The same year my husband was in the process of enlisting in the military, I was studying the Bible with a group of women on Wednesday evenings. I don’t remember the exact study, but at one point we were to read a passage in the New Testament about heroes of the faith, probably Hebrews 11. This is a long list of people from the Old Testament who made an impact on history by their faith in an unseen God. We were to choose one person that we admired, felt inspired by, or related to and write about them. I say people, but truth be told, this is primarily a list of men. When a woman is included, the language is passive and is focused on her reproductive power (for example, Sarah “was enabled to bear children,” Heb. 11:11, NIV). While reading, I was drawn to this verse:
By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and become heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (Heb 11:7, NIV)
I sat there, a well-educated woman, about to give up my home, job, and community to follow my husband in his calling, and I felt angry about the pressure being put on me. I had already left a job I loved to move to him when we got married, and I was now being asked to continue to leave my work every few years. So, I wrote “Noah’s wife” because, in that moment, I felt drawn to this strong, forgotten woman of extreme faith. By written accounts, she had no calling of her own and no praise after the fact, but she stepped out on a leap of faith for her husband and her God.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be her? Your husband has built a giant boat in your backyard, claiming to have heard a word from God that there will be a great flood. In your love, trust, and almost certain belief that he is not crazy (or, at least, hasn’t been the first hundred years of your marriage), you pack up your life and climb on board the boat, praying that the snakes don’t get out and that you don’t accidentally swat at an insect instrumental to redeveloping the earth’s ecosystem.
Finally, the rains come. Your book club shook their heads with pity at the last meeting when you invited them all to come, and so you wave goodbye to your home, your friends, and fellow knitters from the community hall (“those wool socks won’t save you now, ladies”) and float into an unknown, very wet world. You only have your grown children and—my goodness—your daughters-in-law for company. On the bright side, all this stormy weather might lead to grandchildren.
Then, for the rest of human history, your husband is glorified as a man of great faith, while no one mentions the amount of trust you placed in him since you didn’t get a vision. Plus, not being the one that built a boat in the backyard, you probably had more friends to lose. Your name isn’t even in the Bible, but according to Jewish rabbinic tradition it is Naamah.
As a woman of faith, I wanted to support my husband, but being a military spouse did not feel like part of my calling at the time. My husband had a dream and the support of older men in our church telling him it was the right thing; I got a lot of questions from people asking if I was scared. It conflicted with my own work, talents, and training I had been focused on. As his supporter (and benefactor of the soon-to-be-included health insurance), I wasn’t about to question a calling he felt but I did wonder: Where is mine?
It would be easy to let these doubts and questions turn to bitterness, or to feel let down that there was seemingly no way to reconcile being a supportive Christian wife with being a believer empowered by her own calling and direction. But picturing Naamah on the bow of the ark with a tear in her eye was a revelation to me of her importance and necessity to God’s plan for Noah. Understanding the importance of the so-called minor characters broadened the way I read the stories of our faith.
There are many stories like this in the Bible, stories of the unnamed spouses, parents, servants, and friends that support and make possible the heroic actions of great people of faith. However, while the New Testament assures us of the importance of every member of the body of Christ working together, we often lapse into thinking we can only learn from the great heroes. Those of us who aren’t destined for leadership are left with the feeling that they are lacking, or not useful, and excluded by the community.
Furthermore, there is still a struggle in many churches for women to be taken as seriously as men when they are trying to discern a calling. Women who are married often feel pressure to simply be joyfully obedient to their husbands’ call. Voicing any questions about where God is calling them and how that might work out for both the husband and wife as a couple can be seen as ungrateful or attention-seeking. Later in our military life, we switched to an egalitarian denomination. We started attending a church with a female pastor and saw men and women serving equally in church leadership for the first time. I remember how I wept tears of joy in the car one Sunday after a sermon where I felt seen as my own unique person.
We need to encourage Christian couples to recognize how much more fulfilling it can be for their relationship when both partners are able to use their gifts and skills. I have had a long journey towards peace, trusting that each time we move there will be a place for me to “eateth not the bread of idleness” (Prov. 31:27, KJV). I wonder how much more I could have done earlier on in our military life had I been encouraged by others to see where my work and supporting my family could intersect. I’m grateful for the people in my life, particularly other military spouses, who have helped me see my value to each community we’ve lived in.
I’m now a decade into a life that required me to give up my original path. Sometimes I was dragged kicking and screaming down this new path, and other times I walked with a heart of gratitude and purpose. The roles God has given me to play have been an unimaginable blessing. However, I have learned that I’m able to be at my best when I am treated by both my spouse and others as a respected and valued part of the team. I am able to support the mission of our family and community through gifts that are uniquely mine, not those that are assumed of a work-from-home military spouse. When I read that list of faithful heroes in Hebrews 11, it is still the unlisted and unnamed wife of Noah that I feel connected to and inspired by. But now my connection to her does not come from a place of bitterness and loneliness but rather a recognition of the necessity of Naamah. I can see now that the unnamed in our culture are no less important to the God who knows all of our names.
The story of Noah forces us to recognize that while Noah’s faith and righteousness is commendable, God’s goal is not that we labor alone in our faith. Noah’s whole family was important to the work required on the ark and in rebuilding after the flood. Noah did not survive and find favor alone. God includes everyone in his plans, not just the hero. Every believer can serve in ministry, work, or community in the way God has gifted her or him. As a married woman I made a commitment to support my husband, but my support does not have to mean abandoning my own calling and hopes for my life. We would do well to encourage and support women who are working to discern how to reconcile their calling with their husband’s calling, and encourage husbands to look for ways to support their wives’ call. Finally, when we tell stories of the men of our faith, we need to acknowledge and celebrate the wives, mothers, sisters, and other women who were also there in a supporting role.
Naamah boarded the boat with great hope and great trepidation. Culturally, the expectations placed on her as a wife may have been different than what we face today, but by ignoring her role in the story and her importance to Noah’s success we continue to do a disservice to those often marginalized in the church or not allowed to serve in the fullness of their gifts. Naamah was rewarded for her faithfulness, even if it wasn’t the type of reward or recognition that we have errantly come to believe indicates a leader of the faith. For those willing to see every person in the story, she offers great hope and inspiration.