Biblical Women: Creative/Positive Role Models
Each week I ask myself why I’m spending this time on women’s stories from the Bible. Why do I think this is important? Is it actually important?
I do think so. For one thing, women’s stories are everywhere in the Bible. We don’t realize that. We don’t realize it because pastors haven’t preached on them. The Revised Common Lectionary which is followed in most mainline churches, doesn’t cover them. Even the two books in the Bible that are named after women, Ruth and Esther, don’t make yearly appearances in the preaching schedule. There are 189 women named in the Bible. There are also scores of women known only as the wife of, or mother of, or the woman. That’s not a problem if their stories were regularly incorporated into the life of the church, but they have not been. We have not been properly introduced. Even now, I am picking out just a few to represent the whole. I’d like to say women have been left out of the preaching cycles by accident because… well… that’s the problem. Why? There’s no good reason outside of patriarchy. They do have significant parts in scripture, but too often, the women who make it into sermons have been misrepresented or chosen as examples of sinfulness (following the traditional interpretation of Eve as the original temptress) not chosen for positive examples of faithfulness.
Also, I am the first female pastor here. This congregation was founded in 1873, women began to be ordained in the Lutheran church in 1988, and mine is the first female voice interpreting Scripture that has been officially and consistently heard here. I think that is important to recognize, to realize that hearing scripture written by males from a patriarchal society then interpreted by males in a still somewhat patriarchal society, has created an expectation of what we hear and how we hear it. Illustrations, imagery, ideas are bound to be different when a woman is telling a story than when it’s being ‘mansplained.’ (Sorry, but you can’t deny it happens.) Interpreting and teaching the word of God, helping my congregation develop an imagination for scripture so that you can hear it spoken to you, relevant to all of our lives, is in my letter of call. For thousands of years, women’s voices were silenced by the church. As I said before, that limits all of us, male and female, in imagining the ways God works through our lives, and in hearing the possibilities of God being known. The gospel (good news) did not begin with Jesus, but with God intervening, ‘coming to earth’, in real people’s lives – for hope and healing and wisdom – from the beginning of our human awareness of self and other.
So, today we hear of four clever women who made their made their voices heard – even though they aren’t always given dialog. Each story highlights the power differential between women and the men around them. Each woman used the power available to her in an effort to make a difference for herself or her people. In the fascinating world of thrones and scepters, opulent palaces and kingly caravans that we enter, the voices of women also arise for justice and compassion.
Puah and Shiphrah: Exodus 1:8-21
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour. …13The Egyptians became ruthless …14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
15 The Pharaoh said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
Certainly, Pharaoh’s edict was meant to instill fear and to force compliance, his oppressive authority was legendary. Who are two simple midwives in the face of such power? But Puah and Shiphrah, feared and loved God, not the Egyptian king, and chose life for those around them. They are the only women in Exodus to act in an overtly political sphere having direct contact with Pharaoh. The irony of this story is that females were considered of such little consequence as to be no threat – newborn girls could live. And yet ultimately, the Pharaoh’s plan of control was thwarted by women. As those who aid birth, Puah and Shiphrah are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation. Their work reveals the connection between transformation and risk in matters of justice – although the means by which they rebel against Pharaoh repeats the biblical pattern of female deception, they used the power they had – and their quick wits are are perhaps the spark of a divine image within them.
Queen of Sheba: 1 Kings 10:1-13
In the opening of Solomon’s story, he chose wisdom over wealth and honor, gaining the favor of God, though God then promised riches and honor as well. Wisdom is represented in Hebrew scripture as a female, who teaches young men to stay away from foreign (strange) women and follow the wise woman to wholeness and a thriving life. King Solomon’s wisdom is proven by his ability to bring order and justice to the chaos represented by two prostitutes – strange women – in the wisdom genre, when he solves the dispute of which one is the true mother. Now, the Queen of Sheba comes to test him with riddles – a form of speech that is crucial to the wisdom tradition. The Queen is Woman Wisdom cast in narrative form. True to her role, she fulfills God’s earlier promise by bringing the riches and honor that should accompany Solomon’s choice for wisdom. She is also, paradoxically, a strange or foreign woman, so it is important that Solomon should best her by answering her riddles and, after all due ceremony, see her on her way.
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. 2She 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. 3Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. 4When the Queen of Sheba had observed all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, 5the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his valets, and his burnt-offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.
6 So she said to the king, ‘The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, 7but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard. 8Happy are your wives! Happy are these your servants, who continually attend you and hear your wisdom! 9Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.’ 10Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
13 Meanwhile, King Solomon gave to the Queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed, as well as what he gave her out of Solomon’s royal bounty. Then she returned to her own land, with her servants.
The story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon is an exotic tale, you might say erotic as well. Legends abound about the great affair these two had during her stay in Jerusalem. Ethiopian kings trace their lineage to the union between them. Given that Solomon, by reputation had 1005 wives and concubines, his attraction to foreign women, and both the queen’s charisma and the awe in which she held him, it is not difficult to believe they exchanged more than gifts and clever words. He did, after all, fulfill every desire that she expressed. The Queen of Sheba likely resembled the queenly maiden so sensuously described in the Song of Solomon – black and beautiful, stately as a palm tree, her neck encircled with strings of jewels, her skin fragment with oil, her hair flowing locks. The story of her bold visit is recorded twice in Scripture. She traveled from western Arabia, an arduous journey of some 1200 miles over mostly desert terrain, with a caravan laden with treasures. Known as a clever woman, she went all that way to test the king’s wisdom, to see if stories she had heard about him were true. She spoke her mind. She posed her riddles. An example from a Jewish legend says, “The Queen said, “Seven depart, nine enter, two pour, one drinks.” And Solomon replied, “Seven days is the period of a woman. Nine months is her pregnancy. Two pouring is in reference to her breasts, one drinking is the baby.” The Queen of Sheba had enough poise to visit a faraway king and match wits and wealth with him. She is an example of womanhood that is daring, self-confident, and sensual. The Queen of Sheba was a woman at ease with herself, her power, and with her world.
Vashti: Esther 1:1-21
This morning’s last story occurs in the days of King Aha-suerus who ruled over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. 2In those days when the King sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, 4while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.
5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of marble, mother-of-pearl, and coloured stones. 7Drinks were served in golden goblets and the royal wine was lavished in accordance with the bounty of the king. 8Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. 9Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Aha-suerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11to bring Queen Vashti, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
13 The king consulted the sages: 15‘What is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of the King?’ 16Then said one Memucan, in the presence of the king and the officials, ‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Aha-suerus. 17For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Aha-suerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” 18This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Aha-suerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.’
21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; 22he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
Her husband was the most powerful monarch in the world at the time. His wealth was legendary – as were his parties. He had expensive taste, and he clearly enjoyed flaunting them. He also had the power and the wealth, as well as the people in his service, to get his way in all matters. But then there was this woman. Vashti. His queen. She decided it was not in her best interest to parade before a hall of lustful, raucous, drunken men, even if the king commanded it, and she refused.
Even today, we can feel the tension and horror of that moment. The king had boasted, had called for his wife, and she did not come. All eyes in the banquet hall were on him, and surely all of the women’s eyes were on Vashti. Her refusal was perceived by the men as a grave threat to the dominance of every husband in the kingdom.What if other women got the same idea, that they could deny their husbands? What if noble ladies begin snickering behind the backs of the king’s officials? What if men were no longer in control? Well, indeed, there would be no end of contempt and wrath! Something had to be done. The king and his courtiers are in a panic before the calm strength of Vashti. In the end, she was ghosted back into the harem, never to see the king’s favor or chambers again. Ironically, that is probably exactly what she wanted!
On the surface it would be difficult to find a woman more unlike Vashti than Sojourner Truth. One was a queen who lived in a luxurious palace the other, a slave who never had a home of her own. One refused to stand before a gathering of men; the other refused to keep her seat.
This story comes from a book by Arthur Huff Fauset, as quoted in Clothed with the sun: biblical women, justice and us, by Joyce Hollyday, pages 77,78.
“In 1852, while she was lecturing against slavery around the country, Sojourner Truth stopped in at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. Dressed in a plain gray dress and sunbonnet this tall, gaunt woman made a stir as she marched up the aisle of the church where the meeting was held and took a seat on the pulpit steps. She stayed still as various ministers spoke vehemently against the rights of women, declaring that Jesus Christ was a man, and that Eve had brought sin into the world. But after a few hours, she could stay silent no longer. A hissing rush of disapproval greeted her as she stepped to the pulpit. Sojourner Truth wheeled to face one of the earlier speakers. ‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gave me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?’ Her voice grew more fervent. ‘Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?’
A murmur surged through the crowd, and Sojourner thundered on. ‘I have borne five children and seen them most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard —and ain’t I a woman?’
The crowd began to rock the church with applause and tears, pointing scornful fingers at the ministers they had applauded just moments before. Sojourner continued.
‘Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from?’ She repeated the question, her words thundering. ‘Where did your Christ come from?’ She paused a moment. ‘From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with it.’ Pandemonium broke loose in the church. She turned to the man who had mentioned Eve. ‘If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again. And now that they are asking to do it, the men better let ‘em.’ She took her seat amid deafening cheers.”
There is no one, right way to be a woman, and I think we are versed in creative ways of using our power. But I don’t think that’s the way it was meant to be. Adam and Eve – our creative beginnings – were equal, set into the garden – and out into the world – to work and discover and thrive – together. Different skills, different approaches, one shared life moving forward. God created diversity, why must we force conformity and control? Because grace is too hard? Too threatening? Because we are small and the forces of nature are strong? Where is that spark of divine image within you? Can you locate it, recognize it? That is your core goodness and it wants to shine out!