I’m tired. After reading yet another round of blog posts about wives submitting, submitting more, and oh yeah, are you really submitting enough, I’ve just had it, particularly when the hypothetical situation presented in the post has all the hallmarks of being an abusive one. I’m not going to link to the particular post because it’s irrelevant. It’s not an anomalous post. It’s the same post I’ve seen over and over for years with different fictitious names attached to the made-up characters.
Is your husband throwing things and screaming obscenities at you and the toddlers? Submit more, be extra sweet to him, and tell everyone how great he is. That’ll soften his heart and fix him right up. See? I Peter 3 says so, particularly verses 5 and 6 (substitute Eph. 5:22-23 or Colossians 3:18 if you need some other passages to cherry-pick from. I’ve written on Eph. 5 here). If it’s an Abigail situation, you can leave, but right up until he tries to kill you or asks you to do something illegal, the Bible says you have to obey him and win him by your quiet demeanor. Out of the entire compendium of Scripture, I can’t imagine why these verses are the ones that get shoved at heartbroken, terrified women, but that’s a topic for another post (which I am working on).
Anyway, this particular post went with the I Peter passage for its proof text, and verses 5 & 6 caught my eye:
So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you.
A couple years ago I did a fair amount of research on Sarah, which I’ll go over in Part 2 (the cross-reference here is hilarious), but this time around I got to wondering about the “holy women who hoped in God.” Hmmm, what holy women are we talking about? If the Biblical ideal is a gentle, quiet, submissive woman who cheerfully obeys her husband’s every word (or father’s or whatever authority is around) even if she disagrees with it, and if Peter is pointing his readers to their examples here, then there should be examples to follow of women like this all over the Bible, right? Shouldn’t be too hard to find. Let’s take a look at most of the prominent and some of the obscure women of the Old Testament who that are either generally thought of today as good examples or who are referred to in complimentary terms elsewhere in the Bible. Let’s find all the submissive women!
No. Rebekah goes directly against Isaac’s wishes to give Esau the inheritance after the Lord specifically speaks to her while the twins are in the womb and tells her that the elder with serve the younger. God tells her that Jacob is the one, but Isaac wasn’t going with the program. After Rebekah tricks Isaac into giving Jacob the inheritance and gets Jacob out of the county before Esau kills him, not only is she not censured for any of this deception, but she is one of only three people in the Bible mentioned as willing to “take the curse” on themselves for the sake of God’s chosen people. The other two are no less than Paul and Jesus himself (fascinating article about this point here, beginning about halfway down after the Bonhoeffer part). (Genesis 27:1-28:2)
No. Jacob consults her and Leah both on whether to move or not even after God tells him he has to go. Jacob makes no commands, demands, or even requests for them to go with them. He explains the situation, and then his wives mull it over and respond that this is acceptable and coincides with their own reasons for going. The conversation ends with Rachel and Leah telling Jacob, “So do whatever God has told you,” which sounds very much like permission and assent that they will go as well. It’s an excellent example of mutual cooperation, and this is in a situation where God clearly commanded him to go! (Genesis 31:1-16)
HAHAHAHA! No. After her husband dies and his next brother down gets himself all smited up for sleeping with her and then purposely doing the pull-out routine so he doesn’t have to provide her with an heir as was the legal deal at the time (can’t be sharing the inheritance!), Judah (Tamar’s father-in-law) refuses to fulfill his promise to give her his last son so she can bear a child. Choosing the obvious solution to the problem, she dresses up like a prostitute and tricks Judah into sleeping with her without him figuring out it was her.
When she gets pregnant with Judah’s child, he tries to have her executed (by burning!), but she turns the tables on him when she proves the child is his. Not only is she not censured in any way for this, but Judah specifically says that her behavior is more righteous than his. And… not only that, but their son ends up in the line of Christ, and Tamar herself is the first of only three women that Matthew mentions by name in his genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1 (not counting Mary).
Have you ever heard a sermon on Tamar? I haven’t, although now I really want to. I woke up this morning with a whole theory about her story, which at first blush seems like a super weird one to be pointing at and saying, “Yeah, that woman was great!” Anyone else heard a sermon on this Tamar (not the other one, David’s daughter who gets raped by her brother)? (Genesis 38; Matthew 1:3)
No. They disregard royal edict and save bunches of boy babies from slaughter. (Exodus 1:15-22)
Jochebed (Moses’ mother)?
No. She also disregards royal edict and saves baby Moses by sending him down the river in a basket to hide his identity, which is a terrifying option just to consider. (Exodus 2:1-3)
No. She was brave even as a child when she arranged for Moses’ mother to nurse Moses for Pharoah’s daughter after Pharoah’s daughter found baby Moses in a basket among the reeds (Exodus 2). Later she was a Prophetess and a pretty big deal of a woman, leading alongside Moses and Aaron after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Managed to get her own song into the Bible. (Exodus 15; Numbers 12)
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah?
Never heard of them? They were Zelophehad’s five daughters who convinced Moses to give them a portion of their father’s inheritance after he died instead of passing it all on to their uncles. These women are mentioned five times in the Old Testament. (Num. 26:33; 27:1-7; 36:1-12; 1 Chr. 7:15; Josh. 17:1-6)
Don’t know who she is either? Achsah was Caleb’s daughter, who requested an inheritance of land from him. When he agreed, she then asked him for that other part over there with the streams on it too, which he also gave her. (Josh. 15:16-19)
No. Rahab was a hooker from Jericho who become traitor to her own people by protecting the Israelite spies. She manages not only to not get herself killed by either side in the process but saves her entire family as well. She too was a direct ancestor of both King David and Jesus, and Rahab the foreign-born prostitute is number two of the three women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ. (Joshua 2; Matthew 1:5)
Weeeeell, acting on a little plotting advice from her mother-in-law, Ruth secures herself a new husband by snazzing herself up, putting on perfume, and then sneaking over to the threshing floor on threshing party night after Boaz is fed, properly wine-ed up, and asleep, which means she can curl up beside him on his hay bed and ask him to marry her when he startles himself awake. She is the third and last woman to get a nod in Matthew’s genealogy. Did I mention that Rahab was Boaz’s Mom? The guys in that family seem to like strong foreign women who graft themselves into Israel. Interesting that these three women – Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth – are the ones who make it into the genealogy (Ruth 3; Matthew 1:5).
No. Deborah judges Israel faithfully and leads it to success in war. Her reign is followed by 40 years of peace, and she is the only judge with such a strong record. Even though Barak was the general, Deborah called him out when he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing, and Barak even begged her to come along to the battle even though she said his glory would be given over to a woman if she did (see Jael below). Deborah, not Barak, called the army to advance, and Barak took direction from her. Oh! Also, she’s married, and her husband doesn’t really factor in to the story at all. Presumably he doesn’t mind her having the highest position in the land and doing such a bang-up job at it. (Judges 4-5)
Uhhh, super no. She violates her husband’s peace treaty with King Jabor, Isreal’s enemy, by cracking open Jabor’s top general’s head with a tent peg. This earns her a big section written about her exploits in a victory song! (Judges 4:21; 5:24-27)
Barren Hannah prays for and is granted a son (Samuel), whom she brings to Eli the High Priest at age three to lend him to the Lord for the rest of his life. Hannah tells her husband Elkanah what she plans to do (it’s not phrased as a question), and he tells her to do what seems good to her. Like Jacob and Rachel, this passage also comes off as marital cooperation (in both cases with the husband deferring to his wife). (1 Samuel 1-2)
No. Abigail completely disregards her husband Nabal’s wishes to repay David rudely for the good David has done to Nabal’s shepherds, doesn’t have any kind of conversation with Nabal about his behavior or her plans to go directly against his orders (it specifically says she doesn’t tell him what she’s planning to do) but unilaterally decides to go off and take care of the problem herself. Then when she gets to David she doesn’t bother even trying to preserve Nabal’s reputation or speak well of him but chucks him right under the horse’s hooves and tells David that Nabal is worthless and foolish. This all manages to prevent her entire household from getting wiped out and results in her becoming wife to King David after the Lord strikes down Nabal ten days later. (1 Samuel 25)
Heard of her? She was a prophetess of enough renown that when Hilkiah the High Priest finds the Book of the Law, doesn’t even recognize it, and sends it off to King Josiah who has never seen it either, Josiah sends emissaries with the book to the prophetess Huldah to find out what’s the what. None of the men there seem too buzzed by the fact of her authority regarding Scripture including the King, the High Priest, and her husband; and they all take her seriously when the word she sends back to Josiah amounts to “God says you guys are toast.” (II Kings 22:3-20; II Chronicles 34: 8-33)
Ahhh, Esther. After being kidnapped and groomed to extra-beauteousness for an entire year with a whole bunch of other pretty girls, Jewish Esther goes in to the king who thinks she’s the super-fanciest and makes her queen; however, she can only go back into his presence at his request. After discovering that the king is planning to wipe out all the Jews in the entire country, she risks her own life by going in to him anyway and manages to talk him out of genocide. I think Esther is probably the closest to the ideal submissive wife, but that raises the question Why is the supplication method of a teenage, captive, kidnapped girl whose erratic husband threw out the last wife and whom it was illegal for her to go talk to unless her husband invited her now the suggested marital model for free, adult, married women? Weird that she was so submissive!
Esther’s situation would be similar to a young Christian girl getting kidnapped by ISIS and then married off to the unstable head warlord who is plotting to kill off all the Christians in the entire country. Asking your husband to maybe not do that in the most submissive, demure way possible would be absolutely advisable. Doing so any other way and even doing so at all are both likely to end in death. Escape is not an option. Is this in any way similar to a free, adult equal explaining her desires, requests, or complaints to her counterpart (wives are at least ontologically equal, right?)? Is this the model for our Christian spousal relationships? Also, she doesn’t listen to her husband’s authority. She bypasses him entirely and listens to her uncle. (Esther 4:11; 5:1)
The Proverbs 31 woman?
While she is usually held up as the ideal wife, several things about her don’t exactly fit the party line. While she is a capable manager of her home and kind to all, she is also shrewd in business and real estate, and the word translated “virtuous” here is translated as “valiant” or some other word denoting strength all the other times it is used in the Bible except for twice in Proverbs when referring to women and once in Ruth where it is often translated “excellent” (I’ve written about this here). Nowhere does it imply that her capabilities are subject to or dependent upon either her father or her husband. It does, however, say that her husband prospers because of her.
So, what example is Peter trying to get across to the women he’s writing to by pointing them to the holy women of former times? Is it unilateral obedience in all circumstances? I don’t think so. None of those women had a clear “Yes, sir” relationship with authority in which they operated solely as an obedient subordinate.
Some of them went directly against their civic rulers (Esther, Moses’ mother, the Israelite midwives, Rahab), some against their husbands or other males in their household (Abigail, Rebekah, Tamar, Jael), some of them were rulers or in authority themselves (Deborah, Huldah), some operated on a cooperative give-and-take with their husbands (Rachel, Hannah, Sarah), and some just waltzed up and boldly explained what they wanted or needed (Zelophehad’s daughters, Achsah, Ruth). You could argue for many of them that the times they act counter to what they’ve been told is when they are directly asked to sin, but I think that overlooks some interesting occasions.
Arguably Ruth could have seen Naomi’s plotting as sinful and said no but didn’t, and many of these women seem to have relationships with their husbands that appear unconcerned with who is supposed to be submitting to whom. I think Peter is trying to tell the women he’s writing to that there is a balance between cooperation and resistance, and both are viable options depending on the circumstances.
Most of the teaching I’ve heard on these women over the years, which has been extremely minimal for most and none at all for the rest, has been quick to point out that each one was an exception. Deborah was the only woman judge. She was an exception to God’s design, and therefore nothing to aspire to. Rebekah was tricky. Esther and Ruth are both ok. They both do what their uncle and mother-in-law tell them to do, and it works out. Oh, and Abigail. Oddly, that story doesn’t really get much fuller explanation because of those pesky talking bad about her husband and going behind his back bits.
What I see when I look at this is not a list of exceptions. It’s a pattern. It’s a pattern of valiant women, strong women who put themselves in danger to protect others, who stand up to people when God tells them to regardless of whether that person is their husband, king, or enemy general. It’s a pattern of cooperation when possible and resistance when cooperation is impossible. It’s a pattern of God’s protection and provision. It’s a pattern of women of courage and faithfulness. This is our legacy and our inheritance. We are mighty women of God, holy women of old. This is who we are.
And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.