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Are Old Testament Women Nameless, Silent, Passive Victims?

The Old Testament shows that women participated in the covenant with God and took active roles in salvation history. During the past four centuries, though, their role has been obscured, most recently and ironically by radical feminism.

In the sixteenth century, Protestant iconoclasm reduced or eliminated the decoration of churches; today many Catholic churches are voluntarily blank-walled, and consequently female saints of the Old Testament have become less visible. Severe losses affecting women in Scripture occurred when Martin Luther rejected the full Christian canon to adopt that of the Jews: Judith, Susanna, and the heroic mother of the Maccabees disappeared entirely; Esther’s prayer was removed, among other things. In recent decades, the shift away from Gregorian chant with its recollection of the words of holy men and women further reduced awareness of these saints. Finally, disinformation about biblical women has become popular since the 1970s, with the result that Judaism and Christianity, especially Catholicism, have been maligned as misogynistic. The wholesome truth, based on the actual historical evidence, is that Judaism affirmed the spiritual equality of the sexes and recounted the deeds and words of many women and that Christianity affirmed and expanded upon this heritage.

In His Own Image

In the book of Genesis, an astounding revelation about women that we take for granted is first recorded. Yet the opening of Genesis was amazingly novel millennia ago when it was first given to the nomadic people of the Bronze Age whom God chose as his own. It stunningly records that God created man, male and female, in his own image (Gen. 1:27). The Jews received the doctrine that women are spiritually equal with men before anyone else considered it. No other faith came to this realization so early, and some never have. But it was so important that God included this doctrine in the very first book of Scripture, his initial revelation to mankind.

Genesis shows the meaning of this spiritual equality. The account of the fall demonstrates that male and female human beings are equal in moral competence. Both of them, Eve as well as Adam, were capable of discerning and choosing the good. When each of them sinned, each was held accountable. Each was fully human, and each received the punishment of death and expulsion from Eden. Because the created difference between the sexes is also real, each was given a sex-specific punishment as well (Gen. 3:3, 16–24). For instance, Eve was punished by pain in childbirth and Adam by labor and toil in breadwinning (Gen. 3:16–19). The Church has consistently recognized that Genesis demonstrates the full personhood of women. From the very first days of the Church both men and women were baptized, received the Eucharist, and grew in faith (Acts 8:12, 2:41–42). Jesus gave visibility to women in his ministry, and the disciples followed his example. For example, the apostle James gave a sexually balanced pair of models of faith, Abraham and Rahab (Jas. 2:20–26), and Clement of Rome developed the theme (First Epistle 10, 12). St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and St. Irenaeus were among the several Church Fathers who emphasized the spiritual equality of the sexes. St. Clement of Alexandria preached a sermon called, “Men and Women Are Equally Capable of Attaining Perfection.” This teaching continued through the centuries, affirmed by St. Isidore of Seville, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Sienna, and countless others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts the full personhood of men and women, who each have “an equal personal dignity” (CCC 2334). Numerous Church documents address it, including Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. The importance of the doctrine grew from Jesus’ emphasis upon the spiritual equality of women, but the idea was already present in the Old Testament.

“A Woman Inspired”

Eve has a special role that began in the early church. A prominent Paschal image called the Anastasis (“Resurrection”) showed Christ raising Adam and Eve from the prison of hell, the other righteous dead gathered near, about to be delivered. Eastern Catholics still sing Resurrectional hymns throughout the year, and nearly half of these hymns name both Adam and Eve. Eve utters praise of Christ:

Adam sings in exultation, O Lord; Eve, freed from bondage, cries joyfully: “O Christ, it is you who give resurrection to all!”

Eve thus, by tradition, announces the Resurrection during the harrowing of hell. For this reason, Hippolytus of Rome called Eve an apostle. Jewish Scripture recorded the histories and words of many women, saints and sinners. Genesis, for example, records the histories of women essential to salvation history. Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel were the wives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the progenitors of God’s chosen people. Exodus has significant passages regarding women. Transcending the usual cultural norms of the time, the Jews recognized that proper worship of God was conducted not just by the men in isolation but by the entire community, including women and children. Thus, when Pharaoh offered to let the men go into the desert to worship their God, Moses insisted that the women and children also be released (Ex. 10:24), a point Pope Benedict XVI called attention to in his study of The Spirit of the Liturgy (p. 16).

The deeds of Miriam are also recounted in Exodus. In Egypt she acted courageously by approaching Pharoah’s daughter and saving the life of her infant brother, Moses (Ex. 2:3–8). Later, inspired by God after the crossing of the Red Sea, she voiced a new hymn of praise, drawing the other women to sing with her in grateful acclaim of the miracle: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex. 15:21). As Pope John Paul II of blessed memory wrote, here Scripture “emphasizes the initiative of a woman inspired to make this decisive event a festive celebration.” The Bible demonstrates “her particular ability for praising and thanking God” (Theotokos, p. 72). Clement of Alexandria praised Miriam as the leader of the Hebrew women, who were afire with wisdom (sophia). Ephrem the Syrian and Jacob of Seruq likewise praise Miriam for her inspired singing. Not only were her words central to the very first celebration of the crossing of the Red Sea, but they remain integral to the Jewish celebration of Passover and the Christian celebration of Holy Saturday. Still today the faithful praise God in the words of Miriam beside the Red Sea.

Despite the positive Judeo-Christian traditions about the women of the Old Testament, a modern myth has arisen about them. The allegation is that they are nameless, silent, passive victims, but the evidence disproves that.

Neither Nameless . . .

Many persons are unnamed in ancient Jewish narratives, which are characteristically laconic. Scripture often refers to an individual or a group by role rather than by name as a way of prompting the reader to consider whether they fulfilled that role. The elders of the city of Bethulia proved themselves fit rulers when they prudently followed the counsels of Judith (e.g., Judith 10:6–10). Other persons abysmally failed to live up to their roles, such as Potiphar’s lascivious wife, who accosted Joseph (Gen. 39), or the two salacious elders who accosted Susanna (Dan. 13). In these examples, more men than women are nameless. Adele Reinhartz has shown that that pattern holds true throughout the Bible. Women are more frequently named, and entire books bear their names: Ruth, Judith, Esther, and in several Eastern traditions, Susanna.

There is a modern disdain of the masculine generic “man,” which is used throughout the Bible, but it can be demonstrated that the biblical writers perceived it as inclusive. In the history of Susanna, the language of Psalm 118, one of the Beatus vir psalms (“Blessed is the man“), is used to praise the woman Susanna (Dan. 13:35). Likewise, Mosaic law’s punishment for perjury against one’s “brother” or “neighbor” (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20; 19:18–21) is applied to the perjurers against her (Dan. 13:61). The Beatitudes in the New Testament are all expressed in the masculine plural, and clearly the Lord meant them to be understood of both sexes.

Nor Silent . . .

The Bible records the words of numerous women. When married couples pray together, the words of each are often recorded: for instance, when Tobias and Sara prayed on the first three nights of their marriage (Tob. 8:4–10). Her parents Raguel and Anna blessed God (Tob. 8:16–19). Susanna knew Scripture so well that she could paraphrase King David when she courageously refused the elders despite their death threat (Dan. 13: 22–23). She began, “O eternal God, who dost discern what is secret, who art aware of all things before they come to be.” Scripture notes that God heard her at once, and her words were effective (Dan. 13:42–44). Judith delivered extensive counsel (e.g., Judith 8:10–33, 13:17–21) that was followed by the entire city of Bethulia and even gave commands to the army (Judith 14:1–4). Her prayers, too, are recorded in full (Judith 9:1–19; 13:6–9). The stirring words of valiant women are recorded, as when Judith returned triumphantly to the besieged city and “from afar to the watchmen at the gates, ‘Open, open the gate! God, our God, is still with us, to show his power in Israel’” (Judith 13:11, see also 31). Her inspired canticle praising God crowns the book named for her (Judith 16:1–21) and became an important part of Jewish worship. Esther gave instruction to her uncle and her servants for three days of prayer and fasting in preparation for her risking her life to save her people by going unbidden before the king (Esther 4:10–11; 16–17). Her prayer is recorded at length (Esther 14:1–19).

Women’s words have been reanimated in Christian prayer through the ages. The words of Judith, Esther, Sarah, and Susanna are sung in Gregorian chant. The historical books of the Old Testament were prescribed in the breviary during the period between Pentecost and Advent, roughly August through November. Worshipers sang prayers by Judith (Judith 16:6–7; 9:10–11, 17) and by Esther, including “Strengthen Me, King of Saints” (Esther 14:12, 13, 11; 14:9), and Susanna’s words were sung on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays throughout the entire month of November, when the book of Daniel was read.

Nor Passive . . .

Passivity was not a characteristic of Esther, Judith, or Susanna. In fact, the actions of many women of the Old Testament, from Eve through the mother of the Maccabees, are famous. Rebecca’s own gracious actions revealed her to be the one chosen by God to marry Isaac, and her words show that it was by her own choice that she agreed to do so (Gen. 24:11–27, 55–58). Ruth, widowed and about to enter a foreign land with her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, chose to be steadfast in caring for the older woman and upholding her adopted Jewish faith (Ruth 1:16). Thereafter she managed their household with Naomi’s advice. Ruth’s actions led directly to her honorable marriage to Boaz and to her becoming an ancestress of Christ.

Salomone, the widowed mother of the seven Maccabee brothers, showed heroic courage, faith, and love as she was forced to watch her sons be martyred. Although the tyrant Antiochus tried to persuade each son in turn to violate religious law, she encouraged them in their faith, drawing on examples from the Old Testament. When only the youngest remained, Antiochus tried to enlist the boy’s mother’s help to save him. But “being filled with wisdom,” she spoke to the boy in Hebrew, which Antiochus did not understand, and exhorted him to persevere in faithfulness (2 Macc. 7:20–30). She herself was then martyred. The last chapter of the last book of Maccabees is devoted to the words with which she strengthened her sons (4 Macc. 18).

Not all acts are virtuous, of course. Sinful action is seen in women as well as in men of the Old Testament. The book of Judges conveys to us the history of the judge Deborah, who led and delivered her people, and the courage of the woman Jael, who slew the commander of the enemy forces. But it also records the deceitful strategies of Delilah, who conspired to capture Samson and defeat the Jewish people. The books of Kings attest to the deeds of numerous women, including the prudent Abigail and the manipulative and destructive Jezebel. In contrast to Job, with his steadfast faith during suffering, Job’s wife uttered bitter words (Job 1:9–10).

Nor Victims

The brand “victim” is often applied to biblical women in spite of the fact that the Lord himself was a willing victim who ultimately triumphed. In this light, Christianity traditionally honors legitimate self-sacrifice and recognizes it as veiled triumph. Susanna—like the three youths who defied the fiery furnace, and Daniel, who was cast into the lions’ den—risked death to maintain her personal and religious integrity. If she was wrong to do so, then so were they. Attention to what Susanna did and said shows that she acted as she did not because she was a brainwashed victim of patriarchy but because she had a lively faith in God (Dan. 13:2, 23, 35, 42–43). Since Susanna was vindicated and unharmed by her ordeal, it is curious that modern writers often call her a victim. Moreover, her triumph was not only personal. Her resistance to the sinfulness of the elders was the means by which God exposed their crimes, and her actions resulted in the restoration of just rule.

The Bride of the Lamb

Far from being silent, oppressed, passive victims, the Jewish women of the Old Testament were vocal, active, and often exemplary in virtue and wisdom. They embodied the description of the “valiant woman” found in Proverbs 31, advice composed by a queen for her son.

Many of the women of the Old Testament were first modest virgins (Rebecca and Rachel), then chaste and active wives (Abigail and Esther), next devoted mothers (Hannah and Anna), and finally devout widows (Judith and the woman of Zarephath who fed Elijah during the famine). Unfortunately, the modern trend values women only insofar as they dissociate themselves from religion and promote their personal power. Regina A. Boisclair and others consider Eve a heroine for attaining knowledge by taking the forbidden fruit, Marjorie Proctor-Smith proposes that certain women be removed from the lectionary lest they promote traditional roles for women, and Dorothee Sölle, in her book Great Women of the Bible, praises Lot’s daughters and Salome but criticizes Susanna and excludes the Mother of God. But worldly disdain for holiness is nothing new.

An additional role belongs to the female sex alone. The soul in relation to God is often described as a woman with her beloved, as in the Song of Songs. The community in relation to God is personified positively as the faithful bride and fruitful spouse (e.g., Is. 9:1; Jer. 4:14; Ez. 16:8–14); when the community acts idolatrously, it is portrayed negatively as a prostitute or adulteress (Hos. 1–3). For Christians, these personifications culminate in the images of the Whore of Babylon, companion of the Antichrist, whose reign is brief (Rev. 17) and the resplendent Church, the Bride of the Lamb, whose reign is eternal (Rev. 21:9–14; 22:17). Women have the privilege of being of the sex that represents the soul and the Church in union with God. This privilege was revealed through the inspired writings of the Old Testament.



Further Reading

John Paul II, Theotokos: Woman, Mother, Disciple: A Catechesis on Mary, Mother of God. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000.

Patricia Ranft, Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Adele Reinhartz, “Why Ask My Name?” Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cullen Schippe and Chuck Stetson, eds. The Bible and Its Influence. New York and Fairfax, Va.: Bible Literacy Project Publishing, 2006.

Catherine Brown Tkacz, “Singing Women’s Words as Sacramental Mimesis.” Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales. 70.2 (2003): 275–328.

Catherine Brown Tkacz, ” Aneboesen phonei megalei: Susanna and the Synoptic Passion Narratives.” Gregorianum 87.3 (2006) 449–86.


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