Women in the Bible

Explore all the roles of women in the Bible in this special collection from the Biblical Archaeology Society

Who is Eve? Her character has scarcely changed in the millennia since she first appears in religious writings. We know Eve. We’re comfortable with Eve. The deception of Eve forms the basis for what millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe about the beginning of their world.

Ah, but then there’s Lilith: Her character has ranged in literature from that of a screech owl in the desert to the stubborn, independent first wife of Adam, to the friend bonding with Eve—to Adam’s dismay. She has been considered a demon who attacks pregnant women, children, and sleeping men. In fact, Lilith has been some form of devil since her first appearance in Sumerian epic poetry.

Whatever your opinion of her, you almost certainly have overlooked one or more references to her from the 4,000 years she’s appeared in human writing. That’s because there are so many such references—and because some of them are quite arcane.


Photo: Delaware Art Museum

For instance, even in the one Biblical passage in which she appears, Lilith isn’t always named consistently. The King James Bible’s prose rendition of the Isaiah passage translates “the lilith” as “the screech owl,” recalling ominous bird-like qualities of the original Babylonian she-demon. The Revised Standard Version Bible picks up on her nocturnal habits and tags her “the night hag” instead of “the lilith,” while the 1917 Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures calls her “the night-monster.”

What a frightful woman! And yet as times have changed, so have the characterizations of Lilith. In fact, today she is revered in feminist circles for her resistance to Adam’s superiority complex—so much so that there was a major music festival featuring female artists in the ’90s called Lilith Fair that donated its profits to shelters for domestic violence victims and to breast cancer research institutes.

You can trace the evolution of Lilith from the Gilgamesh epic to modern feminist poetry, through every stop along the way, when you read Professor Janet Howe Gaines’s wonderful article, “Lilith: Seductress, Heroine or Murderer?” This remarkable piece of scholarship is one of the highlights of the Biblical Archaeology Society’s Special Collection Women in the Bible.

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From Lilith to Jezebel to Thecla

It’s fascinating how many memorable female characters there are in the Bible—a work that’s almost entirely a product of the male-dominated societies of ancient Israel and the first-century C.E. Roman world.

These women are intriguing, evocative, inspiring, and—at many times—mysterious in the various translations of their character.
For instance, Mary Magdalene, as Professor Jane Schaberg notes in a probing article on this icon of Biblical womanhood, is widely regarded as the whore who repented—proof that even the lowliest can be saved through devotion.

Yet this is a very different picture from the one the Gospels give us. Indeed, in all four Gospels, the Magdalene participates in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, follows him to Jerusalem, mourns at his crucifixion, and, on the first Easter, goes to his tomb and finds it empty.

How did this evolution in our understanding of Mary Magdalene happen? When? Why? These are the questions answered by Professor Schaberg.

Then again, when it comes to a variety of characterizations, few tales offer as many as that of Rachel and Leah, as outlined in “Rachel and Leah: Sibling Tragedy or the Triumph of Piety and Compassion?” by Dr. Samuel Dresner.

In this article, you’ll follow the twists and turns of not just one woman’s life, but of two—including the long-lasting sibling tension inherent in the tale. Here, as in the tales of Lilith and Mary Magdalene, sex has its central role. This is also true of another less well-known woman of the Bible: Thecla.

In a story set millennia after those of Lilith, Rachel, and Leah, the tale of Thecla is about the spiritual odyssey of a woman who passed from paganism to Christian leadership—that is, to preach and to baptize—in defiance of the social expectations of Greco-Roman society.

In order to preach as she wished, Thecla was forced to fight off the advances of many men, survive their harsh attacks of retribution, and cut her hair. She must even contend with the enmity of her own mother.

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What else can you learn from and about the women of the Bible?

Indeed, this Special Collection is filled with conflict, tension, and moral instruction, making it a must-read for any student of the Bible, not just those particularly interested in the Bible’s women.

Image: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, UK/Bridgeman Art Library.

One of the few differences between the beautiful and brave heroines Judith and Esther is that Judith is openly pious and Esther is not. Find out why the Book of Esther was included in the Hebrew Bible while Judith was left out. Or perhaps you’ll be riveted by the women of the Exodus, or by the exemplary marriage of Jezebel, whose name is synonymous in contemporary society with a villainous woman, but who—as you’ll learn in a surprising and revealing article—was actually a steadfast, loyal wife.

Whatever intrigues you about the distaff side of humanity, you’ll find it in this in-depth collection, Women in the Bible.

It might surprise you to learn how much there is to know about women of the Bible, given their rare appearances there. Yet this collection includes all of these remarkable studies from Bible Review:

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