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Women of the Old Testament

Molly OConnor

You are probably wondering…wasn’t there a series on developing a theology on women? So it’s been a few weeks and that is part to blame on my busy schedule and part to blame on the realization that I don’t know a lot about women in the Old Testament.

Sure, I could name some for you: Rachel, Leah, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Bathsheba, Miriam…but that’s only a fraction of them. Even further, do I know enough about any one of them to say insightful things?

I am not really sure when my fascination with women and society began, but I do remember writing a paper freshman year of college on Eve in Paradise Lost. You’d think I’d know more about these incredible women. I am, admittedly, more familiar with the women in the New Testament and the mothers of the Church since. As I go to break this down into some digestible chunks of information—for your sake and mine own—I’ve realized I can’t possibly cover OT, NT, and women of the Church all in one blog post.

The only way I know how to do this justice is by starting with a catalogue of women in the Old Testament and then highlight a few that strike my fancy. I catalogue these names with the hope that if you see an unfamiliar name or one that sparks a faint recognition, you can go look up her story for yourself.

Eve, Ruth, Naomi, Rachel, Leah, Bathsheba, Jezebel, Deborah, Jael, Delilah, Esther, Hagar, Rebecca, Sarah (wife of Abraham), Tamar, Susanna, Salomone (mother of the Maccabees), Edna,  Athaliah, Rahab, Judith, Miriam, Sara (wife of Tobias), Anna, Abigail, Hannah, Bilhah, Zilpah, Jephtah’s daughter, Potiphar’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, woman of Zarephath, Lot’s daughters, Whore of Babylon, Manoah’s wife, wife of Naaman, Moses’ mother, Tobit’s grandmother, and I’m sure I’ve missed some... 

Miriam: I choose Miriam because she is both a religious and political leader (the NASB calls her “the prophetess”), but is what I would consider a supporting actress over a leading lady. She reminds me of a quote from the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” For Miriam, it’s not a man, but pharaoh’s daughter who adopts her baby brother, Moses. Miriam saves Moses by floating him down the river toward pharaoh’s daughter, and then suggesting her own mother raise Moses. But Miriam also spoke out against Moses’ marriage and was guilty of gossip. She and Aaron even question Moses’ authority. I can relate to a woman who speaks her mind, questions authority, and, sometimes, struggles with gossip.

Anna (Tobit’s wife) and Sarah (Tobias’s wife): Tobit’s wife Anna (Sarah’s mother- in-law) earned her family’s livelihood for a time. I think it’s important to include Anna in our discussion of women’s roles in the Old Testament. As for Sarah, a widow seven times over, Sarah prayed for death, feeling hopeless—because she was alone and also accused of killing her previous husbands. When her last husband passed away, she wondered if she was not not worthy for them or they were unworthy of her. Her prayers were answered; God did not give her the death she requested, but the hope for life that she needed: God sent Raphael to deliver the message she and Tobias should marry. Acting on faith, they married and prayed together before consummating their marriage—to grow old together and find mercy, hoping Tobias would survive the wedding night. Despite feeling hopeless and seeking death, Sarah was given life and hope from the Lord as an answer to her despair. Marriage unites two imperfect people in a divine sacrament of grace, giving birth to a new family. But God teaches us by example that Sarah and Tobias had to trust the Lord first.

There is so much beauty in the marriage of Sarah and Tobias, I will just add one more thing, Sarah’s father says, “My daughter, honor your father-in-law and your mother-in-law, since from now on they are as much your parents as those who gave you birth” (Tobit 10:12). I love the way this speaks of what marriage actually mean—that marriage is more than for yourself and your husband, but also for the couple to be present and part of each other’s families.

Salomone: Known as the mother of the Maccabees, she witnessed seven of her sons die in one day—punished for their refusal to eat pork. Coincidentally, this reading was the First Reading at Mass a few Sundays ago. How timely this story is with news headlines debating the freedom to actually practice our religion. This mother bravely bore persecution and the death of her sons for the Truth, and for that the Bible calls her the “most admirable” and “worthy of everlasting remembrance.” Her actions show that she not only raised true men of faith, but that she also stood up for herself and what she believed.

All of these women—breadwinners, whores, slaves, widows, heroes, leaders, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, mothers-in-law, caregivers, hostesses, mentally or physically ill, political leaders, warriors, judges, and more—were sinners, like us. They struggled to trust God, they experienced grief, they didn’t always have the will to live…yet many went on to do great things. In face of great difficulty, they followed God’s will. Knowing them intimately, God loved them and they possessed inherent human dignity. All were women chosen to be included—most by name—in the inspired Word of God.

Some of these women were virtuous. Some were stubborn. Some were struggling. And I see part of myself in every one of them.  A desire for the good, giving in to the bad, and a struggle to be holy.

The way I see it, the women of the Old Testament are not unlike the women of the Church today. Running the gamut of shapes, sizes, and beliefs, these women searched for love, acceptance, and knowledge. They took care of those in their midst. They were tempted by worldly goods, at-times superficial beauty, lust, the easy road, and short-term happiness. And, they struggled either to have faith or to follow God’s will. But these women, like us, had a platform, a sphere of influence, and agency to affect those around them.

Topics: Church history , Culture , Marriage , Motherhood , Scripture , Spirituality , Women in the Church

Molly is a native Oklahoman and a freelance writer out of Princeton, NJ. She received her M.A. in International Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C. and her B.A. in Politics from the University of Dallas. Her writing interests include international development, U.S. politics, poverty, and Catholicism. Formerly with The American Spectator, she is currently the Communications Director for the Chiaroscuro Foundation and a volunteer program assistant for The Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation in Nepal.

View all articles by Molly OConnor

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