I mentioned last week that there are 189 named women in the Bible. I have since found that it depends on the translation, and that there is confusion even among scholars, but it remains true that women bear between 6 and 15 percent of the total names in the Bible. Minimal representation and frequent misrepresentation of women and women’s stories is harmful to us. That’s my premise. This is made worse since it is the women associated with sinfulness that have historically found their way into sermons, and sin is assigned or assumed where none is mentioned (as in the case of Mary Magdalene). This long history reflects, influences and justifies society’s attitudes and behaviors toward women. Biblical stories and their interpretations have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize, to repair broken dignity. When we reject a single, assumed storyline, when we dig around into the Bible’s corners and read about those that the lectionary doesn’t choose, we realize the involvement of God in all of life, God’s concern for all the roles and situations we, too, find ourselves experiencing, male and female alike. But we’re looking at women this summer, and finding our reflections.
Women in the Bible are victors and victims, women who change the course of historical events, and women who are powerless to affect even their own destinies. Genesis names a number of women as co-actors on the stage. Eve, of course, the first to suffer the death of a child by violence, and her first-born branded with shame. And the Matriarchs: Among our friends and acquaintances might be found a devoted but mistreated and disappointed Sarah; or Hagar who became the depository of Sarah’s pain and jealousy. We might know a version of the doting, slightly twisted motherhood and favoritism of Rebekah. Rachel was favored, but her “charm vanishes into an envious and petulant old age,” and Leah – who seems a tragic figure, always second best. These are the women through whom a chosen ‘one’ become a nation. How interesting it is, that none of the first families are success stories in a people’s own historical telling. That point will be made again later.
Still in Genesis, Potiphar’s wife, it is said, “moves through today’s gossip columns in a variety of guises,” in her attempted seduction of Joseph and false accusations when he refused her that led to his imprisonment. We heard about Shiphrah and Puah last week, two Hebrew midwives who disobey Pharaoh’s command to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. Pharaoh’s daughter rescues and cares for the infant Moses. His sister, Miriam, not only had a hand at saving him at birth, but joined with him as a co-leader of her people in the Exodus. And later, Moses’ wife Zipporah saves his life when God intends to kill him in a very weird bit of the story. At crucial points, the great figure Moses is saved by women.
The Hebrew Bible often portrays the named women as victors, leaders, and heroines with qualities Israel should emulate. Women such as Hagar, Miriam, Tamar, Rahab, Deborah, Esther, and Jael are a few examples of women who turned the tables on men with power and are among many female “saviors” of Israel. Biblical scholar, Tykva Frymer-Kensky, says “victor stories follow the paradigm of Israel’s central sacred story: the lowly are raised, the marginal come to the center, the poor boy makes good.”She goes on to say these women conquered the enemy “by their wits and daring, were symbolic representations of their people, and pointed to the salvation of Israel.” Hannah and Mary sing of these reversals in their respective Magnificats.
Rahab’s story is in the book of Joshua. In this case, a clever, bold woman who is not an Israelite is a hero. She is a resident (and prostitute) of Jericho, who houses two spies sent by Joshua to prepare for an attack on the city. The king of Jericho knew the spies were there and sent soldiers to her house to capture them, but she hid them, sent the soldiers off in misdirection, and lied to the King on their behalf. For her brave deeds, Rahab and her whole family were saved before Joshua blew the horns and Jericho came a’tumblin down.
Women were prophets, though I haven’t heard of some of them. I have heard of Deborah. She was among the ruling judges of Israel, a warrior, a mother, and a prophet. She is unique among biblical women in that she holds both political and spiritual power. The people of Israel had been oppressed by the king of Canaan for twenty years. Deborah sent a prophetic message to Israel’s military ruler, Barak, to raise an army and fight, but Barak refused to do so without her. “I will surely go with you;’ she said, “nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” The battle is fought (led by Barak with Deborah beside him), and Sisera, the enemy commander, was routed and fled on foot. Barak pursued the chariots and army, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword. Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber because there was an alliance with her husband’s family. Jael gave him a drink of milk, covered him with a blanket, and when, exhausted from battle, Sisera slept, she picked up a tent peg and a hammer and drove the peg into his temple all the way into the ground. When Barak came hunting him, she lifted her tent flap. As a nomadic woman who were responsible for the assembly of their tents, she had the skill to kill with a single blow. Her’s was the hand into which the mighty king fell. As a result of Deborah and Jael’s courage, their land was at peace for forty years.
We meet Abigail when she is married to a rather horrible man named Nabal. While running a “protection racket” in the area, David asks for provisions for himself and his men, but Nabal refuses, so young warrior David prepares for retribution. Abigail quickly intervenes, sending a feast ahead and greeting David on the way. In an eloquent speech, she persuades him to shed no blood and prophesies that he will be king. Upon hearing what she has done, Nabal up and dies. David then sends for Abigail to become his wife. She bears him a son, who never becomes a contender for the throne, and, although she is a prophet and wise woman, and the only woman in the Hebrew Bible to be described as both intelligent and beautiful, she plays no further role in court history.
David doesn’t come off so well with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. David sees her bathing, is captured by her beauty, has her brought to him, and, in the way of things, she becomes pregnant. David then successfully plots the death of her husband in a cover-up of his actions, and takes her as one of his wives.This first child doesn’t live, but Bathsheba later has another son, Solomon.
Another prophet we don’t hear of is Huldah. In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, during renovations of the Temple, Hilkiah, the High Priest, found a copy of “the Book of the Law”. This was a big deal. The Book of the Law of Moses had been lost and forgotten. Hilkiah gave it to Shaphan the Scribe, who read the book to King Josiah. The king tore his robes in distress and said “Go and inquire of the Lord for me …” Josiah commanded his entire entourage of high officials (including the High Priest and scribe) to take the book to Huldah, wife of Shallum, for interpretation. At that point, Huldah confirmed King Josiah’s worst fears: God would bring disaster upon Judah for its religious apostasies, but she also declared that Josiah himself would not live to see this disaster. He would have a long reign and die in peace. Only after hearing from her, does Josiah go on to make the reforms he is known for, ridding the temple of idols, attempting to bring his people back to worship of God. She was regarded as a prophet who spoke the word of God, she is the first person who is sought for interpretation of scripture, she told kings and nations their fates, and yet, we are left knowing more about her husband’s background than hers. There are no oracles, no visions in her own words for us to read.
We also get a glimpse of clever women who aren’t good role models. Delilah, for example. The Philistines offered her an enormous amount of money to betray Samson. Delilah uses emotional blackmail and Samson’s genuine love for her to betray him. No other Hebrew biblical hero is ever defeated by an Israelite woman. Samson does not suspect, perhaps because he can’t think of a woman as dangerous, but Delilah is determined, bold and dangerous indeed. The entire Philistine army could not bring him down. Delilah did.
And there’s Jezubel the wife of King Ahab of Israel. According to the books of Kings, Jezebel incited her husband to abandon the worship of Yahweh and encourage worship of the deities Baal and Asherah instead. Jezebel persecuted the prophets of the Lord, and fabricated evidence of blasphemy against an innocent landowner who refused to sell his property to King Ahab, causing the landowner to be put to death. For these transgressions against the God and people of Israel, Jezebel met a gruesome death—thrown out of a window by members of her own court retinue, and the flesh of her corpse eaten by stray dogs. Yet, their daughter is the really evil one.
The Hebrew Bible portrays women as victims as well as victors. We are more familiar with the theme of barren women, but rape and sexual assault is a common feature of these ancient tales. In the first example, it is Dinah, the daughter of Jacob by Leah. Dinah was abducted and raped near the city of Shechem, by a Hivite named Shechem. Because Shechem then wished to marry Dinah, his father suggested to Jacob that their two peoples initiate a policy of commercial and social intercourse. Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi pretended to agree to the marriage and the covenant if Shechem and all the other males of the city were circumcised. After the operations, while the men were still weakened, Simeon and Levi attacked the city, killed all the males, including Shechem and Hamor, and freed Dinah. They then joined in plundering the city. Jacob rebuked Simeon and Levi for arousing the neighbouring tribes and, on his deathbed, gave his blessing to their younger brother Judah, passing over Simeon and Levi for their cruelty. This did nothing for Dinah. In 19th-century, “Dinah” became a generic name for an enslaved African woman. Think about that for a moment.
There is a story of a Levite and his concubine who travel to a strange town where they are vulnerable because they’re traveling alone without extended family to protect or rescue them, and strangers attack. To protect the Levite, his host offers his own daughter to the mob and the Levite sends out his concubine. This scene is similar to one in the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative when Lot turned out his daughters to placate the mob, but in Genesis angels save them; in the book of Judges God is no longer intervening. The concubine … well, imagine the worst. Phyllis Trible comments on this text: “The brevity of this section on female rape contrasts sharply with the lengthy reports on male carousing and male deliberations that precede it. Such elaborate attention to men intensifies the terror perpetrated upon the woman. She was nothing to write about.”
David’s daughter, Tamar is another one. She is fought over by her brother and half-brother. As the story unfolds, they move between protecting and polluting, supporting and seducing, comforting and capturing her. These sons of David compete with each other through the beautiful woman, she is simply an object to win, and a justification for hatred between brothers.
The story of Jephthah’s daughter in Book of Judges is another tale of terror. It begins as an archetype of a hero’s tale. The Ammonite army is on the move. The situation is grave. Jephthah’s response reveals negotiation skills and deep piety. He attempts to negotiate peace with Ammon but fails. War comes, with all of Israel vulnerable. Before the battle he makes a naive, uncalled for, and tragic vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hand…the first one who comes out of the doors of my house shall be the Lord’s, to be offered as a burnt offering.” God had never asked this of him or of anyone else, it came from his own anxiety about the battle, for his own bolstering – one of those foolish pledges made in the height of danger. And after victory, who comes out to celebrate and greet him, but his daughter with timbrels and dancing. She was his only child. Jephthah’s reaction expresses his horror. He foresees his doom in either keeping or breaking his vow. Jephthah’s daughter responds with a request for two months to wander in the mountains with her companions to bewail her death, and then she returns to her father to fulfill his vow to the Lord.
Frymer-Kensky says the Bible author uses vulnerable women symbolically “as images of an Israel that is also small and vulnerable…”She adds “This is not misogynist story-telling but something far more complex in which the treatment of women becomes the clue to the morality of the social order.” The prophet Hosea named his children along this same symbolic line of thinking. His daughter, Lo-Ruhamah is named to show the ruined condition of the kingdom of Israel. Her name means, “not receiving mercy, or not to be pitied”. The decline of Israel is reflected in the violence against women that takes place when government fails to protect the vulnerable, the orphan and widow.
If the treatment of women becomes a clue to the morality of the social order, how far have we come, I wonder? If the treatment of the most vulnerable in a society – poor, women of color in ours – reveals the moral compass of the nation, then we have not advanced as far as those of us with privilege would like to think or assume. The morality of our current culture is nothing to boast about, and not something we can remain complacent about.
These have not been pleasant stories. How many of them have been familiar to you? I could go on for pages – and I deleted quite a lot of my researched bits even as it is. Three of these women are listed in the genealogy of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew: Tamar, Rahab, the “wife of Uriah”(Bathsheba), as well as Ruth and Mary.
Women named in the Hebrew scriptures were not descriptive of the norm of daily life. These are not housewives or weavers or those responsible for fashioning various household implements and containers (grinding tools, stone, and ceramic vessels, baskets, weaving implements, and sewing tools). Everyday life for women was varied and demanding; many of their tasks were not only time-consuming and physically hard, but also technologically sophisticated, given what they had available. Their stories are told only in the margins of scripture. The named women are surprisingly large in their agency and significance to Israel’s formation and survival. I imagine, though I don’t know for sure, that their stories are known and told in Jewish circles. Women’s mention and roles diminish as they move closer to the New Testament era. The exile changed things. Very few women are mentioned from that time period onward. The prophets of the exilic period were all men, the rulers and deciders all male. And things did not improve in the Greek and Roman periods of the New Testament.
The amazing thing is that we have these stories at all. They are oral histories, written by men, transmitted by male scribes, collected into holy writ by male rabbis and priests, and yet these strong, courageous, provocative, wise, dangerous women have names and stories, though not much dialogue. They were obviously considered to be important for more than breeding and feeding – even though they came through a patriarchal culture. God’s presence, God’s work through them was so obvious that it couldn’t be edited out of the story of Israel.
But… they have been silenced from ours. We have been taught and conditioned to believe that women had the expected roles of motherhood and wife as extolled in Proverbs, unless they were akin to woman Folly. It is still, in the 21st century, questioned whether women can be bearers and preachers of God’s word. Culture has done that, not the Bible. Cultural assumptions have molded interpretation to downplay women’s experience and turn the pages past these stories. What are we missing in this? What are we blinded to? What assumptions do we make about God, or the on-going work of God’s Spirit among us, that limit understanding and inspiration and encouragement of at least half of the human population when we acquiesce to a piety threatened by females? I’m going to be on this question for a long time, I’m afraid. It diminishes us all.
Because I believe the images of God in relation to us form early and can be very unhelpful. And it’s never too late (always exactly the right time) to reexamine our spiritual life and assumptions and fears. It’s always the right time to adjust our image of self and neighbor and God, and cracking open some of these ancient (yet current) depictions of women might just help. We’ll see.