Site icon Katy Shevel

Challenging stories of women in the Bible

Jael and Sisera
Source: Artemisia Gentileschi/Wikimedia Commons

On most Wednesday mornings these days, you’ll find me on Zoom, engaged in deep discussion about one of the many fascinating women in the bible. Our women’s early morning Bible study group has graciously invited me to lead us on a journey through the Old Testament. It is utterly astounding to me that the protagonists who greet us from the pages of scripture have voices, strengths, and struggles that resonate with us so plainly still today—even in these Ancient Near Eastern narratives that have been told for some three thousand years!

I confess, never before have I read through all the stories of women in the Old Testament one after another sequentially.[1] We are presently navigating our way through the books of Joshua and Judges. As we read, we can’t help but take note of one glaring recurring theme: violence.

The Israelites’ first encounter with a woman in the Promised Land is just before the bloody battle of Jericho. Joshua sends two spies into the city for a reconnaissance mission. Rahab, a citizen of the city who works as a prostitute, a notably dangerous profession, hides the Israelites in her home. She puts herself and her family at great personal risk in order to save the lives of two strangers. In the battle of Jericho, Joshua and his army “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city,” including women, children, and livestock (Joshua 6:21). Only Rahab and her family are spared. All their friends and neighbors are slaughtered.

Emerging from this story of ultraviolence, Rahab is remembered for her bravery and public profession of faith in the God of Israel. She goes down in biblical canon as an exemplar of faithfulness. She is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, even appearing in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Another woman extoled for her virtue is Jael, lifted up in song as the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24). The Canaanite army has just been overtaken by the Israelites, with the Canaanite general Sisera on the run. Sisera sought shelter in Jael’s tent. Jael made Sisera comfortable, covering him in a blanket and even giving him milk when he asked for water. Once Sisera fell asleep, Jael “went softly to him” (4:21) and drove a tent peg through his head with a hammer “until it went down into the ground.” When the Israelite general Barak came searching for Sisera, Jael showed him to her tent, where he found Sisera “lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple” (4:22).

Lynn Japinga writes, “The story of Jael confounds stereotypes and assumptions about women in the Bible. She was not a quiet nurturing woman in need of protection and guidance. Instead, she committed a violent act and was praised for it.” As a matter of fact, just before Jael’s act, Deborah, a female prophet and military advisor, predicted that a woman would receive all the glory for Israel’s victory!

These Old Testament stories are immersed in violence. And with a few exceptions, the women generally aren’t the ones with any agency within this culture of violence. In this biblical wartime context, women are raped, murdered, and taken captive as slaves. In Judges 11, Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter as a burnt offering to God for his recent victory in battle. Judges 19 is a horrible tale of a poor woman who is gang raped to death. The woman’s master cuts her body into twelve pieces, subsequently sending them out to the twelve tribes of Israel with the intent purpose to incite a war. As a result, the entire Book of Judges ends with the gruesome slaughter of thousands and the mass abduction of hundreds of young virgin girls.

But then, preluded by this depraved scene of graphic cruelty, we find one of our fondest narratives of biblical women. For just after the bloody conclusion of the Book of Judges, we turn immediately to the beloved story of Ruth and Naomi…

Violence surrounds women in the Old Testament, whether explicitly or implicitly. Women in the Bible have scarce agency over their own lives. Whether it’s a narrative of rape (like that of Tamar or Dinah), or the story of young Achsah being forcibly given away by her father to another man as a prize won in battle, women in the Bible are stripped of their power and choices, brutalized, and forced to do whatever it takes to survive.

Specifically, the Book of Judges is a story of a community collapsing in on itself in a perpetual cycle of sin. Judges like Deborah are appointed to lead and advise, but again and again, the people fall away into moral depravity. God is, at best, a background character, advising and infrequently pouring out God’s Spirit. Though one commentator notes, “In Judges, the occasional outpouring of the Spirit is, itself, diverted and perverted as Israel falls under the weight of its own corruption.”

In her book From Widows to Warriors, Lynn Japinga laments that God often doesn’t explicitly condemn the bad actors.[2] Notably though, at the very end of the Book of Judges, the narrator does. In Judges 21:25 it states: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Japinga writes, “Still, the narrator at least made it clear that this kind of ridiculous violence was no way for a community to live.”

The voices of the women in these biblical stories cry out to me. I feel their pain. Their suffering mirrors the suffering of women throughout history. Through the words on these pages, the women of scripture publicly face their accusers—and we, the readers of scripture, are their witnesses. God’s presence may not always be made apparent in these stories, just as God’s presence sadly isn’t always clear in lived moments of acute trauma.

When we step back and take the Bible into consideration as a whole, we see how God’s faithful presence pervades throughout the whole of the biblical narrative. Though I admit, this may not be a satisfying answer to the problem of God’s absence in certain individual bible stories. I’m reminded these days that scripture isn’t always satisfying; sometimes it’s messy and complicated, often leaving us with more questions than answers.

This is one reason why, in my Presbyterian faith tradition, we don’t worship the Bible. We worship God. So we can lift up these difficult stories of the Bible to God, in the same way we entrust God to carry the burdens of our troubled souls. We ask the Holy Spirit to shed some illuminating light upon these stories, to reveal for us how these stories of human evil might bear witness to the truth of God’s salvation for us.

As women, as persons of all genders, and as survivors of trauma and violence today, may these stories of brave, strong, and faithful women serve for us as God’s Word in a very special way. The world is a fragile, broken place, ever dependent upon the grace of God. Yet the women in these stories demonstrate anything but fragility. These biblical women are fierce warriors; protective mothers, wives, and daughters; intelligent and wise counselors; and courageous saints of the faith. The voices of the women of the Bible rise up and speak to us from generation to generation, reminding us today that we need not be defined by the brokenness of the world around us. By God’s grace, we are so much more.

By God’s grace, we are strong, beautiful, and beloved.

[1] Our Bible study companion book has been Lynn Japina’s From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament.

[2] Lynn Japinga, From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories form the Old Testament (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2020), p. 87.

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