Asking More from Women in the Bible

If you are a woman in the Church, you have likely participated in some kind of Bible study about one of the female heroes of our faith. Ruth, Esther, Sarah, Hannah, Mary—there are a slew of women that these studies venerate. It is in our nature as humans to seek out role models that look like us, so we comb through our Bibles for stories about women to inform our ideas of what it means to be a Christian female. The problem is, in our struggle to apply Biblical narrative, we center our meditations on determining if our lady is an example to follow or a cautionary tale.

My first encounter with one of these studies began in the book of Ruth. As a teenager—and an admittedly boy crazy one—I was convinced that Ruth would teach me everything I needed to know about dating and marriage. The story opens with the title character, Ruth, who is a foreigner married to the son of an Israelite woman, Naomi. When Ruth’s husband dies, she travels back to Bethlehem with the also-widowed Naomi. Once there, industrious young Ruth goes out to the fields of a man called Boaz to glean from his crop so that she and Naomi would have food to eat. Naomi identifies Boaz as a kinsman redeemer, a family member who, according to national custom, should marry the widowed Ruth and produce an heir for the family. On Naomi’s encouragement, Ruth meets Boaz at night on the threshing floor to ask that he fulfill his duty to their family by taking her as a wife. Long story short, he does, and they have a son, who becomes grandfather to King David.

There are a TON of interesting observations to make about Ruth’s story, but as a culturally conservative, Bible-belt teenager, I came to Ruth with One. Burning. Question. Do her actions mean that it is okay for a girl to ask a boy out on a date?
All angsty hormones aside, we sometimes treat the Bible this way. Instead of listening for what God has to say, we bring our own assertions about life and relationships as well as our own questions in search of an answer. Even though I had a vague idea that women’s lives were different—the felt board characters certainly dressed differently—I also made a lot of presumptions about Ruth’s thoughts and motivations based on my own cultural ideas about marriage and family. What’s more, I wanted Ruth to inform what I had already determined to prioritize in life instead of reading her story to learn what God says we should prioritize. 
By recognizing my own cultural biases and learning just a bit about the vastly different household structures and marriage practices in the Middle East during the early Iron Age, the story opens up in fascinating new ways. Given that women in this time were wholly dependent on a male head of household, Ruth and Naomi’s predicament is more perilous than it might seem to a modern audience. Ruth isn’t looking for romance on the threshing floor; she needs social protection and economic provision.

What’s more, when we read the Bible according to our own priorities, we miss the overarching theme of the story, which is always first about God and only secondarily (if at all) about the major players. God uses the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and none of the featured characters in the Bible, except Jesus himself, break this mold. All of them—both men and women—are morally weak or socially weak, many even physically weak. And so it's what God does through them that we find so fascinating. Ruth’s remarkable care for her mother-in-law and boldness in urging Boaz to live up to his family obligations earn her the apt title, “woman of valor,” but even though the text clearly establishes Ruth as an exemplary woman, her story offers so much more. In Ruth, we see glimpses of how God views the foreigner, what redemption looks like, the value of male/female collaboration, the blessings of obeying God—and the list could go on.
In the same way, a little bit of cultural context and good Bible study methods can open up the stories of other women in the Bible in powerful new ways and can help address some of the common frustrations we have when reading from our 21st century lens. Why does Hannah so desperately want a child? Does Esther teach us how to be a good wife? And was Bathsheba “asking for it” by bathing on her rooftop? Does “traditional marriage” include all the polygamous relationships in the Bible? What about all of the violent stories where women are raped or murdered—does God condone that kind of mistreatment?

We discussed some of these questions in Cornerstone’s Summer Seminar, How to Study Women in Biblical Narrative. The seminar also provided the tools you need to ask better questions of Biblical women, in light of their vastly different culture, so that we might see how their stories draw us to Christ. We encourage you to listen to the audio here.