Nazareth women

An ancient ‘to-do’ list for women

The modern view of women in the ancient Near East is that they were down-trodden, subservient to their husbands and burdened by many children. This could not be further from the truth. Pearl and gold crownThe home was important in Jewish religion. In our society, people associate prayer with a church. In the Jewish religion, both the home and the synagogue were places of prayer. A rabbi or scholar was in charge of prayer in the synagogue, but in the home, each individual woman in charge of a household was responsible for the prayer-services held in that home.

Women regarded the house as their kingdom. They ruled it. Men came and went from the house, but it was essentially the domain of the women. It is true that they worked hard – but then so did the men. Moreover, judging by the list of tasks performed by the ‘Woman of Worth’ described in Proverbs 31:10-31, they had aspirations we would regard as ‘non-traditional’.

This is what they aimed for in their lives – their ‘to-do’ list:

  • find a well-educated and well-to-do man as a husband – someone who could give them a comfortable life, and their children a good start in lifeMiddle Eastern woman with her child

  • spin and weave cloth, to make the family’s clothing and (in earlier times) the tents they lived in

  • make and sell finished items of clothing; this meant skill in weaving and embroidery

  • design and make suitable clothing for all members of the household

  • dress well and attractively, so that she was confident and her family was proud of her

  • keeping physically and mentally strong and fit; no lolling on silken cushions for the Woman of Worth

  • give religious instruction to the children: a mother was their first teacher, and the great influence on her children’s lives

  • gather food and assemble a varied and healthy diet for the members of the household; the Jewish dietary laws supported this

  • administer the finances of the family and oversee the family business, with all the necessary skills this involved

  • buy investment property wisely

  • supervise investments and make a profit from them, then re-invest the profits

  • perform charitable work and care for the poor; this was seen as one of the main duties of a Jewish woman

  • The Grandmother, Morteza Katouzian, 1986 organize the tasks of servants in the household

  • oversee the emotional and physical well-being of members of the household; she was the ‘go-to’ person in the household

  • be available at all times to anyone who needed her.

The list hardly mentions children – but not because children were unimportant. They were the center of a woman’s life, her crowning achievement and a great blessing given by God. Not having children was counted as a very great misfortune. The household that a woman governed was centered on the maintenance of a healthy and happy extended family.

The status of mothers and motherhood has been so down-graded in the modern world that it is hard to appreciate the honor given to biblical women who gave birth to children and raised a family. But such was the case in the ancient world, at least in the part of the world where Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth.
Women’s greatest achievement was to give birth, preferably to a boy. Their second achievement was to raise a child 

  • who believed and trusted in God
  • who respected tradition, and
  • who lived a good life.

Bible Study Resources

Read the following extract from the Book of Proverbs. If you are a wife and mother, check the items off against your own life. You’ll probably find you measure up quite well!

Pearl necklace10 When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.
11 Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
12 She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.
13 She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with skillful hands.
14 Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household.
16 She chooses a field to buy; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms.
18 She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.
20 She reaches her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. Oil lamp
21 She fears not the snow for her family; all her charges are doubly clothed.
22 She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing.
23 Her husband is prominent; he sits with the elders of the land.
24 She makes and sells garments, and stocks the merchants with belts.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come.
26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.
27 She watches the conduct of her family, and eats not her food in idleness.
28 Her children rise up and praise her; her husband, too, extols her:
29 “Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; she who fears the Lord is praised.
31 Give her a reward of her labors, and praise her at the city gates.
Book of Proverbs 30:10-31


Bible Study Activities

A Woman’s Life

Elderly womanInterview your own mother, or an older female relative. Try to discover details of her life, to understand her better. Ask some of the following questions, or compose your own:

1. What are the three major events in your life that you remember best?
2. Can you describe one of these events?.
3. What have you done that you are most proud of?
4. What did you find most difficult in your life?.
5. Did you learn about Mary and Joseph of Nazareth when you were at school?
6. If so, how were they portrayed?
7. What part did Mary or Joseph play in religious rituals you were involved in?
8. Did you try to imitate any of their qualities in your own life?

You could, if you wish, answer some of these questions yourself, and jot down your ideas and memories. 


Mary’s life in Nazareth 

Read the heart-breaking ‘Prayer for a New Mother’ by Dorothy Parker, and spend some quiet time thinking about it.

Prayer for a New Mother
The things she knew, let her forget again —
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.
Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.


Daily Life in Nazareth

Try to imagine the daily life of Mary or Joseph, living in the little village of Nazareth.

  • What are the smells? The colors? The sounds? The smells?

  • What is the landscape? What time of day is it?

  • What is the mood of the people whose eyes meet yours?

  • Are the people old or young? Dark or fair? Good-looking or ugly? Tired or energetic?

  • What are they wearing (clothing, footwear, jewelry)?


    Palestinian woman in richly embroidered clothes, 19th century photograph

    Peasant women like Mary often had
    elaborately embroidered clothing for special occasions

Witch of Endor

Dangerous times

In the first four sentences of this story, the Bible gives us some essential background details:

1. The great prophet and adviser to the king, Samuel, has died. His wisdom is missed by all, high and low alike. Oddly enough, one of the people who misses him most is King Saul, even though Samuel has repudiated him and given his support to young David instead.

2. King Saul has made some sweeping reforms in Israel. Among them is the banning of all forms of magic and witchcraft. This included séances or any attempt to contact the dead. Saul has not killed the séance ‘mediums’, as they are called, but expelled them from the land of Israel. But it should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.

A skull

3. The whole country is on the brink of an annihilating war, and Saul’s rule is about to end, amid wholesale slaughter of his family, soldiers and followers. He cannot match or hope to defeat the Philistine forces assembled at Shunem. They have a new tactic: previously they had fought in the hills, where their more sophisticated weapons gave them little advantage, and where the Israelites were on familiar terrain. Now they marched into the plain of Jezreel, keeping to level ground, and threatened to cut off Saul from the northern tribes who might have supported him.

4. Death stares him in the face. Saul prays desperately to God for help, but is greeted by silence. God, it seems, has abandoned him.

Map of the region where King Saul fought his last battle

Endor, where the witch lived in a cave; site of Saul’s last battle, and his death

The witch/medium of Endor

Driven to desperation, Saul reverts to the old ways. He asks his servants to find him a medium, someone who can speak with the dead. He longs to hear Samuel’s wisdom once more.

The search cannot have been easy for Saul’s servants, since all mediums have supposedly been expelled. But they are just as desperate as Saul, and they find just such a woman living in a cave at Endor.

Saul, of course, cannot be seen consorting with mediums, so he takes off his kingly robes and wears a disguise. The journey is difficult and dangerous: that he makes it at all is a sign of his desperation. When he meets the woman he immediately asks her to consult a spirit. There is no time to be lost, since the Philistines will probably attack at dawn.

She is reluctant. As events will show, she is no fool. Probably she knows quite well who Saul is. He is the king who has ordered the expulsion of all ‘witches’ like herself. But Saul insists, guaranteeing her safety. So the woman, the ‘witch’ of Endor, consents. She summons Samuel from the grave – or from Sheol, the Israelite land of the dead.

No comfort for Saul

The witch of Endor summons Samule

Samuel appears – to the woman, but not to the people beside her. Only she can see him or speak with him. Saul is overwhelmed, convinced that his old mentor is truly present.

Through the woman, Saul begs Samuel for help. He tells Samuel of the Philistine threat, and worse, of God’s silence. What is he to do?

He gets little comfort from the ‘spirit’ of Samuel – which is in reality the woman’s voice, and therefore her assessment of the situation. ‘Samuel’ tells Saul that God has turned away from him, that the Philistines will triumph, and that David, not Saul, will rule. Saul’s army, including Saul’s three sons, will be destroyed.

Keep in mind as you read these predictions that it is the medium/witch who is making them, not Samuel. This astute woman is able to predict the future because she is shrewd and well-informed, not because she has ‘magic’. Being a medium gives her freedom the speak the truth – a truth that no ordinary subject of Saul’s would dare to utter.

Deep in his heart Saul knows this, and he knows she is speaking the horrifying truth. He will die, his family and soldiers will be destroyed, and Israel will for the time being at least come under the heel of the Philistines. Saul collapses on the floor of the cave, unable to move.

Swords from ancient Canaan

Swords from ancient Canaan

The woman comforts Saul

Plate of hot food with bread

This is when the woman shows the compassion and good sense that are the qualities of a woman of worth. Instead of retreating from the broken figure of Saul, she does the sensible and compassionate thing: she offers him food. She knows that, in the turmoil of this terrible day he has probably not eaten.

Now she offers this man, who has persecuted and exiled all the mediums like herself, a simple, nourishing meal. She gives him fresh-baked bread and succulent calf meat. Strengthened, Saul gets up and goes out to meet his fate.

The ‘witch’ of Endor has

  • made a shrewd assessment of the political situation and its likely outcome
  • forgiven Saul for the misery he brought to all the mediums of the land and
  • helped and comforted him as best she could.
The death of Saul on Mount Gilboa

The death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa

The death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa


Notes, extra information on this story

Women gleaning in the fields

Israel’s religion flatly rejected the practice of magic. It was strictly forbidden. Despite this, superstition and magic always persisted among the Israelite people. In times of religious revival it might seem as if magical practices had been eradicated, but in fact they remained bubbling away below the surface, ready to reappear on the slightest excuse – even though, for example, witchcraft could be a capital offense (Exodus 22:18). It should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.

Of course, ordinary people got around these laws in various ways. For instance, Leviticus l9:9-l0 directs that at harvest-time, the corners of fields, the gleanings of corn and the fallen grapes in vineyards shall be left for the poor and the foreigner (see the story of Ruth). This probably continued an ancient custom of leaving some of the harvest for the spirits of the corn and other crops, so as to ensure a good harvest the following year.

Necromancy

The Bible forbade necromancy (seeking guidance from the dead) in no uncertain terms:
“There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, Copy (2) of Eye asny one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).

Necromancers who invoked “ghosts and familiar spirits” were apparently fairly numerous, for more than one king attempted to stamp out the practice. Saul tried to ban the activities of sorcerers and necromancers, yet at the end of his life even he turned to such a woman (l Samuel 28:7-25). The urge to seek guidance from ancestors and the recently dead was apparently strongly rooted in the hearts of men and withstood official opposition and outright prohibition.


Paintings: the Witch, Samuel, and Saul

Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch

Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch
Martynov’s witch is calm, solemn, sure of her power.

Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor

Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor
Saul seems to have already received Samuel’s forecast of doom, and clasps his forehead in anguish. He turns towards the viewer, as if to face his future. The witch is the dominating figure in this painting: it is she who holds the power.

Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould

Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould
Corbould seems to have drawn on a gypsy woman for inspiration for his witch. Her face is in shadow, but her summoning hand is still raised. Samuel is bowed. He can offer no hope to his former favorite, Saul.

The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777

The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777
The gates of Sheol are parted, and Samuel appears. Saul’s body language shows a man making one last, desperate plea for help from his former mentor, Samual.
The witch is nowhere in sight.

The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey

The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey
The red of Saul’s cloak evokes a horrifying image of how his blood, and the blood of his three sons, will be spilt on the following day. Samuel is a remote figure, other-worldly, without pity or emotion

The Witch of Endor, Mattias Stom

The Witch of Endor, Matthias Stom
This later painting is more realistic. Samuel clasps the shroud around him as he tells Saul there is no hope. The witch is almost like a nurse or healer, not a frightening figure as in other paintings. Saul too seems calm as he listens to his former friend and adviser.


Bible text for the Witch of Endor

3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”

8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.

15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. 22 Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23 He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.

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