In third grade, I was put in a coat room at the back of the classroom for being troublesome. The coat room was not a bad place at all. It was actually a lovely place to while away an hour or two. Much better than sitting on a stool wearing a dunce hat (yes, that happened too…).
Perhaps surprisingly, it would seem that I have lots of company in the Bible, for a number of women within its pages would probably be defined as troublesome…or rude…or defiant…and certainly oppositional.
Over the last three years, as part of the national Bible Women Project, sponsored by Forward Movement and the Episcopal Church Women, a group of us analyzed the words of all the women whose words are recorded in Scripture. And you know what? Women who speak in the Bible turn out to be surprisingly bold, willing to push against restraints, and definitely NOT shy and retiring.
We lived into each woman’s story, noting the life circumstances of each, the challenges she faced, and the problems she solved. Here are our seven most prominent research findings:
#1—Women in the Bible, especially those who speak, are surprisingly bold.
Shrinking violets they are not. Immoral or moral, most step up and say what they are thinking, what they need, or what they want. Most take fearless actions and accept daunting risks. Women in the Bible do not shuffle onto its pages; they stride across, with their heads held high and their hearts full of passion.
Example: Eve, right out of the box, does what God says not to do. Sarah, out of grief at her own infertility, sets Abraham up with Hagar so that a son of the covenant will be born. The Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, practice the art of civil disobedience, the first in the Bible to do so, as they risk their lives to save Hebrew babies just about the time that Moses was born (they may have been his midwives, but that is not certain). The wise woman of Abel arranges to have a man beheaded to save her town. Even Job’s wife (“curse God and die!”) was fairly brazen.
In the New Testament, Mary agrees to bear God’s son (an action largely taken for granted by the rest of us, but a huge risk for her). Mary of Bethany pours extravagant oil on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. And the fortune-telling girl, the last female voice in the Bible, badgers Paul until he heals her and sets her free.
None of these women are passive. None are quiet. None are submissive, except to the will of God—and some don’t even make that cut.
#2—Start to finish, women in the Bible push against restraints, using their God given gift of free will.
From the first woman to speak in the Bible to the last, Bible women knock on doors seeking healing, redemption and freedom. Sometimes the doors for moving ahead open graciously; other times they are locked and must be battered down.
The daughters of Zelophehad battle Mosaic law…and we hear about the legal outcome of their case as late as 2013 in contemporary court decisions. Pilate’s wife sends a secret missive, trying to save Jesus from death. The bleeding woman begs Jesus to heal her, and Mary Magdalene and other women hit the road with Jesus, leaving their safe homes behind.
Pushing outward, not knowing what lies on the other side. Pushing outward, giving birth. Pushing outward, like the universe did from the moment of creation. The blueprint found in the heavens, that of the ever-expanding universe, is the same spirit women deploy in the Bible—and is a God-given gift.
#3—Women in the Bible come “over the transom,” as God’s surprise agents.
Unexpectedly coming in over the top in surprising—and often, scandalous—ways is true of many girls and women in the Bible.
Take, for example, the five women—the only women—listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus: Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba, Ruth and Mary. Rahab was a pagan and the the owner of a brothel. Tamar tricked her father in law into sleeping with her. Bathsheba…questionable bathing practices (although not questionable at the time)… Ruth, a widow and a foreigner, has two strikes against her, and Mary, an unmarried teenage pregnant girl…scandalous!
Clearly, the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit that moved over the murky depths of chaos at creation, was alive and at work in the souls and hearts of these women—using their gifts and their courage to change the world, to change salvation history.
#4—Most are unmarried.
Most people might see the women who speak in the Bible as quiet married women. But perhaps surprisingly, the majority of women, when called to a task by the Holy Spirit, are on their own, outside the bounds of a traditional marital relationship. Old Testament examples: The witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba (presumably unmarried), Rahab, Ruth, the widow of Zarephath, Belshazzar’s mother, etc.
In the New Testament, take Mary and Martha of Bethany, or Mary Magdalene—all, as far as we know, were single. The servant girl confronting Peter the night before Jesus was crucified was most likely single, as was the fortune-telling girl in Acts. Mary, Jesus’ mother, was single when approached by Gabriel, and widowed when she stood at the foot of the cross.
The point is this: Bible women, especially those who were single, had much more power than is admitted in many religious circles today. And it wasn’t a matter of being given power; it was a matter of finding and using the power they had.
#5—Bible women suffer horrible loss, and at times are like pawns moved around on a patriarchal chess board, but they remain bright lights in sacred history, shining in the darkness.
Being a woman in ancient times, especially in the violent pre-monarchy years, was exceedingly difficult. Women were assigned marriage partners by their fathers or brothers for economic and political reasons. They were considered property and treated as such; love was not part of the equation. From our 21st century perch, we take for granted Jesus’ embrace of full equality for women, extraordinary in its day.
We forget that Jesus’ longest conversation with anyone in the Bible was with a woman, the woman with five husbands at the well. We forget that the first woman who spoke in the New Testament was the bleeding woman, the one who had bled uncontrollably for twelve years and who was almost out of money and who forced her way through the crowd, convinced that Jesus would heal her if she could but touch his cloak—and he did. We forget that the first word that Jesus said after he was raised from the dead was “Woman,” as in “Woman, why are you weeping?”
We need look no further than these woman, our spiritual foremothers, to find unparalleled resources in how to survive, how to live a life of faith, how to give, and how to love, especially in times of despair or grief.
#6—Women in the Bible cover all the stations of power as men do in the Bible, just in fewer numbers. Examples:
Women were not known as warriors or judges, yet Deborah was both.
Women were not named in the twelve-disciple group, but some of Jesus’ closest allies were women, including Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene.
Women were not known as merchants, but the “good wife” of Proverbs 31, the Queen of Sheba, and Lydia in Acts were clearly successful in business.
Women were not seen as political advisors, but King Saul sought out a women..the witch of Endor (who told him, correctly, that he would die in battle the following day), and King Josiah’s assistants sought out Huldah to explain the spiritual and political meaning of newly-found scrolls in the temple at Jerusalem.
Women were not seen as prophets, yet it was old Anna who recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah when he was only eight days old.
Women were not seen as poets, but some of the oldest and most beautiful poetry is found with women’s names attached (The Song of Miriam, The Song of Deborah, the Song of Hannah, and Mary’s Magnificat).
Girls were not seen as particularly useful, but Jesus’ mother was probably about fourteen when she bore him; the servant girl of Naaman’s wife suggested a cure for Naaman’s leprosy; Pharaoh’s daughter saved little Moses while young Miriam stood guard; and Rebekah was just a girl when she greeted Isaac’s servant and married Isaac within a few days, sight unseen.
And women were not seen as reliable witnesses, but Jesus felt otherwise, entrusting Mary Magdalene and the other women to spread the news about the resurrection, appearing to Mary Magdalene first at the tomb, encouraging her and the other women to spread the news about the resurrection.
#7—Women in the Bible were the primary social media of their day.
Today a substantial part of the world has access to Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. Obviously not the case in biblical days, when women were often the ones who shared the news. Consider the women who lined the streets after David slew Goliath, intensifying their growing dislike of Saul in favor of the young and vibrant David. “Saul has slain his thousands…David has slain his ten thousands!”
Consider the girls who were also on their way to draw water when young Saul walked through town, “head and shoulders above everyone else, and very handsome.” Asking for how he might find Samuel, the prophet and judge, the girls pointed him right toward Samuel, telling him to hurry, and apparently not falling for his good looks, [[[as did the writer of 1 Samuel.]]]
And in Jesus’ time, the word about him and his miracles spread quickly, most often via the women. Picture the five-times married woman at the well in John 4, running back to town, saying, “This man told me everything about me! Could he be the Messiah?” Or Jesus telling the women at the empty tomb to “go tell the disciples and Peter that he had risen.” He knew that they would make sure that the word was known.
Making sure the Word is known. Or as St. Teresa of Avila would say, being the hands and feet of Christ throughout the world, doing the work of Christ, fully and without reservation.
Bottom line on these 7 findings: Traits such as restlessness, defiance and persistence are often God-given, which we too easily igore or dimiss at our own peril. Those ARE the traits, among Bible women and contemporary women, that help advance many of God’s hopes for this world.
Adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Published by Forward Movement. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman
Photo Credit: Bud Holland, taken in Scotland. Like the angel in this picture, women in Scipture stand ready to share with us and guide us, if we take the time to see and learn from them.