Biblical Women Smash the Patriarchy

patriarchy, gender roles
I gave up both of these when I became a vegetarian.

I’m taking a class on the Bible via Coursera from Emory University. Needless to say, it is my “fun” class out of the four or five I have going right now. This week in class we talked about how the Old Testament (the primary topic of this course) redefines what it means to be a hero. Part of that discussion revolved around women, who have a  big part to play in the Old Testament – a bigger part than most people are usually told about. Gender roles and how the sexes relate was a central part of this week’s lessons and that’s what I want to talk about this week.

Esther Was a BAMF

I was especially intrigued by the class discussion of the book of Esther. Now, I have always had a love for the female heroines of the Bible. I love the story of Ruth, the examples of Mary and Martha, and portrayal of Wisdom as a woman in Proverbs. But while I knew the book of Esther and was familiar with the story, I had never given it much thought beyond just being a “nice story.” Until last week, I had also never read the entire book.

That was one point that was made in the class lectures: people tend to infer what they believe onto the Bible without having read it or without having read enough of it. If you’ll remember, I kind of talked about the need to read the Bible critically, particularly with our own lives in mind. Asking the question, “How does this apply to my life?” can radically change how we relate with the text. This is a different side of that coin. The point is still to read the Bible critically, but this time to ask a broader question of it: What could this be saying? Not only does it require thoughtfulness, but it requires an openness to consider all the possible interpretations. Openness requires investigation.

Let me give you an example of why this is important from Esther. Esther was seriously a BAMF. If you don’t know what that means, I leave you to the waiting arms of the Googlemachine. Basically, she was incredibly brave and powerful and a true example for women everywhere. The basic story that I hope most people know is evidence of just how heroic she really was. The king, her husband, had decreed that all the Jews would be killed. Esther had to reveal that she herself was a Jew, thereby revealing a secret and putting her own life in danger, in order to save her people. Yes, she was afraid, but she did it anyway and saved countless lives.

patriarchy, gender roles
Beautiful mosaic of the banquet Esther throws for the king

And so much more than that

A little investigation, however, reveals that Esther’s role as a woman was different from what most people would expect. Her influence on the world went beyond saving lives. That is enough to make her a heroine, but the rest of her story changes our perception of women in a radical way.

To fully understand how Esther does this, you have to understand a few common facts about patriarchal societies. In ancient patriarchal societies and some recent ones, women are effectively second class citizens. That isn’t to say that they are worthless or persecuted, but there are definitely certain actions and rights that are denied to them by patriarchy. For instance, there are some common patriarchal rules for women:

  1. A woman’s place is in the home. She has little to do outside of the domestic sphere.
  2. Women cannot own or inherit property. This was a rule of law and society for millenia, right up until the modern era, so it’s not too far removed from our own times.
  3. Women are also expected to submit to men in most things. Christianity has this tradition between husbands and wives and in broader contexts, a fact which will become relevant later in the week. For patriarchal society as a whole, the fact that women were second class citizens meant that they had to submit to men, who had all the power.
  4. Finally, women typically do not have power. Power can take many forms, but for this discussion, let’s just say political power is the most important type of power. A modern example of how women are not allowed such power could be the fight for voting rights (suffrage) or the glass ceiling that we still see in America today (no woman has been president yet).

By herself, Esther breaks all of these conventions of patriarchal society and absolutely blows our conceptions of Biblical womanhood out of the water. In the book of Esther, we see her entering the public sphere to speak with the king and save her people (Esther 4:11). The king also gives her the property of Haman, the villain of the story, and acknowledges her ownership of it (8:7). Esther also did very little submitting to men in the story. Mordecai, a relation of Esther’s, asks her to save the Jews, but she argues with them, uncharacteristic of women under patriarchy. Moreover, when she finally agrees to do what she can, she gives commands to Mordecai and is obeyed (4:17). Not only does this show her lack of submission, but it is just one example of the power she wielded.

I will have more to say about Esther’s power later, but for now these short examples show just how much Esther changes how we understand women in the Bible. She is nothing like what we would expect a Biblical woman to be in a strictly patriarchal society.

Two Outcomes

patriarchy, gender rolesNow, I have simplified the discussion in this post. I will go into more detail in the coming days, but for now, the example of Esther makes me ask two very important questions:

  • Why have we been reading the roles of women in the Bible so wrongly?

Esther is just one example of how Biblical womanhood opposes our preconceptions and I will of course discuss others later in the week. But it seems so opposite to what we think we understand that I have to wonder why we do it. Why do we automatically relegate Biblical women to second class status? The Bible in many places does not do this. There is always a counterexample for everything in the Bible, reflecting the complexity and variety of life. But we tend to ignore that fact when it comes to women. For me personally, it is hard not to see a patriarchal agenda appropriating the text for its own devices. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that idea.

The second question is this:

  • Have we been reading patriarchy in the Bible wrongly?

I am not going to deny the existence of patriarchy in the Bible, but I will just ask whether it was really what we think it was? If Esther was not an exceptional example of womanhood, then perhaps the patriarchal society we infer to the Bible was not really what we think. It is possible that the patriarchy we are used to today used the Bible to reinforce its power. It’s a strange idea, but Biblical times may have had more equality than modern times.

Later this week…

These are just some general themes and examples that I want to flesh out for the rest of this week. Using the book of Esther as my primary text, I’m hoping to challenge at least some of the thinking that prevails in Christianity today about women. The Bible is our foundational text so it is necessary that we read it critically and learn what we can about it.

In the meantime, if you want to read Esther, I have a link to the book, as well as a link to the course I am taking through Coursera. I highly recommend you check them both out. They’re free! Free is good.

Link to the Book of Esther
Link to “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” on Coursera

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