More often than I am asked how I as a scientist can be a Christian, I am asked how I as an educated woman can be a Christian. After all, the questioner generally continues, Christianity oppresses women. Unfortunately we don’t have to look far to find appalling evidence for this view at the extremes. But even in churches closer to the center there is evidence that can be used to support this position. All we have to do is look at the ongoing leadership wars and sift through the arguments that are used. Some rest solely on “roles,” but many wander into the nature of our being. Some will claim that it is a violation of natural law for women to have a position of authority over a man – in church, family, or secular occupations.
Over a series of posts I would like to offer a perspective on the issue and put some ideas up for conversation. We will start, as is always wise, with Scripture. Not with propositions and commands, but with the story as it is told. In the first two posts, I will look at the way women are portrayed in Scripture, today the Old Testament. The next post will focus on the New Testament.
The Old Testament.The ancient Near East, ancient Israel, first century Galilee, Judea, and the Greek and Roman world were patriarchal cultures. This culture is reflected in the text, including some of the laws. Most of the active characters are men. Still, biblical women were not passive wives and mothers staying in the background. Nor were they condemned for their actions (except for the same kinds of failures that condemned men). Over the last year or so I have taken note of the various descriptions of women in the Bible as well as their occupations and accomplishments. It is quite an amazing variety, and I doubt I have them all here. If there are other specific Old Testament examples that should be included, add them in a comment.
Prophet, Musician, Leader
Listen to what the LORD says:
I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
also Aaron and Miriam. (Micah 6:1, 4)
The Micah reference surprised me when I heard it – Miriam, like Moses and Aaron was sent to lead. According to the prophet, this is what the LORD himself says.
Imperfect (but so was Aaron and even Moses – as a result he didn’t enter the promised land)
Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the LORD heard this. (Numbers 12:1-2)
Miriam was a prophet, sent to lead along with her brothers, … and the LORD had spoken through her.
The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, … The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. … Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”
So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.”
“Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter.” (Numbers 27:1-8)
Elements of the patriarchal culture here to be sure, but the inheritance went to daughters before their uncles and other male relations. This is significant.
Prophet, Judge, Leader
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” (Judges 4-5)
A prophet leading Israel. That this is because no man would step up is a downright ridiculous response. God had no trouble appointing judges and prophets. The majority were male, but not all, not Deborah.
Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. (Judges 4:17-21)
No shying away or fear of getting her hands dirty.
A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife’s name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings—he was a Calebite.
…Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, “Go on ahead; I’ll follow you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. … David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. (1 Samuel 25)
Not only a wise peacemaker, but a woman willing to defy her husband to do what was right.
The descendants of Ephraim:
… His daughter was Sheerah, who built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah. (1 Chronicles 7:24)
Just a matter of fact statement as part of a genealogy. But surprising when we are told what we should think about women in the ancient world.
Prophet of the Lord
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.
She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. …
So they took her answer back to the king. (2 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 34)
Note, that as with Miriam and Deborah, a woman as prophet speaking the word of the LORD is just a matter of fact. No big deal, nothing that needs additional explanation. The priest goes to her as he should.
Prosperous, Wise, Businesswoman
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue. (Proverbs 31:10-31)
Some look at this chapter and despair – but I think it portrays a competent woman who is a partner in her family and influential in the community.
Powerful Knowledge Seeker
When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. (1 Kings 10, 1 Chronicles 9)
Daring Protector of God’s Servants
So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. … But the woman took the two men and hid them. … She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. … Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. (Joshua 2)
Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the Lord before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. Go to the flock, and get me two choice kids, so that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he likes; and you shall take it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” … Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob. (Genesis 27)
The story of Rebekah is interesting in other ways as well. In Genesis 24 she met a stranger (Abraham’s servant) alone at the well while getting water and had right of refusal to go with Abraham’s servant or not.
Of course not all examples are exemplary (although neither are all the men, as we all know). Here are two of the most notorious.
Power Hungry Schemer
His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” (1 Kings 21 … but I could have picked other Jezebel examples)
A well matched wife for Ahab was she!
Ruler (not exactly a righteous one, but then neither were most of the men)
Now when Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family. But Jehosheba, King Joram’s daughter, Ahaziah’s sister, took Joash son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king’s children who were about to be killed; she put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Thus she hid him from Athaliah, so that he was not killed; he remained with her six years, hidden in the house of the Lord, while Athaliah reigned over the land. (2 Kings 11, 2 Chronicles 22-23)
By the way – there is a daring protector of a rightful heir in this story as well.
Back to better role models (maybe).
One Night Stand Becomes Queen … and saves her people.
When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion (Esther)
There are elements of the book of Esther that my Sunday School teachers glossed over … I don’t know about yours. Esther wasn’t taken to the king to be his bride, she was taken to be his one night stand, and found favor with him. Still, she is the hero of the story.
Lover (no passive recipient here)
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you. (Song of Songs)
The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon is quite the book. Not what we’d expect from the bible or from what we are taught about “biblical womanhood.”
What does this summary tell us?
Women in the Old Testament are multidimensional people capable of almost anything, good or bad. They can and do take center stage at times. Although leadership roles are rare, they are not considered worthy of special comment when they occur. Excuses don’t need to be made.
The images are various artist’s renditions of these women. They generally tell us as much or more about the culture of the artist than that of the OT story.
Any other examples to add?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
Added: Commenters have suggested Ruth (Book of Ruth) and Tamar (Genesis 38) as additions. Both are in the genealogy of David and thus Jesus. Both Ruth and Naomi are portrayed as active, thoughtful and resourceful women. Tamar faced down the injustice of her father-in-law and took matters into her own hands. We might have moral questions about her actions – but Judah notes “She is more righteous than I.” (v. 26) Bathsheba is also a possible addition – in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew.