The Holy Bible, in both Jewish and Christian versions, makes it clear that men were the bosses in most biblical settings. However, the answers to some frequently asked questions show that there were strong women in the Bible who stood out all the more because they surmounted or circumvented the patriarchy in which they lived.
Did a woman ever rule ancient Israel?
Yes, in fact two strong women in the Bible are among Israel's rulers. One is Deborah, a judge before Israel had kings, and the other is Jezebel, who married a king of Israel and became an enemy of the prophet Elijah.
How did Deborah become a judge over Israel?
Judges 4-5 tells how Deborah became the only woman to be a judge, or tribal ruler, during the time before the Israelites had kings. Deborah was known as a woman of great wisdom and spiritual depth whose decisions were guided by her ability as a prophetess, that is, someone who contemplates God and discerns instructions from such meditations. And talk about strong women in the Bible! Deborah went into battle to help the Israelites throw off an oppressive Canaanite ruler. In a reversal of the typical Old Testament marital record, we know that Deborah was married to a man named Lappidoth, but we have no other details about their marriage.
Why was Jezebel the enemy of Elijah?
1 and 2 Kings tell of Jezebel, another notable among strong women in the Bible. To this day Jezebel, Philistine princess and wife of King Ahab, has a reputation for wickedness, although some scholars now say she was only being a strong woman according to her culture. While her husband was officially Israel's ruler, Jezebel is depicted as the ruler of her husband, and as a plotter seeking to gain both political and religious power. The prophet Elijah became her enemy because she sought to establish the Philistine religion in Israel.
In 1 Kings 18:3, Jezebel is depicted as giving the order to have hundreds of Israelite prophets killed so that she could install priests of the god, Ba'al, in their place. Finally, during the 12-year reign of her son Joab after Ahab's death, Jezebel took the title of "Queen Mother" and continued to be a power both publicly and behind the throne (2 Kings 10:13).
Did strong women in the Bible ever outsmart their men?
Yes, in fact, strong women in the Bible often got around the restrictions of their male-dominated society by turning those restrictions to their benefit. Two of the best examples of such women in the Old Testament are Tamar, who used the Hebrew practice of levirate marriage to gain children after her husband died, and Ruth, who benefited from her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi.
How could Tamar have children after her husband died?
Told in Genesis 38, Tamar's story is a sad but ultimately triumphant one. She married Er, the eldest son of Judah, one of Jacob's 12 sons. Shortly after their wedding, Er died. According to the custom known as levirate marriage, a widow could marry her dead husband's brother and have children by him, but the firstborn child would be known legally as the son of the widow's first husband.
According to this practice, Judah offered his next-eldest son, Onan, as a husband for Tamar after Er's death. When Onan also died shortly after their marriage, Judah promised to marry Tamar to his youngest son, Shelah, when he came of age. However, Judah reneged on his promise, and so Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and lured Judah into sex in order to become pregnant with her first husband's bloodline.
When Tamar was found to be pregnant, Judah had her brought out to be burned as an adulteress. However, Tamar produced Judah's signet ring, his staff and his belt, which she had taken from him in payment while disguised as a prostitute. Judah immediately realized what Tamar had done when he saw his possessions. He then announced that she was more righteous than he, because she fulfilled a widow's responsibility to see her husband's line carried on. Tamar later gave birth to twin sons.
How did Ruth rate an entire book in the Old Testament?
The Book of Ruth is even more exciting than Tamar's story, for Ruth shows how women used kinship ties for survival. Her story actually tells of two strong women in the Bible: Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi.
Ruth was from Moab, a land adjacent to Israel. She married a son of Naomi and her husband, Elimelech who went to Moab when there was famine in Israel. Elimelech and his sons died, leaving Ruth, Naomi and another daughter-in-law, Orpah, widowed. Naomi decided to return to Israel and told her daughters-in-law to go back to their fathers. Orpah left weeping, but Ruth steadfastly remained, uttering some of the Bible's most famous words: "Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
Once they returned to Israel, Ruth and Naomi came to the attention of Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi's and a rich landowner. Boaz was kind to Ruth when she came to glean his field to get food for Naomi, because he had heard of Ruth's loyalty to her mother-in-law. Learning of this, Naomi instructed Ruth to wash and dress, and to go in to offer herself to Boaz in hopes of marriage. Boaz refused Ruth's offer of sex, but he agreed to marry her if another relative, closer in lineage to Naomi, refused. Eventually Ruth and Boaz married and had children including Obed, who grew up to father Jesse, the father of David.
Ruth's story shows how much family ties and loyalty were prized by the ancient Israelites. Ruth's character also shows that foreigners could be assimilated successfully into Israelite families and become valued members of their society.
Strong Women in the Bible Sources:
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press, 1994).
- The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH (Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: Two Volumes in One the Old and New Testaments (1988, Wings).
- Meyers, Carol, General Editor, Women in Scripture (2000 Houghton Mifflin, New York)