In this blog Moyra draws both on her extensive Bible knowledge and her experience of “doing life” with women from the Middle East over a couple of decades. She unearths the sometimes hidden stories of women – hidden because they are not spoken of, hidden because they don’t match the tidy perception of what godly women look like. With an ethnographic perspective she helpfully suggests questions we can ask of these stories and thereby opens our eyes to possibilities which we may have to share these stories and speak into the lives of women that we know who, like many “bible women” experience marginalisation, betrayal, abuse, childlessness, ridicule… Women’s lives all over the world are and never have been straightforward. For many, their faith practices have been shaped and negotiated by the challenges they face. Through her encouragement to rediscover the sometimes messy stories of women from the bible, Moyra gives huge affirmation to Christian women practitioners meeting, engaging and spending time with Muslim women, for whom these stories have much to say.
– As women who follow Christ, especially those of us who live in very different cultures and circumstances from where we grew up, what do the women we read of in the Bible tell us about how to live, as our own selves and in our relationships to others?
– What can Bible women teach us about living lives of godly obedience and faith in our own daily situations?
– From their cultural and historical contexts, how do they speak to us and what do they tell us about what it means to be women?
When we consider women in the Bible who are described as women of valor, righteous women, we see them pushing cultural bounds, and bonds of allegiance to family, parents or husband – sometimes outrageously!
In the Old Testament we meet women who disobeyed orders from the authorities (the Hebrew midwives and Rahab), spoke up publicly even when it put them in danger (Esther), and even engaged in physical warfare to save their communities (Deborah and Heber, and the woman of Thebez with her millstone).[i] Non-Israelite women challenged Israelite men to take up their proper responsibilities (Tamar and Ruth). Abigail disobeyed her husband, and confronted David, thereby saving her household. Others offered hospitality to strangers (the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman).[ii] Women lived out their allegiance to God in a whole variety of roles and ways. They included the matriarchs, mothers of the people of God’s promise (Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah & Rachel with Bilhah and Zilpah). Other women, mentioned above, were protectors or guardians, who took costly action to protect God’s people, and the line of the Messiah. And there were prophetesses, speaking (or singing) God’s Word to his community, including Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Isaiah’s wife – and in the New Testament, Anna and Phillip’s four daughters.[iii]
In the New Testament also we see Jesus praising women who went beyond social boundaries of modesty –touching him when ritually unclean (the woman with the blood flow), or talking to Jesus as women on their own, including Gentile women (Samaritan and Syrophonecian); anointing Jesus (Mary), and even washing and drying Jesus’ feet with their own tears and hair! (the sinful woman in Simon the Pharisee’s home) – in the face of criticism from the disciples or other men who were present.[iv] Some served Jesus (Peter’s mother-in-law, Martha), and others traveled around with Jesus, supporting him out of their own resources.[v] Again we see women in a whole variety of roles, including those who proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ birth (Elizabeth, Mary, Anna), and those who were given the news to tell of his resurrection from death (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, and many other women).[vi] Other women in the Messianic community were leaders, teachers, apostles and house-church leaders, letter carriers, and fellow workers with Paul: they include Dorcas, Mary, mother of John Mark, Lydia, Priscilla; Phoebe, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister, Chloe, Euodia & Syntyche, Nympha and Apphia.[vii]
Living godly lives as women will look different in diverse cultures, times, places. We can embrace the opportunity of living alongside women of different backgrounds to reexamine our own understandings of daily life, and in particular of how we read the Bible. For each woman in the Bible, we can ask:
– What does her story teach us about God?
– What lessons can we learn for our own lives from this woman?
Reading about women, we ask,
What social rules did they bend or break? And what didn’t they challenge?
For example, we don’t see them trying to immediately bring down patriarchy, or demand their rights and egalitarian relationships in society. Using 21st century categories and cultural rules aren’t adequate to define either the possibilities or the restrictions women encountered. Yet living out relationships of mutual responsibility and honor of one another as not only Image-bearers, but children of God in Christ, inevitably challenges social structures (as happened with slavery).
What further questions might we use as we read about women in the Bible, to help us think more about how we live, and what we are modeling to women around us?
Again, for each woman, we could ask:
– What are the cultural expectations of, and possibilities for, her as a woman in that situation?
– How much agency or initiative does she exercise? Or is she a passive recipient of circumstances?
– Why does the Bible include this woman? What point is the text making?
We need to ask,
– What particular cultural strategies did these women of valor draw on to respond to their situation?
– What were the cultural norms or patterns available to them in living out their allegiance to God and his community?
– How did they use their particular social and cultural position – often of weakness and sometimes of strength – and respond from it?[viii]
Phyllis Trible’s book, “Texts of Terror”, draws our attention back to the difficult Bible texts where women were abused. The Bible tells us first that it is OK to tell these stories of abuse – they don’t have to be silenced, but their stories are recorded even in our sacred texts. The Tamar Campaign offers us some helpful tools in reading these texts in ways that help us as we encounter abused women in our contexts. They begin with reading of the rape of David’s daughter Tamar,[ix] to ask some initial questions:
– What do you think this text is about?
– Who are the main characters in this story and what do we know about them?
– What is the role of each of the male characters in the rape of Tamar?
– Where is God in this story?
The final question, after further questions and discussion, asks the participants,
– What will you do now in response to this Bible study?[x]
These and other questions can help us as we come afresh to the Bible, reading it alongside women from other cultures and faiths.
In over two decades of living in the Middle East, I have learned much from my Middle Eastern sisters of the joy of doing life with other women. They have taught me of the shared humor of being women amid life’s daily challenges; of courage and celebration; of new ways of expressing what it means to be women in the daily routines of shopping, drinking coffee together, doing housework, living out faith, joining in wedding and graduation celebrations, funerals, fasts and feasts. And through them I have learned to re-read the Bible, including the stories of women, and understand more deeply who Jesus is and what he has done for us – in offering us purity, redeeming our shame, empowering us in the midst of physical and spiritual challenges to care for those around us: and calling us to serve Him (in ways that can be unconventional and uncomfortable) as disciples, servants of the Word, leaders and teachers in the Christ-community.
Photo credits: https://pixabay.com/en/old-testament-women-religious-bible-519668/, http://www.barksdale.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2000287695/
[i] Exodus 1:15-21; Joshua 2; Esther; Judges 4-5; Judges 9:53.
[ii] Genesis 38; Ruth; 1 Samuel 25; 1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4:8-10.
[iii] Exodus 15; Judges 4-5; 2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22-28; Isaiah 8:3; Luke 2:36; Acts 21:8-9.
[iv] Luke 8:43-48; John 4; Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30; John 12:3; Luke 7:36-50.
[v] Mark 1:30-31; Luke 10:38ff; Luke 8:2-3.
[vi] Luke 1-2; Luke23:7, Mark 15:40-41, and Matthew 27:55-56.
[vii] Acts 9:36; Acts 12:12; Acts 16:14-15, 40; Acts 18, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:3-5; Romans 16; 1 Corinthians 1:10-11; Philippians 4:2-3; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:1-3.
[viii] I am indebted to Miriam Dale for pointing out these questions.
[ix] 2 Samuel 13:1-22
[x] To read more fully about this and other resources, go to http://ujamaa.ukzn.ac.za/Files/the%20bible%20story.pdf
(c) When Women Speak… June 2018
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).