The Great Communicators – Sophereth and the Female Guilds of the Old Testament

INTRODUCTION

“Every woman has a story and every woman’s story matters to God.”

Who wrote the Bible?

The tendency is to assume the great figures of the Bible are also the authors. For instance, Moses, the great leader and prophet, wrote the first five books of Scripture. Similarly, Joshua wrote the book named after him; as did others such as Esther, Ruth, Solomon, and the great prophets of the Old Testament. While this is certainly a simplistic approach to a difficult question, when it comes to the authors of the biblical texts, this is hardly the case.

The word of God in Scripture bursts forth in community, via individual and collective experiences of joy and pain; triumph and sorrow; comprehension and chaos, and the sacred and secular encounters of a diverse group of ancient people, seeking, at times, a holy God, through the sacred written Word.

“God’s revelation comes through prose, poetry, narrative, history, genealogies, prayers, hymns, letters, sermons, apocalypses, and other forms.” (IVP Women’s Commentary) – pg.xiv

The question of biblical authorship is a wildly debatable and lively one; with theories presented by contemporary learned men and women, who are attempting to answer this plaguing an on-going question. For our discussion, we will work to eliminate one of the most prevalent misconceptions about the authorship of Scripture: The idea that women had no hand in writing the ancient texts we read, study, and know as the Bible.

The Historical Context

From the Harper Collins Study Bible: “The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are our most important source of evidence for the history of the early postexilic period, from 539 to 430 B.C.E. These writings bear the names of the two best known leaders of the Jewish community of those years, Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor; both of whom were active in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. The books of Ezra -Nehemiah are a historical narrative of the restoration of the Jewish people to its homeland.” (pg. 324)

In the Ezra text for our consideration, King Cyrus commands the Jews to return to their homeland, resume their way of life, and restore the Temple after a seventy year period of exile in the land of Babylonia (70 years of exile is traditionally accepted from the book of Jeremiah). We imagine the Jews come back to their homeland, the same people; however, this was hardly the case. Like any nation captured, and their way of life seized by their captors; Israel was colonized and changed by the land and the people they lived with for three generations.

In the land of Babylonia, the Jews would be exposed to the culture and traditions of a different people. Their exodus back to their homeland was epic, as outlined in the first chapters of Ezra. This history was also recorded, i.e., written down. This task, in part, was the responsibility of a “scribe.” Needless to say, it was a most important vocation/occupation.

WHAT WAS A SCRIBE and WHAT DID SCRIBES DO?

The first skill set of an ancient scribe, of Near Eastern origin, was one who was capable of reading and writing. In the ancient Near East, local scribes were largely learned men, who copied documents and contracts for governmental officials. The scribal profession was oriented towards preserving tradition, including the tasks of managing legal documents, and even political and religious brokering. (Ezra 7: 6-7). Like an ancient secretarial pool, the scribal class was an established, educated guild, who was often in service to kings and important religious/political administrators. Scribes needed to be multi-lingual, and like Ezra, they often served dual purposes to instruct and guide the people of their nation.

In both texts, Ezra 2:55 and Nehemiah 7:57, the name “Hassophereth (Sophereth) literally translates to “female scribe” or “she who writes.” More importantly, Hassophereth/Sophereth was not writing by herself; but, instead, she was writing in community – better understood as a scribal guild. Oftentimes these guilds were gender based; men wrote with men and for men; and women wrote with and for women. So, while the male scribes wrote for kings and important administrators, the female scribes oftentimes wrote for queens and female administrators. Just as male scribes worked for powerful and privileged men, so did the female scribes. This was the usual occurrence; but not completely so. (Huldah is an example of exception).

Like Huldah, the scholarly Torah teacher and interpreter, who was given the Torah scroll to decipher for King Josiah, this woman, Sophereth, was also a scribe. “This educated woman may possibly be the earliest record of a female scribal tradition in Judaism. Her descendants are listed as some of those who returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile. She was the head of a family or guild whose descendants returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia.” (Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible.” – page 91-92)

Her life informs us ancient women of Israel were not monolithic. Certainly, the majority of women in ancient times were relegated to the home and domestic duties; yet, there were communities of professional, educated women who were recording history; interpreting ancient writings, record keeping, and even assuring the survival of their people, through the story pages of what we now know as Holy Scripture. Their hand upon holy Scripture breaks the myth that men exclusively wrote the Bible, with women having no part in writing down, or interpreting the sacred texts, which we know and love.

These female guilds, including musical, prophetic, scribal, and medicinal (breastfeeding and midwives) companies, included “The Devoted Ones or the Nethinim,” (Ezra 2:43-50) returned home from Babylonia, bringing their culture and traditions of Israel, as kept in Babylonia, with them.

The Great Communicators

“The Lord gives the command. The women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host.”
Psalms 68:12(NASB)

Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news,
Lift up your voice mightily,
Oh Jerusalem, bearer of good news;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
(NASB)
Isaiah 40:9

What do these verses signal to us in Scripture? What are we to make of “the women who proclaim the good tidings?” Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi (Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles) suggests: “the female guild in the Hebrew Bible with the closest correlation to the scribal guild is the guild of women who proclaim good news.” (Daughters of Miriam – Women Prophets in Ancient Israel – pg. 129 – Wilda C. Gafney)

These ancient female voices brought glad tidings of victory to the ancient world. In association with the New Testament idea of salvation, connecting to the prophesy of Jesus in the New Testament, the female guilds of the Old Testament lifted their voices to proclaim the messianic message of the coming of the Redeemer King in the book of Isaiah. Their collective voice was used to declare victory, either in battle, or by way of the birth announcement of an important child. Their sacred commission, either way, came from the Lord. Some scholars suggest these women were the “preachers/evangelists of the Old Testament.” As the psalm suggests, “the Lord gives the command and the women who proclaim the good news are a great host.”

Luke appropriates this idea of “good/glad tidings” in the birth narratives of Jesus, when the Evangelist places the message of good tidings (Jesus’ birth) in the mouth of an angel: Luke 2: 10-12. Matthew also does the same: Matthew 1: 20-21. Conversely, in the last pages of these two gospels, the message of salvation is given to that of women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary in Matthew; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and other women in Luke). The glad tidings (Good News) of the resurrection of Jesus, comes from the mouth of a New Testament female guild. Matthew 28:10; Luke 24: 8-11)

The circle is completed and humanity is redeemed, partly through the communication of women, who God specifically chose to bring glad tidings. Women, made in the image of God, are a critical part of the “Good News” from the Old Testament, both written and spoken, to the New Testament, where women declare, “Jesus is Risen!” From Hassoreth, to the female guild in the book of Luke, God can and will use women to tell THE STORY – the Good News found in God’s Holy Word – The Bible.

Sources Used for this Study:

“Daughters of Miriam – Women Prophets in Ancient Israel” – Wilda C. Gafney
“HarperCollins Study Bible – New Revised Standard Version
“The Women’s Bible Commentary” – Carol A. Newsome
“Women in Scripture – A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament.” – Carol Meyers, General Editor

Questions for our discussion and consideration

How can we as contemporary female guilds, be used by God like the women communicators of the Old and New Testament?
As a colonized people, in what ways can we decolonize ourselves? How does this serve to bring us spiritual victory?
Does knowing that women had “a hand” in writing the Bible, change your perspective about Scripture? Explain.

Our Sending Prayer

O Holy and Loving God,
Lead us, your daughters, to the deep wells of faith sustained by our Elders, our Mothers, and our Fathers.
Help us, Oh God, to remove the stumbling blocks of doubt and fear that seek to detour us from our destinies.
Help us, Oh God, to be filled with hope; for the doors are already open that You have prepared for us.
As we walk with You, let us be thankful and grant us the heart of service to love our neighbor,
And serve Your Kingdom.
We pray this prayer to the One who was the Way, is the Way, and shall be the Way.
In the blessed name of our Christ, Jesus – Amen!

“The enclosed materials are the property of Maxine E. Garrett and Tabitha’s Daughter Bible Empowerment Series. They may be used by you with our permission, which may be revoked at any time. All copies of the materials must include the following notice: “This material is Copyright [2017] Maxine E. Garrett and Tabitha’s Daughters and is distributed with permission.”

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