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Explanations regarding the nature of Tamar’s activity, which I suggest may shed light on women’s religious experience in the Bible, are unsatisfactory. My purpose in what follows is to review the Bible and explore ritual acts recorded in incantation texts, letters, stories, and artifacts from surrounding cultures in the ancient Near East. Was habbiryâ a well known term which stood for some sort of divination, exorcism, and/or purification rite conducted in this case by a royal woman specially designated and trained who serves the royal family by order of the king? In searching for functionally similar behavior, I want to know: What are the nature and purpose of Tamar’s activity? What follows is a necessarily brief summary of my research so far.
The first possibility is raised by the term biryâ. In 2 Sam 13, the root brh
8 is used to designate preparation of the food (tabrenî) and the ceremony involved in making the food (habbiryâ) which Amnon expects to eat (‘ebreh). Words arising from brh in the Bible have to do with eating, but are specific for breaking a fast in a time of grieving or illness. Forms of brh appear only in 2 Sam 3:35; 12:17; 13:5, 6, 10; and in Lam 4:10. Another form, barût is found in Ps 69:22 as food for a mourner.9 David for example refuses to break his fast, lehabrôt, during mourning for Abner (3:35) and he will not eat, brh, bread during his seven day fast and prayer vigil for the ailing infant of Bathsheba (12: 17). In Lam 4: 10, children become the food (perhaps divination-offering), lebarôt, prepared by their desperate mothers during the siege of Jerusalem. These uses suggest that the word chosen to express eating in 2 Sam 13 includes a connotation beyond an ordinary meal.
The root has sacred connotations in Hebrew. Beriyt means covenant, perhaps arising from “binding” in Assyrian barû.
10 In the Bible beriyt commonly refers to being bound by the covenant with YHWH, but also by a covenant between humans (Gen 14:13; I Sam 18:3) and with death (Isa 28: IS, 18; 57:8).11 In later Jewish parlance there is a meal of comfort, called seûdat habra’â12 given to a mourner after the funeral. Biryâ may be related to beriyt, covenant. Conceivably this later custom was a restoration of some familial/tribal bond with the dead, a covenant meal prepared ritually by a woman.13
Though the divinatory meaning of brh is not common in Hebrew, it is among ancient Israel’s neighbors. In Akkadian, barû priests are diviners who inspect livers, and the related term biru, “divination,”
14 is conducted also by women who interpret dreams. Occult inquiry was known in Israel where reported practice is primarily about men. Priests, prophets, seers, and kings in ancient Israel drew lots, used the ephod, interpreted dreams and signs to divine YHWH’s will.15However, Barak (Judg 4), King Saul (1 Sam 28), and King Josiah (2 Kgs 22) learned the future by means of a woman. We may not assume that other people’s customs are identical to Israel’s; however, by exploring ancient approaches to healing we may apply to 2 Sam 13 a range of activities reflecting a frame of reference common to peoples of the ancient Near East.16
In Mesopotamia. besides priestly diviners, there are references to two types of women diviners who in particular are “approached in cases of sickness,”17 as is the case with Amnon. One passage reads, “We shall ask here the šã’litu-priestesses, the baritu-priestesses and the spirits of the dead …..”18 Elsewhere, the goddess of healing, Gula, sings in a hymn of praise of herself, “Mistress of health am I, I am a physician, I am a diviner (ha-ra-ku), I am an exorcist…..”19
Magic and medicine were one in the ancient Near East.