How are women usually portrayed in the Bible, historically speaking? Ruth is of only two books named after a woman, so I wonder what else the Bible holds in store for the presentation of women.

Well, the bible was written over many centuries by different authors, and I’d suggest none of them agree wholeheartedly about women. I will generalize and say that the bible, especially the Hebrew bible, is extremely patriarchal and women do not often benefit from their portrayals in it. Probably the collections of laws like Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the worst for women. You have laws defining when a woman can be considered innocent of infidelity (when she’s too far away to be heard when she screams rape). Women can be returned, disgraced, stoned, sold, raped, and sent away to die. A couple women get sacrificed. One “second wife” gets gang raped and chopped into 12 pieces and put in the mail. Women’s’ menstrual blood is impure (but then, so is any male “emission.”) There are some mitigating laws, but women are property in the bible, and their main value is as wives, mothers, and seductresses.

On the other hand, there are some great portrayals of women like Ruth, and even more interesting portrayals of “bad” women like Jezebel. You don’t see these women that often, but the women you do see are very memorable. Some stories that don’t make it into the bible–like the story of Lilith, or the story of the Torah, or the story of Thecla–are way cool. Here are some of my favorites:

  • God speaks to Hagar and to Sarah in Genesis. Hagar gets a rough existence, but at least God speaks directly to her and gives her her own destiny.
  • The Hebrew women and their friends the midwives in Exodus are so fertile that they scare Pharaoh. They are like an army of babies and caregivers pitted against an army of soldiers. And they win.
  • I think Jezebel in Kings gets demonized, but she’s interesting and powerful. I read an article today about how Americans like to insult black women by calling them Jezebel, implying they are promiscuous. Several Baptist preachers have already equated Vice President Harris with Jezebel. Before that, people called slave women Dinah. So culturally, those two women are interesting.
  • In Esther, the protagonist replaces queen Vashti because Vashti is asked to pose naked in front of her husband’s drunk friends and she says no. She can’t even. So she’s pretty cool.
  • I am very fascinated by Tiamat, the chaos goddess.
  • In the New Testament, there seem to be women running the church or keeping the communities organized. Among them are Priscilla, Mary and Margaret, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jesus’s mother.
  • We’ve already talked about Ruth.
  • We see some interesting prophets such as Huldah (2 Kings), who validates the text of Deuteronomy and finds it authentic. Two of the gates to Jerusalem were named Huldah, and the rabbinic literature contains theories about their connection to the prophet. Some also suggest she was kin to Jeremiah and prophesied at the same time h e did, perhaps to an audience of women. Ironically, some people think Huldah herself is not part of the original text of 2 Kings but was inserted by someone like P or R from the second temple period. This period seems to accepted women as prophets; for example, Noadiah the prophetess is mentioned in Nehemiah. 
  • I guess no list would be complete without the warrior prophets Deborah and Miriam. And the witches of Endor. And the professional female mourners in Lamentations. There are some badass warrior women in the bible too, but I am ambivalent about all the violence.

Historically, I would not say these portrayals “evolve.” It’s not like portrayals of women improve; it’s more like they either stand out or get shut down based on the context. I mean, Jezebel might as well be molesting children in a pizzeria. I have some theories about why this happens, but that would require another week.

You can look up any woman, goddess, or other female reference in the bible in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia. There you will learn about that woman’s life in later Jewish traditions such as the Midrash and Talmud, the spiritual tradition of the Kabbala, and modern scholarly thinking. It is a wonderful trove of knowledge! 

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