Someone contacted me last week and implied that I was disingenuous in my articles about Bible women who were leaders because, according to her, everyone knows that God does not approve of female leaders. As it happened, I read Matthew 12 that morning and I was struck by how positively Jesus spoke about the queen of the South (AKA the queen of Sheba) who certainly qualifies as a female leader—a powerful female leader.
In this post, I look at four of the most powerful women who are mentioned in the Bible, including the queen of Sheba, and I highlight that not one bad word is spoken against them even though they lived in a time when most rulers were men.
Women Rulers in the Old Testament
The queen of Sheba is mentioned in 1 Kings 10:1–13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1–12 in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament.
This is what Jesus said about her:
“The queen of the South will be raised up at the judgment with this generation and she will condemn it because she came from the ends of the earth to hear Solomon’s wisdom. …” Matthew 12:42//Luke 11:31.
I like what Greg Forbes and Scott Harrower say about her.
The queen’s visit to Solomon represents the high point of Israel’s influence in the ancient Near East. Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations arguably climaxed at this point. This woman [was] from the most prominent kingdom in southwest Arabia … She would have been either the sole ruler or the highest level emissary of her nation. Thus this queen is a person of significant social-political power. Her historical significance is demonstrated by the nature of her visit, and by the fact that she was received into the court of the king. Her journey had both theological and political aims. Theologically, she searched out Solomons’s wisdom and its source. From a political and trade point of view, she sought an alliance.
Forbes and Harrower devote four pages of their 2015 book Raised from Obscurity to the queen of the South, and they include these summary statements: “The queen of the South was attuned to God’s work and made right theological judgments with respect to the Lord.” And, “The queen of Sheba was better able to comprehend the work of Yahweh than the present generation” who were being rebuked by Jesus.
Nowhere in the scriptures is the queen of the South criticised for her status and role in society. Similarly, Deborah, who was the leader of Israel in the 11th or 12th century BC, is nowhere criticised. Instead, it is acknowledged that she was effective as both a prophet and leader. Furthermore, unlike the other judges of Israel, Deborah’s leadership was not tainted with any sense of scandal or impropriety. The Bible speaks positively about Deborah and the queen of the South. (Other queens mentioned in the Bible are listed here.)
A couple of powerful queens are also mentioned in the New Testament.
Women Rulers in the New Testament
Candace, queen of Ethiopia (or Kush), is mentioned briefly without any hint of censure in Acts 8:27. Some nations in Africa, in Anatolia, and in other regions near and around the Mediterranean basin were periodically ruled by women in Bible times. Some of these women even led their armies into battle, with the scars to prove it. (I have more on Candace here.)
Berenice, a great-granddaughter of Herod the Great, is also mentioned briefly in the New Testament. In Acts, she appears as the consort of her brother Agrippa II. She and her brother discussed Paul’s case with Festus (procurator of Judea from about 59 to 62) and they listened to Paul defend himself at Caesarea (Acts 25:13, 23ff; 26:30–31).
Berenice became one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire. When she was 16, she married her uncle, Herod V, who was king of Chalcis. Berenice retained the title “queen” after her husband’s death when she was just twenty years old. Rome then gave the kingdom of Chalcis to her brother Herod Agrippa II, which he ruled together with Berenice. Inscriptions survive that mention the brother and sister together, but with Berenice’s name first indicating her prominence.
She later became a patron of Vespasian and successfully helped him to become emperor of Rome. At that time she was the lover and consort of Vespasian’s son Titus. Though she was Jewish and did some admirable things to help the Jewish cause, Berenice was not a godly woman. (I have several paragraphs on Berenice and her sister here. There’s more on Berenice on the website of the Biblical Archaeology Society and on the Jewish Women’s Archive website.)
There were powerful women in Bible times. Some women, such as Deborah, were placed in powerful positions by God, and he worked through them for his purposes. Other women were not so godly. But, overall, the Bible indicates that God does not disapprove of women as leaders, rulers, or monarchs simply because they are female.
As Gordon Hugenberger has observed, “The scriptures offer an impressive number of examples of women exercising social or political authority without raising any questions as to the propriety of that authority.”
 Greg Forbes and Scott Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 110–111. (Raised from Obscurity can be ordered online at Wipf and Stock and Amazon.)
 Ibid. 110.
 Ibid. 112.
 Berenice is one of my favourite ladies from antiquity and I especially like the story of when, in AD 65, she went barefoot and with her hair cut short (part of a 30-day Jewish vow she had taken) to Gessius Florus (procurator of the Judaea from 64 until 66) to plead with him to go easy on the Jews. This was a few years before the fall of Jerusalem. (See Josephus, Jewish War 2.15.1 §313).
Berenice is fascinating and snippets of information about her appear in various sources, including the Bible. Suetonius, for example, mentions Titus and Berenice’s breakup which was for political reasons: “He sent Queen Berenice away from Rome, which was painful for both of them.” Suetonius, “Titus” (chapter 7) from The Twelve Caesars.
 Paul’s prohibition given in 1 Timothy 2:12 (and the Greek word authentein) is not about good leadership or healthy authority. I have more on 1 Timothy 2:12 here. An article explaining Isaiah 3:12 is here.
 Gordon P. Hugenberger, “Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to 1 Tim 2:8-15,” JETS 35/3 (September 1992), 341-360, 344-345. (A pdf of this article can be accessed here.)
© Margaret Mowczko 2016
All Rights Reserved
The queen of Sheba (or, Saba) meets King Solomon in the Kebra Nagast, an epic tale from Ethiopia written in the 1300s. (Source: Wikimedia)
Postscript: May 9, 2023
A Podcast on the Queen of Sheba
Some may be interested in this podcast and accompanying article, “The shapeshifting Queen of Sheba: legends, facts and fictions,” which aired on CBS Radio.
Here’s an excerpt:
“In the Hebrew Bible she is a wealthy monarch who comes to test Solomon with ‘hard riddles’ and leaves astonished and impressed by what she saw.
In the [Ethiopian] Kebra Nagast, she is a philosopher-queen who enters into a dialogue with Solomon because of her love of wisdom, and later has a child with him.
In the Quran, she is summoned to Solomon’s court after he hears stories of a powerful but heretical queen who worships the sun.”
The Propriety of Bible Women with Authority
Wealthy Women in the Roman World and in the Church
Deborah and the No-Available-Men Argument
Queen Candace of Ethiopia
The Intrigues of Salome I, Herod the Great’s Sister
1 Timothy 2:12, the created order, and Bible women who guided men
Book Review: Raised from Obscurity