Seventh-century BCE Judah is not typically thought of as a hotbed of feminism. If the Hebrew Bible is to be believed, women were very much on the economic, social, religious, and legal margins of this society. The texts portray a society largely created by and maintained for men.
It turns out, however, that these texts do not tell the whole story. For seventh-century BCE Jerusalem, as for virtually all pre-modern societies, evidence for the non-male elite is sorely lacking; we often cannot know how the 90% lived. Yet every once in rare while a small window into their lives will emerge from the ground. For Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, this window often takes the form of a tiny lump of clay that somebody has stamped with his – or her – seal. The seals themselves rarely survive, but we already have an impressive number of stamps that were often used to mark ownership and validate legal documents that have long since crumbled to dust.
Not long ago I happened to stumble across the publication of one of these seal impressions, or bullae, that was made by a woman. It was the first time I had encountered a seal impression of an Israelite woman, and I was unsure what to make of it. What kind of woman in this society would own a seal? In a wealthy family, would both a husband and wife possess a seal, or are we necessarily dealing with single (or widowed) women? Does possession of a seal, which often belonged to scribes, imply literacy, and if so, how would a woman at this time have been educated?
I don’t think that we have an answer to these questions, but now I have discovered some further evidence that suggests that women were far more involved in public roles in the Kingdom of Judah than the biblical texts would lead us to suspect. The following excerpts come from a publication of a seal that belonged to a woman named Hannah, and can be found in Nahum Avigad, “A Note on an Impression from a Woman’s Seal,” Israel Exploration Journal 37 (1987): 18-19:
We know from archaeological evidence that Israelite women in the biblical period owned seals. A dozen or so of them have been found, and it has been inferred from this evidence that Israelite women had the right to sign legal documents, a fact which is not apparent from the biblical sources.
[This seal] proves that Hannah, the owner of this seal, was involved in a business enterprise. She stamped jars which apparently contained some liquid merchandise such as oil, wine, or the like. She probably acted in the capacity of a private estate owner marking the container of her products with her name, or else as a functionary in the service of some other estate.
Was Hannah a seventh-century BCE Gluckel of Hameln, that is, a woman who against expectations can be found running a business and fully able to look out after her own affairs, thank you very much? We are very unlikely to discover the answer to this question. We can, however, be reasonably confident that Hannah was not the only Judahite woman involved in commerce in her time and that our understanding of Judahite society must include room for her and her sisters.