On the Path of the Women in the Bible

Judith McKinlay


A stream of headscarves goes through history." So Ellen van Wolde begins her book on Ruth and Naomi.1 The search for the women in the Bible is in many ways a search for women hidden under headscarves - so often busy in the background, their faces not easily seen.

But why follow this headscarf stream? Why is this important for us? For some of us, it may be because we are searching out our biblical ancestors, our foremothers in the faith, or perhaps it's because the Bible's attitudes towards women have been so influential not only in the churches, but in Western culture in general.2

Before we set out we need to look at ourselves, for "we need to be reminded that we never just read, that we always read from somewhere".3 We live in very different times, and we will view these biblical women through our own lenses whether we are conscious of that or not. We will be entering on the path as people of Aotearoa New Zealand in the twenty-first century, and we need to remember that.

When we look more closely at the headscarves we discover that they are by no means all the same, that they come from many different contexts, for in the writings valued and preserved as Scripture Israel and the early Christian communities gathered together stories of many different women, whose lives spanned centuries and who in different times and in different ways exercised many different roles. We find ourselves watching women like Deborah who in Judges4 is apparently able to summon Barak, the commander of the troops, and order him off to battle. Not only does he not object, he insists she go too!

The more we look, the more women we see. The pivotal Exodus story begins with women. Would there have been an Exodus at all without the midwives, or Moses' mother, or Moses' sister or Pharaoh's daughter?

We read these stories with enjoyment, but often there is more that we would like to know. One of the difficulties is that many of the headscarves, particularly those in the Old Testament, are hard to date; in fact, some of these women are almost hidden in the shadows of days long before scribes and scrolls, in contrast to the women of the New Testament who are more clearly visible against the background of a first century Palestine.

So often in the earlier texts there are tantalising glimpses of women's lives, which leave us wanting to know more. For example, celebrations are remembered from very early times, with women taking part dancing and singing and playing timbrels.4 As we watch Miriam doing this in Exodus 15:20-21,5 the questions begin to form.

It is recorded that she sings 'to them' (masculine plural), but who are these 'them'? And what exactly is she doing? Is this a religious role performed before the whole community, and not merely an accompanying sideline by the women? Is Miriam not only a participant but a leader in this occasion, celebrating the deliverance from Egypt in a formal liturgical act?6 And why does the full version of the song which Miriam sings appear under Moses' name with only the opening fragment retaining the memory of Miriam as author in v.21? We don't know the answers to these questions.

But what is clear is that the tradition is ambivalent about Miriam, for while she is presented as a celebrant in Exodus 15, Numbers 12 appears to remember a conflict situation in which she is not only a player but a loser. Here there is another difficulty: there seems to be some confusion in the text over the issue at stake. Does it concern the Cushite wife,7 or is it rather that Miriam, sister of the priestly Aaron and therefore of priestly lineage herself, is vying with Moses for a place within the leadership of this community?8 The tradition had already given her the title of prophet in Exodous 15:20.

What seems likely, and makes the search for answers all the more difficult, is that this chapter may contain pieces from originally different sources, which have been put together by a much later editor. But the core of the account does seem to refer to a challenge made by Miriam, and to a lesser extent Aaron, to the authority of Moses, in which she loses and suffers a skin disease presumably as a result of being so presumptuous. This, despite the fact that Moses himself had wished for a sharing of the prophetic role one chapter earlier.9 But there is an ambivalence even here, for the tradition also records that the people of Israel refuse to move on without her. This woman has stature, even if we can't quite get the full measure of it.

The title of 'prophet' given to Miriam offers us another glimpse of women carrying out a significant religious role.10 But again there are puzzles, for neither Deborah nor Miriam is portrayed in what we would recognise as a strictly prophetic role. So perhaps we have to revise our own ideas about how ancient writers used the term 'prophet' and perhaps its use changed over time.

Huldah is much more recognisable, for 2 Kings 22:14 records her being consulted on behalf of King Josiah who is seeking God's word; not only is her name and prophetic role remembered, but her strongly worded prophecy was also preserved and handed down. How many Huldahs were there? We would like to know.


There are other tantalising glimpses of women in the religious life of Israel which remain unexplained. For example, Exodus 38:8 tells of women serving at the tent of meeting, but we don't know exactly what that entailed or even whether the text concerned preserves an earlier or later tradition.11 And what of the women in Jeremiah 44:17-19 making cakes for the queen of heaven and the women weaving vestments for Asherah in the temple in 2 Kings 23:7? The women weeping for Tammuz at the gate of the temple in Ezekiel 8:14 certainly appear to be performing a cultic ritual, even if one decried by the prophet.

These are tantalising texts, which leave us wondering how many women took part in rituals and rites of which we know little or nothing. A sobering reminder that the Bible is not a clear mirror to the past, that there are facets of life in Israel only hinted at in the texts.

But whose past are we imagining? For as already noted, the lives of these biblical women span centuries. Some scholars suggest that within the time period behind the Old Testament there was a marked shift in Israel's attitude to women and women's roles, for different times and communities set their own gender expectations.

One suggestion is that in the settlement period of the early Iron Age (ca. 1200-1000 BCE) women worked alongside their husbands, breaking in the land in the hill villages, and were highly valued both for their shared pioneering work and as child bearers, for archaeological discoveries have indicated a high mortality rate. The theory is that with the rise of the monarchy and its structured institutionalising state order, this changed, and women's roles became both more limiting and less valued.12 Others are not so sure.

Certainly over time there will be differences in the images of women, and there is no doubt that the later rural-to-urban shift will have had an effect on their lives and altered the dynamic between the public and domestic realms to some extent. But it is also necessary to remember that the urban shift would not have altered the lives of all Israelite women or communities and that city life in Jerusalem before the exile would not have been typical of Israelite life in general.

Meyers suggests that "the urban segment" would have been "never larger than ten per cent and was more likely to have been below five percent."13 In the same way in the New Testament, women from Galilee would have lived quite different lives from those in a cosmopolitan city like Corinth. But what is interesting are the glimpses of a community ordering and reordering itself and women having a part of that.

In Numbers 27:1-8 we can listen in as some other women are heard challenging Moses and the leaders to recognise their rights to land; a challenge which is accepted with the ruling made that if a man dies and has no sons, then his inheritance should be passed on to his daughters. But there is a sequel; after the murmuring of the male clan heads in chapter 36, significant qualifications are added, without any reference to the daughters, or their consent, they are to be restricted to marrying not only within their own tribe but within their own clan. The uppermost concern has moved to become the clan's control and ownership of the land.

Sometimes there are difficulties in interpreting words, and deciding how they are being used. For example there are several stories of women described as being wise, such as the woman of Tekoa,14 who is summoned by David's commander Joab to speak to the king, the assumption apparently being that her skill with words will be able to achieve what his cannot.

But what does the word 'wise' imply? Does it mean she had a recognised role, the female equivalent of a male sage, or is it simply an adjective, used in much the same way as 'fat' 'thin' 'pretty' etc? Opinion remains divided.15

There are similar puzzles in the New Testament. Luke 8:1-3 has some women 'serving' Jesus out of their own means. But what does 'serve' mean here? Is it 'scones and tea', or is it financial support, or something else entirely?

Sometimes, too, it is hard to penetrate the reality behind the language. For example, when are women included in terms such as 'all Israel', 'the people', 'the congregation' or even 'Israel'? Unless there is a specific mention of women we cannot merely assume that these collective terms refer to both men and women. But there are more technical difficulties, for not only are our Bibles translated from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but there are different manuscript versions and they do not all agree.

The relationships in the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42 are not easy to understand. Why does Martha get rebuked? But there is the further complication that different Greek manuscripts have different versions of what Jesus said to her, a reminder that we are always dealing with translations in English where a translator or translation committee has made the textual decisions for us.

Sometimes we need to read a passage several times, looking at it through different lenses as it were. It is interesting to ask the questions: who speaks, who acts, who is spoken to and through whose eyes are we viewing the story? In the small episode of Martha and Mary in Luke 10, Mary, who is commended, says nothing at all. Is that important to note? Some suggest so. In contrast, the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a really lively dialogue partner with Jesus.

This raises another issue, a reminder that there are two quite different questions to ask when we come to approach the gospels. One is: What was actually going on in Jesus' ministry as regards the place of women? And the second one is: How did the later gospel writers record this? for there are marked differences among the Gospels. Some are asking whether it was Luke who preferred silent women!

Often we meet the women as mothers, although one of the more sobering gender dynamics is that pointed out by Esther Fuchs, namely that mothers rarely appear in the stories where their daughters are at risk or abused.16 Where, for example, was the mother of Dinah17 or Tamar,18 or of Jephthah's daughter?19 Were they all dead? Or were they simply regarded as extraneous to the tales?

And why has Sarah no role in the traumatic binding of Isaac?20 Did she not know what Abraham was intending or is the question to be asked of the narrator? Was he not interested in Sarah's place here?

On the other hand, there are significant places in the Hebrew Bible where the terms 'mother' and 'father' appear together, apparently as equals. Giving honour to both mother and father is written into the Ten Commandments,21 and the clause 'that your days may be long in the land' stresses that this is no short term requirement; for those who do not show such honour and abuse their parents, the penalties are spelt out.22 In the book of Leviticus, the requirement to respect mother and father23 comes immediately after the divine call to holiness,24 perhaps suggesting that holiness begins in the home?25

And yet in many of the stories the position of the women is a vulnerable one, a vulnerability well illustrated by Sarah and Rebekah's predicaments in the sister/wife stories of Genesis 12, Genesis 20 and Genesis 26, where their husbands, fearing for their own lives, pretend their wives are their sisters, and can therefore be handed over to the powerful rulers who find them desirable.

The narrative concern is with the life of the man, the patriarch. Ask the questions: who expresses fear and for whom? Where in the text is there concern for Sarah's or Rebekah's fate, apart from that expressed by the non-Israelite Abimelech in Genesis 20:16?

What is expressed is that beautiful women are desirable, can be taken, that they can be the cause of death and the way of escape from death. Frequently, too, the women are the passive ones - the silent ones, as Sarah is in Genesis 12, the Levite's concubine in Judges 19, Michal in 2 Sam 3:13ff. Is this a story device? Or is it to be explained by Esther Fuchs who says: "The biblical narrative creates women in the image of patriarchal desire"?26 That is how they were meant to be!

And how are we to read the stories of the murdered concubine of Judges 19, or of Jephthah's daughter in Judges 11, stories that Phyllis Trible gathered together some years ago, under the apt title Texts of Terror?27 Both of these, although not all those Trible included, are to be found in the Book of Judges; Mieke Bal's gender-based study of that book is all too aptly named, Death and Dissymetry.28 There are disturbing aspects to this journey following the headscarves.

Yet despite many of these unanswered questions, and dif-ficulties of interpretation, we are able to read Biblical stories of women whose significant religious experiences were preserved and recorded, stories of women like Hagar, who not only received the first biblical birth annunciation, but was also the first to 'see' God.29

Texts echo other texts, richly recalling the community of biblical women. So in the New Testament, the annunciation to Mary is celebrated in her song in Luke 1:46-55 which in turn echoes the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, so linking faithful woman to faithful woman.

And just as the Bible story begins with Eve taking the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, so the ministry of Jesus closes with Mary Magdalene in that later garden where she is the first to experience a resurrection appearance of Christ.30

The book of Ruth, where we began, ends briefly in a women's world, where the Bethlehem women crowd around Naomi - praising Ruth as more to Naomi than seven sons - before looking forward to the birth of the great king David.

The gender interests of the Bible are both subtle and complex in their moves. In the end it is up to us to read them, to wrestle with the questions that they raise and then respond, each of us in our own way.

"We cannot afford to ignore the activity of reading, for it is here that literature is realised as praxis. Literature acts on the world by acting on its readers."31 If this is true of literature in general, then it is all the more vital that we take our reading seriously when the literature is Scripture. For women, following the headscarves is surely part of that task.



1 Ellen van Wolde, Ruth and Naomi Trans. John Bowden. (London: SCM Press, 1997).

2 J. Cheryl Exum, "Feminist Criticism: Whose Interests Are Being Served?" in Gale A, Yee (ed.), Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (Fortress Press, 1995), pp.65-90, p.66, suggests, "perhaps no other document has been so instrumental as the Bible in shaping Western culture and influencing ideas about the place of women and the relationship of the sexes."

3 Pamela Thimmes, "What Makes a Feminist Reading Feminist? Another Perspective," in Harold C. Washington et al (eds) Escaping Eden: New Feminist Perspectives on the Bible (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp.132-140, p.139.

4 Ps. 68:25

5 See also Judges 5; 1 Sam 18:7.

6 See Rita J. Burns, Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses? A Study of the Biblical Portrait of Miriam (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987). Phyllis Trible, "Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows." in Athalya Brenner (ed.) A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), pp.166-186.

7 Numbers 12:1

8 Numbers 12:2, 6-8

9 Numbers 11:29

10 Used of women in Exod 15:20; Judges 4:4 Isa 8:3; 2 Kgs 22:14; Neh 6:14

11 1 Sam 2:22 has a similar record.

12 See Carol L. Meyers, "The Roots of Restriction: Women in Early Israel, " Biblical Archaeologist 41(1978) 91-103, and Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

13 See Carol L. Meyers, "The Roots of Restriction: Women in Early Israel, " Biblical Archaeologist 41(1978) 91-103, and Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

14 Her story is found in 2 Samuel 14.

15 See Claudia Camp, "The Wise Women of 2 Samuel: A Role Model for Women in Early Israel?" Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43(1981)14-29. Not all agree with Camp's suggestion.

16 Esther Fuchs, "The Literary Characterisation of Mothers and Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible," Semeia 46 (1989): 151-166.

17 Genesis 34

18 2 Samuel 13

19 Judges 11

20 Genesis 22

21 Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16

22 Exodus 21:15, 17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21. See Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), p.231, "If the command reflects the divine concern and authority exercised through the parent, the female as divine representative is even more noteworthy."

23 Leviticus 19: 3

24 Leviticus 19: 2

25 G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p.265, comments that the sense is "as far as a child is concerned, his parents are in the place of God."

26 Fuchs, "The Literary Characterisation of Mothers."

27 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

28 Genesis 16: 11-13

29 John 20

30 Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). It may be that the last line of Judge preserves the Bible's own critique of this violence.

31 Patrocinio P. Schweikart, "Towards a Feminist Theory of Reading," in Elizabeth A. Flynn and idem (eds) Gender and Reading (The John Hopkins University Press, 1986), p.39, quoted by Pamela Thimmes, "What Makes a Feminist Reading Feminist?" p.137.


Rev. Dr. Judith McKinlay is a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Otago University, with a particular interest in women in biblical texts and welcomes conversations about this. She is an ordained Presbyterian, married with four children and two grandchildren.

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