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Women, Wisdom, and the Bible: Hannah, Ruth and Jael
There are many women from the Bible who are depicted as being wise. Defined by proverbs, and personified as female, wisdom is mature, sensible, and full of truth and knowledge; wisdom is strong, understanding and follows justice. Deborah and the women of Tekoa and Abel epitomised strength, justice and maturity. Judith demonstrated knowledge and righteousness. Hannah exemplified faith, insight and sound judgement. However, wisdom is not solely the property of the Ancient Israelite in the Old Testament. Foreigners like Jael and Ruth also demonstrated wisdom by claiming the laws of Israel.
Through Hannah we see an example of a childless woman who, through her dedication to Yahweh, gives birth to not just one, but eventually six children all together. Unlike most other childless women of her era, Hannah takes the initiative to change her situation (Bellis 141). Where Abraham and Issac interceded on their wives’ behalf, Hannah’s husband Elkanah is not particularly concerned about her lack of children. It is Hannah who does not feel complete without a child, and she takes it upon herself to pray for children. This action by itself seems to demonstrate insight and intelligence. She does not wait for the man to intercede, like Judith she takes action. In her prayer she dedicates her son to Yahweh, and in fact remains true to the promise. Once Samuel is weaned she takes him to the Shiloh temple. Instead of keeping her one and only son, Hannah wisely goes through with her promise, and not only helps to found a monarchy, but is rewarded with more children. Her intelligence, insight, and pious dedication to Yahweh make Hannah one of the younger examples of wisdom. Other more youthful women who exhibit traits of wisdom, such as Jael and Ruth, also fall into another category of strange or foreign.
The Foreign Women
Jael was a Kenite, and not of the Hebrew people. She is frequently praised and condemned. Many regard her “as deceitful, a coward, and an assassin” (Bellis 120), especially in the light of hospitality laws, yet one must remember the power Sisera wielded. Joanna Van Wijk-Bos characterises her as courageous to “invite a known rapist into her tent … and using what she has, and what she knows … she kills him” (Van Wijk-Bos 70-71). This hints at her inventiveness and quick thinking – two characteristics of a highly intelligent person. Dana Fewell sees Jael as “a woman caught in the middle. The Israelites have obviously won … and they are unlikely to take kindly to a family that has allied itself with the enemy" (Fewell 69). Whether or not we see Jael as cowardly or deceitful does not erase the fact that she was wise enough to judge the situation and make a beneficial decision. Opportunity gave her a way to protect herself and her family, and she seized it.
Ruth, yet another popular, foreign character in the Old Testament partakes of opportunity in the Hebraic world. Because of her dedication to Naomi Ruth would benefit from the levirate laws. While there is a certain amount of self-sacrifice on Ruth’s part, her relationship with Naomi can also be seen as a contractual agreement. Ruth “obligates herself contractually to work and care for Naomi in exchange for the benefits attached to adopting a new social identity in Bethlehem” (Mathews 222). Ruth probably realises that her best course of action in ancient patriarchal society is to remain with Naomi who upon returning to her home will be given certain rights and protections. As Naomi’s kin, Ruth would be accorded the same. While Ruth’s words “Wherever you go I will go; wherever you live I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God” (Vs. 16), are probably due to genuine affection, she is also claiming kinship, and all benefits that may accompany that kinship. Why Ruth did not want to return home to her own family and kin is not elaborated upon by the author. Perhaps because of her marriage to a foreigner her family would be less than receptive to her return. Whatever the full story of Ruth’s decision, it seems to be based on reason more than devotion to Naomi, and therefore Ruth’s decision was made in a wise and logical manner.
- Woman as Wisdom in Proverbs, Sirach, and Baruch
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The importance with which the ancient Israelites regarded wisdom cannot be understated. The concept of wisdom is dealt with time and again in the Old Testament, and is even personified in several texts. That it is personified as female seems ironic in an age of patriarchy. That there are women like Deborah and Huldah listed among the wise when they were often considered property or second class citizens seems conflicted at best. The view and definition of wisdom in Proverbs is certainly idealistic, but can be used as a gage to measure the truly charismatic or memorable figures. While no single character can be said to exhibit all the qualities of wisdom, except of course for Yahweh, wisdom’s separate qualities can apply to many characters to help define their actions, and possible motivations. Wisdom’s tradition would continue into the New Testament where women were accorded more rights and equality through the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Claus Westermann states, “Wisdom ... unites the Old and New Testaments” (Westermann 1), and people. In Luke 7:35 Woman as wisdom still speaks; “But wisdom is justified of all her children”.
1)Bellis, Alice Ogden. 1994. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press.
2)Fewell, Danna Nolan. 1992. “Joshua” and “Judges”. Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe Eds., 63-66, 67-77. Louisville, Kentucky. John Knox Press.
3)Good News Bible.1994. Toronto, Canada. Canadian Bible Society.
4)Holy Bible, King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee, Royal Publishers, Inc., 1968.
5)Mathews, Victor H. 2004.Judges and Ruth. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press.
6)Van Wijk-Bos, Joanna W. H. 1991. Reformed and Feminist: A Challenge to the Church. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press.
7)Westermann, Claus. 1995. Roots of Wisdom. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press.