Women for all seasons - Madonna Magazine

Women for all seasons

Women are everywhere in the Bible. Truly, the Bible could not work without the women who populate its pages. They are the wives, mothers, daughters and other female family members of important men in the Bible. They are also the queens, the assassins, the concubines, the tricksters and the abused, the women of enterprise and of wisdom who made up ancient Israelite society.

In the New Testament a large percentage of women are portrayed in some form of encounter with Jesus, quite often – but not always – that of being healed.

Because they represent real life, not all women in the Bible are models to inspire us as examples of virtue. We may well learn something from each woman who appears in the Bible, but in some cases we would need to reflect deeply on the particular woman, the larger circumstances of her life and her actions in that context before we decided what to learn from her.

Some women in the Bible show us how to live in authentic relationship with God; some show us the darker side of life – and of women – and are a caution to us of what not to do or be. About some women in the Bible, we would give thanks that we no longer live in societies like those that treated them so abominably.

Below are examples of all these kinds of women – the wives, mothers and daughters; some of the more complicated and challenging women; and some of the women who encountered Jesus and model for us ways to relate with him in our own lives, today.

Sarah, wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac enabled the beginning of fulfilment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. (Sarai/Sarah’s story is told mostly in Gen 11:21-25:10.)

When she was beyond childbearing and through the actions of God, Sarah became pregnant with her first and only child. She was constantly on the move with her husband, not knowing the final destination that he said God would show to him. Apparently attractive, she was passed off by Abraham twice as his sister – making her sexually available to other powerful men, lest Abraham be killed so they could take her (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). Sarah lived a life of uncertainty and risk; she followed the God of her husband as was the practice in her day. She was a stalwart woman walking the path of life as it unfolded to her.

The Book of Ruth tells of the foreign daughter-in-law who remained faithful to her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, moving to Judah to live with the elderly Naomi. Eventually, by means of some scheming, Ruth was married to a prominent and wealthy man, Boaz, securing the future for herself and Naomi. Ruth became the mother of Obed, grandfather of David, God’s chosen, anointed king who united all Israel in one nation. Ruth lives the roles of daughter-in-law, wife and mother with integrity, courage and daring, honouring Naomi’s God.

In 1984, the Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible published her book Texts of Terror in which she examined the sad stories of four women from the Old Testament. She argues that ‘Scripture reflects [life] in both holiness and horror.’ Refusing to allow these sad stories to be turned too easily to happy endings, she hoped that insight gained from reading them ‘may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings’.

One of these stories is that of a young woman whose life was sacrificed by her father because of a hasty vow he had made to God in the course of war (Judges 11:1-40). Another story from this early part of Israel’s history is not so sad but depicts a woman who, also in the context of war, kills an enemy warrior by driving a tent-peg through his head (Judges 4:1-24).

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear the story of Herodias, who manipulated her own daughter to ask for John the Baptiser to be killed, to prevent him preaching against Herodias’ improper marriage to the king, Herod Antipas.

In all these stories, women are involved in bloody violence, sometimes as victims, sometimes as perpetrators. We may lament their suffering or be appalled at their ruthlessness. They do not provide ready models for us to imitate. However, recognising that these stories are part of the history of the long human journey to Christian faith, we may see that God has stayed faithful to us through that history in which the full range of evil has appeared, including through the actions of women. God’s faithfulness and hope for new beginnings is shown above all in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, in whom we encounter God’s own self.

One symbolic woman who meets Jesus is the woman who has been bleeding for 12 years (Mark 5:25-34). Physically exhausted, financially drained from the cost of ineffective treatments and socially isolated, she took the risk to call on Jesus’ power to heal her. At his insistence, she told him ‘the whole truth’ of her situation. Jesus welcomed her into the family of God, calling her ‘daughter’ in a way that wiped out all the social exclusion she had suffered from the way her condition was understood in that society. She shows us that Jesus wants to know and heal our suffering, even if society does not approve.

The Samaritan woman was a foreigner to Jesus and despised in her own town (John 4:1-42). Meeting Jesus in the wrong place and wrong time, she responded energetically to Jesus’ challenge to her. She did not fall down and worship him instantly. Rather, she replied sensibly to his request and engaged with him in authentic conversation about what her religious tradition had taught her about God and what Jesus was putting to her. She was honest enough to invite her whole town, who knew her life, to come to see Jesus. Being honest in response to God who offers God’s self to us every day, mostly through other people, is the most any of us can do.

The woman who anoints Jesus before his suffering was the only one to take seriously Jesus’ triple prediction that he would die and rise (Mark 14:3-9).

Disturbing all Jesus’ male disciples, she made the troublesome gesture of pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’ head. This amounts to a kingly anointing, proclaiming that Jesus is valuable beyond counting, royal and to be revered. We can all hope to grasp Jesus’s word with her level of insight and compassion and to love him so completely.

The one who loved Jesus utterly of course was his mother. (Read Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2 for the major stories about Mary as Jesus’ mother. John 19:25-27 depicts Jesus’ mother standing by his cross as her son died.) She lived every step of Jesus’ life, from his birth, through his public ministry to his shameful and hideous death by crucifixion. Many mothers have watched their children through difficult lives, ending in disgrace as criminals, punished, even suffering early death. Every mother knows and cherishes the truth of the beautiful child to whom she gave birth. Some mothers suffer the great loss of watching their children die, as Mary did.

Mary is not only our model: she is our companion as we live our lives, trusting to God, the father of Jesus, as she did. Mary teaches us that God is our strong protector against the harshness of life and above all is merciful despite the judgments of others and even ourselves.