Engaging Biblical Women

True, women are occasionally honored, but they are marginalized at the same time; rivalry among women receives a different kind of attention than rivalry among men.

   From Deborah to Esther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

By Lillian Klein
September 2003

    As a female, I have had difficulty relating to biblical narratives. The paradigm roles of the male protagonists are always clear at one level: obedience to God and diligence, with emphasis shifting between the two. Women’s narrative roles are similar, only the obedience required is to her human counterpart who may–or may not–deserve her subservience.1 Women are usually presented as peripheral to a narrative, perhaps as reproductive necessities, sometimes as difficult and potentially dangerous, occasionally as central, but almost always subject to male controls. Women are often nameless, mostly without genealogies, which effectively renders them without existence. Once they have accomplished their narrative “mission,” women tend to disappear from the text without further ado. It is rare indeed to hear of a woman’s death.2 True, women are occasionally honored, but they are marginalized at the same time; rivalry among women receives a different kind of attention than rivalry among men. How should a woman relate to these roles?

    As a biblical and literary scholar functioning in the contemporary world, I entertained the idea that a closer analysis of biblical texts would not only help me find my place in biblical narratives but also clarify my place in the “sexual politics” of daily life: the give and take within a society that reflects gender valuation and defines gender roles. These concerns are addressed in From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible.3

    It seems safe to infer that women are found in the fringes of most–but not all–narratives because it reflects their role in the social world of the narrative. The laws of the Torah do not prescribe such limitations except in periods associated with menstruation, sexual activity, and childbirth (e.g., Lev 12.6; 15.9).4 Men are similarly “unclean” after sexual intercourse (Lev 15:16) and other, non-sexual conditions. The sexual activity of women is, like that of men, restricted to marital relationships; men are further cautioned from incestuous relationships (Lev 21.10-21); Num 5.11-31). The Torah makes little mention of laws restricting females in activity, but the narratives of the Torah do depict females, including wives, restricted to minor appearances and being regarded as sexual objects, exchanged like objects by males (Gen 20.2-7). It is the narratives, not the laws, that establish the roles of women in various temporal phases of biblical literature.

    Indeed, in Proverbs 31, an ideal Israelite woman is shown to be active and commanding in the marketplace as well as in the home: this woman purchases property and manages finances while her husband apparently has nothing to do but “sit among the elders of the land at the gates” (31.28). The unusual freedom and authority granted this ideal woman may be theoretical as well as ideal; at best, they reflect a specific and limited position in the long history described in biblical narratives. Yet even this poetic paean to the ideal housewife is constrained between warnings and males, preceding and following the lines of tribute, about the dangers of femmes fatales: “Give not your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings” (31.3). “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain” (31.30).

    In biblical narratives, the world outside the home is the domain of men; within the home, the women have more authority: essentially, authority over their children. Such social structures are to be found to this day among some Middle Eastern religious groups, and they are a valuable resource for studying the social milieu of the Hebrew Bible.5 Then, as now, women restricted to the home have limited if any education and little exposure; as a result, they have little opportunity to celebrate or record their relatively uneventful lives. The men are more likely to lead lives of power: biblical narratives describe male control or the control biblical males desire more than one another and over females and the struggles to achieve and maintain that power.

    When female figures are introduced into male-dominant narratives, they may provide peripheral information about the male protagonist and the prevalent sexual politics of that narrative period and place. However, the modern reader must distance him/herself of the idea of equality of the sexes (a relatively modern concept and one that has yet to achieve full realization). When angels visit Abraham and predict the birth of a son to the aging couple, they react very differently indeed to similar responses from husband and wife. Both laugh when they hear this unexpected news (Gen 17.17; 18.12), but only Sarah is rebuked for laughing . . . and laughing “to herself.” Intimidated, she denies laughing and is again repudiated. This slight passage indicates how women may be oppressed and made fearful by strangers and by husbands who do nothing to protect them, how women are shown to resort to lying to protect themselves, ands how men easily bond to maintain control over women at every turn.

     As societies develop and change, so does the role of women; biblical narratives reveal subtle periodization of women’s roles. An obvious fluctuation is the role of foreign women among the tribes: the story of Ruth celebrates full acceptance of Ruth, a Moabite woman,6 whereas the narrative of Dinah (Genesis 34) describes the treacherous murder of the whole town of Shechem because a foreigner dares to love a daughter of Israel. It is worth noting that Israelite males are rebuked time and time again for taking foreign wives at various phases–which indicates that the practice was fairly common; however, a singular instance where an Israelite female is desired by a foreign male is emphatically rejected by wholesale murder.

    Biblical narratives suggest social and textual boundaries for interaction between the sexes. The value ascribed to each of the genders is a case in point. There is practically no mention of daughters in biblical narratives; only the birth of sons is noted unless and until a daughter becomes a focal point; for example, Dinah (Gen 30.21; 34). As mentioned, females are frequently unnamed whereas their male counterparts have names and often genealogies. Although this device is used to ironic effect in the story of Manoah and his wife (Judg 13.2–20),7 the major implication is the lack of value ascribed to females in the dominant culture. Devaluation is yet another means of control.8

    Rivalry is another aspect that seems to be gender specific. When males combat for power, it is often viewed as heroic; when women desire the same, within their already constrained realm, they are made to seem petty. The power that women desire is usually limited to that associated with motherhood. A married woman who does not bear a child suffers a severe loss in social status and even her livelihood may be a fragile entity. That women manipulate and maneuver in order to assure themselves of childbirth is consistent with the social reality.

    Some narratives disclose males’ wishful thinking and projection in stories about women. Rivalry among females depicts women fighting among themselves for the love of a man and even trading a night of copulation for the promise of pregnancy (Gen 30.1-24). Of course, female rivalry over a man is very flattering to the male ego and sense of power. It is not surprising that rivalry among women was encouraged or at least projected as normal in these stories. Married women are portrayed as so zealous of bearing children that they seem never to “have a headache.” Is this social oppression or male fantasy? Biblical men are never infertile, either; that problem always resides with the woman, sometimes because yet another male figure, God, has “closed up her womb.” One narrative suggests the ultimate male punishment of a wife: refusal to cohabit so that she cannot bear children (Michal, in 2 Sam 6.23). And if women act unjustly among themselves, abusing power given to them, as in the Sarah and Hagar narrative, surely a male divine figure will come along to justify the outcome of the situation (Gen 16.1-15).

    Several narratives do have female protagonists, with males playing “background” roles. Once again, the story of Ruth is a good example. Naomi and Ruth do determine the actions of the narrative, but they clearly act within the parameters of a male-determinant society. They know how to manipulate in order to achieve their goals, and manipulation is a power attributed to women. In this narrative, even sexual manipulation by a woman is not condemned, presumably because the objective is fertility (and implicit economic security), not personal pleasure or power. Generally, biblical narratives repudiate a woman’s exerting control, but apparently she may manipulate in order to achieve specific and limited goals, so long as these are goals valued by the larger society. Bathsheba is another mistress balancing these elements.

    Female sexuality is an interesting variable. Wives and mothers are not attributed with sexuality; women who are clearly enticing to males are usually regarded as extremely dangerous, inherently evil. Women are shown to use their sexuality as a manipulative tool to various effects (Ruth 3.7; Judges 16); in general, males condemn female sexuality. The obvious basis for male need to control female sexuality is the problem of identifying the father of a woman’s child, but is there more? Female sexuality may be used to assert a kind of control: women have something they can give–or deny–to men. Men want to desire women, but they do not want to be denied by women. Women who are independent in their sexuality are exerting control over men and are therefore potentially dangerous and evil.

    As a scholar of biblical texts, my first avenue of approach to a text is to invoke the entire array of literary-critical techniques, from classical to contemporary. I have found that “point of view” is extremely valuable for both narrative and individual speakers and that it is used in a surprisingly modern way in these ancient texts. A relatively modern literary technique, structural analysis, has informed much of my work. But I have also drawn from contemporary sociological and psychological approaches to understand implicit as well as explicit messages in the text. As techniques for analysis of human experience become available, they must be absorbed into the methodology of the literary critic.

    Biblical narratives about how women have coped with social constraints are as varied as life itself. Each story describes different circumstances and different responses, often buried in the subtext rather than explicit in the overtly male-oriented narrative. Biblical narratives of females coping with male-imposed constraints, of living meaningful lives within social boundaries or by extending those boundaries, remain inherently relevant to contemporary life.


     As a girl, I sought to identify with the female characters of the Bible. It was difficult; they were confusing: subordinated and yet as independent as Sarah, misunderstood and mistreated as Dinah, heroic and unjustly punished as Miriam. As a woman, I became more interested in how those women were shown to cope with the constraints of their varied social situations: from ancestresses living in tents to Sheba and Esther, for instance, who dwelled in palaces; from the tensions of sibling rivalry as between Jacob’s wives to the tensions within ruling families, like those of Athaliah, mother of the king of Judah; from the many nameless women whose deeds are lost to them and to us–to those women who command our attention. As a student of literature, I have been fascinated with the allusiveness of biblical prose, always luring and never allowing the reader to reach an exclusive “truth.” Most recently, as a biblical scholar, I have sought to explore the possibilities of these various facets of interest through careful literary readings of several narratives. The result is From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible.


[1] Gender subservience is inherently objectionable, but it remains viable to this day, subtly as well as overtly, in culturally determined patterns.

[2] For example, the deaths of Naomi and Ruth (Ruth 4) are not mentioned nor that of Hannah (1 Samuel 21) or Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6).


[3] The examples provided in these comments intentionally avoid the narratives discussed in the book.

[4] Norman Gottwald suggests that the “stigmatization of menstruation as a ‘blemish’ strengthened the marginalization of women in public and cultic roles....” (Gottwald’s italics); The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 478.

[5] See Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); see Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988) for another opinion.

[6] Ruth is the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi. Through Ruth, Naomi becomes the ancestress of David, King of Israel.

[7] See Lillian R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges, JSOT Supp 68 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1988), 111-15.

[8] See Adele Reinhartz, Why Ask My Name? Anonymity and Identity of Biblical Narrative (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998); Carol L. Meyers, Ross S. Kraemer, and Toni Craven, eds. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.