Women and Power in the Bible
Today we are going to talk about a man who could be described in this way: Rich beyond belief, politically prominent though continually grasping for more power, and morally questionable on many fronts. If you can’t guess yet who this might be, here is another clue: This man organized a beauty pageant as part of a disturbing pattern of objectifying the bodies of women, even that of his own wife. You know who I’m talking about, right? King Xerxes of Persia, straight out of the book of Esther!
Xerxes was a powerful man, but his influence was nothing compared to the wisdom and courage of his wife, Queen Esther, the First Lady of Persia, which saved the Jewish population from ethnic cleansing.
This past week, the First lady of our own nation said this: “Strong men, men who are truly role models, don’t need to put down women for themselves to feel powerful." Power is a dangerous thing in the wrong hands, but when it is used for good it lifts up the worth of every person.
Today is the third time I have found myself in the position of delivering a sermon based on a topic chosen by others. I have been contractually obligated this year to talk about whatever a group of women in the church required me to speak about, thanks to my assent to do so at the church auction last December. This year’s topic from the women is this: “How women in the Bible used their power.” It’s a great subject, and the first thing I did was look at the Lectionary that I normally use to select Scriptures for preaching. I didn’t expect to find a text there to match the topic, but was amazed that this week’s Gospel reading is about a woman who used the power of persistence to attain justice.
It’s true that the widow who kept bothering a judge with her request was not an actual person but was made up by Jesus in order to make an important point about praying. I think it’s significant, though, that Jesus decided that a woman best fit the role of one who was agitating for justice. Women most often were not perceived to be powerful in Jesus’ time or at any time in which our scriptures were written. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have or use their power, though. It just means that they often did so in subversive or very clever ways.
A notable exception in the Bible to the norm of subdued or submissive women is Deborah the prophet during the era of the judges in the Old Testament. Prior to establishing a monarchy where kings like Samuel and David ruled the nation of Israel, God raised up leaders called judges to advise and to lead the people. Deborah was once of those judges. After a pivotal battle with nearby adversaries at the beginning of her years of service, Deborah led the Israelites during a period of peace that lasted forty years. Forty years of peace was pretty remarkable during a longer era of history that was mostly marked by wars with neighboring tribes. Deborah was a wise leader whose power was used to bring stability and peace.
Since women were not often granted privilege or power in Bible days, the best we can expect in most of Scripture is respect. And most often that is given to women who showed notable humility and fulfilled traditional roles like supporting their husbands and bearing children. What is amazing and inspiring in Scripture are those passages where women resisted expectations and acted in ways that were brilliant and courageous. It is further remarkable that their stories were actually recorded, considering the prevailing male-dominant cultures.
Some of the women depicted in the Old Testament are described as devious and a source of temptation and trouble for the men. For centuries, these stories were shared orally before being written down by men who no doubt put their own spin on them. Eve is certainly a great example at the beginning of Genesis. She desired greater wisdom when she grasped and ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Wisdom and knowledge are power. She shared that new power with her unsupportive husband who immediately blamed her when God demanded to know if they had eaten from the tree. If we look at the story from this perspective, Eve did not seem content to simply be a helpmate to Adam. She exerted the power she had at her disposal to gain knowledge.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, two books out of thirty-nine bear the names of women; those are Ruth and Esther. Ruth found herself alone and widowed in a strange land after her husband died. Rather than returning to her family and homeland, Ruth made a pledge to stay near her mother-in-law Naomi. Together they took on the challenges faced by a young widow and an older now-childless woman. They did what women often do: they used their power to form alliances and to further empower themselves.
Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of a women exercising wisdom and power in the Bible is found in the story of Queen Esther. Esther’s husband King Xerxes was a lout whose exceptionally beautiful first wife was sent away when she refused to be put on display as an object to be ogled by his male friends. A beauty contest then ensued as the means of selecting a new queen. Esther was the winner, and she found herself in the very odd position of being a Jewish woman married to a Persian monarch. The two didn’t exactly have a normal courtship where she would have mentioned her family lineage. It just never came up, and before she knew it, she was married to a very powerful though not very scrupulous man.
To make a long story shorter, Esther’s cousin Mordecai uncovered a government plot to kill all the Jewish people in Persia. He begged Queen Esther to do something to stop the slaughter, and she had to admit to him that even she did not often get to see the king. Just talking to the king without him initiating a conversation was reason for death. It’s not surprising that she agonized for days about what to do. In the end, Esther decided to take action even if it meant that she might die as a result. She concocted a brilliant plan that exposed the weaselly government official seeking to destroy her people as the traitor that he was. The Jewish residents of Persia were thus saved from death. Like other women in the Bible, Esther refused to accept the limits placed upon her by men and was courageous in using her voice for justice.
Mary, the mother of Jesus is most often celebrated for her humility, which is certainly a quality admired in Scripture. Being humble did not mean that she was powerless, however. In the Gospel of John, Mary recognized Jesus’ unique abilities before he did and had to twist his arm at the wedding in Cana. Against his objections, Mary ordered the servants to bring jars of water that Jesus then turned into wine for the wedding guests. At the end of Jesus’ work and ministry, when he was executed on a cross as a criminal, it was Mary and other women who had the internal fortitude to watch as he died and then stayed to collect his body for burial. On Easter morning, it was the women who overcame the fear that paralyzed Jesus’ male disciples and went to the grave. They stepped up when others backed away. Without their actions and powerful witness, we would not know of the crucial last moments of Holy Week that are central to the Gospel story.
Jesus certainly treated women with an uncommon respect during his years of ministry. He befriended and talked with women in ways that embarrassed his disciples and set him apart from other men. It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus made a woman the hero of one of his parables. At first glance, the widow is just a nuisance, bothering a judge who was described as not concerned about what God or what people thought of him. He probably became cynical after years and years of dealing with difficult people and petty issues. He was not inclined to consider the concerns of a widow who had been unjustly treated by an adversary.
The parable explains that the woman wore down the judge with her requests and he finally gave in to her persistence. Justice was finally served, and the pleas of a woman with very low societal standing were heard. Jesus told the story to remind people that God is so much more responsive than an uncaring judge. He told his listeners to be like the woman who didn’t give up.
Eve was bold; Ruth was loyal; Esther was courageous, Mary was assertive, the widow was persistent. These are all ways that women in the Old and New Testaments wielded the power within them despite the efforts of men to subdue or control.
This week a new Twitter hashtag was created with the words “RepealThe19th”. A group of men realized that their presidential candidate would win if it wasn’t for the pesky and hard-won 19th amendment which guarantees to women the right to vote. Thank God for women who agitated for justice a hundred years ago. Thank God for women in Scripture who did the same over and over again in the face of patriarchal attitudes and systems.
May we join with women of all ages and places who have used their power to overcome the forces that would diminish the lives of any person, confident that God is with us in our common quest for justice. Amen.