Sometimes I wonder how women in the Judeo-Christian tradition got stuck with the gender role identifications they have. The Old Testament doesn’t include many detailed descriptions of women, but when they do appear, they are not what you’d think. To prove my point, I’m going to investigate two women featured in this week’s Sunday School lesson, plus Deborah the judge/prophetess, and the ubiquitous “virtuous woman” of Proverbs 37.
- Prophet — In the Book of Judges where Deborah is introduced into the Biblical record, she is identified as a “woman prophet,” and the wife of Lapidoth. This may strike the members of a patriarchal religion as unusual, but the word “prophet” is a feminine form of the same word as that used to describe Moses and Abraham as prophets.
- Judge — We are told that the people of Israel came to Deborah for judgment. Conservative Christian commentaries sometimes explain that this was necessary, because none of the men were worthy at the time. But there is no indication in the scriptures that unworthiness made a man ineligible to serve as a deliverer. This is especially evident in the case of Sampson. It looks like the people came to her because she was a competent and talented judge, as well as being the one raised up by the Lord for that purpose.
- Leader — Deborah makes executive decisions in the military field, as when she chooses Barak to be the captain of the army. She then accompanies him into battle, giving strategic direction.
- Mother in Israel — but NOT what you’re thinking! Strangely enough, this is one of only two places where the term “mother in Israel” is used. (Mother in Zion is not a scriptural term.) Here it has nothing to do with Deborah having children; we don’t even know if she did. Instead it refers to her guiding influence over the emerging nation of Israel.
- Adventurous — Boaz is impressed that she left the land of her nativity and came to live with a people she had not previously known.
- Industrious — She supports herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the fields.
- Bold — She lies down with Boaz in the night, uncovering his “feet” (a euphemism for genitals). I don’t fully understand this action, but somehow it convinces Boaz to take responsibility for her, and later marry her. The lesson manual interprets Ruth’s action as a ritual marriage proposal.
- Mother — again, not in the traditional sense of the word. Ruth bears a son, but she gives the baby to her mother-in-law Naomi to nurse and to raise.
- Competitive Plural wife — We don’t always remember this about Hannah, but she was one of two wives. Peninnah had children, while Hannah was the wife who was barren. One of the reasons Hannah fretted so much about the situation was that Peninnah provoked her. Approaching the Lord with her complaint, Hannah was able to prevail over her rival.
- Unconventional — Her prayers in the temple are so emotional that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk.
- Zealous — Hannah vows that if the Lord will answer her prayer to have a child, she will dedicate him to the Lord. This vow necessitates giving up the baby to Temple service as soon as he is weaned.
The Virtuous Woman
- Financially independent — This is an interesting one, considering the many laws that governed women in OT times. But this woman “considers a field, and buys it,” showing her business acumen.
- Home Production — She produces a variety of goods in a home industry, and sells and trades wisely.
- Well-Dressed — Though generally frugal and liberal to the poor, she is dressed in silk and “purple,” an expensive color used primarily by royalty in Biblical times.
- She works out — Or maybe she just got those strong arms by working the loom until all hours of the night!
Well, I just wanted to write this post to show that Biblical women had some unusual qualities that aren’t always picked up on when extolling their virtues in our Sunday School classes. We often picture virtuous women as being submissive and sweet. The manual uses the following words to describe them: righteous, loving, loyal, sacrificing, selfless, hard-working, obedient, faithful, willing, grateful, patient. The women mentioned may well have exemplified these qualities. But in reading their stories I am more inclined to see strength, leadership, daring, persistence, industry, innovativeness, and individuality. I hope these characteristics are as worthy of emulation as the more traditionally feminine ones.
Can you write a post on Lesson 21: “God Will Honor Those Who Honor Him” before Sunday? So I can fully understand the points of the lesson? thanks. I love reading your posts. We’re a lesson advance, so if you can still manage to write another post. thanks! I love all your posts!
Or you could also add the dear lady who was handy with a nail 😉
This is an excellent reflection on the actual women in that the Bible holds up for role models rather than the culturally based conclusions we tend to draw about them. Another great post worth sharing. Recently I’ve noticed that of the posts that I am likely to send to friends or share, yours have been the lion’s share. Just FYI.
Love it (although I question the manuals’ interpretation of Ruth’s bedroom behavior).
ESO, read this and tell me what you think. It’s an explanation which I believe follows the scriptural passage a little better than what we have in the manual.
It looks like I need to put an addendum onto this post. After discovering the link above, I went to the Hebrew to check out the word “know” in verse 14. Because in the past I had taken that to mean that they did not have sexual congress. However, I discovered that the word that is translated “know” in this case comes from “nakar” (which means recognize or discern) rather than “yada,” which is often used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. So, rather than meaning she left the threshing floor before they had sex, it means that Ruth left Boaz in the morning before it was light enough for anyone to recognize her. This led me to the discovery that the word “virtuous,” from whence comes our lesson title All the City Doth Know that thou art a Virtuous Woman is also a different word than I expected! The word “chayil” is elsewhere translated in the KJV as “army,” “man of valor,” “host,” “forces,” “valiant,” “strength,” “riches,” “wealth,” “power,” “substance,” “might,” and “strong.” A perfect word to describe a woman who goes to the threshing floor to entice a man of wealth and power to be her lover, but perhaps not the meaning that LDS correlation intended.
This story should not be used as an example of women’s chastity and purity. That is not the point intended. There are other, greater lessons to learn here and in the other stories of the women of the Old Testament.
Flattery will get you everywhere, and Jael fits in nicely here too, doesn’t she?
happyfeet, you must not have had Stake Conference yet! I’ll see what I can do…
thanks!!! I’d really really appreciate it!! Like really really really much!!!
BiV, I echo Stephen. Your posts are routinely good. Not to put pressure on you, though.
It is interesting that the women of the OT seem to be mentioned not because of their virtue but because of their power/influence. Same with the men, I think, and I guess that makes sense.
My favorite virtuous women are the ones who have a sense of humor. That lady who was in the general relief society presidency, maybe she still is, is very funny. I actually kind of miffed these days at the lack of recognition of womans’ (however you punctuate that) importance in scripture. And men in scripture can be flawed. As oppposed to women who can do no wrong or they’re smitten from the earth. Sort of like today.
Very nice! Thank you for this. I recently made similar observations about Ruth in this post. When I read the book recently, I was struck by how different Ruth was from the stereotype we were supposed to emulate. That she was always presented as being a faithful and obedient daughter and she was rewarded by getting a husband. Instead, she was as you described, bold, independent and even disobedient. The only explanation of the disparity between the text and stereotypes of ‘traditional womanhood’ is that they were created by our patriarchal culture and religions.
JL, the link didn’t work, but here it is. I love how you portray Ruth as a risk-taker. And you’re living proof that the “un-sanitized” version of the scriptures can still be powerfully meaningful to individuals.
I don’t think it’s the Bible itself that reinforces the stereotypes, though — it’s the simplified lessons we’ve been taught which aren’t always based on the text.
AnneGB, so awesome to see you here!
Funny thing is, the word “virtuous” comes from the Latin vir, “man.” So “virtuous” = “manly.”
BIV- love this. We went over some of Deborah’s qualities in my GD lesson today. Too bad I’m not teaching next week.
Loving the addition of adjectives.