In religious circles, a lot of people look to the TaNaKh for biblical indicators of the proper role of women in society. Favorite stories to bolster the argument for the submissive woman are those of Eva and Yezebel (as cautionary tales); Sarah, who followed her husband’s instructions and served guests while her husband socialized; and Miriam, who was punished for chastising Moshe’s marriage. In favor of the autonomous woman, we are regaled with stories of Devorah and Yael. Used to support both sides are Esther, who in her bravery carried out her uncle’s instructions, and the virtuous “Proverbs 31 Woman”. I think a broader view is in order.
First, we need a broader view of the question. In the modern context, the question is usually formulated in two forms:
- Should women participate in the public sphere–specifically in managerial positions, governance, and the military?
- Should women submit to their husbands?
Instead of being so specific, I think a better question is as follows:
What is the role of women in the family and in society at large?
This is a big question, and its breadth is appropriate, considering the breadth and complexity of human experience, behavior, societies, and relationships. Torah, both as a legal codex and as a cultural guide, makes room for complexity. And we should follow its lead in avoiding overly narrow strictures that may prove short sighted. When we seek general knowledge, we must ask general questions.
Next, we must consider the biblical role of men. Female roles cannot be fully considered if they are separated from their relationship to male roles.
The biblical family structure is patriarchal, although not in the modern sense of that word. A patriarch is a male clan leader. He is responsible for his immediate family, their offspring, and a good portion of his extended family. This responsibility includes not only their provision, but their protection as well. He is responsible for major financial decisions, including intermarriage with other clans. His responsibilities include maintaining, guiding, and building the reputation of his clan. He is also responsible for adjudicating conflicts within his clan. In short, a clan is like a modern business, and the patriarch is its CEO.
Not every man is a patriarch. Marriage and the founding of a family do not make a man a patriarch. The men of the Torah inherited their position. They had to receive the previous patriarch’s blessing. Unlike other cultures of the time, the Torah does not employ strict primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son). It also does not employ the method used by some cultures of the time and by the Saudis today, in which the eldest son inherits, and then bequeaths to his next eldest brother. Instead Torah (and TaNaKh) demonstrate patriarchs bequeathing their office to their most capable son. The exceptions were men who went out to “seek there fortune”, and through hard work, perseverance, and skill founded clans of their own.
Men who were not patriarchs themselves served patriarchs, either as subordinate family members with varying responsibilities, or as servants. As some point out about biblical womanhood, most women cannot be Devorah. By the same token, most women cannot be Barak, let alone Abraham. Male roles also encompass a wide array of professions and lifestyles, both settled and nomadic, rural and urban. Given the breadth of the male world, it would be unreasonable to expect women to occupy only one role. At the very least, the wife of a king has a very different role from the wife of a shepherd, and both are worlds apart from the role of a merchant’s or professional soldier’s wife.
So with all that in mind, let us turn our attention to how women behave in the biblical narrative.
Women in the Workforce
Women in the TaNaKh occupy a wide array of roles. First, let’s examine women in professional roles, to use modern terminology.
Devorah (Shoftim 4-5)
The woman most frequently used as an example of the “empowered” woman in the TaNaKh is Devorah. She is the only female shofet (often translated as “judge”), and an example of a female political leader and prophetess. Conservatives often point out that just because there was one Devorah doesn’t mean that all women should be, that this is an exception, and not the rule. The point should still be well taken, though, that Devorah led the Israelites in conjunction with Barak. The scripture does not record her sex being brought up as an objection to her leadership; nor does it record her seeking permission or approval from a male authority (husband, clan patriarch, judges, etc.). In modern society, we know that most people, regardless of sex, do not become political leaders, that was even more the case in ancient times.
Huldah (2 Melechim 22, 2 D’vrei haYomim 34)
A lesser known professional woman in TaNaKh was Huldah the Prophetess. Her husband held a position in the royal estate. The high priest Hilkiah and representatives of the king are recorded as having gone to Huldah to confirm that the holy scroll found in the Temple precincts was legitimate. Here we have multiple powerful men seeking approval from a woman. Again, there is no noted objection to her sex and no mention of her husband’s opinion on the issue at hand. Huldah holds her title independently of her husband, who is not a prophet.
Rachav (Yehoshua 2)
Better known, is Rachav, the prostitute who lived in the wall of Yericho. She took action without consulting a male authority, and she did so to negotiate a better future for her family. Since she takes it upon herself to negotiate for her family, she occupies the position best described as head of household.
Shifra and Puach (Shemot 1)
Shifra and Puach were two midwives mentioned in the first chapter of Shemot (Exodus). They defy Pharoah’s order to kill male Hebrew newborns and then lied to him about it. Again, there is no mention of being instructed by anyone to take the course of action they followed. And they certainly displayed an incredible degree of self-confidence in defying and lying to a man who styled himself as a god.
Avigal (1 Shmuel 25)
Bridging the gap between homemaker and professional, we read about Avigal in her first marriage. Before marrying David, Avigal was married to a land owner who was not a competent manager. He allowed his sense of self-importance and his temper to put his estate and the people under his protection at risk. Avigal stepped up to manage her husband’s estate in the best interests of all involved, sometimes directly defying him. On her husband’s death, David married Avigal, because her competence and independence impressed him. A king needs a competent wife, and Avigal met that need. We might even go so far as to view Avigal as the personification of the woman described in Mishle (Proverbs) 31, perhaps even its inspiration.
The Prophet’s Widow (2 Melechim 4)
Another woman who bridged that gap was the widow of a prophet who sought help from Elishai. While she had no profession herself, Elishai instructed her to sell oil to repay her husband’s debts. The oil was not given as payment itself. The woman had to take her wares to the marketplace and sell them.
Women in the Home
Among homemakers, we also see many biblical women who stood firmly on their own two feet, especially in relation to their husbands.
Sarah (B’resheit 11-23)
Sarah, the wife of Avraham, was no shrinking violet in her marriage. When she was childless, it was on her initiative that her husband took the maidservant Hagar as a second wife. Avraham is not recorded as having been in any way dissatisfied with Sarah or having wanted a second wife to provide him with an heir. And, in accordance with Sarah’s legal rights under the Code of Ur-nammu, Sarah told Avraham to send Hagar out, and Avraham was obliged to comply.
Sarah was also pivotal in her son’s marriage. The biblical narrative tells us that Avraham, as patriarch, decided when it was time for his son to marry, set the parameters, and sent his servant to find a suitable bride (as behooves a biblical patriarch). He is the catalyst, but his role in the story ends there. On the servant’s return with Rivka, we are told that Yitsak met Rivka and loved her. This is the point at which the young couple has their final opportunity to object to the proposed match. Yitsak then takes Rivka to Sarah’s tent, and they are considered married when Sarah gives them her blessing. In short, Sarah had to approve the match for the marriage to go forward, and her approval constituted the wedding ceremony.
Rivka (B’resheit 24-27)
Rivka, likewise, was a powerful complement to her husband. First, their marriage was contingent on her consent. Not only did HaShem speak to her directly, but she openly defied her husband’s will for his estate. Rivka had twins, Esav and Yakov. Yitsak favored Esav, the elder son, but Rivka instructed her son to con his way to the blessing and inheritance that belonged to his brother. And Yakov obeyed his mother in every respect. Moreover, Rivka is considered righteous in large part because of this scheme she devised to trick her husband, not in spite of it. Obviously, this isn’t a recipe for marital bliss, but the fact remains that Rivka was entirely justified in defying her husbands wishes.
Leah and Rakhel (B’resheit 29-49)
Yakov married Leah and Rakhel, two sisters. Initially, he had asked for Rakhel only, but Leah and her father conspired to trick Yakov into marrying Leah. Despite the fact that the whole marriage was based on a fraud, Yakov kept Leah as his wife. Leah’s part in the treachery did not warrant a divorce. Yakov then entered into another agreement with her father to marry Rakhel as well.
When Yakov took his growing family away from his father-in-law’s estate, Rakhel demonstrated her own willingness to engage in duplicity. She stole her father’s household idols, hiding them under the blankets she used as a seat, and then claimed she was menstruating to keep anyone from looking there. Is this behavior condemned? No. And Yakov never chides her for it, although he certainly would have discovered the truth at some point.
As wives of the same man, Leah and Rakhel each demonstrate their own autonomy in their rivalry for Yakov’s favor. They arrange with each other when Yakov will sleep with each, and then they inform Yakov of their decision, which he is obliged to follow. As was the case with Avraham and Sarah, Leah and Rakhel each take the initiative to give Yakov their maid servants (Zilpah and Bilhah). Yakov does not request these women. Moreover, each of these maid servants had been given to Leah and Rakhel as wedding gifts by their father (B’resheit 29:24, 29). These servants answered directly to Leah and Rakhel; they were not Yakov’s.
Tamar (B’resheit 38)
Another woman deemed righteous for her duplicity was Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Yehudah. She was married to Yehudah’s eldest son, who died without an heir, so she claimed her right to levirate marriage. Her late husband’s brother did not fulfill his duty to provide his brother with an heir, and he died. Tamar still wished to provide an heir for her husband, but the next brother was not yet grown. Tamar waited as a widow in her father’s house until the boy grew up, foregoing her right to remarry elsewhere, which would have been more advantageous to her father.
Fearing that his third son would also die, Yehudah did not tell Tamar when his remaining son was grown. When she figured out that her rights as a widow were being denied her, Tamar dressed the part of a cult prostitute and seduced Yehudah. Her actions technically merited the death penalty, but when it became public that Yehudah was the one who impregnated her, Tamar was vindicated. She had used deceit, it is true, but she had done so to enforce her own rights and those of her late husband. The story leaves off with the conclusion that it was Yehudah who was in the wrong, not Tamar.
Yael (Shoftim 4-5)
In the story of Devorah and Barak, another woman plays a pivotal role: Yael. Yael was the wife of a man allied with the king of the enemy general Sisera. When Sisera was defeated, he sought shelter in Yael’s tent, believing he was among friends. When he fell asleep, Yael killed him with a tent peg through the head. We are not told that she acted on her husband’s instruction, and it is entirely possible that she acted in defiance of her husband at a crucial moment.
Hannah (1 Shmuel 1-2)
The story of the birth of Shmuel provides us with another example of an autonomous woman. Hannah was barren and dearly wanted a son. In spite of her husband’s insistence that her barrenness wasn’t worth fretting over, Hannah goes to the High Priest Eli and prays to HaShem for a son. In exchange she makes a vow that any son she conceives will be dedicated to HaShem for life and that she would make an exoensive annual offering to help cover the boy’s maintenance. This vow was made without consulting her husband or any other male figure in her life, not even Eli. She made it voluntarily and was bound by it. When she subsequently gives birth to her son, she chooses, not her husband and not Eli, not to return to Eli until the child is weaned and she can fulfill her vow, which decided the course of Shmuel’s life.
The Shunammite Woman (2 Melechim 4)
The Shunammite woman also acts independently of her husband’s will. We are first introduced to her as a wealthy woman who wanted to provide food and shelter (her idea, not her husband’s) to the prophet Elishai. In return, the woman, previously barren, is blessed with a son. Years pass, and the son falls deathly ill in the field, presumably in a coma. Despairing, the woman orders a donkey to be prepared so she can go get Elishai for help. When her husband hears of it, he asks, puzzled, “Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath.” She goes anyway, and Elishai returns with her to cure the son.
Yehosheva (2 Melechim 11)
Yehosheva is a lesser known biblical character. Yehosheva was the daughter of King Yehoram and sister of King Ahaziah. She was married to Yehoyada, the high priest. When Ataliah, Ahaziah’s mother, seized power at her son’s death and had his brothers and sons killed, Yehosheva hid her youngest nephew (Ahaziah’s son) in her bedchamber. The boy was an infant, and she hid him for six years until her husband orchestrated a coup to return the throne to the Davidic line, crowning the boy, Yoash, king. Yehosheva’s heroism put at risk, not only her own life, but those of her husband and the elites of the priesthood.
Batsheva (2 Shmuel 11-12, 1 Melechim 1-2)
Like Tamar, who fooled Yehudah, Batsheva, was another woman who wielded power from a place of disempowerment. Torah accords certain privileges to the victims of those who abuse their power. David abused his position when he took Batsheva. Since he was the king, she really had no choice in the matter. As king, David was the ultimate judge, confronted with the ultimate conflict of interest. If the crime was adultery, both he and she could be executed. If the crime was the rape of a married woman, his life was forfeit. Instead, David deprived Batsheva of her husband, and proceeded to treat the widow as a maidservant: he married her. Batsheva then to use her position as favorite wife to cultivate powerful relationships at court, and she used those relationships to influence the king to name her son his heir.
In her role as queen mother, Batsheva also attempted to wield influence with her newly crowned son, Shlomo. She went to him on behalf of his older half-brother Adoniah, who wanted to marry their father’s servant girl. Shlomo chided his mother, since such a move would bolster Adoniah’s claim to the throne. What Shlomo did not do, however, was criticize his mother for approaching him with a request. The action was proper, even if the cause was foolish.
Ruth was another woman in a remarkably bad position: a childless, unconnected, Moabite widow, without means, and without any male protection. Guided by Naomi, the mother of her late husband, she successfully maneuvered her way to citizenship and marriage to a landowner in a powerful tribe, primarily by relying on the rights and procedures accorded her under Torah.
The Daughters of Zelophechad (Bamidbar 27 and 36, Yehoshua 17)
The daughters of Zelophechad are incredible examples in Torah of the flexibility accorded women in the biblical narrative. These women were the daughters of a man who died without a male heir. Considering their case, Moshe ruled that women could inherit. He then ruled in a second case that female heirs bore the same responsibility as male heirs for keeping land in their tribe, requiring that female heirs marry within their tribe, since the ssystem was patrilineal. What is truly remarkable about their case, though, is that they were able to bring their case to Moshe on their own, without a male representative.
Athaliah and Yezebel (1 Melechim 16-21)
Wicked women in TaNaKh also speak to the biblical view of women. Athaliah and Yezebel, both queens, held sufficient authority to command murder on a large scale. The first was able to seize power as the queen mother and have all the Davidic princes slaughtered. She then held on to power for several years. The latter persecuted the prophets, bearing responsibility for many of their deaths. Neither could have done what they did without the long term support of an armed force that was loyal to them in the face of male opposition.
Torah does not mandate a particular role for women in the family or in society. Likewise, it does not bestow unreserved leadership on men. Men and women in TaNaKh occupy many roles and professions and places on the social ladder. Generally speaking, couples are portrayed as partnerships, starting with Adam and Eva, in which both spouses exercise a degree of autonomy and rely on the complimentary skills of their partner to benefit the interests of the family unit or further political goals. In couplings with a lopsided balance of power, the Torah generally acts, both by commandment and example to restore a degree of balance.
Yes, the Torah model of the extended family structure is patriarchal. That system entails a complex web of obligation, responsibilty, and accountabilty that binds every clan member from patriarch to indentured servant, from king to captive. This system goes out of its way to establish rights, privileges, and protections for women in all parts of society, and is glaringly silent with regards to specifying female occupations.
Should women occupy positions of leadership and be visible in the public sphere? When that is what they are best suited for, and when it does not conflict with the interests of their family, yes.
Should women follow their husbands, deferring to them as leaders and acting as a support for their husband’s goals? When that is what they are best suited for, and when it does not conflict with the interests of their family, yes.
What Torah does not make room for is the woman who blindly follows either the will of her husband or her own impulse. It likewise makes no such room for unthinking or wilful behavior among men.
Contributed by Rachel Kight.