Sometimes I wonder how women in the Judeo-Christian tradition got stuck with the gender role identifications they have. The Old Testament doesn’t include many detailed descriptions of women, but when they do appear, they are not what you’d think. To prove my point, I’m going to investigate two women featured in this week’s Sunday School lesson, plus Deborah the judge/prophetess, and the ubiquitous “virtuous woman” of Proverbs 37.
- Prophet – In the Book of Judges where Deborah is introduced into the Biblical record, she is identified as a “woman prophet,” and the wife of Lapidoth. This may strike the members of a patriarchal religion as unusual, but the word “prophet” is a feminine form of the same word as that used to describe Moses and Abraham as prophets.
- Judge — We are told that the people of Israel came to Deborah for judgment. Conservative Christian commentaries sometimes explain that this was necessary, because none of the men were worthy at the time. But there is no indication in the scriptures that unworthiness made a man ineligible to serve as a deliverer. This is especially evident in the case of Sampson. It looks like the people came to her because she was a competent and talented judge, as well as being the one raised up by the Lord for that purpose.
- Leader — Deborah makes executive decisions in the military field, as when she chooses Barak to be the captain of the army. She then accompanies him into battle, giving strategic direction.
- Mother in Israel — but NOT what you’re thinking! Strangely enough, this is one of only two places where the term “mother in Israel” is used. (Mother in Zion is not a scriptural term.) Here it has nothing to do with Deborah having children; we don’t even know if she did. Instead it refers to her guiding influence over the emerging nation of Israel.
- Adventurous – Boaz is impressed that she left the land of her nativity and came to live with a people she had not previously known.
- Industrious – She supports herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the fields.
- Bold — She lies down with Boaz in the night, uncovering his “feet” (a euphemism for genitals). I don’t fully understand this action, but somehow it convinces Boaz to take responsibility for her, and later marry her. The lesson manual interprets Ruth’s action as a ritual marriage proposal.
- Mother – again, not in the traditional sense of the word. Ruth bears a son, but she gives the baby to her mother-in-law Naomi to nurse and to raise.
- Competitive Plural wife – We don’t always remember this about Hannah, but she was one of two wives. Peninnah had children, while Hannah was the wife who was barren. One of the reasons Hannah fretted so much about the situation was that Peninnah provoked her. Approaching the Lord with her complaint, Hannah was able to prevail over her rival.
- Unconventional – Her prayers in the temple are so emotional that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk.
- Zealous – Hannah vows that if the Lord will answer her prayer to have a child, she will dedicate him to the Lord. This vow necessitates giving up the baby to Temple service as soon as he is weaned.
The Virtuous Woman
- Financially independent — This is an interesting one, considering the many laws that governed women in OT times. But this woman “considers a field, and buys it,” showing her business acumen.
- Home Production — She produces a variety of goods in a home industry, and sells and trades wisely.
- Well-Dressed — Though generally frugal and liberal to the poor, she is dressed in silk and “purple,” an expensive color used primarily by royalty in Biblical times.
- She works out — Or maybe she just got those strong arms by working the loom until all hours of the night!
Well, I just wanted to write this post to show that Biblical women had some unusual qualities that aren’t always picked up on when extolling their virtues in our Sunday School classes. We often picture virtuous women as being submissive and sweet. The manual uses the following words to describe them: righteous, loving, loyal, sacrificing, selfless, hard-working, obedient, faithful, willing, grateful, patient. The women mentioned may well have exemplified these qualities. But in reading their stories I am more inclined to see strength, leadership, daring, persistence, industry, innovativeness, and individuality. I hope these characteristics are as worthy of emulation as the more traditionally feminine ones.