Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find even one woman in the whole of Scripture who did what was right but did not also exercise leadership alongside or over males? From God’s introduction of Eve in Genesis, we see that women were created to serve as rescuers and leaders. After God creates Adam, God declares that it is not good for Adam to be alone. God’s remedy is Eve, whom he celebrates with the Hebrew word ezer, meaning a strong help or rescuer. The use of the word ezer in Psalm 121:1–2, which portrays God’s rescue of Israel, helps us understand Eve’s—and woman’s—created purpose. Throughout the Old Testament, leadership appears inseparable from woman’s creational destiny as God’s strong rescue. As Old Testament women live out this destiny in obedience to God, they consistently defy the patriarchy of their culture as ezers.
Consider the books of Esther and Ruth, named after women. While this may seem unremarkable to us today, it was almost unthinkable in the culture in which these women lived. Like we saw earlier in this issue of Mutuality, women’s names were rarely celebrated publically apart from their family patriarch, and when women accomplished great deeds, these were often attributed to their patriarch. To disregard the strict gender norms of their honor-shame culture, which required women to be silent and submissive, brought shame on the patriarch and the tribe or family he represented. Yet Scripture honors Esther, who publically approached her king and husband uninvited. And the story of Ruth makes it clear that it was she, not Boaz, who initiated marital overtures. Their actions rescued Israel and the line of David, respectively.
Consider Huldah, Miriam, and Deborah, who as prophets spoke on behalf of God, directing kings and priests. When the Book of the Law was discovered, King Josiah turned to Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20), rather than Zephaniah or Jeremiah, who were both active prophets at the time. Huldah’s counsel facilitates the most enduring renewal in Israel’s history. Like Huldah, Miriam and Deborah were prophets and leaders. That Israel refused to travel without Miriam (Num. 12:15) and its armies refused to fight without Deborah (Judges 4:8–9), are facts which testify to Israel’s recognition of God’s blessing on these women and their leadership—leadership that rescued Israel spiritually and politically.
Other Old Testament women provided leadership to their families and even their husbands. Abraham obeys Sarah, and even God tells him to listen to her (Gen. 16:2, 21:12). Rebekah orchestrates a blessing for Jacob rather than Esau, the older brother (Gen. 27). And though Jacob is called the father of Israel, his wife Rachel makes key decisions, as when she gives Bilhah (Gen. 30:3) and Leah (Gen. 30:15–16) to him. Using what influence they had within a patriarchal culture, these women were leaders in the home. We are left wondering if there is a male leader in the Old Testament whose wife, sister, or mother did not take charge at times.
Many Old Testament women are noted for outwitting or outperforming men in various ways. Tamar, through her cunning, deceives Judah, her patriarch, in order to preserve the blood line. Judah admits that Tamar, despite her trickery, is more righteous than he is (Gen. 38:26). Moses’ wife, Zipporah, saves his life by taking the initiative to circumcise their son (Ex. 4:24–26), a rite that would later be performed exclusively by priests, all of whom were male. Later, Moses revises inheritance laws after five sisters demand the right to inherit property (Num. 27:1–11). Jael rescues Israel and becomes a war hero when she kills Sisera (Judges 4:17–22), and Abigail engages in political maneuvering that saves her entire household (1 Sam. 25).
And there are still more women who courageously rescue Israel. Shiphrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh by rescuing Hebrew babies (Ex. 1:15–22). Rahab the Amorite, who is celebrated in the New Testament for her courage and initiative, sends Israel’s spies to safety by lying about their whereabouts. She leverages her kindness to the spies to strike a deal that ensures her family will be spared during the invasion. Through her initiative, Israel is able to enter and inhabit the Promised Land, and Rahab and her family join God’s covenant people.
None of these women waited for men to take the initiative. Instead, they lived out their created purpose as strong rescuers. Their examples of obedience, courage, and leadership make it clear that what God honors is not authority based on gender, but courage and initiative motivated by faith in God. This is the privilege and calling of all people—women and men—who know, love, and honor God, their creator and redeemer.