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