By Amanda Edwards, MDiv/MAPT candidate, CTS
Jennie Ebeling’s book, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, is a unique combination of fiction and academic research from multiple sources that reconstructs women’s lives in an ancient Israel village. Ebeling was motivated to write the book by her frustration with mainstream fictional depictions of women in Biblical times in books such as The Red Tent which are factually inconsistent or even inaccurate (Ebeling 2010, vii). Ebeling also recognizes scholars’ reliance on single sources to understand women’s lives in Biblical times which perpetuates incomplete and inaccurate portrayals of women’s everyday lives (vii).
Drawing on her expertise as an archaeologist specializing in the areas of ancient technology, food and drink in antiquity, and women in Canaan and ancient Israel (University of Evansville, n.d.), and undergrad work in both anthropology and religion (University of Arizona, 2014), Ebeling imagines a fictional narrative for a female character, Orah. Ebeling’s only work incorporating fiction (Academia, n.d.), she sets the narrative in a Highland Village sometime during the Iron Age I period (1200-1000 B.C.). Ebeling tells Orah’s story from her birth to death, split over seven chapters. Each chapter highlights a different stage of Orah’s life: birth and background, childhood, womanhood, marriage, childbirth, motherhood, old age and death (Ebeling, 2010, v-vi). In addition, activities in each chapter highlight Orah’s life in relation to a different season in the agrarian calendar, showing the influence agriculture had on life in these times (Ebeling, 2010, 5) .
Each fictional segment is followed by research more characteristic of Ebeling’s other works including academic archaeological texts and papers (Academia, n.d.). Ebeling introduces the topics woven into the fictional account. Then she provides detailed information about each topic grounded in academic research. Research uses multiple sources including archaeology, the Hebrew Bible and other ancient near Eastern and Egyptian texts, iconography and ethnography (Ebeling, 2010, 6-12).
Ebeling’s work challenges the notion that ancient Biblical women were merely oppressed property in a patriarchal society (Ebeling, 2010, 147). By exploring “the events, customs, crafts, and technologies and other activities in which Israelite women would have participated on a daily basis according to the agricultural calendar by which they lived (Ebeling, 2010, 1)”, she emphasizes the complexity of women’s lives, the integration of cultic life with daily life, and the esteem in which women were held as vital contributors to the health and survival of their families and communities (Ebeling, 2010, 147-151).
In the preface, introduction, and conclusion, Ebeling clearly defines the book’s purpose and how the book is different from other research and contemporary literature like The Red Tent. Ebeling’s introduction explains how the three common sources for information on Biblical women’s lives are inadequate, describes the historical context, summarizes the chapters, and offers how her combination of multi-sourced research and fictional narratives over Orah’s lifetime provide a more well-rounded picture of life for women in Biblical times. Although not Ebeling’s primary intent, readers also may increase their understanding that the Hebrew Bible (written from a male point of view and elite, royal, or priestly frame of reference) may not reflect the lives of “ordinary” everyday people (Ebeling, 8-9). In addition, over the course of the book, Ebeling offers a seemingly realistic portrayal of how the transition from polytheistic to monotheistic worship may have manifested itself.
Ebeling succeeds in delivering a straight forward, easy-to-read account of life for a woman in a Highland Iron Age I village, grounded in multiple-sourced research. Although Ebeling’s fictional narrative shows imagination, it does not rise to the level of literary prowess awarded books like The Red Tent. Ebeling’s narrative tells instead of shows. Plot development relies heavily on life stage and agrarian activities, rather than character development and relational conflict. The book’s dimensions are close to the size of your average paperback novel and internal graphics are pencil sketches similar to those found in some novels (as opposed to photographs of actual artifacts). However, the book’s title, front cover art, reviews by academics on its back cover, its format which interrupts the fictional account with scholarship, and its academic layout including tables of figures and abbreviations, topical headings, citations, notes for further study, a bibliography, and index make this book more academic in nature. Ebeling’s one-dimensional but straightforward and unadorned style works in her favor throughout the scholarly segments, making the book accessible even to non-academics. However, as evidenced by the eleven page bibliography, Ebeling’s research is extensive, and the book could easily be used in a variety of classroom settings from high school to graduate level courses as a companion work to other scholarly or literary titles.
Tension between Ebeling’s fiction and non-fiction segments exists not only in the book’s overall format, but is felt in Ebeling’s own admissions that parts of Orah’s story are not supported by fact (Ebeling, 150-151). Given Ebeling’s profession and research interests, the reader can feel more confident about Ebeling’s imaginative filling of gaps than he/she might if written by a literary writer with no background or education in religion or ancient history. Readers, however, are urged to evaluate the evidence supporting her assertions and identify when Ebeling makes educated guesses and suppositions.
Although the book’s title indicates the reader will develop a greater understanding of women’s lives in Biblical times, readers are reminded that this book only provides information about women during Iron Age I living in a specific highland region of Israel. The Bible spans many more centuries and includes women living in vastly different regions and circumstances than Orah.
Ebeling hopes to improve mainstream understanding about women’s everyday lives in Biblical times. As this review indicates, the book’s format and writing style make it unlikely to fill a mainstream niche. However, it holds potential for use in book clubs alongside contemporary novels, or in church groups alongside a Bible study. Ebeling might consider collaborations with fiction or young adult authors. If additional fiction works were crafted well, they might propel interest in accurate portrayals of the Biblical past much like the Little House on the Prairie series of books (and subsequent T.V. shows) did for America’s pioneer era. From that, Ebeling would have numerous opportunities to showcase her awarded (Evansville, n.d.) professional work and integrate more well-rounded portrayals of women in Biblical times into the mainstream vernacular.
Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, by Jennie R. Ebeling, ISBN number 978-0-567-19644-6, was published by T and T Clark International in 2010.
Academia.edu, “Jennie Ebeling” (n.d.), http://evansville.academia.edu/JennieEbeling (accessed May 19, 2005).
Ebeling, Jennie R.. 2010. Women’s Lives in Biblical Times. London: T & T Clark International.
University of Arizona, Center for Judaic Studies, “UA Alum Jennie Ebeling on Archaeology in Israel and Tucson” (Tucson, April 4, 2014), http://judaic.arizona.edu/news/ua-alum-jennie-ebeling-archaeology-israel-and-tucson (accessed May 19, 2015).
University of Evansville, (Evansville, n.d.), (accessed May 19, 2015).