There’s a religious foundation to toxic ideas of women as passive and submissive. It can be traced back to Genesis, where Eve is said to be created as a “helper” for Adam. Many use this as a basis to support a patriarchal hierarchy of gender, even though there are far better ways to read this passage that enhance, rather than restrict, our understanding of humanity.
Yet, although the Bible was composed in a patriarchal world, it also subverts the patriarchy.
If it weren’t for outstanding women throughout the centuries, scripture wouldn’t even exist. A woman birthed and raised God-in-flesh. Women first preached the resurrection.
Long before them, however, there were women in the Hebrew Bible who defied patriarchal conventions of “Biblical womanhood.” Strong, brave, brilliant, defiant women whose stories teach courage, resilience, and faith in times of struggle. While many of them were also compassionate and nurturing – qualities rightly recognized as praiseworthy in women – it’s important to note
that these qualities are equally important in men and
that if this is all they had been, scripture, faith, and history would be much poorer.
If it weren’t for outstanding women throughout the centuries, scripture wouldn’t even exist.
Let’s look at five of these inspiring women.
1. Hagar (Genesis 16 and 21)
Hagar, enslaved Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah and Abraham, is the only person in the Bible with the boldness to name God.
“You are El-Roi,” she says, meaning “The God who sees.”
Because God, indeed, sees her for who she is: not slave but a fierce survivor.
Sarah, barren in her old age, “gives” Hagar to Abraham so that he may have a son, yet becomes brutally jealous of Hagar when she conceives. Resisting abuse, Hagar runs away. God tells her to turn back so that her son, Ishmael, may safely be born.
When Sarah finally has her own son, she has Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. But this time, God helps Hagar and Ishmael survive on their own, opening Hagar’s eyes to a well when she fears Ishmael will die in the desert. God goes with them, Ishmael grows, and Hagar finds him a wife from Egypt.
Hagar shows Abraham and Sarah, usually considered heroes in the Bible, in a disturbing light. Injustice in scripture, whether attributed to God or others, is not meant to go unquestioned, but to challenge us, calling us to see the oppression in which we may be engaged or complicit. Hagar’s story, as womanist theologian Delores Williams points out, speaks to the “oppressed of the oppressed” in all times and places, resonating especially with Black women who can relate to the double burden of racism and sexism Hagar experiences.
But Hagar thrives in spite of that burden. God makes the same promise to her as to Abraham, that her son will be the father of a great nation. With God’s help, Hagar not only raises Ishmael, but ensures her own culture will be passed to her descendents by finding him a wife from her homeland.
The most powerful part of Hagar’s story is how she never loses sight of herself. She reclaims her agency even after being forced to live for others and ensures the physical, emotional, spiritual, and even cultural survival of herself and her descendants.
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2. Tamar (Genesis 38)
Tamar is brilliant.
Daughter-in-law of Judah (one of the twelve patriarchs of Israel), poor Tamar puts up with some less-than-impressive men in her life. Her first husband, Judah’s oldest son Er, is “wicked in the sight of the Lord,” who puts him to death. (Disclaimer: Violence attributed to God should not be taken literally. Please see our “Healing Stories of the Bible” series for more.)
By law, Tamar is entitled to try again for a son with her dead husband’s brother, Onan. But Onan refuses to impregnate Tamar, a “crime” for which he is also put to death. Tamar is again denied a chance at offspring – which would give her status and care in her old age.
Judah unfairly blames Tamar for the death of his sons. Though he tells her to wait for his third son, Shelah, to grow up, he has no intention of letting Shelah marry his supposed man-killer daughter-in-law.
When Judah’s wife dies, he decides to take comfort in a prostitute. Tamar, who realizes she won’t have her chance with Shelah, has a plan. Disguising herself, she entices her father-in-law to sleep with her… but not before taking out an insurance policy. Taking his signet, cord, and staff as pledge for payment, she sleeps with her father-in-law and conceives.
Judah nearly has Tamar killed for becoming pregnant. But when Tamar proves that he is the father by producing his property, he humbly admits that he was wrong.
Tamar soon gives birth to twins, whom she apparently raises as a single mother. Talk about impressive!
Had Tamar not defied unjust sexual double standards, Jesus, who descended through Tamar and Judah, would not have been born. One obvious takeaway is to get rid of sexual double standards altogether.
3 & 4. Jochebed and Miriam (Exodus 2)
The stories of Jochebed and Miriam go together, so I’m putting them together here. Jochebed is Moses’ mother, and Miriam is his sister.
Poor Moses was born at a very hard time to be a baby Hebrew boy. Pharaoh is on a genocidal rampage, insisting infant Hebrew males be drowned in the Nile.
I can only imagine Jochebed’s fear and distress as she hides her baby (yet unnamed) for three months. Newborns aren’t exactly quiet! To have the wherewithal to hide him even when afraid, even when doing so must have put her whole family at risk, is truly courageous.
But the anguish she must have felt when she could no longer hide her son is almost inconceivable. Taking a leap of faith that he might survive, she hides him in a basket by a river, hoping someone will save him. Miriam watches from a distance.
Miriam’s heart must have been pounding as Pharaoh’s daughter approached. Of all the people who could find her brother! But she doesn’t scream or run. She listens and discerns. She sees that Pharaoh’s daughter is sympathetic. Her brother is safe.
And then she does something that takes chutzpah. Approaching Pharaoh’s daughter, she asks if she can get a nurse for him. And soon Baby Brother is back home again… with his mother nursing him!
Miriam’s wisdom facilitates a miraculous mother and child reunion.
Meanwhile, Jochebed must be elated that her son is alive, yet also dreading the day she’ll have to return him to the palace of the ruler who oppressed her people and had ordered his death.
What might Jochebed have been able to teach Moses in those formative years? She must have left an impression, for even though Moses was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he recognized the Hebrews as his people.
Without Miriam’s boldness and brilliance even in childhood, and without Jochebed’s defiance of Pharaoh’s orders and fierce motherly love, Moses could not have grown into the leader and liberator he became.
5. Abigail (1 Samuel 25)
This final slot is dedicated to a woman who prevents mass slaughter.
Abigail is a shrewd genius. Unhappily married to a wealthy man named Nabal, she thwarts a disaster set in motion by her foolish husband. This is a classic case of a woman coming to the rescue when male egos spiral out of control.
David (not yet king) believes that Nabal owes him and his servants compensation, for his shepherds have protected Nabal’s shepherds and sheep in the fields. He sends a delegation to request that Nabal give whatever he has on hand, but Nabal refuses and insults David. Furious, David tells his men to get their swords and sets out to slaughter all of Nabal’s male servants.
Fortunately, one of Nabal’s servants goes to Abigail and tells her that Nabal has insulted David and he is afraid that David will attack. The servants of both men got along just fine, but now that their leaders are angry with each other, there will be a bloodbath unless someone can reason with Nabal.
Abigail can’t reason with her husband, but she quickly gathers an enormous care package of loaves, wine, sheep, grain, and more to send to David. She sends her servants with the reconciliatory gift and follows behind.
Abigail intercepts David, bows before him and begs forgiveness for her husband’s rudeness. She flatters and praises David and begs him not to incur bloodguilt on himself by killing her ignorant husband’s servants. David exclaims, “It’s a blessing that you showed up, or I would have killed everyone!” Later, Nabal dies, and David pursues and marries Abigail.
The truth is, David comes off like an irrational jerk in this story, and Abigail’s over-the-top flattery seems a bit much. But she knew how to de-escalate conflict with a man with a big ego, and that’s always a timely lesson. And she eventually becomes a queen out of all of this, too.
These are just a few of the many women in the Bible whose strength, courage, and wisdom save themselves and others. They defy toxic patriarchal conventions of “proper” womanhood. Together, they reveal that God’s desire is not for restrictive gender roles. Rather, it’s for each of us, no matter where we fall on the gender spectrum, to live into our full, dynamic humanity, beyond conventions and expectations, that great and good things may come from us.