Women in the Bible

Naming the 333 women in the Bible
While some biblical women are nameless and silent figures, others are movers and shakers in their own rights.

By Alice Camille
The Catholic canon of the Bible contains 73 books. Three of them bear women’s names: Ruth, Judith, and Esther. These three texts also make the actions of women their central concern. I consider them Exhibits A, B, and C in the argument against the Bible being a hopelessly sexist document. Why male editors gave the green light to the inclusion of these texts is the real mystery.

Full disclosure: Not all compilers did OK them, which is why Judith isn’t in Jewish Bibles and holds a subcanonical status in those Protestant Bibles that do include it. Ruth’s story appears first. As she’s the 28-times-great-Nana of Jesus, we find her tale charming. It’s also biblically revolutionary. Writers for children tend to observe the Charlie Brown rule: If you don’t kill off the parents straightaway, render them irrelevant to the action. The writer of Ruth uses the same pitiless rule in liberating the landscape for her women’s tale, killing off three husbands in the first paragraph. That leaves three women to make three self-determining choices.

It’s a brilliant solution to a vexing problem: How do women engage the life quest in contexts in which men call the shots? With the men dearly departed, Orpah returns to her father’s house, hoping to marry again. Ruth chooses to remain with her mother-in-law Naomi. Echoing Abraham’s tale, Ruth leaves father and fatherland behind, migrating to the foreign city of Bethlehem to adopt Naomi’s people and religion as her own. Of course it’s a love story, with marriage to Boaz the happy ending. But the essential love in the story is the bond between Ruth and Naomi. The men are narrative props, and Boaz is—surprise!—Ruth’s reward for taking the quest, not the other way around.

Judith’s author takes another route to liberate her protagonists for the quest. Pious Judith is also widowed, and her trusty maidservant unmarried. But a lot of men are left standing in this story, which makes them a problem the author solves by ruthlessly emasculating them down to the last elder. The kings are presented as grandiose fictions, the men of Judith’s town as weaklings and cowards. Even General Holofernes, the terrifying villain of the piece, turns out to be just a dumb drunk. Judith and her maid don’t have to bring a weapon to this fight; Holofernes furnishes plenty, with which he is dispatched.

The word on biblical women
Are women in the Bible really as weak and suggestible as Christians sometimes believe?

By Alice Camille
You may have seen the bumper sticker: “Eve was framed.” The biblical perspective on women is set at a rather low bar in the opening chapters of Genesis. Simply put, it suggests women are the problem. If they weren’t inherently weak, morally suggestible, and all-out power hungry, the world would be a paradise right now.

Does anybody still believe this? Did anybody buy this story, ever? Obviously somebody did, or the Eden saga wouldn’t unfold as it does. But from where I sit as a card-carrying female, it seems clear that weak, suggestible, power-hungry folks show up regularly in both genders. Spend an hour with the parish council if you don’t believe me. It’s not right that Eve takes the fall for the Fall, as she does in the minds of many. Despite the fact that in the story God acknowledges both humans as culpable, and both are punished and banished.

Does the initial biblical portrait of womankind attach to females throughout scripture? “Weak and suggestible” doesn’t fit wives like Sarah, who laughs at the notion of an octogenarian pregnancy even when predicted by a heavenly messenger. Once she knew heaven has promised her husband offspring, however, she got to work procuring a fertile bunkmate for him. Sure, it doesn’t work out so well for Hagar, Ishmael, or even Sarah in the long run. But it’s impossible to view Sarah as weak or uncooperative in her third-party perception of the plan. Maybe this is why later supernatural pregnancies involve the female in the conversation more directly.

Weak and suggestible is also not an apt description of Rebekah, who shows more resolve in an hour than her husband Isaac does in his entire history. Having mothered her twins for decades, Rebekah recognizes that Jacob, not Esau, is the more resourceful leader—Esau’s primacy from the womb notwithstanding. So she finds a way to separate the elder from his birthright and sets the future of Israel on its astonishing, some might say destined, trajectory. The loss of her favorite son is the price of this mother’s act, which surely does not benefit Rebekah nor endear her to her dying husband and remaining son.

Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel—relatives of Rebekah—demonstrate similar resourcefulness in procuring their children’s place in the lineage. Rachel pays mightily for this privilege, twice, the second time by her death. Labeling her power-hungry would be a gross misreading.

These depictions of matriarchs from Genesis are certainly not weak, though these women are routinely lumped into the “morally shady” category, still bearing the taint of Eve. A category that, we should hasten to add, suits their husbands at least as well. Abraham and Isaac both lie about their relationship to their attractive wives to save their own skins in foreign territory. Jacob is morally flexible enough to deceive his brother and uncle without losing sleep over it.

Biblical women fight and often defeat the original low opinion expressed of their gender. In Exodus, the courageous midwives who defy Pharaoh’s death decree for all male Hebrew babies deserve a shout-out for saving baby Moses, destined to save his nation. Moses’ mother Jochebed and his sister Miriam demonstrate bravery and ingenuity in rescuing little Moses a second time—with a little help from a third woman, Pharaoh’s own daughter.

Later in life, Moses is protected once more by the timely action of a woman, his wife Zipporah, when a mysterious angel of death shows up to kill Moses for not circumcising his son. This singular incidence of a circumcision performed by a woman gets a pass even from the rabbis, considering the urgency of the outcome.

Among the most striking examples of women defeating the stereotype of the Eve effect is found in the book of Numbers. Hardly anyone reads Numbers for pleasure, so most of us miss the marvelous history in chapter 27 of the five daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Listing their names is important, because Numbers does—several times. Mind you, the numbers in Numbers are catalogs of people: folks who matter to the fate of the nation. Nearly all of these lists count men. Some are young men fit to serve in the army, enumerated tribe by tribe. Some are priests, clan heads, or elders. Several lists are genealogies. Page after page of Numbers reads like a litany of men who begat only sons without help from anybody.

And then we come upon these five daughters. Zelophehad, you see, had no sons. In the ancient world, such a man had little choice but to do what Abraham once considered: adopting his manservant to serve as his heir. As the story goes, Zelophehad didn’t do that. In fact, the most significant thing Mr. Z did after the birth of his five daughters is die. Which is not good estate planning at all, since his death in the wilderness years meant no land would be allotted to his offspring in the land of promise.

What becomes of Mahlah and her sisters? It’s not what happens to them so much as what they do that counts—and in a book that’s all about counting, their actions are stunning. These women stand before the whole community, right in front of Moses, the priest, and the elders, and dare to speak up. They note the death of their father and their dearth of brothers. And they conclude by demanding: “Give us land among our father’s kindred” (27:4). It’s such an unheard of request, Moses has no idea how to respond. Wisely, he takes the matter to the Lord.

God’s reply scores a crucial win for biblical women and justice. The plea of the daughters is just; their father’s heritage will be portioned out for them. In fact, God tells Moses this will be the new normal for Israel. Any man who dies without male heirs will be assured his daughters can inherit. Mahlah and her sisters not only acquire property, but their demand affects the law for future generations. No wonder their names are entered in the genealogy of Numbers!

Tragically, other biblical women aren’t so fortunate. Jacob’s only daughter Dinah is raped by a foreign prince and then wedded to her rapist as an amenable way to broker peace between the families. The rape-and-marry solution resolves another problem for the tribe of Benjamin in Judges chapter 21: Having lost their women in a raid, the Benjamite men are given carte blanche to kidnap other women as recompense.

If you’re looking for some of the best and the most horrific passages regarding biblical treatment of women, in fact, look no further than Judges. This book presents profiles that appear even more bizarre laid side by side. On the one hand, there’s the saga of the female prophet and judge Deborah, whose ally in warfare is wily Jael, quite deft with staking a tent peg. Enough said. (See Judges chapter 4.) We also meet Manoah’s wife, who deals directly with an angel concerning the future birth of her miracle baby, Samson. Yet these heroic portraits are overshadowed by more bleak and memorable ones: Jephthah’s victim daughter, Samson’s treacherous Delilah, and the nameless concubine at Gibeah whose fate reads like a horror script.

Do women get a fair shake in scripture? A brief look at the Hebrew Bible delivers mixed reviews.

This article also appears in the February 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 2, pages 47–49).

Judith returns home a superhero. Many citizens seek to reward her by asking for her hand in marriage. Seriously? What would Judith want with one of these fools underfoot? Instead, she opts to retire with her maid and live happily ever after. We can appreciate why some folks deem it unwise to include the story of Judith as a sacred text.

The writer of Esther takes another tack to ensure the protagonist’s freedom, one a few shades kinder to the menfolk. Orphaned Esther is raised by her benevolent uncle Mordecai. But she’s soon whisked off to a harem to participate in tryouts for the next queen of Persia. Life is tough for a teenaged beauty! Mordecai can’t control his niece from outside the harem beyond delivering a heavy guilt trip about how the fate of all Persian Jewry is in her manicured hands. Of course Esther wins the beauty contest, becomes queen, and stands up to the king in time to save her people. You go, girl!

The stories of Ruth, Judith, and Esther have been sidelined for not being especially pious, for not having much to say about God, and for not being morally edifying. One might reply that a Bible reduced to the pious, God-centered, edifying bits would be a much-abridged volume. What these three texts really provide are biblical fantasies about what good women might do with the freedom and opportunity to be self-determining.

OK. Back to the normative parts of the Bible. Women do figure in the historical books of Kings. Many of the significant ones are married to David: Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba. Daughter of King Saul, Michal is conflictingly tethered to both father and husband. Bathsheba’s freedom once David sends for her is much disputed. Abigail, however, is intriguingly independent, alert, and proactive. It’s no wonder that, rather than merely procuring her, David sends Abigail a courtly proposal of marriage.

The books of Kings also contain significant queens. Solomon treats the noble African Queen of Sheba as an equal. The prophet Elijah’s nemesis, Queen Jezebel, is presented as the epitome of evil. From Jezebel’s non-Israelite perspective, of course, Elijah slew 400 priests of her religion! The real villainous queen in Kings is Jezebel’s daughter, Athaliah (2 Kings 11). In retaliation for the assassination of her son, Athaliah murders most of the royal family and rules herself until her eventual execution. But a couple of vile biblical queens, it must be said, can never trump the parade of monstrous kings that extends into New Testament times.

In the prophetic literature, women become increasingly invisible, mere voices offstage. While Elijah and Elisha both rely on female benefactors, after the ninth century B.C. male prophets operate like lone rangers. Isaiah’s wife is a prophetess, but we don’t even know her name. Huldah is identified as an authoritative Jerusalem prophet in 2 Kings 22, but like all nine female prophets mentioned in scripture, we have no writings of hers to contemplate. In wisdom literature, women are even more rarely actors and mostly spoken about. Song of Songs features a dazzling female lover famous for her desirability. While Wisdom is personified and revered as a lady in Sirach, Wisdom, and Proverbs, Folly is also likewise mocked as a dame. When human females are the topic of wisdom books, it’s rarely in an appreciative light. Unless you consider the poem in praise of a worthy wife to be a positive appraisal (Proverbs 31:10–31). I, however, consider it a recipe for a heart attack.

Does the Bible change its tune on women in the turning of the Testaments? Well, for one thing, after an absence of several centuries, females are back in the story as active participants. Elizabeth and Mary burst onto the scene like walking miracles even without their jaw-dropping pregnancies. Add to them disciples like sisters Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, even Mrs. Zebedee who promotes her sons to Jesus—it can feel as overwhelming as joining a sorority. Instant sisterhood!

Women seek cures from Jesus—and don’t take no for an answer. Women follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the cross to the tomb, and through Pentecost. While the gospels say Judas held the purse, Luke claims the women filled it as the primary sponsors of the ministry (Luke 8:1–3). Five thousand men were counted at the miracle of loaves and fishes, but none of them were on hand at Calvary.

St. Paul is unexpectedly casual in referencing the women he views as ministerial partners. To Paul, Prisca is a fellow evangelist, Lydia opens a house church, Phoebe is a deacon (not deaconess). When Paul attests that in Christ there is no male or female, we sense that the experience of this truth preceded the theory for him.

Three hundred and thirty-three unique women have been counted in the Bible. This careening survey highlights only a few. Perhaps it’s enough to suggest that women evolved well beyond their original Genesis stereotype into movers, shakers, and players. It gives me hope to see how women have engaged salvation history so far. There’s so much more to do.

This article also appears in the March 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 3, pages 47–49)