Is the Bible a Book about Men? What about Women?

Hagar and Ishmael, by Frederick Goodall (1822-1904)

Hagar and Ishmael, by Frederick Goodall (1822-1904)

So . . . apparently some women these days have just a few problems with the Bible:

“It’s all about men!”

“The Bible represents an archaic, male-dominated society.”

“In the Bible, women are basically men’s property.”

“Men do all the important things in the Bible. Women are just their servants and beasts of burden.”

“Most of the women in the Bible don’t even have names!”

Is it any wonder that many women today have serious problems with the Bible and with Christianity?

It doesn’t help that many large, traditional Christian denominations continue to shut women out of the highest positions in their organizations. But if the Bible itself supports gender inequality, how can we in the twenty-first century have any respect for it at all?

Does the Bible really represent how the Christian God views women? How can a modern, self-respecting, capable woman really look to the Bible for spiritual inspiration?

These are huge questions. We can’t deal with all of them in this article. However, we can set the record straight on at least a few points.

In particular, we can highlight some of the strong female characters in the Bible who wielded a decisive influence on Judaeo-Christian history and faith.

Men always ran the show in the Bible . . . or did they?

Yes, it’s true: the Bible was written during a time when for the most part, men ran the show and women served them. That’s been the unfortunate situation ever since the Fall of Humankind took place in Genesis 3.

To be clear, it was not God’s original plan to make women the servants of men. For more on this, see the article, “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

However, when we humans disobeyed God and did things our own way instead of God’s way, things got out of whack. And in terms of gender equality, women have gotten the short end of the stick ever since. It’s only been in the last century or two that women have begun seriously moving back toward the original equality with men that existed when God first created humans on earth.

However, the picture in the Bible is not quite as bleak for women as many modern critics say it is.

  1. Although women in Bible times did have a lower social status than men, unless they were slaves they were not the property of men, and they did have many rights.
  2. Both men and women could be slaves, and therefore actually be property.
  3. Women in the Bible commonly had an influence far beyond what we might expect based on their lower social status in Bible times.

Yes, the Bible was written at a time when women had nowhere near the social status that they do in the West today. And certainly there are stories in the Bible that exemplify a brutal era in human history when women were often treated very badly.

Still, women in Bible times didn’t always just meekly take whatever the men dished out. There are a number of key women in the Bible who asserted themselves, altered the course of the Bible narrative, and in so doing had a decisive influence on the spiritual history of the Judeo-Christian world. Though some did so in their traditional roles as wives and mothers, others ventured outside those traditional roles to leave their mark on history.

Women were often key actors causing outcomes in situations where, had they not been present, there would have been a vastly different outcome.

Let’s look at some of these influential women in the Bible.

Eve: the first woman in the Bible

Adam and Eve, by Jan Gossaert (c. 1478-1532)

Adam and Eve, by Jan Gossaert (c. 1478-1532)

Eve is presented in the Bible as “the mother of all the living” (see Genesis 3:20).

But she has become most famous for being tempted by the serpent, eating from the forbidden tree, and bringing a curse down on humanity. Quite a mixed legacy for the first woman in the Bible, isn’t it?

Still, consider this question: Who drove the action in Genesis 3, Adam or Eve?

Genesis 2 revolves around Adam: his creation, his placement in the Garden of Eden, his naming of the animals, and finally the creation of Eve out of Adam’s rib while he slept.

But in Genesis 3, the action shifts decisively over to Eve. Despite the fact that Adam was right there with her (see verse 6), the serpent talked to Eve, not Adam. And Eve, not Adam, was the one who decided to eat from the forbidden tree. After she ate it herself, she then gave some to her husband, who also ate it.

Okay, so it was a bad decision. But the point here is that the decision-maker—the one who initiated and determined the course humanity would take—was not Adam, the man, but Eve, the woman.

In this story, which is the first major turning point in the Bible narrative, Eve is the stronger character.

You can draw whatever conclusions you want from that. Many traditional Christians have drawn the conclusion from this story that women should not lead, and that that’s why, in the aftermath of Eve’s actions, God made man ruler over woman (see verse 16). But the Bible doesn’t actually say that. It simply tells the story.

The fact remains that in the first major story in the Bible that hinges on the relationship between man and woman (after their initial creation), it was Eve, not Adam, who took the lead, and who determined the course that the two of them—and humanity as a whole after them—would take.

Sarah: wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac

Sarah and Isaac, by Slava Groshev, 2006

Sarah and Isaac, by Slava Groshev, 2006

After Eve, the next woman who has a major role in the Bible story is Sarah, wife of the patriarch Abraham, and mother of the patriarch Isaac. Sarah first appears in the Bible story in Genesis 11:29–31, under her original name of Sarai, as the wife of Abram, who was later renamed Abraham.

Sarah plays an important role in several stories from Genesis 12 until her death in Genesis 23, at the age of 127. However, she is best known for becoming the mother of Isaac at the age of 90.

And therein lies a story.

You can read the whole story in Genesis 16:1–18:15; 21:1–21. For our purposes now, we’ll cover only some of the major events, and Sarah’s role in them.

In those days a woman gained most of her status through her relationship with her husband, and through the sons she bore as heirs for her husband. Regardless of what we may think of that arrangement today, women of Bible times were well aware of that reality, and they commonly worked within it in order to make their mark on the world.

That is precisely how Sarah came to be a decisive influence on the history of Israel, Judaism, and Christianity.

Sarai provides an heir for Abram

Sarai had a problem. She had a wealthy, powerful, and good husband, which should have gained her high status in her society. But she had no children. And that, for her, was an intolerable situation.

And so, seeing that she herself was bearing no children, she set in motion a plan to ensure an heir for her husband, and honor for herself as well:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. (Genesis 16:1–4)

Of course, by today’s standards in the West, such an arrangement would never fly. But in ancient Middle-Eastern culture, it was an accepted and even honorable course of action.

And it was set in motion, not by Abram, but by Sarai.

Unfortunately, instead of gaining Sarai honor, her actions brought her only heartbreak:

When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. (Genesis 16:4–6)

We’ll pass by how Sarai blamed Abram for her troubles, even though she herself was the one who brought it about. What’s most fascinating about this vignette is that even though the child to be born would be Abram’s heir, he deferred to his wife, and let her decide the fate of Hagar and the child. Clearly Sarai had clout in the relationship. Clearly Abram not only loved her, but respected her and her wishes.

Sarai was far from the meek, subservient wife who is the caricature of wives in Bible times. And as the story unfolds, her will and her actions continue to have a decisive influence on how events unfold.

After an encounter with an angel of the Lord in the desert, Hagar did return to Sarai in a humbler state of mind, and she did bear a son for Abram, whom he named Ishmael.

Sarah bears an heir for Abraham

For thirteen years, Ishmael was Abram’s heir. And given Sarai’s advanced age, it certainly looked like he would remain Abram’s heir.

But God had a different plan:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:1–5)

The story adds:

God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis 17:15–16)

. . . which the now renamed Abraham had a hard time believing:

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Genesis 17:17–18)

But God simply doubled down on his earlier statement:

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” (Genesis 17:19–21)

This same message and prediction was reaffirmed in Genesis 18:1–15 by three men representing the Lord, who visited Abraham.

And indeed, Genesis 21:1-7 tells the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth, when Sarah was ninety years old.

Sarah ensures the lineage of the Israelite people

That’s when Sarah once again took the lead, and made sure that God’s promise to Abraham would take place through her son Isaac, and not through Ishmael:

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:8–10)

Once again, Abraham acceded to the wishes of his wife Sarah, with some additional prompting from the Lord:

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. (Genesis 21:11–14)

And this is how it happened that even though Abraham loved Ishmael, and had asked God to bless Ishmael as his heir (see Genesis 17:18), it was Sarah who ensured that God’s will would be carried out, and that Abraham’s lineage would pass through her own son Isaac—even though Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, and should therefore have been Abraham’s primary heir, through whom his lineage would pass.

In short, it was Sarah, not Abraham, who ensured that the three great Patriarchs of the Bible would be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not Abraham, Ishmael, and Nebaioth (see Genesis 25:12–18).

Well . . . she wasn’t actually the one who ensured that it would be Jacob . . . .

Rebekah: wife of Isaac, mother of Jacob and Esau

That should have been, “mother of Esau and Jacob.” We’ll get to that in a minute.

Genesis chapter 24 is often titled “Isaac and Rebekah.” But it’s really the story of Rebekah, and how she became Isaac’s wife. Isaac himself appears only in the last few verses of the chapter. In fact, Rebekah almost eclipses Isaac in the few chapters that tell their story (Genesis 24–28). She figures in most of the events of those chapters, and in the end, she has a more decisive impact on the lineage of the Jewish people than her husband Isaac does.

But first, let’s look at the story of how Rebekah came to be Isaac’s wife. That story introduces Rebekah, and conveys the character of the woman who would later ensure that the Jewish people would be known as “the Sons of Jacob” and “the Children of Israel” rather than “the Children of Esau.”

Rebekah: a young woman of character and decisiveness

Rebekah at the Well, by Robert Gavin (1827-1883)

Rebekah at the Well, by Robert Gavin (1827-1883)

Genesis 24 tells one of the most engaging stories in the Old Testament. There aren’t many love stories in the Bible, but Genesis 24 is one of them! And it’s not like any other love story you’ve ever read.

In it, Abraham, who is now getting very old, sends his (unnamed) senior servant from his adopted home in the land of Canaan northward to the home of his relatives in Aram Naharaim (the northwestern part of the Fertile Crescent) in order to find a wife for his son Isaac.

When the servant, accompanied by ten camels and a retinue of men, arrived in the town where Abraham’s relatives lived, he promptly went to the well outside of town, where the women of the town would go out to draw water. That’s where we’ll pick up the story:

Then he prayed, “Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”

Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.

The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”

“Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink.

After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful. (Genesis 24:12–21)

To make a long story short (you can read the whole story at the Genesis 24 link above), the Lord did make his journey successful. As soon as he had told his story to Rebekah’s family, they immediately agreed that Rebekah should go with him and become Isaac’s wife.

But . . . the next day they started getting cold feet.

And who could blame them? Suddenly this man they’d never seen before had shown up with an elaborate story, and now he wanted to take their beloved daughter and sister with them to marry a man they’d never met? The valuable gifts that he gave to her and to them were fairly convincing, but still . . . it was all a bit sudden, wasn’t it?

That’s precisely when Rebekah revealed her forceful and decisive character:

When they got up the next morning, he [Abraham’s servant] said, “Send me on my way to my master.”

But her brother and her mother replied, “Let the young woman remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.”

But he said to them, “Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.”

Then they said, “Let’s call the young woman and ask her about it.” So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”

“I will go,” she said.

So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. (Genesis 24:54–59)

First of all, this story should put to rest the idea that women had no voice in ancient times. While Rebekah’s mother and brother dithered and delayed, they came up with the idea of asking Rebekah herself. They probably thought she would also think it was all too sudden, and would opt to delay and stay for a while before leaving.

But that’s not what she did.

Rebekah, having met this man only yesterday, was ready to go with him today.

She saw her opportunity to be married to a wealthy, powerful, and God-fearing man. And though she had never laid eyes on him, she was ready to go immediately, and seize that opportunity.

As forceful as her personality was, the chapter also tells us that she was not only a beautiful woman, but a good one. Seeing unknown strangers visiting her town, she had willingly provided for their needs, going beyond what was asked of her by drawing water not only for the servant himself, but for all of his camels.

This was no small thing. Drawing water was heavy work, and that was a lot of big bodies to provide water for! However, in her culture there was a sacred duty to be hospitable to visiting strangers. And Rebekah honored both these visitors and the customs of her culture by providing abundantly for their needs.

And so, embedded right in the narrative of the story, Genesis 24 paints a clear picture of a young woman who was ambitious, knew her own mind, and yet had consideration for visitors and strangers, and thoroughly honored the customs and mores of her people.

No wonder we are told, in the last verse of the chapter:

Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24:67, italics added)

Rebekah was not only a beautiful woman. She was a woman of character. And that endeared her to her husband Isaac.

However, Isaac may have gotten a little more than he bargained for!

Esau and Jacob . . . or is it Jacob and Esau?

In the course of time, Rebekah bore twin boys for Isaac, named Esau and Jacob. And though Esau was the firstborn of the two, Jacob was ambitious, and looked for opportunities to supplant his (slightly) older brother. You can read their story in Genesis 25:19–34.

It was an eventful birth. The babies “jostled each other” in the womb, setting up a fraternal competition other that would last much of their lifetimes.

Esau came out red and hairy, which led to his two names, Esau (which means “hairy” in Hebrew) and Edom (which means “red” in Hebrew).

Jacob came out “grasping Esau’s heel”—and the very name Jacob means “he grasps the heel,” which is a Hebrew idiom for a deceiver and a supplanter.

In contrast to his brother, Jacob was a smooth-skinned man, and he loved to stay at home in the tents. Esau, on the other hand, was a rough and rugged outdoorsman, who loved to go out hunting in the open country.

Is it any wonder that Esau was the favorite of his father Isaac, while Jacob was the favorite of his mother Rebekah?

Jacob began the task of supplanting his brother by finagling his brother into selling him his birthright (the right to inherit a double portion of his father’s estate) for a bowl of stew. The fact that Esau was willing to accept such a lopsided deal shows a weakness of character in him—which was the reason he could not hold his place as the firstborn. And the fact that Jacob was willing to make that lopsided deal with his brother demonstrates Jacob’s sharp and shifty character, for which he got his name.

You can read about it at the link above. And for more on the story of Jacob and Esau, and what it says about their respective characters, see the article, “Dan Gheesling: Judas, Jesus, . . . or Jacob?” and scroll down to the section titled, “Jacob: a driven, devious strategist.”

Rebekah changes the course of Israelite history

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gioachino Assereto (1600-1649)

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gioachino Assereto (1600-1649)

But what Jacob did to his brother in finagling him out of his birthright was nothing compared to how Rebekah pulled the wool over her husband Isaac’s eyes, and cheated Isaac’s elder and favorite son Esau out of his father’s all-important blessing on the firstborn, causing it to go to her own favorite son, Jacob, instead.

The story is too long to recount here. You can read it for yourself in Genesis 27. It is a powerful and poignant tale of deception and betrayal.

And Rebekah is the ringleader.

She deviously and single-mindedly planned out an elaborate hoax against her elderly and blind husband, and sent Jacob in to execute the hoax, causing Isaac to give the blessing due to his older and beloved son Esau to his younger son Jacob instead. This blessing effectively made Jacob the new head of the household upon his father’s death, and gave him precedence and authority over his brother Esau. The blessing said in part:

May nations serve you
and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. (Genesis 27:29)

Once Isaac had been tricked into giving the blessing of the firstborn to the younger of the two boys, it could not be undone. When Esau entered immediately after Jacob had departed, the deception was revealed.

But it was too late.

Jacob, under the tutelage of his mother Rebekah, had now fully supplanted his older brother Esau as his father’s firstborn and primary heir.

And that is why to this day the brothers are commonly referred to as “Jacob and Esau” rather than Esau and Jacob.”

In the aftermath, when Rebekah got wind of Esau’s plan to kill his brother Jacob after their father died, she arranged for Jacob to be sent back to her own family in northwest Mesopotamia. And that is where Jacob himself became a wealthy and powerful man.

But that’s another story.

For our purposes today, the story is that of Rebekah, whose strong, decisive character, together with a deviousness that she clearly passed on to her son Jacob, trumped the will of her husband Isaac, and caused the lineage of the Jewish people to pass, not through the older son Esau as it should have done by ancient custom and by the will of their father Isaac, but through the younger son Jacob instead.

Jacob was later renamed “Israel” (see Genesis 32:28). And that is where the Children of Israel got their name.

Deborah: prophet and leader of Israel

Jael, Deborah, and Barak, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)

Jael, Deborah, and Barak, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)

No survey of strong, decisive women in the Bible would be complete without the story of Deborah.

You can read Deborah’s story, and her song, in Judges chapters 4 and 5.

It is sometimes called the story of Deborah and Barak. But in the story, Barak, a man, looked to Deborah for strength and inspiration, and not the other way around.

The story takes place in the disorganized period of the “judges,” before the people of Israel were unified under a single king. Among those “judges,” or regional leaders of the people, one was a woman:

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. (Judges 4:4–5)

During Deborah’s time of leadership, the people in her region of the Holy Land were being oppressed by one of the local Canaanite kings. And though it would be the job of the men to fight and defeat that king and his commander, Sisera, it was Deborah who issued the call to battle:

She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” (Judges 4:6–7)

Barak insisted that Deborah must go with him, or he and his men would not go.

Her response?

“Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (Judges 4:9)

And that is precisely what happened. Barak and his army did rout Sisera and his chariots and soldiers. But Sisera himself escaped, and took shelter in the tent of a woman: Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She lulled him to sleep . . . and then drove a tent peg through his temples and into the ground, killing him.

Violent?

You betcha!

But in this story of victorious combat, it was a woman who served as Israel’s prophet and leader, and delivered God’s commandment to the people to go out and fight their enemies. And it was another woman who dealt the final fatal blow of the battle.

As a result of these two women’s leadership and heroic action, in the epilog to the Song of Deborah we read:

Then the land had peace for forty years. (Judges 5:31)

Mary: mother and follower of Jesus

A Mother and Child, by Stefano Novo 1862-1927

A Mother and Child, by Stefano Novo 1862-1927

And finally, no survey of women who played key roles in the Bible story would be complete without Mary.

In the Gospel story, Mary has two roles: she was the mother of Jesus, and later in life she became a follower of Jesus.

Now, being the earthly mother of the one who would be called “God with us” (Matthew 1:23) is no small honor—and no small responsibility.

Mary was chosen by God for that honor and responsibility for the same reason so many other key women in the Bible took their place in history: She was a woman of character and decisiveness—and a willingness to follow where God led her, and take on the great task that God gave her.

When an angel of God came to Mary to announce to her that she would bear a child who would be called the Son of the Most High, she was perplexed. You can read the story in Luke 1:26–38.

And yet, when her rather pragmatic question was answered by the angel, even if she still might not have understood exactly what this all meant, her response was immediate and positive:

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)

In other words, like Rebekah centuries before her, Mary quickly accepted the task and the role that the Lord had chosen her for. And she did so even though it might very well mean that she would be condemned as an adulteress, and her child branded illegitimate. We read in Matthew 1:18–19:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

It was only by another angelic intervention that Joseph accepted Mary as his wife, and accepted her baby, whom he was instructed by the angel to name Jesus, as his son.

Mary becomes a follower of Jesus

It is clear from the Gospel story that Mary was indeed perplexed by this eldest son of hers. Both the miraculous manner of his birth and his words and actions as he grew up caused her much surprise and consternation.

In a story told in Luke 2:41–52—which is the only story of Jesus’ youth recorded in the Bible—a twelve year old Jesus stays behind in Jerusalem after the Passover festival even though his parents have already left for home. When they returned to Jerusalem looking for him, and found him at the Temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46), we read:

When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 1:48–50)

And yet, though she was perplexed, the story goes on to say:

But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 1:51)

Even after he had started his public ministry at the age of thirty, his mother still did not understand Jesus’ pursuit of “his Father’s business.” We read in the Gospel of Mark:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” . . .

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20–21, 31–35)

Here Jesus’ family, including his mother and brothers (Joseph had probably died by then), think Jesus has gone crazy, and they come to “take charge of him.” But he doesn’t even recognize them as his mother and brothers.

Later though—probably after Jesus’ death—Mary herself became one of his followers, and moved among his disciples.

The Gospel of John records a poignant scene at Jesus’ crucifixion involving Mary and Jesus’ disciple John, who is commonly called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in that Gospel:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25–27)

And in the book of Acts we find her among Jesus’ followers:

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:12–14)

And so the woman who had been chosen by God to be the earthly mother of Jesus Christ, and who had accepted that task from God with dedication and grace, became herself a follower of the man who would be called “God with us.”

Women: decisive figures in the Bible narrative

So if anyone ever tells you that women have no clear voice or role in the Bible, don’t believe it!

Yes, it’s true that in Bible days women were considered secondary to men. And yes, it’s true that women commonly got the short end of the stick.

And yet, these few stories of only some of the strong, decisive, intelligent, and influential women in the Bible show that even in the patriarchal societies of thousands of years ago, women made their presence felt and their voices heard—and they played a key role in determining the course of the Judaeo-Christian history.

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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