Celebrating Significant Women in Scripture
by Ray Mayhew
I have recently been reflecting on the place of women in scripture, but this has not been to advance the debate on women in ministry, but rather to point out that they are often pivotal in the narrative of scripture, and this in itself is surprising as women do not usually play leading roles in the literature of the ancient near east—but they most certainly do in the Biblical record.
I have clustered the roles and accomplishment of the leading women in scripture into twelve different categories and while this is not a watertight or exhaustive (and some women clearly overlap several of my categories) such a study does begin to highlight the importance of women in scripture, particularly in the face of the ongoing criticism that the Bible’s perspective on women is somewhat negative, or that they were not very significant in salvation history.
This is blatantly untrue, and my goal is something of a course correction as we move deeper into the rich panorama of womanhood presented in scripture.
First, there are the women who are pivotal in the narrative of scripture and these would obviously include women like Eve, the wives of the patriarchs (especially Sarah), and Mary, the mother of our Lord. For obvious reasons, such women are seen as having great theological importance in the history of biblical exegesis and are frequently mentioned in scripture. But as they are so well known I will only mention them in passing, but this is in no way to minimize their importance.
Second, there are women who, somewhat surprisingly, appear in the biblical genealogies, including the genealogy of Jesus himself. And it is interesting to note that in Matthew’s genealogy these include a Canaanite (Judah’s wife), a prostitute (Rahab), a Moabite (Ruth, the wife of Boaz and great-grandmother of David) and Bathsheba. This says volumes in and of itself and is an intriguing area of study that is often overlooked.
Third, there are women who are examples of faith, and courage. Some examples would be Jochebed, who defied the decree of Pharaoh and hid her son Moses; Deborah, who was both a judge and a military leader; Jael, the woman who killed Siseraand delivered Israel from the army of king Jabin; Hannah the mother of Samuel; Abigail the wife of Nabal who risked her own life on David’s behalf, and Esther who along with Mordecai delivered Israel from potential genocide. The complete list would be a long one, however, as most books on women in the Bible focus on such biographies they tend to be well known to us and so I won’t enumerate them here.
Fourth, there are women who represent the nature of Israel itself; that is women who are symbolic of who and why the people of God were chosen and brought into a covenant relationship with Yahweh. I deal with four of them (Sarah, Deborah, Rahab, and Hagar) in my article Women as Israel (see the Footnotes page on my website) that draws on the work of Gary Rendsburg and is one of the most neglected features of OT exegesis.
Fifth, there are women who appear in scripture in sequential or in chronological order in order to make a theological point. For example, unlike the English bible, the last section of the Hebrew bible, the Ketubim (or the Writings), list Proverbs, Job, the Song of Songs and Ruth consecutively, one after the other. And without over-reaching, it seems significant that Proverbs ends with a whole chapter exemplifying the ideal wife; the next book, Job, begins by describing a treacherous wife who counsels Job to curse God and die; the next book, the Song of Songs is a poem in praise of beauty and virtue in a wife; and the series concludes with Ruth, an alien, who came to be described as a “virtuous wife” (which, incidentally is the same word used in Proverbs at the beginning of the cycle to describe the ideal wife in chapter 31.)
Sixth, are the barren women of Israel who include Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael, Manoah’s wife, the mother of Sampson, and Hannah the mother of Samuel. And from the NT we should also add to these Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. Their inability to conceive was perhaps demonically opposed simply because of the importance of the children they eventually birthed—all of whom significantly carried forward the work of kingdom in their generation. And the contribution of these women of faith in advancing the work of God cannot be overemphasized.
Seventh, we find colorful characters like Susannah, Judith, and the mother of the Maccabean martyrs, women of outstanding courage, who are mentioned in the Apocrypha. And while we do not regard the Apocrypha as scripture, this literature has always been an important source of biographical material for both Jews and Christians. Today these stories are neglected by Evangelicals, but they portray some important women who were heroes in their day and who help us fill out the role and place of women in Israel and complement the material we have in the canonical books of the Bible itself.
Eighth, are the many women who are mentioned in the Gospels. The first would be the women who are prominent in the infancy narratives of the gospels; Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, and of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. Then there were the women Jesus interacted with in his ministry. These would include the daughter of Jairus, the woman with a flow of blood, the Syrophoenician woman, the widow at Nain, the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery, and the so-called “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus at the feast in Galilee.
After these would come the women who are mentioned in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus and these would include Martha and Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Salome the mother of the sons of Zebedee, Mary of Clopas, the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, those in Herod’s household, and even Pilate’s wife.
Then we should not forget the Galilean women listed in Luke 8 who financially supported Jesus and the disciples (including Joanna wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household), the women who were at the cross, and finally (and remarkably) those who were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. This is not a complete list, but it gives some idea of the prominence that Jesus gave to women in his ministry.
Ninth, would be the women of significance in the books of Acts and the epistles and this would include Dorcas (also known as Tabitha) who Peter raised from the dead. Mary (the mother of John Mark whose home was a gathering point for the church in Jerusalem), Rhoda (who thought Peter, fresh from his prison break, was a ghost), Pricilla (the wife of Aquila), Lydia (the first convert in Europe), Eunice and Lois (the mother and grandmother of Timothy), Phoebe who is described in Romans 16:1 as “a minister of the church in Cenchrea”, and Junius the wife of Andronicus who Paul describes in Romans 16:7 as outstanding among the apostles. Others could be mentioned, but this gives us a sample of the many women who sacrificially served in the early church.
Tenth are the women who only appear in the record because they were wicked in the sight of the Lord (and we should note that this category is very small compared to the men who appear for the same reason). Some examples would be Potiphar’s wife, Jezebel, Athaliah (the daughter of Jezebel who as “queen” in Judah who murdered 70 of the grandsons - all descendants of the house of David), Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, whose wife and daughter demanded the head of John the Baptist, and Sapphira the wife of Ananias who died because of lying about the amount of the gift they had given to the church.
And eleventh, I should mention the large number of women in scripture, in both the OT and the NT, who were clearly gifted by the Holy Spirit. For instance, Miriam was the first recorded prophetess in the Bible (it is even said in Micah 6:4 Moses, Aaron, and Miriam led Israel), Deborah who is described as being anointed for leadership, Rahab who probably had the gift of faith (along with Miriam) who are the only women mentioned among the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11. Then there was Huldah who was a prophetess consulted by the king--even when we read that significant male prophets were active in Israel at the same time. Then there was the category of “wise women” mentioned in Samuel and Kings, who were called “wise women” not simply because they were discerning, but clearly because they had the gift of wisdom.
Then moving onto the NT, Tabitha had the gift of helps, Pricilla (along with her husband Aquila) had an outstanding teaching gift, Phoebe is described in Romans 16:1 as a minister of the church in Cenchrea, and, as I mentioned, Junius the wife of Andronicus is described by Paul in Romans 16:7 as outstanding among the apostles. Again, many more could be listed, but this gives a taste that in both the OT and the NT there were women who knew how to operate in the realm of spiritual gifts.
And as an aside, spiritual gifts are not gender conditioned in the NT. The promise was that even our sons and daughters would prophesy, and when Paul is dealing with spiritual gifts in passages like 1 Cor 12 and 14 he includes women alongside men as those who are were anointed and gifted by the Holy Spirit to labor alongside the men in the missional activities of the infant (but explosively growing) church, that was emerging in the ancient world.
And finally there are the metaphorical women who are apocalyptic symbols in scripture. These can be found in the OT (in Zechariah, for instance) but most notably include the harlot and the bride in the book of Revelation.
As I said, my classification is not watertight, and obviously some of the women overlap the various categories, but my reason for this rough taxonomy is to demonstrate that Israel was unique in that even while it was a patriarchal society, its women played a role that was challenging, instructive, and of great theological and missional significance.
In the midst of the ongoing debate about the role of women in ministry, it is healthy to step back for a bit and simply celebrate what these women have done, and continue to do, in the drama of God’s ongoing redemptive purposes for the world. And by the way, if you want a great book on the women in the Gospels, you could not do better than Richard Bauckham’s Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels. It is a scholarly work, and not an easy read, but if you want to dig deeper, it is one of the best.