He had divorced his first wife over a petty matter, because his advisers told him to do so.
Now he chose a second wife for her beauty - all very fine, but not when the woman in question is to be queen of a vast empire. Esther, a second Anne Boleyn, would need more than beauty and virtue to navigate the shoals of a corrupt and dangerous court.
As it happened, Esther was up to the task. When she learnt about a plot to eradicate all the Jews in the kingdom, she went unbidden into the king's presence - a capital offense for which she could have been executed. The Bible text says her heart was 'frozen with fear'.
So as well as good looks and virtue, she had intelligence and courage, both of which she used to save her people from the pogrom that faced them. Of course she succeeded (or we would not be reading the story). The Jewish people were saved, their enemies annihilated, and the event is celebrated to this day in the festival of Purim.
The Bible text
Toughen up, said Deborah
This extraordinary woman was a prophetess and a judge in ancient Israel.. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah ('Deborah' means 'bee') between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelite people came up to her for judgment and wise advice.
Under God's inspiration she did an extraordinarily daring thing: she took command of the Israelite people and convinced them to fight the better equipped and trained Canaanite army, led by a terrifying Canaanite general called Sisera.
The general Deborah appointed to lead the Israelites was none too enthusiastic about his task. He was a sensible man and could see the Israelites were outclassed. But Deborah was able to convice him he could win - though he only agreed to fight if she was there.
When the time came, God stood by the Israelites. A drenching storm made the flat land of the battlefield a quagmire. Sisera's iron-wheeled chariots became bogged in the mud, making his soldiers an easy target for the Israelite sling-men and archers.
Deborah's complete faith in God, even when she was facing impossible odds, was vindicated.
The Bible text
The Queen of Sheba 'happy are your wives' she said...
Who was this legendary figure who came flaunting herself (and her wealth) at King Solomon's court? Nobody really knows. Most probably she was from Ethiopia, a queen in her own right - a royal woman used to getting her own way and confidently sure of her worth.
The visit to Solomon's court seems to have been a diplomatic ceremony. Gifts were exchanged - the Bible mentions gold, spices and precious stones, and Solomon was lavish in his hospitality. He was clearly trying to impress this queen.
But he had such a reputation for enjoying the company of women that people have speculated that there was more to their relationship than just diplomacy. He had, after all, a large number of foreign wives and concubines - the Bible mentions one thousand, though that was probably an exaggeration.
Why did she come? The Bible suggests that her motive was curiosity about Solomon, who enjoyed a reputation for being a shrewd judge of character and a learned scholar as well. This is part of the truth. But she would also have been sounding out the possibility of trade with Solomon's thriving kingdom.
What happened while she was there? An affair between two equals? 'Happy are your wives', she said to him. The traditional Bible translation says that after seeing all Solomon had to offer, 'there was no more spirit in her'. An alternative translation is that 'he took her breath away'. Solomon may have met his match, and so may she.
The Bible text
And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.
I Kings 10 v.1-13
Judith : beautiful but deadly
Judith was a very unusual woman. She was capable of brutal murder, but she was also a theologian, who proposed a more profound image of God.
Judith's story is certainly a bloodthirsty one. She was a respectable but very beautiful widow whose town was beseiged and about to surrender. She went to the enemy camp, beguiled (seduced?) its leader Holofernes, then hacked off his head as he lay in a drunken stupor - all this after praying to God to make her a good liar, not a request God often hears.
In fact, the story
does not seem to have a moral theme at all.
The Bible text
See Judith's full story at Judith: beautiful executioner
Judith beheads Holofernes, Caravaggio
Ruth had the good sense to listen to someone older and wiser than herself, and most of us could learn a lot from her.
But her common sense is not the only reason the story is popular. Ruth was loyal to someone who needed her and had been good to her in the past, even when the sensible thing would have been to cut and run. Heaven knows Naomi had nothing to offer the young widow, but Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law even when there was no gain in it for herself.
It turned out to be the right decision. Naomi was financially destitute but she was street-wise, with a remarkable knowledge of the world and of men in particular. This proved more valuable than money. She told Ruth how to go about prodding Boaz, an eligible bachelor, into proposing - a skill that many young women today would like to learn. Ruth recognized good advice when she heard it, and acted accordingly. And she and Boaz lived happily ever after.
The Bible text
Mary was astute and observant. She saw what was going on behind the scenes at the wedding at Cana, and that the wine had run out - a severe embarrassment to any host and his family in Middle Eastern society.
She also knew what her son was capable of. She approached him with a
suggestion, nudging him into action. Jesus complied,
though not without mildly objecting. Her tactful request was a subtle
and diplomatic way of starting him in his ministry.
The Bible text
See the story at The Wedding of Cana
Shiprah & Puah: first recorded pogrom
These two obscure women might have been long forgotten except for their stubborn defiance of a royal edict. They were midwives, ordered by Pharaoh to kill any male babies born to the Jewish slaves in Egypt. It was Pharaoh's 'final solution'.
The two women would not do it. Their lives were dedicated to helping babies live, not killing them. They would not drown babies like unwanted kittens.
Were they Hebrews or Egyptians? No-one is sure. You would think Hebrews would have their own midwives - but would Pharaoh have trusted Hebrew women to carry out what was in effect the annihilation of their own race? Ethnicity at that time was patrilineal, so killing the boys meant killing the tribe.
Surely Pharaoh would have employed Egyptian women to carry out this order of his? They would be more likely to obey. Or were Shiprah and Puah expected to be collaborators against their own people in this first recorded pogrom?
Shiprah and Puah not only refused to obey Pharaoh's order, but they
actively worked against it, doing all they could to help the little boys
The Bible text
Jael was a small, unarmed woman, but the Song of Deborah records with a certain macabre glee the way she murdered the fearsome enemy general Sisera.
The general, Sisera, had been defeated by the Israelites and fled from the battlefield, presumably deserting his army. Exhausted, he took shelter in the tent of Jael.
He should have known better. Jael lulled him into a false sense of security, let him fall asleep, then took a tent peg and drove it through the side of his skull.
The Israelites, when they heard what had happened, could not contain themselves. Not only was their enemy dead, but he had been killed by a lone woman - the most undignified death a soldier could have.
Sisera's death, and particularly the manner of it, gave the under-dog Israelites a lot of simple joy - rivalling similar stories like Goliath's death at the hands of David.
The Bible text
Rahab lived in a seedy part of town, up against the outer wall of the city. It was not a desirable location in ancient real estate, but in this case it turned out to be the right address.
Rahab was ideally placed to help Joshua capture the city of Jericho.
At the time that he attacked the city, its glory days were over. It had fallen on hard times, and the walls were no longer patrolled by soldiers - in fact, they had become the worst part of town.
Rahab, a Jericho prostitute or perhaps an inn-keeper, or perhaps both these things, practised her trade from her house on the walls. When Joshua's scouts came to the city, her house was the perfect place to spend the night. She took pity on them, hid them, then when they were hunted by the city authorities she let them down on a rope from the window of her house, so that they escaped. In return, they promised to protect her and her family if the city was taken.
As it was. The walls came tumbling down, as the song goes, and Joshua's soldiers swarmed into the city. But Rahab was safe - she had left a crimson cord hanging down from the window overlooking the wall, just as she was instructed to do, and Joshua upheld the promise of the soldiers she had protected.
The Bible text
Rahab's house lay between Jericho's outer and inner walls, or was built into the wall itself; this drawing shows the walls, already in disrepair, crumbling when Joshua entered the city
Joanna saw the horrific death of Jesus
Joanna was born into one of the prominent and wealthy Jewish families of Galilee. Her husband was the Nabatean nobleman Chuza, who had come to Herod's court in the entourage of the young Nabatean princess who became Herod's wife. Herod soon promoted him to finance minister of his realm.
Joanna lived in an impressive house in the new city of Tiberias. She became part of the Romanized culture of the Tiberian aristocracy.
She first became aware of Jesus because he was a popular sensation - extraordinary tales of healing were circulating. She went to Jesus because she herself needed healing, and her encounter with him changed the whole course of her life.
She came to know Jesus of Nazareth better than most people. For two years or so she was in constant contact with him - though she always travelled in the group of women who supported Jesus.
She was profoundly impressed by his religious ideas: that repentance was necessary to enter the coming kingdom of God, and that the way to God demanded renunciation of wealth and power. As a devout Jewish woman, Joanna had always given generously to the poor, but Jesus required a more radical step. She sold some of her property and gave it to the needy. Then she channelled her income into the common fund which Jesus and his disciples needed to live on.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for what was to be his last visit, Joanna knew the danger he was in. She knew the Jewish and Roman political world well, and she was terrified. A few days later she heard the news that Jesus had been arrested, then sentenced to death by crucifixion - she still had contacts in high places and so was able to find out what was happening.
When the time came, she and some of the other women made their way to the place of crucifixion and watched Jesus die his agonizing death. There was nothing she could do except try to live through the nightmare.
waiting for the Sabbath to pass, she and some other women went with
spices and ointments to the tomb, to follow the proper burial rituals.
What she saw and heard there, on Easter
morning, stayed with her as long
as she lived. She told everyone she knew about that morning - first the
disciples, then anyone she met. She was one of the first apostles,
spreading the Good News.
Great Bible Women: Ruth, Joanna, Mary of Nazareth, Shiprah and Puah, Judith, Esther, Rahab, Deborah, Jael