“The mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way,” (Dei Verbum, 15). Tied up in this mystery is the mystery of the feminine genius, which John Paul II lauded in myriad ways and on multiple occasions.
The Old Testament Scriptures offer fascinating insights into God’s gradual restoration of womanhood through the cooperation of a number of memorable women. The precise nature of this cooperation is both wholly human and distinctly feminine; their stories in Scripture mark these women as those who lead us closer to the full meaning of womanhood.
Hannah (1 Samuel 1–2)
We meet Hannah at a particularly trying time of her life. Married and unable to bear children, she is shamed and ridiculed for her barrenness. Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, often likes to “provoke her sorely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1:6). Hannah feels cursed by God and mourns her predicament deeply. During a pilgrimage to the temple at Shiloh, Peninnah’s harassment becomes too much for Hannah. Weeping and refusing to eat, she goes to the temple to pray before the Lord.
Pouring out her heart and soul, she makes a vow: “O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give to thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” (1:11).
When she finishes praying, Hannah is no longer sad. Soon afterward, Hannah and her husband conceive Samuel. When the child is old enough to be weaned, Hannah fulfills her vow and takes Samuel to the temple, delivering him to the temple priest, Eli. Samuel goes on to become a great prophet and the last judge of Israel, ushering in the centralization of power among the tribes under a monarchy.
Deborah and Jael (Judges 4–5)
Deborah is a woman of extraordinary influence. In the first place, she is a prophetess — one “supernaturally enlightened” to interpret and announce God’s will for Israel, teach the Old Law, and guide the people away from iniquity in preparation for the coming Messiah. On top of this, she has the distinction of being a judge: a deliverer of the Chosen People from God’s enemies. As a judge, she delivers the tribes of Israel from decades of Canaanite oppression, directing her general, Barak, on the strategy for victory. Deborah’s influence is so powerful that Barak refuses to carry out God’s will unless she is present, as if she is a visible sign — much like the ark — of divine favor. This dependency on the woman who “arose as a mother in Israel” (5:7) leads Deborah to prophesy that victory over Israel’s enemy will be at the hands of a woman.
That woman turns out to be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. The Canaanite general, Sisera, stumbles into her tent while fleeing from his army’s crushing defeat. Her allegiances are unknown. At first, it appears that she is a Canaanite sympathizer; she feeds and shelters Sisera, offering him rest. Only after she drives a tent spike through his temple and delivers the body into the hands of Barak do we discover that Jael is an agent of God. She is remembered as the “most blessed of women” because “she crushed his head” (5:24, 26).
Ruth (Book of Ruth)
Ruth is a Moabite, of a people forbidden to “enter the assembly of the Lord for ever,” according to Mosaic law (Deut. 23:3). Despite her nationality, she finds herself married to the younger son of a Jewish family who emigrates to Moab after famine strikes Judea.
Ten years of an ordinary life with her husband, her mother-in-law, Naomi, and her brother-in-law and his Moabite wife, Orpha, pass before both of Naomi’s sons die. Naomi, hearing that Judea has food again, decides to return to the land of her people. Knowing the hardship that awaits her daughters-in-law, as both Moabites and widows, if they traveled with her, she tells them to return to their mothers’ houses, where they will be cared for and be able to find new husbands. Orpha eventually accepts Naomi’s wisdom and returns home. Ruth, on the other hand, decides to leave the comfort of her native home, her people, and the faith of the Moabites to stay with Naomi and journey toward a new home, with a new people and a new religion. Not even the possibility of death will deter her from doing this (1:17).
Because of her decision, Ruth brings joy and peace back into Naomi’s life. And unknown to her, Ruth’s choice leads her to become the great-grandmother of King David and to foreshadow the inclusion of Gentiles in Christ’s salvific mission.
Esther (Book of Esther)
In Persia, a beautiful young Hebrew woman named Hadassah finds herself forced into bondage as a potential member of the harem of King Xerxes. Advised by her uncle to keep her Jewish heritage a secret, she goes by the Persian name Esther.
When Xerxes decides to choose a new queen from among the women of the harem, Esther rivets his attention: “The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen” (2:17). When Esther’s uncle disrupts a plot to assassinate the king and incurs the wrath of the king’s enemy against all Jews, he begs Esther to intercede on behalf of her people.
Despite fearing the potential death sentence of approaching the king without first being summoned by him, Esther chooses to become an instrument of deliverance for her people. After fasting and praying for three days and nights, she approaches the king. She exposes the king’s true enemies and earns for her people a chance to defend themselves against an impending attack.
Judith (Book of Judith)
Judith is a wealthy, respected widow living a quiet life of fasting and prayer when the people of Israel receive the news that the Assyrian king and his general, Holofernes, are laying waste to every nation that refuses to serve the king, and that Holofernes is at Judea’s doorstep. Known as a beauty, Judith is also considered “prudent of heart, discerning in judgment, and quite virtuous. . . . No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion” (8:7–8). When her people begin to give in to fear of Holofernes and, losing faith in God, plan to surrender to the enemy, Judith employs her virtuous and prudent temperament to rouse her kinsmen from sin:
Who are you, that have put God to the test this day, and are setting yourselves up in the place of God among the sons of men? You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test — but you will never know anything! You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart, nor find out what a man is thinking; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? . . . Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like man, to be threatened, nor like a human being, to be won over by pleading. Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him. . . . In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test as he did our forefathers. . . . The Lord scourges those who draw near to him, in order to admonish them. (8:12–14, 16–17, 25, 27)
These are not empty words; Judith also has a plan. After prostrating herself in prayer and asking God to reveal His glory and might through the work of her hands, Judith infiltrates Holofernes’s camp by pretending to be a defector. With her beauty and her promise to hand over vital information that the general can use to crush the Hebrews, she charms everyone in the enemy camp. She is allowed to eat her own food, avoiding anything unclean according to the law, and is given permission to wander outside the encampment to pray.
Judith maintains this routine for days, lulling Holofernes and the soldiers into trusting her. It is not long before Holofernes desires to possess Judith. Inviting her into his tent, he asks Judith to drink with him. She accepts, for the first time, and Holofernes is so pleased at this development that he gets drunk.
Alone, with the general in a stupor, Judith decapitates Holofernes with his own sword. Concealing the head in a bag, she brings it back to her people with instructions to display the head on the parapet wall and prepare to march into battle. Without their leader, the Assyrian army attempts to flee but instead is decimated by the Hebrews.
Susanna (Daniel 13)
Susanna is beautiful, well versed in Mosaic law, and married to a wealthy and influential elder. Two other elders who frequently work with Susanna’s husband become infatuated with Susanna, spying on her during her daily walks through her husband’s garden. Upon discovering each other’s desire for the same woman, they conspire to force themselves on Susanna. They find an opportunity one day when she decides to bathe alone in the garden pool.
Approaching Susanna, the wicked elders leave her with an impossible decision to make: “Give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you” (vv. 20–21). Knowing that either choice will lead to a death sentence, Susanna decides to retain her integrity before God and refuses the elders’ advances. She is brought before the elders for judgment; the wicked elders’ testimony and their social status ensure a judgment of death for Susanna.
Susanna never addresses the elders and others who gathered for her judgment. Her defense is made only to God: “O eternal God, who discern what is secret, who are aware of all things before they come to be, you know that these men have borne false witness against me. And now I am to die! Yet I have done none of the things that they have wickedly invented against me!” (see vv. 42–43).
God hears her and sends the young prophet Daniel to prove her innocence in the eyes of men. He does; and the wicked elders are put to death, Susanna’s blamelessness is celebrated, and “all the assembly shouted loudly and blessed God” (v. 60).
image: Florence, Statue of Judith and Holofernes (Donatello) via kahramank / Shutterstock.com