“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.


“Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by Jon Levenson

Though published 1988, Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence” still breaths invigorating and lively words into the hearts and minds of modern readers who seek to understand Yahweh in the ancient context of creation. From the outset, he approaches the issue of God’s mastery over the universe from a Rabbinical Jewish perspective. That’s not to say that he only uses Rabbinic sources; rather, after observing the ancient Near East context of creation, he seeks to see how those ideas are reflected within Rabbinic literature. The first section of the book is structured around understanding how God is master in regard to creation, pointing out that it ultimately comes down to creation as “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order” (12). Following, Levenson explores the “character”, if you will, of Chaos through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, drawing out the role of Chaos in sustaining Order and the power and reality of unchecked evil. Of course, the religion of ancient Israel expects that, eventually, God will win in that final future battle. In other words, while God’s enemies last, “YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather he is the omnipotent cosmocrater only in potential” (38).

After briefly summarizing the previous chapters, he explores the later development of Israelite thought in regard to evil, which, based on Psalm 104, seems to be the development of God’s absolute power. However, in the midst of that absolute mastery over creation, evil is still persistent. Tracing strands important to his tradition, Levenson spends the next three chapters exploring the interrelations between seven days of creation, the temple as a microcosm of creation, and the driving purpose behind Sabbath. In synthesizing these observations, it’s observed that the cultic life of Israel was structured in such a way as to be Order within a world of Chaos. “It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence” (127).

Transitioning into more practical issues of this exploration of the persistence of evil and God’s mastery over the universe, Levenson briefly explores the dynamics of lordship and submission in regard to how God is omnipotent. Levenson suggests, based on his developed argument, that mankind is both autonomous and heteronomous to God. Importantly, he notes that there should be no distinction between the two as it was in the ancient world, no dichotomy. With that strand, he proceeds to explore and explain these two aspects of covenant, provided by God, in terms of obedience and argument. As he puts it, “an innocent sufferer makes just claims against God and, upon submitting and recanting, comes to know anew the justice and generosity of his lord” (155). Levenson concludes that too often people attempt to make life, creation itself, a anthropocentric issue; rather, it is a theocentric issue in which evil persists, but God maintains the Order.

Levenson’s unique approach to understanding creation and the persistence of evil in biblical thought is unique because it expands beyond the realm of theological traditions. It approaches Genesis on its own terms and follows the close ties between various aspects of biblical thought. Most importantly, though, he is clear about explaining why it matters for the average Joe. His study is not an ethereal work of scholarship that goes over the head of the reader. Rather, it is a down to earth and easy to grasp study of why Genesis matters and how any person should read it. For Jews and Christians, it explores the idea of how God is master, how God is omnipotent. For me, his study and conclusion were satisfactory because it answered questions that have rolled around in my mind for years, questions no person has fully answered.

In conclusion, Levenson’s exploration of the persistence of evil is an excellent read for any serious student of biblical studies, whether scholar, student, or lay person. Although it may be a challenge for the lay person, it is definitely worth the read, as it will further a solid understanding of Scripture and also provide spiritual nourishment for relating to God’s mastery over the universe. Of the plethora of biblical literature I’ve read, Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by far stands as the number one book to this day. It’ll be hard to find a book that has had such an impact on my very being.