The Shame of the Unnamed Women of the Old Testament

This article is available in Spanish here.

I used to get irritated when reading an Old Testament narrative which featured a woman who was not given a name. Manoah’s wife, Jephthah’s daughter, Micah’s mother, and many other women are identified only by their relationship to a man who is named, usually a husband or father. Why did the Old Testament authors leave out the names of some Bible women? Weren’t these women important enough to be named?

Patriarchy, Honour and Shame

In western society, individualism is prized, and each of us has a name, usually three names, which uniquely identifies us. Most of us even carry around some kind of card that contains our unique identifying information. This identification card often includes a headshot of us as an individual. The photo is not a group shot of our family. In the culture of the Ancient Near East of Old Testament times, most people did not have their own identity. Their identity was embedded in their extended family and clan. All people, but especially women, were dependent on their extended family for support and protection, and sometimes for their very survival. They were also dependent on their family, especially the patriarch of the family, for their identity. Compounding this dynamic was the culturally constructed idea of male honour and female shame.

In the world of the Old Testament (and other cultures) honour was (and is) the underlying force that motivated and informed social behaviour. Only men were regarded as having honour, and only men could publicly engage in bold and courageous actions in order to increase the family’s level of honour. Women, on the other hand, were viewed as a potential source of shame and were expected to behave quietly and modestly. Above all, they were to passively protect and defend the patriarch’s and family’s honour by chaste behaviour. Several passages in the Old Testament show that virginity (and beauty) were the most desirable qualities in a prospective bride, and that sexual exclusivity (and fertility) were the most desirable qualities in a married woman. Instead of public honour, a virtuous woman had a sense of private shame. Shame was considered a positive virtue for women; a woman without shame was regarded negatively as shameless. In keeping with the cultural concepts of shame and patriarchy, many women were not given a public or individual identity in the Bible, and their names were withheld.

No Shame

The Old Testament narratives are androcentric because they were written by men, from a male perspective, in the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East. The settings of various narratives give us glimpses of the patriarchal and honour-shame dynamic present in ancient Israeli society where women did not have the same social freedoms as men. Yet no Old Testament author ever asserts that patriarchy or honour-shame are God’s ideals for society. Rather, the Bible shows that the rule of men over women, as well as shame, are a direct result of sin entering the world (Gen. 3:6, 16d; cf. Gen. 2:25).

Chapters 1 and 2 in Genesis are about a time before the Fall—before sin entered the world. In Genesis 1 it says that both men and women were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27;  cf. Gen. 5:1-2). As God’s image-bearers, men and women share the dignity and honour that comes with reflecting and representing Divinity. In chapter 1 it also says that men and women, together, were created to rule over God’s creation (Gen. 1:26-28). It does not say that men only, and not women, were created to rule. Moreover, it doesn’t say that some humans were created to rule over other humans. Rather, men and women were supposed to rule and care for the animals and the earth together.

Significantly, in Genesis chapter 2, the man and woman are both naked but there was no sense of shame (Gen. 2:25). Shame came after the Fall. Men ruling women came after the Fall. Honour-shame and patriarchy are consequences of sin. These social dynamics are not God’s intention or ideals for his people.

Even though God’s people, after the Fall, lived in a patriarchal society, God’s dealings with them were not constrained by their culture. For instance, God did not necessarily use fathers or husbands as mediators of his word to women, or to the community in general. God spoke directly to women or used an angelic messenger to speak to women (e.g. Rebekah in Gen. 25:22-23, and Hagar in Gen. 16:7-13).  And, despite patriarchy, God sometimes used women to speak to men on his behalf (e.g. Deborah in Judg. 4:6ff, Huldah in 2 Chron. 34:23ff, and the skilled, wailing women in Jer. 9:17-22).

The Protestant Bible never states or implies that women are a potential source of shame or are less honourable than men. It also never states or reinforces false notions that women are unintelligent, gullible, sexually wanton, or inferior to men. In fact, the Bible says a lot of good things about women. In the Old Testament, many women are described as wise, intelligent, courageous, resourceful and enterprising. Bible women functioned as prophets, teachers, advisers, leaders, deliverers, and even as heroes. Considering the culture of Bible times, it is remarkable that so many women are mentioned, and that some of these women are given names. Two books of the Old Testament even bear the names of women: Ruth and Esther.

More than a few Bible women, the named and unnamed, do not fit the supposedly desirable stereotype of the private, quiet woman. Several godly Bible women even defied cultural norms without any hint of censure about their actions in the Scriptures (e.g. Ruth 3:7-8).

The Identities of Nameless Women

Several Old Testament women were far from passive and are among the protagonists of certain Old Testament narratives. These women took the initiative and acted independently and bravely in some significant situations. While some of these women are nameless, they are not actually without an identity. They were simply identified in ways that were understood by the culture of that time.

As well as being identified in terms of a male relative, a person’s village or hometown gave a person an identity in Bible times. The prominent woman of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8), the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Sam. 20:16), and the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam. 14:2) are just three Old Testament women who were identified by the names of their towns.

Perhaps the most important identifiers of the nameless women of the Old Testament are their stories, stories that have a lasting significance that is more meaningful than a name. Through their stories we see spiritually astute women who had encounters with God (e.g. Samson’s mother), women of admirable dignity, piety, and strength of character (e.g. Jephthah’s daughter), women who were brave (e.g. a woman of Bahurim), women whose words have been recorded in Scripture (e.g. King Lemuel’s mother), as well as women with a compromised faith (e.g. Micah’s mother).

Through our western eyes, the nameless women may seem unimportant—not important enough to be identified with a name—and it’s easy to overlook their contribution to Israel’s story and to God’s story. The Bible writers, however, realized that God engaged some women as individuals, and that the actions and words of these women were noteworthy and important, so important that they included their stories in Holy Scripture. I am no longer irritated that I don’t know the names of some significant Bible women because I realise that, in fact, they are acknowledged and identified in ways that were appropriate to the culture of that time.

God is still engaging women and men as individuals. God is using all sorts of people, the ordinary and the extraordinary, within their own variously flawed cultures to create new narratives where God can reveal his grace and mercy, and bring about his justice and deliverance. Part of our story can be to positively influence cultures, including our own, and demonstrate and promote the New Covenant values of equality, mercy and justice for all people regardless of race or gender.

We may not know the names of most of the men and women who God has used throughout history, and continues to use throughout the world, but God knows their names. However, in our culture, we like to know the identity—the names and faces—of people. Are we actively identifying the women whom God is using in vital service in our time? Just as we are encouraged by the faith, initiative, and courage of the named and unnamed women of the Old Testament, we should be identifying women in ministry today and telling their stories.

A version of this article was first published in Mutuality, Summer 2013, Volume 20, Issue 2, 7-9, and it won an award at the 2014 Evangelical Press Association Awards held at Anaheim, California. The image in this post was taken from the Mutuality article. Mutuality is published quarterly by Christians for Biblical Equality International.

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Further Reading

Understanding Eight Traits of HonorShame Cultures