Women leaders in the Old Testament
Central to the understanding of the ‘people of God’ within the Old Testament text is the concept of family. This is the most basic social unit that is common to all cultures and foundational to any study of the dynamic social organisation of the biblical communities. Although the shape, function and interaction of families may vary across cultures, it is the core group from which the national structure of ancient Israel developed.2 As Meyers notes, research in the study of cultures tend to focus on the larger sociopolitical structures (such as national government) and ignore the smallest but most basic unit. However the study of early Israelite history, that is, pre-monarchic Israel, almost equates to the study of the family. It provided the foundation of the values and traditions that are reflected in later social structures and attitudes. Yet the family unit also provided the basis for the corporate government of the tribal structure that was adopted before the introduction of the monarchy.3 The importance of the family is crucial to establish in developing a biblical theology of women’s leadership. For although texts describing early Israelite history may have been composed at a later date, they still reflect much of the earlier attitudes, values and traditions of the period they are depicting. The patriarchal narratives of Genesis focus on the traditional (male) origins of Israel’s national ancestry. They are the stories of families. In comparison to texts depicting later periods, women feature highly in these familial narratives. Scholars such as Meyers would attribute this visibility to the non-centralised community life which allowed a larger openness to women’s leadership roles than in other periods of centralisation (such as the monarchy).4
The openness to the contribution of women in the patriarchal narratives is reflected in the influential role of the matriarchs in Genesis 12-36, particularly Sarah. Sarah emerges in these narratives as a prominent contributor and director of their family and national life (particularly chapters 12-23). During this period, there was no differentiation between the public and private life of ancient Israel. The ‘people of God’ were a small family group. The ‘national’ events were the events of the family. Yet, at the same time, it does also reflect some of the values of the later period of the Deuteronomic source. In particular, it reflects the patriarchal values of the broader community and culture that became formalized in the law. Although married to Abraham, Sarah is acquired by the foreign king(s) as his property5 - this encounter seems to be written with knowledge of the framework of the Deuteronomic law that forbids the coveting of one’s property, including their wife.6 The Genesis narrative directly reflects the expression and language of the later deuteronomic law. Women generally under the law did not have independent rights, control over their bodies, access to independent income, or a political voice. Yet while the narrative of Genesis may have been recorded in a later period, it still does also reflect some of the earlier traditions in both the prominence of women and activities of the ancient group during this nomadic stage of their social life. This is not to suggest that patriarchy did not exist in the earlier period, but that the expression of it in this text is perhaps representative of the later tradition. It does however suggest that patriarchy was endemic to the culture before it was formalized in the law. This endemic patriarchy is also reflected in the text of the conquest narrative. Against the instructions given to the army, Achan ‘steals’ and hides some of the war plunder, essentially stealing from God.When Achan was accused and punished for his personal disobedience, his whole family was put to death (Joshua 7). As the family was an extension of his authority, his personal sin resulted in the corporate punishment of his household. Yet while, in general, the authority of the husband (such as Achan and Abraham) was formally recognized as the ‘father’ or head of the household, this did not negate the influence and leadership of women (such as Sarah).
In this social world of the Genesis text, the role of Sarah was primarily one of ‘household’ management, which included (at least) the supervision of female slaves and servants, logistics such as housing, as well as food production. After Sarah’s death, Isaac is described as taking Rebecca into “the tent of his mother Sarah” to seal their marriage arrangement (Gen 24:67). Rebecca also inherits the role of influential decision-maker and manager of the household. The management and domain of the ‘tent’, or household, belonged to the mother of the family group. According to current leadership theories, management is about coping with complexity.7 The management of the household during this time required enormous logistical skill as it organized human resources, textile and food resources (such as the production of food from raw materials). This responsibility has more significance than it may suggest to a contemporary reader. The management of the household equated direct control and responsibility for the economic viability of the group. It also represented a level of social control and responsibility. It was at the insistence and authority of Sarah that Abraham took her slave Hagar as a concubine (for the purpose of providing a surrogate child). It was also at the insistence and authority of Sarah that Hagar was evicted from the household after the birth of Sarah’s own son. This suggests her role as an important and influential decision maker in the household. While this role has been criticized by conservative readers as usurping Abraham’s authority, this is not a conclusion offered by the text. It should be noted that Abraham also makes decisions that later proves to be problematic. For example, he makes an unwise decision in representing Sarah as his sister to foreign king(s). In fact, Sarah’s eviction of Hagar can be read in a positive light in the Hebrew/Christian tradition as it removed the competition to her own child of promise, Isaac. With the arrival of Isaac, the role of Sarah diversified to include the nurturing, raising and education of her child. While Abraham officially named the child Isaac (meaning “he laughs”), the origins of the name were clearly from the experience of Sarah describing her joy and laughter at his arrival (Gen 21:1-7). The example of Sarah highlights the community leadership, decision-making and managerial contribution of women in the earlier traditions within the patriarchal context.
Yet motherhood and household management were not the only roles adopted by women in this pre-monarchic period. As noted above, there was a greater openness to women’s leadership roles in this non-centralised community. While women feature more prominently in the pre-monarchic narratives (including Joshua-Judges) Meyers notes that these women tend to be exceptional and not the norm. However, it may be argued that this exceptionality is also true of the male characters and not a sufficient reason to reject the contribution of these texts to the understanding of women’s leadership. One of these exceptional women in the Judges narrative is the prophetess and judge, Deborah. Although defined by her relationship to men (she is the “wife of Lappidoth” 8 in Judges 4:4 and a “mother in Israel” in Judges 5:7) her role was not limited to the home. As a judge, hers was a public role of national leadership. The role of judge was not an institutional position, like a king, but was a temporary leader to solve a temporary problem. There was no absolute criterion for leadership or formal governmental position in the modern sense, except by the decree of Yahweh. Both the earlier poetic (chapter 5) and later narrative text (Judges 4) testify to the crucial role of Deborah in this national crisis.
The criterion of a Judge during peace-time included sound judgment and juridical knowledge. However during times of crisis and external threat, the role of Judge also required military prowess. These traits are evidenced by Deborah in both the poetic and narrative accounts. During the time of peace (or non-conflict), she administered justice under the “Palm of Deborah.” She was the most senior authority and arbitrator of judicial (or legal) matters and spokesperson for Yahweh in her role of prophet. However during the time of conflict she led the army into battle, albeit due to the reluctance of Barak. Yet is Deborah only involved in this conflict because the man (Barak) refused to take his rightful place? Throughout the book of Judges there is a consistent literary pattern of a deliverer reluctant to fulfil their divine calling yet eventually taking their place; the examples of Gideon and Samson exemplify this theme within the book. The initial deference of Deborah to Barak can be seen as consistent with this pattern, yet as the judicial authority she also emerges as a leader in the military conflict. Through prophetic insight and the intelligent military strategy of Deborah, the voluntary army (consisting of various tribes of Israel) ambushed and defeated their Canaanite enemies, ensuring future peace for the community. This peace was also secured by the actions of another woman, Jael, who guaranteed the death of the enemy military commander when he hid in her ‘domain’ of the tent. In the tradition of Moses, Deborah’s leadership in the time of national crisis was authenticated by the essential criterion of a ‘spirit of prophecy.’ Like Moses, her skills as a leader also included sound judgment, elocutory skills, and poetic sensibility (as the ‘Song of Deborah’ in chapter 5 is attributed to her joint authorship with Barak).9 Yet Deborah does not claim the role of deliverer for herself alone; she shares the accolades with her military partner, Barak. This joint leadership of the voluntary army and authorship of the victory song with Barak (Judges 5) suggests a unique style of corporate leadership. While Deborah is portrayed as a prophetic leader she does not dominate or impose her authority. Instead, she leads by harmonizing the various actions of others and using her prophetic leadership for encouragement. This emphasizes a leadership style that values cooperation, care and the nurture of relationships. Yet with the development of the monarchy, the opportunities for women to be involved in national, public leadership became severely limited. Excluded from the roles of king and priests (as were most males in the community), the only avenues available for national leadership were as a prophet, with a direct influence through their speech, or as a mother and wife, with indirect influence through their teaching.
While female prophets were a rarity in ancient Israel and the exception rather than the norm, they were not excluded from this role on the basis of gender. This perhaps points to the later vision of Joel of the outpouring of the Spirit resulting in people of both genders and all ages being given the ability to prophesy (Joel 2:28). The early church identified this hope fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 3). Yet in the Old Testament, the role of prophet was a special role limited to only a select few men and women. Of this minority, the examples of women prophesying are limited. Of the few examples of female prophets, one of the most remarkable is Huldah. Active during the ministries of Jeremiah and Zephaniah, it was to this prophet Huldah that the young king Josiah looked for guidance and advice. This advice was necessitated by the ‘discovery’ of the Book of the Law in the Temple precinct (2 Kings 22). Huldah was sought by five of the national leaders (including the High Priest) for guidance in the process of instituting the contents of the law. Although her role as prophet was public, her power was unofficial; it was outside the official structures of monarchic government. With the institution of the monarchy each of the prophets (both male and female) functioned with unofficial power, unlike earlier prophets such as Moses and Deborah who operated in a public role with official leadership and power. However, like Deborah, Huldah operates within a patriarchal culture as evidenced by her description which defines her in terms of her relationships to men (22:14). Yet if the men consulting Huldah had been expecting encouraging advice and motherly sympathy, they were in for a rude shock. Despite cultural expectations, Huldah spoke in a public role (on behalf of Yahweh) an authoritative and fiery pronouncement of national judgment. Her words resulted in a national renewal and repentance led by the king, indicating the incredible religious influence achieved by the words of this female prophet. Huldah is an example of a woman, gifted by the Spirit to perform a public ministry, who broke from cultural expectations and limitations for the benefit of the community.
Linked to the prophetic tradition, is the unofficial public role of the wise woman. According to Brenner, this tradition of the wise woman (or counselling woman) has been suppressed in the writings of ancient Israel. However while this role was not part of the major institutions, it still represented a real form of guidance in the community of ancient Israel. This tradition is represented in both narrative and poetry. In 2 Samuel 14, Joab sent to Tekoa to bring back from there a ‘wise woman’ who craftily convinced King David not to banish his son Absalom. Another woman with that title, hindered Joab from further bloodshed when he laid siege to her city by negotiating with him from the top of the city wall (2 Sam 20:15-22). In both cases the women were recognised by a title and had the reputation of a ‘wise woman.’ Both women used their influence to preserve life (of an individual or a community). In the poetic form, the tradition of the wise woman is represented in Proverbs. There are several indications of this. It is firstly represented through the insistence for the intended hearer (or reader) of the book to head the teachings of both his father and mother (Proverbs 1:8). This continued reference to the teachings of mothers indicates this was more that just a convenient use of poetic parallelism.
For the ancient Israelites, families were important for the transmission of cultural values. Firstly, as the primary carer and educators of infant children, mothers played a significant role in the inculcation and education of the future generation. Like Sarah the household manager (above), the role of the educator of young children represented a level of social influence and responsibility. Through the transmission of folk or family wisdom to children, women exerted a direct influence on the family and an indirect influence on the cultural values of the nation. Secondly, the personification of wisdom as a woman throughout the prologue of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) suggests a potential connection to this suppressed tradition of women’s wisdom. This is also seen in the re-visioning of the personification of wisdom to conclude the book. The poem of the ‘woman of valour’, as taught to King Lemuel by his mother in a direct address, presents an ideal wife and mother. An ideal perhaps achieved by Ruth, the very next book in the Hebrew Bible, who is described by Boaz as a ‘woman of valour’ (3:11). Wolters suggests that this poem belongs to Israel’s heroic poetry which is characterised by recounting the hero’s mighty deeds10 – the wise person is a hero because they benefit God’s people just like the heroes of war. The poem concludes the book of Proverbs by presenting many of the virtues that have been described throughout the collection. In this way, the woman of Proverbs 31 is a model for wise living not just for women to emulate, but for men as well. Through the specific cultural and gender roles, Proverbs 31 not only presents the ideal of a wise and diligent wife, but also summarises the attitudes and actions of a wise person in general – important for both women and men - by the consistent literary technique of personifying wisdom through a female image. Like the role of mother and educator of children, another avenue available for indirect influence by women was in their role as a wife, particularly if they were the wife of a national leader.
The indirect influence of the queen on the national life of ancient Israel is an example of unofficial power. Like the wise women described above, these women could not make any official legal or economic decisions or attend legal councils – that was reserved for men only in a patriarchal society. Women were not free to make independent decisions within the community, but their life and decisions were framed by their relationship to men. Yet while they may not have had official authority, there is a continual reference in the biblical text to the unofficial power of women. Access to this unofficial power was generally through their roles as wives and mothers. The stylized description throughout the books of Kings that lists the names of the mothers of the Judean kings suggests more than an interest in pedigree. It suggests that mothers were a significant influence on their sons, just as wives were a significant influence on their husbands. The narrative of Kings offers some negative examples of the unofficial power of women on the king, such as the infamous Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31). Her negative influence over the king is described in the text as leading to rampant apostasy and idolatry in the northern kingdom, particularly in the example of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Yet there were also some positive examples of the unofficial influence of women in national decision-making. While there are earlier examples, such as Abigail and Bathsheba, perhaps the most prominentillustration is in the story of Esther during the post-exilic period. What is unique about the situation of Esther is that her influence is over a foreign king.
The story of Esther follows her movement from orphan girl to queen to deliverer. It describes how she secured the deliverance of the Jewish people living under Persian domination in Diaspora through her courage and wit. This deliverance was achieved through the inner transformations of Esther who seemed docile and timid but emerged valiant and strong. Yet while the character of Esther is heroic, she is also highly problematic. She evidences no concern for the torah, such as the sexual purity or dietary laws so central to post-exilic biblical material. She displays no interest in worship, the Temple or concern for Jerusalem. The book itself does not contain the divine name of Yahweh or Elohim. Because of this absence of religious values and the presence of sensuality and brutality, the book of Esther has posed problems for interpreters throughout its history. The great paradox of Esther is that God is omnipotently present even where God is most conspicuously absent. There is clearly present a whole series of remarkable coincidences which tip the balance of events in favour of Esther and her people. The overall narrative suggests that it was not mere coincidence that led to Esther’s selection as queen, but that she was brought to the position by the unseen hand of God “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
Through her position as queen, Esther has unofficial power and indirect influence over the events of the Empire through her access and relationship to the king. Is this manipulation? Or is it a savvy use of the only avenue that was open to her gender at this time? It is the very lack of power that makes Esther a paradigm of the diaspora Jew. Like Esther, they need to co-operate for survival in this new urban cosmopolis.11 Those who lack power need courage and resourcefulness to survive. While it was her beauty and charm that won her the role as queen, in this game of self-preservation, she needed more than good looks – she needed to be clever to outwit her enemies. She could not just exploit lust, like Judith, another Jewish woman who secured deliverance for the Jews in her story in the Apocrypha. Yet, as the story concludes, Esther proved more than just a pretty face as she outwitted the most powerful men of the empire and lived to write a decree celebrating it. She exercised enormous influence in significant decision-making through the only avenue available to her race and gender in the post-exilic period. Yet, it must be questioned: while the women of the Old Testament are defined by their relationship to men and display leadership and influence predominantly through unofficial power, is this reflective of the New Testament texts as well?
About Jacqui: Graduating with a BA in 1994, Jacqui served as the AOG chaplain and campus director for Students For Christ at Sydney University until 1998. After studying at Southern Cross, she completed her honours and doctoral studies through CSU, graduating in 2006. Jacqui has served as the Student Dean (2002-2005), Dean of Christian Studies (2006-2008) and Academic Dean of the College (2009-2014). Currently, Jacqui is associate professor of Biblical Studies, specialising in Old Testament studies. Her publications include Them, Us and Me: How the Old Testament Speaks to People Today, Raising Women Leaders (edited volume with Shane Clifton), andThree's A Crowd: Pentecostalism, Hermeneutics and the Old Testament as well as various articles and book chapters. Jacqui is an ordained minister of the Australian Christian Churches, and speaks regularly at local and international events. She has also appeared on various nationalTV and radio programs in Australia, including the ABC TV's Q&A program. Jacqui is committed to the mission of higher education in the church, and provides assistance to Pentecostal colleges in developing their institutional goals. She currently serves on the executive of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, and is part of the steering committee for Biblical Ethics in the Society of Biblical Literature. Her research interests include pentecostal hermeneutics, prophetic literature and feminist readings of Scripture. Jacqui is a member of Mountains Church (a church plant of Hawkesbury Church). She loves travelling, photography, art and coffee with friends.Jacqui is a member of the TEQSA Register of Experts. Taken from the Alphacrucis website. Jacqui blogs here
(Extract from Grey, J, ‘Models of Women’s Leadership in the Bible’ in Raising Women Leaders: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts, Jacqueline Grey and Shane Clifton (eds), Chester Hill, NSW: Australasian Pentecostal Studies, 2009, pp.71-88. Permission Approved.)
2 Meyers, Discovering Eve, 23 Ibid, 2-3.4 Ibid, 5. Meyers makes this observation of women in the narratives of Joshua and Judges. 5 In particular, see Genesis 12:10-20. Although the two episodes of Sarah being taken as a wife by a foreign king may be two traditions of the one event, the description of her a property is still relevant. 6 Though it must be noted that some scholars, such as Mace in Hebrew Marriage, understand the “owning” of the wife by the husband to refer to her sexuality, while her person belongs to herself. 7 John P. Kotter, ‘What Leaders Really Do’, Harvard Business Review, (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 1998), 37. 8 While most commentators suggest the term ‘woman of Lappidoth’ to be a description of her marital status, it should be notes that this is disputed. For example, Boling notes. Lappidoth has a feminine inflection, is a rare word, and is not noted as a proper name elsewhere; it could equally be translated as woman of ‘torches’ or ‘flames’ (Boling, R.G., Judges. AB, Doubleday: New York, 1975). 9 Athalya Brenner, The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative, (JSOT Press: Sheffield, 1985), 53. 10 Al Wolters, ‘Proverbs XXXI 10-31 as Heroic Hymn: A Form-Critical Analysis’, Vetus testamentum, (Vol 38, no 4, Oct 1988), 446-457 11 Jon D. Levinson, Esther, OTL, (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press), 16-17.