- Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context by Carol Meyers
In the preface, Carol Meyers explains that her original goal was to produce a revised edition of her 1988 book, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, but she quickly realized that the necessary changes were too numerous and substantial to constitute a simple revision. The present work is born of an exponential increase since 1988 in relevant research resources coupled with the opportunity for the author’s sustained, critical [End Page 133] reflection on her previous arguments and conclusions. The book is written in a consistently clear and often elegant prose that makes it eminently accessible for undergraduate students and thoughtful non-specialists alike, but is also essential reading for those with a professional interest in the opening chapters of the Hebrew Bible or the everyday lives of Iron Age Israelite agrarians.
Meyers explains her project in the first chapter as being “to recover the Eve of the Hebrew Bible, who may be radically distinct from the Eve depicted by the unsympathetic, if not misogynist, writings of influential figures like Paul or Rabbi Yohanan” (2), or indeed by traditional Christian and Jewish interpretation in general. Contextualizing Eve against the backdrop of the everyday experiences of ordinary Iron Age (circa 1200–586 BCE) Israelite women, and not the exceptional women of the Hebrew Bible, is crucial to this task. Due to this focus on reconstructing the lives of ordinary Israelite women, Meyers describes her approach as “a project of sociocultural anthropology” (14).
In chapter 2 Meyers discusses the three main types of evidence on which she draws: the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts, archaeological data, and anthropological studies. The usefulness of Hebrew Bible texts is compromised by several factors, notably the androcentric and urban elitist perspective of the biblical authors and the questionable historicity of many of the texts themselves. On the positive side of the ledger, Hebrew Bible texts sometimes disclose important aspects of social reality in the form of incidental details or background information. Archaeological data often prove problematic for Meyer’s task because, disproportionally, the sites selected for excavation have been large, walled settlements chosen for their alleged ability to shed light on biblical texts, and the types of structures favored for in-depth analysis center upon macro-level political and religious institutions. These foci have precluded adequate attention to the small, unwalled settlements and domestic spaces inhabited by the Israelite peasant class. These negatives have been ameliorated by the emergence of social archaeology, which includes an emphasis on gender and attention to households and their activities and interactions. Finally, anthropological research can provide evidence for reconstructing the lives of ordinary Israelite women by drawing on the subfield of ethnography, especially as practiced by feminist anthropologists. Meyers characterizes the approach she uses in Rediscovering Eve as “ethnohistorical” (37) because of its utilization of textual data in addition to ethnography and archaeology. [End Page 134]
Chapter 3 contextualizes the lives of ordinary Iron Age Israelite women (i.e., Meyers’s “Everywoman Eve”) in their physical environment. She presents the typical way of life as highland agrarian, comprising both livestock and crops. Producing the basics necessary for subsistence living entailed arduous and time-consuming labor and necessitated contributions from all household members, including the elderly, women, and children, and it is this “strenuous effort of all members of a household [that] provides the relevant context for looking at the Eve of the Genesis tale” (58).
In chapter 4, Meyers turns her attention to the biblical Eden story as she thinks it would have resonated in the context of the hardships entailed by the way of life described in the previous chapter, as well as divested of later interpretational accretions. She identifies the story’s literary genre as a creation myth that is heavily etiological and notes that “in linking causality to divine action, mythic etiologies function as sanctions for the present order [of, in this case, Iron Age Israelite agrarians]” (67). Meyers contrasts the description of Eden with the realities of agrarian life in the...