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Invite Them In: Women in the Bible

These personalities from Jewish tradition represent a compelling collection of women to invite to your women’s seder, as ushpizot into your Sukkah, or as a core for a rosh hodesh discussion group.

Eve: The Bible tells two stories of Eve’s creation. In chapter one of Genesis, woman is created simultaneously and equally with man. In chapter two, she is created from the tsela [rib or side] of Adam. The irony, of course, is that this is the only instance in which woman emerges from man.

Eve has been allocated the lion’s share of the blame for the “fall of man” and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden even though she dioes not act alone. Adam also eats the fruit. Yet because she initiated the action, Eve is identified as a sexual temptress. In God’s curse, Eve and all women are forever decreed to be subordinate to their husbands.

Lilith: Lilith was a winged Sumerian goddess with angled raised arms, a pointed head covering and horned animals at her feet. According to some midrashic traditions, Lilith is Adam’s first wife who, after refusing to obey him, flies out of the Garden of Eden. Since that time she is believed to do harm to babies and sleeping men.

Vestiges of superstition about Lilith (or some like creature) continued through the Middle Ages into the early modern era. The color red was supposed to ward off such evil spirits, and mothers tied red cords or ribbons around their babies’ arms and ankles or on their beds. Women in labor, also threatened by Lilith, tied red cords to their birthing beds.

Leah and Rachel: The intense rivalry between these two sisters was not about the typical sibling rivalry over birthright. Rather, it was about their competition for the affection of their husband. While Jacob loved Rachel from the moment he set eyes on her, he was compelled to first wed her older sister. Their competition was acted out on the stage of fertility and childbearing, with Leah producing six sons before Rachel conceived one.

Rachel died in painful labor, giving birth to her second son Benjamin. For thousands of years, women have made pilgrimages to her the traditional site of her grave to seek a cure for infertility and loveless marriages.

Dina: This daughter of Jacob (Genesis 34) never speaks. Dina’s violent tale begins just after the family returns to Canaan. When Dina goes to meet other girls, she is violated by the son of the local prince. When her brothers, Simeon and Levi, hear of this act of violence against the family honor, they take revenge by annihilating the entire community.

Dina’s disturbing tale is summed up by her brothers’ final comment: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Many midrashim use the first verse of Dina’s story (Now Dina, Leah’s daughter by Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land) to justify keeping women in seclusion. Rabbinic commentators have referred to Dina as “gallivanting” and a “gadabout.” Rashi, the eleventh century Talmudic scholar, comments that if Dina had stayed at home she would not have been attacked.

Tamar: In her intriguing story (Genesis 38), the daughter-in-law of Judah, a childless widow, must marry her brother-in-law to perpetuate her husband’s name in accordance with legal tradition. When her second husband dies as well, her father-in-law refuses to allow her to marry the remaining son and returns her to her father’s house. Tamar sets about to entrap her father-in-law. Dressed as a prostitute, she seduces Judah and becomes pregnant. When her pregnancy is revealed, Judah wants her executed for her illicit behavior, but she exposes him as the father of the unborn child. Tamar’s duplicity is nevertheless rewarded. King David will be a direct descendant of the child born of this union.

Jephtha’s Daughter: This devastating story (Judges 10-11) of the unnamed daughter of one of Israel’s warrior chieftains is a bitter reflection on the fate of girls in a patriarchal world. When leading his army into war, Jephtha vows that if he is successful he will offer “the first thing to greet him” when he returns as a sacrifice to the Lord. When the victorious Jephtha arrives home, his daughter, hisonly child, runs to meet him. Devastated, he tells her of his vow. Acknowledging its validity, she asks to go to the mountains with her friends for a few months to bewail her fate. When she returns months later, she is sacrificed. Unlike in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God does not intervene.

Hannah: Like many of the women in biblical stories, Hannah (I Samuel 1-2) is afflicted with infertility. Additionally, just like Rachel, she must compete with a second wife for the affection of her husband, Elkanah. Hers is a very public humiliation and shame. Even her husband’s poignant question: “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” does not alleviate her suffering. When visiting the shrine at Shiloh, she makes a vow that if God grants her a son, she will dedicate the child to God. Her wish is fulfilled and she gives birth to Samuel, the great prophet and kingmaker.

Rahav the Harlot: This woman (Joshua 2:1-24; 6:1-27), not even an Israelite, is heralded as a soldier of Israel. When Joshua sends two scouts to reconnoiter in Jericho, they stop at the home of Rahav, a harlot who lives near the city walls. When word gets out that strangers are in the city, Rahav hides the men on her roof and she sends the investigators searching in the wrong direction. She consents to aid the Israelites when they approach Jericho, and lowers them out of her house onto the other side of the wall with a scarlet cord.

When the invading Israelite army subdues and vanquishes Jericho, Rahav’s home and family are saved. She is invited to move with the army of Israel, but stays outside of their camp as a perpetual stranger.

Deborah: Deborah (Judges 4-5) emerges as a military leader when the Israelites are threatened by the mighty power of the Canaanites. Summoned by the general Barak, who seems intimidated by the Canaanite force, Deborah is drafted into leading the army into battle.

In a pitched battle at Mount Tabor, the militarily superior Canaanites forces led by their king, Jabin, are defeated. Deborah’s ultimate success was ensured by the valor and quick thinking of another woman, Jael.

Yael: After the battle with the Israelites (Judges 4 – 5), led by Deborah and Barak, the Canaanite general Sisera flees, escaping to the tent of Jael who recognizes him. The text says that “he asked for water, she gave him milk.” Soothed by this reception, he falls asleep. While he sleeps, Yael takes a hammer and pounds a tent peg into his skull, killing him, and removing yet another threat to Israel’s security.

Ruth: The Moabite woman leaves her homeland in the entourage of her husband and his family. In their travels, her husband dies, as do his brother and father, leaving the three widows to return to the family home in Bethlehem. Naomi, the mother-in-law, prevails upon one daughter-in-law to return to her people, but the loyal Ruth professes her love and loyalty to her mother-in-law, and to the Israelite God and people.

The two women return to the family home in Bethlehem during a famine where Ruth, by chance, finds herself gathering wheat in the fields of Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. They eventually marry and their child, Obed, becomes the grandfather of King David.

Esther: Except for the matriarchs, Esther is probably the best known Jewish woman from the Bible. The story of her rise to power as the wife of the king of Persia is recounted in the book bearing her name. (It is also the only book of the Bible in which God’s name does not appear.)

Esther, according to the story, is selected to be the new queen because of her incomparable beauty (and presumably sexual expertise, although that is only hinted at by the text). Jewish tradition reveres her for her courage, political savvy and piety. With the assistance of her Uncle Mordechai, Esther preempts a plot by the wicked Haman to murder all of the Jews of Persia.

Susannah: Susannah (Apocrypha) is yet another beautiful, pious young woman threatened with the horrendous choice of either sexual molestation or public humiliation.

A well-educated, sheltered young woman, married to the rich, bourgeois, Joakim, Susannah is confronted by two elders who are in collusion with each other to coerce her into a sexual encounter. They threaten to blackmail her with allegations of adultery, and even suggest that she will be executed for the offense, if she does not acquiesce to their demands.

At her trial, Susannah is neither questioned nor listened to; in short order she is condemned to death. She pours out her sorrows to God who sees what others cannot. Through God’s intervention, the injustice is acknowledged and Susannah is restored to her home and good name.

Judith: Set in the seventh century BCE, but probably written during the time of the Maccabees, Judith (Book of Judith, Apocrypha) is another biblical female of great courage and cunning.

During a military occupation by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, his general, Holofernes, besieges the town of Bathulia, cutting off its water supply. The widow Judith, distinguished for her beauty and piety, enters the enemy camp, pretending to betray her people. She accepts Holofernes’ invitation to a banquet at which she suggests a sexual encounter. With her maid in attendance, she goe pretends to drink with him until he falls asleep and she beheads him with his own sword.

Judith, the quintessential heroine, demonstrates great piety and valor despite her ruse of sexual favors and her image has adorned many Jewish ritual objects such as hanukkiot, plates, ketubbot, and haggadot.