The “Shame” of the Unnamed Women of the OT
This article is available in Spanish here.
I used to get irritated when reading an Old Testament narrative which featured a woman who was not given a name. Manoah’s wife, Jephthah’s daughter, Micah’s mother, and many other women, are identified only by their relationship to a man who is named, usually a husband or father. Why did the Old Testament authors leave out the names of some Bible women? Weren’t these women important enough to be named?
Patriarchy, Honour and Shame
In western society, individualism is prized, and each of us has a name – usually three names – which uniquely identifies us. Most of us even carry around some kind of card that contains our unique identifying information. This identification card often includes a headshot of us as an individual. The photo is not a group shot of our family. In the culture of the Ancient Near East of Old Testament times, most people did not have their own identity. Their identity was embedded in their extended family and clan. All people, but especially women, were dependent on their extended family for support and protection, and sometimes for their very survival. And they were dependent on their family – especially the patriarch of the family – for their identity. Compounding this dynamic was the culturally constructed idea of male honour and female shame.
In the world of the Old Testament (and other cultures) honour was the underlying force that motivated and informed social behaviour. Only men were regarded as having honour and only men could publicly engage in bold and courageous actions in order to increase the family’s level of honour. Women, on the other hand, were viewed as a potential source of shame and were expected to behave quietly and modestly. Above all, they were to passively protect and defend the patriarch’s and family’s honour by sexually chaste behaviour. Several passages in the Old Testament show that virginity and beauty where the most desirable qualities in an unmarried woman, and sexual exclusivity and fertility were the most desirable qualities in a married women. Instead of public honour, a virtuous woman had a sense of private shame. Shame was considered a positive virtue for women. Conversely a woman without shame was shameless. In keeping with this concept of shame, many women were not given a public identity in the Bible and their names were withheld.
The Old Testament narratives are andro-centric because they were written by men, from a male perspective, in the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East. And the settings of various narratives give us glimpses of the patriarchal and honour-shame dynamic present in ancient Israeli society where women did not have the same social freedoms as men. Yet no Old Testament author ever asserts that patriarchy or honour-shame are God’s ideals for society. Rather, the Bible shows that the rule of men over women, as well as shame, are a direct result of sin entering the world (Gen. 3:16d).
Chapters 1 and 2 in Genesis are about a time before the Fall – before sin entered the world. In Genesis 1 it says that both men and women were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27 cf Gen. 5:1-2). As God’s image bearers, men and women share the dignity and honour that comes with reflecting divinity. In chapter 1 it also says that men and women, together, were created to rule over God’s creation (Gen. 1:26-28). It does not say that men only, and not women, were created to rule. Moreover, it doesn’t say that some humans were created to rule over other humans. Rather, men and women were supposed to rule and care for the animals and the earth.
Significantly, in Genesis chapter 2, the man and woman are both naked but there was no sense of shame (Gen. 2:25). Shame came after the Fall. Men ruling women came after the Fall. Patriarchy and honour-shame came after the Fall and are a consequence of sin; they are not ideals.
Even though God’s people lived in a patriarchal society, God’s dealings with them were not constrained by the culture. For instance, God did not necessarily use fathers or husbands as mediators of his word to women. God spoke directly to women, or used an angelic messenger (e.g. Rebekah in Gen. 25:22-23, and Hagar in Gen. 16:7-13). And, despite patriarchy, God sometimes used women to speak to men on his behalf (e.g. Deborah in Judg. 4:6ff, Huldah in 2 Chron. 34:23ff, and the skilled, wailing women in Jer. 9:17-22).
The Bible never implies that women are potential sources of shame – unintelligent, gullible, sexually wanton, inferior or less honourable than men. In fact the Bible says a lot of good things about women. In the Old Testament, many women are described as wise, intelligent, courageous, resourceful and enterprising. Bible women functioned as prophets, teachers, advisors, leaders, deliverers, and even as heroines. Considering the culture of Bible times, it is remarkable that so many women are mentioned, and that many of these women are given names. Two books of the Old Testament even bear the names of women: Ruth and Esther.
More than a few Bible women – the named and unnamed – do not fit the supposedly desirable stereo-type of the private, quiet woman. Several godly Bible women defied their culture and defied authority, and yet there is no hint of censure about their actions.
Identities of Nameless Women
Several Old Testament women were far from passive and are among the protagonists of certain Old Testament narratives. These women took the initiative and acted independently and bravely in some significant situations. While some of these women are nameless, they are not actually without an identity. They were simply identified in ways that were understood by the culture of that time.
As well as being identified in terms of a male relative, a person’s village or hometown also gave a person an identity in Bible times. The prominent woman of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8), the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Sam. 20:16) and the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam. 14:2) are identified by the names of their towns.
Perhaps the most important identifiers of the nameless women of the Old Testament are their stories – stories that have a lasting significance that is more meaningful than just a name. Through their stories we see spiritually astute women who had encounters with the Divine (e.g. Samson’s mother), women of admirable dignity, piety and strength of character (e.g. Jephthah’s daughter), women who were brave (e.g. a woman of Bahuran), women of compromised faith (e.g. Micah’s mother) and women whose words have been recorded in Scripture (e.g. King Lemuel’s mother).
Through our western eyes, the nameless women may seem unimportant – not important enough to be identified with a name – and it’s easy to overlook their contribution to Israel’s story and to God’s story. The Bible writers, however, realized that God engaged some women as individuals, and that the actions and words of women were noteworthy and important – so important that they included their stories in Holy Scripture. I am no longer irritated that I don’t know the names of some significant Bible women because I realise that in fact they are acknowledged and identified in ways that were appropriate to the culture of that time.
God is still engaging women and men as individuals. God is using all sorts of people, the ordinary and the extraordinary, within their own variously flawed cultures to create new narratives where God can reveal his grace and mercy, and bring about his justice and deliverance. Part of our story can be to positively influence cultures, including our own, and demonstrate and promote the New Covenant values of equality, mercy and justice for all people regardless of race or gender.
We may not know the names of most of the men and women who God has used throughout history, and continues to use throughout the world, but God knows their names. However in our culture we like to know the identity – the names and faces – of people. Are we actively identifying the women who God is using in vital service in our time? Just as we are encouraged by the faith, initiative and courage of the named and unnamed women of the Old Testament, we should be identifying women in ministry today and telling their stories.
A version of this article was first published in Mutuality, Summer 2013, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp7-9. The image in this post was taken from the Mutuality article. Mutuality is published quarterly by Christians for Biblical Equality International.
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry
The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration
Reading the Bible with a Masculinist Bias
King Lemuel’s Mother: The Other Proverbs 31 Woman
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Gender in Genesis 1
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 12th, 2013 at 10:49 pm and is filed under Equality and Gender Issues. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.