Do many women in the bible NOT have husbands or men to take care of them? How are they portrayed? Are they still happy and productive or does the bible mostly portray women who don’t have men in their life as lacking?

You’ve asked an interesting question. I’m  racking my mind but I can only think of a few single women in the bible. I am sure I’ve overlooked some, but here’s a quick list:

  • I’ve mentioned before the midrashic legend of Lilith, who leaves Adam because she does not want to be dominated. She seems to be some sort of bird-demon or screech owl, judging from her one mention in the bible. She is pretty much a troublemaker. Though she is vilified in the rabbinic tradition, modern feminist scholars have used her to represent the single female tradition. I quote the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women entry:Lilith not only embodies people’s fears of how attraction to others can ruin their marriages, or of how risky childbearing and raising children are, but also represents a woman whom society cannot control—a woman who determines her own sexual partners, who is wild and unkempt, and who does not have the natural consequences of sexual activity, children.. . . [Modern scholars] have transformed her into a female symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control of one’s own destiny.”

    A recent book, Which LIlith, shows that Lilith was important as an demon/ alternative goddess figure for Hebrew women. Later, Carl Jung would associate her with the repressed animal in men. For more on her:

    • Encyclopedia of Jewish women entry: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lilith
    • JewishChristianlit.com’s list of links: http://jewishchristianlit.com//Topics/Lilith/lilith.html
    • LIlith Magazine: A magazine for Jewish feminists: https://lilith.org/
  • One of these didn’t even get a name; we call her “Jephthah’s daughter.” In Judges, Jephthah promises, in return for a military victory, to “dedicate to God” (sacrifice) the first thing he sees when he comes home. Unfortunately, that “first thing ” is his daughter, coming to celebrate his victory with him. Unlike Isaac in Genesis, the daughter gets no reprieve. She asks for time to mourn with her women friends the fact that she never lost her virginity, and then she is sacrificed. We are meant to read Jephthah’s promise as extremely rash. A similar  thing happens in ancient legends of the Trojan war; Agamemnon sacrifices his virgin daughter Iphigenia so that the gods will give his men the winds to sail to Troy. His wife is pissed, and she plots her revenge for 10 years.
  • Judges also has a remarkable story of Deborah, who was not only a prophet but also a war leader. Miriam, Moses’ sister, seems to have enjoyed similar abilities.
  • The bible makes a big point of saying that widows, orphans, and strangers should be cared for; clearly, they are considered the most vulnerable. Most widows who are specifically mentioned are either beggars or are cared for by their sons. One story in Kings tells of a widow who loses her son, who is her lifeline. Fortunately, Elijah miraculously revives him.  One of the most frequent complaints of Deuteronomic prophets is that priests hoard money and do not care for the poor. Jesus gets into an argument about this with the pharisees.
  • Jesus also gets into an argument about a prostitute, and famously says “let he who is without stone throw the first stone at her.” This prostitute is NEVER identified as Mary Magdalene, by the way. And Bart Ehrman says Jesus’s line about the stones is a very late addition. One assumes that prostitutes were common, and that prostitution is one way women could take care of themselves if they lost their spouses. The books of Joshua and Genesis both mention prostitutes. Jephthah, mentioned above, is the son of a prostitute, and this in no way keeps him from rising to the position of Judge or war leader. (By the way, prostitutes are usually not the same as concubines, which was the King James version’s’ translation for “second wife.”)
  • There’s also a great story about a widow in one of the apocryphal Maccabees books, book 4. She allows each of her sons to be tortured and killed rather than agree to eat pork, which was considered unclean. (Her husband, Eleazar, is killed first and in the same way; I’m pretty sure her name is not mentioned.) This very late text extols the virtues of martyrdom. But the author reserves the greatest praise for the widow who, despite her “complex…love for her children, which draws everything toward an emotion felt in her inmost parts,” makes the greatest sacrifice. His praise for her is remarkable. He calls her “mother of the nation, vindicator of the law and champion of religion, who carried away the prize of the contest in your heart! O more noble than males in steadfastness, and more courageous than men in endurance!” He even calls her “guardian of the law” (that is, the Torah).
  • The Apocrypha also has a story about a widow named Judith who, famously, seduces an enemy and beheads him. Despite multiple offers, she remains single for the rest of her life. Judges also mentions “a certain woman” who kills an enemy by dropping a millstone on his neck. We don’t ever find out if she was married; Abimelech, her victim, doesn’t want people to know he died by a woman’s hands, so he asks his men to stab him.
  • The other women I can think of are the wise crones. In Samuel, the witches of Endor are asked to commune with the dead prophet Samuel. It doesn’t go well, as that is forbidden in Deuteronomy. The book of Samuel  also mentions a “wise women” who negotiates with General Joab to save her people. In return, she hands over a traitor named Sheba (an enemy of David). In the midrash, the wise woman is identified with Serat bat Asher, a woman who lives a really long time (or forever) and gets to enter Heaven alive (in another tradition, she dies when she is 1000 years old). Her wisdom comes from her longevity.

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