Friday, September 02, 2011

Women's orientation to work: part 3 - the tent peg

In the ancient world women harvested, threshed and ground grain as well as preparing and cooking meals. Women also cared for animals and carried water. Everyone worked. It's the same on a farm today. Rebecca cared for animals, and provided water for Eliezer's camels. This is the kind of work that all women were responsible for.

But women also specialized. Many were midwives and nurses, and a few were prophets, judges, musicians and queens. At least one woman built cities, 1 Chronicles 7:24, "His daughter was Sheerah, who built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah."

In times of crisis, women worked alongside men, repairing the walls of Jerusalem, Neh. 3:12, "And next unto him repaired Shallum the son of Halohesh, the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem, he and his daughters." Jael put a tent peg through the enemy's head. It was woman's work to set up the tents.

Woman's work was comparable to man's work. Both were physical and tiring, requiring strength and endurance. For those living a subsistence lifestyle, many tasks, those of both men and women, were repetitive and mindless. The goal was survival.

For those with wealth, there were different patterns. In Proverbs 31, the husband was a scholar or judge, and the wife was a business woman with a household of servants or slaves under her direction. Both held positions of influence and dignity. Among slaves, men and women both worked hard. But even then, among the poor there was specialization, some women adept at being midwives, others at composing songs, performing music and dancing. Women were known for their specialization, just as men were.

The children were not simply cared for. They worked alongside their parents. Young children were often cared for by grandparents as is the case in many cultures today. This frees up the mother to work at a wage-earning job and contribute financially to the family. Women in the Bible were not simply consumers of goods, and carers of children. They contributed economically to the family.

I am hardly advocating that we return to this state of affairs. I had a friend who grew her own wheat and ground her own flour. But she had the advantage of technology. I wouldn't want to work in the fields all day, or carry water on my head, or grind grain. But this is a large part of women in the Bible did. We can't all of us be judges, prophets and musicians.

One thing is clear, however. Women have an orientation to work. At least, they should have. Just as men should. Women need to work to provide for their family. The only catch is that they have to do this while also bearing and nursing children.

Women, like men, are driven to work. It is a part of being human. They are like men in this way. However, they are unlike men, in that they also have to figure out how to do this at the same time as reproducing.

A curriculum which contrasts men and women, and teaches that men have an orientation to work, and women have an orientation to nurture, is not honest. It does not prepare women for the reality of both work and children.

Unfortunately, not all women resolve the tension between working and bearing children. Some women never do have children, and other women stay home and restrict their work to caring for their husband and children. But many women have the opportunity, or the need, to combine an expanded working life with raising children. It is not always possible to control the pattern that your life will take.

The only thing we can say about a woman's life in the Bible and today for a certainty, is that it includes both an orientation towards nurturing and an orientation towards work.


Donald Johnson said...

Both men and women are to work and nurture. Genderizing these things is a mistake.

J. K. Gayle said...

To new testament believers, Paul, in the canon of the Holy Scriptures was inspired to write:

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners."
-- Romans 16, ESV

And Luke, so inspired, records how one woman worked alongside the man Paul, his co-worker, an equal in the exact same work:

" 1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade."
-- Acts 18, ESV

And another just kept her trade after making some transitions of other sorts:

"14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.' And she prevailed upon us."
-- Acts 16, ESV

Suzanne said...

I am going to get to Phoebe and Lydia by the long route. :)

Gem said...

Before birth control, many families were large. Perhaps, as you mentioned, grandparents helped care for children? Not my experience...

I have been pregnant 11 times, birthed 8 living children, spent 16 years of my life pregnant and nursing, and never lived near enough to any family to have any help with childcare. My husband worked a 40 hour/week job and came home and put his feet up. My job never ended. I was on call 24 hours a day and worked very hard 120 hours/week.

Yet I was not respected for that: not by my husband, not by my children. When I asked him to help with anything his response was "I work and you don't".

A couple years ago, I had a midlife crisis: my husband had an affair and I decided I needed to re-tool to be able to support my family should he decide to follow the little head to hell. I was considering an RN and to try the medical field, I got a job as a CNA in a nursing home. For 40 hours a week, I carried a patient assignment of 8-14 elderly, mostly incontinent alzheimer's patient. I bathed them, changed their diapers, took their vital signs, fed them, comforted them, transferred them from bed to wheelchair and back again...

Frankly, the very physically and emotionally demanding CNA work was a piece of cake compared to being the 24/7 mother of 8 (normal healthy active) children.

But it was the first time I felt any respect coming from my husband or my children. Suddenly my tasks were not taken for granted. If something was undone, I was not criticized and held up to corporate ridicule and contempt. Instead a teenage daughter would defend me and chip in to help.

Anyway, not sure why I am ranting, but Suzanne, you have to know that the work of a housewife/mother is not less valuable nor less strenuous than other work. In some cases it is far more strenuous. And its a shame not to give credit and affirmation where due.

Gem said...

PS. As far as "economic contributions to the family", I want to add something which goes largely unacknowledged. There are forms of "economic benefit" which do not come from going out to a wage paying job!

I engaged my children and myself in home fix-up projects. For awhile we homeschooled and we used to take out home improvement videos and books from the library and me and the children would tackle projects together. The first house, we refinished the attic. The second house, we built an addition. The third house, we added a bedroom in the attic. The fourth house, (this time my husband helped some), we converted an Amish farmhouse- inc electricity, plumbing, finished drywall, and installed hardwood floors (it only had subflooring).

I figure that my home improvement efforts, plus marketing and selling the real estate "By Owner" instead of using a realtor have increased our equity by at least 10K for every year of our 28 1/2 year marriage.

Plus, I was a prudent wife- I did not ever waste money on anything. On an income which- most years- was near or the poverty line for family size and qualified us for government assistance, we now own our own home and two rentals outright (no mortgages). My husband's grandmother said of me that I "pinch every penny until it screams!"

I told my husband if I die or if he decides the grass is greener with a young honey, there better be a pre-nup because I don't want this hard work and sweat equity going to the new honey. I want my children and heirs to benefit.

OK, now back to studying. I'm more than halfway done with my RN now, and the first exam of the semester is tomorrow...

Lin said...

JK, Let's add Luke 8 to that. Those women, like Joanna, were supporting Jesus our their own resources.

Suzanne said...


Rant away! I agree with your take. My mother worked incredibly hard at home, I have been at home, on and off, also over the years.

But in terms of hard cash input into the family, that greater society recognizes, the contemporary housewife is at a disadvantage. In the past, women could produce tangible goods in the home that could be traded.

I think your example of working on the house is an example of an economic hard cash enterprise, and should have been recognized as such.

I am trying to show the contrast between the blogging from some women about how they create a home, care for the children and support their husband and that's it. But the biblical woman, the traditional woman, had to learn many hard skills, and I assume that you did that in renovating.

I absolutely think that your work on the houses was hard economic input, but many women don't make that contribution, or are not encouraged to by the typical rhetoric which tells women that "men take initiative" and "women support."

That is where I think we agree with each other. Women had better take initiative or else. It is lie that we heard that our main goal was to be supportive and nurturing and that's about it. Life isn't like that for either of us.

Thanks for sharing what you are now doing. I know many women who work in that field.

Jim ~ Random Arrow said...

Jael! Yeah!

“ ... Most blessed of women is Jael, .. Most blessed is she of women in the tent. ... She reached out her hand for the tent peg, And her right hand for the workWOMAN’s hammer. Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head; and she shattered and pierced his temple.”

Moral of the story? - never trust an ambidextrous woman. Dexterously speaking, that is.

I had another Jael case intervention this weekend. Restraining order. Sheriff helped.

You do not negotiate with snakes.

You crush their 'heads.'

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