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Women in the Bible: Inspiring Change for Such a Time as This

Praise-Wheat-Field-Worship

Woman In A Wheat Field

“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.  She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.  She watches over the affairs of her household.”  (Proverbs 31:25–27)

Today, on International Women’s Day, people worldwide will be buying flowers for their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters.

Since its inception in 1909, International Women’s Day (IWD) has gained status as a public holiday in about 30 nations, including Uganda, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

This day rallies supporters of gender equality in the professional world, advocates for safe environments for women, and celebrates women in our lives in all their varied roles.

This year, the IWD theme is “Be Bold for Change.”

Israel-cellphone-woman-falafel

An Israeli woman enjoys a falafel, a traditional Middle Eastern sandwich.

The Bible is full of women who played decisive roles, boldly bringing forth change as prophets and leaders in Jewish society.

Other women’s lives in the Bible are wrought with tragedies of exploitation and injustice.  Even so, they were often redeemed and avenged by those boldly seeking a change to such injustice.

While the avengers’ methods were not always godly, their moral outrage is still commendable.

Let’s take a look at some of these women and those who stood by them in good and in evil, boldly seeking change.

Queen Esther-Haram-Edwin Long

Queen Esther, by Edwin Long

Queen Esther

“Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (Esther 2:17)

This theme of inspiring change seems especially fitting since in just a few days, the Jewish people will be celebrating the courage of women with the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar—Purim (Festival of Lots).

This upcoming holiday celebrates the exemplary leadership and bravery of Hadassah, a Jewish girl who rose to become ancient Persia’s Queen Esther.

As queen, Esther risked death to inspire change, advocating for the Jewish People’s salvation from planned genocide.

In struggling with the decision to seek the king’s mercy, she modeled modesty, courage, and perseverance, even as she rallied her people to fast and pray for their lives.

To come before the king uninvited was a huge risk.  But Esther listened to the sage advice of her uncle Mordecai who urged her to break through social barriers and do whatever was in her power, even if it meant incurring a death sentence.

“Mordecai trained Esther so that when the time came to exercise courage to risk her life and her nation (that special moment), she was able to accomplish what God wanted,” writes the Rev. Eric Maefonea.  “It takes courage to push yourself to places that you’ve never been before, to test your limits, to break through barriers.”  (Solomon Star News)

Esther seized the opportunity at hand and boldly changed a decree of death to life.

The Abduction of Dinah, by James Tissot

The Abduction of Dinah, by James Tissot (cropped)

Jacob’s Daughter Dinah: Brotherly Revenge

“Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land.”  (Genesis 34:1)

In Genesis 34, the daughter of Israel, named Dinah, was raped by Shechem, the son of a local ruler who professed to love her.  He even underwent circumcision to marry her.

Nevertheless, Dinah’s indignant brothers, Simeon and Levi, attacked Shechem and every male in his city, incurring the condemnation of their father.  (Genesis 49:5–7)

Despite this rebuke from their father, the brothers argued: “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”  (Genesis 34:31)

Judah and Tamar, by Ferdinand Bol

Judah and Tamar,,by Ferdinand Bol (1653) located at Pushkin Museum

Judah’s Daughter-in-Law Tamar: The Pursuit of Justice

“He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.”  (Psalm 113:9)

Another biblical account concerning the poor treatment of women involves Tamar, the wife of Judah’s firstborn son, Er.  (Genesis 38)

Because of his wickedness, Er died before Tamar conceived any children.

Under Yibbum or Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–6), Er’s brother Onan was obligated to marry the widow to raise up an heir for Er. Despite this obligation, Onan refused to give Er an heir. As a result, God judged him as well, and he died prematurely.

At this point, Judah told Tamar to wait for his next son Shelah to grow up so that Shelah could bring about an heir for Er.

He really had no intention of doing so, though, as he blamed his daughter-in-law Tamar for his sons’ deaths, thinking she was cursed.

Judah-Tamar-Rembrandt

Judah and Tamar, by Rembrandt

When Tamar understood Judah’s deception, she disguised herself as a prostitute in her own effort to raise up an heir for her deceased husband.  It worked. Judah unwittingly hired Tamar for her services.

When he found out that Tamar was pregnant, Judah condemned her for prostitution.  In fact, he called for her to be burned to death.

In her wisdom, Tamar kept Judah’s pledged seal, cord, and staff (the emblems of his leadership) as evidence of his involvement.

These items also gave evidence to the community that Tamar’s deceased husband, Er, would finally receive an heir from a close male relative, as was the custom.

When Judah recognized that he was the father of Tamar’s baby, he repented of his unjust attitude and actions toward her.

He understood that she acted only to obtain what was due to her and admitted, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.”  (Genesis 38:26)

By independently acting to obtain justice for herself, Tamar not only protected the lineage of her husband, but also the promised Messianic lineage.  How?

Tamar’s son Perez became a forefather of King David and Yeshua (Jesus). (Matthew 1:3; Luke 3:33)

Lion of Judah-Tribe of Judah

The Lion of Judah is the symbol of the Tribe of Judah.

Ruth:  A Woman of Excellence

“But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.’”  (Ruth 1:16)

Similar to Tamar, the Book of Ruth highlights a situation in which a woman overcomes obstacles.

Ruth, the Gentile daughter-in-law of the Jewess Naomi, looked to the family go’el (kinsman redeemer) to redeem her from widowhood and buy Naomi’s land so as to keep it in the family name.

By being redeemed, Ruth would be able to help the widow Naomi who was left without a husband, sons, or grandchildren.

Boaz consented to marry Ruth and to redeem the land, fulfilling the patriarchal duty of keeping the property in the family inheritance (Ruth 4:5; Deut. 25:6)

Through this union, Boaz and Ruth became ancestors of both King David and Yeshua.

Ruth in the Field of Boaz-Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Ruth in the Field of Boaz, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Ruth has some wonderful qualities in addition to being an overcomer, which should inspire men and women alike.  

When Ruth’s husband died, she could have easily stayed in Moab and let her mother-in-law go to Israel on her own.  But she insisted on standing by Naomi and returning with her to Israel, even though it was a foreign land to her.

She is a model of chesed (compassion) and courage.  She even faced the dangers of gleaning in the field so her mother-in-law could eat.

Ruth-Antonio Corina Farinos

Ruth, by Antonio Corina Farinos

Ruth further demonstrated loyalty and obedience by agreeing to Naomi’s plan for her to marry Boaz (Ruth 3:5).

Boaz didn’t only marry Ruth because of his responsibility to Naomi. He recognized, along with everyone else, her very evident qualities and called her an eshet chayil, which has been translated as a virtuous and capable wife, a worthy woman, and a woman of excellence.

“Don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character [eshet chayil].”  (Ruth 3:11)

This same phrase is found in Proverbs 31, which Jewish men recite over their wives every Shabbat as a blessing.

“A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.”  (Proverbs 31:10)

King David’s Daughter Tamar: Purity and Innocence

Another woman in the Bible named Tamar is King David’s daughter and the sister of Absalom.

This Tamar is described as an innocent, pure, beautiful virgin.

David’s firstborn son Amnon believes he is madly in love with her and concocts a plan to rape her.  Caught in his trap, Tamar attempts to dissuade him, but he forces himself upon her.

Once he is finished with her, he realizes that he doesn’t love her, and he throws her out as damaged goods, destroying her emotionally.  David is angry, but he does not act to protect the honor of his beloved daughter, perhaps because of his own guilt in his sin with Bathsheba.

Her other brother Absalom takes care of her, and two years later he takes revenge on Amnon, having him murdered when he thinks the matter has been forgotten.

“Her brother Absalom said to her, ‘Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you?  Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother.  Don’t take this thing to heart.’  And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.”  (2 Samuel 13:20)

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Deborah Beneath the Palm Tree, by James Tissot

The Prophetic Ministry of Judge Deborah

“Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel.”  (Judges 5:7)

Long before Golda Meir, at age 71, became the first female prime minister of the Jewish homeland, a Jewess named Deborah ruled Israel, showing civil and spiritual leadership.

Unlike the detailed story of the rise of Queen Esther, the Bible does not record the circumstances under which Deborah rose to a position of national leadership.  She is one of few Bible women who achieved that status.

The Bible does, however, indicate in Judges 4:4–7 that Deborah was not only a wise woman, but she made herself available to assist others in need of that wisdom.

As a judge, the people came to her “to have their disputes decided.”  (Judges 4:5)

Within her position as judge, Deborah had a prophetic ministry as the Lord’s messenger.

As a prophet, Deborah would seek God’s decisions on issues the people faced, and even issued commands directly.

The Book of Judges reveals that Israel had been drifting away from God, and was experiencing His judgment, which resulted in them being oppressed for 20 years by the significant military might of Jabin and his commander Sisera.

To deliver Israel from oppression and this superior might, God gave Deborah the wisdom, insight, and understanding of a military strategist.  She detailed God’s plan to Barak, telling him exactly where the victory would take place.

“She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.”’”  (Judges 4:6–7)

Kishon-River-Haifa

The Kishon River at Haifa, Israel

Barak accepted the plan but told Deborah she would have to accompany him.

“If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go,” Barak said to her.  (Judges 4:8)

Verses 8–13 underline Deborah’s faithful obedience to the Lord, courage, and personal availability as a leader.

Defying, perhaps, the social mores of the day, she accompanied him to the battlefield, prophesying that God would deliver Sisera into the hands of a women as a result.

“Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”  (Judges 4:9)

Yael (Jael) fulfilled that prophecy.  She welcomed the fleeing Sisera into her tent and killed him as he slept.  Her valiant act earned her the following blessing by Deborah and Barak:

“Yael is most blessed of women, the wife of Heber the Kenite; she is most blessed among tent-dwelling women.”  (Judges 5:24)

Jael Smote Sisera and Slew Him-James Tissot

Jael Smote Sisera and Slew Him, by James Tissot

A Woman’s Place: More than the Home

“She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.  She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.  She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.”  (Proverbs 31:16–18)

Although it is obvious from the Bible that women are capable leaders, many societies have done their best to “keep women in their place.”

The 1960’s feminist movement asserted women’s capabilities, some saying that they did so in a way that disadvantages men.  At the heart of the Word of God, however, we find that men and women are equal.

The original Biblical model serves to remind us that “God created man in His own image, in the image of God, He created them; male and female He created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

God created humankind, male and female, in His image.  Women are no less the image of God than men.

“He created them male and female and blessed them.  And He named them ‘Mankind’ when they were created.”  (Genesis 5:2)

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An Orthodox couple share a moment together to enjoy God’s creation.

As well, the Ten Commandments require children to honor both their father and mother:

Honor [kaved] your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.”  (Exodus 20:12)

In other words, we are to consider our both our parents as being equally worthy of respect.

Honor or kaved is a central concept of Judaism.  This word is related to weight or heavy as well as glory (kavod).

Judaism holds that we are to treat one another with respect, considering people as having equal weight or importance as ourselves.

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An Israeli grandmother and granddaughter share time together at the beach.

Many of us are tempted to think that this kind of respect only involves parents and leaders and that it is not necessarily owed to women or wives.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to fulfill God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (including the women in our lives), without honoring them and giving them this kind of respect.

On this International Women’s Day, may we honor the women in the Bible by meditating on the valuable lessons that they have to teach us.

And may we reach out with love and respect to the women in our lives.

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