I pause in writing about Women Who Took the Lead to note some interesting things this project has taught me so far.
All the biblical authors were men, and that makes their approach to these stories of spiritually powerful women interesting. First, despite the culture’s dismissal or marginalizing of women, these authors leave no doubt as to the moral and spiritual significance of these women, demonstrating their subject’s equal or superior moral insight, behavior, courage, intelligence, and leadership. The do not hesitate to equate a woman’s achievements to those of the greatest men in scripture. That becomes obvious as soon as one examines the stories in detail. And it’s another testimony to the radical difference between the Bible and other ancient texts. Only the Bible significantly challenges the prejudices and flaws of the culture from which it arises.
Another telling detail. When Old Testament authors want us to know what a character thinks, it is expressed as internal dialog. When it comes to the male characters in these stories, their motivation and internal struggles are noted. For example:
Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to him who is one hundred years old? Will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?”—Genesis 17:17.
Esau said in his heart, “The days of mourning for my father are at hand. Then I will kill my brother Jacob.”—Genesis 27:14.
Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will return to David’s house.”—1 Kings 12:26.
Haman said in his heart, “Who would the king delight to honor more than myself?”—Esther 6:6.
There are more examples, but these show how the biblical authors revealed thoughts and motivations. Except when it comes to women. Only once (!) in scripture have I found the expression “said in her heart.” When Hannah makes her vow, she did not speak it aloud, only her lips moved, and Eli mistakenly accused her of being drunk. So, even in this singular case, it is not her thoughts which are revealed, but the whispered words of her vow. The author needed the precise words of the vow for the story to make sense. Indeed, the wording of the vow would recorded so that Hannah could verify that she had fulfilled it. So, however he obtained the words, they were in fact spoken words, and not simply internal thoughts.
Thus the second unique result of these ancient men writing about women, which is more elusive, mainly because it consists of something that is missing. The internal thinking or motivation of these women is opaque to the male authors. Readers must deduce their motives and thoughts from their actions. In the story of Hannah, we know she is miserable because Penninah “provoked her severely, to irritate her.” When Hannah weeps as a result, Elkanah personifies this male bafflement at female psychology by saying, pathetically, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why don’t you eat? Why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Elkanah doesn’t get it.
We come closest to seeing a woman’s internal thoughts when Michal sees David dancing, and the author tells us, “she despised him in her heart.” 1 Chronicles 15:29. Despising, however, is far from a subtle emotion, and can easily be deduced from her subsequent actions and words. However, it still leaves open the debate about precisely what inspired Michal’s contempt. Was it because David was immodest, or because she thought it beneath his royal dignity to worship so enthusiastically? So, even in this case, aside from the blatant display of the contempt in her heart, we are left wondering about Michal’s internal thoughts.
In the story of David and Bathsheba, the author gives no indication as to what she thinks, and wants, and why she does what she does. The same is true in the story Vashti. She refuses the king’s demand to come to his banquet, but that is all we are told. And in the New Testament, Luke—who, as a physician, is the only gospel writer to tell us about Mary’s pregnancy or to remark on Jesus’ development as a child—still finds Mary emotionally opaque. When the shepherds testify concerning the angels’ song at Jesus’ birth, or when he explains his three day absence while teaching the rabbis, Luke tells us that Mary “kept these things in her heart,” or “pondered them in her heart.” On the content of those ponderings, he tells us nothing.
Why does this matter? Perhaps it does not. But I think it reveals something about the nature of Inspiration itself, about how the divine/human partnership we call “inspiration” works. Undoubtedly God knew what these women were thinking, but for some reason he did not reveal that to the inspired authors, while at the same time these same authors seem to know what men are thinking. It appears to me at least, that God revealed the actions of the individuals involved, but relied to some extent upon the human authors to understand and explain their thoughts and internal motivations. That would explain the numerous times men’s thoughts are revealed, in contrast with the silence concerning women’s thoughts.
I’ll resume the story of Esther soon.