Foremothers of the Messiah

In the genealogy of Jesus, God’s activity in and through women is obvious

In the pages of the Hebrew Bible, we find stories of women who went before us and left their mark on our history with God. In the material known to us today as the Old Testament, we read of women who were prophets, military leaders, priests, wise women, and wisdom personified. However, to study the lives of these women is no easy task. The stories as we have them were not handed down to us from the women themselves; rather, what we have is an image-rich narrative developed from a covenantal history, drawn on the map of patriarchy. The narratives are primarily concerned with the public lives of men who were in some way related to the patriarchs or were connected to the emergence of the ancient Israelite monarchy. The narratives themselves were also recorded, copied, edited, and compiled by men who lived many centuries after the women and men whose stories are found in the pages of the Bible.

The material we have in our Old Testament existed first as oral tradition in communities that were formed around story; these stories endured across the generations, eventually to be recorded in the codices which are now considered canonical by persons of Jewish and Christian faith. To do the stories of these women justice, we must unearth information about their world, status, society, and gender roles in ancient Israel. Archaeology and anthropological studies, considered in concert with the Scriptures, help us gain a clearer picture of life in ancient Israel for women.

In the Hebrew Bible, we find the stories of a people who traversed the land of the ancient Near East for more than 1,200 years. Of the 1,426 persons named in the narrative of the Old Testament, 111 are women. While this may seem like a small number, the witness of their lives is powerful and their presence in this male-dominated text is—and should be—remarkable. Though a casual reading of the Old Testament might leave us with the impression that women were confined to the home and their sole contribution to God's people was procreation, a closer look demonstrates another dynamic. Mayer Gruber points out that women served as judges (Judges 4:4–5), officiated funerals as clergy (Jeremiah 9:16–19; 2 Chronicles 35:25), slaughtered animals in priestly and domestic rites, served as prophetesses and sages (2 Samuel 14; 20:16–22), and nursed children and read Scripture in public settings. We have accounts of women who served as priestesses (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22), poets (Exodus 15:21; Judges 5:1–31; Proverbs 31:1–9), musicians (Psalm 68:26), "queens, midwives; wet-nurses; babysitters; business persons; scribes; cooks; bakers; producers of cosmetics (1 Samuel 8:13) as well as innkeepers and prostitutes (Joshua 2)."

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September 16, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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