Finding Good Role Models for Girls in the Bible

A post by Peter Kirk over on Speaker of Truth, titled Deborah and a woman from Bethlehem, and some interesting comments made there suggests to me some more writing about my favorite topic: the SHARING stage of Bible study. (For an outline of my method, see The Participatory Study Method. Some of the foundation for this is contained in my essay Interpreting Stories.)

The difficulty I address in my main essay on interpreting stories is the fact that the Bible writers do not present only heroes, and do not gloss over the weakness of their characters. In modern storytelling we tend to prefer clear villains and heroes, and I find that most of the time when Christians recommend a book or a movie, that is one of the characteristics. We like to have people in our stories that fit in well with either “I’d like to be just like him/her” or “I hope he/she gets it in the end!”

But that’s precisely what the Bible doesn’t give us. Often we take our lead in retelling Bible stories from Hebrews 11, and make them all into heroes in retelling their stories. But we should consider the goal of the author of Hebrews before we decide that this is the one and only, or even the best, way of retelling these stories. His point here is to focus totally on faithfulness. No matter what has happend, no matter what the weaknesses, the one key is to remain faithful to God throughout. And in that characteristic, all of the heroes mentioned in Hebrews 11 are truly heroes. But if you look at their broader stories as told in scripture, they come out as very human, with weaknesses and failings. In fact, they make very suitable examples.

This leads me to a key point: Heroes can be destructive as well as challenging. The Proverbs 31 woman is a good example. There are some women out there who are encouraged by the way in which their role is honored in that passage. Others live in misery because they can’t live up to what they see as the Biblical standard on a daily basis. Jesus is an excellent and challenging example to us, but I find myself relating to Peter a lot better sometimes. Jesus may have been tested in all ways as I have been, but it was “without sin.” Jesus walked on the water; Peter took a plunge; I’m more like Peter! Now don’t get me wrong here. I believe in asking “what would Jesus do?” on a regular basis. But I also believe that there’s a reason Peter is in the Bible. When I try to walk on water and find myself in an unplanned deep sea dive instead, I can look back and say, “Peter was a leader amongst the disciples, and he had bad days too!”

So role models don’t always have to be heroes in the sense that we use that term in modern times. As far as I can see, the Bible never whitewashes its lead characters. We can learn both from their good decisions and from their bad. The most important thing to note is that just because a Bible character does something, even if that character is a good person, does not mean that we should do likewise.

Now let’s connect this to the simple issue of role models for girls. Anyone who can count can tell that there are less overt examples of female role models in the Bible than there are male. Because of that we tend to look carefully for the few really good role models that there are, and this can lead us to whitewash certain people even more. Some would say that the scarcity of female role models in scripture simply indicates that women are to be less active. But I would simply ask if everything that was common behavior in Bible times should be regarded as normative. There are many things we do not follow as norms today, including the fairly common occurrence of plural marriage, arranged marriages, forbidding marriage between Jews and gentiles, absolute monarchy, and on and on. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s a model for now.

In addition, there are hints that more may be going on behind the scenes. For example, we have Huldah the prophetess who suddenly pops up in 2 Kings 22:14. Why would a group of leaders go to her with a question if she hadn’t already been exercising the prophetic office? So here we have an indication that women may have a public role, though in the patriarchal society their role was limited in scope.

“But,” says some reader, “You still leave us with few role models for women!” And you are right. Now, I’m going to get to my point. The scriptural basis for this is found in Psalm 78, which I regard as an excellent charter document for religious education:

1(A Wisdom Song by Asaph)
Open your ears to my instruction
Turn your ears toward the the words I speak.
2I will open my mouth in a teaching song.
I will speak hard sayings from ancient times.
3Words which we have heard and known,
and our ancestors have told us.
4We will not hide them from their children,
speaking YHWH’s praises to a later generation,
His strength, and the wonderful things he has done.
5And he raised a testimony in Jacob,
and set instruction in Israel,
Which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children.
6So that the later generation might know,
The children to be born would rise up,
and teach them to their children.
7That they might set their hope in God,
And might not forget his mighty deeds,
But might observe his commands. — Psalm 78:1-7 (TFBV)

Grab your favorite “easy reading” Bible version and read the whole chapter. The story of God’s activities has not stopped. We are responsible to pass that story from generation to generation and in turn, “put our trust in God” which itself will add to the story, just as the Psalmist is adding to the story through some of the incidents he relates.

So my suggestion is to start your search for role models in the Biblical stories, but don’t stop there. My first set of sources is actually in the apocrypha. How about Susanna or Judith? Again, you need to read all stories with due consideration for the weaknesses of any human example. But even more than this, you need to continue through Christian history and into the present, telling the stories of faith.

When I first returned to the church after my 12 years of “wilderness wandering” after graduate school, and started teaching, I was looking for this type of story. I found that the idea of telling our own stories about how God has worked in our lives was a bit foreign to the congregation of which I was a member. Stories of faith were about people in the Bible, and maybe on good days about people a few generations back, but never about today.

So I got on the phone with my mother. Why? Because my mother told us stories of faith in her own life. Lots of stories of faith. When I wondered whether God could or would work in our lives, I wasn’t merely, pointed to the red sea or Elijah on Mt. Carmel or the resurrection, though my parents believed and taught those stories. I was referred to things in our own present life. So I asked my mother to write them down so I could use some as examples. She did, and the result was the booklet Directed Paths, stories of her life as a missionary nurse along with my father, who was a missionary doctor. As I write this my father is in intensive care after surgery, though the prognosis is good. He’s 85 years old, and as my mother and I talked before the surgery, all we could say was that if this was God’s time to take him, we knew that he had run a good race. I can say the same thing of my mother. But the key thing here is that she told me about God’s work in her life. Because she testified, she can serve as a role-model of faith.

Now I publish the booklet I mentioned above, and I won’t deny that I’d love for you to buy and read it, but that isn’t the point of bringing it up. What you need to do is look at your own life, and the lives of your parents and other family members, discover those stories of God’s working, and tell them. Do what my mother did and make yourself a part of the ongoing story of God, in a sense part of the Bible story. You can find sources in the Bible, in the history of the church and communities of faith, and finally in the history of your own family. This is sharing and becoming a part of the story. If you don’t share it, you can’t be part of it. You’ll find that there are more and more stories of people that girls can use as role models as time moves forward.

Of course, then there’s the hard part:

11But they conquered him by means of the blood of the lamb,
and by means of the testimony they spoke,
And they did not love their lives even up to death. Revelation 12:11 (TFBV)

We commonly quote the first two lines, but the last one is a bit harder. Getting to be a part of the story can involve hardship and can even involve death. My mother’s story includes a time of running for our lives in the middle of the night, and a time when I nearly died as a child due to circumstances involved in her ministry. I know of missionaries overseas and here at home who have lost more. But there are plenty of stories to work with.

Become a part of the story!

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  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Good post, Henry. Practical and biblical. I think sometimes we try to develop too large a scheme and try to fit women (and other people) into categories that we believe the Bible teaches for them. Surely sometimes it is better to get into the stories of real people, with their gifts and faults, and discover that we are so much like them. We can *choose* to follow God’s desires for our lives as real, ordinary people, just like so many of the people in the Bible. I would be glad for our three daughters to continue to make good choices to follow God’s way like Hannah, Deborah, Rahab, Ruth, and many others. I wish we could quit arguing theology and, instead, encourage daily choices to do things God’s way. It seems to me that that is a good message and presents good role models for both women and men.

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