Never let it be said that archaeologists studying Old Testament history lack a sense of humor.
Denise Dick Herr, an English professor at Canadian University College in Alberta, and Mary Petrina Boyd, a pastor in Whidbey Island, Wash., with a biblical doctorate, are part-time archaeologists who often join digs in the Mideast.
One day they conducted an experiment at a site south of Amman, Jordan. Nine women on their archaeological team climbed to the roof of an ancient two-story house and threw stones to smash watermelons on the ground below.
The purpose of their David Lettermanlike escapade? To prove the accuracy of Judges 9:50-57. The passage says an unnamed woman in Thebez, standing atop a tower from which defenders would typically aim objects at invaders, threw an "upper millstone" and crushed Abimelech's skull.
The watermelons were stand-ins for Abimelech's ill-fated head.
Herr and Boyd are amused that several Bible scholars, feminists among them, have written that Judges 9 was inaccurate. Such skeptics say a woman wouldn't have had the strength to lug a millstone to the top of a tower or that if the stone was already there, a woman might have dropped it over the side but couldn't have thrown it.
The watermelon derby to rebut the skeptics was described recently by Herr and Boyd in Biblical Archaeology Review, complete with photos.
The first of the modern female hurlers practically obliterated her watermelon, outdoing the ancient woman of Thebez, who seriously wounded Abimelech but left him alive. The Bible says the chauvinistic Abimelech then got a fellow soldier to finish him off with a sword thrust, lest people say a mere woman killed him.
Herr and Boyd complain that Abimelech's death is an all-too-typical example of biblical scholars endorsing skepticism without knowing enough archaeology.
For one thing, they say, ancient women were laborers who developed strength well beyond that of today's scholarly females joining part-time archaeological digs. The ancients carried water, lifted heavy stones for house-building, milked sheep and goats, made textiles and engaged in the strenuous daily "grind" of bread-making.
The chief mistake, they explain, was the assumption that the stone in Judges 9 was one of those monsters for mills powered by donkeys or teams of laborers. For practical reasons, such industrial-size millstones would have been kept at ground level, not in a tower. There was also a medium-size version, weighing around 27 pounds, that might have been lugged upstairs but couldn't have been thrown by one person.
However, those two models went in use nearly 1,000 years after the era of the biblical Judges, or even later.
No, the authors say, the woman of Thebez obviously was hurling the sort of household millstone that abounds at archaeological sites in biblical times. These loaf-shaped stones, usually of rough, black basalt, weighed 9 pounds at the most. (For the great Jordanian watermelon toss, a replica was used, not an ancient artifact.)
Also, the Bible specifies that the woman threw an "upper millstone." It was very common for women to make flour for their daily bread-baking chore by grinding a light, hand-held "upper millstone," which was easily held in one hand, against a larger stone below.
Though the biggest millstones wouldn't have been placed in a tower, archaeologists in 1994 found a 300-pound lower millstone that was used with one of these small upper millstones and apparently sat atop a two-story house.
These common implements were considered so vital in biblical culture that Deuteronomy 24:6 commands: "A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone's life in pawn."
Thus was vindicated the unnamed woman of Thebez, and the unknown biblical scribe who long ago wrote down her story for the ages.
Note: Biblical Archaeology Review, which is smartly edited to enlighten non-scholars, is highly recommended to explore such new finds in that field. Its sister magazine, Bible Review, similarly scans non-archaeological research.
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