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Women in the Bible

Women in the Bible

Women in Sacred Scripture1

– Professor Michael F. Hull

"In the beginning . . . God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:1, 27; 5:1–2) And from the beginning (of the Bible) men and women serve as characters in God’s revealed epic of election and redemption that is inaugurated by the mysterious admixture of God’s infinite love and humanity’s felix culpa. From the beginning God’s creation mirrors the Creator in unity. How then may we speak of "women in Sacred Scripture" or "men in Sacred Scripture," as if Genesis 1–3, for example, could admit of such an extrapolation? On the one hand, it would seem that to speak of "women in Sacred Scripture" is too arbitrary an abstraction from the biblical portrayal of human persons. On the other hand, such an abstraction might help us to discern more clearly God’s will by focusing on certain moments of his grace in the witness of particular women in the Bible. Here we must be circumspect: an examination of all the women of the Bible, no more or less so than an examination of all the men of the Bible would prove amorphous and disobliging. But an examination of a few key women, with salient roles in God’s election and redemption, proves advantageous toward an exposé. Let us begin with the beginning in the Old Testament, continue into the New Testament, and conclude with an albeit partial composite.

The Elect

The Old Testament is the story of election. It is the story of the election of a people—men and women—by God. Adam and Eve are joint sharers in the preternatural gifts. This is made especially poignant in that each eats individually of the forbidden fruit. The sin of disobedience is not brought by one upon the other: both are guilty and both are punished. However, the loss of the preternatural gifts and banishment from the Garden of Eden does not bring about the annihilation of the imago Dei or humanity’s dependence on God. Adam and Eve are procreators, and it is Eve who acknowledges that their first son, Cain, is God’s gift—"I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord." (Genesis 4:1) Likewise, Eve saw the hand of God in the birth of Seth to restore Abel’s loss; it is at the birth of Seth’s first son that "men began to call upon the Lord." (Genesis 4:25–26) And so it was that men and women called upon the Lord, often with mixed results of confusion, destruction, and restoration, until the Lord chose one forefather and foremother in the persons of Abraham and Sarah.

The initial call to Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) comes not just to an individual but also to a married man (Genesis 11:29). Thus, Sarah is an integral sharer in the Lord’s promise to Abraham of blessing, progeny, and land. Despite Abraham’s cowardice in offering Sarah to Pharaoh of Egypt (Gen 12:10–20) and to Abimelech of Gerar (Genesis 20:1–7), the Lord protects her. However, Abraham’s lack of trust in God’s safeguarding is paralleled by Sarah’s lack of trust in God’s promise. It is Sarah who sends Hagar (the Egyptian) in to her husband to force the hand of God’s promise (Genesis 16:1–6); it is Sarah who mocks God and laughs at the prospect of a child in her advanced age (Genesis 18:9–15). The attempt to circumvent God’s plan through Hagar’s vicarious fecundity vis-à-vis Ishmael is as much Abraham’s fault as Sarah’s and it is rejected by God. Although God shows compassion for Hagar and Ishmael, allowing them some semblance of the promises made to Abraham (Genesis 16:7–14; 21:13–21), there is to be no heir without God’s direct intervention and acknowledgement thereof. With divine intervention (Genesis 21:1–2), Sarah conceives and bears Isaac. So too, Genesis 22 recounts Abraham’s recognition of Isaac as God’s gift in one of the most compelling pericopes in the Old Testament. The blessings on Abraham and Sarah are abundant. The progeny is complete in Abraham and Sarah. Only the land remains. Sarah becomes the stake by which Canaan is forever claimed for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. At Sarah’s death, Abraham buys a plot from Ephron the Hittite in Canaan and buries her there (Genesis 23:1–20), since it is implausible that the foremother should be buried in alien soil.

In like manner, it is implausible that their son, Isaac, should marry among alien people. Abraham dispatches to his and his wife’s people for a suitable mate, Rebecca. Isaac shows his father’s cowardice; like father, like son, Isaac is willing to risk Rebecca’s defilement for his own security (Genesis 26:1–11). Isaac’s role, other than siring Esau and Jacob, is small in comparison to Rebecca’s. It is to Rebecca that the Lord reveals the nature of the struggle in her womb, that the younger shall usurp the elder (Genesis 25:23), not to Isaac. Isaac’s preferment of Esau is not favored in God’s plan, but Rebecca’s love for Jacob is rewarded in his purchasing of Esau’s birthright. Moreover, by her machinations, it is Rebecca who serves as the instrument of God’s will in obtaining the blessing for Jacob rather than Esau, and it is Isaac who remains in the dark as to God’s plans. Esau marries among the aliens, the Hittites (Genesis 26:34–35). The enmity between the two brothers that had begun in Rebecca’s womb continues as the leitmotiv which causes Jacob to flee back to Rebecca’s people for a suitable wife, Rachel.

Jacob and Rachel become the parents of the tribes that form the Hebrew people. It is by Rachel’s first son, Joseph, that the blessing, progeny, and land will see a medial fulfillment in Egypt. Rachel is the true wife of Jacob, the one whom he desires and loves most, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel is the one whom God remembers by opening her womb with Joseph and by acceding to her wish for a second son with Benjamin before her death in labor (Genesis 30:23–24; 35:16–18). Furthermore, it is her body that becomes yet another stake in the claim for Canaan, when Jacob buries her in Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19; 48:7). And even though each tribe is not linked to Rachel directly, the progenitors of the prosperity in Egypt are her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Without Rachel, it is impossible to conceive of the fortune and fertility of the Hebrew people as we find them in the beginning of Exodus. From Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel an entire people has been constituted and has prospered. When that people is oppressed and in bondage, it is women—Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter and Moses’ unnamed mother—who protect the Hebrews’ future leader, Moses, the one whom God picks to lead his people to the fulfillment of election in the promised land, because God has heard the cry of their appeal (Exodus 3:7). To be sure, the election of the Hebrew people is the precursor to the redemption of all people in Jesus Christ. As women played a vital role in the election, so did they play a vital role in the redemption.

The Redeemed

The New Testament is the story of redemption. It is the story of the redemption of all people—men and women—by God. At the center of the redemption, of course, is the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, one with the Creator, the Father, and the Sanctifier, the Holy Spirit. The holy gospels have as their aim to describe the immediate words and deeds of the Redeemer, just as the other books tell of the words and deeds of his apostles and disciples. To speak of anyone, man or woman, after the advent of the Incarnate Word, is to speak of him or her in relation to that Word. Specifically, the gospels recount a plethora of men and women in Jesus’ life and work, wherein the election of the Father is transubstantiated into Redemption by the Son through the Holy Spirit.

There is no greater exaltation for the human race than that the Son of God should become man and be born of woman. There is no human being closer to God than his mother, Mary, who as the Theotokos bore him in her womb with love beyond all telling. Mary is the most significant woman in the created order and perforce the most significant woman in the Bible. Mary is the "new Eve," by whose fiat God’s plan for Redemption is set in motion so that the faults inaugurated by the first Eve might be atoned in her Son. It is at the moment of his sacrificial obedience on the Cross that Jesus entrusts the Church to his mother and his mother to the Church (John 19:25–27). This exaltation of his mother manifests the importance of women in his life and provides the paradigm for his relationship with women of respect and compassion.

There are women at the most significant moments of Jesus’ life. Elizabeth, along with John the Baptist still in her womb, is the first woman (other than Mary) recorded to worship him and recognize the fulfillment of Gabriel’s promise to Mary (Luke 1:42–45). And it is Rachel’s voice that is intoned to mourn for the Holy Innocents (Matthew2:16–18; cf. Jeremiah 31:15; 40:1), whose slaughter by Herod is the prefigurement of Israel’s rejection and murder of the Messiah on the Cross. More women than men stand at the foot of the Cross (Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25–27). The activities of more women than men are recorded immediately thereafter (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55–56; cf. John 19:40–42). Women are among the first witnesses of the Resurrection (Matthew 28:1–6; Mark 16:1–12; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–2, 11–18). Ergo, women figure substantially in the Incarnation and the Redemption.

There are also women who are most significant in Jesus’ earthly ministry as the beneficiaries of his respect and compassion. According to Luke (8:1–3), there were many women disciples of Jesus who traveled about with him. In fact, the reminiscence of Jesus’ presence in Martha and Mary’s home, wherein Jesus would rather have women listening to his teaching than fussing about with other things, illustrates Jesus' respect for women (Luke 10:38–42; cf. John 11:1); since they must cooperate in their own salvation, women need to learn from Jesus as much as anyone else. Similarly, women need to reform their lives. John (4:7–42) records Jesus' deferential encounter with a Samaritan women. It is clear that Jesus knows that she is a Samaritan, and a very sinful one at that, but he does not chide her. Instead, he explains to her who he is and what his coming means. Jesus’ disciples do not understand, but the Lord knows exactly what he is about in working with and through this woman by whom many Samaritans came to believe (John 4:39). Jesus also notes the generosity and example of a poor widow as a lesson for his disciples (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:14). Perhaps the most striking portrait of Jesus’ respect for women (and love for sinners) is when he poses a prostitute as an example for Peter (Luke 7:36–50). At dinner in the home of a Pharisee, a prostitute wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears and anoints them with oil. Luke states that it is the Pharisee who questions Jesus in his mind, but it is to Peter that the lesson is addressed about sin and forgiveness.

In like manner, Jesus’ compassion for women is boundless. He raises Jairus’ daughter from death (Matthew9:18–19, 23–26; Mark 5:21–24, 35–43; Luke 8:40–42, 49–56) and the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11–17). On seeing a woman stooped in infirmity, he cannot help but heal her, even though she did not ask for his compassion and even if the act might arouse the ire of some because it was performed on the Sabbath day (Luke 13:10–13; cf. Matthew 12:11–12; John 5:1–18). The compassion of Jesus toward women is not limited to the daughters of Israel, for Jesus casts a demon from a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–30).

Possibly the most moving instance of Jesus’ compassion occurs in John 8:1–11. Jesus is teaching in the temple when scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who has been caught in adultery before him; their intention is to stone her, for her guilt is clear and the law of Moses prescribes it. Jesus’ words are few: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." At his words, they depart, but the woman stays and stands before him. And Jesus speaks to the adulterous woman words that sum up his compassionate mind-set toward the human race he redeems—"I do not condemn you. Go and do not sin again."

Women’s Biblical Witness

A composite of women’s biblical witness shows their intimate sharing in the most significant biblical moments with men. All in all, it is somewhat futile to sever the witness of men from that of women or vice versa. The momentous biblical events of election and redemption are not gender differentiated; they are moments of an identification between God and humanity that are best considered along the lines of a unified human experience, rather than as if man and woman were somehow in tension with one another. However, insofar as we may distinguish the biblical characters in order to learn from the particular successes and failures of our predecessors in the Faith, we have much to learn from the witness of biblical women. Three general themes are evident: humanity’s place in God’s election, humanity’s place in Lord’s redemption; and the fundamental dignity of mankind.

First, men and women were instruments in God’s election from the beginning. The story of God’s creative act is as much a story about Eve as it is about Adam. The preparation for God’s chosen people is as much a story about Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel as it is about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All that commences with God’s theophany to Moses in Exodus 3 has been prepared by God in concert with the men and women of his choosing in order that Israel might become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodis 19:6; cf. Isaiah 61:6) The Old Testament proclaims a divine principle about God’s concern for his creation. It is a concern that places human beings—men and women alike—in a relationship with him so that they might participate in an association with him despite their original sin and anticipate their redemption by him in the person of the Son. Men and women are coequal sharers in his promise to Abraham of blessing, progeny, and land. They are also heirs to the deeper meaning of that initial promise, a reality veiled in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament: that they should have not only blessing but redemption, not only progeny but eternal life, and not only land on earth but a home in heaven.

Second, men and women were instruments in the Lord’s redemption. Just as God allowed their participation in the covenants of old, so he permits their participation in the earthly life and work of the Redeemer. Because of Jesus’ unique personhood and natures—divine and human—no analogy between any man or woman is illustrative, and no man or woman may be compared. No matter how worthy a man or woman becomes because of his or her imitation of Christ, no matter how deserving a human being may be of dulia, latria is paid to God— Father, Son, and Spirit—alone. However in this regard, the Blessed Virgin Mary stands alone among human beings. Her pivotal role in the election and the redemption is singular. By divine providence, Mary is deserving of our hyperdulia. As Eve was "the mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20) in a natural sense, Mary is the mother of the Redeemer and mother of the redeemed, that is, the "mother of all the living" in a supernatural sense. The election is wondrously fulfilled in the redemption. Therefore, Peter could rightly reinterpret the understanding of Exodus 19:6 for Israel to be constitutive of the new Israel, the Church, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people" (1 Peter 2:9). In the new dispensation, as Paul points out, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:28–29)

Finally then, the Lord’s goodness to his people, male and female, exemplifies the reality of human dignity in the created order. From the beginning men and women were crafted in the imago Dei, and because of the Incarnation all men and women are invited to share in the fruits of the Passion and Resurrection. The composite portrait of women in the Old and New Testaments makes obvious God’s respect and compassion for women. With respect to our contemporary age, as we begin the third millennium of Christianity, women ought to see that their role in salvation history has been critical for God’s revelation and redemption. Women need to focus on God’s beneficence to them, especially in his choice of a woman as the mother of his Son. That pinnacle of God’s graciousness and the collective witness of the Bible demonstrate women’s importance in God’s salvific will. From the beginning men and women have been called to union with God. Indeed it is a woman, speaking to another women, who sums up the whole of the biblical witness as it addresses humanity, when Elizabeth says to Mary: "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." (Luke 1:45)

[1] – Videoconference from 10 – 29 - 2002

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