In honor of Women’s History Month (recognized annually during the month of March), we are spotlighting Jewish women from the past and present!
This article was published in the Summer 2022 Issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld, rabbi of Beth Chaverim Humanistic Jewish Community in Deerfield, Illinois.
Women in the Bible are generally referred to, not by name, but by their status as someone’s wife, mother, sister, or daughter – if they are mentioned at all. According to one analysis “that looked at the Hebrew Bible and also Hebrew inscriptions, the total [number of names] came to 1426 names, with 1315 belonging to men and 111 to women;” women’s names, therefore, represent between 5.5 and 8 percent of the total.
When a woman is named in the text, the reader should take notice because it is an exceptional and uncommon situation. While the Bible can be frustratingly short on details, particularly where women are concerned, there nonetheless are several who play significant roles in demonstrating leadership, resourcefulness, and wisdom, not only in the time that the biblical writer wrote of them, but illustratively for readers today. Three are identified as prophetesses, and two others are examples of problem- solvers who are also inter-textually related by the reference to the beit em or “mother’s house.”
Miriam is mentioned seven times in the Bible by name, and once more by implication. Her story arc begins as a child or perhaps a young adult as she watches her baby brother Moses traverse the Nile River in a basket until he is retrieved by Pharaoh’s daughter (another woman without a name). (Ex. 2) Miriam has the audacity and foresight to approach her in the interest of ensuring Moses’ safety and security. She next emerges at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14:2) following the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army. There, Miriam identified as a prophetess ha-n’viah, leads the women in song and dance in the victory song thought to be one of the oldest pieces of biblical text. The age of the text is relevant here, for the evidence it provides of the significance of a female leader in ancient times. When Miriam is next referenced, it is in the wilderness as she asserts her authority as a prophetess, challenging the apparent exclusivity of Moses. Something in her formal status seems to have changed from the express recognition as a prophetess in Exodus, and the need to reclaim that title in Numbers. Both Miriam and the collective recognize her authority and importance. Miriam’s formal story arc concludes with her death. (Num. 20:1)
From her childhood through her death, Miriam is portrayed, albeit sparsely, as influential, active, and important to her community and the development of the nation. She is willing to confront authority, first in the form of Pharaoh’s daughter to further both the value of family relationships and the future nation, (Ex. 2:4), and then in the form of Moses and God, in support of the community and her relationship to it. (Num.12) It is not hyperbolic to suggest that Miriam is the character who acts to ensure the very survival of God’s own prophet and the emerging nation. In Numbers 12, “Miriam is challenging Moses for some very powerful authority: The right to speak to the people on behalf of God.” Her importance to the community and her leadership position is evident in the text itself, as demonstrated by the closing line that “the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Num. 12:15) from her punitive seclusion due to the infliction of leprosy. Likewise, when she leads the women in song and dance, “all the women went out after her.” (Ex. 15:21) Carol Meyers suggests that this incident of playing, singing, and dancing at the Sea of Reeds demonstrates that Miriam occupied a position of leadership not fully described in the text. “If Miriam in fact was a dominant figure in such a [women’s] performance group, her leadership abilities would easily have transcended the female context and exerted themselves in other community settings.”
Deborah too is a prophetess whose story is told in Judges 4:4-10 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. Though described as the “wife of Lappidoth,” the Hebrew eyeshet lapidote can be translated as “fiery woman,” rendering her marital status unclear. Deborah’s story arc lacks narrative details. In a spare six verses depicting strength and influence, the text tells that “she led Israel” and that “the Israelites would come to her for decisions.” (Judges 4:5) She is depicted in dialogue with Barak whom she summoned to tell him that, at God’s command, he is to go into battle and when he is to do so. (Judges 4:6-10, 12-16) The Song of Deborah set out in Judges 5, like Miriam’s Song of the Sea, is considered one of the oldest biblical texts. This again evidences the role women played in ancient times that could not be written out of the text. Susan Ackerman offers Deborah’s leadership model, noting that “later Israelite tradition remembers Deborah foremost as having gifts in counseling and mediation as her prosaic biographer in Judges 4 describes her primarily as the one who rendered judgments for the Israelites who sought her under her palm in Ephraim (4:4-5) . . .”
The third prophetess is Huldah about whom the text tells little. She has both a name and a title, already unusual for biblical women. Her story relates to the need for authentication of a newly discovered scroll that will affect the conduct of the people. The scroll of the Teaching is brought to her for validation, and perhaps explanation, by the priest at the request of the king, Josiah. This sequence of transmission is significant from a gender perspective. Neither the male priest nor the male king has the experience or authority to do so themselves. Huldah responds in 2 Kings 22:16-20 (and 2 Chron. 34:24-28), conveying God’s message that His wrath will be unleashed on the people for having strayed from the law. She lived in Mishne (2 Kings 22:14), a quarter of Jerusalem known as a place of education and was a teacher. The task she is given indicates she was literate and able to read. Huldah’s leadership depicted entirely by implication, is the catalyst for the Josianic reforms, and with them the advancement of the national and collective agenda.
Rebekah’s story is contained in four chapters of Genesis, 24-28, three of which are relevant here. In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant, who has been sent to find a wife for Isaac, spots Rebekah. She proffers water not only to the servant, but to his camels as well. Rebekah engages the servant in conversation, displaying no reticence to speak. She accepts the gifts he has brought, offers home hospitality to him, and relates all that has happened in this interaction to her mother’s household, the beit em. After deliberating there for ten days, Rebekah gives her explicit assent to his explicit request that she go with him to be a wife to his master’s son. She receives the blessing that is parallel to that given to Abraham but whereas Abraham’s is a divine blessing, Rebekah’s comes from her community. (Compare Gen. 12:2; 24:60) In Genesis 25, Rebekah receives a prophecy direct from God that she will become pregnant with twins who will form two nations, with the older serving the younger. Unlike the three prophetesses, the text makes Rebekah the only woman to whom God speaks directly.
The final episode in the Rebekah narrative is contained in Genesis 27 and into Genesis 28. There, Rebekah’s plan, often derisively referred to as a deception, to insure that Jacob, not Esau, receives the birthright given to the first-born from Isaac, is set forth. She develops the plan whereby she will prepare a meal for Isaac, and have Jacob wear goatskins on his arms so he resembles the hairy Esau when he brings it to his vision-impaired father. The goal is to fool Isaac into thinking that it is Esau, the first-born, bringing the meal, and receiving the blessing. Once Jacob receives Isaac’s blessing, and Esau learns of it, Rebekah again acts decisively to make sure Jacob is protected. She is the character that advances the narrative (as seen through the use of many verbs in her story), and ultimately the development of the Israelite nation.
Ruth’s story tells of her leaving her home in Moab to accompany her widowed mother- in-law Naomi on a journey that will be fraught with danger. Two women traveling alone were inherently at risk at that time. Arriving in Bethlehem with Naomi, it is left to Ruth to maneuver her way into Naomi’s kinsman Boaz’s workplace and into his life. She appears to take her instruction from Naomi, but with careful wordplay when reporting on events back to her, it is clear that she is protective of Naomi and has made strategic decisions of her own. When dealing with Boaz, she asserts herself, making it apparent that she is not going to be just one of his servants. (Ruth 2:13) She will not put herself down and ultimately will use him in order to acquire the land coming to Naomi. Her leadership skills on a micro level led to Naomi’s safety and security, and her place in Israelite society. She made the male system for land ownership work for them both. On the macro level, her skills have national implications. She becomes the great-grandmother of King David so she is the character who is closely aligned with the national narrative. Ruth demonstrates that she possesses great loyalty not only to Naomi, but also to her legacy as a Moabite woman. Through industriousness and resourcefulness, she redefines what it means to be a Moabite woman, who thought until then to be licentious, seductive, and dangerous.
Rebekah and Ruth also share two of the four biblical references to the beit em, or mother’s house. (Gen. 24:28; Ruth 1:8; the other two being in Song of Songs) The beit em is the place where Rebekah (actually) and Ruth (implicitly as she was urged to return there), spent time in relation to a life passage, where one generation of women likely taught the next about decision making and making one’s way in the world. Carol Meyers writes:
“[t]he appropriateness of ‘mother’s house’ being associated with the mother as one who teaches can be justified on the basis of anthropological paradigms considered in relation to biblical data, as well as by recognition of the relevance of certain wisdom texts in Proverbs. The readings of ancient and modern biblical scholarship should not be allowed to blur the way in which woman/mother, household and instruction are linked in the MT [Masoritic Text].”
The importance of this intergenerational sharing of skills and wisdom stands in stark contrast to a home without a mother that becomes a site of tragedy as the story of Jephthah’s daughter shows. (Judges 11)
Women’s voices are represented in the Bible; one only needs to listen for them. Their names when given should be remembered. Their stories not only teach something about women’s leadership, resourcefulness and wisdom in the ancient world, but they can educate and inspire our own.
References and other notes to accompany this article can be found at: https://bit.ly/HJ-Summer2022