In our story, the goddess Astarte plays an important role in Orah’s transformation from girl to young woman. Worshiping Astarte is just one facet of the household religion practiced in Orah’s village and in the Iron I villages generally.... The mythology of this Canaanite goddess is best known from the texts found at the Syrian coastal city of Ugarit dating to the end of the second millennium bce. Astarte was worshiped through the second millennium and into the first millennium bce in Israel and Judah.... According to the Late Bronze Age Ugaritic texts, Astarte was a divine courtesan, and sometimes the deity El’s lover. She is referred to as “queen” in the first millennium bce, and her cult involved baking and offering cakes.
Chapter excerpted from Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (T & T Clark International, 2010)
By Jennie R. Ebeling
Associate Professor of Archaeology
University of Evansville
It was an exciting but melancholy time in Orah’s household the summer of her twelfth year. Her parents were making arrangements for her sister Adah’s marriage, and soon Adah would leave her birth house and move to her new husband’s house in a village a few hours’ walk away. Their mother was visibly anxious for Adah’s upcoming wedding celebrations and she kept everyone busy with its preparations, especially pressing grapes to make wine from the first harvest. Although she was kept busy and distracted from dawn until dusk, Orah found time to be depressed that her sister would be leaving so soon. Perhaps because of her sadness Orah also felt a little bit sick, and she complained to her sister that it would only get worse when Adah left. Although Adah’s mind was understandably elsewhere these days, she took notice of Orah’s complaints, observed once again how much she had matured, and knew that her time could come any day now. Adah told Orah that she would not be surprised if Orah knew the way of women even before the wedding, but Orah only scoffed; her mother and sister had been telling her for years what it would be like when her first blood appeared, and she thought it would never actually happen to her.
But Adah was right. A few days later, Orah noticed spots of blood on her undergarments when she went to relieve herself in the stand of trees outside of the village while doing the morning chores. Excitedly, she ran back to the house and reported what had happened to Adah and their mother, both of whom were weaving a cloth for Adah’s wedding on the loom in the courtyard. Adah and their mother quickly abandoned the loom and accompanied Orah to the west room on the first room of the house. There, they located the supply of rags and old pieces of wool felt they kept for this occasion. Adah, her mother, her aunt and the concubine were all menstruating themselves, and there were only a few cloths left for Orah to use that day. They showed her how to put the material in her undergarments, and pointed out the vessel of water in a corner of the room where she was to put her used cloths to soak before they would be rinsed by one of the women the next morning. When they were no longer needed, the clean cloths would be wrapped and packed away in a basket in the west room for use a few weeks later.
Orah’s mother reminded Orah that she would need to take care around the men of the house when they returned from the vineyard, as their tradition limited contact between men and menstruating women. That evening, her mother told her, Orah would bake the special cakes for the goddess Astarte and offer them to her in the cult corner in the west room. In the late afternoon, after Orah was allowed to enjoy a nap, Adah and her mother prepared the parched grain for the evening meal and set aside a bowl of wheat flour they had ground earlier. When the rest of the evening meal was nearly ready, but before the men and older children had returned, Orah was summoned to the cooking area in the main room of the house. Her mother gave her the bowl of flour, some olive oil and a handful of raisins, and all of the women in the house said a blessing to Astarte as Orah kneaded the dough and formed two small bread cakes in the rough shape of the goddess. She carefully placed them on the layer of hot stones at the bottom of the oven as she had seen her mother and sister do before, but this time they were her own cakes, and Orah felt proud of her ability to finally participate in this important female ritual. A few minutes later, she carefully pulled the baked cakes out of the oven using old cloths and let them cool on a dish near the entrance to the west room.
Later that evening, the women gathered in the west room to eat their meal by lamplight while the men ate the food that the women had left for them in the cool breeze of the courtyard. After the meal, the men and young children quickly brushed off the dishes and returned them to the storage room next to the west room before retreating to the roof to sleep. Two of the men, one of them Orah’s father, returned to the terraces to sleep in the shelter and guard the vineyard for the night. They were all aware that this was the women’s time, and Orah’s absence at the evening meal signaled to them that she was with the other women behind the curtain that separated the west room from the main room of the house.
The house was quite dark when Orah’s aunt lit the ceramic incense burner that stood on a low mudbrick altar in the west room and Orah placed her dish of cooled cakes next to it. Three small clay figurines of the goddess leaned against the wall at the back of the bench, and a bowl of grapes from the recent harvest sat before them. Orah’s mother threw some droplets of olive oil on Orah’s cakes and Adah poured beer into a small bowl next to them. As the other women offered food, drink and incense to the goddess, they thanked her for giving them the ability to have children and asked for the protection of all women and children in the house. They all quietly sang the ancient song about the goddess as Orah’s mother gently tapped the small hand drum kept on the floor next the altar. Orah’s mother then produced two bronze anklets from a pouch tied on a belt around her waist and gave them to Orah; the anklets symbolized Orah’s transformation from girl to young woman and marked her as marriageable in their community. The women spent what seemed like hours recounting their first menstruation experiences, telling stories about the goddess and discussing the preparations for Adah’s wedding. Her mother told Orah that a jar of wine from this year’s pressing would be stored specifically for Orah’s future wedding. Orah felt at ease in the company of these women – the closest people in her life – and slept solidly on a mat on the floor until daybreak.
During the next few days Orah learned how to act during her woman’s time, as there were specific traditions that she had to keep while she was bleeding. Although her daily chores were basically the same as always, she had to be careful not to handle the men’s clothing or bedding. Orah kept closer to home than usual, and she was secretly glad to have a few days’ break from the messy job of grape pressing. Orah’s mother gave her a small bottle of special perfume to wear during the days of her period, and Orah was careful to apply the sweet liquid pressed by one of the women in the village sparingly. At the end of the five days of Orah’s bleeding, she and Adah walked to the spring outside of the village to bathe; although Adah told her to be quick as she looked out for passersby, Orah was delighted by the rare opportunity to wash herself completely and she splashed around the stream of water until Adah begged her to get out. Orah was distracted just enough by these new events and thoughts of her own future to not be so anxious about Adah’s imminent departure.
Twelve was about the age when the ancient Israelite girl transitioned from childhood to adulthood as she physically became a woman. Although little is known of the coming-of-age rituals and initiation rites practiced in ancient Israel, we can imagine that the onset of female and male adolescence was an important time for the individual and her or his family. For women, rituals involving one or more deities probably marked the transition from girlhood to womanhood and served to celebrate the young woman’s new ability to conceive. Since bearing children was the ultimate goal of every woman in ancient Israel, and one of the few chances a woman had to achieve status in her family and community, first menstruation was considered a blessing. But blood was also considered dangerous in ancient Israel, and menstruation was a threat to ritual purity and had to be controlled.
In our story, Orah’s first menstruation is marked with a gift of perfume from her mother, who has acquired this precious substance from a woman in the village who presses perfume from locally available plants. Orah’s perfume and the incense burned by her aunt in the west room serve to mask odor and invoke the goddess Astarte during this special time. Orah is glad to be relieved of her wine-pressing duties for a few days, and she remains closer to home than usual until she is permitted to clean herself and return to her normal life along with Adah and the other women in her household.
Grape Harvest and Wine Making
Orah’s coming-of-age takes place in late June, during the first grape harvest of the year. Early grapes ripen in Israel in June or July, and the vintage season occurs in August and September (King and Stager 2001, 99). The grape harvest was a time for celebration and feasting, and several biblical passages provide details of the shouting, dancing and singing that accompanied wine making. In Judg. 21.19-23, for example, the local girls dance near the vineyard at Shiloh and Isa. 16.10 and Jer. 48.33 describe the joyous noises that accompanied the grape harvest (Walsh 2000, 181–83). Although beer, water and perhaps milk were common, everyday beverages in ancient Israel, wine was valued in Israelite society in part because it could only be made during the summer months; thus, wine was probably produced and stored for special occasions. In our story, one of the most important ways that Orah prepares for her sister Adah’s upcoming wedding is by helping her family produce wine from the newly ripened grapes. We learn that some of this wine will be stored for Orah’s future wedding as well.
The importance of wine in ancient Israel is demonstrated by the many biblical attestations to grapes and wine as well as wine’s place in religious ritual and law codes (Borowski 2002, 103). In addition, there are nine terms for wine in the Hebrew Bible that comment either on different kinds, origins or characteristics (King and Stager 2001, 101). Although we can currently say little about the different types of wine made in the highlands in the Iron Age I period, archaeological evidence suggests the production of raisin wine: an eleventh-century bce jug from Shiloh was found with its strainer next to a pile of raisins, which was interpreted as the residue from raisin wine strained and drunk at the site (Dayagi-Mendels 1999, 36). Raisins, fruitcakes and other preserved foodstuffs could also be made from grapes; freshly squeezed grape juice, which must be consumed quickly before it starts to ferment from the naturally occurring yeast on grape skins, was probably not an important product.
Growing grapes – viticulture – was practiced in Palestine from at least the fourth millennium bce, as attested by the seeds of cultivated grapes from the site of Tell esh-Shuna in the Jordan Valley (Dayagi-Mendels 1999, 15). The biblical writers seem to have been aware of the great antiquity of viticulture; this is evident in Gen. 9.20, which recounts that Noah’s first act upon leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard (Borowski 2002, 102). Wine produced in Palestine was apparently exported to Egypt by one of the first pharaohs, the Dynasty of King Scorpion, who was buried at Abydos with some 700 wine jars (McGovern 2003, 91–103). Patrick McGovern analyzed the vessels and discovered that they were made in Palestine; he concluded that “they were used to collect wine produced in the same areas for storage and export” (McGovern 2003, 101).
Wine was very important in the economy of Canaan in the succeeding Middle and Late Bronze Ages, c. 2000–1200 bce, and continued to be produced in the Iron Age. Grapes grow well in the thin hillside soil in the highlands of ancient Israel, and Orah’s family worked some terraced plots just outside the village where grapes, olives, pomegranates and figs were cultivated. Although the book of Judges describes vineyards located at some distance from settlements (Judg. 14.5), archaeological excavations at Iron Age I sites have uncovered hillside agricultural terracing located just outside the highland villages. Grapes could only be harvested from vines that were at least four years old, so planting a vineyard was a sign of permanent settlement and investment in the land and its protection was critical. In this story, it is more likely that the grapes were guarded by men sleeping in temporary shelters (Isa. 1.8) than more costly stone watchtowers (Isa. 5.2).
Grapevines could be trained in a variety of ways, although it seems likely that, in the highlands, they were either allowed to spread along the warmth of the ground to bring an earlier crop (Dayagi-Mendels 1999, 18) or trained upward on trellises or poles so that grapes were more accessible to harvest, but out of reach of animals. For maximum yield, excessive branches had to be pruned regularly; this was accomplished in the fall with a pruning knife resembling a sickle (Borowski 2002, 107–9).
The technology of wine production can be reconstructed from representations of viticulture on wall paintings and reliefs in Egyptian tombs dating from the Old to New Kingdom. Biblical and other textual references also illuminate different stages in the wine making process. The New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 bce) tomb of Nakht in Thebes reveals various stages of wine production, including gathering clusters of grapes from vines, in this case trained on a pergola, and treading the harvested grapes on a winepress. Other details in the scene reveal that the juice flowed down from the press into a vat and ceramic jars were located nearby for wine storage. An Old Kingdom (c. 2649–2134 bce) stone relief from a tomb in Saqqara shows musicians accompanying winetreaders (Dayagi-Mendels 1999, 21).
Grapes were harvested by cutting the clusters with a pruning knife and collecting them in baskets. The grapes were then carried to stone winepresses located either in the vineyard or in the settlement. In the Iron Age I, it seems that rock-cut pressing installations were constructed in the vineyards and not in the villages. The simplest winepress was in the form of two rock-cut oval or rectangular basins, one carved into the bedrock at a lower level than the other. The two basins were connected by a channel (Walsh 2000, 148–49). The upper basin was the treading platform, and as grapes were trod the juice flowed through the channel and into the lower basin, where it might be left to ferment (King and Stager 2001, 100). Otherwise, the fermenting wine could be scooped into jars or wineskins and brought back to the house to be poured into larger jars for further fermentation and storage (Walsh 2000, 190–92).
Fermenting wine releases carbon dioxide, and ceramic containers for fermenting wine must have some sort of vent or opening to permit the release of gases. Archaeological evidence of pierced clay balls used as stoppers on wine bottles has been identified at a number of sites. After the wine had fermented, mud, straw or some other substance would be placed in the perforation of the clay ball to seal the jar and ensure that it would not turn into vinegar (Walsh 2000, 192). Wine might be stored in this way for up to a year. When it was served, a juglet was used to dip wine out of a large storage jar. It could then be strained to separate foreign matter; the archaeological remains of bronze strainers as part of drinking sets have been uncovered at Iron Age sites. It was then consumed from shallow bowls, as seen on iconographic representations from ancient Israel such as a thirteenth–twelfth century bce ivory plaque from Megiddo that shows a ruler sitting on a throne and drinking wine out of a bowl. On this scene, two servants stand behind the ruler and draw wine from a larger vessel (Dayagi-Mendels 1999, 82). Ceramic jars, juglets and cups that could have been used for storing and drinking wine are found in quantity in Iron Age sites.
Harvesting grapes and producing wine required the labor of all available family members, and it is likely that all able-bodied women, men, and children participated in various aspects of it. Ethnographic documentation shows that women and children are active in family-run vineyards, including those in Palestine in the early twentieth century ce. During harvest season, the whole family might move out to the vineyards and live in small stone structures built in the fields that served as guard houses, shelters and storage rooms (Amiry and Tamari 1989, 38). Several biblical passages specifically associate viticulture with women’s work: Prov. 31.16 praises the righteous woman for her contributions in the vineyard and, in Song 1.6, the woman owns her own vineyard and laments that she could not work it herself (Walsh 2000, 59–61). Orah’s family owned a vineyard that was only large enough to meet its needs, so they spent a short time in June and July harvesting grapes and producing wine and other edibles from them. Although a jar of wine was kept aside for Orah’s future wedding, it was only a symbolic gesture; wine could not be stored successfully for more than a year or so, and Orah’s wedding wine would likely turn to vinegar before Orah’s parents could make her marriage arrangements.
Menstruation and Purity
Since there are no first-hand accounts of a girl’s first menstruation in ancient Israel, the details of this important event in Orah’s life must be reconstructed from various sources. The Hebrew Bible says little about the facts of menstruation; the biblical writers were not so interested in the everyday hygienic habits of women, and were mainly concerned with the state of impurity that arose during this time. No artifacts, except for perhaps anklets, have been identified in ancient Israel that directly relate to a woman’s first menstruation, and there is no iconographic or other information that relates directly to menstruation practices and beliefs in the archaeological record. Some sources from Mesopotamia and Egypt shed light on ancient Israelite practices. When used in tandem with the biblical evidence, one can begin to piece together the events surrounding the first menstruation of an ancient Israelite girl.
There is one hint of a ritual act that may have accompanied the onset of menstruation in the Hebrew Bible: Judg. 11.30-40, the story of Jephthah’s daughter. The passage reads: “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering’” (Judg. 11.30-31). When Jephthah returns home, his daughter is the first to come out to meet him; she agrees to be sacrificed in fulfillment of her father’s vow, but only after spending two months in the mountains “to bewail my virginity” with her companions (Judg. 11.37). The next passage, Judg. 11.40, relates an otherwise unknown female ritual, when all the young women of Israel went to the mountains to lament Jephthah’s daughter four days of every year. Some have suggested that this refers to a female initiation rite that signaled a young woman’s readiness for marriage, but no corroborating evidence for this practice is known (Bohmbach 2000, 244).
First menstruation must have been an important event in a young woman’s life, for it was the time when a girl was incorporated into the women’s world; thus, the physical development of the young woman was a source of pride for girls in the ancient Near East (van der Toorn 1994, 49). In our story, Orah is permitted for the first time into the circle of menstruating women in her household, and her initiation includes baking and offering bread cakes to Astarte in a cult corner in the west room of the house. Until then, Orah had only been permitted to assist with the offerings made to this deity, but on the occasion of her first blood, she became a full participant.
Orah’s mother gives her two bronze anklets to mark the arrival of her first period and her new marriageable status; these bangles will remain on her ankles until her death. A study of metal anklets from Late Bronze and Iron Age I tombs and artistic depictions of males and females wearing anklets revealed that pairs of anklets were an important marker of gender, and “may have been symbolically linked to idealised perceptions of fertility, femininity, familial protection, and nakedness in depictions of female figurines” (Green 2007, 304). When men are shown wearing pairs of anklets in Egyptian art, however, they are associated with bondage, defeat and subservience. The anklets themselves, which are undecorated and resemble ingots, might have even been used as currency, and female anklet-wearing in ancient Israel may represent male dominance and control (Green 2007, 303–4).
Although the Hebrew Bible does not provide many details about the reality of menstruation, Leviticus 15 relates that regular and abnormal female genital discharge was considered unclean and that menstruating women were restricted from participating in public religious activity during that time (Lev. 15.18-33); these purity regulations were written much later than the Iron Age I period, however.1 Specifically, menstruation resulted in a seven-day period of impurity when a woman could not enter the sanctuary. The menstruating woman and the objects under her could transfer impurity, and anyone who touched her or these objects would experience a one-day period of impurity and would be compelled to wash themselves and their clothes. If a man engaged in intercourse with a menstruating woman he was either impure for seven days (Lev. 15.24) or cut off from his people, along with the woman (Lev. 20.18). No passages indicate that women were isolated, and there was no specific need for sacrifice or ablutions at the end of the seven-day period; only the passage of time ended a woman’s impure state.
There are other references to menstruation in the Hebrew Bible, notably two stories in Genesis: Genesis 18, where the text relates that “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (18.11) and Gen. 31.34-35, the story of Rachel’s theft of her father’s teraphim. Rachel’s story provides some interesting information about the reality of female menstruation in the context of the ancient Israelite household. In this passage, after Rachel steals her father Laban’s teraphim – household gods – and sits on them to hide them, she matter-of-factly tells her father that she cannot stand up when he enters the tent to search for them because “the way of women is upon me” (Gen. 31.35). This passage “might reflect a small and tight social group in which everybody knew which of the women menstruated, and when” (Philip 2005, 24), and it was perhaps not at all unusual for household members to discuss female menstruation. In addition, Laban did not find Rachel’s reason for not standing up unusual or suspicious, so it may have been considered normal for a menstruating woman to be seated more than usual.
This story, which is believed to pre-date the purity legislation in Leviticus 15, may demonstrate an earlier train of thought in Israelite experience either concerning the impurity of menstruation (van der Toorn 1994, 52–53) or the connection between menstruation and fertility (Philip 2005, 19–25). Parallels with sources from Mesopotamia seem to confirm the aversion to menstrual blood and its impurity in a cultic context, but this may be more closely related to a widespread folk belief than to any intentional action on behalf of the priestly class to keep women out of cultic roles in ancient Israel. “Religiously, menstruation had an ambivalent character . . . it was a sign of fertility and hence a blessing. But at the same time people regarded it as a source of impurity and this latter aspect is particularly emphasized in the ancient texts” (van der Toorn 1994, 49).
Since issues of purity apparently needed to be considered by menstruating women, it seems likely that women would have used some sort of protection during their periods and did not bleed out of their clothes as did many European and American women from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries ce (Finley 2001). Although no archaeological evidence for them has been identified, the menstrual cloth (beged idim) is mentioned in Isa. 64.6. Menstruation is used as an image of impurity elsewhere in Isaiah (30.22) and in Lamentations, where a woman with unclean (bloody) skirts (Lam. 1.9) serves as a metaphor for Jerusalem after its destruction. There are several textual accounts from ancient Egypt that may refer to cloth menstrual pads as well (Robins 1993, 78).
In this story, scraps of wool felt and old rags were used by the women in Orah’s household to absorb menstrual blood. Used rags were placed into a jar of water kept in the west room, where the cult corner was located, and every morning one or more of the menstruating women rinsed the cloths out for reuse. Once washed, the cloths would have dried quickly in the sun on the roof or in the courtyard. Plenty of vessels excavated at Iron Age I villages could have served purposes beyond those of cooking, serving and storing foods, and it is possible that such vessels as cooking pots and other open forms could have been used for soaking laundry, bathing and other activities related to hygiene. Basins that were apparently used for washing feet are mentioned in Pss. 60.8 and 108.9, and ceramic vessels that could have served this purpose have been found at Iron Age sites (see below).
Synchronous menstruation – the phenomenon of women living close together menstruating at the same time – has been documented ethnographically and can be assumed to have occurred in the four-room houses of early Israel. Such a situation must have fostered a sense of community among the women of a household. However, there is no evidence to suggest that women were secluded during menstruation in Iron Age I Israel. The purity laws in Leviticus do not stipulate that women live separately from men during menstruation; they instead regulate menstruation’s relation to the cult and the holy (Philip 2005, 43). Although it is possible that women had to be attentive to issues of purity, and were perhaps restricted from sexual relations with men and from handling their personal belongings, it is unlikely that the household would have functioned without five to seven days of female labor each month.
It has been suggested that certain features of the Israelite four-room house were intended to accommodate times of ritual impurity, as this house plan gave maximum privacy to family members. The direct access permitted particularly to the rear rooms of the four-room house may have been designed to accommodate female impurity during menstruation. Since each room on the ground floor could be entered through the main room of the first floor directly, without having to pass through adjacent rooms, menstruating women did not have to leave the house at the times when they were ritually impure. It is possible that the plan was adopted to accommodate purity laws, or purity laws were structured by the house plan (Bunimovitz and Faust 2003, 415–17).
In our story, the menstruating women sleep separately from the men; when it is bearable, they sleep in the west room on the main floor, and when it is too hot they take their bedding to the courtyard and sleep there while the rest of the family sleeps on the roof or in the vineyard. But they are not completely secluded or cut off from the men in the family, and they still go about most of their daily activities as usual. During this time, we might imagine that children and older adults in the house take on more responsibilities in the household; this is seen in our story when everyone but the women clean up after the evening meal and take charge of the children at bedtime.
Although the Hebrew Bible does not stipulate ritual cleansing after menstruation, later rituals, such as immersing oneself in a mikveh as a means of purification, may have their origins in earlier practices. Although only the passage of time was required for women to reenter normal life after menstruation, ritual bathing may have been practiced as for similar states of impurity, like seminal emissions (Lev. 15.16-18) or irregular/excessive vaginal bleeding (Lev. 15.28) (Burnette-Bletsch 2000, 205).
Men and women rarely changed their clothing or bathed completely in ancient Israel, although bathing in rivers is attested in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kgs 5.10-14). It is likely that hands, face and feet (Gen. 18.4; 19.2; 24.32; 43.24; Judg. 19.21; 1 Sam. 25.41) were washed more regularly as part of the ritual of hospitality and for reasons of purity. Bathing installations are not found in the Iron Age I village houses, but a clay figurine of a woman bathing in a small bathtub from seventh-century bce Akhziv on the northern coast of modern Israel suggests bathtubs did exist, and ceramic basins featuring what may be a footrest and a spout for draining water have been found at eighth–seventh century bce Samaria and at other sites (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 14). In our story, Orah and Adah bathe in the spring outside of the village at the end of their periods to clean and perhaps purify themselves. As bathing outdoors was a rarity in ancient Israel, it would have been a treat for the young women that they looked forward to all month.
Perfume and Incense
Since bathing was limited in ancient Israel, perfume was considered to be more than just a luxury; in the hot, dry climate characteristic of much of the region, perfumes and unguents (oil-based ointments) would have provided protection and relief for skin parched by the sun. “Perfume and incense make the heart glad,” according to Prov. 27.9, and a variety of different types of perfumes and incense are attested in the Hebrew Bible. Incense had sacred and profane functions in ancient Israel and it was used for divine worship, in funerals, for cosmetic purposes and as medicine. In our story, Orah’s aunt burns incense in the cult corner in the west room for Astarte on the night of Orah’s first period; the incense probably had the dual purpose of securing the presence of the deity to insure that the women’s prayers reached her (Nielsen 1992, 406–7) and fumigating the small room where the menstruating women were spending the evening. On the day after her first period, Orah’s mother gives Orah a small bottle of perfume, presumably to mask the odor of her menstruation.
Perfume was used “in religious ritual, burial preparation, personal grooming, healing, and a variety of other circumstances” (King and Stager 2001, 280). Oil was used as the base in perfumes in the ancient Near East, and olive oil would have been the most widely available liquid base for blending in ancient Israel. Many kinds of plants are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible that could have been used to make perfumes and unguents. Only a few – henna, saffron, balm and ladanum – were native to the area, which means that balsam, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon and others were imported from distant lands, usually in Africa and Asia. Flowers, leaves, branches, fruits and resin could be used in the production of perfume; resin was the most expensive of all raw materials (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 90–96).
The preparation of perfumes requires specialized skills, and it appears that certain groups controlled perfume production in specialized contexts. 1 Chronicles 9.30, for example, states that some of the priests’ sons made ointment, presumably for use in the Temple. Women also apparently specialized in making perfumes for the palace, as suggested in 1 Sam. 8.11-13: “He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you . . . [h]e will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.’” Cold steeping (enfleurage) and hot steeping (maceration) methods are attested in the ancient world, but there is a rather simple method of making perfume that was practiced early and by non-specialists: pressing. Aromatic plant parts could be crushed with a pestle in a mortar or other container or squeezed in twisted cloth to extract the fragrance (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 96–97). Since oil-based preparations seem to have been necessary for everyday use in ancient Israel, they were either imported or produced by basic means during the Iron Age I. Balm, which most identify as Balanites Aegyptiaca, grows in the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 107) and might have been available in the market in the village where Orah’s father traded periodically.
The biblical writers describe the use of incense in divine worship. In the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple in Jerusalem, an incense altar or burner was situated between the priest and the image of the deity. The purpose of regular morning and evening offerings of incense was to secure the presence of Yahweh and his attention in the hope that the fragrant odor would appease him, although the smoke could also provide a protective cover against divine wrath (Lev. 16.12-13) or the medium for the appearance of the deity (Lev. 16.2) (Nielsen 1992, 406–7). Incense also served to dispel unpleasant odors and to rid the sanctuary of flies and mosquitoes (King and Stager 2001, 346). Incense was also offered to gods other than Yahweh (1 Kgs 11.8; 2 Chron. 34.25; Jer. 48.35; Hos. 2.13), and it is likely that Israelite worship of Astarte involved the burning of incense. King Solomon reportedly worshiped Astarte (1 Kgs 11.5) and built holy sites around Jerusalem for the worship of various deities to whom his wives offered incense (1 Kgs 11.7-8).
Archaeological evidence for burning incense consists mainly of so-called incense burners and altars made of clay and stone that have been recovered from Iron Age sites. Some of these have physical evidence for burning on them, but many of them do not and it is possible that they served some other ritual function, perhaps as stands for offerings. Although most of the excavated examples have been identified in Iron Age II contexts, several have been found in the highlands that date to the Iron Age I. The best-known incense burner comes from a twelfth-century bce cult room at ‘Ai; it is in the form of a tall fenestrated (windowed) ceramic stand featuring decorative lion feet protruding near its base. It was found sitting on a bench near a bowl decorated with a circle of clay protuberances, a chalice-shaped stand, a lamp and other vessels. A clay animal figurine and a necklace with stone and glass beads were found inside the stand (Willett 1999, 203–4). Later altars – such as a fifth century bce example from Lachish – are inscribed with the names of the spices presumably burned on them in household rituals. The small stone altar from Lachish is inscribed with the Aramaic word for frankincense (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 116–18).
Two of the most important ingredients of the incense used in the Tabernacle (Exod. 30.34) were frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense grew mainly in the southeastern region of the Arabian Peninsula, and myrrh came from Southwest Arabia and North Somalia (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 116–18). This region was also a source for materials brought from India and China, such as the cinnamon required for anointing oil (Exod. 30.23) (Nielsen 1992, 407–8). The importation of these materials from South Arabia is confirmed by biblical and archaeological evidence. Isaiah 60.6 states: “A multitude of camels shall cover you . . . all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” The Queen of Sheba, from South Arabia, brought “camels bearing spices” (1 Kgs 10.2) when she came to Jerusalem to visit Solomon. Archaeological evidence for this spice trade might be seen in seventh–sixth century bce potsherds with incised inscriptions in South Arabian script found at Jerusalem and other sites (Dayagi-Mendels 1989, 114–16). Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources also shed light on the vast network of land and sea routes that existed in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean for the trade in perfumes and spices in the second and first millennia bce.
In our story, the goddess Astarte plays an important role in Orah’s transformation from girl to young woman. Worshiping Astarte is just one facet of the household religion practiced in Orah’s village and in the Iron I villages generally. Although the Hebrew Bible includes descriptions of the sanctuary at Shiloh that housed the Tabernacle and archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence for public worship in pilgrimage or village sanctuaries at a number of sites (Nakhai 2001, 176), the primary locus for religious worship in early Israel was the household (Meyers 2005, 60), and household ritual was the realm in which Israelite women could participate most fully in cult worship. Textual evidence from the ancient Near East suggests that household cults were often the province of women, and the family cult was very important to the maturing girl (van der Toorn 1994, 45). Although they were condemned by the writers of the Hebrew Bible during the monarchic period, household ritual activities were widespread in Israel throughout the Iron Age.
Household religious practices, like other expressions of “popular” religion, lie “outside the borders of the established cult and [are] located in the region of popular superstition where individuals perform actions that they cannot or will not introduce into the formal cult” (Zevit 2001, 662). Early Israelite household cult activities probably centered on “table manners” or the ritual actions that take place around meals, including offering a portion of food and drink to the gods (van der Toorn 1994, 30, 36) who may be physically present in the house in the form of teraphim, the household gods like those stolen by Rachel from her father. Later manifestations of these practices are described in the context of Temple ritual in the Hebrew Bible, including the idea that offerings are considered nourishment for Yahweh and the burnt offerings were a pleasing odor for him (Num. 28.24). Deuteronomy 4.28 criticizes acts of family piety that include worshiping gods of wood and stone, and “the reference to their inability to eat or smell indicates that people were in the habit of offering them food and incense” (van der Toorn 1994, 36).
The household cult required the use of a variety of common and specialized items. The archaeological remains of such practices include “those artifacts and ceramic vessels which are present in uncontested shrine sites, but may also appear in a domestic setting as evidence of religious activities practised by family members in the home” (Daviau 2001, 199). Archaeological evidence for household worship has been identified in village households in the Iron I, including Khirbet Raddana (Nakhai 2001, 173–74) and Tell Masos (Willett 1999, 107–17); more evidence is available for household cult practice in Iron Age II houses.2 It has been argued that women controlled the space required for household economic activities such as baking and textile production in Iron Age I Israel, and it follows that women controlled certain cultic activities – especially those related to reproduction – practiced in the house as well (Meyers 2005, 68–69). The annual rite of lamenting Jephthah’s daughter described in Judg. 11.40, although apparently not practiced in the house itself, may be an example of a ritual event carried out only by women, specifically, unmarried women (Meyers 2000, 244–45).
In one room of an eleventh–tenth century bce house at Tell Masos in the Negev, artifacts of the household cult include clay incense burners and lamps, shells from the Red Sea, an ivory lion head and a bead. Based on evidence from Mesopotamian and Egyptian parallels as well as modern ethnographic data, it has been suggested that a woman with a newborn child slept in this room and protected herself and her newborn with the ivory figurine, shells and beads and by burning oil and incense. More artifacts and installations of a cultic nature were found in other parts of this house, including four female figurines similar to votives left in the temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor at Timna, on the border between Israel and Egypt (Willett 2008, 90). Although we cannot know for certain if the Tell Masos figurines represent Hathor, their presence suggests “that the residents of this house at Tell Masos had an established relationship with a personal protective goddess that they worshiped in their home in addition to or instead of in a public sanctuary” (Willett 1999, 107–10).
Although there is no direct connection between the worship of Astarte and any known coming-of-age rites in ancient Israel, the goddess’ primary role as a fertility deity makes her a logical choice of actor in this story. The mythology of this Canaanite goddess is best known from the texts found at the Syrian coastal city of Ugarit dating to the end of the second millennium bce. Astarte was worshiped through the second millennium and into the first millennium bce in Israel and Judah, as the biblical passages attest (Judg. 2.13; 10.6; 1 Sam. 7.3-4, 12.10; 1 Kgs 11.5, 33; 2 Kgs 23.13). According to the Late Bronze Age Ugaritic texts, Astarte was a divine courtesan, and sometimes the deity El’s lover. She is referred to as “queen” in the first millennium bce, and her cult involved baking and offering cakes (Ackerman 1992, 26).
The “queen of heaven” mentioned in Jeremiah (7.18; 44.19) and worshiped in Judah and Jerusalem in the sixth century bce may be a syncretistic deity incorporating Astarte and the east Semitic goddess Ishtar (Ackerman 1989, 116–17). The prophet rails against pouring libations, burning incense and baking cakes as sacrifices to this goddess. According to Jer. 7.18, the cult is family-oriented: “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.” Jeremiah 44.21 “describes the cult as one practiced in past generations” (Ackerman 1989, 117), much earlier than the sixth-century bce context of the prophet’s writing. The prophet accuses the kings and princes of Judah of worshiping the queen (Jer. 44.17, 21) and it is possible that she was worshiped in the Jerusalem Temple (Ackerman 1989, 117).
Bread and cakes were common offerings to deities in the ancient Near East and Egypt, and the Hebrew Bible relates that Yahweh required regular offerings of bread (Lev. 24.5-9). There are no specific stipulations as to the type of bread to be offered except that it should be made of “fine flour.” A particularly interesting aspect of the cakes for the queen of heaven mentioned in Jer. 44.19 is that they were made “marked with her image.” It has been suggested that such bread might have been baked in molds resembling the goddess or an identifying symbol was stamped on the bread,3 but the archaeological examples of clay molds and stamps, such as one from Iron Age Cyprus, neither support nor refute these suggestions.
In this story, Orah forms cakes in the image of the goddess to thank her for giving her the ability to bear children and to ask for the continued fertility of the female members of the household. Orah’s aunt burns incense to Astarte to invoke the goddess so that the women’s prayers of thanks can be heard, while other family members offer small token gifts in the form of beer and juice from the first grape harvest. Although other deities are worshiped by the members of Orah’s household, Astarte has a special place in the lives of the women, and Orah’s new relationship with the goddess will help her especially with the trials of childbirth in the future.
1 Much of Leviticus is assigned to the Priestly tradition, which many scholars believe to be exilic (written down after 586 bce). Thus, the purity regulations in Leviticus may not be applicable to highland village life in the early Iron Age.
2 See further Nakhai 2001, Willett 1999, 2008, and Zevit 2001.
3 See discussion in Hadley 2000, 41–42.
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