How many women in the Bible can you name? How many sermons have you heard that emphasised the role of a biblical woman? And are there any women in the Bible that you would recommend as a role model of faith to, say, a teenage girl, a young widow, a woman at menopause, or a woman who has suffered a miscarriage?
If your answers to these questions are ‘not many’ or ‘I’m not sure’, then you are not alone!
Women make up the minority of biblical characters, and take up far less of its pages than men. The women that are included have often been:
- Forgotten or ignored
- Mistakenly presumed to be sex workers or only offering a moral/sexual point
- Muddled up with one another
Yet there are some great narratives of women in the Bible, and there is much to be learned from their actions and words.
- Abigail has the longest prose speech of any woman in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 25.
- A friend of mine looks up to Vashti as “the first feminist” for saying ‘no’ to her drunk husband and king, in Esther 1.
- Ruth promises herself to her mother-in-law Naomi, whatever fate might befall them, in Ruth 1.
- Tamar disguises herself as a sex worker to take control of her own future, and thus gives birth to an ancestor of Jesus (Genesis 38 and Matthew 1).
- Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, whose husband Uriah is murdered by David to serve his own lust, loses her first child a few days after birth (2 Samuel 11 and 12, and Matthew 1).
- Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus’s cousin, conceived her first child John the Baptist when she was much older (Luke 1).
- Mary of Bethany and her siblings Martha and Lazarus had a strong friendship with Jesus which is portrayed in John 11 & 12.
- The Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 and Matthew 15, wins an argument with Jesus and helps him to change his stance on including foreigners in his vision of the kingdom.
- There were women who attended Jesus at the cross or went to anoint his body, including: Joanna, Salome, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Mary the mother of Jesus and her sister (Matthew 27-28, Mark 15-16, Luke 23-24, John 19-20).
- There were female apostles who travelled with or supported Paul, including Junia and Phoebe (Romans 16), Priscilla (Romans 16 and Acts 18), Lois and Eunice (2 Timothy 1).
We don’t know a lot about many of these women, but they were clearly remarkable enough to be mentioned by name.
Feminist hermeneutics (a feminist interpretation of the Bible) does more than seek out women’s voices in the Bible. It also asks what influence the patriarchy has had on the interpretation, teaching, and representations of the text; what does it tell us about women’s lives at the time of writing and how might that be differently understood today; and how can absent women’s voices be restored and reconstructed? Feminist hermeneutics teaches us that it is okay to struggle with a passage – such as portrayals of Israel as a ‘whore’, or the story of Dinah’s rape.
None of this is to negate God’s loving action and revelation through scripture. Instead, it pays attention to where human flaws have distorted God’s message and intentions for God’s people, women and men, made in God’s likeness. Remember that the very first feminists (in the West) were Christian. The Bible is a rich resource that can be reclaimed to offer life in all its fullness to all people. So let’s reclaim it.
Jenny is Assistant Curate at North Lambeth Parish in south London. She is writing a PhD looking at the faith lives of Christian women at university. She enjoys wild swimming in the sunshine, knitting and red wine. She tweets from @jellydidit