Biblical women are not often in a position to exert their power or influence, as they are often considered mere property, but there are several instances when they do either directly or indirectly exert their power and affect a situation’s outcome. Some women show their power by simply keeping their faith or by mothering a powerful son while others show their power by leading armies or assassinating the enemies of their people. Because women were considered the property of their fathers or husbands, they were expected to act in prescribed ways.
The expected precision of behavior leaves ample room for women’s rebellion in seemingly insignificant and trivial of ways at times. Other women seem to have held power in the political or military realm and stood on roughly equal footing with their male counterparts. There are even four female prophets in the Bible, a position appointed by God and respected by the Israelites, so it was not impossible for women to attain, inherit, or be assigned power, but it was much more common for men to fill the traditional positions of power.
Sarah was infertile, and Abraham was told by God that he would father a great nation, so Sarah gave Abraham her servant, Hagar, to mother his children. The giving of Hagar to Abraham shows Sarah’s use of direct power in an attempt to fulfill God’s prophecy. Sarah also listened at the tent flap while Abraham received the announcement that she would bear a son. If we assume this sort of eavesdropping was a regular behavior of Sarah’s, it seems likely that she asserted a certain level of indirect power by staying informed about all the happenings in their camp.
When she mothered Isaac, Sarah helped begin the lineage that Jews and Christians would trace their ancestry through, and thus their relation to Abraham. This sort of indirect power through advancing God’s plans appears in many of the stories of important mothers in the Bible. Hagar left the camp on her own free when Sarah’s treatment of her became too harsh. This shows that, though she did not have much in the way of direct power, she assert what power she did have, by simply leaving even though it was likely that she would die in the wilderness.
Hagar returned to the camp when an angel informed her of God’s plan for her to have an important son. When she mothers Ishmael, she becomes the mother of a nation and advances God’s plans through indirect power. Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through Ishmael. Rebekah is another example of a biblical woman that exhibits both direct power through her actions and indirect power through mothering an important son. When she first appears in Genesis 24, Rebekah is extremely hospitable to Abraham’s servant that she meets at the well.
Perhaps she was so hospitable because she observed that the servant must belong to a wealthy master in which case her generosity may have been merely a ploy to gain his favor and perhaps some of his wealth — a display of indirect power. Rebekah shows direct power by offering so much to the servant without first consulting a man. She offers a place for the servant to sleep and to feed his camels. That is a lot for a girl to offer without first having it approved by her father or husband. After her and Isaac are married, Rebekah gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.
When her sons are grown, she helps to advance God’s will, told to her while she was pregnant, that the first born twin will serve the younger. She uses indirect power when she tricks Isaac into blessing the younger Jacob as his successor, rather than Isaac’s intended Esau. Bathsheba mothered Solomon, making her another indirectly powerful woman through advancing God’s plans and rearing a future king, but she also asserted power in more direct ways. Though she was married to Uriah, she got King David’s attention while bathing on her roof. It is likely that she positioned herself strategically in an effort to seduce the king and gain power.
She became David’s queen, so if it was an attempt to seduce the king it was successful. After David had her husband Uriah killed in battle, Bathsheba became a prominent figure at court and maintained considerable influence. She used her influence directly by getting David to name Solomon his successor as king rather than Adonijah. When Solomon was old but still commanded the throne, she used her power directly to install her son as the new king, thus ensuring her survival, but after Adonijah made a play for the throne by asking to marry Abishag, David’s concubine, she acted sneakily and sed indirect power to manipulate Solomon into having Adonijah killed. Mothers of important men often have more to their stories than just mothering important men, and they are often portrayed as fairly complex characters. In addition to providing the men that would make history, many of these women use indirect power tactics like manipulation of traditional feminine roles to sneakily have their plans set in action as well as more direct methods like appealing to important men or even to God.
The four female prophets in the Bible have varying degrees of power and influence, but generally command more direct power than other women because of their elevated religious position. Miriam, Moses’ older sister and the first female prophet in the bible, may have been the same sister that watched over Moses’ basket and protected him while he floated down the Nile – directly protecting his life. During the Exodus from Egypt, though, she is punished by God when she attempts to assert direct power in a bid to share Moses’ leadership position.
Their brother Aaron also attempted to share the leadership role, but wasn’t punished for his actions showing the relative inequality of the genders in biblical times. The second female prophet, Hulda, was consulted about the legitimacy of a law book found by King Josiah’s men while rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. The fact that the king would consult her shows how much power and influence Hulda must have held. She was given the power of deciding directly whether or not the book they had found was legitimate.
Her acceptance of the book gave Josiah the confidence to enact it as law – she indirectly enacted the law through the king. Deborah may have been the most directly powerful of the female prophets. She led men in battle and became the first and only female judge. After she routed Sisera’s troops in battle, he fled on foot and another woman that exerts both manipulation and direct power enters the story. Jael is not an Israelite, but she takes power into her own hands – maybe in an attempt to curry favor with the Israelites who had just won an important battle.
Sisera fled to the tent of Jael, she let him in, made him feel comfortable and safe, lulled him to sleep, and then killed him by driving a tent stake through his head. Both of the women in this story exhibit direct power where they can, it is just that Deborah’s arena is much more all-encompassing than Jael’s. In the Bible, women are limited by their society in what they can and can’t do, so many of them become inventive and come up with methods to get their way through trickery or manipulation.
Sometimes this is depicted as negative trait and women are demonized and labeled treacherous or untrustworthy, but in several instances, it is their trickery itself that saves the entire community or allows the religion and culture of their people to be passed down for one more generation. The important mothers and female prophets recorded in the Bible are more-often-than-not multidimensional, complex characters whose roles help shape the history of their people.
The fact that they operate within a system that places a heavy burden of tradition and prescribed gender roles on them often forces them in to situations that would not work out in their favor if it were not for manipulation or trickery. This sort of behavior is bred out of the culture, not the other way around, so later interpretations that condemn women for treachery do not see the entire picture of the historical power structure and perpetuate subordinate gender roles, in turn perpetuating the need for feminine wile and manipulation.