When we think of leaders in the Bible, names like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul jump easily to mind — and rightly so, for these men played key roles in the drama of Scripture. But one of the great lessons of Scripture — as people like David and Paul can attest — is that God delights in using unlikely heroes to further the gospel. Despite living in a culture of patriarchy, numerous women faithfully led others to a new understanding of God’s work in the world. In my last post I mentioned the daughters of Zelophehad, Deborah, the Samaritan woman at the well, Rahab, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Ruth. Today’s list includes more women whose chutzpah, wisdom, and faithfulness rival that of their more well-known male counterparts.
Abigail (1 Sam 25): When David and his men were on the run from Saul, they asked a wealthy man named Nabal for food. They had treated his shepherds well and expected that Nabal would return the favor, but the ill-tempered Nabal refused to help. David and his men prepared to attack in vengeance. When Nabal’s wife, Abigal, learned of her husband’s treacherous lack of hospitality, she intervened by riding out to meet David and his troops with stores of bread, wine, figs, and other food. Abigail gave an impassioned speech in which she begged for forgiveness for her husband’s foolishness and prayed for blessings on David. He was so impressed that David granted her petition and spared the lives of the men in her household. Later when a hungover Nabal heard about these events “his heart died within him; he became like stone” and ten days later he died. After Nabal’s death, David married Abigail. Throughout the story, Nabal’s foolishness is contrasted with Abigail’s good sense and godliness. When David proclaimed that “the Lord has kept back his servant from evil,” he was referring to Abigail as an instrument of God for David’s protection.
The Bleeding Woman (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:41-56): This ritually unclean woman with her constant flow of blood was desperate to find a cure. For twelve years she had suffered, and she grew impoverished while trying to purchase various cures. But when she heard that Jesus was in town, she bravely entered the crowds — despite her impurity — and reached out to touch Jesus. Her belief in his healing power was so strong that she trusted that a simple touch of his cloak would be enough to heal. Jesus called the woman “daughter” and proclaimed her great faith in front of the whole crowd.
The Syro-Phoenician Woman (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30): This desperate mother would not take no for an answer. Although she was a Gentile approaching a Jewish teacher, she refused to let ethnicity stand as a barrier between her demon-possessed daughter and the one person who could bring about healing. Jesus put her off just long enough to allow the woman to make a cogent argument for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the blessings of God, and then through his healing actions affirmed her faith, wisdom, and tenacity. Who else in Scripture goes head-to-head theologically with Jesus and wins?
Esther (Book of Esther): In contrast to Daniel, who resisted foreign culture in exile, Esther was forced to assimilate to her new culture. Subjected to beauty treatments and forced to sleep with a pagan king, the demure Esther followed the instructions of her uncle and waited until the crucial moment to approach her regal husband and make her request. In a culture that marginalized women and considered them powerless, Esther shrewdly used her beauty, wits, and patience to gain the king’s favor, save her people, and defeat her enemies.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Matt 1-2; 12:46-50; 13:53-58; Mark 3:21, 31-35; 6:3-4; Luke 1-2; 8:19-21; John 2:1-12; 6:42; 19:25-27; Acts 1:14; Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4): This thirteen-year-old girl took her life in her hands when she agreed to bear God’s son, since Joseph could have had her stoned to death for being an adulteress. After running for their lives when Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus, she and Joseph settled down to a relatively quiet existence. She watched her son grow up, and when he entered the preaching scene, her quiet life was shattered forever. Although she at first didn’t understand what he was doing and she had to bear the torture of seeing her son die a horrible death, Mary was among the earliest believers of the fledgling church. She led by choosing God’s design for her family — a design that flew in the face of her culture and her own expectations.
Junia (Rom 16:7): Often overlooked, Junia is described (along with Andronicus) as “prominent among the apostles.” The two were relatives of Paul (although the word could simply mean they were fellow Jews) who believed in Christ before he did, and who had been in prison with him. Richard Bauckham makes a credible argument that Junia is the same person as Joanna, the wife of Chuza (Herod’s steward [Luke 8:3, 24:10]; Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels [Eerdmans, 2002], 109-202).) Since Junia was called an apostle, this would indicate that she had seen the risen Christ and had held a significant leadership position within the early church.
Women at the Empty Tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18): Although the details vary, all four Gospels report that women were the first witnesses at the empty tomb and the first preachers of the risen Christ. In my favorite version, Matt 28:1-10, the big, tough Roman soldiers ironically fainted at the sight of the angel, while the weak women eagerly spoke to the angel and met the risen Christ before boldly reporting everything to the disciples.
Scripture regularly testifies to the ways women provided leadership in God’s kingdom. We need to regularly preach these stories (and others) to remind our congregations that the most important qualification for leading God’s people is not a Y-chromosome, but a faithful heart.