Married. Unmarried. What do we know about the marital status of women in the Bible? We assumed, when doing the four-year research project that would eventually turn into Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, that most women in the Bible would be married.
After all, sadly, power in biblical times for women seemed to come from men. Daughters and sisters were married off by their fathers or brothers for the main purpose of bearing children. Once married, women’s lives were fairly well defined: raising familes and contributing to the social structures of the day. If cast to the side and left unmarried, prostitution was one of the few ways a woman could support herself.
Yet of the women who spoke in the Bible—and the majority of women accomplishing significant deeds are in this category—most were single when called to a task by the Holy Spirit. And that task would, in almost all cases, define their life’s work.
Single, for these purposes, means outside the bounds of a traditional marital relationship: never-married, not yet married, and/or widowed.
Some Old Testament examples (and this is not an exhaustive list):
- Rebecca—when she consented, enthusiastically, to leave home and marry Isaac (and this was a significant moment, as she had a choice and many girls did not). She went on to give birth to Jacob and Esau.
- The Witch of Endor—living alone in a cave outside of town when she, at King Saul’s request, roused Samuel from the dead.
- The Queen of Sheba—presumably unmarried, secured trade routes for her country during an intense and complicated visit with King Solomon.
- Rahab—a prostitute in Jericho who gave two of Joshua’s men safe harbor, enabling the Hebrew people to cross into the Promised Land.
- Ruth—who made a dangerous journey to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, (also single/widowed) and through courageous choices and hard work, married and became the grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus.
- The unnamed woman in the Song of Songs—who spoke more than any woman in the Old Testament and wonderfully expressed the meaning of human love.
- Belshazzar’s mother—who literally saw the handwriting on the wall at a late-night palace party, and called in the prophet Daniel for guidance.
In the Apocrypha:
- Judith—widowed and living a quiet life, managed to behead King Holofernes and stuff said head into her food bag, sneaking it back to her people, only days away from death by none other than the freshly deceased king, thereby bringing them hope—and life.
In the New Testament:
- Mary of Bethany—who gave Jesus the strength he needed to walk to the cross by anointing him and being emotionally present to him when many others were not.
- Martha of Bethany—who provided Jesus with the deepest hospitality that is reported in scripture.
- Mary, Jesus’ mother—was unmarried at the time Gabriel approached her regarding Jesus’ birth, and widowed when she stood at the foot of the cross.
- Lydia in Philippi—an affluent merchant on her own (she may have been married, as her “household” is mentioned, or she may have been single—but seems to be acting on her own).
- Mary Magdalene—whom Jesus counted as one of his closest friends and was the first one he spoke with after the resurrection.
The point is this: most Bible women acted on their own, outside of the bounds of a traditional marital relationship. It wasn’t a matter of being given power; it was a matter of finding and using the power God had already given them.