Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Teacher, Baker

Updated: Potential "Career Women of the Bible" Outline

Here is the very beginning of my potential outline for the Career Women of the Bible book proposal.

1. Introduction

2. In the Beginning
Does It Really Mean “Helpmate”?

The Fall and Women

2. Ministers
The 12th Century, B.C.E. Woman: Deborah

Standing Between Life and Death: Miriam

Standing Between Life and Death: Zipporah and Huldah

The Apostle to the Apostles: Mary Magdalene

Apostles and Prophets

Teachers, Elders, and Coworkers

3. Mothers and More
Sarah
Hagar
Rebekah
Rachel and Leah
Hannah

4. Just a Housewife?
Standing Between God and the People: Jael

Abigail
The Proverbs 31 Woman
Sisters in Service: Mary and Martha

The Samaritan Woman

5. Off to Work
Rahab
Ruth
Esther
Priscilla and Lydia

The women who don’t have links, I have not written on yet. I also realize the articles I have written need a lot of rewriting. For those who just found the site, Career Women of the Bible started out as my thesis in seminary. I’ve started to rewrite it, but it still is very scholary and has some ways to go before it has the narrative and story-like quality that I want the finished book to have.

This is just a start, but I think it is a good one. Any advice or opinions? Who did I leave out? Why do you think they should be included? Please let me know. Thanks.

Career Women of the Bible: Church Overseers, Ministers, and Patrons

"The Breaking of Bread" in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla/Dorothy Irvin

In the last two articles we have been looking at women who ministered in leadership positions in the New Testament (Apostles and Prophets and Teachers, Elders, and Coworkers). We saw women minister as prophets, apostles, teachers, elders, and coworkers. Now we will look at the last three leadership roles: church overseer, minister, and patron.

Church Overseer

Church overseers were what we traditionally think of as a pastor, and they were normally the person or people who opened their homes for believers to meet for hearing God’s word and worship. Women who were overseers include Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, and possibly John Mark’s mother, Chloe, Lydia, and Nympha (Spencer, 108). The church overseer I would like to focus on is the “Elect Lady” of 2 John.

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Driscoll, Hybels, and Women

On Christianity Today’s new blog, they have a post about Bill Hybels not passing out Mark Driscoll’s DVD on church planting because he includes no women church planters and does not allow women to leaders within the church. I think it is wonderful that Bill is standing up for women in ministry. The three women who have commented on the thread think it is wonderful as well. But all of the men (four at this point) are complementarians who think that Driscoll is right. I thought it might be nice if a few more egalitarians were represented in the comments to show that it’s more than just a few women who are “obviously disobeying God” who believe it is biblical for women to hold leadership positions within the church. If you have some time today, wander over and join the conversation. Also remember to thank Bill for standing up for biblical, egalitarian principles.

Career Women of the Bible: Teachers, Elders, and Coworkers

"This archaeological photograph of a mosaic in the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome shows, in the blue mantle, the Virgin Mary, foremother of women leaders in the Church. On her left is St.Pudentiana and on her right St. Praxedis, both leaders of house churches in early Christian Rome. Episcopa Theodora, 'Bishop Theodora' is the bishop of the Church of St. Praxedis in 820 AD." Photo and description from Roman Catholic Womenpriests

 

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he told his followers to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came empowering them to continue building the kingdom of God on earth. They obeyed him. Acts 1:14 tells us the disciples and “certain women” including Mary, the mother of Jesus, waited in the upper room and prayed. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit fell on both men and women, and both genders were empowered to proclaim the word of God on the day of Pentecost. Peter confirmed this when he quoted Joel in his sermon that day: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). As we have seen throughout this paper God has never discriminated between calling and empowering both men and women to lead his people and accomplish his plans on earth. This will not change with the coming of the new age. Now God’s Spirit would not be for the called few, but for everyone–all flesh, and both sons and daughters would prophesy, only now in greater numbers.

In Galatians 3:28 Paul proclaimed that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ every human erected barrier comes down. Because Christ died for all and all are saved through grace there can no longer be superficial hierarchies of race, class, or gender. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul tells the church that Christ has given them gifts, and in verse 11 he tells us the gifts are “that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” These gifts are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12). Paul never says that some or all of these gifts are for men only. In fact, the New Testament goes on to describe women in these places of leadership within the Early Church. In the last essay we looked female apostles and prophets. Now we will look at the female teachers in the New Testament.

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Career Women of the Bible: Apostles and Prophets

Junia and Adronicus with Athanasius

Andronicus, Athanasius of Christianopoulos and Saint Junia

Before Jesus ascended to the Father, he told his followers to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came empowering them to continue building the kingdom of God on earth. They obeyed him. Acts 1:14 tells us the disciples and “certain women” including Mary, the mother of Jesus, waited in the upper room and prayed. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit fell on both men and women, and both genders were empowered to proclaim the word of God on the day of Pentecost. Peter confirmed this when he quoted Joel in his sermon that day: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17, NRSV). As we have seen throughout this series, Career Women of the Bible God has never discriminated between calling and empowering both men and women to lead God’s people and accomplish God’s plans on earth. This will not change with the coming of the new age. Now God’s Spirit would not be for the called few, but for everyone–all flesh, and both sons and daughters would prophesy, only now in greater numbers.

In Galatians 3:28 Paul proclaimed that “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer bondservant nor free, no longer male and female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Christ every human erected barrier comes down. Because Christ died for all, and all are saved through grace, there can no longer be superficial hierarchies of race, class, or gender. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul tells the church that Christ has given them gifts, and in verse 11 he tells us the gifts are “that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (NRSV). These gifts are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, NRSV). Paul never says that some or all of these gifts are for men only. In fact, the New Testament goes on to describe women in these places of leadership within the Early Church.

Apostles

The literal meaning of apostolos is someone who has been sent with orders (Spencer, 100). The basic meaning is “messenger.” In the New Testament an apostle could refer to one of the Twelve. It could also refer to all of those “who had accompanied the original twelve from the time that John baptized until Jesus ascended (Acts 1:21-22; ibid).” This would include Barnabas, James the brother of the Lord, and Silvanus who were not among the Twelve. It would also include the women we have seen in previous articles who followed Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James; Mary, mother of Jesus; Joanna, and Salome.

There is a woman in the New Testament specifically named as an apostle: Junia. In Paul’s personal greetings to the believers in Rome he tells them to “7Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were prisoners with me. They’re outstanding among
the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Rom. 16:7). In the Roman world, Junia was a common name for women. Junia was assumed to be a woman by the early church fathers such as Origen and Jerome. In the fourth century John Chrysostorm said of her: “Oh! how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!” Up until the thirteenth century when Aegidus of Rome referred to both Adronicus and Junia as “men” (he translated Junia as “Julian”), most commentators assumed Junia was a woman (the male form “Junias” is completely unknown in the Roman world). Since then there have been many textual variations trying to turn Junia’s name into a male form (Spencer 101-2, Grenz 94-5).

Another way that Junia’s role as an apostle has been marginalized is by watering down the translation of “outstanding [or “prominent,” NRSV] among the apostles.” Opponents of women in leadership positions have suggested Junia was only admired by the apostles, or she was well known to them. She was not one of their number. The word normally translated “prominent” is episeimos. Its proper meaning is “a sign or mark upon,” and is used to describe an inscription on money; “it implies selection from a group” (Spencer, 102). Coupled with the preposition en, which means “within” or “among” in the plural, it is clear that Adronicus and Junia are prominent or notable “from among the apostles” (ibid).

As apostles in Rome they were Paul’s counterparts. They apparently had witnessed part of Jesus’ ministry and his resurrection, and were sent by God and the church to proclaim this news in Rome. These two apostles “apparently laid the foundation for the churches’ in Rome, just as Paul had planted and laid the foundation for churches in Asia Minor and Eastern Europe (ibid). They would have done this through preaching the gospel and teaching the way of Christ. It is possible they were married and operated as a ministerial team like Priscilla and Aquila (Grenz, 96-7). This does not change the fact that Junia was named as an apostle. Since there is no mention of any of the apostle’s wives being named “apostle” simply by being married to one, it is safe to assume that Junia was an apostle because she functioned as one in the early church.

Prophets

As we saw in previous chapters female prophets who spoke God’s word and led in worship were part of Israel’s history and theology. The tradition continued through Anna in Luke 2 and Philip’s four unmarried daughters in Acts 21:9. From Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church we find that women praying and prophesying during services was an accepted part of the worship service in the early church. Paul does not condemn the women for taking an active part in the service, which would have included authoritative prophetic utterance of God’s word. He only exhorts the women to do so in a manner that will not be scandalous to outsiders. If they are married, they are to keep their symbol of marriage on–their head was to be covered with a veil or worn up as was the custom for married women in that day. This way they would not be confused with the temple prostitutes that were numerous in Corinth due to the temple of Aphrodite-Melainis. The temple prostitutes were identified by wearing their hair loose or shaving it off. Christian women were not to bring shame onto their husbands by looking like prostitutes, but were to keep their “wedding ring” on, and prophesy and pray in a socially acceptable manner. (For a great overview of the cultural and sociological context of these verses in 1 Corinthians, see my friend Mark Mattison’s “Because of the Angels: Head Coverings and Women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34,35.)

Whether widowed as Anna, never married as Philip’s daughters or married as some of the Corinthian women were, Christian women continued the ancient tradition of speaking God’s word to his people.

Sources

Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Early Church.”

Stanley J. Grenz with Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

Aída Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), 43-63.

All biblical translations are from the New Testament: Divine Feminine Version unless otherwise noted.

New Women in Ministry Resources

I have added a Women in Ministry category to the menu. It has several links that have wonderful articles, resources, and stories of women in ministry from the New Testament until now.

Career Women of the Bible: Sisters Who Served

In Luke 10:38-42 we meet Martha and Mary who are apparently two single sisters living together; Luke makes no mention of Lazarus, their brother. When Jesus and the twelve come into their village Martha welcomes them into her home. At his point, normally sister is pitted against sister to elevate “being” with the Lord above “doing” for the Lord. This interpretation misses what Luke is doing in this narrative. As Fred Craddock points out the “radicality” of this story should not be overlooked: “Jesus is received into a woman’s home (no mention is made of a brother) and he teaches a woman” (Craddock, 152).

For the first century Jew sitting at someone’s feet did not bring to mind children sitting at the feet of adults listening to stories; sitting at someone’s feet meant higher, formal education. Jesus was known as a rabbi, a teacher; to sit at his feet meant that one was being trained as a disciple. Mary was not quietly sitting contemplating all Jesus said. She was in active training with the other disciples (Grenz, 75). This was not a usual activity for women. Martha was doing what women were supposed to do: be good homemakers.

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Career Women of the Bible: The Samaritan Woman

In John’s Gospel the woman at the well is the first person Jesus openly reveals himself as Messiah. The pious Jewish leader, Nicodemus, did not hear the words that Jesus tells this foreign woman when she states her belief in the coming Messiah: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). This is also the longest private conservation Jesus had with anyone on record.

Verse 4 says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” The edei (had to) makes it clear that this is a divine appointment; it was not geographically necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria, and Jewish travelers normally traveled around Samaria. Jesus and his disciples entered a Samaritan village, and the disciples went to buy food while Jesus sat by well because he was tired. A woman from the village came for water. Jesus then did something that was a cultural taboo: he spoke to a woman in public, and not just a woman, but a Samaritan woman. She was twice an outcast in Jewish thought. Jesus asked her for a drink of water. She was understandably shocked: a Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan woman? He also should not have wanted to share a vessel with her for drinking water since it would be considered unclean. She was right to be confused.

The conversation then turned to a discussion of living water versus the water in the well. At this point many commentators say that the woman did not have the ability to engage Jesus in serious theological conversation; because she was a woman she did not have the intelligence to keep up with the conversation (O’Day, 384). That is why she was confused about this living water Jesus offered. But the woman was no more confused over living water than Nicodemus was over being born again in the previous chapter. The woman was not confused because she was a woman, just as Nicodemus was not confused simply because he was a man. Both of them were confused because Jesus was introducing them to new spiritual truths. Whereas Nicodemus never quite gets what Jesus was telling him in John 3, the woman did come to understand who Jesus was and what he was telling her.

Although the woman still wasn’t sure what this living water was, she wanted it. When Jesus told her to go get her husband we find out that this woman has had five husbands, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. Many commentators have jumped to the conclusion that she was an immoral woman who had been divorced five times (ibid). There are at least two other reasons why this woman has had five husbands (John 4 never says she was divorced).

If five men had divorced her, the reason could be is because she was barren. They married, found out she couldn’t have children, and divorced her to marry more fertile women. She could also be trapped by the Levirate marriage law. Her five husbands could have been brothers she was supposed to produce an heir for. Either the family ran out of sons or the next son could have refused to marry her. That she was living with a man now could have been the less of two evils: her only other choice after husband number five died or divorced her could have been prostitution. Regardless of why the woman had had five husbands, the implication is still she is a woman who cannot keep a man.

After Jesus told the woman about her life, she knew that he was a prophet. Again many commentators downplay the woman’s theological ability by saying her next question concerning the proper place of worship is a ploy to draw attention away from her supposed immoral life (ibid). What they don’t acknowledge is the woman asked what is probably the most pressing theological question of the Samaritans in the first century: where is the proper place of worship?

The Samaritans were descended from the Judean people who had not been deported in the exile and the other peoples who were imported to the region. They continued to worship Yahweh. Alexander the Great allowed the Samaritans to build a temple on Mt. Gerizim, which became a point of contention when the Jews returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Tensions continued to degrade until the temple on Mt. Gerizim was destroyed by the Jews in 128 B.C. (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 726-7). Both groups believed that they were worshiping Yahweh, and both believed that they had the right place to worship Yahweh. The woman had met a prophet–someone who knew what had happened in her life, and one she was sure could answer the most pressing theological question of her heart and of the time.

Jesus did not accuse her of changing the subject; he answered her question. It did not matter where one worshiped God–it was how God was worshiped. There would no longer be limitations of geography in worshiping God for God is spirit, and he will be worshiped in spirit and truth. The woman stated her belief in the coming Messiah who would reveal all things to them. Jesus then revealed something to this unnamed, foreign woman that he did not reveal to Nicodemus, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). The Samaritan woman was the first person that Jesus revealed himself as Messiah to in the Gospel of John, and this is the first “I amâ” statement in the gospel as well (Cunningham and Hamilton, 122).

Why did Jesus reveal himself to this woman and not to Nicodemus? The woman was not expecting a political Messiah. The Samaritans were looking for the ta’eb or “restorer” (Sloyan, 54). The Samaritans were not looking for a political Messiah from the line of David; they were looking for a prophet like Moses who would restore the observance of the law of Moses as it should be (ibid). Jesus could reveal himself as Messiah to her without worrying about political misunderstandings that would have arisen in Judah.

The disciples returned with food scratching their heads and wondering why Jesus is speaking to a foreign woman in public. Then the woman went to her people and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v. 28). She became the first evangelist in the gospel of John. She went and told her people about Jesus and brought them to him, so they could see and hear for themselves. Jesus never approached people “randomly or casually but as possible bearers of witness to him to whole populations” (ibid). A foreign, single woman who had had five husbands, and was now living with a man was the one Jesus chose to bring a town in Samaria to him so that they could say, “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (v. 42).

Sources

Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Gospels.”

Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Mission, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000).

Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

Gail R. O’Day, “John,” Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

Gerard Sloyan, John, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

Career Women of the Bible: Apostle to the Apostles

Luke 8:1-3 says, “Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Mark 14:41 also says that the women at the cross were among those who followed Jesus and provided for him. Mary Magdalene is one of those women. Mark and the other Gospel writers use “follow” over 75 times to show that following Jesus means being a disciple of Christ. The twelve weren’t the only disciples who followed Jesus as he traveled through Galilee and Judah teaching, healing, and proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. There were also a group of women who followed and witnessed Christ’s miracles and preaching throughout the region.

These women also “provided for them out of their resources.” “Provided” or diakoneo means “to serve, wait on, minister to as deacon,” and it was used in the early Christian community to describe “eucharistic table service and proclamation of the word” (Jane Schaberg, Women’s Bible Commentary, 376). These women supported and served Christ throughout his earthly ministry. They too were in service to the kingdom along with Jesus and the twelve.

Mary Magdalene “was a prominent disciple of Jesus who followed him in Galilee and to Jerusalem. She is always listed first in groups of named female disciples” (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 884). Mary was one of the women Luke named in chapter 8 as, not only following Jesus, but serving him from her own means. She stood at the cross with the other woman and saw where Jesus was buried. She was the first to see the Risen Christ. She became known as the apostle of the apostles.

In all the Gospel accounts women are the first to the tomb Sunday morning, and they are the first to see the risen Christ and commanded to carry the good news to the disciples. In all four accounts different women are named, but one name is constant in all four gospels: Mary Magdalene. In John 20 she is the first to the tomb on Sunday morning, and the first person Christ reveals himself to. After Mary discovers the empty tomb she runs to where the disciples are staying and reports that someone has removed Jesus from the tomb, and she does not know where they have put him. Peter and the beloved disciple then run to the tomb where the beloved disciple stoops down and looks in, and Peter enters the tomb. Peter sees the linen wrappings and the head cloth then the other disciple enters and sees the same thing. After seeing the linen and cloth the beloved disciple believes but does not understand because he does not realize the reality of the resurrection. Peter and the beloved disciple then leave.

Mary remains at the tomb weeping. She leans down and looks in to see two angels who ask her why she is crying. She answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). She then turns and sees Jesus but does not recognize him. Jesus asks her, “Whom are you looking for?” (v. 15). The first words Jesus said at the beginning of John were to the disciples of John: “What are looking for?” (John 1:38). Looking for Jesus is “one of the marks of discipleship in John.” The repetition of the question in this chapter “establishes continuity between Mary and the first disciples of Jesus” (Gail R. O’Day, Women’s Bible Commentary, 389). Mary still does not recognize Jesus, and does not, until he says her name. In something as simple and intimate as saying her name “the reality of the resurrection is revealed,” (O’Day, 390) and Mary becomes the first person to see the risen Christ.

Apparently she tried to hug him, but Jesus tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (v. 17). It is not as harsh as it sounds. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples cannot remain as it was. Jesus cannot be held on earth–he must ascend to God, so that the God’s plan to build his kingdom through the church can begin. Only when Jesus ascended to God would the Holy Spirit come and give his followers the fullness of life that Jesus had promised them. They could not hold him down with any preconceived notions or ideas–he was raised from the dead, and the possibilities of what he could accomplish through his believers were infinite.

Jesus then commissions Mary to proclaim his resurrection: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'” (v. 17). Mary obeyed. She returned to Jerusalem to proclaim: “‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (v. 18). She was the first preacher of the good news of the resurrection to the same men who had just been at the tomb before Jesus appeared to Mary. In fact in all four gospel accounts Jesus appeared to women and commissioned them to go proclaim his resurrection to his male disciples. The tradition that Christ appeared first to women was well established by the end of the second century when Celsus, a pagan critic, discounted the gospel and resurrection by saying that an account given by a hysterical woman could not be trusted. Origen, an Early Church Father (he translated the Bible into Latin), responded by saying that there was more than one woman who witnessed the risen Christ, and that none of them were hysterical in the Gospels.

It is ironic with the low status of women in that day that Jesus chose to appear to Mary and the other women, and that “the first Christian preachers of the Resurrection were not men, but women!” (The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 883). Jesus did not first appear to the “vicar” of the church–Peter, or even to the beloved disciple: he appeared to Mary and the women who followed him and served him. Mary saw him first, and she received the central tenet of the Christian faith: “He is risen!” She was the first to proclaim the good news, or gospel, of the resurrection. Since Jesus could have just as easily appeared to Peter and the beloved disciple, or to the disciples cowered behind locked doors, that he did appear to Mary first can only mean that this was by divine appointment and was a deliberate act on his part. Women as well as men were credible witnesses to the gospel and were commissioned to preach it to all they came into contact with. . .which is what they did.

Sources:

Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Women in the Gospels.”

C. S. Cowles, A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1993).

Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

Gail R. O’Day, “John” in the Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

Virginia Stem Owens, Daughters of Eve: Women of the Bible Speak to Women of Today (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Co., 1995).

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992).

Jane Schaberg, “Luke” in the Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed., eds. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).

Aida Besancon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen Publishers, 1985).

Standing Between Life and Death, Part 2

In Standing Between Life and Death we looked at Miriam’s ministry as prophet, worship leader, and forgiven usurper. But Miriam was not the only strong woman whom God called to stand between life and death in the life of Moses. Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, also acts in a cultic role. Like, Miriam she also looks over Moses and saves the lives of her family.

“On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ So he let him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision'” (Exodus 4:24-26). These are three of the most mythic and problematic verses in the Bible. Commentators have spilled gallons of ink in describing how these verses should be read and interpreted.

Zipporah was the wife of Moses. She, Moses, and their sons have just left Midian and are on their way to Egypt in obedience to what God had told Moses to do. Then Yahweh comes against either Moses or one of their sons to try to kill him. Quick thinking and quick acting Zipporah circumcises either her husband or her son, applies the bloody foreskin to one of their feet or genitals (feet are an euphemism for genitals in the Hebrew Scriptures), and the wrath of Yahweh is averted. Zipporah is the only human named, and the only human to act in this account.

In the verses right before this incident, Yahweh tells Moses what he is to say to Pharaoh: he is to let Yahweh’s people go, and if he does not let Yahweh’s firstborn son go then Pharaoh’s son shall die. In light of the context, these verses foreshadow the Passover.

But why should Yahweh come against Moses or one of his sons to try to kill him? Bernard Robinson thinks the reason is Moses’ reluctance earlier in chapter 4 to obey God’s calling to go and demand Pharaoh to release his people. He seems to think that either Moses or his son not being circumcised would not warrant this action on Yahweh’s part. Terrence Fretheim thinks it is a combination of both: “Moses’ continued resistance to the divine call, occasioning God’s wrath (Exodus 4:14), and his failure concerning circumcision are signs that do not bode well for the future” (p. 81). Is Moses still having reprehensions? Is Yahweh growing tired of his excuses? We will never know.

What we do know is how Yahweh’s wrath was adverted, and Moses (or his son) was spared. Zipporah quickly circumcises either Moses or her son and touches the bloody foreskin to the feet or genitals of one of them. She acts as a mediator between Yahweh and her family. She also acts as a priest. In a salvific moment that will foreshadow the Passover, she circumcises one of the men in her life and applies the blood to save one or both. This is the only written record we have of a woman performing an act of blood sacrifice in the Bible or in Near Eastern religion.

Ironically the priesthood that would later go on to minimalize Miriam’s role in the wilderness traditions as a cultic leader begins with a woman, and not even an Israelite woman. A foreign woman is the first person in Exodus to offer a blood sacrifice that averts the wrath of God and once again saves Moses.

The first female prophet named in the Hebrew Scriptures is Miriam, and the last female prophet is Huldah. Huldah was a prophet in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah, and her story is found in 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34. Although there are noteworthy male prophets in Jerusalem at the time (Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum), Josiah sends the high priest to inquire of Huldah after a scroll is found in the temple. Huldah verifies that the scroll is the word of God, and that it’s words would come to pass, but Josiah would be spared since his heart was grieved over the sin of his people (Huldah’s prophecy would happen within 35 years). After he hears her words, Josiah steps up his reforms and leads the people in celebrating the first Passover that included all of the people since before the time of the judges (2 Kings 23:22).

Huldah was the first prophet to declare written words to be the word of God–Scripture. She is the first whose “words of judgment are centered on a written document as no others have been before her.” She is the first to authenticate Scripture. Manuscripts had been accumulating for years, if not centuries, but for the first time a prophet proclaims the writing to be God’s word, and this prophet is a woman–the last female prophet before Judah falls to the Babylonians. She started the process that would eventually give us canonized Scripture.

Huldah was married to Shallum who was the “keeper of the wardrobe” (2 Kings 22:14). But when Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah come to her home, they do not ask for her husband, and there is no embarrassment over inquiring God’s will of a woman. The high priest does not have an issue with a woman prophet. In fact, her gender is irrelevant in the text as is her marital status.

As Miriam frames the Exodus narrative so Deborah and Huldah frame Deuteronomistic history. Deborah appears at the beginning in Judges and Huldah at the end in Kings. Both women declare God’s word to leaders who respond. Unfortunately by Huldah’s time the nation had gone so far into idolatry that exile was inevitable, so there would be no songs of victory as in the days of Deborah. Although her words did compel the king to continue in his reforms and may be held the tide for a few more years.

Two women with ties to the cult; one as a priest and the other as a prophet. They are both married, but it is Zipporah who saves her husband and family as priest. King Josiah immediately inquired of Huldah on finding the scroll in the Temple. Both women knew what God wanted them to do and did it. As Miriam, Zipporah and Huldah are mediators and intercessors standing between life and death. Zipporah is successful, but Huldah must face the reality that her people have sinned too much for too long and confirm that God would send his people into exile.

Once again the traditions of Zipporah and Huldah remind us that as women we stand between life and death for our families, our communities, and even those who consider us to be outsiders. They were called, not because of who their husbands were or what their husbands did, but because they were available and open to God’s calling in their life.

Sources:

Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002).

Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dihk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible (New York: E.J. Brill, 1993).

Claudia V. Camp, “1 and 2 Kings” in Women’s Bible Commentary, expanded ed., eds. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

Claudia V. Camp, Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991).

William E. Phipps, “A Woman Was the First to Declare Scripture Holy,” Bible Review (vol. 6, no. 2, April 1990), p. 14.

Bernard P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus 4:24-6,” Vetus Testamentum 36 (October 1986): 452-3.