Reviews of

Prophets Male and Female

In Ancient Near East, Corrine L. CARVALHO, Gender Studies, HB/OT, Jonathan STÖKL, Kerry Lee, Prophecy, Society of Biblical Literature, Women on November 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm

2013.11.21 | Jonathan Stökl and Corrine L. Carvalho (eds.). Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Ancient Near East. Ancient Israel and Its Literature 15. Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2013. xiv + 347 pages (PB) ISBN 9781589837768.

Review article by Kerry Lee, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to SBL for providing a review copy.

Concise Review

Prophets Male and Female is an edited collection of papers presented in the Prophetic Texts in Their Ancient Context section of the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meetings in 2009 and 2010.

Broadly speaking, the essays making up this volume explore the relationships between gender and prophecy as seen in a variety of texts from the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. The volume is not unified by method, which makes it more appealing, more useful, and, ultimately, more effective, especially where different methods produce similar results. The book is divided into two sections. The first six essays are concerned with non-biblical texts, while the last five essays concern texts from the Hebrew Bible, especially the book of Ezekiel.

As with most thematic collection of papers, what unifies Prophets Male and Female is very broad. There are, however, connections between some of the chapters that make it so that a dialogue, or perhaps a few dialogues, emerge. In particular, the interaction between Nissinen, on the one hand, and Stökl and Zsolnay, on the other (one could include Grabbe in this latter group, too, as a supporting voice), is by far the most stimulating and significant dialogue in the volume. Nissinen and Stökl are two of the most important figures in ancient Near Eastern studies today, and their debate about the relationship between gender ambiguity and prophecy is cutting edge scholarship. Another dialogue that appears in the second half of the book comes from Hamori’s and Carvalho’s essays, both of which deal with a prophet’s singleness or childlessness from a literary perspective. Hamori’s thesis is that childlessness is a feature of the literary depiction of female diviners and prophets that, she claims, contrasts with the depiction of male prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Carvalho’s essay focuses on the role the singleness of Jeremiah and Ezekiel plays in their respective books. With so many different topics, texts, and methods, it is difficult to engage with the volume as a whole in a critical way other than to say simply that most of the essays are excellent examples of scholarship (in my opinion, Boer’s article is the low point of the book). As a whole, the volume is highly recommended. The remainder of this review will summarize and/or evaluate each of the essays.

Detailed Review

Lester L. Grabbe, “‘Her Outdoors’: An Anthropological Perspective on Female Prophets and Prophecy,” 11-26

Grabbe gives a summary of the careers of a number of African and North American female prophets from the 18th-20th centuries and then makes five observations from these stories that, he suggests, could be helpful and even corrective in the study of female prophets in the Hebrew Bible. These five points are:

  1. The female prophets from his summaries are merely prophets who happen to be female. In most instances, there is no central sociological distinction between male and female prophetic roles. The main exception among his examples are the Madagascan tromba mediums who are all female and who occupy a unique place in their society.
  2. The prophetic and non-prophetic activity of a female prophet may be shaped by her gender, as among Shona women who only take on prophetic roles after menopause. Other female prophets continued to perform traditional female activities, like cooking and serving, even while providing prophetic leadership.
  3. Female prophets may assume roles typically associated with male leadership as a part of their prophetic status. For example, in several different African societies female prophets act as war leaders.
  4. Following on to his first observation, Grabbe highlights the all female prophetic leadership of the Sakalavas of Madagascar as an exception to the general rule that prophets are usually both male and female.
  5. Grabbe challenges the argument of I. M. Lewis that possession cults are a route for women and the marginalized to achieve social status. Rather, these cults are, according to Grabbe, sociologically central rather than peripheral.

Very briefly, Grabbe applies these findings to a survey of female prophets in the Hebrew Bible primarily as a call for new sociological models in the study of these prophetesses.

Martti Nissinen, “Gender and Prophetic Agency in the Ancient Near East and in Greece,” in Prophets Male and Female, pp. 27-58.

Nissinen’s article has two purposes. First, he presents a taxonomy of terms for prophets in the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, with special attention to the gender connotations of the terms. The second and more significant part of the article explores the idea of religious agency, a term he borrows from sociologist Laura M. Leming but applies specifically to prophecy as a religious experience and identity. Briefly, the idea of “agency,” as Nissinen uses it, has to do with authority and volition in a prophetic utterance. He distinguishes between, for example, divine agency (prophecy as an act of the deity) and human agency (prophecy as an act of the prophet). Under “human agency,” Nissinen distinguishes between instrumental (“prophets as passive intermediaries” – mouthpieces of the gods) and independent (“prophets as active agents”) agency and explores any connections gender has for agency, since, as he says it, “gender matrix precedes prophetic agency, not vice-versa.” He concludes that in cases of non-male prophets overall, instrumentality is emphasized more than independence (that is, the receiving audience is more concerned with validating the divine authority behind the utterance). Oracular prophecy, as opposed to technical divination (extispicy, for example), was received in such a way as emphasized the instrumentality of the prophet rather than the independence, and this appears to have opened the door for the acceptance of non-male prophets, who nevertheless, at least in Mari, were subjected to validating practices more often than male prophets. Under “divine agency,” Nissinen explores the impact of the deity’s gender on the reception of prophetic utterances. In most cases, the deity’s gender made no discernible difference. However, in the case of prophecies in the name of Ishtar in Assyria, there does seem to be some special connection between Ishtar’s femininity and the prevalence of non-male prophets.

It is only after much reflection and re-reading that I was able to understand Nissinen’s central concept of agency. His initial explanation is not especially helpful. The way he uses the term seems to be mostly consistent throughout the article, but I cannot see the connection between his quotation from Leming (from whom he claims to borrow the term) and the way he uses it. There is certainly no question of Nissinen’s mastery of the texts to which he is referring. Nissinen is acknowledged as an expert even among the experts in the subject of ancient Near Eastern prophecy. Furthermore, once I understood what he was saying, the subtle kinds of questions he is asking of his texts prove to be incisive and illuminating. My main critique of his article is the lack of clarity with regard to his use of the term “agency.”

Jonathan Stökl, “Gender ‘Ambiguity’ in Prophecy,” 59-79.

In direct dialogue with Martti Nissinen’s article, Stökl argues that the popular hypothesis that gender ambiguity and prophecy in the ancient Near East are intrinsically linked is not justified by the existing evidence. His two-part argument first examines the term “gender ambiguity” and then looks at the extant evidence for the supposed linkage between ambiguous gender and prophecy.

Stökl is critical of some scholarly use of the term “gender ambiguity” in relation to the ancient Near East because its starting point seems to be a Western European taxonomy of gender. The Western European attitude, according to Stökl, is unusually binomial. In the pre-scientific ancient world, for the purposes of one’s gendered identity, emphasis was placed more strongly on the role one performed in society rather than on one’s physical sex. Stökl’s discussion at this point is not always clear, not always helpful, and certainly not incontestable. But Stökl’s essential point, and it is a valid one, is that what we may observe as “ambiguous gender” cannot be shown to have been observed in that way by the original hearing/reading community: what is ambiguous to us may not have struck them as ambiguous, so too with things unusual or bizarre. Another important distinction Stökl makes (in this article and, more extensively, in his book Prophecy in the Ancient Near East) is between prophecy and ecstatic religion. The conflation of these two concepts is, in my own observation as well, unjustifiably rampant. There is often a connection between ecstatic religion and prophecy, it may even be true that prophecy most often comes from ecstatics, but the two concepts are not synonymous or coterminous. Stökl’s conclusion in this section is that there is a more marked connection between ambiguous gender and ecstatic religion than there is between ambiguous gender and prophecy.

The second half of Stökl’s article turns to the textual evidence upon which the hypothesis of the supposed connection between gender ambiguity and prophecy is built. It primarily consists of: 1) the mentions of persons called assinnu in texts from Mari and 2) the mention of three prophets in a single tablet from Neo-Assyria who are treated as females grammatically but whose names include masculine determinatives. With regard to the assinnus in Mari, Stökl argues that nothing in these texts points to makes an important semantic distinction. The assinnus of the Mari texts are prophesying, but Stökl considers this only incidental and not an intrinsic part of what makes an assinnu an assinnu. Rather, they appear to be some kind of ecstatic cult official, possibly connected to war dances, who could on occasion, like other cult officials, prophesy. Furthermore, the link between the assinnu and gender ambiguity is found in first millennium BCE texts, while the Mari texts date from the first half of the second millennium BCE. Even if gender ambiguity is read back into the Mari texts, the fact that assinus were not primarily prophets but ecstatic cult officials means that one cannot conclude from this evidence that there is an intrisic connection between gender ambiguity and prophecy in ancient Mesopotamia. The Neo-Assyrian evidence is also problematic. The texts connected to each of the three apparently female prophets do have some unusual grammatical characteristics, but these characteristics have plausible explanations that do not require these prophets to be trans-gendered or otherwise ambiguously gendered individuals. Stökl’s position that the evidence does not support an intrinsic connection between gender ambiguity and prophecy is well stated and well argued.

Ilona Zsolnay, “The Misconstrued Role of the Assinu,” 81-99

Zsolnay’s article essentially picks up where Stökl’s leaves off. One of Zsolnay’s central positions is that, rather than viewing the cult of Ishtar as one homogeneous thing, each of the various manifestations of Ishtar more likely had its own cult, so that the gender-bending cult of Ishtar should not be conflated with the obviously more martial cult of Ishtar found in other texts, times, and places. Assinnus, according to Zsolnay, should not be intrinsically connected to the bawdy Ishtar cult of Neo-Assyria. Even if they did play a role in it in first millennium Assyria, it is unlikely that they did in the Old Babylonian period (Mari) when they are specifically mentioned to have prophesied. Furthermore, their prophecy emerged more from their connection to a martial, rather than prophetic or bawdy, cult of Ishtar. This is attested numerous ancient texts from the second and third millennium BCE.

Neo-Assyrian evidence for assinnu gender-ambiguity and for its connection to a bawdy Ishtar cult comes from scribal logographic equivalence lists, lexical lists, and synonym lists. Zsolnay points out the problems associated with using these kinds of texts as a primary source for translation of terms. We have to assume 1) we understand the terms in these texts and 2) the scribes themselves understood the words they were writing down. The sparse context makes the former problematic, while the function of these documents (practice documents for those studying to be scribes) makes the latter problematic.

In several Sumerian and Old Babylonian texts, assinnu is equivalent to Sumerian saĝ.ur.saĝ, a heroic warrior. Zsolnay explores this by establishing a web of meaning of related words and their actual usage in texts and situating the assinu within that web. The assinnu may have eventually become conflated with other concepts like the kurgarru and the kalu, both connected to the martial cult of Ishtar, one wielding weapons, the other a singer of laments.

In the Mari texts, the assinu once again seems to be connected with war (specifically a war cult of Ishtar – the only deity to speak through an assinu in the extant texts), even though here it is in a prophetic role. Once again, though, their prophetic activity seems to be only incidental.

Anslem Hagedorn, “The Role of the Female Seer/Prophet in Ancient Greece,” 101-125

Hagedorn’s paper is primarily a survey of three famous female seers from Greek literature. It seeks through this survey to uncover a picture of the role and place in society of historical female seers not connected to noted temple or shrine (e.g. the Pythian oracle). This description does not account for the six introductory pages, wherein I was led to think that the remainder of the paper would be focused specifically on how ancient Greek female seers were criticized in ways that male seers were not. Thus, I have some trouble understanding the coherence of the paper as a whole, but the research and the conclusions from the body of the essay are very enlightening.

Antti Marjanen, “Female Prophets Among Montanists,” 127-143

Marjanen asks why women were able to assume leadership roles among the early Christian prophetic sect afterwards known as the Montanists. After surveying the textual and archeological evidence for female prophets among the Montanists, he begins to suggest reasons why female prophets, especially the historical figures of Maximilla and Priscilla, were able to be so prominent among the Montanists. Here his essay devolves into speculation and does not betray a deep interaction with sociological theory. For example, he suggests that the women must have had the right skill set or some kind of educational background that set them apart since the patriarchal ancient Mediterranean would not have allowed their exalted position otherwise. Not only is this an oversimplification of the ancient Mediterranean world, but he offers this suggestion without any textual evidence and without taking into consideration numerous sociological models where women play important roles in marginalized sects within a larger male-dominated society. There are many possible reasons for the prominence of women among the Montanists that have little to nothing to do with the special qualifications of those women. His following argument that the reason why women could have such a strong position among the Montanists was exegetical fails to convince, as well. The exact same biblical passages appealed to by the Montanists were held canonical by non-Montanist Christians, as well. In situations like this, texts act as ex post facto justifications rather than originating reasons. In order to ascertain historically why females were prominent among Montanists one would have to examine why females become prominent in marginalized religious sects in general, and this step is utterly lacking. Investigating the Montanist exegetical justification of and emphasis on female prophets among their ranks is certainly worthwhile, but there are problems Marjanen’s way of framing this investigation. Marjanen’s next section concerning the orthodox response to Montanism and its focus on women as a part of Montanism was more interesting and could have been longer.

Hanna Tervanotko, “Speaking in Dreams: The Figure of Miriam and Prophecy,” 147-167

Miriam is considered a prophet in biblical texts, but the specific activity that qualifies her for this designation is not entirely clear in those texts. Tervanotko does not consider the so-called Song of Miriam to be sufficient qualification. Using non-biblical texts as potential witnesses to traditions about Miriam possibly hinted at but not explicitly stated in biblical texts, Tervanotko reads Numbers 12 in light of a tradition that Miriam was a prophet who had dream visions and finds there some subtle evidence of that tradition. The method is interesting, though it would take a much more in-depth discussion to convince me of Tervanotko’s thesis, that is that Numbers 12 assumes Miriam to be a dreamer of visions specifically rather than just a prophet generically.

Esther Hamori, “Childless Female Diviners in the Bible and Beyond,” 169-191

Hamori sets out to demonstrate a connection in literary portrayals of female diviners between the woman’s activity as a diviner and the woman’s childlessness. She is specifically focused on literary portrayals, not on historical realities. According to Hamori, the fact that female diviners, wise women, and prophets in the Bible are not stated to have any children is more than coincidental—childlessness is a part of the standard literary portrayal of female diviners. Hamori makes a strong case that the Hebrew Bible tends to portray female diviners as childless. An important problem with Hamori’s argument, however, is that she contrasts this childlessness of female diviners with their male counterparts, calling it a “stark contrast.” This seems to me to be an overstatement. While there are some male prophets in the Hebrew Bible who are explicitly stated to have children (Moses; Samuel; Hosea; David, if he is counted; Isaiah is questionable), many if not most are portrayed as confirmed old bachelors (Jeremiah; Elijah and Elisha, the epitomic prophets in I and II Kings) or as childless married men (Ezekiel). The personal lives of most of the Twelve remain undiscussed in their texts. When children do show up, it may be either really conspicuous, as in Hosea’s case, or almost ignored/concealed, as in Moses’ case. Surely Hosea’s marriage and fathering of children cannot be taken as typical of prophetic depiction in the Hebrew Bible? No, childlessness among male prophets should probably be considered the literary norm, as well. While the male diviner/prophet-as-father is a more common occurrence in the Hebrew Bible than the female diviner-as-mother, the fact is that male prophets are far more common in the Hebrew Bible, period. Considering just how few female diviners are present in the Hebrew Bible, asserting that there is a special connection between the childlessness of female diviners and their femininity does not quite escape being a simple argument from silence. However, Hamori’s research can (and should) be easily and usefully expanded to include in consideration all diviners, female and male, and to investigate whether childlessness or single-ness is a typical part of literary depictions of prophets in general. The ancient Near Eastern textual evidence Hamori presents is inconclusive simply because, again, the depiction of male diviners is not sufficiently examined in order to provide an evidential foundation for Hamori’s asserted contrast. The modern sociological evidence is interesting, but it runs into a methodological problem: whereas Hamori starts with literary depictions and claims no interest in the historical realities behind the texts, the modern sociological evidence is not concerned with literary depictions but specifically with sociological realities. All this being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Hamori’s article and found it engaging.

Dale Launderville, “‘Misogyny’ in Service of Theocentricity: Legitimate or Not?”, 193-214

Launderville’s paper is an exploration of the attitude toward menstruation found in Ezekiel 36:17 and the Priestly law code (Leviticus 15). Performing a close reading of both texts, Launderville draws out some subtle differences in the two texts, showing how Ezekiel finds and justifies a metaphorical significance in the image of the menstruating woman. The paper is not without its weaknesses, specifically a recurring tendency toward psychologizing speculation, but overall Launderville makes a strong if complicated argument that Ezekiel’s use of the image should not be understood as misogynistic, since those male readers who would sympathize with a perceived misgyny in Ezekiel would, by that perception, exclude themselves from Ezekiel’s ideal (and redeemable?) readership—an fascinating example of a text reading its readers.

Roland Boer, “Spermatic Spluttering Pens: Concerning the Construction and Breakdown of Prophetic Masculinity,” 215-235

Boer’s general purpose is to explore the “earthiness” (or vulgarity) of biblical language relating to prophetic masculinity. Working with Marxist terms and concepts, one of Boer’s central motivating insights is that it is not just the content of a people’s language that uncovers their heart, it is the forms and structures of that language (he appears to mean primarily “semantics” or “semantic fields”). Boer may be correct about the male sexual imagery found in a hapax legomenon in Ezekiel 9, or about his other texts, but his own way of writing makes it difficult for me to read as a sympathetic reader. He is very quick to accuse scholars who do not observe what he claims to observe of misogyny. He is more concerned with contemporary philosophy than he is with exegeting his texts. He does not argue, to my satisfaction, that his vulgar reading of any text is the most likely way the implied audience of that text reads it. However, convinced that he is correctly receiving the connotative force of biblical language, Boer himself feels it necessary to lower the standard of his own language in order to communicate this “earthiness.” Whether or not Boer is justified in his choice, I find the trendiness of intentional vulgarity and obsession with the phallus in scholarship off-putting, to say the least.

Corrine L. Carvalho, “Sex and the Single Prophet: Marital Status and Gender in Jeremiah and Ezekiel,” 237-267

Carvalho’s contribution and Esther Hamori’s article from earlier in the volume work very well together, because both of them explore the relationship of a prophet’s marital/parental status and his/her status as prophet. Whereas Hamori’s article was concerned with the role of childlessness as a feature of the literary characterization of female prophets/diviners, Carvalho focuses on the depictions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as single—the former as one commanded not to marry and the latter as a widower—and the role that singleness plays in each book. The death of Ezekiel’s wife and God’s command to him not to publicly mourn (Carvalho here makes the correct distinction with private feelings) is parallel with the nature of God’s relationship with Jerusalem: destruction is coming, and God will not mourn it. According to Carvalho, the audience is shamed and God is exalted by this literary strategy. Much of Jeremiah, including Jeremiah’s singleness, functions to undermine the patriarchy of the implied readership. Carvalho’s paper is perhaps the most effective use of queer theory I have encountered and an outstanding end to the book.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: