Some biblical women are admirable because they’re loyal wives and good mothers, or because they show wisdom and grace in hard times. Examples of women like this are Ruth, Abigail and Sarah. Then there are unnamed women like the widow of Zarephath who fed Elijah even though she thought he was eating the last food she had (1 Kings 17:12).
These are all strong women, but they fitted in to the “traditional” way of seeing their role: they are a background to what the men did.
There are other women who are very different, however. Here are five of them:
1. Tamar. Her story shows women’s vulnerability in the ancient world, but it’s also a great example of courage and resourcefulness (Genesis 38). Tamar’s first husband Er, one of the sons of Judah, died. According to custom, she was given to his brother Onan; any child she had would legally be Er’s. However, he refused to do his duty to her (the word Onanism comes from this episode) and he died. Afraid of losing him too, Judah refused to give his younger son to her. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, slept with Judah and became pregnant by him. Furious, he wanted to burn her to death. She revealed that he was the father, and he confessed: “She is more righteous than I.”
Tamar was determined to get justice, as it was understood at the time. She took huge risks and showed immense courage.
2. Deborah. She was a prophetess and a judge of Israel, the wife of a man named Lappidoth. She called on Barak, one of Israel’s war leaders, to take the field against Sisera, a general with 900 iron chariots who “oppressed Israel sorely” (Judges 4:3). He agreed, but only if she went with him! The result was that “all the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left” (4:16).
Deborah is someone who showed not just faith but more leadership and courage than men. At a time when some theologians are promoting complementarianism and “biblical gender roles”, Deborah is a great example of a strong woman who took charge.
3. Jael. This is part of the same story. She was the wife of Heber the Kenite and gave Sisera shelter after he fled from the massacre of his troops. She gave him a nice drink of milk and somewhere to sleep, then drove a tent peg “through his temple and into the ground” (4:21). “And he died,” the story concludes, a bit superfluously. It’s all very violent, but those were violent times – and the point is that Jael was decisive, courageous and took control of the situation to do what was right. Incidentally, where was Heber…?
4. Jezebel. A strong person is not necessarily a good one. Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, the wife of King Ahab, a powerful Israelite king who is remembered for his struggles with the prophet Elijah. She promoted the worship of Baal and organised the death of Naboth, whose vineyard Ahab wanted for his own. After the death of Ahab and his successor Ahaziah, King Joram was defeated by Jehu, the commander of his army. Then Jehu came after Jezebel: “When Jezebel heard about it, she painted her eyes, arranged her hair and looked out of a window.” When Jehu approached she called him a murderer. He had her servants throw her out of the window (2 Kings 9:33).
According to her own lights, Jezebel was doing what she thought was right. She was loyal to her husband, and her last stand was magnificent.
5. The woman of Abel. King David faced a serious rebellion led by a man named Sheba, which was put down ruthlessly by his army commander, Joab. Sheba took refuge in the city of Abel Beth Maacah and Joab besieged it. When an army captured a city in those days, the consequences for the inhabitants were dreadful. So an unnamed “wise woman” took charge (2 Samuel 20:4). She negotiated with Joab when everyone else was too frightened to do so. He agreed to withdraw as long as they handed over Sheba, which they did – at least a bit of him (“they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bicri and threw it to Joab”). When the men of the city were either paralysed with fear or determined to fight it out, she saw clearly what had to be done and took charge.
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