Women have been leading since Biblical times—they can lead again today.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

The record number of women who will be serving in Congress following the momentous 2018 midterm elections may not be aware that the Bible supports their initiative to serve in this moment of political crisis. Normally, women in the Bible appear in subsidiary roles, for the action most often takes place in the public square, the exclusive domain of men in the ancient world.

But “normally” does not mean “always.” There is an important and often overlooked side to biblical history: It does not move forward in an unbroken stream but rather bumps along and in critical moments turns in new directions. In those turning points, women, surprisingly, take on leadership roles.

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Consider three such turning points in biblical history. In each one, male leadership fails or is absent and women take up the slack, employing wit and courage rather than recognized authority and power to lead the community. The three turning points are the transition from one elect family (Abraham’s) to one elect nation (Israel); the transition from the failed rule of tribal chieftains (the Book of Judges) to Davidic kingship; and the climactic biblical moment—the transition from Jesus’ crucifixion to his resurrection as risen Lord.

The record number of women who will be serving in Congress may not be aware that the Bible supports their initiative to serve in this moment of political crisis.

1. From an Elect Family to an Elect Nation

In Exodus 1 and 2, Abraham’s family of 70 members fled famine in Canaan and found refuge in grain-rich Egypt under the patronage of a welcoming pharaoh, a friend of the patriarch Joseph. When that pharaoh died, “there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Ex 1:8), who adopted a policy that both exploited and decimated the Hebrews. There is no mention in the text of the Hebrews praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, they “groaned,” watching in horror as family members were enslaved and their male children were exterminated. There is also no mention of a leader in Exodus 1-2 except Moses, who is distrusted by his fellow Hebrews because he could not answer their question: “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Ex 2:14).

In this political and moral vacuum, five women emerge as leaders—the two Hebrew midwives named Shiprah and Puah, the mother and sister of the infant Moses, and the pharaoh’s daughter. The midwives, unwilling to follow the pharaoh’s orders to kill the Hebrew infants, invented the excuse that Hebrew women were so vigorous they gave birth before the midwives arrived. Another pair of women, Moses’ mother and sister, figured out how to literally obey the pharaoh’s order to throw every baby boy into the Nile while utterly subverting it. They “threw” the infant into a seaworthy basket and shrewdly positioned it to float by the pharaoh’s daughter while she was bathing in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter, recognizing the child as a Hebrew, defied her father by seeing to it that Moses was brought up as a proper Egyptian in the pharaoh’s household. Each of the five women stepped up in the crisis and enabled Abraham’s family to survive and become a mighty people.

In the political and moral vacuum of biblical Egypt, five women emerge as leaders—the two Hebrew midwives named Shiprah and Puah, the mother and sister of the infant Moses, and the pharaoh’s daughter.

2. From Tribal Chieftains to Davidic King

A second example of female leadership in a critical time is narrated in 1 Samuel 1-3, which in the Hebrew Bible comes immediately after the book of Judges’ vivid depictions of misrule by tribal chieftains. The final chapters of Judges show the self-centered leadership of Samson and the moral and social chaos of a people adrift. Change was urgent if Israel was to be a people worthy of the Lord.

In this crisis, the agent of change was Hannah, a woman with the stigma of childlessness in a culture that revered motherhood. Weeping one day over her plight at the shrine at Shiloh, she interpreted the priest Eli’s conventional response to her prayer as if it were an ironclad promise: “May the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” Upon becoming pregnant, she uttered her Song (1 Sm 2:1-10), similar to Mary’s much later Magnificat, and gave birth to Samuel, the prophet who would in the course of time anoint David as king, establishing a dynasty that would last forever.

That transition in the Old Testament from chaos to effective kingship became a template for the Gospel of Luke’s depiction of a similar transition to the rule of Jesus, son of David. Women play a prominent role here, too. The parallels between the coming of David’s kingship and the coming of Jesus’ kingship are hard to miss: the miraculous birth of Samuel to the barren Hannah and the miraculous birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary; Hannah’s Song in 1 Sm 2:1-10 (“My heart exults in the Lord”) and Mary’s Magnificat in Lk 1:46-55 (“My soul magnifies the Lord”); and the nearly identical comment on Samuel’s character in 1 Sm 2:16 (“young Samuel was growing in stature and in worth in the estimation of the Lord and the people”) and on Jesus’ character in Lk 2:52 (“And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man”).

Further, the priest Zechariah’s deficient response to the angel’s birth announcement in Lk 1:5-20 parallels the deficient leadership of the priest Eli. Finally, it should be noted that in both Samuel and Luke the wives, not the husbands, act and speak: Hannah, not her husband Elkanah, Elizabeth, not her husband Zechariah, and Mary, not her husband Joseph.

It is clear that the author of Luke’s Gospel, searching the ancient Scriptures to validate Jesus’ claims to kingship, found confirmation in the transition from tribal chieftains to Davidic kingship in Judges and Samuel. As James Kugel has pointed out, Bible readers of the time “assumed that, although most of Scripture had been written hundreds of years earlier and seemed to be addressed to people back then, its words nevertheless were altogether relevant to people in the interpreter’s own time.... Its prophecies really referred to events happening now” (“Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism).

When in the biblical narrative leadership by males proved inadequate for a new era, another kind of governance was called for, and it was done by women.

3. From the Death of Jesus to His Resurrection

The most momentous transition in the Christian Bible is Jesus’ passage from death to resurrected life, which is detailed in the Gospels, announced in the Acts of the Apostles and preached by Paul. During this three-day crisis, women, not men, exercised leadership. Of the women, one was extraordinary during the entire period when men, the expected leaders, withdrew.

All four Gospels tell the same story: Mary of Magdala (identified by her hometown rather than by the name of her husband or son) accompanied Jesus through his suffering and crucifixion (Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; Lk 23:27-31; Jn 19:25) and was the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:10; Jn 20:1, 11-18). At the resurrection, Jesus chose her to announce the news to the disciples. According to Jn 20:11-18, she had the privilege of seeing the risen Jesus before anyone else. Truly appropriate is the epithet tradition has bestowed on her, apostolorum apostola, “apostle to the apostles.”

For centuries, she was mistakenly identified with the unnamed sinful woman in Lk 7:36-50, and her faithfulness went unnoticed. In recent years, however, Mary has been recognized as the model of a faithful and courageous disciple, stepping up in a crisis and embracing the task of announcing that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Mary’s greatness consists not only in her presence at Jesus’ passage from death to life but in defining Christian discipleship as both witnessing to Jesus’ death and resurrection and announcing the good news to others.

A Final Reflection

These instances in which the Bible portrays female leadership at critical moments are not just acknowledgments that women were present or filled out the scene. In each case, they proved instrumental in moving the history of Israel forward, and what they did had an enormous influence upon subsequent events. Leadership by males proved inadequate for a new era; another kind of governance was called for, and it was done by women. Their stories illustrate vividly what Paul meant when he asked his congregation at Corinth to look around and see if they could find among themselves “the wise” and “the strong” of this world. Paul concluded, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).

In moments of such “weakness,” when conventional structures fall away, the divine intention becomes visible in unexpected ways. The Bible catches such moments with characteristic subtlety and expresses them with memorable flair.

Nora Bolcon
1 week 5 days ago

I get both angry a bit and pleased with this article.

First off, many of us women, through little help of our church, have come to find the truth, hidden by our church, intentionally, for the sake of misogyny, with both God's help, and through the ardent research of justice impassioned women and men who are Christians but often opposed and rejected by the Church. Yes, that truth is the Bible has always and often had women in leadership roles or equal roles with their husbands throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures.

I notice this writer has left out, completely, the Judge of Israel, Deborah, who although married acted as both Judge and Supreme Leader of all Israel, and without her husband, as he had other work. Deborah was equally considered "called by God" to be Judge, and a Judge was a spiritual position in which the person was responsible to inform even the High Priests what to pray for and plan for spiritually for the whole body of Israel. The Judge was able to inform the High Priest of this information because the Judge was told this information directly by God Almighty Himself. The reason Deborah was picked had nothing to do with other male leaders being weak. She was apparently picked because she was already an experience prophetess, blessed by God, before God picked her to lead. So like the men God picked, God picked Deborah for the exact same reasons, to do the exact same job, with exact same power from on High, given to her to perform it, as her brothers. God is not now, nor has he ever been, the One who is sexist. All such discrimination comes from men who interpret the scriptures and law as designed by God to purposefully subjugate women under men's authority. This is not because that is the only possible interpretation but because this interpretation puts men, in control over women, instead of God being in control over women and all men.

I suggest to everyone before they pick up a bible, first pray for God to erase your mind of all past teachings you have learned, and all past commentaries. Then pray God walk with you, and empower you with a clean untainted mind, and ask God to unfold the scriptures, Old and New, for you, during your journey through the Scriptures. Pray The Lord God help you release yourself from your clinging to any assumptions based on culture, or tradition or man's interpretation of the bible in any way, remembering God's eternal promise that both the law and the prophets, and all the words of Christ are given to all people for exactly the same reasons: to free them from sin, oppression, weakness, ignorance and death both in this world and the next. So if you are woman reading a section of the Bible that has been taught in a way to lead you to believe that God or Christ wants you, as a women, to be treated differently or less than, or more restricted than, or less sacred, in any way than any man, you know you have interpreted this section wrongly. Such beliefs do not set any women or men free. Pray God at this point, please reveal what truth you have had hidden from you, by false, past teaching, intentional or otherwise. Remember, God created Man, male and female, He created them - ONE and the SAME CREATION deserving ONE and the SAME EXACT TREATMENT. This includes SAME and EXACT Sacramental Opportunities, including all forms of ordination and consecration that are allotted to men.

I have done this and still do when I read and God has revealed scripture truth from all the books of the bible I never saw before. This ridding myself of what had been drilled by church and others into my brain, since I was a young child, about what churchmen demanded we accept as interpretation, despite it making no sense and often being insanely far reaching from what was actually written and extremely biased and hurtful, freed me in ways I did not believe possible. Now I can go to God thru the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scripture and fly with new and powerful and usable enlightenment and understanding. I have gained back the Awe of God that legalistic Catholicism's Cage had taken from me when I was a teen.

Do not let anyone steal from you the freedom and truth Christ sacrificed himself to give to you. Also, make certain to always stand up for the truth that God loves and treats all people: male, female, black and white, all ethnic diversity, all poor and rich and genders with the same treatment and love and demands we do the same for each other.

God does not pick women last - Men have done this. Women have been brainwashed, both inside and outside of religion, and both violently and non-violently by religion, and by religion's influence, also civilly, and including by Catholicism, to believe that this last picking of women is God's Will. There is no evidence in the bible to genuinely support that belief as accurate, without making the same wild assumptions, based on interpretation instead of accurate translation of biblical texts, that both the Jews and Christians have made throughout our history.

As always the group in power, men, whites, Americans, etc. are the ones left with the power to interpret scripture and religious documents, exclusively, and often they do so to meet their own personal group's benefit at the cost of equality for all other groups, and at the cost of the actual Truth.

Just like the Council of Nicea, and all our Synods and Counsels after it - if you don't want the Truth about a particular group's abuse to be dealt with because your group benefits from it's abuse continuing, then don't allow any of that group to come to your council, or synod, and certainly do not allow them any real voice, by a vote, if you should decide to allow them to come and speak. If you don't want black people to stop being enslaved, don't invite any black people, and don't give any black people a vote, even if you let them in the door. Same goes for women, if you don't want women ordained the same, and treated the same as men, don't invite them to your Council at Nicea, or any other Council, or Synod, after them, and if you let them come or speak, certainly don't give them any vote, else you risk their demands for justice being heard, and met, and you will be forced to change, and your group will no longer have the same power over those women (or other groups) in the future.

A somewhat good article but I can tell this priest is still not quite on top of the issue.
God does not consider women as weaklings more than men.
All men and women are equally weaklings and worthless without God.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 4 days ago

Nora - your method is obviously flawed as all it did was read your own prejudice into the Scriptures and contrary to Tradition. It is a method the fundamentalists use.

Denise Kruse
1 week 3 days ago

Well stated, Nora. I agree with you entirely and appreciate your lucid, learned response to this well-intentioned but flawed article.

Rhett Segall
1 week 5 days ago

Fr. Clifford's spotlighting these women reminds us that God's providence occurs in often unexpected ways: the courage of the midwives, Hannah's prayer, etc. But I would also reference, along with Nora, the prophetess Deborah. In addition there are Judith and Esther; each has a book devoted to their glorious leadership in the face of monstrous evil. And of course there is the young maiden of Nazareth. She accepted mothering the savior in the face of possible ridicule, shame and rejection.

Christopher Scott
1 week 5 days ago

If the leadership in our country ends up as incompetent as the leadership of the Church it will be fraught with corruption and decay...that is the story of Israel and the prophets

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 week 4 days ago

Worldbuilding is a mission for one and all.

Bill Mazzella
1 week 4 days ago

The demonization of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and others is strong proof of the misogynism that still exists. That the vilification of these women with such extraordinary gifts has been accepted by too many Americans is an indication of the patriarchy that prevails. .

Christopher Scott
1 week 4 days ago

If patriarchy (which is the foundation and evolution of Western Civilization) is so evil than why do people from other cultures want to flock to it? The argument against patriarchy is hypocrisy, it’s not doing away with patriarchy, it’s maintains the patriarchy but argues men should be replaced with woman...as if to say that a woman is more capable and less corruptible. That’s laughable, power corrupts no matter who is on top

Judith Jordan
1 week 3 days ago

Christopher Scott---When did patriarchy become the foundation of western civilization? Among other issues, western civilization has been a very slow movement toward freedom and justice for everyone regardless of race, color, creed, or gender. That is the reason so many people want to come here from other cultures. The argument against patriarchy does not argue that men should be replaced with women. The argument is that society and power should be opened up to everyone…men and women. I agree that power corrupts. I know of no one who claims that women cannot be corrupted. We do know that women in Congress have demonstrated that they are good at reaching across the aisle and working out compromises, which is what our entire government should be doing.

Christopher Scott
1 week 2 days ago

If there is no patriarchy then who or what accounts for the oppression you claim needs more freedoms and justice? All ancient civilizations cultural development was patriarchal, the difference is western civilization and culture developed with Christianity. Which cultures have more freedom and justice inherent to them?

SHELLEY HIBBLER
1 week 2 days ago

Patriarchy isn't the foundation of civilization. Men ruled over women...I believe it's call chattal. It's in the Bible bc that's what was observed in their culture. It certainly doesn't make it right. It's about time we women have an equal seat at the 'table'. I do believe women have a better understanding what is right or wrong due to the discrimination/abuse/ etc., we have endured.

Christopher Scott
1 week 4 days ago

If patriarchy (which is the foundation and evolution of Western Civilization) is so evil than why do people from other cultures want to flock to it? The argument against patriarchy is hypocrisy, it’s not doing away with patriarchy, it’s maintains the patriarchy but argues men should be replaced with woman...as if to say that a woman is more capable and less corruptible. That’s laughable, power corrupts no matter who makes it to the top.

Christopher Scott
1 week 4 days ago

If patriarchy (which is the foundation and evolution of Western Civilization) is so evil than why do people from other cultures want to flock to it? The argument against patriarchy is hypocrisy, it’s not doing away with patriarchy, it’s maintains the patriarchy but argues men should be replaced with woman...as if to say that a woman is more capable and less corruptible. That’s laughable

Crystal Watson
1 week 4 days ago

This is nice, but it doesn't obscure the fact that the church won't allow women to be treated equally with men in the church. It's wrong and no amount of placation will change that.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 4 days ago

A great recent example of a woman leading in politics was Senator Susan Collins’ well-argued defense of Justice Kavanaugh. She had to withstand bullying and even death threats.

Christopher Scott
1 week 4 days ago

I wouldn’t bring up the Kavanaugh hearings as an example of good behavior by women in power, it’s actually an example of collusion and corruption of woman with power. In the Jesuits case its just exposing more cringeworthy beliefs Catholics need to know about

SHELLEY HIBBLER
1 week 2 days ago

JBK certainly acted mysogenistic & entitled towards the female senators during his hearing. Between him interrupting, contradicting, and aggressively turning a question back on Sen. Amy Klobuchar, I would say he's exactly what's wrong with some men in this country. But hey, he was confirmed regardless of his lies or aggressive behavior. If a woman had acted in the same way, she would've been escorted out of the hearings, and not seated on the SCOTUS. The double standard needs to stop.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

The real double standard is to treat an allegation of a women as more credible just because she is a woman. Kavanaugh acted no more indignant to the disrespectful men and women senators in his defense of what we now know was a completely false charge. If Feinstein were a man, she would already be under investigation for the leaking of the Ford letter. Double standard again. A Go fund me was set up for both Kavanaugh and Ford. Kavanaugh did not take his, instead sending it to Catholic Charities (where he volunteered for years). Dr. Ford is keeping hers. Another double standard.

When Judge Amy Coney Barrett is nominated for the next open seat on the Supreme Court, let's see how she will be treated by the craven Democrats.

Fernando Vásquez
1 week 3 days ago

It is time for the laity to change the Church, women to the ministry and episcopate, stop the non-sense of priestly celibacy, we need real men and women as pastor S of the flock, it will bring back humanity and decency on how we treat children,women, divorced, etc .

SHELLEY HIBBLER
1 week 2 days ago

Nora, I love how you explained what I believe to be true also. Clifford's article was a breath of fresh air for me. You're right women shouldn't only be responsible for cleaning the mess up. We should have a better representation (50%) in the government, churches, boardroom, etc Thank you for taking the time to comment on this subject. Your comments, a long with this article, are worthy of sharing.

SHELLEY HIBBLER
1 week 2 days ago

Nora, I love how you explained what I believe to be true also. Clifford's article was a breath of fresh air for me. You're right women shouldn't only be responsible for cleaning the mess up. We should have a better representation (50%) in the government, churches, boardroom, etc Thank you for taking the time to comment on this subject. Your comments, a long with this article, are worthy of sharing.

月 Ryôgetsu 伶
1 week 1 day ago

fr. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., It might have been very profitable for all to write a short explanation about the role of Eve in leading the humanity. I hope you don't consider her a myth. Our Church didn't either for more than 1900 years.

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