Of the 188 named women in the Bible, two stand out above all others -- Eve and Mary. Eve is the mother of the human race, according to the Bible, while Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ. They exemplify the ambiguous position women occupy in the largely male-dominated, patriarchal society which produced both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament.
In the Time of the Patriarchs
Officially women count for little at this time, but, like Sarah the wife of Abraham, they are decision makers. Sarah, who is barren, offers Hagar, a slave girl, to Abraham. Hagar bears Ishmael and feels superior to her mistress. Eventually Hagar and her child Ishmael are driven out of the family, but God protects them. Isaac, Sarah's son, marries Rebecca, another beautiful but initially barren woman. When she has twins Esau and Jacob Rebecca plots with Jacob to steal the birthright from the first born Esau. These are not compliant wives, but mothers plotting for their children. This behaviour is later repeated by Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, who convinces the ailing David to name her son king.
The Formation and Settling of the Ten Tribes
The women of the Bible are active and often controversial. Miriam, the sister of Moses, plays an important role in the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and is a prophetess in her own right. Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho, protects the spies sent by Joshua to spy out the land and when Jericho falls, she and her family are saved and become part of the 10 tribes. Deborah is one of the Judges of Israel, rallying the men for a conquest over the Canaanites who had oppressed them for 20 years. The defeated and escaping Canaanite general is killed by another woman, Jael, who drives a tent nail through his temple. These are powerful women whose stories are too often forgotten.
The Bad Women of the Bible
Delilah and Jezebel are the most famous bad women. Delilah was a Philistine woman of immense beauty and charm. Samson, the Israelite judge of the time, simply could not leave her alone.In Judges 16 Samson finally tells her that his hair is the secret of his strength. When it is cut, he is bound and blinded but gets his revenge by bringing down the entire temple. The Bible acknowledges just how powerfully attractive women can be, even to destruction.
Jezebel is a Philistine who marries Ahab the king Israel. She brought the worship of Baal into the kingdom including the sacred prostitutes and child sacrifice to Baal. Her prophets are defeated by Elijah in 1 Kings 18 however Jezebel continues to fight Elijah until she herself is killed. The influence of a woman over a man is portrayed as shaping the fortunes of the kingdom.(see References 7)
The New Testament Women
Mary is worshped as an intercessor with God. Mary Magdalene was the first to know that Christ was raised from the dead. Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist, receives her own revelation from an angel about her son and his mission. The unnamed Samaritan woman of John 4:1-42 who gives Jesus water to drink and then converts her whole town to Christianity is an important story of faith. Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, are important in Paul's many journeys. She is always mentioned first and was likely the driving force in organising many branches of the early church. She is the first to be mentioned as a faithful companion in Paul's last letter.
The women of the Bible when carefully studied are all powerful in their own ways and wield the kind of influence that we recognise today as so important.