Whole Story Resources: Women in the pentateuch (Part 1)

May 3, 2016 // Articles+Guides

I. Introduction

We don’t have to read far into the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) to realize something big: women are in there.

Why is that such a big deal?
In ancient times, women were not usually included in the major historical writings of battles, political strategy, or accounts of leaders rising to power. In the few times they are mentioned in typical ancient writings, they are almost never featured as the hero. Leaders, kings, and their historical scribes had one goal: make the man leading the kingdom look like…well, the man.

Here are some examples of what scribes were responsible to include while writing history for a certain king or nation, put in very simple terms:

  • Make sure the nation’s history reveals the ability to handle everything independently. Domestic armies should look intimidating; mention allies only when absolutely necessary.
  • Make sure a leader’s rise to power looks something like “pulling himself up by his bootstraps,” i.e., no aid or help needed. Whether through charm, cunning, or character (or a mix of all three!), ensure that his story depicts a man who got to the top on his own.
  • Make sure the leader’s every decision looks wise and effective.
  • Include all the battles he won, and if he couldn’t win a certain battle, make the ending of that story very vague or simply don’t include it.
  • Make his conquests—geographical, political, and romantic—the envy of every other king or nation, even if you must exaggerate a few things.
  • By and large mention of women as any type of help was scarce.

I could go on, but you get the drift. Histories are always written with some sort of agenda to make a leader (or nation) appear respectable, admirable, and even fearsome.

Considering these literary norms of ancient times, the women-stories recorded in the Pentateuch are a true anomaly, and communicate a great deal about God’s view of women. Some scholars cannot believe these accounts even made it into the Bible!

II. SO WHO IS THE PENTATEUCH WOMAN? WHAT IS SHE LIKE?

While we’d anticipate her to be sketched in the story as obscure, voiceless, fearful, incompetent, naïve, or perhaps even oblivious, we find someone much more unexpected.

The Pentateuch woman is a bold, clever, aware, principled, resourceful, and candid character with a surprisingly strong backbone. Whenever she makes an appearance, she’s not hiding out in the shadows; she’s often integral to the story, and sometimes saving the day (even when it risks her own life)!

A strong, woman-savior in the Old Testament? Not exactly what one would expect in an ancient, patriarchal society! This is what sets the Bible apart from other ancient writings pertaining to women.

So let’s get into the specifics. How do we know these things are true of the Pentateuch woman?

Since we don’t have time to explore every single woman who makes an appearance in the Pentateuch, we will explore two biblical areas. We will start in Genesis where we see her role revealed, and then look at a real-life story of this role in Exodus where we can really watch her shine.

(You may be wondering at this point: But what about the offensive stories about women in the Old Testament? What about all the laws that seem to alienate or demean women? Great questions. See Part II.)

III. THE ROLE OF WOMEN REVEALED

We get the general roles for women through our representative Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. Two phrases should jump out you as you read through both these chapters: “Helper” (Gen 2:18; pre-fall) and “Mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20; post-fall).

 “Helper”

 Genesis 2:18 has been the source of much debate and frustration for both men and women in Christian history. A common issue in modern times is the very connotation of the word itself. Twenty-first century America hears the phrase “I’ll make a helper fit for him” and certain images come to mind. Perhaps one of these images resonate with you:

“Not Mommy’s Little Helper”

Sometimes we hear the word “helper” and we picture a little girl helping mom in the kitchen. While the child is cute, she’s not necessary to completing the task of getting dinner on the table. She does her best, but everyone knows she’s making more of a mess for the real adult to clean up later. The adults laugh and find her adorable, but they know her dinner contribution isn’t actually significant.

Any modern woman who reads “helper” with that mental picture would be understandably frustrated. No sane woman wants her contributions to be seen as adorably unnecessary—a mess that has to be cleaned up later by her husband.

“ Not Subservient Slave”

Other times women read the word “helper” and they hear “subservient slave.” They assume the Bible is somehow directing wives toward abusive marital relationships and they shut their Bible altogether, never making it past the first book!

Here’s the great news. The writer of Genesis is not a 21st century American writing with the verbal connotations we use everyday. We must remember that the word “helper” was written by an ancient Hebrew author before the English language was invented. Translations of ancient words don’t always carry the robust meaning they should. The truth is, “helper” is the closest word we can find to represent what the author is trying to say in his native language. In fact, the original Hebrew connotations that surround this word are far from weak or slavish!

 We’ve covered what the word doesn’t mean; so what does “helper” mean?

The original word in the Hebrew text is ezer (pronounced ay-zer). This word can be found all over the Bible and is used to describe women, men, and most importantly, God himself.

Ezer means urgent aid, necessary help, and in the Old Testament it is introduced during dire, war-like circumstances. God uses this word for himself to show Israel he is our strong fighter, the warrior on our side, the reinforcement sent our way when we would perish otherwise. When Israel is about to lose in battle and God shows up to save them, the historical writers use the word ezer for God’s mighty intervention.

This word also fortifies something. It’s a buttress, a pillar, a needed strengthener of something weak.

Think of it this way.

  • Your hair is brittle and you buy some fortifying protein to keep it from breaking off. After a couple weeks, your hair isn’t falling out anymore! That bottle is your hair’s ezer.
  • You are seriously low in your bank account and you’re not getting paid for another week. You sulk to the mailbox to find a random reimbursement check at just the right time! That check is your financial ezer.
  • You’re about to get fired for something that wasn’t your fault at work. Your coworker, the only witness to your innocence and hard work, steps into your boss’ office to clarify what really happened. Your boss then apologizes to you and even gives you a raise. That coworker is your ezer!

As you can see, an ezer-helper shows up at just the right time and fortifies, nourishes, advocates, saves the day, even.

In other words, a biblical helper is no child making a mess in the kitchen. Any ancient Hebrew reading this verse would instead have a mental picture of a mighty intervener in times of battle or a strong support during years of trouble, not a subservient slave.

In summary, God himself is an ezer, and bestows on Eve the honor of reflecting that part of his nature!

If you’d like to continue this article you can download the full PDF here: Women in the Pentateuch

Written by Ashley Marivittori Gorman, Author and TSI contributor.