What We Can Learn From Savvy Women in the Bible
It’s a recurring biblical pattern: Time and again, it’s the woman who “gets it” and the man who does not.
There is much we can learn from these women, starting with Eve.
For millennia, people have blamed Eve for the so-called fall of man, but really, she is the heroine of the elevation of humanity. It was Eve, not Adam, who perceived that life in Eden, while idyllic, was sterile and essentially without meaning. It was Eve who saw “how desirable the insight was that the tree [of knowledge] would bring, [so] she took some of its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:6)
Later, in Genesis, Rebekah (Genesis 25:19 ff) has a far clearer sense of God’s will and is the far stronger character than her husband Isaac. Although I cannot excuse her actions, her deception of Isaac (Genesis 27) is based on a neonatal vision (Genesis 25:23) in which God tells her that Jacob will take precedence over Esau.
In Genesis 38, when Tamar’s first two husbands – Judah’s sons – die through no fault of hers, Judah allows her to languish as a childless widow. Refusing to accept her fate, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, entices Judah and becomes pregnant. When she proves that he is the father of her unborn child, Judah confesses, “She has been more righteous than I.” (Genesis 38:26)
I believe Tamar’s teaching helps Judah transform from the villain who earlier sold Joseph as a slave into the hero who, further along in the story, refuses to allow Benjamin to remain a slave.
Even Moses, who is unquestionably the Bible’s most important figure, owes his entire career to the vital intervention of no fewer than six women: Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zipporah.
The first two women are the wonderful midwives whose actions rebut across the millennia the cowardly Nazi war criminals who tried to excuse themselves of their wrongdoing by saying, “I had no choice. I was just following orders.” Shifrah and Puah received orders, too, from Pharaoh, who was worshipped as a god. He demanded, “When you help the Hebrew women give birth and you see it is a boy, kill it.” (Exodus 1:16) By disregarding Pharaoh’s pronouncement, Shifrah and Puah teach us that we must never follow orders without first interposing our conscience and our human ability to determine what is right and what is wrong.
Moses’ mother Yocheved, too, refuses to submit to Pharaoh’s vile decree that every Hebrew baby boy be drowned. In desperation, she floats her son in a watertight basket down the Nile River.
Miriam, his sister, watches and with perfect timing runs up to Pharaoh’s daughter when she finds the baby, offering to provide a nursemaid for him. Our sages enhance Miriam’s role even further, as a Talmudic tale (B.Sotah 12A) teaches that Moses’ father, Amram, was the leader of the Hebrew slaves at that time. In order to avoid the pain of Pharaoh’s cruel decree, Amram ordered all the Hebrew men to divorce their wives; it was Miriam who convinced her father not to give in to Egyptian oppression.
Then we come to the amazing act of heroism performed by Pharaoh’s daughter. If she, like the Egyptians, had been a loyal subject of her King and worshipper of her father as a god, she simply would have tipped Moses’ basket over, drowning him. Instead, she answered to what she rightly perceived was a higher authority. Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the Bible, but the Sages call her Bityah, “daughter of the Almighty.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3)
Moses’ wife Zipporah also saves his life. A strange but interesting passage in Exodus 4:24-26 tells of Zipporah circumcising their son after Moses had neglected to do so and, as a result, was threatened by God with death. It is a passage the rabbis could have interpreted in numerous ways, but they credit Zipporah with saving Moses’ life with quick thinking and decisive action. (Shemot Rabbah 5:8)
The pattern of savvy women continues in the biblical books after the Torah, too.
In Judges (Chapter 13), an angel announces to Manoah and his wife that she will bear a son, Samson. Manoah completely misunderstands the angel’s message and thinks they will die. Manoah’s wife must reassure him otherwise.
After Moses, Samuel is arguably the Bible’s most important figure. When his mother Hannah prays to give birth to a son, Eli, the high priest at Shiloh thinks she is drunk – but she is not, and God grants her prayer. (I Samuel 1:10-20)
May the actions of these and other smart, courageous women from our tradition inspire us to struggle relentlessly for gender equality – and, indeed, for all types of equality – in Judaism and in our world.