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Who Is Your Favorite Woman in the Bible?

I’d love to talk about women who are unnamed in the Hebrew Bible.  There are way fewer named women then named men.  The Bible is about national and corporate life, not so much about individual and family life.  So the focus is way more on male actors—on kings and priests and sages and prophets.  And therefore, since women did not often—although they sometimes did—but did not often play those roles, there just isn’t as many mention of named women.  Fewer than 10% of the people with names in the Bible are female.

The population surely consisted of more than 10% female, but there are a fair number of unnamed biblical women and I like to go to those because they give us ideas about women that contest a lot of the stereotypes that people have about women in the period of the Hebrew Bible, the period of ancient Israel.  And those stereotypes are usually taken from post-biblical traditions, that women were subordinate, that women had to be silent, or that women had not much to do with economic or political life.

So having said all that, I like to think, for example, of a woman who’s mentioned in the Book of I Kings.  And her name is not there.  She’s referred to as “the great woman from a place of Shunam,” and sometimes she’s just called therefore the Shunamite.  And she does a lot of things that certainly surprise my students and surprise people who don’t think women in ancient Israel did these things.  She initiates conversations with a prophet, Elisha.  This is set in the 9th century BCE.

She has a husband, but she initiates a home improvement so to speak.  She kind of builds on a room so that she can offer it as a place for Elisha to stay when he’s passing by in the neighborhood.  She gives him food to eat.  In other words, she allocates household resources.  She doesn’t check with her husband to see, “Is it okay if we give something to this guy who’s passing by?”  No.  She has the authority to do those kinds of things.  Now this prophet one day notices that she doesn’t have any children, and he says in payment for all the kindness and hospitality you’ve given me, I’m going to help you overcome your barrenness.

And she resists that.  So again, this counteracts the notion that women in the Bible were just baby makers.  She ends up actually having a child, but that’s not the sole intent and purpose of her life, as it seems to be for some of the matriarchs, for example.  Another thing that happens is that when she does have the child, the child gets sick and ultimately dies.  But she’s the one that’s in charge of trying to find a way to keep the child alive.  Husband sends the ill child home.  And then she also initiates an expedition to find Elisha once the child has died to see if he can come and do something about it.

And, of course, he does ultimately.  He resurrects, so to speak, the child.  Another fascinating thing is that there’s a drought. And she seems to be the one who decides to relocate the family until this passes.  When that happens, when she’s relocated and then the drought is over, it seems that they’ve kind of lost title of their property.  And she goes to the king.  Her husband doesn’t.  She does.  She gets an audience with the king, pleads the case, and they get their property back.

This story is full of action items that are usually attributed to men and are not expected of women, and she’s right there doing that.  So I like to foreground her as an important example of how biblical women and women in ancient Israel in general probably were lots more dynamic than the relatively limited stories in the Bible would lead us to believe.

  • meyers-carol

    Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Emerita Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include: commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; an edited reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2013).