“Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature” by Esther J. Hamori

DivinationEsther J. Hamori. Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, pp. 288, $85.00 (Yale University Press).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

For the most part, scholars are aware that distinctions between “prophecy” and “magic” misrepresent the ancient world. Likewise, they are aware that prophecy is a subset of divination equal in status to the magic subset. As Hamori demonstrates, though, those distinctions have been ingrained into how males and females are understood in regard to divination. Recognizing this issue, Hamori provides analyses of the range of women in various types of divination throughout the Jewish canon and the range of depictions therein. So, while others have recognized the range of depictions, Hamori is the first to provide a comprehensive overview of the range of women of divination represented within the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter I establishes the primary trajectory of her work, namely to “color our view of the vastly complex, rich, and diverse world of ancient Israelite divination” (p. 8) based on a non-structuralist approach to divination and gender. Delving more into her methodology, Chapter II pushes strongly against structuralist tendencies to read the Hebrew Bible through a binary lens (i.e. religion vs. magic, men in public vs. women in private, male vs. females, etc.). Instead, she suggests reading biblical accounts of female diviners closely, in order to provide a nuanced reading the demonstrates the spectrum of views of women divination in biblical literature. Overall, her methodology is fantastic and programmatic to any future biblical studies relating to biblical literature, including extra-biblical literature (i.e. Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, etc.). It would be beneficial, though, if she could have identified the most significant books and articles in which structuralism and theological notions skew, and consequently misrepresent, the text.

Chapter III, exploring Rebekah’s character, approaches the drsh of Rebekah as divination, an act of inquiry, equitable to Isaac’s supplication, and draws parallels to Syrian birth omen divination texts to highlight her role as an omen, all-in-all exemplifying the importance of female divination to the narrative of Genesis. Chapter IV investigates Miriam and accomplishes two tasks: it cogently argues against the Song of the Sea as prophetic poetry by Miriam (1) and illustrates that the conflict between Moses and Miriam/Aaron in fact re-affirms Miriam as having access to divine knowledge, not a binary gender issue (2).

Chapter V highlights Deborah’s epiteth as “mother of Israel” to be reflective of her intermediator divination role and relates he role as a prophet as judge to Moses, not Miriam. Recognizing Christian and Jewish traditions of Hannah as a prophet, Hamori outlines Hannah and her actions in order to show Hannah and her actions are void of divination. Chapter VII pushes against tendencies to characterize the necromancer of En-Dor as an evil, sexual “witch”and instead argues for a more positive view of her as a diviner. Taking into account the divination roles of ‘wise men’ in Israelite literature and association of wise women with divination in the broad Near Eastern context, Chapter VIII argues that the ‘wise women’ of 2 Samuel act in an authoritative role associated with divinatory speech. Chapter IX emphasizes Huldah’s role as a prophet in which she has more divine knowledge than Josiah and, through examination of the Chronicler’s characterization of her and role in affirming the reformation, proves that gender is a non-issue.

Moving into prophetic and wisdom literature, Chapter X interprets the prophetess in Isaiah 8, Le-Maher Shalal Hash Baz, as one who has agency and acts with Isaiah in a prophetic role. Arguing on the basis of women divinators in Ezekiel 13, Chapter XI draws out how Ezekiel’s problem with them is not one of fake or idolatrous prophecy; rather, their prophecy and divination was a threat within Yahwism (like Jeremiah and Hananiah). Hamori, in reading the women of Joel’s vision, highlights what is not, namely everybody does not have the Spirit of God. On reading Noadiah, Hamori presents no conclusions due to the lack of evidence. Chapter XIV highlights the problem of assigning divination activities, such as the teraphim, to any particular gender, concluding that both genders practiced divination equally. Finally, on the other side of the divination spectrum, Chapter XV analyzes the late trope between female divination and sexual promiscuity in order to highlight the a more extreme picture of female divination in the Hebrew Bible.

Simply put, Hamori’s work is exquisite. She cogently highlights the variety of women in divination within the Hebrew Bible. More importantly, she breaks through the popular one-to-one association of women divination as a negative thing. While there is no denying that at moments women in divination are portrayed negatively, that is only one side of the spectrum. Hamori successfully provides descriptive analyses of various texts and vividly colors the range of views of divination. Being integral to how we understand divination in ancient Israel cultural imagination, her work will make a significant impact in how we understood gender roles within the ancient Near East.

One area she did not approach, though, is that of the Pseudepigrapha. While I have no thoughts as to how the Pseudepigrapha may have specifically complimented her analyses, I have no doubts that it would provide better insight into how the textual and socio-religious conditions may have led to and contributed to the relationship female divination = sexual promiscuity. In this vein, it opens an exciting new avenue for the reception of the Hebrew Bible. Although, while future studies may utilize Hamori’s work as a foundation for how they understand a non-structuralist approach to divination, they will likely have to take into consideration other cultural influences from the Hellenistic period.

In short, I highly recommend this work to any person. It is written for the non-specialist, so it is accessible to most people. One of the best qualities of the book is how she carefully avoids the idea of a true prophet vs. false prophet. Likewise, her argument deconstructing the poetry and songs of Miriam and Hannah as “prophetic indicators” will be informative to future analyses of these characters and texts. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

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