The women portrayed here all played decisive roles in the biblical narrative.
The women portrayed in the pages that follow all played decisive roles during the thousands of years covered by the biblical narrative. What is particularly intriguing about them is that most of them circumvent male authority in a patriarchal society, and some even subvert it. Even more remarkable is the fact that these women, other than the ruthless Jezebel, are never punished for their unconventional conduct. On the contrary, the biblical scribes treat the women with deep sympathy and are sensitive to their plight. All of them, with the exception of Jezebel, are rewarded for their boldness.Most of the women defy male authority when it is unjust or fails to answer their needs or those of their family or people. They belong to a patriarchal society in which men hold all visible power, and their options are few and stark. Given these circumstances, the women challenge, seduce, and trick. They take risks, and some, such as Queen Esther and Judah's daughter-in-law Tamar, are prepared to stake their lives on the outcome. Both Tamar and Ruth are widows who would be doomed to a life of poverty and anonymity but for the initiative they take in devising careful plans of sexual seduction. Not only do the men respond, but the descendants of their acts of seduction become progenitors of the House of David generations later. Both women are rewarded for the risk they take to ensure the survival of the family.We are drawn to their vulnerabilities as much as to their strengths. Like the timeless heroines of the Hebrew Bible, we too struggle to love, to parent, to succeed in relationships, and to make our way through the labyrinth of a dangerous world. In each of the stories, the women are the protagonists around whom the action revolves.The young Eve speaks to us with her optimism as she leaves the Garden of Eden with her man to start adult life in the real and imperfect world. Our heart aches for Sarah, who, with the best of intentions, puts another woman into the bed of her husband, Abraham, to produce the son she cannot conceive. The illicit and passionate love affair between David and Bathsheba, although it matures into a long-term marriage, raises serious and troubling universal issues. These are but a few of the compelling stories of the women of the Bible whose lives resonate with us today.Now that women have begun studying the biblical text in substantial numbers, feminist scholars and others have begun writing much about women in the Bible. Some of them feature fighters like Deborah, the biblical Joan of Arc, who leads the Israelites in battle, and the midwives Puah and Shifrah, who save Hebrew male babies despite Pharaoh's edict to drown them in the Nile. Another heroine is the prostitute Rahab, who risks her life to help Joshua's spies escape from Jericho. While the Bible recounts the actions for which these heroines are remembered, it tells us nothing about their interior lives and processes of decision and thus gives few clues how we can emulate them today.Except for Delilah and Jezebel, these are women with whom many of us are able to identify and who interact with the men in their lives with surprising results. These intelligent, brave women dare to take the initiative. They are assertive, unwilling to be victims in the face of overwhelming circumstances. They are not looking for ways to raise their self-esteem, nor are their lives directed by a need to "feel comfortable." What keeps them going despite adverse circumstances is the power of a purpose-driven life and an all-embracing faith—values that demand both a long-term view of history and a decisive, resourceful approach to the immediate present.One is hard put to find in them a hint of alienation, cynicism, or ennui. On the contrary, they convey a can-do approach to life as they prevail, overcome, and refuse to bow in the face of overwhelming odds. They make and execute their imperfect decisions to the best of their abilities, and they are willing to acknowledge and live with the consequences of their actions—the essential meaning of the responsibility and accountability that accompanies free will, God's greatest gift to humans.