A Review of
From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament
Paperback: WJK Books, 2020
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Reviewed by Catherine McNiel
It is not enough to simply say that God hears the voices of the marginalized. The church, society, corporate world, and other institutions and structures need to be more intentional about listening to women, not just upper-middle-class women with MBAs, but all women. What they say may not be easy to hear, because many women will tell a painful story of exclusion. But there will be truth and gospel when those in power choose to lean in and listen. (46-47)
There’s a modern folk tale of a woman who always trimmed the edges of her pot roasts before cooking them. When her children questioned this step, she realized she didn’t know why—it was simply how she had seen her mother prepare a roast. Curious, she called her mom, who said the same. Both agreed that, on reflection, this step made little sense; pulling out their cookbooks, they discovered that the recipes themselves said nothing about it. They called the matriarch of the family to see if she had any insight, and to their surprise, Grandma burst out laughing. “Have you been wasting good meat all these years? I trimmed my roasts down to fit the size of my small pan, which was the only pan that fit my small oven!”
I thought of this story while reading Lynn Japinga’s From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament. How often do we assume that our traditional interpretations accurately reflect what the Bible says—when in fact, we’re reading our own inherited stories back into the texts?
Japinga (Professor of Religion at Hope College, ordained minister, and author) begins her latest book by pointing out that we recognize precious few female heroes or role models in the Bible. The women we do meet in Scripture come with few details for understanding their lives, feelings, hopes, or motivation. The mothers of our faith are presented as one-dimensional at best, appearing in the stories primarily when men (the main characters) have a need only a woman could fulfill: a wife, sexual partner, or children. Whether providing an heir, a meal, or a night of shelter, most women in the Bible function to move forward someone else’s story.
Lacking backstory, centuries of commentators and interpreters have filled in the blanks with their own details. Since few women’s voices and perspectives were included in the scholarship of historic Christianity, misogynist suppositions ran deep. For example, consider Eve. Japinga recalls how the mother of all humankind is considered to be created inferior to Adam, easily tempted and swayed, weak and in need of a firm hand, the cause of so much misery for us all—when in fact, the Hebrew describes her quite the opposite. In the rich Hebrew of the Genesis story, Eve is a strong and much-needed equal partner, with the ability and desire for theological discussion. Nowhere does Genesis say she deceived Adam; rather, he is next to her during the chat with the snake, an equal partner in the blame as well as in life. Or take Deborah, the revered leader of ancient Israel. Japinga recounts what many of us were taught: Deborah received her anointing as an indictment from God on the weak men around her, for surely a woman could not lead the people unless there was literally no one else available. But again, that is nowhere in the Bible; the Bible tells us quite the opposite.
Japinga wisely points us back to the recipe, so to speak—the text itself—and asks why we read these stories the way we do. When we strip down centuries of interpretive layers and return to the Hebrew Bible, a different picture emerges. And importantly, Japinga does not force today’s cultural values onto the text; she asks us to peer under the cultural values already layered there. Filling in the blanks of these women’s lives, we assume them to be weak, immoral, and unworthy. We’re certain the text tells us this, or at least intends this meaning. But with a careful glance it simply isn’t there. We’ve been trimming down good meat and wasting it, all this time.
As with the family pot roast recipe, we are so used to this interpretation that we’re sure we saw it in the text. But when we go to the source, we find a richer story. Japinga’s work bridges the gap. She does not ask that we rewrite or ignore the text, as some do; merely that we look at it closely. Page after page, women of the Bible rise from the stories of Hebrew language and culture to meet and teach us.
From Widows to Warriors re-introduces us to over 45 women in the Old Testament. Many received merely a passing mention, but Japinga does not create fictions or pose wild guesses at their history—she simply points our awareness to the women as they are portrayed in their context, and asks us to pay attention for a moment before we move on.
Each chapter focuses on one woman (such as Dinah or Michal) or group of women (such as Lot’s Daughters). Some are beloved to us already (such as Ruth or Sarah) while others we may struggle to remember at all (Rizpah or Huldah, anyone?) Providing the Biblical reference, Japinga tells their basic story as found in Scripture, at times weaving in background information from commentators over the centuries. Then she builds a bridge from the ancient woman’s life to our own lives and choices, and ends with two discussion questions.
Japinga has performed the hero-feat of distilling faithful, scholarly research into an easy, enjoyable read; each chapters of From Widows to Warriors is a bite-sized nugget—only 3-4 pages long. Classified as a Bible Study, a thorough 6-session discussion guide is included for an accessible yet rewarding group study (in addition to each chapter’s discussion questions). This book would also make a valuable teaching or preaching resource, with commentary and application provided for each story.
But if you are neither reading with a group nor preparing to teach, I recommend sitting down with a cup of tea and binge-reading these pages as I did. Spend a wintery afternoon becoming reacquainted with our sisters in the Bible. Their lives, struggles, and victories have plenty to say to us, today.
Catherine McNiel is the author of All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World and Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline which was an ECPA finalist for New Author. She’s on the lookout for wisdom, beauty, and iced coffee. Connect with Catherine at www.catherinemcniel.com