From Her Cradle to Her Grave. The Role of Religion in the Life of the Israelite and the Babylonian Woman (The Biblical Seminar 23)

Written by Karel van der Toorn Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

Van der Toorn examines the literary evidence from Mesopotamian and biblical sources for an understanding of women and their religious beliefs. He divides his study according to the life phases of a woman. For the first one, the nursing period, van der Toorn finds birth rites, naming practices and belief in demons attested in Mesopotamia. Although van der Toorn limits his biblical evidence to the ‘prophetic name’ that Hosea gives to his daughter (‘Not pitied’), much more religious information about women’s names can be found in the text. The second phase, ‘youth’, becomes the basis for a discussion of the domestic cult, especially ritual handwashing, figurines, cult rooms and niches and amulets. Van der Toorn identifies these with the origins of OT prayer rooms and mezuzot (Dt. 6:4–9). Adolescence was a lonely time due to periodic uncleanness, although it was punctuated by village festivals. Van der Toorn recreates the wedding, affirming that it was a religious ceremony within the family. On rather limited evidence, he argues for a four-month probationary period during which time the bridegroom could break the contract if he wished. For van der Toorn, pregnancy was the central concern of the newly married woman. This explains the numerous religious devices (figurines and prayers) that are attested concerning it. It also introduces the vows of married women, a subject that allows van der Toorn to repeat his view that this led women to prostitution in order to enable them to repay the vows to the sanctuary. He surveys the roles of women in popular religious practices: witchcraft, dreams, contact with the dead and prophecy. This useful volume concludes with the increasingly close relationship with the sanctuary that the woman had toward the end of her life.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver