Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series
For All Have Sinned: Learning from Bad Women in the Bible
In our series on women and men in the biblical world, scholars have explored the biblical discussion of male violence, gender roles in ancient households, and the obscured social power of women in Israelite and Roman cultures, to name a few. Most of these have highlighted the overlooked influences of women and men in antiquity. All of these essays have shown a special sensitivity to the power and wisdom that women exerted in shaping Israel as a nation and in the early church—from farm to palace. But not all women in Scripture are noble, mistreated, or the picture of wisdom. There were bad women in the Bible. This essay is not about the actual lives of Israelites, but how some women were portrayed as behaving wickedly in the Bible.1Thanks to Erin Heim and Matthew Lynch for helping me think more carefully about how to say this, though they might disagree with some of my cold takes here.
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Let’s be honest, no one wanted to write this particular essay. Who wants to be the person who outlines the problematic women on full display in the biblical narratives? Doltish men dot the biblical texts, often looking as dumb as sitcom dads. But upon closer inspection, the men in the Bible are not bumbling idiots; their wicked behaviors stem from perverse incentives, deep fears, and warped desires. Notably, they engage their social and political powers to effect their dirty deeds. And so too do some women.
I will sketch how some biblical authors portray these women who lie to loved ones, murderously cheat, sexually exploit the men around them, or otherwise skew justice and eschew humility. In doing so, I’ll try to paint the most extreme picture of these women for the sake of the argument, even at the risk of oversimplifying, to see how they stack up against the worst of male behaviors. After surveying these problematic women—specifically in their roles as wife, mother, and lover—I’ll address another question that emerges: Despite these examples, why did the men who wrote the Bible (as far as we suspect) tend to eulogize women much more frequently than their male counterparts?
Bad Women in the Bible, Women Behaving Badly: Beginning with Eve
The thread of female misbehavior starts early in Scripture. Genesis 3 spares no words identifying the problem in Eden. The woman “takes,” “eats,” and “gives to her husband” (Gen 3:6). God enters the Garden, looks for the man, and eventually singles out the man for indictment: “For you listened to the voice of your wife and ate” (Gen 3:17). His wife was, of course, listening to the voice of the serpent, but the man was apparently standing there the whole time. That cannot be good.
If Genesis left it alone, we’d most likely blame the man for the problem in Eden, just as God did (Gen 3:17). However, Genesis keeps retelling the Garden error with new generations using the same language and setup. And each time, it’s a woman who guides a man to error, like a horse to water. When Sarai is barren, she remedies the situation by treating her servant Hagar like a piece of fruit from the knowledge tree: “Sarai took Hagar . . . and gave her to her husband” (Gen 16:3). Abram, like the man in the Garden, “listened to the voice of Sarai” (Gen 16:2). Whether or not Sarai’s act is culturally justified, the Edenic thread has continued.
So, too, Rebekah deceives her dying husband for the sake of her favored son. What does she do? She “takes” stews and clothes and “gives” them to Jacob, compelling him to lie with that deadly catchphrase, “Now, my son, listen to my voice” (Gen 27:8). Even Jacob the liar has doubts about this plan (Gen 27:11–12).
This deathbed deception scene repeats in 1 Kings 1, this time with Nathan and Bathsheba. Apparently attempting to secure his own place in the coming kingdom, a conniving Nathan compels Bathsheba to convince a dying David that he had promised the throne to her favored child, Solomon. This promise never appeared in the pages of 1–2 Samuel, so this is news to the reader. Then Nathan plans to tell David the same thing, making it look like two independent requests to install Bathsheba’s son over David’s other children. Both are complicit in the manipulation—and given its mirroring of Rebekah and Isaac, it’s difficult not to interpret it as precisely that. Nathan hatches the scheme, but Bathsheba manipulates her dying husband on behalf of her favored son (and most likely for her own safety).
When we isolate these instances of women compelling others to do something shady or immoral, it certainly paints them in a bad light. But the biblical authors aren’t depicting these instances because women as women are shady or immoral. Rather, they are doing so because women are humans. As John Calvin sympathetically noted five centuries ago in his biblical commentary on Genesis, these examples display women trying to force God’s promises to come true. And so we might even read them as well-intentioned but misguided attempts to turn divine promises into reality.
After all, God did promise children to Sarai. It didn’t seem to be happening through her body, so she employs a culturally appropriate solution to barrenness: surrogacy. Her mistreatment of Hagar—using her voice to persuade Abraham to exile them—doesn’t help her case to be counted among the righteous. God also promises Rebekah that her older son would serve the younger, so she tries to make this happen by deceiving her blind and dying husband.
No matter how we might attempt to soften the blow, the narrators keep portraying women performing acts that the narrative consequences reveal to be “no bueno.” These women use their social and political power as matriarchs to accomplish their own agendas, which inject problems into already turbulent storylines.
Beyond family conflict, the famous women of Scripture cause sexual strife that shocks most casual readers. When Lot tries to throw his virgin daughters to a sexually ravenous mob at Sodom, we are rightly horrified. When Lot’s daughters later get him drunk and sexually assault him two nights in a row, we don’t even know what to think anymore. Even given the desperate situation of believing humanity to be on the verge of extinction, their pact to drug Lot in order to force sex for procreation suggests malfeasance.
Jacob’s wives start a sexual competition for the sake of procreative success, using their servants in times of barrenness, just as their grandmother-in-law once did. Rachel even prostitutes her husband to her sister and Jacob complies (Gen 30). When God kills Tamar’s husband and Judah shirks his promise to give her children through his next son in line, Tamar pretends to be a prostitute and beds Judah in order to procreate (Gen 38). Potiphar’s wife makes sexual advances on Joseph “day by day” and yet Joseph is the first man to refuse a woman’s voice in Genesis. “[Joseph] would not listen to her” and reasons with language reminiscent of Eden, “My master . . . has given everything that he has into my hand . . . except you” (Gen 39:8–10). Potiphar’s wife then strips Joseph naked and falsely accuses him of sexual assault.
Though we often think of the sexual transgressions of men in Scripture, there are also bad women in the Bible who use their social and political power to force other women and men into sex and procreation—even if we want to contextualize their actions with their desperation.
Not only are some bad women in the Bible complicit in sexual assault, but some also commit murder. These women embody the opposite of the biblical concept of justice. As I already noted above, Sarah essentially instructs Abraham to settle her household dispute by leaving Hagar and Ishmael for dead (Gen 21). Sisera’s mother waits by the lattice, but not for his safe return from battle. Rather, she lusts for the embroidered spoils of her son’s exploits at the cost of Hebrew lives. His mother also hopes that her son’s soldiers can sexually assault more than one woman each: “A womb or two for every man” (Judg 5:30). Jezebel orders the murders of God’s prophets and arranges the murder of Naboth in order to steal his property (1 Kgs 21). In the New Testament, we once again see a woman—Herodias—using her political power to force the murder of John the Baptist (Matt 14; Mark 6).
What is wicked is not just that these women killed, since the biblical authors sometimes portray killing as the right thing in the right hands. (For instance, Jael is celebrated for her act of killing in Judges 5.) Rather, these wicked women murdered for their own agendas. They murdered people who were vulnerable with respect to them, people with less social and political capital.
The Weight of Evidence
Other women could be mentioned (e.g., Job’s wife), but the point has been made. The biblical authors weren’t afraid to portray the worst kinds of behaviors, including those of women.
By highlighting this negative thread, I’m aware that it might be easy (maybe even lazy) to conclude that the biblical authors are attempting to fault women for undoing the otherwise good men in their spheres of influence. However, that’s not the tack the texts take.
Some of these women are in dire straits with a promise from God in hand. Or, we might just as easily read these stories as critiquing the men’s complicity with wicked suggestions. God hunts for and charges the man in the Eden for listening to a voice other than God’s. God confronts Abram directly and makes him finish what he allowed to start by exiling Hagar and Ishmael, even though God would later rescue them both.
In all of these stories, it’s not that the women are problematic because they are women. As Carol Myers, Lynn Cohick, and Cynthia Shafer-Elliott explained in their essays, women in these cultures had power to influence matters toward their own ends, whether for good or evil. Crucially, the biblical authors portray the same problematic behaviors in the men alongside these problematic women.
Abram offers his wife’s body sexually and became wealthy because of it—twice! Lot offers his daughters’ bodies to be sexually assaulted. Jacob is complicit in the dysfunctions of his wives, never once raising his voice against their sexual bargaining. He is later prepared to barter away his only daughter after she had been raped by someone with more regional power. Judah both throws his daughter-in-law to the wolves, so to speak, and sleeps with prostitutes—one of whom turns out to be his daughter-in-law. Joseph foists a mock execution scenario—a common torture tactic today—on his brothers in retribution for their complicity in his enslavement.
The fact that women are committing wicked crimes is surprising only if we take a “boys will be boys” approach to the problematic men in these texts! Yet, the biblical authors hold men and women to the same standard, calling upon everyone to establish justice in the land. The kind of justice required by God and imagined in the Torah and Gospels is an “all hands on deck” effort.
The Bible doesn’t portray women as uniquely bad. In Proverbs, the adultery-driven “strange woman,” whose house leads down to Sheol, is not contrasted with a cool-headed man. Rather, this woman is contrasted with the authoritative and even lurid personification of Lady Wisdom, who also calls out for the young man’s affections. Proverbs’ portrayal of a “personified women . . . diptych” that contrasts the dangers of male folly with its wise antidote makes the point clear.2Carol A. Newsom, “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1–9,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 2000), 156. The critique that spans the Bible is a critique of all humans. It aims at people exploiting and mistreating plants (Deut 20:19), animals (Exod 23:4), and other humans, especially the vulnerable among them (Exod 22:21–24). As is still true today, woman and men with a modicum of power are equally capable of such horrors, and equally culpable before God. But they’re also capable of establishing justice together.
In the end, the weight of the “biblical data” leads us to a more difficult matter, which is currently unreconciled for me: Why are the women overwhelmingly portrayed as wise, just, and generally forces for good compared to the men around them? The anonymized “worthless men” dot the pages of Judges, Samuels, and Kings, complicit in wicked schemes, while the named men often fly off into deleterious and rash decision-making (e.g., Jephthah, Saul, David, etc., but also Moses!). In these same texts, Abigail, the “wise woman of Tekoa,” and the “wise woman of Abel” glide in to solve problems the men have created. Mary is the first to “treasure up” and comprehend the mission of Jesus, coaxing others to heed his authority. Women fund and engage Jesus’ teaching, and often seem to understand it better than his own disciples do.
Even more perplexing, when considering the presumed male authorship of the biblical texts, why would men across centuries consistently depict the men of their stories as the despicable, the worthless, and the dolts and the women as judging Israel according to the Torah (e.g., Deborah) and personifying the ideal of wisdom itself? Likewise, the male authors of the Gospels put xenophobic and uncomprehending disciples around Jesus while foreign women seem to grasp the mystery of the kingdom of God. If a gendered preference for positive portrayals exists in the biblical literature, it’s for women, even if it’s written by men, and that should figure into any discussion of gender in the biblical world.
1. Thanks to Erin Heim and Matthew Lynch for helping me think more carefully about how to say this, though they might disagree with some of my cold takes here.
2. Carol A. Newsom, “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1–9,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 2000), 156.
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