Women of the Hebrew Bible

In a culture that is often male-centric, it can sometimes be easy to overlook women in the scriptures. While very few are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, the Bible has many women who are mentioned by name and featured in the stories therein. In a recent From the Desk interview, Camille Fronk Olson discussed some of what she has learned about the women of the Old Testament over years of studying, teaching, and writing about them. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with done excerpts and commentary).

I learned a fair amount from reading what Camille Fronk Olson said in the interview. One interesting point had to do with Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Olson stated that:

The Dead Sea Scrolls contributed to my appreciation and understanding of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). In the King James version of the Bible, Hannah’s husband Elkanah tells her, “only the Lord establish his word” (1 Sam. 1:23), indicating an understanding that Hannah was free to make daily decisions as she deemed best, except when they violated a promise to the Lord.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, Elkanah tells Hannah, “May the Lord establish that which cometh out of thy mouth” (4QSama), showing that Elkanah believed that Hannah spoke the words of God—and that God was working through her.

This same wording also appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. By this attribution, Hannah also fits the description of a prophetess.

Like mother like son, I suppose. It is a fascinating detail to know.

Another section of the interview that I found enlightening was a discussion about Huldah, who, for whatever reason, escaped my notice until now:

Huldah lived in Jerusalem in the days of King Josiah, shortly before the Babylonian captivity, about the same time that Lehi and Sariah would have lived there.

In repairing and cleansing the temple to rededicate to Jehovah, Josiah’s men discovered a scroll that foretold of dire circumstances to Israel is they turned away from the Lord. Wanting to authenticate the scroll’s veracity, Josiah instructed his advisors to “go, inquire of the Lord for me.”

Without any explanation, the advisors took the scroll and went to Huldah the prophetess to ask her what meant. Six verses of scripture record Huldah’s words after she read the scroll, including three times saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” Her recorded testimony indicates that the scroll contained at least a major portion of the book of Deuteronomy. It led Josiah to assemble his people to the temple to renew their covenant with Jehovah and turn away from the worship of false gods.

It’s not clear why Josiah’s advisors went to Huldah for counsel, but Olson noted that:

Because other prophets were known to have been functioning in the Kingdom of Judah at the time (including perhaps Jeremiah), many have asked why the advisors went to Huldah for her prophetic counsel.

The only viable answer is we don’t know.

Clearly the advisors and King Josiah weren’t concerned with that question. Perhaps Huldah was most conveniently located. Perhaps they had previously worked with her and already had developed a trusted relationship. Perhaps it was because Huldah was literate (a rarity for anyone in that day) and could therefore read the scroll whereas Jeremiah needed a scribe to record his messages to the people.

Whatever the reason, Huldah’s story within the national saga of her day is one of the most remarkable accounts of a woman in scripture.

Personally, I would love to know more about Huldah, now that she’s been brought to my attention.

One woman in the Hebrew Bible that I have some mixed feelings on is Sarah.  Olson extolls Sarah’s faith.  For example:

Sarah’s faith in Jehovah is every bit as unshakeable as Abraham’s. She risked her happiness and life to save Abraham’s life when she agreed to pose as his sister on two different occasions.

Sarah exercised unimaginable faith in offering her handmaid Hagar to Abraham to have a child and thereby fulfill God’s promise.

At the same time, the story of Hagar is part of my reservations about Sarah.  I mean, if you think about it, Sarah held Hagar as a slave, forced Hagar to marry Abraham and bear him children, then “dealt harshly” with Hagar during her pregnancy to the point that Hagar decided to run away.  Then, once Sarah is able to have her own son, she kicks Hagar and Ishmael out, sending her into the desert, most likely to die.  That’s pretty messed up.  Those are not actions of love, faith, or kindness.  But, perhaps that is what Olson gets at later in the interview in discussing how the stories of women in the scriptures turn her towards Christ:

As is true for all of us today, none of these biblical women was without weakness, and all of them had a divine potential to contribute to the Lord’s work. That is why careful gospel study never confuses the Savior with anyone else in scripture. He alone is without sin; everyone else has a desperate need for the Redeemer. Each of us can do extraordinary things in the work of the Lord with Him who is our anchor and compass.

There’s a lot more in the interview and it’s definitely worth taking the time to read to learn more about Ruth, Tamar, Miriam, and other women in the Bible.  Head on over to From the Desk here.

5 comments for “Women of the Hebrew Bible

  1. Thank you for calling attention to Olson’s interview- I’m a fan of her work. I also find the story of Sarah and Abraham (and Pharaoh and Hagar) troubling. It makes the most sense to me when I interpret it is a whole narrative arc with Abraham and Sarah trying to fulfill the promise in their own way instead of learning to trust God. In this framework, selling Sarah to Pharaoh is a faithless act of trickery, and their treatment of Hagar and Ishmael is also bad. Pete Enns writes that being asked to sacrifice Isaac was a form of turn about for how Ishmael and Hagar were treated (and the ultimate test to see if Abraham trusted in God’s promise). We LDS struggle seeing it that way because of D&C 132, but I think there’s narrative logic to it.

  2. I have collected a few shelves of books about women in the scriptures over the years- from many sources. I was overjoyed at seeing two mammoth tomes on WOMEN in the scriptures from a scholarly and faithful LDS perspective. I bought both her books, “Women of the Old Testament” and “Women of the New Testament”, illustrated by Elspeth, J. and Aston Young. I couldn’t wait to dive in.

    Sigh.

    I loved the illustrations and the light that illuminated from the women’s eyes and countenances, but quickly saw the historically anachronistic elements, including the lack of color in the women (Mormons just can’t get away from painting Scandinavian faces with modern hairstyles). With the exception of one painting wherein an elderly Judith (in a gentle soft-focus glow) is missing teeth, the characters are depicted as absolutely beautiful and healthy. Shouldn’t Ruth and Naomi have been painted as paupers with malnutrition and rags if their sustenance depended on gleaning not just fields, but desert fields? Wouldn’t we have more compassion and understanding for the world’s poorest people if we connected the great characters from scripture/history with today’s poor and down-trodden? But, the illustrator shied away from such disturbing ideas. That doesn’t make for relatable women of the prosperity doctrine. And to be fair, in western artistic tradition, Ruth and Naomi are nearly always dignified women in neutral appearance. Nothing in this book really challenged conventional thinking, but rather expounded on it.

    While this collection is about women, feminist theory and analysis were completely missing. According to the author, the women fit neatly into the patriarchal paradigm. For example, if they prophesy, it’s always with a lower-case “p”. Despite the drastic cultural differences that separate these women several millennia ago and half-a- world away from our 19th-21st c church, the “likening” of these women fits oh-so-comfortably with our norms.

    Chad Nielson described his cognitive dissonance with Olson’s description of Sarah, and I found many similar sections in the book where difficult content was glazed over in order to extrapolate the faith-promoting-Sunday-lesson-examples. It drove me batty. LDS interpretations of women were overlaid on women from the scriptures.I expected that, and readers should expect that from an LDS source. There were gems of wisdom and nuggets to think about, but nothing paradigm-crashing or shocking, nothing on the level of Aslan’s ‘Zealot’.

    “Cheers” for wrangling the number of references in the book, and for tackling such a major project.
    “Cheers” for focusing on women in the scriptures.
    “Jeers” for anachronistic representations, for softening or white-washing challenging material, for leaning into conventional modern-day LDS cultural-spiritual expectations, for making assumptions, and failing to use feminist analysis.

    *By the way, I identify as female, despite my online name. I’m not a man criticizing a strong female treatise.I am not male, neither is this a strong female treatise.

  3. I enjoyed this; thanks very much.

    Personally, one of my OT favorite women is Jael, who killed Sisera by driving a tent peg through his head, while he slept in her tent. A woman of direct and forceful action, who got the job done for the Israelites, when Batak was too cautious ?.

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