Notable for Their Absence. Marilyn A. Hudson, 'Those Pesky Verses of Paul'


It does not take long for someone engaged in research to quickly note that in the scores of volumes written to comment, illustrate, explain, or defend Christian thought, there is a an absence.  Through the pages of many of these noble tomes women are often totally missing.  Sections of scripture focusing on a woman are often not explored, frequently ignored, and cultural biases are interjected into translations and exegesis.
It becomes clear that the same issues, biases, and presuppositions already explored continue into the way the Church has often interpreted and applied scriptures.
 Seeking to note the types of commentary on Biblical women such as Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna, and the unnamed women of 1 Corinthians 11, would be informative as to how influences on popular doctrine and theology.  What was found revealed that these commentaries often exhibited extreme biases, sexism, and disregard of anything related to women. In examining these works, and tracing their theological pedigrees, common roots may be uncovered.  In that discovery may also come a curative to error.

Miriam (Exodus 15)
Miriam was the stated sister of Aaron, and the presumed sister of Moses, (v.20) and many legends have spun around her: she was the sister who watched the baby Moses, she was the one who went to find the boy’s mother, and as some recent (and questionable)  theories claim, she was a priestess in Egypt. 
            This is an academic discussion that, unfortunately, has found its way into the writings of some religious leaders who wish to limit women's leadership or have some other agenda. Some writers have suggested that the dancing led by Miriam was a "rebellion" or "revolt" and that it displayed elements of the worship of the Egyptian Goddess and her son Horus. Those who hold a loose understanding of scriptural inspiration will likely accept this as a possibility. Those who view scripture as more divinely directed, inspired, or preserved will not. The truth, as is so often the case, may rest somewhere in the middle.
            The problem is in reading back into an ancient text what is believed by some people today and thinking the same beliefs prevailed then. Divine truth does not change - Human social constructions do and frequently. The perceived limitations of woman are often read into a text by people with an agenda of limitation or restriction. A situation with one individual is then used to blanket all other individuals and limit their participation.
            If it is believed that early Hebrews did not have women leaders and prophets, then the evidence that they did serve in religious roles is twisted or ignored. If the current view is that women cannot be in those roles they must have always been excluded.

            There is no good, logical, or factual reason to suppose that ancient woman did not fully participate in worship and rituals of the God of Abraham. Indeed a close reading of several portions of Genesis, Exodus, and other early writings show women doing just that. Even into the histories of Samuel, Kings, and the prophetic book of Isaiah reveal the presence of women. Some, just like their male counterparts, are good and some are sinful. They are, however, clearly there. It is only later, as commentators and preachers from a culture of limitation and exclusion began to formalize those views, that women were truly excluded.
            Was Miriam a false prophet? The scriptures clearly show that she was used of God, she responded as a prophet, interacted with God as a prophet, and was recognized for that authority with respect. She is later the only woman prophet to be named outside the story that introduced her originally and when so named by Micah it is an honorific coupling her with both Moses and Aaron.
            If Moses was the Deliverer ( a type of the Christ-Messiah), Aaron was the First Priest, than most clearly Miriam must assume the role of the First Prophet. Moses demonstrated the beauty of a close relationship with God, Aaron's line became the means to keep the people close to God, and Miriam the first of a long line of prophets who would call to repentance, recall the words of the Lord, and encourage the people to live as a people of the one God
What is clear is that she is labeled as “prophet” and subsequent references to her affirm that she was a prophet in the same manner as her male counterparts. Micah 6 includes her in a listing of the major prophetic leaders in Israel revealing that to ancient Judaism she was venerated as a spiritual guide.

Beacon Bible Commentary, vol. 1. Kansas City, Missouri, 1969, pg. 223f.  Largely associated with the Church of the Nazarene, BBC was a select resource for numerous people with holiness backgrounds. It notes Miriam was the first woman prophet.  It further reflects the cultural biases of an earlier time in holiness groups in assuring readers that this dance, rather than a spontaneous peon of righteous praise and joy, was instead a “stately and solemn dance.”

Calvin, John and Charles William Bingham.  Calvin’s Commentaries.  Baker, 1984, vol. 2, pg. 262.  “…although Moses honors his sister by the title of “prophetess,”  Calvin stresses Miriam does not say that “she assumed to herself the office of public teaching, but only that she was a leader and the directress of others in praising God.”

Guthrie, Donald and J.A.,Motyer, ed.  The New Bible Commentary, revised. Eerdmans,  1970, pg. 129.  Based on the Revised Standard Version, and originally published in 1953 in Britain by Inter Varsity Fellowship.   Although, Miriam is acknowledged as a prophetess, there is ample assurance that she was a leader of women and that here she lead them in a “solemn but spontaneous dance of joy.”

The Interpreter’s Bible. Volume 1. Abingdon, 1952, pg. 945.  In this version of the well known work, the rationale for Miriam being called a prophetess is simply that she leads women in a victory song and dance. When given the opportunity to discuss her role (the function and implication of a woman as a prophet), the editors chose to discuss the weighty question of whether or not she had been a full or step sister to Moses.

The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 1.    Peabody, Massachusetts, 1979, pg. 213-214.  The fact of Miriam as prophet is minimized to be succumbed into a simple spontaneous chorus.  The text of the praise reveals inspired, spontaneous and outstanding poetic quality. The women’s sacred dance was, however, minimized because while it was impressive, the real “genius” was the chorus lead by Moses in the preceding chapter.

Deborah (Judges 4)

In a time labeled as one highlighted by lawlessness and rebellion against God, Deborah is revealed as a woman who was a wise and spiritual leader for the people.  Her status was clear; when she sent for Barack he came from his far northern abode to her location. Her summons was obviously not one to ignore. She was a prophet, by one of the standard definitions of the term and was a judge who settled disputes, dispensed justice, and oversaw communal life where she served.
            Deborah was a prophet and judge in the Ephraim hill country of ancient Israel, between Ramah and Bethel. Israel was living in a tense time under the oppression of a Canaanite named Sisera for some twenty years. Judges 4:3 says the people "cried unto the Lord". She is presented in Judges as prophetically directing a battle to drive out opposing Canaanite forces. Note several things about this Judges story:
            1) She was accessible. Deborah sat beneath a palm tree and people sought her out for her guidance and decisions. This may have been a landmark since it is believed such palms were rare in the land in the time period under discussion. It may have developed as a rest stop, a place of meeting and commerce. It was probably an accessible place for travelers to find and inquire of the prophet.
            2) She was respected. She sent for Barack. For many years I had read that and heard it stated without understanding the significance. Barack was not nearby but was in Kedesh in Nephtali, at the far northern reach of Israel. This, coupled with the fact Barek calls on soldiers from other regions, indicates Deborah was a "major judge" rather than a minor one (as found in Judges 10) whose sphere of influence was limited.
            3) She was administrative. Barack came when bidden by Deborah indicating her stature and the respect of the people for the prophet and Judge. Prophets were seen as the link between the world of God and the world of Humans and judges were the keepers of the law, the records, and the administrative tasks of the same. They also served a military leaders. Deborah was, as a major judge in Israel, a ''commander-in-chief" of the military.

            4) She was spiritual. A capable woman of many talents to lead, plan, supervise, direct, and adjure, Deborah was also the spiritual link between God and the people. She was blessed by God to see what would happen, to know that the victory was theirs, and that the outcome would be in a specific manner. The "Song of Deborah" is a song poem thought to be one of the oldest writings of ancient Israel celebrating the victory given by God.

            God sent Hornets into the land is a phrase from this time frame. In three O.T. passages there are references to strange ‘hornets’ sent into the land to prepare the way for the Children of Moses to proceed into their promised land. It is assumed that anything ranging from a plague of hornets to a military tactic was used. There is, however, another possibility. The Hornets might have been guerrilla warriors sent into disable and terrify the populace. Since there is mention of clean food and water maybe they used some form of artifice to convince the population that leprosy or some other problem had emerged and they must flee.
            Now, fast forward to the Judges where a woman known as “Deborah” sat at the tree of judgment serving as prophet and judge of the people. Why did she become a Judge? How was she a leader, aside from her role as a prophet? Her name has been interpreted as “Bee”….and the root words, according to some sources, for Bee and Hornet appear to be related. It has been suggested that such a group of women warriors did exist as an honor guard before the wilderness tabernacle. Did they also serve in other ways as well? Had she achieved her place of respect and honor because she had been a small Hornet…a bee…a woman warrior used to helping drive the occupants from the land?
            When Deborah called the soldier to her from his mountain home...his readiness to come and his eagerness for her to come with him....make incredible and sudden sense. She had been a warrior, she knew the way of the soldier and the tactics employed, and had great experience in battle. Coupled with her prophetic skills, this experienced warrior woman would have been greatly respected, honored, and followed. No wonder she rose to the position of a Judge in the land...and no wonder the land had peace for forty years.....

Guthrie, Donald and J.A.,Motyer, ed.  The New Bible Commentary, revised. Eerdmans, 1970,p. 261.  Here Deborah is swamped,  buried beneath  pointless discussions of the nature and role of the oasis where she sat, the flooding patterns of the area, and just about everyone else other than the prophet herself.  Discussions of the terms “a mother in Israel” as a possible title, the nature of her judgments, the authority of her role, the non limitations of her gender, and her gifting as a prophet are never discussed.  We do learn, however, that Jael had the mallet and tent peg nearby because “pitching the tent was a woman’s work.”

Huldah (2 Kings 22 & 2 Chronicles 34)

Huldah was a prophet whose area of work was in a space near the temple where probable instruction and ministry took place.  She had lived and worked there for many years, perhaps even staying in place as guardian, during the Diaspora.  She was one of a larger group of prophets who guided and inspired the spiritual life of Israel: the prophetic books of the Old Testament do not reflect all the active prophets in Israel. 

            A combination of history, culture, and male domination have buried Huldah over the decades. The gate area where it is thought that she could be found as a prophet-in-residence of the temple mount area were probably known as the "first" or "old gates" indicating their antiquity.
            At some point, just when is unclear, but perhaps at the time after the prophets, the tradition of calling these the "Huldah Gates" settled into culture. When the Ottoman Empire took over Jerusalem, they built a mosque and in the process they closed off, bricked up, and totally hide most of the old, first or Huldah gates. In essence they were hidden.
            She resided in an area adjacent to the temple, in a western section called the "Second Quarter" which in some older translations is called "the college." It may be inferred that she was one of the group that had been found to be true to God since the king had spent several years ridding the land of pagan priests, temples, groves, and idols. She, along with Hilkiah the High Priest, and unnamed others, can be considered to have passed the test as King Josiah cleansed the land.
            Some scholars understand that the prophets had areas where they worked: some roamed, some were rural, and some were city. Some, like Huldah, were part of the daily working of the temple. People would have come to her to do as King Josiah ordered his ambassadors to do and "Go, inquire of the Lord for me." (2 Chron. 34.21).
            Male biases about the role of women further eroded her presence from the pages of scripture and scholarly books and thus from church sermons. Many men made the decision that women could not be prophets, leaders, or teachers and thus blinded themselves to the examples shown through out scriptures of women doing just those things! Jesus recognized this trait when he talked about those who "had ears to hear" or "eyes to see".

Barker, Kenneth, ed. The NIV study Bible. Grand Rapid, Zondervan, 1995. See pg. 560 in reference to 2 Kings 22.  The note on 22.14 reads bluntly 'why the delegation sought out Huldah rather than Jeremiah or Zephaniah is not known. Perhaps it was merely a matter of her accessibility in Jerusalem."  That she may have been a exactly what she is represented as, a well respected prophet of Israel, is apparently not a consideration.

Cogan, Mordechai and Hayim Tadmor. The Anchor Bible. II Kings, volume 11.  Doubleday, 1988, pg.283.  This work provides a good overview of the need to rationalize Huldah’s validity as a prophet: she has mention because she was related to the Major Prophets, her husband was related to someone more important, and other similar rationalizations to explain why this woman would be a valued prophet.

Hastings, James, ed. The Speakers Bible. Vol. 11, Baker, 1971.  Seeking to find additional insights into the story of the prophet Huldah, it was surprising to find that the work did not even address the event in Chronicles 2.

Guthrie, Donald and J.A.,Motyer, ed.  The New Bible Commentary, revised. Eerdmans, 1970, pg. 365. The authors note “scholars are inclined to accept this as an accurate record, for it is extraordinary to have a woman speak for Yahweh.”  Given the heritage of Miriam, Deborah, and others why was it extraordinary unless the writers of the commentary had come to the work with their own biases?

Anna (Luke 2)

Despite a belief among many at the time and by many of the commentators that prophecy ended with the last of the ‘major prophets’, it is clear that in the interim between the writings of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament that prophecy remained.  Once again it is the non-exclusive understanding of the work of a prophet that can be identified in this portion of scripture. 
            When the infant Jesus was brought to the Temple to fulfill the obligations of the Mosaic law, he was acknowledged by two prophets. One was an old man who came to the Temple. The other was an old widow who lived at the Temple.
            What can this scene communicate to us? Anna is role model for any man or woman of God. She lived at the Temple and devoted herself to a life of prayer and fasting. She constantly sought the face of God. Her prophecy would have been given to any and to all who came to the Temple fulfilling the numerous rituals of the Jewish faith. How many words of encouragement did she share?   
            How many warnings did she give? How many tiny fires of hope did she fan to stronger life? How many small grief’s and fleeting joys did she witness over the years? How many nights did she cry out to God on behalf of some soul in distress, on behalf of some national threat, or on behalf of some person's deep grief?
            Are we living at the Temple? Are we giving our self constantly to a life of intercession? Are we listening for the voice of God? Are we bearing one another's burdens, loving each other as Christ commanded, or strengthening up the feeble hands all around us?  Look to Anna, the prophet, who lived at the place where God and Creation commune.

Clarke, Adam. The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Volume 1. Abingdon, n.d., pg. 375-376.  Clarke reveals his limited understanding of the role of the prophet in Jewish society when he concludes that Anna was not a prophet, since she could not foretell events. She was instead a “holy woman” capable of instructing others and those others, however, he limits to women.  Although noting the text says she did not leave the temple area (v. 37) Clarke asserts “it is probable she went from house to house, testifying the grace of God” based on verse 38.

Guthrie, Donald and J.A. Motyer, ed.  The New Bible Commentary, revised. Eerdmans, 1970, pg.895.  Anna, as representative of the prophetic office and woman as prophet in the span between the testaments, is los.  In sparse comments the only remarks are meaningless queries as to how to count the years of her widowhood and if she left the temple or not.

Peter’s Mother-in-Law (Mark 1.29)

            In this brief scene of Jesus’ healing of the mother-in-law of Peter, Jesus reveals several important things that say much about his attitudes.  Chief among them is the fact that women were important to him and worthy of being healed. 

The Anchor Bible. Matthew. Volume 26. Doubleday, 1971.  The healing of Peter’s mother is merely lumped with other general “healings” (pg. 93).

Guthrie, Donald and J.A.,Motyer, ed.  The New Bible Commentary, revised. Eerdmans, 1970, pg. 856. Peter is the focus of the discussion up to the moment it becomes clear that the woman was healed enough to “serve them.”  Once she was restored to this role there is a loss of interest.

Jamieson, Faucett, and Brown. A Commentary, critical, experimental, and practical in the Old and New Testaments. Eerdmans, 1948.  Regarding Matt 8 (pg. 53) little  serious treatment but  there was a great concern over if the healing was of a “little fever” or a “big fever.”

Tasker, R.V.G. The Gospel according to St. Matthew.  Eerdmans, 1981.   Despite the fact that in the healing of Peter’s mother Jesus breaks social and religious rules of touching a woman and values her enough to heal her, the only thing the commentator can say is the section is “interesting.”  The source of this interest is because of the evidence Peter had a house (pg. 89).

Unnamed Women (1 Corinthians 11)

Barrett, C.K. First Epistle to the Corinthians. Harper & Row, 1968.  While saying woman is downtrodden in Christianity, the author continues by saying woman “was brought forth from man, and was intended from the beginning.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W.  Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Eerdmans 1985.  Simply notes the word “Gyne” and stresses that Judaism viewed women as “greedy, inquisitive, vain, and frivolous” (pg. 135).

Carter, Charles W. 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. Wesleyan Bible Commentary. Eerdmans, 1965.  “The superior position of man due to the face that he was first created…in the image of God…the highest of all creatures.  Woman was…made from man, and is thus subservient to him…”(pg. 189).  Then goes on to do some fancy footwork with Paul to affirm there really was no domination in Christianity.

Dods, Marcus. Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 1. Eerdmans, n.d.  Laconically writes the section of scripture is “not interesting for anything said” (pg. 140-141).

Elwell, Walter A.  Encyclopedia of the Bible. Baker, 1988.  The order of creation and Eve’s sin and the subordination of woman “are universal principles rather than cultural norms” and as such are not open to interpretation (pg. 2158).

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. Romans-Galatians. Zondervan, 1976.  In reference to the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, notes that although God created Adam and Eve and gave them dominion, Paul’s argument is based solely on ‘man’s prior creation.’  Yet, “lest he be misunderstood”…Paul argues that man and woman are equal in the Lord and mutually dependent (pg. 255b).

Findlay, G.G. The Expositor’s Greek New Testament.  Eerdmans, n.d.  In reference to 1 Cor. 11.7-16, the interpretation  places “man as the direct reflexion (sic) of God, woman as derived and auxiliary.” In comments on verse 7 later, however, he contradicts this saying she is not his reflection but rather his “counterpart.”

Genesuis, William, et al. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford, 1955.   The authors focus interpretation on a selection of what can be called controlling or power based words: “rule, dominion, realm.”  The choices made in which words to emphasis and are notable revealing an application of the concept of dominion, ‘rule of heavenly bodies” as in Gen. 1.16, to other texts (pg. 606).

Guthrie, Donald and J.A.,Motyer, ed.  The New Bible Commentary, revised. Eerdmans, 1970, pg. 1066. The discussion is focused solely on the issue of veiling.  Women are acknowledged to “pray” but the “prophesying” phrase is totally absent. The section examined is rife with sweeping assumptions of the meaning and interpretation by 1st century society of being unveiled. Phrases such as “a woman’s hair is distinctly longer than a man’s” is blatantly biases and illogical. It is totally without recognition of the cultural context of that statement. Why is woman’s hair longer? Does a man’s hair simply stop growing above his ears? No, this is a reflection of the cultural bias and assumptions of the writers of the commentary. It is also clear preference for the mistranslation of v.16 (and the changing of “no such custom” to read “no other custom.”  There is little logic in holding  to the inference that Paul was teaching there is a commonly held belief among the churches on the subject, when instead it says there is none.

The Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. X. Abingdon, 1953. This section notes the author’s assertion of a probable rabbinic source as an explanation for the emphasis on the male focused creation.  The author then later contradicts this idea in v. 11 (pg. 125-126).

Metz, Donald S. 1 Corinthians. Beacon Bible Commentary, volume 8. Beacon Hill Press, 1968.  Metz argues ‘man and woman are equal’ though for ‘administrative purposes the woman is subordinate to the man.’   This is followed, rather contradictorily, by “so all the ranks and all levels disappear in His grace and service’ (pg. 416).  Woman, when all is said and done, was created a servile helpmeet to the man, who was created in “the image of God” (pg. 415).

Nelson’s expository dictionary of the Old Testament.  Nelson, 1980.   Again a preoccupation with the power words for interpretation: “To rule, reign or have dominion” as the sun and moon in Genesis 1.18, 3,16; 24.2 (pg. 341).

Parker, Joseph. Preaching through the Bible. Baker, 1971. In reference to 1 Cor. 11.14 and the discussion of women and the church the comments are succinct. They can also be rather insulting if a woman is the one reading the commentary. “The apostle is speaking about a subject” we are informed, “…of no interest to us…”  He does underscore that the principle, one can assume subordination and being dominated, “is of perpetual value and application” (pg. 261).

Spence and Ezell. Pulpit Commentary, vol. 19. Eerdmans, 1978.  Again, the argument includes a presentation of the now well used heresy that woman was the image of man: “woman is not directly the glory of God…she is the glory of the man directly…man is the sun, woman the moon” (pg. 378).

Wilson, William. Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies. McClean, Virginia: McDonald Pub., n. d.  The author focuses solely on defining limitation for women and not mutuality.  Instead of collaborating in the gospel task by sharing the work, there is emphasis by the commentator on the familiar power based words:  “to rule, to have dominion” (pg. 363).

Because of this minimalist tendency, woman’s role in scripture has been obscured and three distinct ideological camps become immediately apparent.  Their theological descendents have formed influences which are still in play in modern Christian culture in the west.
There is the clear anti-woman view espoused by such early writers as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine and ratified by later writers such as Calvin and his theological descendents.  Some, in the manner of the slave owners in the American south seek to rationalize their views by promoting an awkward “separate-but-equal” view.  Others however, call for the recognition of women as unrestricted fellow workers in Christian service.


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