I have always treasured the stories of biblical characters and their influence on the course of ancient — and subsequently modern and future — history.
As a student of history, I am also surprised by the omnipresence of women throughout the Scriptures and their integral connections to the overarching plot lines and themes.
Ancient civilizations are not usually recognized for valuing women, with few exceptions.
Despite worshiping many female deities such as Athena, Aphrodite and Persephone, Ancient Athens largely sequestered women to the private, domestic sphere whilst their male counterparts championed brute forms of democracy. Women in Ancient China were divorced for failing to produce sons and talking too much.
Women in Ancient Israel — where much of the Hebrew Bible occurs — were no more fortunate than their international counterparts. They walked six paces behind their husbands. They were not allowed to uncover their hair lest they be labelled harlots. While their male counterparts enjoyed rigorous schooling from young ages, they received little religious education and were sequestered to the outermost sections of their synagogues.
In the context of fiercely patriarchal societies, the fact that the following women were included in God’s ultimate plan to bring restoration and healing to the world is all the more surprising.
Esther: Unlikely Queen
If you’ve ever read the Bible, you’ll know Esther has an entire book named after her. For a character to be named in the Bible or other ancient texts is significant, but to have an entire book named after them is even more so.
She is a figure beloved by both Jews and Christians, with the former dedicating the festival of Purim to her memory.
Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means myrtle: a common evergreen shrub.
Esther’s early life was strife-ridden. She belonged to the Jewish community in the extensive Persian Empire — a kingdom so powerful it rivaled Ancient Rome and Greece. Her ancestors would have been captured and brought to Babylon in exile a century before her birth.
She was raised by her cousin Mordecai after being orphaned.
Despite the cultural and religious tolerance of King Cyrus II, the empire was increasingly hostile towards Jews. The kingdom opposed the Jewish worship of a single god and favored religious assimilation. Perhaps the pressure to assimilate explains why Hadassah became known as “Esther,” a Syro-Arabian modification of the Persian word for star.
Esther was likely young when King Xerxes, the ruler of the Persian Empire, expelled his wife from the court for her refusal to show off her beauty at his lavish dinner party. In his fit of rage, Xerxes was left without a wife and ordered a national beauty pageant.
In keeping with the patriarchal nature of the empire, Xerxes feared his divorced wife’s act would encourage other wives to undermine the authority of their husbands.
Beautiful young maidens from across the kingdom were summoned to court. Esther was among them. She immediately impressed the eunuch Hegai, who was charged with her care:
She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem. (Esther 2:9)
Esther also won the king’s heart.
Whether or not she loved him in return is unknown and even doubtful, considering their probably massive age gap and his proven temper.
Esther’s cultural and religious identity remained a secret, because her cousin feared she would suffer great persecution if her Jewish background was uncovered. Despite this, Esther maintained her faith by following a kosher diet and keeping seven different maids to keep track of the days, enabling her to celebrate Shabbat.
When a particularly anti-Semitic and self-obsessed advisor named Haman noticed Esther’s cousin Mordecai’s refusal to bow as the other nobles did, he convinced the king to issue a royal decree instructing the inhabitants of the empire to “destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews” on “the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.” The instruction provided a bleak foreshadowing of the perpetual mistreatment of the Jewish people over millennia.
Esther intervened on her community’s behalf to prevent them from being murdered:
Esther again pleaded with the king, falling at his feet and weeping. She begged him to put an end to the evil plan of Haman the Agagite, which he had devised against the Jews.
Though by questioning the king’s decree Esther risked death, her story remains an empowering example of how God calls the unlikeliest of people to confront immense evil.
Rahab: Prostitute and Ancestor of Jesus
As a prostitute in the sprawling city of Jericho — a lush oasis encompassed by ancient trade routes but plagued by great corruption — Rahab led a trying existence. She was the head of her household and subsequently had to provide for her parents and siblings, which was unusual for a woman of her time and place.
Although prostitution was not illegal in most ancient civilizations, many women who participated in what early writers of the Bible euphemistically called the supply of “provisions” were violently mistreated. Considering the limited options women enjoyed in the ancient world, it is uncertain whether Rahab eagerly accepted her fate.
Rahab was a social outcast living at outermost edge of the city when two Jewish spies sought refuge in her home.
Though she was not Jewish, Rahab eagerly welcomed the spies and helped them avoid capture. She explained she knew about the miracles that had followed the Jewish people and pleaded for her family’s safety:
Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them — and that you will save us from death. (Joshua 2:12–13)
By showing the spies hospitality, Rahab saved her family from death. Her family was eventually incorporated into the nation of Israel.
Despite her marginalized status as a Canaanite woman and prostitute, she would become the ancestor of many famous kings and prophets — including Jesus.
Mary: Devoted Mother of Jesus
She was Jewish and lived during the repressive Roman occupation of Palestine, where inhabitants had to pay taxes to Rome, Herod and the temple.
As a result of paying these steep taxes and belonging to the peasant class, Mary was poor. She also participated in strenuous physical labor, including carrying jugs of water from nearby wells and streams, gathering wood, farming, cooking meals and washing fabrics and dishes.
Despite many European paintings depicting a fair-haired and pale young woman, Mary would have had dark hair and skin like other Jewish and Palestinian people. She would have been exposed to the multilingual world of the Roman Empire.
When she was likely a young teenager betrothed to her future husband Joseph, Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel. The angel told her she would become the mother of the promised Messiah — who had been foretold by prophets.
Despite her youth and initial fear, Mary humbly accepted God’s will for her life and declared herself the Lord’s servant. She sang the following words, which the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer deemed the oldest advent hymn:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name.
As an unwed pregnant woman, Mary was undoubtedly shunned by society and deemed a social outcast. Many would not have believed her when she spoke of her meeting with the angel.
She gave birth in a manger surrounded by animals and filled with hay — a far cry from the palaces kings were usually born in.
Through God’s provision, Mary’s husband Joseph remained loyal to her and they raised Jesus together, visiting the Festival of the Passover in the city of Jerusalem every year as was customary for Jewish families.
She remained devoted to her beloved son and watched His death on the Cross, when she had been previously widowed. Before Jesus died, He told His disciple John to take care of her since widowed women were particularly vulnerable.
Mary’s last appearance in the Bible occurs after Jesus’s ascension into heaven, when she prayed with other believers:
They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.