Women’s stories

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are three of my favorite stories of women in this land in antiquity – and a few stories from this year.

Tamar, a Canaanite woman, married the eldest son of Judah, son of Jacob. Judah’s firstborn was evil, so he died; Judah married his daughter-in-law off to his second son, who was also evil, so he died. Then Judah sent Tamar off to live in her father’s house until the third son was old enough to marry. After a while, Tamar figured out that Judah was not, in fact, going to carry through on his promise—no way was he going to risk his last living son with a man killer like Tamar. Here’s what she did:

In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,’ she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the road side, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you,’ for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. (Gen. 38:12-19 NRSV)

It was Tamar’s right to bear a son to carry on the name of her first husband (see, for instance, Deut. 25:5-6). When she realizes Judah is withholding her right, she takes matters into her own hands and tricks her father-in-law into impregnating her. Thinking ahead, she gets his signet, cord, and staff, the ancient equivalent of Judah’s identity card; when she is found to be pregnant, a dangerous condition for a widow living in her father’s house (when Judah found out, he said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned’ – Gen. 38:24), she uses Judah’s own signet, cord, and staff against him. He realizes that her dubious actions are less dubious than his own, and her sons become his heirs. Tamar did not have many options in her situation. She capitalized on the marginal position of women in society at the time to accomplish her goal, turning Judah’s rather abominable view of women (if she’s by the roadside, she must be a prostitute) to her own advantage.

Jumping ahead to the first century, a woman named Mary invited a traveling rabbi into her home:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)

Interpretations of this story often get bogged down in distinguishing “Marys” from “Marthas,” in emphasizing the value of spiritual discipline over busy-work, or in attempting to reassure women (always women!) that it’s okay to do housework. We miss some important things when we focus in on the “Mary vs. Martha” issue, though. For starters, Martha welcomes Jesus into her own home. In a time when women did not have many legal, economic, or social rights, Martha is the head of a household (which includes her brother in John 11). Moreover, Martha welcomes Jesus. This is an important word in Luke and Acts. It doesn’t mean simply offering the traditional hospitality. It means receiving Jesus and his message, something that’s just been emphasized in Luke 10:5-11 (cf. Luke 19:6, Acts 17:7). And finally, Martha is not “distracted by her many tasks”—a translation that calls up images of Martha with ten arms, cooking and chopping and kneading dough and sweeping and serving tea all at the same time. Rather, she is busy with “great service” (διακονία, diakonia). And this is precisely what Jesus’ disciples are supposed to be busy with—the service of his ministry, preaching and teaching and working on behalf of the church (Acts 1:17, 6:6, 12:25, etc.). Certainly “service” and its verbal form, “to serve,” can refer to serving guests, preparing food, etc. (cf. Luke 4:39, 12:37, 17:8). But for Luke, serving food is a metaphor for the service of ministry (note Luke 22:26-27). Martha is doing precisely what she should be doing as a disciple and minister. The distinction between Martha, engaged in active ministry on behalf of Jesus, and Mary, sitting (like a male disciple) at the rabbi’s feet, is not the value or importance of their work but the timing: while Jesus is present, learning from the Lord is more important than ministering on behalf of the Lord. Martha is simply ahead of the time.

A few centuries later, a rich Roman named Paula was inspired by the preaching of Jerome to pack up and move to Palestine. She left behind a crowd of her own children, wailing on the pier while she sailed away, and she made a new home in the Holy Land: “This is my rest, because the Lord is my country; here I will dwell, because the Saviour has chosen it” (according to Jerome’s flowery telling of her story in The Pilgrimage of the Holy Paula). Now, Jerome did not hold a particularly high view of women. And yet he valued Paula as a friend and fellow scholar, and praised her for her devotion to Christ. A number of his commentaries cite Paula as an important influence. In the caves of Jerome under the Church of the Nativity and St. Catherine’s Church in Bethlehem (where, according to tradition, he translated the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin), Paula is commemorated as well – she was an essential part of this work.

We mostly hear of Paula through Jerome’s writings, but she and her daughter Eustochium also left behind a letter written to encourage other women to go on pilgrimage. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from this letter:

It would be a long task to mention, year by year, from the ascension of our Lord to the present day, how many bishops, how many martyrs, how many people eloquent in ecclesiastical learning, have come to Jerusalem, thinking themselves to be lacking in religion and in learning, and not to have received, as the saying is, a full handful of virtues, unless they had adored Christ in those very places from which the Gospel first shone forth from the Cross… Why should we suppose that anyone can reach the highest pitch of devotion without the help of our Athens? Yet we do not say this because we deny that the kingdom of God is within us, or that there are holy people in other regions also, but because what we especially assert is this, that those who are the foremost men of the whole earth all alike flock hither together (Letter of Paula and Eustochium 1).

There are so many places of prayer in the city itself, that one day cannot suffice for visiting them all. However, come to the village of Christ and in the inn of Mary (for everyone praises most that which he possesses), by what words, with what voice, can we describe to you the grotto of the Saviour? That manger, too, wherein the babe wailed, is better honoured by silence than by imperfect speech… Behold, in this little nook of the earth the Founder of the heavens was born; here He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, beheld by the shepherds, shown by the star, adored by the wise men (Letter of Paula and Eustochium 4).

And then, accompanied by Christ, when we have returned [from visiting other holy sites] to our grotto… we will sing constantly, we will often weep, we will pray without ceasing, and, wounded by the dart of our Saviour, we will repeat together, ‘I have found him whom my soul sought for. I will hold him fast and will not let him go’ (Letter of Paula and Eustochium 8).

Paula was not just a supporter of Jerome’s work, but a theologian in her own right. She understood the potential critique of an emphasis on the physical space of the Holy Land, and responds with a coherent argument in support of pilgrimage. She has a way with words: “in this little nook of the earth the Founder of the heavens was born.” And she lived out her theological understanding in her life of devotion.

And on to women today. Here are a few brief examples of the lives of women in the West Bank in 2014:

  • My local fruit-and-vegetable shop is owned by a husband and wife who take turns tending the shop. When the woman is in charge, she is joined by several other women who spend their time carving out the insides of squash (a necessary step in making one of my favorite Palestinian dishes, kousa, which is squash stuffed with rice and meat). For hours and hours. My hands get tired just watching them.
  • A high school girl in my neighborhood is pregnant. When her parents found out, they pulled her out of school immediately. The next day, she was engaged to the father of the baby, and they were married within a week.
  • The mayor of Bethlehem is a woman (the first woman to be elected mayor here). Before running for office, she was a lecturer and dean at Bethlehem University, and she’s active in advancing gender studies and women’s equality in Palestine and the Arab world. She also, incidentally, has five children.
  • My upstairs neighbor attends mass at the local Catholic church every single day (except Sunday). Some days mass is in the early morning, and some days in the early evening; she is there morning or evening, even though she works all day in the laundry at one of the hotels in town.

During last week’s lecture on the history of feminism in America, one of the students asked how I see the differences between women’s position in America and here, in the West Bank. I found the question quite difficult to answer, because of the wide variety of women’s experiences in both countries. Of course there are major differences in the social positions of women, particularly developing from differences in family structure and the place of the family in society; there are also similarities (and similar patterns of difference within each country, between big cities and rural areas, between well-educated women and uneducated women). There are certainly statistical differences in professions, salaries, legal rights, and gender rights. The stories of individual women in antiquity and today put a human face on some of those statistics—the ways women can use a male-dominated structure to their own advantage, the ways women can be powerful and influential within male-dominated societies, the ways women continue to suffer from male-dominated expectations and traditions.


St. Jerome. The Pilgrimage of the Holy Paula. Aubrey Stewart, trans. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1887.

The Letter of Paula and Eustochium to Marcella, About the Holy Places. Aubrey Stewart, trans. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1889.

One comment on “Women’s stories

  1. […] women’s history month by reading about women in antiquity and today: “Women’s Stories” by Caryn […]

Comments are closed.