The life of women in the Old Testament

Woman and man— created equal in the image of God? The Old Testament tells us about female rulers and slaves, about female prophets and prostitutes. They were often unnamed, but there are a few exceptions. Here is a close-up of four women from the lineage of Jesus.

A master of disguise: Tamar

Following the death of her husband, Tamar, a Canaanite woman, was left behind childless. Her father-in-law Judah asked his second eldest son, Onan, to marry her. Onan, however, made it impossible for Tamar to become pregnant. Then he also died. Judah then sent Tamar back to her father, where she was to live as a widow in her father’s household until his third and youngest son, Shelah, would be old enough to marry her. But Judah did not keep his promise.

After some time, Judah’s wife died. After a period of mourning, he set out to go and shear his sheep. When Tamar heard about this she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and sat down somewhere along the way which Judah inevitably had to take. When Judah saw the veiled woman, he requested her services and slept with her, not realising that it was his daughter-in-law. He promised her a goat for her services. Tamar demanded a pledge, and Judah gave her his seal and its cord and his staff.

After three months Judah learned of his daughter-in-law’s pregnancy. Officially, she was seen as Shelah’s financée, and Judah wanted her to be burned to death for adultery. She then sent his seal, cord, and staff to Judah and a message: “The man who owns these things has made me pregnant.” Judah had to admit: “She has been more righteous than I.”

The woman who helped the spies escape: Rahab

Two men came to Jericho as scouts of the Israelites and stopped to stay at Rahab’s house, a prostitute. The king of Jericho heard about the scouts. The soldiers sent to capture the spies asked Rahab to hand over the strangers, but she hid the men on the roof of her house.

Before the scouts went to sleep, Rahab went up to the roof to talk them. She said, “I know that the Lord has given you the land; we are all afraid of you.” And: “Now swear to me by the Lord that you will spare me as I have spared you. Give me a sign that you will spare my father, my mother, my brothers, and my sisters and all they have, and save us from death.” This is what the scouts promised.

Rahab, whose house was built into the city wall, let the spies down on a rope. Later, when the Israelites took Jericho, they led Rahab and her family out of the city and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel (Joshua 2; 6).

The immigrant: Ruth

During the time of the Judges, a widow by the name of Ruth lived in Moab. The father and brother of her husband were also dead. Ruth, her sister-in-law Orpah, and her mother-in-law Naomi had no one left who could have provided for them. Naomi had heard that the famine in her homeland was over and decided to return home. She sent her two daughters-in-law back to live with their parents. But Ruth refused to leave her.

The barley harvest had just begun in Bethlehem. The law in Israel provided that the poor were allowed to glean in other people’s fields. Ruth went to the fields to glean after the harvesters. It turned out that she was in a field belonging to Boaz, the son of Rahab. He was a relative of Naomi’s husband. When Boaz saw the young woman, he went up to her and told her to stay in his field and not to go anywhere else. He gave her food and water and left sheaves for her.

Naomi understood that God had not turned away from her and had a hand in this. For Boaz was a close relative, who had the right to redeem the estate of Naomi’s dead husband, buy back the land, and marry Ruth. Naomi said to Ruth, “When Boaz has finished eating and drinking and goes to lie down, go and uncover his feet and lie down.” Ruth did as Naomi told her.

In the middle of the night something startled Boaz. There was a woman lying at his feet! He asked, “Who are you?” Ruth answered, “I am your servant Ruth. You are a close relative.” Boaz said, “It is true that I am a close relative, however, there is a relative closer than I.” But this relative could not buy the field without damaging his own inheritance and said to Boaz, “You buy the field.” Boaz took Ruth as his wife.

The mother of a king: Bathsheba

David was on the roof of the king’s house when he saw a woman bathing; she was very beautiful. David sent and inquired about the woman. Someone said that it was Bathsheba. David sent messengers and she came to the king’s house. He slept with her. Then she returned to her house. She had conceived and sent word to David that she was pregnant. The king sent word to Joab, the commander of his army, to tell him to send Uriah back. He came back and David sent him to his wife to sleep with her. But out of a sense of duty, Uriah slept at the entrance of the palace. David then invited Uriah to eat and drink with him, and David made him drunk. But Uriah slept among his master’s servants again instead of going home to his wife, so David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it, he instructed Joab to put Uriah there where the fighting was the fiercest. Uriah died. His wife mourned for him.

After the time of mourning, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord, and He sent the prophet Nathan to David, who told him a parable. It was about a rich man who took a poor’s man only possession, a little lamb.

This infuriated David and he said to Nathan, “The man who did this must die!” Nathan said to David, “You are the man.” David realised that he had sinned and confessed his guilt. The child that Bathsheba had born became very ill. David pleaded with God for the child and fasted, and spent the nights lying on the ground, but on the seventh day the child died.

Later, Bathsheba bore David a son, whom he named Solomon. The Lord loved Solomon. Nathan brought Solomon up. He and Zadok the priest anointed Solomon as king. A number of generations later, among Solomon’s descendants, there would be a man named Joseph, Mary’s husband.

The focus of this article is on the life and survival of women in the Old Testament. Originally, it appeared in a much longer version in the German-language Church magazine spirit, issue 02/2018. And what was it like at the time of Jesus? He made women witnesses and messengers. This will be the subject of the next article in this series.

Photo: Jrgen Flchle - Fotolia

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Andrea Schnizer, Andreas Rother