My hackles always rise a little when people make statements about “what the Bible says about women” because (at least from my reading) outside of the story that Jesus died for all sinners, including both women and men, the Bible doesn’t follow a narrow cultural narrative defining women to a particular role. Which makes sense, right? Since we are half the planet, we are diverse and we live out our lives in the unique situations that God has placed us with the individual personalities, gifts and foibles that he gives us. 1
I find it helpful to read stories about women that directly contrast with each other, so I pair Abigail who so aptly and defly circumvents her husband’s incompetence (1 Samuel 25:14-22) with Jepthath’s Daughter in Judges 11:30-39 who is the tragic victim in her father’s irrational vow.2 Phoebe the deacon and benefactor in Romans 16:1-2, and the nameless concubine in Judges 19:22-30, used only as symbol of the sin of others. The leaders Deborah, Huldah (and Jezebel, who is a leader, although not one we would choose to emulate) with women like Abishag who is mentioned in her function of keeping David warm at night in his old age. The women of courageous acts and deeds, Miriam, the Hebrew Midwives who defy Pharoah, and Jael with those like Tamar (2 Samuel 13) and Dinah (Genesis 34) who appear to have no voice.
And we read of women with complicated stories in their own right, like David’s first wife Michal or Sarah and Hagar, and Rachel and Leah whose lives reflect the full spectrum of what it is to be human; courage and victimisation, selfishness and selflessness, trust and fear.
And something becomes apparent to me when I read the Bible like this. One is that God cares about the diversity of women’s experience. That the pain of oppression, sexism and sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are all abhorrent to God. But also important to him is the joy in the victories of women against the forces of evil and the celebration of their acts of valour. The everyday actions of caring for family, feeding people and making do are important as are the courageous acts of bravery and their political and theological leadership.
The Islamic poet Moja Kahf writes that “All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens.”
In reading the Bible, with a focus on understanding women’s stories, I see that God’s word speaks to all three of these languages. It speaks into the silent suffering; hearing and responding to the cries that sometimes nobody else cares about. It gives women a place with men in their political and theological discourse. And it also speaks to the third voice, the empowered female voice. The one where the woman is not speaking so that her words and actions are carefully measured so as to be understood by men - but are celebrated and given worth in their own value as uniquely hers. Speaking from the depths of her experience and giving voice her status as a full heir in Christ.
This woman is confident to #pressforprogress. Not progress for herself as an individual, but not denying her own inherent worth. Not progress to put others down or to highlight her own strength but to use all her gifts and abilities, her training and her weaknesses to glorify God in the fullness of who he has called her to be. Loved and redeemed she presses for progress knowing that it liberates others and that it honours God as the King who hates oppression and loves the vulnerable.
1. Also, the Bible says an awful lot about being a human, that is not gender specific but just for everyone, which sometimes gets skipped over when we concentrate on reducing it to statements about gender.
2. And yet in that story we see Jepthath’s daughter act with agency despite her circumstances.
Fiona is a follower of Jesus by identity and by trade a teacher of Science. She studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.