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’.
Ancient Egyptian birthing brick; women placed one of these under each foot as they squatted to give birth
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 survive.
Wooden statuette of a foreign woman and her child, from a tomb at Beni-Hasan. Compare with the delicate statues of Egyptian women.
The Bible text
‘Still not satisfied, the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the second of whom was named Puah, “In your midwifery to the Hebrew women, take care to determine the sex of the infant: if it is a son, kill him instantly; if however it is a daughter, she may live.”
But the midwivesbelieved in God, and they would not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do. Rather did they help the male children live. For this reasons the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them “On what authority have you done such a thing, that you would permit the male children to live?”
Thinking fast, the midwives said to Pharaoh “We could not help it, because unlike Egyptian women, the Hebrew women are robust – in fact, they have often delivered their own babies before the midwife arrives.”
Thus did God favour the midwives. And the people of Israel became more numerous still.
The Pharaoh’s next move was to command the whole of his people thus: “Every son born to the Hebrews you must pitch into the river Nile; every daughter may be permitted to live”.’ (Exodus 1:15-22)
Esther married a fool
Esther’s husband the King 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 would need more than beauty and virtue to navigate the shoals of a corrupt and dangerous court.
As it happened, Queen 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’. But she did it.
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
‘Then the King’s servants said “Let beautiful and virtuous girls be sought out for the king. The king shall appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, and they shall select beautiful young virgins to be brought to the harem in Susa, the capital. Let them be entrusted to the king’s eunuch who is in charge of the women, and let ointments and whatever else they need be given them. And the woman who pleases the king shall be queen.’ Esther with Additions, Addition A, Chapter 2
‘On the third day, when she ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshipped and arrayed herself in splendid attire.
Then, majestically adorned, she took two maids with her; on one she leaned gently for support, while the other followed, carrying her train.
She was radiant with perfect beauty and she looked happy, as if beloved, but her heart was frozen with fear.‘
‘Deborah’ means ‘bee’ – a small creature that can cause great pain
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.
Why was she famous?
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-menand archers.
Deborah’s complete faith in God, even when she was facing impossible odds, was vindicated.
The Bible text
‘..she sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you ‘God, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’ Barak said to her “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said “I will surely go with you.”Judges 4:4-9
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 of the Queen of Sheba 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
The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, by Sir John Poynter
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.
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’, by Gustav Klimt
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.
But there is a significant passage in the story where Judith argues with the elders of her town about what God is and is not. This is the part that should be read by anyone who wishes to know God better.
She points out that God cannot really ever by known, and that we are foolish if we think we can know God. God is not human like us, even though we try to make him so by giving him human qualities.
After all, if we don’t know what is in the mind of the person beside us, or what our nearest and dearest really think – which we don’t – how then can we expect to know what God is thinking, or what his plan for us is?
All we can really do is trust in God, and hope for the best.
The Bible text
‘Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people today is not right. Who are you to put God to the test, to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs. You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test, but you will never learn anything!
You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the working of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his through?…..God is not like a human being, to be threatened, or like a mere mortal, to be won over by pleasing.
Therefore while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him.’ Judith 8:11-17
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
Love was in the air…
‘So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down.
At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there lying at his feet was a woman! He said “Who are you?” And she answered “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin”.‘ Ruth 3:6-9
Mary of Nazarethwas 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.
Having made the suggestion she stepped back, letting him take over and follow up on her words in his own way. This he did, with his first miracle – a momentous event, even though it happened quietly. Mary knew when to speak, and when to be quiet.
The story finishes with the image of Jesus, his mother and his extended family moving away together. The Miracle at Canais not the most famous story about Mary of Nazareth, yet it sums up her character and her relationship with her son better than any of the other, better known stories.
The Bible text
Ancient wine jars recovered from the sea
‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.
He said to them “Now draw some out and take it to the chief stewards.” So they took it.
When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from, the steward called the bridegroom and said to him “Everyone servers the good wine first and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.’John 2:1-12
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
‘Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed, He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl, She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead’. Judges 5:24-27
Rahab the prostitute spied for Joshua
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.
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.
Houses were often built inside a cavity in the city walls for people who could not afford a normal house
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
‘Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. She said to them “Go toward the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterward you may go your way.” ….. She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window.’Joshua 2:15-21
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.
From a fresco at Pompeii
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 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.
The Three Marys, Henry Ossawa Tanner
After 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