So let’s take a quick look at what specific women actually did in the Old Testament.
Before we begin, I want to address a couple potential objections. First, the Old Testament was written for our learning (Romans 15:4). I believe it is entirely relevant to consider the bulk of Scriptures in our discussion of gender roles within the Kingdom of God. After all, whenever you read about “the Scriptures” in the New Testament, it only ever meant the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Old Testament. Second, nowhere in the text does it say or even imply that these women were the exceptions. They may have been exceptional women, but the Bible does not attempt to portray these women as somehow working outside the norm. They aren’t so much exceptions to the rule as they are exceptions that prove the rule – the rule of equal standing before God.
What did women do? What precedent is there? I will list the women along with the Scriptural reference so you can read the full story if you want.
HAGAR (Genesis 16)
Hagar, we are told, was an African slave woman. Sarah picked her up as her maidservant presumably while they were down in Egypt. You may know the story. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, but he and Sarah were old and childless. Sarah came up with the plan to bear a child through her handmaid – a kind of forced surrogate situation. We don’t have time to get into the problematic behavior here, but there is a key point to note about Hagar.
After Hagar became pregnant, Sarah became bitterly jealous of her and started treating her poorly. Hagar fled into the wilderness. It’s there that God sought her out and reassured her that she was indeed blessed.
And Hagar – a runaway, pregnant, dark-skinned, African slave woman – became the first person in the Bible to give God a name – El Roi, the God who sees. Adam gave Eve her name, but now Hagar gives God a name. Let that sink in.
Now, I won’t lie. I’m not a huge fan of Sarah. If we met at a party, I don’t think we’d be friends. However, it’s worth noting that she is one of the women mentioned in the “Hall of Faith,” Hebrews 11 – “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.”
HERBEW MIDWIVES and JOCHEBED (Exodus 1-2)
These women in the opening chapters of Exodus stood up to the corrupt, oppressive government. They lied to Pharaoh. They disobeyed direct orders. They acted with extreme courage in the face of incredible danger in order to save innocent lives – and ultimately worked toward the deliverance of their enslaved people.
MIRIAM (Exodus 15 & Numbers 12)
Miriam was one of the triumvirate leaders of the Hebrews as they exited Egyptian bondage – alongside her two brothers Moses and Aaron. Moses was the political leader. Aaron was the priestly leader. And Miriam, with no asterisk or qualifier, was a prophetic leader. The great song of triumph in Exodus 15 is attributed to Miriam as she led the people in worship. Numbers 12 recounts the instance where Miriam and Aaron confront Moses about his choice of wife. She was wrong, and she was punished for it. But she was wrong because of her own pride and prejudice so to speak, not because she was a woman. We must note, though, that she had the confidence to confront Moses, a man who most people would have considered her “superior.”
RAHAB (Joshua 2 & 6)
Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute and inn owner in Jericho, was blessed by God for saving the Hebrew spies. She hid, them, lied to the authorities on their behalf, and sent them on their way. She would later marry into the nation of Israel and become the great-great-grandmother to the greatest king Israel had ever known. AND she was in the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1). AND she is another woman mentioned in Hebrews 11 – “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.”
DEBORAH (Judges 4-5)
With no qualifier, asterisk, or explanation, we are introduced to Deborah in Judges 4. She is a prophet and Judge. Full stop. She was appointed by God, not because no other man could be found, but because she had the characteristics of a leader – strength, empathy, decisiveness, and courage. She was gifted as a leader and was called by God to use those gifts to deliver her people. She is also, like Miriam, the composer of an amazing song of victory. Side note, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 is widely regarded by scholars to be among the earliest written pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures.
RUTH and NAOMI (Ruth)
These women put everything on the line. They were desperate and impoverished. Yet because they remained faithful to God, Ruth – a Moabite woman – became the daughter-in-law to Rahab AND the great-grandmother of King David AND an ancestor in the lineage of Jesus.
ABIGAIL (1 Samuel 25)
Abigail is one of my favorite people in the Old Testament. She’s a strong woman who knows how to keep her head when all the men around her go crazy. She knows her husband is an idiot and calls him out on it. She knows exactly how to deescalate the hostile situation between her husband and David. She was not afraid to stand up for what she knew was right. I love her story.
HULDAH (2 Chronicles 34)
A little context for this one. Long after David and Solomon, the kingdom was divided and the religious world of the Judahites fell into disarray. The Temple went unused and was in major needs of repair and renovation. The whole priestly system needed revitalization. That’s where King Josiah came in. He discovered the lost scroll of the Law of Moses. No one really knew what to make of it or what to do with it. King Josiah and the priest Hilkiah sought out the guidance of a prophet. No, not Jeremiah or Hosea or Micah or a number of other male prophets. They went to Huldah, a female prophet, who relayed to them the word of the Lord and sparked a nation-wide religious reform.
This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure I may have missed a few. And for every example of a woman doing amazing things in the service of God, there is at least one other story of women who led men astray and lived in conflict to what God had commanded (like Jezebel, Delilah, etc.). Women did both amazing things and terrible things – just like men. It’s almost as if God calls people on the basis of their character and faithfulness not on the basis of gender.
To sum up, we have examples of women giving names to God, prophesying, leading worship, composing songs, speaking truth to power, stepping out in faith, engaging in civil disobedience, speaking wisdom into the lives of angry men, acting as commander-in-chief of Israel’s armies, sparking religious revival, and much more. Their acts of faith and courage are recorded for us to learn from and be inspired by thousands of years later. All this took place in an overwhelmingly male-dominated culture. These women were the exceptions that prove the rule that God’s giftedness and calling does not discriminate on the basis of gender.
Can women teach men and exercise authority over men? Maybe we should ask Deborah and Huldah for their perspective on it.