The Surprising and Often Forgotten Women Leaders in the Old Testament

August 10, 2015 — 2 Comments

Women and their role as leaders within the church has always been a controversial topic. Some Christians land on the side of conservatism and place strong limitations on women’s roles as leaders while other Christians provide women the freedom to lead, teach, and take charge.

The Surprising and Often Forgotten Women Leaders in the Old Testament

Abigail appealing to David in 1 Samuel 25

Today’s post is the beginning of a series of blog posts looking at the topic of women and biblical leadership. This post examines some of my views on women’s roles as leaders in the contemporary church as well as a brief look at women in the Old Testament. 

I.    MY PERSPECTIVE OF WOMEN IN BIBLICAL LEADERSHIP

From my perspective it is good to have women involved in some parts of leadership. Yet, I do not believe a woman serving as senior pastor of an independent non-denominational church is biblically correct. As a result, I think women can be effective leaders and can perform leadership roles in the church, but I am not sure if women should be senior pastors in the church.

With that said, it is important to remind you that I see women as being made in the image of God based on Genesis 1:26-27,

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (New Living Translation).

Being made in the image of God means that women have value to contribute to the world. Therefore, women have value to contribute as leaders, but a part of me struggles to see how a woman in leadership over the church is biblical.

I must admit that I have seen abuse of perspectives of women in biblical leadership in both directions. One abuse is when I heard a Mexican-American man say “women belong pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen.” A very politically incorrect position to take. This view of women is demeaning and derogatory.

Another abuse I have heard about women in biblical leadership has been women who are serving in leadership who consciously admit to “ignoring Scripture” that deal with the role of women in leadership. I have heard women being asked what they think of Paul’s writings about the role of women in the church, to which these women said, “we ignore Paul’s writings.”

Both of these examples are abuses and extremes on the issue. I believe that neither is healthy. Therefore, these series of posts of of women and leadership are my best attempt to provide an accurate representation of Scripture about the topic of women and leadership.

II.   A BRIEF LOOK AT WOMEN IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

A.   The Hebrew Perspective of the Woman in the Old Testament

A brief compilation of some of the important statements about women in the Old Testament.

1.     Women are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).

2.     The “original sin” was first committed by Eve (Gen 3:6).

3.     Women were greatly valued for their ability to bear children (Gen 29:31-30:24).

4.     Women were valued as part of the family to make it a functioning unit.

5.     In addition to bearing children women were also valued to work and keep the family togther.

B.   Scriptures in the Old Testament that Apply Directly to Women

1.     Gen 1:26-27

“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’ So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

2.     Gen 1:21-24

“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. While the man slept, the Lord God took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the opening. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man. ‘At last!’ the man exclaimed. ‘This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh! She will be called “woman,” because she was taken from “man.” ‘ This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.”

3.     Gen 3:15-16

[God said] “And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Then he said to the woman, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”

4.     Gen 4:1-2

“Now Adam had sexual relations with his wife, Eve, and she became pregnant. When she gave birth to Cain, she said, ‘With the Lord’s help, I have produced a man!’ Later she gave birth to his brother and named him Abel. When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground.”

5.     Exod 20:17

“You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”

C.   3 Female Leaders and Their Importance in the Old Testament

1.     Deborah as Israel’s Judge (Judges 4-5)

As a prophet who was judging Israel (yet she was also a “wife” according to Judges 4:4) people regularly came to Deborah for judgement. Deborah was the “only female judge, but her capacity to act in that role is unquestioned, and her leadership of Israel is described in exactly the same terms as that of the male judges. We are told of her expertise in settling disputes (judges 4:5), and the Israelites seem to have had no problem in taking such advice from a woman” (M.J. Evans, “Women,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, 900).

Under God’s direction she led Barak and Jael to defeat Sisera, the Canaanite King (Judges 4:14-24). When the victory became public Deborah sang a victory song about Israel and its defeat of Sisera. Finally, the account in Judges tells that under Deborah’s direction there was peace in the land of Israel for forty years (Judges 5:31).

2.    Esther

Esther possessed a strong position of influence as the Queen to King Xerxes of Persia (Esth 2:17-20). This position of influence provided her with the ability to exert strong influence as a Jewish woman serving in a limited leadership capacity over the nation of Persia. Even though she was not the main leader in charge she exerted strong influence through her actions and deeds. Esther displayed a great example of a leader wrestling with what to do, how to stay safe, how to receive counsel about what to do, and having to summon personal courage in order to do the right thing.

3.    Abigail

Abagail was a “sensible and beautiful woman” (1 Samuel 25:3) who took responsibility to manage, lead, and protect her home when her husband had failed. The story of Abgail is probably more obscure than the other two women above so I’d like to spend a little extra time telling her story to you. 

Abigail’s leadership story is told in 1 Samuel 25 where David is in the middle of the 15 years he spent between the time Samuel anointed him to become king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:11-13) and the time when David finally became king (2 Samuel 2:1-7). At one point in time in David’s 15 years waiting to become king he and his men spent time guarding the sheep and goats for a wealthy man named Nabal (1 Samuel 25:1-2). At sheep shearing time David sent men to Nabal asking for payment in return for David having protected Nabal’s goats and sheep. Nabal refused David’s request and with that altercation David became furious and declared that he was going to kill Nabal and everyone in Nabal’s household.

However, Abigail found out about David’s plan (v. 14), she moved into action taking bread, wine, grain, raisins, and fig cakes to appease David’s anger (vv. 18-19). Chuck Swindoll captures this situation saying, “When Abigail sensed danger, no one had to tell her to move swiftly. Wisdom knows when to slow down and evaluate all angles of a situation, and also when to seize a moment before it slips away. She hurried to put that meal together. She acted swiftly to catch the moment before it was gone” (Chuck Swindoll, Fascinating Stories of Forgotten Lives [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005], 149). When Abigail and David met, Abigail got off her donkey and bowed low before David where she astutely accepted all of the blame for what happened and then she asked for forgiveness from David (vv. 23, 28).

Furthermore, Abigail had the wisdom and vision to see that David would someday be king and that this experience of killing innocent people should not be a blemish on his record (vv. 29-31). Chuck Swindoll again captures this scene accurately, “In effect, she said, ‘David, look ahead! You’re not even thirty! You can afford to return good for evil because you are God’s choice to become the king of Israel. Don’t stain your reputation before you take the throne” (Ibid., 143). As a result of Abigail’s interactions with David he decided not to go and kill Nabal and everyone in Nabal’s household.

Question: What other women in the Old Testament were leaders?

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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  • davewainscott

    great post. Left you a comment on it….so did Q ..on the FPU facebook