was approached by the powerful Philistine lords who ordered her to help them find out why he was so strong.
- Delilah questions Samson, Judges 16:6-14. Delilah tried to wheedled the secret of his strength from Samson. He evaded her questions, giving her three false answers.
- Delilah learns the truth, Judges 16:15-17. By persisting, Delilah found out the truth about Samson, that he was dedicated to God before he was born.
- Samson’s hair is cut, Judges 16:18-21. Delilah sold the secret to his enemies, the Philistines. Then she ordered a servant to cut off Samson’s hair while he slept.The Philistines, traditional enemies of the Israelites, gouged out his eyes so that he was helpless. But then his hair began to grow again…
For a short version of Delilah’s story, see Delilah: she done him wrong.
For Samson see Bible Hero: Samson.
The story of Delilah is set during the period of the Judges, when the Israelites were still attempting to gain a foothold in the land they had invaded.
Scene from the film ‘Samson and Delilah’
After this Samson fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah. The lords of the Philistines came to her and said to her ‘Coax him, and find out what makes his strength so great, and how we may overpower him, so that we may bind him in order to subdue him; and we will each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.’
Read Judges 16:4-5
Delilah is introduced as a woman from the valley of Sorek, which in Hebrew means ‘vineyard valley’. It is about twenty kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. At the time of the story, it was held by the Philistines.
She is not introduced as ‘the wife of’ or ‘of the tribe of’, and we are not told whether she was Israelite or Philistine. This is unusual. She may have been a courtesan, independent of either group; or an Israelite, disowned because of what happened to Samson. Perhaps the story-tellers took it for granted that she was a Philistine. We do not know for sure.
Delilah questions Samson Judges 16:6-14
After the approach from the Philistine lords, Delilah set about finding the secret of Samson’s strength. Why was he so much stronger than other men? How could the Philistines curb that strength, and so protect themselves against Samson? She asked him this questions three times, Three times he lied to her.
Then Delilah said to Samson ‘You have mocked me and told me lies; please tell me how you could be bound’. He said to her ‘If they bind me with new ropes that have not been used, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else’. So Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them and said to him ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ (The men lying in wait were in an inner chamber.) But he snapped the ropes off his arms like a thread.
The upper classes in ancient Israel admired foreign fashions. They used Phoenician craftsmen to copy designs from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Assyria. See some extravagent pieces at Ancient Jewelry
Read Judges 16:6-14
The answers Samson gave have some significance. They suggest a superstitious belief in magic and sacred numbers:
- Answer 1: he could be held with seven fresh bowstrings; seven is a sacred number and fresh bowstrings made of unprocessed gut were not as strong as seasoned bowstrings. But they were new, unused, and in some cultures this gave them a special power.
- Answer 2: he could be held with a new rope; new rope is strong, but hardly stronger in reality than rope used once or twice before.
- Answer 3: he could be held if Delilah wove the seven strands of his hair into her loom. This was the strangest suggestion. It may have had magical associations for the people of Samson’s time.
Each time, when Delilah called out ‘The Philistines are upon you’, Samson immediately broke the bonds.
Delilah was asking him to trust her enough to reveal his own weakness, perhaps to let go of the need to be in control, but he was reluctant to do this. The story was told by someone with an insight into human psychology. Samson recognized her power over him, and struggled fruitlessly against it.
Delilah learns the truth Judges 16:15-17
1949 Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in “Samson and Delilah” directed by Cecil B. De Mille.
Ultimately, Delilah’s persistence paid off. Samson confessed to her that the secret of his strength was that he was a ‘nazir’.
Then she said to him: ‘How can you say ‘I love you’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great.’ So he told her his whole secret, and said to her ‘A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.
Read Judges 16:15-17
Being a ‘nazir‘ meant that Samson had been consecrated to God at birth, had never drunk wine, and had let his hair remain unshaven throughout his life.
Delilah was angry. ‘Three times you have deceived me,’ she said. Finally he told her the truth. ‘ I am strong because my hair has never been cut. If it were cut I would lose all of my strength.’ This time Delilah knew he told the truth. She sent a message to the Philistines. ‘Come and get him’, she said. Samson’s Story
Soldiers who fought a ‘holy war’ often left their hair long – this is hinted at in a previous description of soldiers in Deborah’s army (Judges 5:2). We know that ancient Spartan soldiers going into battle unbound and tangled their long hair, to make them look more frightening.
Samson had to explain the customs of a Nazirite to Delilah, which suggests that she did not already know them. Had she been an Israelite, she would surely have been aware of them.
Delilah recognized the truth when she finally heard it. She did not need to test it, as she had in the previous three incidents. She sent a message to the Philistine lords.
Samson’s hair is cut off Judges 16:18-21
The Philistine lords came, bringing the money promised to Delilah. That money would free her from economic bondage for the rest of her life. As a courtesan without the protection of a family or husband, she needed transportable wealth – usually coins or jewelry.
See Bible Archaeology: Jewelry for the sort of ornaments Delilah wore.
She let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him. Then she said ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ When he awoke from his sleep, he thought ‘I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free’. But he did not know that the Lord had left him.
Read Judges 16:18-21
The moment of betrayal: Samson realizes it is Delilah who has betrayed him to the Philistines. Detail from Van Dyck painting
Throughout the whole Bible story, Delilah’s emotions are not mentioned. This omission dehumanizes her, as if she was detached from what was happening.
But there is something very moving in the picture of Samson sleeping with his head in Delilah’s lap, unaware of the forces assembling against him. Unless she had good reason to hate all Israelites, Delilah must have felt some pity for him. Or perhaps not.
Samson believed that if his hair was cut, his superhuman strength would disappear, and it did. In the words of the Bible, ‘the Lord had left him‘.
We do not know the terms of the arrangement Delilah made with the Philistine lords, or what she expected would happen to Samson. In the context of the times, she probably expected a quick death for him, rather than the protracted torture which eventually followed his capture.
Samson blinded, Lovis Corinth, 1912,
State Museum Berlin
But in one of the most dramatic sentences in the Bible, Judges 16:22 gives an ominous glimpse of what is in store for the Philistines – ‘but the hair of his (Samson’s) head began to grow again..‘.
From that moment, we hear no more of Delilah. Samson will kill himself and many people when he topples the building at the great celebration in honor of Dagon, a fertility god and patron of the city of Ashdod (Judges 16:23-31), but there is no mention of her. It seems likely that she was absent from this horrifying event. If she had been among the dead, this fact would surely have been noted.
The short version of Samson’s life is at Bible Stories: Samson but see also Bible Top Ten Heroes and Bible Top Ten Warriors.
For Delilah, see Bible Top Ten Bad Woman and Bible Stories: Delilah
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Deck Women in the Bible
Michal marries for love
Loving the wrong man
Michal’s father was King Saul, her mother was Ahinoam. She was the younger daughter of Saul, her older sister being Mereb.
Was she the baby in the family, used to being spoiled? As a royal princess and a girl of high social status, she was expected to make a marriage that would be advantageous to her family and the State.
Her father’s position on the throne was not secure. In politics, it hardly ever is. He was challenged by a handsome, charismatic young upstart called David.
This ambitious young man manoeuvred himself into such a powerful position that Saul decided to buy him off by offering his elder daughter Merab as a wife. But then Saul changed his mind and gave Merab to someone else.
Wall engraving of a Philistine warrior, from Medinet Habu
This decision of Saul’s may have been influenced by the young Michal, who was passionately in love with young David. We know she felt deep emotion because it is the only time in the whole Bible that a woman is described as loving a man. Her passion must have been apparent to all around her. Significantly, there is never any mention of David loving her.
Saul seemed to be pleased, and offered Michal to David. But he set a condition, that David offer a bride price of 100 Philistine foreskins. Since the Philistines in questions would understandably be reluctant to part with their foreskins, there was an excellent chance that David would be killed, and Saul would be relieved of his presence.
Of course David saw through Saul’s ploy, but accepted the challenge anyway. Marriage to Saul’s daughter was too good an opportunity for a poor boy to miss. Somehow or other David obtained the 100 foreskins and presented them to Saul, who was now unable to refuse him Michal’s hand in marriage.
Trapped by the situation, Saul now had real reason to fear and hate David. But Michal was jubilant. She could marry the man she loved.
David’s status and influence continued to rise. He was also loved by Michal’s brother Jonathan, and both of them were actively working to help him. Everyone, it seemed, was turning from Saul towards David, and it was only a matter of time before Saul would be ousted altogether.
Michal Saves David’s Life
One night in a jealous rage Saul hurled a spear at David, and in the mêlée that followed David fled to his house.
A socketed spear circa 1,300BC
Michel was waiting for him. She urged him to leave the city immediately, but Saul’s soldiers were already outside the house waiting in the darkness, and David would be immediately arrested if he tried to leave by the front door. So she got a rope and perhaps a basket, and lowered him down from an upper window. Judging by later events, this may have been the biggest mistake of her life.
In the darkness, David escaped from the city and from Saul.
Michal did not flee with David. She stayed in the house to buy time, to give him a better chance of getting away. When the soldiers hammered on the door, demanding that she produce David, she confronted them and said that David was ill, upstairs in her bed. They demanded to see him, but she stuffed the household teraphim (clay figurines representing the household spirit-guardians) under the bed coverings so that it looked like a human figure, and in the muted light of a flickering oil lamp she was able to convince them it was David, hurt in the scuffle and now too weak to move.
They were sceptical, but she outfaced them – she was after all a royal princess and used to commanding her father’s servants. They returned to Saul and told him what Michal had said.
Saul knew that Michal loved David, and that she would take his side against her father. He was not convinced. He now hated David so deeply that he did not care whether David was sick or not. He told the soldiers to collect David and bring him to the palace, even if it meant carrying him on a stretcher, or on the bed he supposedly lay on. The soldiers returned, entered the bedroom, and saw they had been tricked. David was gone. They took Michal back with them to the palace.
Saul, now beside himself with frustration and anger, demanded to know how his own daughter could have betrayed him.
She was calm. To save herself from his anger, she said that David had threatened her life. This was almost certainly untrue, since her passion for David was still burning high, and David knew it. Threats would not have been necessary.
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David Abandons Michal
Michal expected that after Saul’s anger has subsided David would come back to her, or at least that he would send for her. She believed he would be grateful for what she has done, and want her with him.
But David was now a fugitive, living rough in the countryside with a band of cutthroats, and a royal princess, even though she was his wife, would only have been an encumbrance. The months passed, and then possibly the years, and there was no word from him. Instead, she eventually heard the bitter news that he had taken another wife, and then a second, women who were valuable to him because they brought money and supplies for himself and his followers.
As far as Saul was concerned, Michal’s marriage was now null and void, and she could be married off to someone else – someone who would be an ally, not a threat. He settled on a man called Paltiel, from the city of Gallim. This time she had better luck. It was a happy marriage, and as the years passed her bitterness began to fade, as did any lingering affection she might have held for David.
David Reclaims Michal
But David had not gone away. He and his followers had grown in strength, so that David became a very real threat to Saul.
The Philistines were also engaged in intermittent warfare with Saul, and eventually, in one of the pitched battles with the Philistines, Saul’s forces were decisively defeated and his three sons, Michal’s brothers, were killed. Rather than be taken alive to be tortured and made brutal sport of by the Philistines, Saul fell on his own sword. In that one day of battle she lost father, brothers, and royal status.
But for David, it was a golden opportunity, and he seized it. He led his army towards the capital, Hebron, and by allying himself with former enemies he was able to make himself king, at least over the local tribes of Judah. His kingship was disputed by the one remaining young son of Saul’s, Ishbaal, who ruled over many of the northern Israelite tribes, and there was a power struggle between the two men.
David gained the upper hand and Ishbaal made overtures of peace. David agreed, but on one condition. He wanted Michal to be handed back to him, since he argued that he had paid the original price of one hundred Philistine foreskins and therefore retained the right to her. Having the daughter of the former king in his harem would bolster his claim to the throne.
The walled area in the lower right of the image shows Jebus (Jerusalem) at the time of David
No doubt Michal objected, but she was over-ridden. It was political expediency. Ishbaal tore her away from her husband Paltiel, even though she begged to stay with him. There is a poignant description of the grief of Paltiel, who was forced to surrender the wife he loved to an uncertain future. His pathetic, grieving figure followed Michal’s entourage along the road for miles, until he was threatened by Ishbaal’s fearsome general Abner. Only then did he relinquish her. She was handed over to David.
Once that was done, Ishbaal was speedily murdered, and David reigned supreme in Hebron for seven years before he conquered the fortress of Jerusalem. During this time, Michal lived in the palace harem as a virtual prisoner, but never conceived a child of her own, which suggests that there was animosity between David and herself – as well there might be.
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David’s Unseemly Behaviour
Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible: Patriel and Michal are parted
After some time, David decided to move the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-Jearim to Jerusalem, to establish his new capital as a religious center, not just a political one.
Because of his dread of the power of the Ark David left the Ark in a house outside Jerusalem for three months, but when he heard that it brought good fortune to the people who were caring for it, he decided it could after all be safely transported inside the city walls.
In the procession accompanying the Ark, David cavorted and leapt in a most unkingly way, dressed only in a lightweight linen loincloth. His genitals were exposed. It may not have been mere high spirits or exhilaration on David’s part: leaping and cavorting in a religious procession was part of Canaanite ritual, so there may be a suggestions that David was not, for the moment, the Yahwist he should have been.
Michal, standing at the window of the palace, saw him behaving in a way that might titillate a serving women, but was certainly not the regal behaviour of a king. She went out to meet him, and all the pent-up anger inside her came pouring out. She was after all a king’s daughter, now forced to watch her husband behaving like a vulgar buffoon.
David replied that he, not Saul, was king now, and that he would do whatever he wanted. It was more important that the common people loved him than that he be kingly and dignified.
This blazing quarrel is the last that we see of Michal. Ominously, the text notes that she remained childless all her life. By implication she was without love or sexual happiness until her death.
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Deck Women in the Bible
Potiphar’s Wife cries ‘Rape!’
Potiphar’s wife has no name. This is a way of making her seem less real. Her version of what happened is ignored by the story-teller, since it does not serve the narrator’s purpose. On the other hand, there is no doubt that she stands as a symbol of Egypt – decadent and cruel.
Potiphar or Potiphera is an Egyptian name meaning ‘he whom the god Ra has given’
Joseph means ‘God increases or adds to’
Main themes of the story
- The decadence of Egypt. The sophisticated Egyptian culture always posed a danger to Israel. The Israelites led by Moses would eventually flee from it, just as in this story Joseph fled from an alluring Egyptian woman.
- The contrast between Egypt and Israel. They had different ideals, different cultures, different practices. For an example, see the love poems from ancient Egypt. Contrast them with the love poems in the Song of Songs.
- Israel’s ability to resist. Though in an apparently vulnerable position, Joseph was able to resist the allure of a foreign woman and a foreign culture. Both tried to entice him, but he stayed true to the Israelite moral code.
The story seems to be set during the Middle Kingdom, somewhere between 2030BC to 1640BC. Potiphar may have been ‘Ptahwer’, an officer of Pharaoh Ahmenemhet III (pictured at right).
The story has three episodes:
1 Background details for the story (read the Bible text at Genesis 39:1-6) The story is set in the household of a rich Egyptian man, Potiphar, who owned many slaves. One of these was the Hebrew Joseph, a man of unusual ability who had been placed in control of Potiphar’s large estate and household. Potiphar’s wife had no children and did not seem to love her husband. In short, she had no purpose. Rich, bored and idle, she became infatuated with Joseph.
2 The wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph (Genesis 39:7-12). She tried to seduce him but Joseph fled, refusing her advances.
3 The wife’s accusation (Genesis 39:13-20). She took her revenge by accusing him of attempted rape.
A Woman’s Slave
Read Genesis 39:1-6
Joseph was the first son of the Hebrew heroine, Rachel. He had every God-given advantage except personal freedom: he was handsome, intelligent, shrewd – a born leader. He also had God’s special favor. But he was a slave, albeit one of the high-ranking and influential servants who exercised power in ancient households and court circles. For a short version of Joseph’s life, try Joseph in the Bible
After being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Joseph found himself in the household of a wealthy officer in Pharaoh’s service, Potiphar, who became Joseph’s master. By dint of hard work and his own native intelligence, Joseph rose through the ranks of the household slaves, eventually becoming overseer of Potiphar’s household and estates. Under Joseph’s supervision, everything ran smoothly, and Potiphar was left free of responsibility, able to devote himself to his one great passion, food.
‘…he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.’
There is nothing wrong with enjoyment of food, but the implication of the text is that Potiphar had no interest in any of the other normal pleasures of life, including sex with his wife.
The Hebrew text uses the word ‘saris’ to describe him. This can mean ‘courtier’, ‘someone who belongs to the king’, or ‘captain of the guard’, but elsewhere in the Old Testament ‘saris’ is used to describe a eunuch. There may be a sly suggestion here that Potiphar’s sexual prowess was not all it should have been. Read Genesis 39:1-6.
Potiphar’s Wife tries to seduce Joseph
Read Genesis 39:7-12
For a while, nothing happened. But during this period the third person in the story, Potiphar’s Egyptian wife, noticed Joseph, inadvertently assuming the role of Mrs Robinson in ‘The Graduate’ (1967). Since Joseph ran the household, Potiphar’s wife was in constant contact with him.
She seems to have been a lonely, bored woman thrown into the company of an unusually handsome, attractive man, a Brad Pitt of the ancient world. She realized that what she’d wanted out of life, and what she’d got, were two quite different things.
In Israelite and Egyptian culture, a slave girl was automatically assumed to be sexually available to her master (see Exodus 21:9-11), as were boy slaves, though of course sex with boys was forbidden by the Israelite moral code. See Slaves in the Bible for information about slavery in the ancient world.
Potiphar’s wife seems to have decided that what was good for the gander was good for the goose – a male slave should be available to her if she wished, as a female slave was available to her husband. See Erotic Egyptian Love Songs. But the biblical narrator does not share that idea: according to the Hebrew way of thinking, a woman was the exclusive sexual property of her husband.
The Egyptian wife did not sees things like this. Neglected as she was by her husband, she lost her head. She made some kind of sexual approach to Joseph, which the text rather baldly sums up as
‘Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said “Lie with me”.’
As far as the narrator was concerned, this was a straightforward attempt by a woman to use her sexual and social power to dominate a man, and as such it was definitely A Bad Thing.
Joseph was in a delicate situation. He had to either offend the wife or betray her husband. He judged that the former was less dangerous, and repulsed the woman.
The wife was now in the grip of uncontrollable infatuation. She again begged Joseph to respond to her desire with the urgent ‘Lie with me”, but he avoided all possible contact with her, as far as he was able.
One day when they were alone in the house she again begged for his love. In the physical tussle that followed, she pulled off the linen kalasiris that was the normal clothing of an Egyptian man or woman. Naked, Joseph ran out of the room and then out of the house altogether, leaving his kalasiris behind.
Read Genesis 39:7-12
The Wife takes revenge
Read Genesis 39:13-20
‘When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside”.’
Suddenly, the passion she had felt for Joseph was transformed into hysterical rage. She had been humiliated by a slave, and she knew it. What was more, she knew that she had no-one to blame but herself.
In her escalating fury she lashed out at Joseph. She called out to the members of the household (but weren’t we just told there was no-one in the house?) that she has been attacked by Joseph, who had tried to rape her. She held up Joseph’s loin-cloth to prove her point, suggesting that only her screams had prevented him abusing her. She waited until her husband came into the house, and told him the same story, blaming him for bringing trouble to their house in the form of this foreign slave.
See Bible Art: Potiphar’s Wife‘ for illustrations of this scene – for example, Tintoretto’s painting. Potiphar’s naked wife is pulling the outer garment away from Joseph’s shoulders as he backs away from her. Where previous painters had shown Potiphar’s wife as merely en déshabillé, Tintoretto shows her as a voluptuous nude. Unlike Joseph, Tintoretto has let himself succumb to the sensuality of the story…’
Her husband was enraged – at Joseph? at her? The text leaves this question unanswered. One imagines him muttering, “I’ve heard this before…”.
He too faced a dilemma: should he discredit and divorce his wife and retain a valuable servant, one who has made his life much more comfortable, or should he believe his wife, punish the servant and thus lose the comfort and order he valued more than anything?
He (probably reluctantly) chose the latter course of action, impelled by the fact that the incident was now common knowledge and that he would, as a cuckold, become the object of ridicule. He charged Joseph with the attempted rape of his wife, and put him in prison. This relatively lenient punishment suggests that his wife may have sought to fulfill her needs with other men before. If Potiphar were indeed a eunuch, can we really blame his wife? Of her, we hear no more.
Read Genesis 39:13-20
Contrast Potiphar’s Wife with Ruth, one of the good women of the Bible, despite her foreign origins. The Book of Ruth was written at a time when ordinary Jewish families were trying to defend the foreign women who had married their sons during the Exile in Babylon. In contrast to the story of Potiphar’s Wife, foreign wives were presented as loyal and virtuous.
‘In the Joseph story, good things happen to bad people, bad things turn out to be good things by misadventure. It is no coincidence that just after the sale of Joseph into slavery, Judah enters into ambiguous sexual relations with a Canaanite daughter-in-law, Tamar.
This is a comment on events in Samuel, transposed into the Joseph story, but indirectly. In fact, these very stories may be the springboard for the Shakespearean world-view: scum at the bottom, scum at the top.’ (Quoted from David’s Secret Demons, Baruch Halpern, p.360)
angel card# 216
Deck Women in the Bible
…and Isaac loved her
Rebecca means ‘a heifer, a young cow’, a symbol of fertility
Isaac means ‘may God smile/laugh’, perhaps a reference to his mother Sarah’s laughter when she heard she was to become pregnant in her old age
Jacob means ‘he who grabs for something’ – either his brother’s heel at the moment of birth, or his brother’s inheritance later on
Esau was nicknamed Edom, which meant ‘red, Born with a ruddy complexion, he spent most of his time outdoors, so his face and skin may have been unusually red.
Main themes of the story
- Women are people too. They can be just as ambitious, loving, deceitful and self-sacrificing as men. Their individual personality shapes them, not their gender.
- God’s plan for humanity is beyond our understanding. The Bible does not flinch from showing the complexity of human nature. Rebecca deceived her aged husband and betrayed her older son. The other members of her family are also less than perfect. Yet God uses them for His purpose.
- Fulfillment of God’s promise: this story shows the gradual unfolding of God’s plan. Sarah and Abraham will have many descendants and become a great nation.
The story of Rebecca has three episodes:
- the betrothal and marriage of Rebecca (Genesis 24). Rebecca is introduced as a brave and resourceful young woman. She impressed all the people who met her. She was a good match for Isaac, and became his much-loved wife..
- the birth and youth of Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:19-34). Rebecca gave birth to twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The boys had very different temperaments. The conflict between them became the basis for conflict between later generations and nations.
- Rebecca and the blessing of Isaac (Genesis 27). Esau, born first, should have inherited the role of tribal leader, but Rebecca judged that Jacob would be better at this task than his older brother. She and Jacob tricked Isaac, old and blind, into giving the leadership to Jacob. Rebecca wanted the tribal leader chosen for his intelligence rather than his popularity, so that decisions for the tribe would be based on wisdom rather than impulse or emotion.
Her Betrothal and Marriage
Rebecca was the young woman who became the wife of Isaac, Sarah’s son. She came from a well-to-do family in upper Mesopotamia, now northeastern Syria. She was a relative of Abraham;her family background is given in Genesis 22:20-23.
Rebecca was beautiful, shrewd, energetic, physically robust and strong-willed. We first meet her at the well of Aram-naharaim, where she showed that she was willing to work, and confident enough to speak without fear to the strangers who had been sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac.
This moment, with its symbolism of the well and water, has been popular with artists.
See Bible Art: Rebecca for famous paintings of this moment.
‘Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebecca, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a young girl, whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up.’
Read Genesis 24:1-27.
Rebecca impressed Abraham’s men who had stopped to rest at the well. They offered her valuable gifts, including a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets, which she accepted.
See Bible Archaeology: Jewelry for pictures of the stunning jewelry worn by all ranks of women in ancient times.
There are two types of gifts mentioned in this story, both related to marriage customs of the time:
- the bride price, given by the family of the groom to the bride’s family; in Rebecca’s case, it is gold and silver jewelry and clothing, with additional gifts for members of her family
- the dowry, which was money, servants/slaves and gifts taken with the bride to her new home; Rebecca took her nurse and maids with her as part of her dowry.
Rebecca led the men to her home, to introduce them to her family. Her brother Laban spoke as head of the house, inviting them to stay in his household. This suggests that their father Bethuel was alive, but for some reason was incapable of acting as head of the household. A proposal of marriage, on behalf of Isaac, was made. It was accepted by Rebecca and by her family.
‘And they called Rebecca and said to her “Will you go with this man?” She said “I will”. So they sent away their sister Rebecca and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his man, and they blessed Rebecca.’
The description of Rebecca’s betrothal and marriage gives a fair picture of marriage practices among the early Hebrew people:
- the marriage was arranged between families rather than between the individuals themselves
- there were definite legal procedures to be followed: in Mesopotamia, a marriage arranged by a brother was only valid if the woman gave her full consent. This is why the biblical text mentions consultation with Rebecca. For more on arranging marriages, and childbirth in ancient Israel, see Women’s Lives: Major Events
Rebecca had more say in whom she married than did Isaac, her future husband. Genesis 24:8 suggests that the marriage would not have gone ahead without her consent, but Isaac is expected to marry the woman brought home to him by his father’s agents.
Read Genesis 24:28-61
As she faced the journey to her new home, she seemed sure of her own judgment, and ready for this daunting new experience. Her journey took her from upper Mesopotamia, in what is now northeastern Syria, to Beer-lahai-roi in the Negev, a distance of about eight or nine hundred kilometers. For maps of this area, go to MAPS
When Rebecca and Isaac met, it seems to have been love at first sight. He took her to the tent that had once belonged to his mother Sarah – this tent was to be Rebecca’s now.
Read Genesis 24:62-67.
The phrase ‘Isaac loved her’ is used, something most unusual for the biblical text. Rebecca comforted Isaac after his mother’s death; the deep bond that Isaac had with Sarah was replaced by his love for Rebecca. This biblical story has an ‘and they lived happy ever after’ feel about it.
The Birth and Youth of Esau and Jacob
‘Jacob and Esau Wrestling in the Womb’ by Charles Sherman
Rebecca did not conceive for quite some years, and this was considered both a personal misfortune and a sign that she was not favored by God. Eventually however she became pregnant, but even then it was not plain sailing. She had a difficult pregnancy, since the two babies inside her were constantly moving, so that she had no peace. Even before they were born, they were struggling with each other. Like many women before and since, she wondered what she had got herself into.
So she ‘went to enquire of the Lord’. Rebecca was the first woman we hear of who sought God out and asked him for some explanation of her condition. This shows her initiative and self-confidence. The method she used to speak with God is not explained, but a common practice in the ancient world was to consult a prophet or oracle. Rebecca may have followed this practice or, as in Numbers 12:6, the message may have come to her in a dream.
God told her that
‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’
Read Genesis 25:19-23
‘Babies did not wear diapers; they ‘went’ into small clay pots that the mother carried with her. A mother quickly learnt to read the signals her baby sent when it was about to excrete, and since a baby virtually never left its mother’s side, this was easier than it would be now.’Childbirth in ancient times
Childbirth in ancient times
Rebecca had twin sons, Esau and Jacob.
The struggle in her womb had been a sign that there was to be
- a lifelong struggle between Esau and Jacob, and
- a continuing struggle between their descendents, the Edomites and the Israelites.
‘When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, so he was named Jacob.’
For Jacob’s story, see Bible People: Jacob
Read Genesis 25:24-28
From the start, Esau was a ‘man’s man’, good at hunting and outdoors activities, confident, careless, unconcerned. He had a good relationship with his father. He married two Hittite (non-Hebrew) women who did not get on well with Rebecca and Isaac (see Genesis 26:34-35). Jacob was quiet, more thoughtful, more interested in learning. He did not particularly enjoy outdoors activities. He depended on his intelligence and his wits rather than on brute strength. The clash between these two young men echoes the continuing struggle between the nomadic hunter and the settled agriculturalist, as related in the story of Cain and Abel – see Eve: her world.
Rebecca and the Blessing of Isaac
One day, Esau carelessly gave up his birthright, half of his inheritance, to his younger twin Jacob. On the death of the father, property was divided in equal shares between the sons, but the eldest son got a double portion. This was called the ‘birthright’ of the eldest. Thus in a family of two sons, the elder would get two-thirds, the younger would get one-third. Daughters had already received their inheritance in the form of a dowry. In the story of the stew, Esau gave up his right to a double portion and transferred this right to Jacob.
In Genesis 26 there is a story involving Rebecca and King Abimelech in Gerar. It is similar to one involving Sarah, in Genesis 20. The episode is really about water rights in the area, essential to a nomadic people. In the section involving Rebecca (26:1-11), all Rebecca’s actions suggest that she was active, not passive, a planner and doer, not a victim. So the episode with Abimelech is likely to have resulted from co-operation between her and Isaac. Indeed, judging from other events in her life, the plan may have originated with her.
Within an ancient clan there was a central family, who gave the clan its name. The matriarch was the woman within the central family with the highest social standing, and she was owed the greatest respect. She was responsible for the well-being of all the members of the clan.’ Who Was the Boss?
‘Within an ancient clan there was a central family, who gave the clan its name. The matriarch was the woman within the central family with the highest social standing, and she was owed the greatest respect. She was responsible for the well-being of all the members of the clan.’
Who Was the Boss?
After this, we learn of Judith and Basemath, Esau’s Hittite wives who made life bitter for Rebecca and Isaac (Genesis 26:34-35).
The resentment of Judith and Basemath was understandable. In their eyes, their husband should have been in line to inherit a double portion of Jacob’s possessions, which he would not now receive. They overlooked the fact that it was their husband’s fault that this was so, and took out their anger on their in-laws.
But the story suggests that the real reason for this grubby behavior lay in their origins. They were foreigners, with foreign gods and customs. To the writers of the biblical text, this meant they could never be suitable wives for Hebrew men. (But this idea is contradicted later, in the story of Ruth – see Bible Men and Women: Ruth for her story.)
When Isaac was very old, he realized that it was nearly time for him to die. This meant that he should give his formal Blessing to the son he wanted to succeed him. In ancient Hebrew tribes, the Blessing meant the handing over of legal power to a successor – a more valuable gift than any amount of property. The person who received the Blessing had authority over the whole clan, even over people who were older than himself. If Jacob had the Blessing, he would govern the tribe after Isaac’s death.
But Esau was Isaac’s favorite son. He had many of the qualities that Isaac lacked: he was hearty, carefree, a good hunter, and physically strong. The question was: would he be the best person to govern the tribe after Jacob’s death? Rebecca did not think so. She believed that the quiet, intelligent Jacob would do a better job.
She therefore colluded with her younger son, and under her direction, Jacob tricked his dying father into giving the Blessing to him.
‘Then Rebecca took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck’
Isaac Blessing Jacob Gioachino Assereto, 1640
In the modern world, we admire honesty and integrity. The actions of Rebecca and Jacob seem underhand to us. In ancient times, however, this duo of schemers would have been admired. Trickery and cunning were valued, because the world was dangerous and unpredictable, and people needed every advantage they could get, to survive. Rebecca may have hated what she had to do – but it was necessary, given Esau’s impetuous foolishness and the long term effect it would have on the tribe.
Read Genesis 27:1-40
Rebecca had developed from a beautiful, confident young girl into a far-sighted and shrewd woman. She chose the son she believed was more capable of governing the clan. But some questions must be asked:
- Did Jacob really trick Isaac into thinking he was Esau? Is it possible that Isaac was aware all along of what was happening?
- Did Isaac go along with Rebecca’s deception because he knew in his heart of hearts that Jacob was better suited for the task of leadership?
‘Now Esau hated Jacob because of the Blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob”. But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebecca.’
Esau was enraged, as well he might be. He had been betrayed by his mother and his brother and lost the inheritance that was due to him, his birthright and the Blessing. He planned to kill Jacob as soon as his father died – for a short version of Isaac’s life, see Bible People: Isaac.
Once again, Rebecca stepped in, helping Jacob to escape. She also maneuvered Isaac into arranging a marriage between Jacob and one of the daughters of Laban, the brother she had left so many years ago in Mesopotamia.
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