Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part presentation on “Biblical Models of Women in Leadership.” In the next issue of Priscilla Papers, Grace May will continue with an exploration of New Testament female ministry role models.
Reading biographies is inspiring and it was no less true in Biblical times as it is today. Replete with stories of men and women, the Bible demonstrates how God’s extraordinary plans unfold in the lives of ordinary people. God’s revelation takes on flesh and blood as we encounter Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, Zipporah, Rahab, Abigail, Deborah, Huldah, as well as unnamed heroines. If we are eager to travel with them, their faith can encourage and bolster ours.
Examining biblical models of women in ministry can change our preconceived images of leadership by providing biblically-informed reasons for re-investing women with the dignity and high regard God conferred on them in creation and redemption, and by encouraging us to reflect positively on the gifts with which God has endowed women in the past. Such an examination can even challenge our thinking about women’s use of initiative and authority in the church and suggest avenues of ministry available to women and men that are both contemporary and innovative. By God’s grace, following the faith journeys of others will help to transform our attitudes and behaviors, so that our relationships can better reflect Christ, the One Promised to redeem humanity (Gen 3:16).
Old Testament Female Ministry Role Models
1. Shiphrah And Puah (Exodus 1:15-22)
Years after Joseph died in the land of Egypt, two women arose who played a pivotal role in God’s redemptive plan. Daring to defy the pharoah’s edict, Shiphrah and Puah, two Egyptian midwives, refused to kill the newborn sons of Hebrew slaves. They “feared God” (Ex 1:17) more than the law of the land. When questioned by pharaoh, they responded shrewdly. They were not afraid or timid because they knew that they owed their first allegiance to their Creator. Pleased with how these women stood their ground, God rewarded Shiphrah and Puah with children of their own (Ex 1:21).
In contrast to much teaching today that encourages women to adopt a retiring attitude or to seek to preserve peace at all costs, these women defied the evil dictates of an earthly ruler. Challenging the highest political institution of their day, these women risked their lives to obey God. Is it any surprise, then, that the God of Israel blessed. these women not only with progeny, but with a prominent position in salvation history? Their act of courage set the stage for the unfolding of the rest of Exodus.
Yet despite the obvious rewards of following God’s ways even when they entail considerable risk, how many of us consistently choose the path of least resistance? We avoid confrontations because “We don’t want to offend people.” We certainly would never rebel against any kind of authority. The tacit assumption is that women should preserve peace at any cost. However, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, argues that:
If [women] settle for abnormal quietism as a way of avoiding the risk and potential isolation that may result from opposing evil ... they are sinning just as surely as the man who rides roughshod over relationships in order to assert his individual freedom. For “peace,” in the biblical sense, does not consist of “peace at any price.” It is rather the shalom in which all things are in their rightful, creationally ordained place. And in light of the Fall the distortion of shalom — including that between men and women — calls for a prophetic refusal to say “Peace, peace when their is no peace” (Jer 6:14) and a willingness to make the changes needed to restore true shalom.1
2. Jochebed (Exodus 2:1-10, 6:20; Hebrews 11:23)
Jochebed, the mother of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron, similarly refused to bow to pharoah’s command. Unwilling to kill her baby (Ex 1:22), Jochebed devised an ingenious plan to save Moses. She built a papyrus basket for her son and sent him downstream to safety (Ex 2:2-3). Spying the basket, pharoah’s daughter drew the baby Moses from the waters and adopted him as her own. At precisely this moment, Miriam appeared before pharoah’s daughter and offered to find a wetnurse for the baby, none other than Jochebed (Ex 2:7). Through this arrangement, God insured that Moses would grow up under the godly influence of his mother during his most formative years. The author of Hebrews pays tribute to Jochebed (Heb 11:23). Her faith allowed her to see the importance of saving her child’s life, for one day Moses would, in turn, save his people.
3. Miriam (Exodus 15:20-21; Numbers 12:1-16, 20:1, 26:59; Micah 6:4)
God called Miriam even at a young age to participate in the deliverance of her people. By assisting in her brother’s rescue, she was the first to witness how God was going to preserve Moses’ life. I imagine that her joy overflowed as she marveled over God’s providence. Similarly, her joy knew no bounds as she celebrated the crossing of the Red Sea. Listen to the chorus that she sang: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and rider, he has hurled into the sea” (Ex 15:21). In her jubilation, she lead the other women in the camp in worship and praise of the Lord (Ex 15:20-21). Identified as a “prophetess” (Ex 1:20), Miriam may have been at the height of her career at this point in her life.
For not long after this triumphant chapter in Israel’s history, Numbers 12 records her downfall. God punished Miriam with leprosy for the complaints she lodged against Moses. The Bible does not explain why Miriam was afflicted with leprosy and not Aaron, who also murmured against his brother. The only clue that we are given is the placement of Miriam’s name before Aaron’s in Numbers 12:1; perhaps the order suggests that she instigated the character attack or that being older she should have known better. In either case, her jealousy and pride caused her to fall, and God’s contempt for both of these sins may explain the conspicuous absence of mourning over her death (Nu 20:1). Nevertheless, God did not forget the faithful or enthusiastic service of his daughter. In Micah 6:4, God honors Miriam by mentioning her name as a leader alongside Moses and Aaron’s.
Miriam held enormous promise as a leader of Israel, both in her earlier years and immediately after the exodus. But she overstepped her boundaries when she insulted her brother’s leadership. Is the conclusion, therefore, that women should never question the authority of men, or be barred from public leadership? Far from it. Both women and men need to show respect for God’s servants and to guard against self-aggrandizement. Men as well as women need to take care not to over or underestimate themselves. Confession and praise, by reminding us of our human limitations and the real source of our strength, can serve as antidotes to these two sides of self-centeredness. Praying and encouraging one another can also help to guard against these extremes. The stronger our sense of community and interdependence, the less likely we are to assert our own good at the expense of another member’s.2
4. Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-22, 4:24-26, 18:1-5)
In the Old Testament God ordained a male priesthood. Yet in a peculiar incident, Moses’ wife, Zipporah, circumcises their son in a moment of crisis, a ceremony exclusively performed by priests. By throwing the foreskin of her son in front of Moses, she stays the hand of Yahweh, who would have otherwise killed her husband. The author of Exodus consciously and deliberately notes the shedding of blood, without which there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22). Could this incident possibly be a precursor of the New Testament priesthood which is open to all believers, regardless of gender (I Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6)?
5. Tabernacle Contributors (Exodus 35:4-29,38:8)
As early as the building of the Tabernacle, God demonstrated that he is an equal opportunity employer. Moses instructed the people to bring special offerings to furnish and adorn the tent of meeting (Ex 35:4). Responding to this call, “All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord” (Ex 35:29). In the building of the tabernacle, God brought together the whole Israelite community. Far from discriminating against female workers, God encouraged their involvement. By establishing a joint task force, God provided a model of cooperation and collaboration. God assigned men to jobs that we might typically consider “women’s work,” while giving women the right to serve in areas we would normally restrict to men. To our twentieth-century minds, we may find it difficult to think of embroidery and jewelry as a man’s domain, but not so the ancient Israelites. For Israel’s patriarchal society, it was probably stranger to conceive of women ministering at the entrance of the tabernacle, yet this is precisely the work God appointed to certain women (Ex 38:8).
The primary qualification for service, according to Exodus, was a “willing heart” (35:26, 36:2). We also discover that those contributing to the tabernacle were operating under a corollary principle of service that originated with the cultural mandate:
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Gen. 1:28, italics mine).
God delegated the work of the Garden to both Adam and Eve. The Scriptures do not indicate any division of labor based on gender but clearly hold both man and woman responsible for rule of the earth.
The freedom to serve in diverse capacities yet as members of one body is more fully developed in the New Covenant, where Paul was emphatic in his letters that people are to serve in a way consistent with their gifts (cf. Rom 12:4-8; I Cor 12:4-31; Eph 4:7-16). According to the Apostle, we must not use human categories or gender-specific concepts of labor to stifle people’s ability to serve. Instead we honor the Gift-Giver by allowing individuals to exercise their distinct and special gifts. By respecting one another’s uniqueness, we pay homage to the Creator, who regards us each as worthwhile and valuable.
6. Rahab (Joshua 2:1-21; 6:17-25; Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:21; James 2:25)
The second chapter of Joshua introduces us to a woman named Rahab. Although a prostitute, she rises to prominence in this book of exploits because of her involvement in the fall of Jericho. Believing reports of God’s mighty acts in parting the Red Sea and in destroying Israel’s enemies, Rahab acknowledged the God of Israel as the supreme ruler of heaven and earth (Josh 2:11). Her belief in the true God led not only to her confession of faith but to a willingness to hide two spies of Israel in her home. Through these words and actions, she rejected the religion of her own people and condemned her city’s unbelief. Preferring the uncertainty of living in an alien country to the certainty of death with her own people, she is hailed as a remarkable woman of faith (cf. Heb 11:31, Jms 2:25), for the part she played in Jericho’s destruction.
God honored Rahab’s decision to divorce herself from her pagan background. In accordance with her wishes, God saved her entire family (Josh 2:12-13, 6:25). Consistent with the divine concern for the family unit, the salvation of her family follows the pattern God established with Noah, who led his wife, sons and daughters-in-law into the ark (Gn 7:1,7). In addition, God conferred upon her the highest distinction, by not only adopting her into the covenant community, but appointing her an ancestress of Christ (Mt 1:5). Her sordid past made her one of the least likely candidates for such recognition, but her inclusion in the messianic line only underscores God’s determination to level our fallen ideas of self-importance.
7. Deborah (Judges 4 & 5)
In the days before kings, God appointed Deborah as a judge over the land (Jdg 4:4). The duties of a judge at this time included administering justice, assembling and dispatching soldiers, securing the spoils of war and protecting the countryside from bandits.3 Handpicked by God, these leaders were specifically chosen to deliver Israel from oppressive regimes and to re-establish peace and order in the land. (The title of judge can be misleading in English, because although Deborah arbitrated disputes and may have provided legal counsel [Jdg 4:5], it is unclear whether any other judge of Israel functioned in such a capacity.4)
Judges of Israel served as human vindicators. It is in this sense that they administered God’s justice and pointed to Israel’s ultimate Deliverer, who assumed the title of a judge in Judges 11:27.
Deborah displayed her skill as a general in routing Sisera, a most impressive military achievement (Jdg 4:6ff). Unlike Barak, commander in chief of her army, she trusted God for the defeat of the Sisera and led a victorious chase after this Canaanite general (Jdg 4:6-10). At the same time, God also fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy (Jdg. 4:4,9) by causing Sisera to die at the hands of a woman, Jael (Jdg 4:22). Together these two women accomplished an astonishing feat. Deborah commemorated Jael’s courageous and decisive act with this song:
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the... mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow;
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple,
He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell... (Judg 4:22)
Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, thus distinguishes herself as judge, poet, general and prophet of Israel.
The biblical account gives absolutely no indication that the Lord showed any hesitancy in giving these women such high or unique calling. The women in turn dispatched their mission with courage equal to that of any man. In fact, God put Barak to shame for his cowardice and unwillingness to exercise his military leadership, whereas God rejoiced over Deborah’s obedience and courage. Deborah’s story ended with the author of Judges recording that under her peace reigned in the land for forty years (Jdg 5:31). This is the same closing formula that is used in describing the end of Othniel and Gideon’s rule Jdg 3:11, 8:28).
Thus faithfulness that is commensurate with our gifts should dictate the ways in which we fulfill our respective callings before God, not adherence to social convention.
8. Abigail (I Samuel 25:2-44)
An adept diplomat, Abigail prevented an armed combat from arising between her husband’s men and David’s men. To compensate for her husband’s gruff treatment of David’s men, she sent gifts of bread, wine, sheep, grain and raisins to them. Understanding the urgency of the remission, she did not delay (I Sam 25:18) or consult her husband (I Sam 25:19), Nabal (whose name means “fool,” I Sam 25:25). She personally apologized to David for her husband’s behavior (I Sam 25:25) and asked David for a blessing as well as forgiveness (I Sam 25:26-31).
Abigail did not hide her abilities or deny that God had imparted to her a keen insight and interpersonal skills. Far from apologizing for her talents, she used her understanding of human relationships to facilitate communication between two factious parties. Discerning the injustice in Nabal’s treatment of David’s men, she dared to criticize her husband (I Sam 25:25). Instead of condoning Nabal’s unruly behavior, she made amends for it, thereby curtailing any threat of revenge. Her efforts at reconciliation met with total success as David responded with praise to God, acknowledging God’s intervention through Abigail.
9. The Wise Women (II Samuel 14:1-24,20:14-23)
Joab’s interaction with two wise women provides an interesting point of comparison. For the king’s peace of mind, Joab, David’s army commander, yearned for the king to permit his son, Absalom, to return. For this mission, Joab sought the assistance of the wise woman of Tekoa. Joab instructed her to disguise herself as a mourner and told her exactly what to say (14:3,19). Instead of demanding the king comply with Joab’s wishes, this woman narrated a story, and only at the end did she make a plea on behalf of Absalom. This approach worked, and Joab was allowed to bring back the banished son (14:23).
In a separate encounter, a wise woman from Abel asked Joab to listen to her (20:16). She advised Joab not to attack the city of Abel but only to punish the instigator of the rebellion against the king. Joab agreed, so long as she turned over this man. With the help of those who concurred, the sage executed her “wise plan” (20:22) and spared the lives of countless innocent inhabitants of the city.
Although Joab was the commander-in-chief of David’s army, he readily relied on wise women who were able to accomplish what he could not on his own.
Knowing what our limits are and asking for others’ help is essential for team ministry. Without this sober and humble estimation of ourselves, we will never be able to accomplish all that God desires. The working relationship between Joab and these women reminds us of the interdependence that Adam and Eve shared in the Garden. The realization that we need one another also forms the backbone of the New Testament church.
10. Huldah (II Kings 22:14-20; II Chronicles 34:22-28)
Prompted by the rediscovery of the book of the law, Hilkiah, the priest, went to Huldah “to inquire of the Lord” (II Kgs 22:12, II Chr 34:21). The author of Kings identified Huldah as a “prophetess” (II Kgs 22:14) and introduced her pronouncements with the prophetic formula “Thus says the Lord” (II Kgs 22:15,16,18). Like her contemporary Jeremiah, she brought a word of judgment from the Lord, condemning Israel’s idolatrous habits and lifestyle.
Significantly, Jeremiah was alive during Huldah’s lifetimes (II Chr 25:22), therefore refuting the idea that the Lord speaks only through women in the absence of capable men. God sovereignly enlists women and men and allows them to serve their King without precluding any on the basis of gender. This was the principle laid down in the building of the tabernacle (Ex 35:4-29) and the Garden (Gn 1:26,28).
11. The Wife Of Noble Character (Prov 31:10-31)
The Lord regards wives and mothers with the utmost esteem. In Proverbs, God paints a portrait of a woman who is capable and respected by both her children and her spouse (v.28). She is a model of inner strength and beauty (vv.1, 25, cf. I Pet 3:3-4). Her husband is so blessed to have her, that Scripture says “he lacks nothing of value” (31:11). She diligently and sacrificially provides for her family members (v. 15, 21, 23, 27). She is industrious with her hands (v.19, 23, 25), producing fine linens for sale (v.24), and is profitable in her business (v.15, 16). She does not overlook the poor (v.20), unlike many of us in the “me” generation. Nor does she fail to care for herself, as so many “superwomen” have done (v.22, 25). She speaks and teaches with wisdom (v.26). And in the final verses of Proverbs, the author blesses her and calls for the leaders of the city to give her praise (v.31). It is astonishing to read of her profuse opportunities and responsibilities both in and outside of the home.
The author of Proverbs may not have been painting a portrait of an individual woman. Instead this portion of wisdom literature may be providing a paradigm of a godly woman. Men and women can learn from her priorities: her attention to the family, her diligence in work, her concern for the community, and her interest for her own welfare. But although she provides a standard of excellence, it does not follow that every woman should strive to do everything this woman does. Rather, the point is to emulate her virtues in whatever position or place God has called us to. Nevertheless, it is fair to ask: If a woman in her day could express her abilities in such a variety of ways, how much more should we encourage contemporary women to exercise their full range of gifts, and to make more accessible the almost limitless opportunities that exist in the modern world?
Proverbs 31 also reminds us that we need to value the tremendous responsibility a mother has toward her children. Recall that not only did Jochebed save Moses, but she raised all three of her children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. She knew that the training they received at her hands would be critical for their future as leaders of God’s people.
But while being a mother is the unique provence of a woman, parenting is the responsibility of both husband and wife. Repeatedly in Proverbs, we hear the challenge to esteem the role of mothers and fathers (e.g. Pr 1:8, 6:20, 10:1). The Scriptures describe parenting as a joint venture, in which fathers and mothers share the responsibility of child rearing. Yet how many churches today accent the dual responsibility of raising children?
What could be a more fitting place for believers to live out their convictions than the home? Our lives more than anyone else’s can impart to our children a knowledge of the One who is faithful and eager to redeem us. Don’t we owe it to God and to our children to demonstrate to them God’s covenant faithfulness and redemptive love? For children to grow up in a family led by God is for them to hear and see a different quality of life. The commitment of parents to their children and the complementary relationship exhibited in marriage and should compel others, including and especially our children, to faith.
From the Hebrew midwives of Exodus to the virtuous woman of Proverbs, we see case after case of Old Testament women who affirmed their allegiance to God. These women courageously defied governments, unabashedly challenged social propriety, and skillfully contributed to the extension of God’s reign. As they carefully scrutinized the religious, social, political, and cultural norms of their day and, in light of God’s value system, consciously endeavored to affect change, they began to realize the glory of God’s new order. By subordinating all other relationships to their primary love for God, they established God’s rule in and through their lives. Affirming their likeness in the image of the Creator, and exercising their divinely endowed gifts, these women blazed a trail of faith that they bid us to continue. When Jesus returns will he find people who possess as great a faith?
- Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Grace and Gender: hove, Work & Parenting in a Changing World, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1990), 46.
- In my experience, I actually find that women tend to err in the opposite direction. Instead of flaunting their gifts. Christian women that I meet usually find it difficult to accept compliments. To recognize the good that God is accomplishing through our lives is an art that we, women, in particular need to cultivate.
- James D. Martin, The Book of Judges, The Cambridge Bible Commentary of the New English Bible, ed. P.R. Ackroyd, A.R.C. Leaney, J.W. Packer (Cambridge University Press, 1975), 12.
- Ibid. In the city of Mari along the Euphrates, in 1800 B.C., the function of an official whose title resembles the Hebrew word for “judge” appears to have been that of a local governor.