In 2016, America came close to having its first woman president. Instead, our electoral college has given us a man who revels in grabbing women’s pussies. This unrepentant misogynist gained the White House in no small part due to the actions of evangelical right. In The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey stated that Hillary “symbolizes much that runs against their beliefs: abortion rights advocacy, feminism and, conversely, a rejection of biblical ideas of femininity and womanhood.” I grew up in an evangelical culture that demanded knee-length skirts and little makeup. I was taught to believe that women were to be submissive and peaceful, that we were the “receivers” and men the “initiators.” Pop culture often plays into this messed-up binary with men being labeled as the hunters and chasers, the political movers and shakers. But the patriarchy imposed by the Christian Right in which women are seen and not heard actually runs counter to stories of women in the Bible. The women in the Bible, far from being spiritual wallflowers, were actively political, even revolutionary. While I heard sermons about Delilah and Jezebel, or Mary and Martha, the Bible features many women who were neither seductress nor servant. They were nasty women. And God loved them.
Take the old wise woman who orders a traitor’s execution and has his head thrown over the city wall to stop the people waging war on her village (II Samuel 20). King David’s military captain Joab had been pursuing the man who had incited a rebellion against David and who had taken refuge in the woman’s city. Joab batters the city wall when one spunky, nameless lady dares to ask what it would take for him to leave their village intact. On hearing Joab’s demands, she assures him that the man’s head will be thrown over in a moment. She doesn’t ask anyone’s permission first; she makes a deal and then convinces her people to follow through. Her cold and calculating actions save her city from being demolished.
She’s not the only killer babe in the Bible. In Judges, Gideon’s maniacal son Abimalek kills all seventy of his brothers, leaving him very bloody and tired, but not tired enough to completely destroy another village in his quest for power. He takes another city, Thebez, and has besieged the tower where all the townspeople had taken refuge (besieging was a hip thing back then). Just as he is about to burn the entrance of the tower, a woman sees her opportunity to drop a millstone on his head, which makes Abimalek seriously reconsider his military strategies. His head injury is so severe that he asks his armor bearer to finish the job—not because death was bad, but because being killed by a woman was infinitely worse (Judges 9-10).
Not to be outdone on ingenious ways to kill the enemy, a woman named Jael tricks an ally into trusting her so she can nail his head to the ground and save Israel. King Jabin’s military commander, Sisera, had been kicking Israel’s ass but was finally starting to lose the war when he flees on foot to Jael and Heber’s tent. The hubby isn’t home, but Jael is an excellent hostess, inviting him in and hiding him under a blanket. She doesn’t even bristle at Sisera’s mansplaining to say no one is home if there are inquiries; instead, she gives him some milk to help him sleep. I wonder what was going through her mind at the time. Should I order my guard to kill him? Should I poison the milk? Ultimately, she chose a more intimate approach. I like to assume that Jael was battling demons of her own to get that up close and personal, to feel the crunch of skull as she drove that spike through. One can see how this particular scene doesn’t quite make the Sunday morning sermon, despite the fabulously macabre song the judge Deborah makes out of the whole affair, crying “blessed above all women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be” (Judges 5). There is only one other time such a blessing is used: when Gabriel arrives to tell Mary she will give birth to the son of God (Luke 1:28). In the Apocrypha, the same blessing is bestowed upon Judith after she cuts off the head of Holofernes, a general of Nebuchadnezzar who wanted to invade her city. The evangelicals are quick to forget the biblical praise for these brave and courageous women and their violent but necessary actions. The Christian Right would like to erase these women from history, but it is important, now more than ever, to remember how women like Jael both fulfilled and defied norms of femininity as they participated in the political sphere.
It is important to remember that the line of Christ includes Tamar, who pretends to be a sex worker for the night and sleeps with her father-in-law (Judah) in order to get the child promised to her (Genesis 38). Her two previous husbands, Judah’s sons, were so bad that it’s said God killed them outright. Judah had one boy left, and by Levitical law, he was Tamar’s once he became of age. Judah, thinking his daughter-in-law one cursed piece of work, prevented the marriage. Judah didn’t think anything was wrong with his family line, despite the fact that he was the mastermind behind selling his brother Joseph into slavery. Not content with the black widow/spinster double feature she found herself in, Tamar took matters into her own hands. She covers up her face with a veil and dresses up as prostitute. Judah sees her and wants to spend the night, but when she asks for payment, he’s empty-handed. He promises her a lamb from one of his flocks (I’m guessing it was the going rate back then), but she knows he’s a man of empty promises, so she asks for his bracelet, seal, and staff as a surety (basically, his driver’s license). They have a one-night stand and three months later, someone tells Judah that Tamar is a whore because she’s pregnant. Judah, being the kind, generous man that he is, orders her to be burned at the stake. But Tamar is a nasty gal, honey buns, and believes in justice, no matter how weird it looks at the time. She’s being brought out to her punishment when she sends word to Judah with the snarkiest of messages: “By the man, whose these are, am I with child … Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff” (vs 25). One can almost imagine her saying it with a little Hillary shoulder shimmy. But the question causes a transformative moment for Judah because rather than trying to cover the affair up, he declares that she is the more righteous one. Tamar’s actions teaches Judah that one doesn’t abandon family, for when he stands before Joseph some time later, he offers himself as a slave in order to save his younger brother, whom Joseph is holding captive (as a sweet kind of payback/test). Tamar’s name is later used as a blessing on Ruth and Boaz’s engagement by the townspeople of Bethlehem.
It’s not like “crooked Tamar” sticks out in this family, either. Judah’s father Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah when he really only loved her sister Rachel, who then becomes his second wife. Leah, who is described as less than beautiful, still has needs, though, and doesn’t seduce Jacob into sleeping with her as rent him for the night from Rachel (Genesis 30:14-18). The going price? Some mandrakes that can supposedly help Rachel with her infertility in exchange for one glorious boink fest. When Jacob comes in from a long day in the field, Leah greets him with a hey, baby, your night is just beginning. And that, ladies, is how Issachar was born.
To be fair, this wasn’t Jacob’s first rodeo with wily women. His mother Rebekah decides that despite being the younger son, Jacob really should get Issac’s blessing (Genesis 27). But since Jacob is rather boyishly smooth whereas his older twin brother Esau is hairy as a goat, it’s going to take some serious scheming to accomplish her plan. She orders Jacob to kill a goat so she can make her husband a tasty stew, but this woman is brutally economical. She puts the goatskins on Jacob’s arms and neck because she knows her husband is blind as a bat, and tells Jacob to wear Esau’s clothing so that he even smells like his brother. The plan works, and Issac heaps the best blessings on Jacob, thereby ensuring enmity between brothers for the next few years. But in fleeing his house, Jacob is put on a path to finding Leah and Rachel and thus starting in earnest the twelve tribes of Israel. Far from being submissive, the women in the Old Testament could put the scheming royals of Game of Thrones to shame.
Even the “other woman” women are culturally and politically savvy enough to help create seismic shifts in power. Nathan the prophet plots with Bathsheba, that saucy minx, to make sure her son Solomon succeeds the throne instead of his half-brother Adonijah, who has conspired to usurp it. King David by this time is a dithering old man who really doesn’t know what is going on in his kingdom, and for the record, Nathan is the dude who years ago accused him and Bathsheba of murdering her husband so they could be together. But politics makes strange bedfellows, causing Nathan and Bathsheba to snuggle up as allies and get Solomon crowned as the next king. Rahab is another woman of “ill repute” whose city of Jericho is about to be demolished by Joshua and the rest of Israel who fled Egypt (Joshua 2). She defies her king’s campaign to Make Jericho Great Again when she refuses to give up the location of the two spies that Joshua sends to get the land’s layout. In fact, she hides them in her house, and in return, her life is spared when the Israelites invade the city. It is suggested that she is foremother of Jesus, along with Bathsheba. They were responsible for murder, these two. Prostitutes had to terminate unexpected pregnancies since they didn’t have the pill, and Bathsheba and David’s first child was killed by God. God struck the baby outright in return for the death of Bathsheba’s husband. He didn’t take Bathsheba or David, the two adults who participated in the murder. He took the baby, the one motivation that caused them to become co-conspirators. The God of the Old Testament is messy. Nasty women are messy. They are blessed. They are faithful, shrewd, emotionally driven yet unexpressive, a failure according to some, and part of the establishment according to others. We forget how the light of history shines brightest on those souls who dared to defy social norms that marginalized others.
Neither can we look at the courage and civil disobedience of Moses without acknowledging the women in his life who helped protect and encourage such strength. For instance, the Hebrew midwives are given explicit instructions by Pharaoh to kill all boy babies in order to curb the population. Instead, the midwives let every child live and lie to Pharaoh, saying that Hebrew women had quicker births than the Egyptians, so they had no opportunity to fulfill his instructions. When Moses’ mother can no longer hide him at home, she makes a waterproof basket for him to float on the river. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him and decides to raise him as her own, but Moses still needs a wet nurse to feed him. His sister, who has been watching over him the entire time from a distance, offers her mother’s services. Growing up within the framework of such subversion, it makes sense that Moses kills an Egyptian man who is beating another Hebrew mercilessly. It makes sense that he would be the one to lead Israel out of slavery. And while Moses is always the mediator—between the children of Israel and Pharaoh, between his people and God, and between the tribes themselves—there is only one time when someone stands up for Moses. On their way back to Egypt from the desert, Zipporah stops God from killing Moses by taking a stone and circumcising their son, then tossing the foreskin at Moses’ feet. No other verse has anyone standing in front of Moses as his protector, as doing the action that he was supposed to have taken (Exodus 4:25). His life was called by God, yes, but it was protected by women (pre-cloud of glory and pillar of fire).
Esther is another mediator/protector who cunningly convinces her husband, the King of Persia, to abort the campaign which threatens to massacre her people. The cunning part gets left out in sermons, despite the fact that the King of Persia has a thing for strong, defiant women. Case in point: The king threw a week-long party for all the princes and palace people when he was with his first wife, Vashti. When everyone is completely lit on day seven, he calls for Vashti to come show off her hot self. Vashti was having her own bash, and, having very good boundaries, refused to come. The King got mad and had the queen vanquished, as kings are wont to do. He then goes on a season of The Bachelor and falls in love with Esther.
The marriage is all roses and dignitaries until one of the princes, Haman, gets in an ego war with Esther’s uncle and decides to kill all the Jews to get even. He convinces the king to sign a royal decree making it official, putting Esther in a rough spot. Esther is just as ballsy as Vashti, though, and dares to come into the king’s inner court, despite not being called to see him for a month (perhaps he learned his lesson from Vashti). The only way for her to escape death is for the king to hold out his golden scepter to her, and he does so, inquiring what her petition might be. Instead of begging for the life of her people, Sneaky Esther invites the king and Haman to a banquet because she understands that her royal dude likes a party. During the meal, the king repeats his offer to fulfill her petition, whatever it may be, but she response with another invitation, because nothing is better than a party that continues. So much of this political nuance gets swept away by the larger story about God’s deliverance. It’s only at the second banquet that Esther throws Haman under the bus by revealing her heritage and his plot to kill her people (Esther 1-8). Haman is hanged, and the king lets Esther and her uncle write a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves and despoil anyone who attacks them. His signature allows the Jews to officially go to war.
Lying, manipulating, heartless, murderous: these Godly women could be described with the same adjectives that were hurled at Hillary Clinton throughout the entire election season. Maybe I love these bad-ass babes because I ended up becoming more like them rather than the evangelical-approved woman whose worth is “above rubies.” That woman is shrewd in business and can also perform manual labor, but she does it within these permissible boundaries of wife and mother. She is peaceful and kind, a suitable help mate like Eve was supposed to be, without that fall-of-humanity snag, without that nail through the head footnote. She’s great, except that she is not me. She’s not like any woman I know. The nasty women of the Old Testament are righteous, strong, unafraid, and loved by God. Their stories prove that their existence is beyond that of companion or baby maker; they are people with rights, choices, and emotions. Yet the evangelical world, in upholding a metaphor that is barely fleshed out in scripture, decided to elect a racist, unethical man instead of the woman infinitely more capable of holding office. In rendering such complex women impossible and invisible, we now have the emperor with no clothes.
Nancy Hightower’s father worked for three televangelists, including Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye, Bob Tilton, and Paul and Jan Crouch. She went to a Christian boarding school in the Eighties and still sees this dominant rhetoric that dictates how a woman of God should act. This essay, a catalog of some of the most fascinating women in the Bible who were called righteous and even their cold, calculating actions praised—this includes ordering a man’s head being thrown over a wall, another man’s head being nailed to the ground, and a foremother of Jesus dressing up as a prostitute in order to sleep with her father-in-law to produce a child—seeks to correct those misinterpretations. As for publications, her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Entropy, Newsday, The Brooklyn Rail, Word Riot, Sundog Lit, Literary Orphans, Cleaver, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches at Hunter College in New York City and is working on a book about digital fictions with Paul D. Miller AKA DJ Spooky.