Off the Cuff: Susan Ackerman, professor of religion, Jewish studies and women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth College


Susan Ackerman, Preston H. Kelsey Professor of Religion and professor of Jewish studies and women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth College, who gave a series of talks earlier this week during the Haskell Lecture Series

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

Susan Ackerman is the Preston H. Kelsey Professor of Religion as well as a professor in Jewish studies and women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth College. Ackerman is also president of the American Schools of Oriental Research. She spent the past week at Oberlin giving three lectures that made up this year’s Haskell Lecture Series, a prestigious lectureship for the Religion department that was established in 1899. Ackerman has written books about a variety of topics, including When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David, Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth Century Judah and Warrior, Dancer, Seductress and Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel. Ackerman specializes in the religious traditions of ancient Israel and its neighbors.

How do you approach using the Bible as a historical source?

My interests throughout most of my career — which you can probably tell from my gray hair has been a long one — has generally been the people or the religious behaviors that the biblical writers were either not interested in or actually didn’t like. For instance, my interest in women stems from [the fact that] the biblical writers just weren’t interested in women. It’s a very male-dominated document. … I’ve been interested also in religious behaviors that the biblical writers didn’t like. I drew mention last night that I had worked on child sacrifice, and not surprisingly, that’s not something the biblical writers were really fond of, so that’s why I’ve been interested in it. What that means in terms of my attitude towards the Bible is that I do take it as a historical source, and I take it as a product of ancient Israel between roughly 1000 and 200 BCE. But I’m always trying to read it with a grain of salt. If the biblical writers were interested in it, I’m always trying to read the undercurrents. If they were railing against it, I always try to think, “Well, why were people doing that?” I always try to read it against the grain.

In the lecture last night, you mentioned briefly that many female deities in ancient Israel were turned into male deities over time. What prompted that change?

I think certainly in the Israelite tradition, one of the things that leads to that is the notion that there’s only going to be one god; it’s going to be the God of Israel, who they call Yahweh, and they understand that God is male. But they’re coming out of a world that’s completely polytheistic. So one of the things they have to do is somehow figure out how to take that polytheistic worldview with that large pantheon of deities and collapse it into monotheism. One of the ways they do that is take all the attributes that would have belonged to all the gods of a pantheon, and they assimilate them into that one male deity. And that’s how you get these occasional verses in the Bible that talk about Yahweh giving suck to his people or giving birth to his people. Those are very maternal goddess images, but if you only have one god, that god has to do it all.

Why were women thought of as the “guardians” against demons in pre-monotheistic Israelite religion?

I think it’s because guardian figures are by definition intermediary figures. You’re between the great gods and the human beings. You’re between the supernatural world and the profane world. You’re by definition intermediary figures. And one of the ways we see this play out in ancient tradition is that if you don’t have women, one of the guardian figures you have are actually absolutely unambiguously intermediary. So you can have guardian figures that have the body of a bull and the head of a human and have wings. Is it a bird, a mammal or a human? It’s between all those things.

Women, I think, are read by the ancients as intermediary figures. I suspect for some of the ancients they’re not fully human, as fully human is male. But they’re certainly not gods. So I think they function well in that kind of intermediary space because they themselves are read as intermediary figures.

You talked about how mirrors in the ancient Middle East were thought of as weapons to ward off demons, not just as a tool to see oneself. What other examples have you found in your career of objects that have a very different meaning to ancient peoples than they do for us?

In my last lecture, I’m going to talk about drums. And one of the things I’m going to argue is that they used drums in certain ways just as we use drums, in processions and things like that, but I’m going to argue that they also used drums as a way of scaring away demons. Demons have supersensitive hearing, and then if you bang on a drum repeatedly and really loudly, demons will run away.

The other way I’ve thought about this, which is not so much about objects, is to think about how emotional expressions are used in the Bible. To give you one example, in the Bible, with remarkably few exceptions, men love women but women are never said to love men. Women can love their children. God is said to love Israel, but Israel is actually never explicitly said to love God. And I suspect that the reason for all of this is that, whereas we think of love as [a] very mutual relationship, and a relationship between equals, and one that is mutually expressed between two loving partners, they thought of love hierarchically, as superiors love inferiors.

It seems like concepts of demons are pretty widely held in ancient religions. Do you have any thoughts on why that’s the case?

I think some of these are perfectly logical. They do not have the repertoire of answers for explaining why bad things happen. Why do I have this horrible cold? Well, I can explain that I teach in a college community where students live in residence halls that are simply incubators of germs, and then they come into my office, and they generously and graciously share their germs with me, and I get this horrible cold. But the ancients don’t have germ theory, they don’t have that kind of explanation, so they have to resort to different kinds of explanations to explain why bad things happen. Demons is a very common one. Why is someone ill? Why are there sudden and unexplained deaths? In the ancient world, giving birth was an incredibly dangerous proposition for women. As many as one in two children may have died in childbirth or shortly afterwards. It was a dramatically perceived danger that your newborn child is going to be snatched away, and they, almost without exception, described that as snatched away by a demon.

Do you think that this concept of demons has in any way influenced Judaism?

Sure. One of the places we most commonly see it is if we read the stories of one of the world’s most famous Jews, Jesus. Jesus is constantly excising demons from people who come to him begging to be healed. There’s very clearly a widespread belief in Jesus’ world that you’re inflicted with demons.

But I’ll tell you one that interests me that comes down into the modern period: If you go to a Jewish wedding, the very last event of a Jewish wedding is that the groom takes a wine glass and stomps it under his foot. It’s a great moment in the wedding, since it signals that that’s the end of the wedding and everyone applauds. If you ask the rabbi who’s officiating at the wedding, he’ll tell you that it’s because even though weddings are really joyful occasions, we want to remember some of the sad events of Jewish history, especially the destruction of the great Jewish temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Smashing the wine glass is a way of reminding ourselves of the sorrows of our past, even in the moment of our greatest happiness. It’s all very sweet, it’s very hokey — it’s just wrong. If you go back and look at medieval traditions where they write about smashing this glass, which they did, it’s because demons are greatly attracted to occasions of happiness. Demons hate human happiness. So demons want to come screw up human happiness and show up in abundance at weddings because it’s a very happy moment for human beings. So how do you get rid of demons? Again, demons are scared of sudden loud noises, so if you smash a glass, the demon will flee. But to me it’s fascinating that that tradition carries down into modern Judaism without really anybody in the community understanding what the roots of that tradition are.