Martha plays a fascinating role in the Bible. She is a busy, anxious woman who hosts Jesus as at her home with her sister, Mary. While Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching, Martha frets about the responsibility of providing for him and doing chores. Jesus chastises her for being so fixated on earthly things and tells her, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” In the scene, Jesus reminds her that faith is all that is required and bids her to set aside her worries.
Martha is also present to one of Jesus’ great miracles: the resurrection of her brother, Lazarus. Both sisters weep to Jesus that their brother would still be alive had he only come earlier to prevent his death. In one of the Bible’s best-known passages, Jesus reminds Martha that he is “the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Both sisters then witness the resurrection of their brother. Martha’s anxious nature and moments of doubt allow Jesus to share one of his greatest miracles and much of his wisdom.
One of the greatest Biblical stories of cleverness and love is that of Jochebed, mother of Moses. In an era where the Pharaohs of Egypt were oppressing the descendants of Israel, the Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite sons were to be thrown in the Nile, as he feared they would grow up to be strong enough to overthrow his line. Jochebed, who dearly loved her youngest son Moses, managed to hide him for three months but knew the ruse couldn’t hold up much longer. She made the agonizing decision to send him down the Nile in a basket made of reeds.
Her daughter, Miriam, watched her younger brother float down the water. His basket was found by the kind, caring daughter of the Pharaoh. Miriam jumped out and offered to help her find a nurse for the boy, whom the daughter of the Pharaoh quickly loved as a brother. Jochebed’s cleverness and faith in the love of God to protect her son enabled the savior of the Israelites to grow to adulthood, at which point he would lead the Israelites out of Egypt and oppression.
Many of the epic tales of Biblical women focus on Christian virtues like purity, forgiveness, chastity, and piety. Others are more subversive and praise a woman for prophecy or trickery. However, Jael stands out in quite another way: brutality. In the tale of Deborah, she prophecies that no man will bring the head of Sisera to their hands and that the glory will be woman’s alone. The brave and robust Jael fulfills her prophecy.
In Judges 4, as the battle is soon to commence between the Canaanite and Israelite armies, Sisera approaches Jael’s tent. Jael, a Kenite, is sympathetic to the Israelites who often inter-married with Kenites and lived closely alongside them. She welcomes the general Sisera into her tent with kind words. He soon falls asleep, believing he is safe within her tent. While he sleeps, Jael takes a tent stake and drives it through Sisera’s skull, killing him instantly. Upon hearing of her deed, Deborah sees the prophecy fulfilled and hails Jael’s bravery, stating, “Blessed above women shall be Jael.” Jael’s physical strength and courage truly set her apart, especially in an era where feminine virtue was almost entirely passive and docile.
Mary Magdalene is not the only virtuous sex worker depicted in the Bible. When the Hebrew were plotting the capture of Jericho, two spies entered the city. They encountered Rahab, who invited them into her home. The King of Jericho soon learned of the spies and their plans and demanded that Rahab appear before him. He commanded her to turn over the two men, who would doubtlessly have been tortured and killed. She hid the men before going appearing before the king and told him they had fled the city and urged him to send his men out to give them chase.
Her cleverness not only saved the lives of the two spies but also that of her own family. In return for keeping the two Hebrews, she asked for protection for herself and her own family in the coming invasion to take the city. The two spies agreed, and she and her family were protected. Her actions allowed the Hebrews to take the city but kept her family safe. It was a positive depiction of the cleverness and resourcefulness of a sex worker at a time when the world’s oldest profession, and the women who practiced it, were greatly disparaged.
Deborah is a unique Biblical figure. While many of the women in the Bible are chiefly recognized for their purity and religious zeal, Deborah is valued for her intelligence and leadership. She was a respected, popular public official and judge who also served as the leader of the Israelites. Men deferred to her rulings and followed her commands, including military leaders. Interestingly, she was also a prophetess that was held in high regard, rather than disparaged as a witch. Her tale in the Bible is primarily concerned with a war against the Canaanites, who were being led by Sisera.
In Judges 4:4, the story unfolds. Deborah commands her military leader, Barak, to lead the Israelite army against the Canaanites. Barak says he will go only if she accompanies him, as he values her guidance and presence. She agrees but warns him in a moment of prophecy that the glory of the battle will fall into a woman’s hand, not any man’s. Her prediction is quickly rendered true, as a woman named Jael assassinates Sisera in his sleep and delivers his head to the Israelites. It is an interesting tale that highlights the strength and leadership of women.
Miriam is the one sister of a much more famous Biblical figure: Moses, savior of the Israelites. When her mother, Jochebed, another strong and crafty Biblical woman, sends her son Moses in a rush basket down the river Miriam hides in the reeds and watches her brother being found by the Pharaoh’s daughter. She had the presence of mind to jump out of the weeds and offer to help find a nurse to care for the baby, thus preventing the Pharaoh’s daughter from simply leaving Moses in the water.
When Moses leads the Israelites to freedom through the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army, Miriam broke into a song of praise, singing “Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” Miriam is named a leader of the Israelites by God in Micah 6:4, along with Moses and their brother Aaron. From the earliest days of her life, she was a clever and faithful woman who dutifully served the Israelites.
Esther was a Jewish queen who used her great beauty and eloquence to save her people from annihilation. Esther, considered one of the four great attractions in the Talmud, is a Jewish exile in Persia who wins a beauty contest to become the King’s wife after he casts aside his previous wife for refusing to obey him in displaying her beauty to the public. Esther is an orphan who is protected by her cousin Mordecai. Mordecai eventually gives great offense to the king’s advisor, Haman, by refusing to bow to him. Haman had been responsible for the death of many Jewish exiles.
In response to Mordecai’s offense, Haman asked the king for permission to execute all of the Jewish exiles in Israel. In Esther: 7, she uses her beauty and grace to secure the granting of one wish from the king. She uses this wish at a banquet, when she states, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life – this is my petition. And spare my people – this is my request.” Her favor with the king paid off, and he granted her request. The Jews were protected, and Haman impaled. All of his former holdings were given to Esther as a gift.
Mary, is, in many ways, the ideal Christian woman. She bears God’s son without complaint, despite knowing all her life that he will be sacrificed to save humanity. When informed by the angel Gabriel that she has been chosen to bear the God’s son, she replies “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” She was witness to Jesus’ great triumphs, including his first miracle in which he turned water to wine at a wedding feast. She also watched her son’s death upon the cross.
While Mary is often upheld for her virginity and purity, she is also recognized for her incredible strength and faith in the face of great suffering. Not only does she lose her son at an early age, but she raises him lovingly throughout his life knowing that he will leave. Mary attends his death despite knowing the pain she will witness as her child suffers in order to save her people for eternity. Through it all, she never forgets or even questions her faith. It is due to this great belief that her assumption, or bodily admittance, to heaven is dogma within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
While Jael is most certainly unique in the Bible for her violent killing of Sisera, she is not entirely alone. Judith is another Biblical woman who worked to save the Israelites through cleverness and violence. The Assyrians were camped outside of Bethulia, a Jewish town, when Judith and her maid went out to visit the camps of their enemy. Using her wits and quick tongue, they were admitted to the tent of the Assyrian military leader, Holofernes.
After saying a quick prayer, Judith drew a sword and cut off Holofernes’ head. The sheer physical strength of decapitating a grown man aside, Judith showed incredible bravery taking on a military leader alone, with just an unarmed maid for company. To escape the military encampment, Judith hid Holophernes’ body and smuggled his head out under her clothing. When she returned to the gates of Bethulia, she produced his head and declared his death. The Assyrians were stunned at being left leaderless and did not attack the city. Israel was protected from a dangerous invasion by Judith’s fearlessness. Echoing Jael’s story, Judith uses her lack of perceived threat as a woman to lull the enemy into a false sense of security.
Eve is an incredibly complicated Biblical figure. She is typically viewed as responsible for the Fall of Man, as she ate the forbidden fruit at the urging of the serpent. She was also created last by God, which have led some theologians to argue that she was inferior, being created from Adam. One early theologian wrote that Eve’s sin was that of all women, who take after their founder. He described all women as “the devil’s gateway… the unsealer of that forbidden tree… the first deserter of the divine law.”
However, other theologians have viewed Eve differently. Some have argued that she showed the first evidence of independence and free will, actively deciding against God’s wishes. Some have also argued that God created her last with the intention of her being the pinnacle of all his creations. Regardless of her plans or production, she is undoubtedly cast as the Biblical mother of all humankind. She went through labor twice with only Adam as her company, successfully birthing the fathers of humanity in Cain and Abel. She suffered the pains of those labors as punishment for her role in the fall of men, as was to be the punishment of all of her female descendants.
Delilah is perhaps the most notorious Biblical antihero. In a time when most women’s personalities could be copy and pasted for each other without anyone noticing, Delilah stands out as a woman who consciously chooses to do the wrong thing out of a typically masculine motivation: greed. The Philistines promised a prize of 1,100 pieces of silver to Delilah if she could discover the weakness of the beloved Israelite hero Samson. Through time and seduction, he finally admits to her that his uncut hair is the source of his heroic power.
What comes next is an incredibly well-known legend: Delilah orders one of her servants to cut Samson’s hair, leaving him blind and powerless. The Philistines are then able to take him as a prisoner, and Delilah is given the promised payment in silver. Interestingly, the Bible does not state whether Delilah was a Philistine herself of an Israelite like Samson. It is also unknown if she was his lover or merely a target of his affections. Some modern feminist scholars have argued that Delilah’s Biblical reputation is unjust, and the story may look quite different had the Philistines left a written record of the story themselves.
Mary Magdalene has almost universally been represented as a current or former sex worker in the Bible. However, some modern research has argued that she was a wealthy woman who helped to finance some of Jesus’ travels after his presence transformed her life through salvation. Some writings depict Mary Magdalene as having either some sickness or demons driven out of her by Jesus. Being an incredibly close confidant and friend of Jesus, she doubtless would have been an apostle had she been born male. She was witness to both his crucifixion and his resurrection.
It was Mary Magdalene herself who told the all-male apostles that Jesus had been resurrected. She was the first person to witness the resurrected Jesus. This incredible closeness is what has led some to argue that her sex worker heritage was invented by later religious figures to distance her from Jesus and elevate male apostles over her. Given the incredible disrespect towards sex workers throughout most of history, tarnishing her thus certainly lowered her regard. The figure of Mary Magdalene continues to be a lightning rod of controversy, with ongoing debates about her past and nature in both religious and feminist academic circles.
Jezebel is more often used as a slur for a wanton or evil woman than it is to refer to the actual historical leader of Israel. In modern times, Jezebel has been reclaimed by some feminists leading to publications like Jezebel Magazine. In the Bible, Jezebel was a queen of Israel who led the country astray from its religion. Reportedly a worshipper of Baal, a rival god, she exerted her influence to shape the religion and culture of her nation. It was Jezebel, not her husband Ahab, who was looked to as the religious and political leader of the country.
The Old Testament depicts Jezebel paying a high price for her supposed idolatry. Her body is thrown from a window and torn apart by dogs. Despite her brutal end and the ongoing legacy of her name to disparage women, Jezebel rose to high power in a time where it was challenging for a woman to wield even a small amount of influence. Through her force of will and strong character, she shaped the culture of Israel for decades. Interestingly, the historical bias against “painted women” in makeup may be due to Jezebel’s purported love of makeup and wigs.
Lilith is undoubtedly the ultimate Biblical femme fatale. It is not clear if she was a demon, a woman, or some of both. Ironically, she does not appear in the Bible itself but is frequently written about in Jewish and medieval Christian folklore. Originally an ancient Jewish legend, Lilith was supposedly the first wife of Adam and was created from the same clay as him, rather than a rib as with Eve. She is often depicted as a willful, evil woman who is sexually promiscuous. Her image is usually associated with serpents as well.
In a famous 13th-century Jewish writing, Lilith is described as the first wife of Adam who refuses to submit to his will and leaves the Garden of Eden willingly after mating with the archangel Samael. She is often used to represent the most hated aspects of femininity, at least to the medieval male mind, including sexual wantonness, trickery, and harming children. Lilith can almost be viewed as everything despised and feared about women condensed into one semi-demonic being. While she doesn’t appear in the Bible, she has inspired countless religious legends and influenced the later realms of occultism, mysticism, and horror writings.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: