Women of Valor

by Lois Tverberg

A woman of valor, who can find? Her preciousness is far beyond jewels. Proverbs. 31:10

Miriam and Moses MotherWhat can the women of today learn from the Bible’s words for women from within its cultural perspective? How much should we see as specific to its world, and how much is timeless? This second question is difficult, with a wide variation of opinions. Nevertheless, understanding more about what the biblical world of women was like will allow us to better grasp what the Bible is saying for women today.

For instance, just looking at the passage above, most recognize it as about the “virtuous wife.” How can it be translated as “woman” instead of “wife”? Because the word in Hebrew for wife is ishah, (ee-SHAH) which does mean “woman” as well as “wife.” This is because in biblical times, it was assumed that every woman would marry. It could really not be any other way, because in that time, no one could survive on his or her own. Large families were needed to raise enough food to survive and provide protection from enemies. In illness or an emergency you always turned to your family. To not marry was unthinkable, for both men and women.

The second word, translated as “virtuous” or “valor” is hiel, (hi-EEL) and it is often used to describe warriors, like “David’s mighty men of valor” – his elite fighting team (2 Samuel 17:10). It can mean strength, courage, power, or moral virtue. To be a woman of hiel is great indeed!

If the idea that a woman can have valor surprises you, you might also not have noticed that women made several contributions to the Scriptures. Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Mary all composed songs that are recorded in the biblical text. And, believe it or not, Proverbs 31 was actually composed by a woman. The chapter starts with the note, “The words of King Lemuel, an oracle that his mother taught him.”

Say to Wisdom, You are My Sister

How much precedent was there for women as teachers in the Bible? Well, the woman of valor in Proverbs 31 was praised because “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching (torah, literally, or “law”) of kindness (hesed) is on her tongue.” (vs. 26) A mother is called to be a teacher of her family. Earlier in Proverbs it also tells sons to learn from their mothers as well as their fathers:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. vs 1:8-9

In fact, a good portion of the book of Proverbs is narrated by the voice of a woman. Wisdom itself is personified as a woman who calls to young men in the streets and invites them to listen to her wise counsel. She is the one speaking for much of Proverbs 1-3 and chapters 8-9.

Proverbs provides quite a bit of precedent for women as teachers, even within their traditional roles of wives, mothers and sisters. We should consider the advice of Proverbs 7:4,

“Say to wisdom, you are my sister
and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words.”

In some Christian circles, young men are taught to be wary of women and sexual temptation. What if instead of only focusing on viewing them sexually, they learned to say, “Wisdom, you are my sister”? Then they would be able to relate to women as sisters and aunts who may have much sound wisdom to share.

Images: John Heseltine & Pam Masco, Jonathan Chng on Unsplash,

Heroines in Egypt

by Lois Tverberg

Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” Exodus 1:18-19

Miriam and Moses MotherIn the first few chapters of Exodus, women play a major role. Pharaoh tells the midwives Shiprah and Puah to kill the newborn boys but let the girls live. His assumption was that while men posed a threat, women would be easily assimilated into Egyptian culture and exploited as domestic and sexual slaves. We also see hints of this in Abraham’s time, when he tells Sarah that the Egyptians would kill him and take her. (Genesis 12:12)

Instead, the first stories of Exodus humorously tell us that exactly the opposite occurred — that the women defeated Pharaoh! After the midwives saved the baby boys, Pharaoh confronted them. They responded with a sly insult for an excuse, that Hebrew women were stronger than Egyptian women and simply gave birth on their own, before they could get there!

Moses’ mother and sister were also heroines, saving his life by floating him out into the Nile where Pharaoh’s daughter would hear his cries and ache for his plight. Not only did women save Moses’ life, but Pharaoh’s own family defeated him, and Moses’ mother even got paid to nurse him!

An ancient listener would have laughed at how God had used the weak to defeat the strong, and realized that already, God was the one coming to rescue his people.

Photo: Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster

Tamar, the Heroine

by Lois Tverberg

It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” …Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah. – Genesis 38:25-26

Tamar the heroineOne of the most difficult stories in the Bible is that of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38. It shocks our modern ears to hear about a woman pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law, and when she was found pregnant with Judah as the father, she was vindicated as righteous. What in the world is going on here? This story shows that it is critical to understand the culture to get the Bible’s message.

A common law in many ancient cultures was the law of “levirate marriage.” If a woman married and her husband died before having a son, the husband’s family was obligated to give her another husband to have a son as an heir, because to die without one was a terrible curse. To keep the heir in the family, one of the man’s brothers usually was chosen, but even the father-in-law could fill the role according to some ancient documents.

So when Tamar’s husband Er, Judah’s firstborn son died, the family was obligated to help her have a child. The younger son, Onan, deliberately avoided getting her pregnant because the son would inherit Er’s estate, but if she died childless, Onan would get it. His greed infuriated God and he died an early death.

Judah also avoided giving Tamar his other son as a husband, possibly thinking that Tamar was “unlucky” after his first two sons died. By ignoring his obligation to her, he was committing a great sin against her by forcing her into childless widowhood, because she couldn’t marry anyone else. He also was endangering his own tribe, because if his last son died without an heir, they would be wiped out.

Tamar was in a terrible situation, and in the moral understanding of the ancient writer, she found an honorable solution to her desperate need. When she tricked Judah into fathering a child with her, she was choosing not to abandon the family of Judah, but to force Judah himself be her levirate husband, which would have been acceptable in that time. If Tamar had given up instead and Judah’s clan didn’t have an heir, the messianic line would have ended. But because of Tamar’s chutzpah, she entered the line that would lead to the birth of the Messiah. She was considered a heroine for her daring ploy that answered her need as well as the tribe of Judah’s.

As we read, we need to remember to respect the morals of the time and have patience that God is still teaching people how to obey him. It was still hundreds of years before the Torah was given, and thousands of years before Christ. We can admire Tamar’s perseverance in a moral world very different than our own.

Photo: http://www.ng-slo.si/si/razstave/razstava/umetnine-iz-prekmurja?id=1455

A Neck Like a Tower

by Lois Tverberg

Your neck is like the tower of David, built with rows of stones on which are hung a thousand shields, all the round shields of the mighty men. – Song of Solomon 4:4

Citadel DavidWhen we were staying outside the Old City of Jerusalem, we frequently went past the Tower (or Citadel) of David, a tower (migdal) that was built by Herod and rebuilt by the Crusaders — one of the few things still in existence from the time of Jesus. It was named the Tower of David because it was thought to stand on the site where an earlier tower, built by King David, once stood.

Towers were built free-standing or along the walls of cities for defense, to allow watchmen to see hostile forces from a distance, and to shoot arrows and other weapons from a high vantage point. Often the outside of a tower would be decorated with the shields of the army so that approaching enemies could see the size of the defense while they were still far off.

A tower was important and necessary to protect a city from invaders. God himself is likened to a tower – “For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe” (Ps 61:3). Towers were also used to guard fields of crops from thieves as well.

This helps us understand several places in Song of Solomon where aspects of a woman are likened to towers. In today’s passage, her neck is like “the tower of David” and her nose is like “the tower of Damascus” in Song of Solomon 7:7. In our culture that focuses so much on physical appearance, we assume that this phrase means that having a long neck and long nose was a sign of beauty.

In fact, it has an entirely different picture behind it that doesn’t focus on physical beauty but on character and how the woman carries herself. It is a picture of a beautiful, pure young woman who is self-assured and confident enough to rebuff unseemly advances of men wanting her physically. She walks with her neck straight and head held high because she knows she is a prize. To a young man, the many gold bangles on her elaborate necklace seem like so many shields of a defending force against him. The portrait a woman as a tower is not just of longness or tallness, it is a picture of a well-defended city whose forces keep out all who try to enter without permission.

Women today want to emulate many traits from biblical women. They see the bravery of Esther, the good sense of Abigail, and the wisdom and industriousness of the Proverbs 31 woman. But modern women can also learn from this biblical model of beauty. Our fashion magazines glamorize an attitude of promiscuity, and our teenagers respond by baring as much as possible. We could learn much from the gorgeous woman of Song of Solomon, who has so much self-respect and confidence in her own worth that she can carry herself as the prize that she truly is.

My reference for this essay is Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, by Thorleif Boman, (Norton, New York, 1960) p. 77-81.