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.
The legal status of biblical women is unequal to the status of men. Women are second-class citizens living under the authority of the head of their family, usually their fathers or husbands. And yet, surprisingly enough, the women are neither downtrodden nor crushed by stern, brutal patriarchs. Within the family, the women wield enormous power. When they see their family or their tribe in danger, and the men fail to act, women fill the vacuum, taking the risks and assuming responsibilities for the destiny of their people.
The narrative also suggests that women are a metaphor for all minorities struggling to make their voices heard. The women's situation is analogous to that of the Israelites, a tough, small people set among more powerful pagan cultures. In biblical times, polygamy was practiced widely. Yet each polygamous family portrayed in the Bible is unhappy. Whether the problem is the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the two sisters married to Jacob, or between Hannah and Peninnah, both married to Elkanah, or the conflicting demands by David's many wives and their feuding children, the biblical authors subtly point out the disadvantages of a polygamous marriage.
In contrast, Sarah and Abraham form a distinctly monogamous marriage within a polygamous culture, as do Rebecca and Isaac. In the Garden of Eden, too, we have one woman and one man. The narrative makes clear that an intense relationship between husband and wife in a polygamous marriage is nearly impossible. The presence of multiple, contending wives dilutes all the relation-ships within the family unit. The Bible strongly implies that polygamy does not work, that monogamy is a preferable structure. The intensely committed personal and loving relationship between one male and one female parallels the intensely committed relationship between one human and God.
In the Old Testament, sexuality is by no means a secret, sinful, or forbidden subject. Instead, sex is discussed with remarkable openness and with no trace of prudishness. We are carried away by the beautifully written Song of Songs, as it celebrates in explicit terms the sensual love between Shulamite and her lover. The Bible regards sexuality as the Creator's gift, integral to all human life, a tool for strengthening the bonds of intimacy, trust, companionship, responsibility, and commitment.
On the other hand, sexuality can also be abusive and selfish. The Bible's unvarnished realism does not spare us this aspect of human ambivalence. The Israelite hero Samson becomes addicted to Delilah's sexual favors. She hands him over to her people, Israel's enemies, who blind, torture, and imprison him. The worst example of sex as a destructive force is Amnon's inexorable plot to rape his virgin half-sister Tamar, King David's beautiful daughter. She staggers out of his house, her life forever ruined.
The Bible instructs even as it entertains. It does not whitewash any aspect of human psychology or conduct. It draws the reader in by exposing its protagonists' feet of clay. No one is spared critical comment or the depiction of unflattering weaknesses—and no one is above the law. The women, like their men, are responsible for their actions and the consequences. The women and the men are neither saints nor sinners, and, interestingly enough, their actions are treated with equal candor.
The stories of the women in the Bible offer us a prism through which to consider our own lives. After all, human nature has not changed one iota since the day Eve questioned the rules in the Garden of Eden in response to her God-given drive to acquire knowledge and create life. The outcome is the first exercise of free choice and the first lesson in personal responsibility and morality.
In his 1955 book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder." In these words, we hear an echo of the biblical narrators who, thousands of years earlier, offered a similar observation in the book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon:
There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yea, four which I know not:
The way of an eagle in the air;
The way of a serpent upon a rock.
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea;
And the way of a man with a woman.
Contemporary readers of the Bible may wish to append a final line: "And the way of a woman with a man."
From After the Apple: Women in the Bible: Timeless Stories of Love, Lust, and Longing by Naomi Harris Rosenblatt. Copyright © 2005 Miramax Books