Lovers, tricksters, and victims: Women in the Bible
Biblical women are more complex than a quick read of scripture suggests.
After the birth of Jesus, three wise men came to visit him carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The story is more than familiar. The scene is immortalized in art, folktales, and even the crèches under our Christmas trees.
The Bible says Herod sent the wise men (Matt. 2:1–12). But the story never actually states that there were three magi. It does say, however, that there were three gifts.
If we’re missing the details of one of the most often-repeated stories in the Bible, what else are we getting wrong?
T.J. Wray, an associate professor of biblical studies at Salve Regina University, has devoted her life to writing about those overlooked details of the Bible. “The more I learn, the more I love what I do,” Wray says. “I like to think that I make a difference.”
Much of her work has centered on telling the story of biblical women. Her book Good Girls, Bad Girls: The Enduring Lessons of Twelve Women of the Old Testament (Rowman & Littlefield) explores the stories of women such as Ruth, Rebekah, and Tamar. Wray has just finished a second volume, Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament: Their Enduring Lessons, which will be published in March 2016. Both books examine biblical women in a new light and suggest lessons for modern readers.
Wray says it’s important to remember that even though the Bible was, for the most part, written by men, it speaks to everyone on a personal level. “Whether you like what I write or not, if I get you to pick up the Bible and read it for yourself, then I’ve accomplished my mission,” she says. “Once you do, your life has changed.”
What should we know about the Bible?
It’s important to remember that the Bible as we know it is preceded by a very rich oral tradition. This oral tradition, both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, was the tradition for hundreds of years.
Then, during the period of the Babylonian exile, what we know as the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible was written down. It was canonized between about 200 B.C. and the year 200.
The New Testament has an interesting history. Because, remember, the followers of Jesus assumed that he was coming back. They were waiting; they thought it would be in their lifetime. When that didn’t happen, they decided, “Wow, we need to write this down so future generations know what happened here.”
Thank God they did. But this didn’t happen right away; the earliest writings are the letters of Paul. The first gospel (Mark) was written in about the year 70. Jesus died between the years 30 and 33. We’re talking about a generation or two after Jesus’ death before the gospels are written down.
It’s amazing that the gospels took off the way they did. It’s because of the Roman Empire’s web of roads. It was very easy to get from one place to another, so the missionary movement, inaugurated by Paul, allowed the gospels to spread throughout the Roman Empire.
What are a few things people should remember when reading biblical texts?
First of all, we’re reading a translation—unless you are fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, or ancient Greek. And even among the English translations, there are some that are really great and there are some that are terrible. Anyone who has ever spoken a foreign language knows that sometimes it’s very difficult to transfer thoughts and ideas from one language to another. The same is true with biblical translations.
The second thing is that we need to get our facts straight. People tend to rush through their reading, particularly if the stories are already familiar to them. But the Bible is a collection of ancient texts. And if they were ancient texts from, say, Babylonia translated into English, you can be sure most people would take their time to flag inconsistencies and write questions. If we don’t read carefully, we miss things.
The final thing to think about is the backdrop of the Bible: I call it the “back story.” Readers should take into account the history, the setting, whether there is an uprising, and whatever else is going on.
Whenever I teach the Bible I tell my students to keep three basic questions in mind. First, what are the stories telling you about God? Because there’s always something about God. Second, what does the story say about you? Because the author is speaking to you. And third, what is it telling you about others? How are we supposed to behave with one another, and how are we supposed to act as a people?
If you ask these questions each time, you will get a pretty good sense of what the ancient authors are trying to tell us.
Are there any common misunderstandings about what the Bible says?
In my role as a professor, I hear misunderstandings about the Bible all the time. One common misunderstanding has to do with the gospels. There is this assumption that there were secretaries walking around behind Jesus, writing down all the things that he did—that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were in his entourage.
When I tell my students that the gospels were written anonymously and about a generation after Jesus walked the earth, sometimes there is an outcry: “That can’t be!” They don’t even know the names of the 12 apostles, but they insist the four gospel writers must be among them.
Another thing that I hear is, “Oh, there aren’t very many stories about women in the Bible.” It might seem like this; the focus has traditionally been on the men, and my students have heard about Moses, David, Paul, or Jesus. But when I ask, “Can you name any of the women in the orbit of Moses?” most don’t know his wife is Zipporah, his sister Miriam is a prophetess, and his mother is named Jochebed.
Why don’t people know as much about the women in the Bible?
I think it comes out of the reality that most of the women in the Bible that we talk about are unnamed. Naming is important. Unnamed people tend to
be more forgettable.
Who are the unnamed women? Well, they are usually designated in terms of a man. “Noah’s wife,” “Samson’s mother,” or “the wife of Manoah,” “the daughter of Jairus.” Sometimes they’re identified with a town: “the Shunammite woman.”
Some unnamed women are more familiar than others. In Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament, I profile several nameless women. For example, the woman caught in adultery (isn’t it nice to be known throughout history as “the one caught in adultery”?) and the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage.
We make a lot of assumptions when we don’t read the Bible carefully. The first named woman in the Bible is Eve. But we misunderstand her story all the time.
For one, we all assume that Eve offers Adam an apple, but the type of fruit is never mentioned. The snake is supposed to be Satan, but the ancient writer had no understanding of an evil being opposed to God. Satan came along much later in history.
The other assumption we make is in the beginning of Genesis 3, when Eve’s having a conversation with the snake. In my classes, I always ask, “How does Eve know that she’s not supposed to eat that fruit?” And a hand shoots up immediately: “Adam told her.” Eve wasn’t even created when God issued the injunction against the forbidden fruit, and so Adam must have told her.
When we turn to the Bible and look, nowhere does it say anything about Adam telling her. Then another hand will shoot up: “God told her.” But then that’s not in the Bible anywhere, either. We’re only in the third chapter and making assumptions that have no validity whatsoever.
And a final assumption: The whole idea that Eve is a seductress who lures Adam to sin. If you read, you see Adam’s standing there the entire time during Eve’s conversation with the snake. Why doesn’t he interject? “Eve, I know you weren’t created yet, but God said not to eat this.” But he doesn’t. He’s equally at fault, and I think even more so because God warned him directly.
How do you make these women come to life while still being true to the biblical text?
I try to stick to primary sources, because if you don’t you really start to muddy the waters.
The first and best source is the Bible. I look at different translations. If I’m confused about a word, then I’ll go and look it up in the Greek or Hebrew.
And then I do what I instruct my students to do: I read it very carefully. Most of what I want to say is already there, I just really need to read it and get back into it and figure it out.
I ask questions about the background and formulate a backstory. If the story is about Jesus, who else is with him? Who’s not there? Does the story include his enemies? Does he have friends with him? What happens before and after?
Then I use primary sources that are contemporary with whatever I’m studying. In the New Testament we’re lucky because we have Roman sources that are quite reliable. I’ve participated in archaeological digs in the Holy Land, so I use that evidence a lot.
Can we really know anything for sure about women who lived that long ago?
Well, we know quite a bit about the legal status of women, because we have not only the Bible, but documents outside the Bible. And archaeology can tell us about their day-to-day existence.
Traditionally, land was passed from father to son, but not always. In Numbers 27, there’s a story about a man named Zelophehad who has five daughters. When Zelophehad dies, he has no sons, so his daughters believe his wealth should come to them.
This story takes place after the Israelites escaped Egyptian bondage and they are wandering in the wilderness. Moses is in charge, so the daughters go to him and they basically say, “Hey Moses, we think that we should inherit our father’s property.”
Moses doesn’t know what to do, since the law says property must pass from father to son, so he goes and asks God directly. That’s key. Remember I said to pay attention to the details? Moses doesn’t just make it up on his own; he goes right to the source. God sides with the girls. So, here is a biblical example of women inheriting property.
There are outside documents that are very illuminating, too. For example, we have the documents of a Jewish woman named Babatha, which date from about the year 93 to 132.
Babatha was married twice, with a child. Her first husband died and she remarried. In this marriage, she was a secondary wife, which means there was a first wife who was still alive. Babatha loaned her second husband money. But when he died before he could pay her back, she sued the other wife to get the money back. She ended up going to Ein Gedi—a little town by the Dead Sea—before a court.
During that time, there was a Jewish revolt going on. The Romans invaded the town, so Babatha and her family fled. They went up into one of these limestone caves (there are hundreds of them down around the Dead Sea), and they hid.
Unfortunately, the Romans were in camp on an outcropping right above them, and the refugees either starved or died of thirst—we’re not sure which.
This cave was excavated in the early 1960s and archaeologists found 17 skeletons, men, women, and children, along with all sorts of artifacts: keys to their homes—which is quite sad—skeins of yarn, shoes. Then, a volunteer found a hole dug out under a rock. In that hole was a woman’s purse, which turned out to belong to Babatha.
Inside were four bundles of documents wrapped in sackcloth and tied with string, and 35 papyri documents that detail all of Babatha’s legal proceedings. From that, we learn that she inherited property from her mother, even though she had a male sibling, as well as from her second husband.
She was also a businesswoman; she owned and operated several date palm groves. There are receipts.
Between the Babatha archive and other preserved documents, we get an image of women as having more legal rights than we thought that they had. It’s exciting.
What about in the Bible itself? Do women ever have more power than you would expect?
In the New Testament, who do you think Jesus has the longest conversation with?
The longest one-on-one conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels is with a woman (John 4:4–42). She’s never given a name, so we call her the Samaritan woman or the woman by the well
For that reason alone, we need to pay attention to that conversation. Jews weren’t supposed to talk to Samaritans, and yet Jesus has a highly theological conversation with her that challenges the social norms of his day regarding ethnicity, gender, and religion.
In biblical times, men and women didn’t speak to each other in public, even if they were in the same family. It’s impressive that he’s talking to this woman at all. And on top of that, she’s got a very checkered past. She’s had five husbands, and she’s living with another man who she’s not actually married to.
And Jesus knows this. He mentions it as a way to show her, “Hey, I’m not just some guy you meet at the well.” And again, when you pay attention to the details you can tell even more about the woman. Like, she comes to the well at noon. Decent women draw water first thing in the morning.
Take us through your writing process with one woman’s story.
Most people have never heard of Tabitha. Her story appears in Acts 9. (The same person wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts. Acts of the Apostles was the story he really wanted to tell, and it’s the story of the first crop of Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection.)
Tabitha is the only woman in the New Testament to be called “disciple.” Now, we know there are other female disciples, but she is the only woman who specifically has that designation. She’s also a philanthropist who cares for local widows.
Tabitha’s name, by the way, is a common slave name. Was she a slave? We don’t know, but we do know many slaves converted to Christianity during this time period. And it’s odd that Luke presents us with both of her names: her Aramaic name, Tabitha, and her Greek name, Dorcas.
In the story, Tabitha dies of an undisclosed, seemingly brief illness. Several disciples send a couple of men to fetch Peter to see if he can do something about this.
Peter comes to see if he can help out. The scene when he arrives is beautiful. He goes upstairs to Tabitha’s room. Most resurrection stories take place in an upper room.
She’s already been washed and prepared for the burial. When Peter comes into the room, all these widows have gathered around, and they’re weeping and crying. In their hands, they’re holding tunics and clothing that Tabitha had made for them. It’s as if these objects attest to her kindness. “Look at what she’s done for us. Look how Tabitha cared for us.”
Peter is probably moved by the scene. He clears the room, gets them all out, and then, after praying, he says, “Tabitha, get up, wake up.” She opens her eyes, Peter takes her hand, and after that he invites the widows and the “holy ones” back into the room. Everyone is overjoyed to see Tabitha is alive.
As I read this, I think, “Who are these people, and why are they at her house?” Did they hear that she died? Or is this part of a house church? We’re never told who they are, but they love her. That much is obvious.
I also asked the question, “Where’s Tabitha’s husband?” Surely, if she had one he would have been there during her illness and her death. But he’s not. So is Tabitha a widow as well? Maybe. If so, then she certainly understands the plight of the women she helps.
What assumptions do we make in this story? Well, that men assumed the leadership roles in the early church. But that wasn’t the case. This changes, but in the very beginning, men and women were on equal footing. They were both trying to get out the word and bring in converts.
The other thing that a lot of people think is that only men were disciples. And yet here we have Luke specifically giving Tabitha the designation of disciple. There’s no longer a question of whether women were disciples. They had leadership roles.
In my book, Good Girls, Bad Girls: The Enduring Lessons of Twelve Women of the Old Testament, as well as my upcoming book about women in the New Testament, I break each story up into two sections. First, I have the exegetical part where I just tell the story and talk about how it is situated historically. Then I talk about the “enduring lesson.” I’ll give a couple of examples, but I really want people to think about the implications in their own lives.
Tabitha’s story teaches us so much about love and grief. For example, sometimes, the people who grieve most for you are not the people you thought. The people who come to your rescue are not necessarily the people you thought, while those you assume would be there for you quite literally run for the hills.
In your book, you group certain women together into categories, including sisters, sinners, and supporters. Why?
Using categories is helpful. It’s a good teaching tool and a way to alert readers that there are certain types of women. But I don’t want to typecast them. I just want people to know that these women have more than one dimension. They are not just somebody’s daughter, wife, or sister. They actually have roles beyond their relationship to men. Some of them are great, some of them not so great.
Honestly, the categories are as endless as we want to make them. In my new book I divide the women into sisters, sinners, supporters, mothers, missionaries, and murderers. But some women, like Herodias—who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist—could fit into “mothers” or “murderers.” The same is true for many of the other women.
You talk a lot about “tricksters.” Who are these women and what are their stories like?
Tamar is one of these women in the Old Testament. She dresses up like a prostitute and tricks her father-in-law into having sex with her. And she’s hailed as a heroine. Why? Because her father-in-law was denying her the right of levirate, which said that if a husband died without having children, his brother must marry his widow and their children would inherit the dead brother’s estate.
So Tamar marries this guy named Er, and God kills him—we don’t know why. Then, because of the levirate law, she marries his brother, who’s named Onan. But Onan didn’t fulfill his end of the deal; instead of getting her pregnant, he would spill his seed on the ground. Because he was not fulfilling the law, God kills him, too.
There is another brother named Shelah. And Tamar should, by rights, marry him after Onan dies. But he’s just a kid. So she gets sent back to her parents to live with them until Shelah grows up.
Shelah does grow up, but Judah, her father-in-law, still refuses to let her marry him. He thinks that she is a toxic bride or something. I probably would, too.
So, out of desperation, she dresses up, disguises herself as a prostitute, and goes out to seduce Judah. What follows is this hysterical negotiation: “What will you give me to sleep with you?” In the end, she basically gets what would be like his license and credit card. He gives her his staff, cord, and seal, which identify him, and then she puts them away.
When Tamar becomes pregnant with twins, Judah decides that she should be executed for harlotry. But Tamar pulls out his staff and seal and says, “Oh, by the way, the father of my children is the owner of these.”
That’s a trickster character: Someone who does these kinds of unorthodox things to ensure that God’s plan is carried out. In this case, it’s levirate marriage. Their stories can seem bizarre to us, but their actions are seen very favorably by the biblical authors.
Why is it important to tell biblical women’s stories?
The Bible is the foundation for Western religious thought. It has influenced every aspect of Western civilization including art, music, literature, philosophy, education, science, law, and government. This means that biblical illiteracy extends beyond the scope of religion into a collective lack of knowledge.
In the past, I assumed, like a lot of people, that most biblical women who were defined in context of a man were usually subservient to that male. But I started to study all these stories about women who were movers and shakers in their own right—without the permission, or sometimes even the knowledge, of their husbands, brothers, fathers, or sons.
The other thing I realized is that it is often the woman’s story that holds the key to the lesson the ancient writer sought to impart to us. For example, who brings about change in the story of Adam and Eve? Who’s the most memorable character? It’s Eve.
Finally, I think it’s important to remember is that the Bible belongs to all of us. This is an especially important message for my women students to understand: There’s a shared legacy here.
This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 1, page 32–37).
Image: Caravaggio. Judith Beheading Holofernes, ca.1598–1599. oil on canvas. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. Via Wikimedia Commons.