What is the role of women in the OT?

51ql-lckhplIt is a truism that much of the narrative of the Old Testament focuses on men, and that many of the key moments and actions revolve around the decisions and activity of the male characters. This reflects two factors, one related to the historical context and one related to the nature of the narrative itself. The context is that of a society which is patriarchal, in which it is assumed that men are the ones who have authority and control; and the narrative is often one which provides an ‘androcentric’ perspective, which looks at the world from the perspective of the male actors.

Near the beginning of the Grove Biblical series, Richard Bauckham contributed a thoughtful reflection on this, Is the Bible Male?, noting that the Book of Ruth offered a counterpoint in providing a gynocentric perspective, that is, telling the story from the perspective of the women, where the key events happen around the hearth and home rather than in the gateway of the city. This in turn highlights a consistent dynamic of the biblical narrative—that alongside the focus on men and questions of power and authority there is a focus on women and the experience of those living ordinary and marginalised lives, which in fact at key moments in the narrative turn out to be just as important in the economy of God. One of the most striking of these is the gynocentric birth narrative in Luke, told almost exclusively from the women’s point of view, in contrast to Matthew’s narrative which is told from the men’s.

Jenni Williams, tutor in Old Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, has written a really interesting set of reflections on the women in the OT narrative God Remembered Rachel. She begins by explaining what she is doing in approaching the stories the way she does:

The method I have used might be described as watching the authors at work. Authors make choices: what to include; what to leave out. The bring certain characters, certain events, to the foreground for the reader to notice; choose certain words that have resonance for readers; arrange events. They pay considerable attention to one thing a character does, while barely mentioning another, and do this in a way designed to convey a message. Looking at these aspects of the author’s work is called narratology, and it is a useful way to understand what they are trying to say.

In doing this, I think Jenni offers us a good primer on the reading of narratives, and as the chapters unfold we can see the effectiveness of this method. It is also worth noting that this approach considerably helps in preaching these texts; walking through the narratives noting what is going on—what is being highlighted and what is being omitted and why that might be—can be an effective way of preaching on narrative texts and helping our listeners to become responsible readers in their own right.

Jenni groups her ten reflections under three headings. ‘Women’ includes Leah and Rachel, exploring the dynamic of their relationship, Ruth, and Sarah. ‘Women and Men’ looks at the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, the woman of Shunem in 2 Kings 4 and 8, Michal, and Deborah. The final section ‘Women and God’ considers Rahab, Hagar and Hannah.

In each of these, I think Jenni offers a very fine balance between the concerns of the reader and the concerns of the text. She doesn’t flinch from expressing the issues that many contemporary readers would have, and the difficult aspects of the texts themselves. But she manages to avoid either sanitising the texts and fitting them into a happy orthodoxy, or dismantling the texts using an ideological crowbar—two of the most common ways of resolving the tensions we experience as modern readers of ancient texts. Her readings are positive, but she is not afraid of allowing uncomfortable tensions to remain.

Jenni WilliamsI particularly appreciated her reading of Judges 19, leaning quite heavily (and helpfully) on Phyllis Trible’s approach, as I had done myself when preaching on this text recently. And her reading of Deborah was instructive in highlighting the differences in the narrative focus of Judges 4 and Judges 5, and refusing to allow over-easy resolution of the differences here. Jenni succeeds in writing accessibly, whilst allowing the reader to ‘see her working’ in drawing on insightful scholarship to make her case. The book could be used by individuals or for group reflection, and could form the basis of a sermon series.

There is a summary of the OT narrative in exclusively male terms which is quite well known in charismatic circles, the song ‘These are the days of Elijah’ by Robin Mark. It mentions Elijah, Moses, Ezekiel and David, and if you doubted its male orientation, you can find a YouTube video of it being sung by US marines. As a riposte, Steve Holmes (who teaches systematic theology at St Andrew’s) composed an alternative version focussing on the role of women in the narrative. Enjoy.

These are the days of Rebekah,
Who trusted the word of the Lord.
And these are the days of your servant Deborah,
Who led forth your people in war.

These are the days of Queen Esther,
Who rescued God’s people through faith.
And these are the days of your prophet Huldah,
Who renewed the temple of praise.

Behold God comes, in tongues of rushing flame
Opening daughters’ mouths to prophesy in God’s name
So lift your voice, sisters of the Christ
Out of Mary’s womb salvation comes.

These are the days of the women
Who funded the ministry of Christ.
And these are the days of the Magdalene,
Who first preached of resurrected Life.

These are the days of Priscilla,
Who taught male church leaders the truth,
And these are the days of your apostle, Junia,
Before whom Paul was just a youth.

Behold God comes, in tongues of rushing flame
Opening daughters’ mouths to prophesy in God’s name
So lift your voice, sisters of the Christ
Out of Mary’s womb salvation comes.

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3 thoughts on “What is the role of women in the OT?”

  1. It is interesting that this piece has only received two brief responses, and both to do with a modern song.
    Is it in part because the article is not really about what its subject suggests? It feels more of a book-review. I have read some of Jenni Williams’ reflections in herbook and confess to finding the bringing together of her reader-response, (picking up a particular issue), and her textual-response quite jarring, probably because – for me – her own response to the texts often shut down alternatives, or seemed to preclude other approaches. There are many reader-response approaches out there, by both men and women, on both men and women of the OT. I remember John Goldingay, “After eating the apricot” as an earlier version of this sort of approach. There are many OT scholars: Ellen Van Wolde for me is one who writes with real sensitivity and insight, not least on Ruth and also Job and his wife.
    There is a real challenge as to how men and women / Christian communities read the Old Testament “stories”, and not least how a story like Ruth (or is it the story of Naomi?) should be read alongside or against the story of Abraham or other passages. The debate continues about whether or how texts need resisting, discerning or accepting; The reader always has a responsibliity and role.
    To take a different example, I personally did not find the chapter by Jenni WIlliams on Sarah ultimately helpful, as it moved from text to her more reader-response.
    As someone teaching Old Testament to ordinands and Reader candidates, how do we learn together what texts are about, how to read them, seek understanding and “teach” them. How and when do we disagree on what they are about? How do we read the tensions that exist within the text, between texts, and between what they appear to say and what we want them to say. To what extent are both Abraham and Sarah flawed, and in what ways? What are the acceptable limits of interpretation in this? Is Abraham monstrous for what he plans to do in sacrificing his son, having cast out his first-born son. Are we meant to challenge the idea that God tested Abraham, or must that phrase control our reading of the chapter? Can we ask how Sarah felt about this, and if her absence from this story and subsequently is telling? [Or rather is it helpful for a deeper understanding to ask these sort of open-ended questions?]
    Should we be guided more by the questions previous generations, not least Jewish commentators, have asked?
    SImilarly should we extrapolate how significant it is that Ruth is a Moabite, and explicitly stated as such, or do we assume she was already “converted”. Either way there are difficulties with Deut 23:4 etc.

    Jenni’s book – for all my frustrations – is certainly a helpful addition and as Ian says is accessible and well-written. As we make sense of a world where popularism is flexing its muscles and new world-leaders are shaping the world in their image, how do the communities of God’s people make sense of their call? The Old Testament offers rich and complex stories of earthly rulers, and of people of faith negotiating life and events.
    Yes it is written from a male perspective, and even the story of Ruth ends with the “triumph” of a male son, and a list of male heirs. Sharing resources and listening and contributing to the debates, and not just the debates on sexuality, is part of our learning and our call. We can share which books we would particularly endorse, but it is good to hear what others have found helpful. If we write we need to listen to what others say, and if we teach we need to remain teachable.
    Asking how we read and learn from the stories of women who often are only given a bit-part in the narrative, and how we evaluate how significant that part is, is or should be crucial to how we hear the story of covenant and election and inclusion.


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