The women of the Old Testament were fierce, faithful, creative, and legendary. This is the legacy of Mary, Mother of God and of Jesus Christ himself! As they fought for the continuation of the faith and through enormous battles and roadblocks, the passed on this legacy to Mary and Jesus and now we benefit from them, too. Here are ten women of the Old Testament from whom we can learn such a great deal for our modern lives.
Okay, Eve often gets a bad rap because she ate the forbidden fruit first and then offered it to Adam, as well. We’re quick to think that the lesson she teaches us is the importance of fidelity and, while that’s true, there’s more to her than the fall from paradise. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of her: “At the very beginning there was Eve; despite her disobedience, she receives the promise of a posterity that will be victorious over the evil one, as well as the promise that she will be mother of all the living (cf. Gn 3:15, 20).” Eve teaches us the promise of love. Though she was unfaithful and had to endure the punishment and consequences of that disobedience, God did not revile her but promised her a legacy of light and life. Likewise, neither did Adam revile her but cherished as he had when they were first introduced. We screw up, it’s true, but there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God.
Sarah, the long-suffering infertile wife of Abraham, never once faltered in trust of God even though her path was very rough. She knew that God’s promise would be fulfilled and while she longed for it to go her way, she knew his way would prevail and be glorious. If you’ve ever suffered infertility, secondary infertility, loss, or only know someone who has, you can understand what a difficult cross Sarah carried! And you know how easy it can be to lose trust and fall into despair. There’s no doubt that Sarah struggled with these things and she aired her grievances to God. What makes her totally baller is that, even in those moments, she trusted God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says of her, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (11:11). This isn’t saying that her power was in conceiving the child Isaac and that if you just pray and trust enough, you, too, will be given your long-desired child. It means that her power was in trusting God. Sarah was powerful because she trusted and would’ve still been powerful even if God had not granted her a child. St. Faustina echoes this when she received the vision of the Divine Mercy. Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. A good prayer that is directly from the heritage we receive from Sarah.
3. Leah and Rachel
Perhaps an unlikely duo, especially to our modern sensibilities, this set of sisters built up the entire house of Israel together. The part of their story that perhaps offends our modern sensibilities is that they both married Isaac’s son Jacob and both had children by him. But they also struggled with their relationships with him and with each other and with God. Sarah Christmyer says in her book Becoming Women of the Word that, “One had Jacob’s love but couldn’t have his children; the other had plenty of children but never the love of her husband. Both were in anguish.” Both had empty spaces in their hearts that longed to be filled. This teaches us something very important, that we all have a solitary place in our hearts that only God can fill. Jacob couldn’t fulfill all of the longings of either of his wives, but God could and did. The Catechism says of this longing: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” Sounds an awful lot like St. Augustine who wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” That is the legacy of Leah and Rachel, struggling sisters, sisters who longed and desired so much and allowed their hearts to be fulfilled not in their husband or in the earth, but in God alone.
Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron and is often overshadowed by her more talkative and outward brothers. But she’s amazing in her own right, too. The Catechism says of her, “Such holy women as…Miriam…kept alive the hope of Israel’s salvation.” That’s a pretty big compliment! We don’t often take a good look at Miriam but it was because of her that Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and nursed and raised by his own mother.
Later (like eighty years later), she helped lead the Hebrews by the Red Sea, and then her death is punctuated by a draught. In Jewish tradition, Miriam was considered a spiritual oasis in the desert, a well-spring of life and hope and healing. She wasn’t perfect (after she and Aaron came out against Moses, God actually chastised her!) but that did not detract from her worth. Our worth comes from and is measured by the love God has for us, not by impossible standards of perfection. This is a legacy that we can directly take to heart in this age of social media and comparison!
Ah, we come to a harlot. This automatically discredited her in the eyes of many in her time and either discredits her in the eyes of many today or her unsavory past is overlooked in favor of the good she did instead. But neither of this pictures is full or true. Hebrews 11:31 says of her, “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.”
Rahab didn’t come from a faithful family, but is what we would refer to today as a convert. She built her faith solely on what she had heard about Israel’s God, and that was enough for her. When war threatened to take this faith away from her, she risked her life to let in the spies so they could defeat Jericho. Rahab’s faith was based in truth and then completed in action. In his letter, St. James calls directly upon Rahab as a model of true faith: “Was not also Rahab the harlot also justified by works [and not only by faith] when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as a body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (2:25-26). In an earlier verse he points out that anyone can believe in God, even demons! (2:19), but that it takes the good works of faith to seal the deal.
Deborah was one of the twelve judges of Israel in the time after the Israelites reached the Promised Land, forgot about God, and before they had a king. Pointedly, she was the only woman among them and the only one who today we would properly call a judge (the others were closer to military leaders) as she actually settled disputes and the like. She not only stood out because of her gender but because of her wisdom, openness, and obedience to God. She’s also one of only three people in the entire Old Testament to be both judge and prophet and is, again, the only woman. Deborah is particularly baller because she stood up to the military leader of the Israelites, told him God’s word, and then, when he basically mocked him, she went with him and rallied the troops herself. She also prophesied that a woman would defeat the enemy and that came to fruition in the woman Jael, who lured in the enemy leader to her tent and when he was asleep, drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him instantly.
So we’ve actually got two super baller Old Testament women in this story! But Deborah is the one who was called “a mother in Israel” because she led the people first in wisdom and then in war with love. She trusted God so fiercely that she had no fear to stand up to God’s people who were barely getting by on snark and reluctance. We see this legacy of trust and leadership of love directly in the Blessed Virgin Mary who, at the wedding at Cana, told the servants to “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” Deborah teaches us to be fierce in our trust, gentle in our leadership, and great in our love.
Ruth was an outsider, her people were enemies of the Israelites, and yet she took up with an Israelite refugee family, married one of the sons, and then followed her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem, where she wasn’t even technically allowed to be. Her mother-in-law knew the danger Ruth would face in Bethlehem and so told her to go back to her own people. But Ruth persisted, saying to Naomi, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth sacrificed even what little she had left to follow her mother-in-law into an unknown land and religion because she knew it would be even worse for Naomi on her own. Then she fell in love with the God of Israel and sought him above all else. The rest of Ruth’s story is perhaps more well-known: she made a good reputation for herself in Bethlehem, fell in love with Boaz, helped him fall in love with her, too, and then they married, securing her and Naomi’s futures.
What she teaches us is that God’s kingdom has room for everyone, even the outsiders, even the unlikely ones, even the ones with nothing. God’s kingdom is meant for all and we must seek it with our whole hearts. The last part of Ruth’s story is that her and Boaz’s son Obed became the father of Jesse who became the father of King David. Out of an unlikely shoot did the tree sprout its fruitful branches! What makes this even more interesting is that Boaz’s mother was the same Rahab from before, another outsider who came into the fold. That these women are in the direct line of Jesus Christ the Messiah is no accident. It is God telling us that there is no outsider among those who seek him.
Hannah was another barren woman in the Old Testament but one whose nose was continually rubbed into this sorrowful fact by her husband’s second wife who was able to bear many children, both boys and girls. It’s enough to have to sit in your own sorrow but to be constantly reminded of it and jeered at for it by another? Practically intolerable.
Hannah was similar to Sarah and Rachel in that she was barren, was constantly reminded of it, and longed for a child. But what sets her apart is that she took that sorrow directly to God instead of taking it out on those around her (though she probably would’ve been justified in telling Penninah to back off). Hannah so deeply trusted God with her sorrows that she cried out the following: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give to thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Samual 1:10-11).
God did give her the son she so greatly desired, but before even that, he healed her heart. After that encounter with God, she no longer walked around sad and bitter but peaceful. Perhaps all she wanted was for God to grant her fervent petition, but what she received was even greater. She became whole after that day, she was healed of the affliction of doubt and despair. This was the true miracle. The legacy Hannah passes on to us is that of faith-filled prayer. She teaches us how to open up to God with our most fervent and raw selves and to receive him in turn.
The most famous part of Esther’s story is probably the bit where it is said that she was called “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). This is an incredible reminder and we see it echoed in the cry of St. Joan of Arc, “I am not afraid, I was born to do this!” That is Esther’s direct legacy and direct lesson to us. There is a quote that we often hear that says, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.” Esther’s story is echoed here, too, in that God gives us the necessary tools for the work he puts forward to us. In Esther’s case, this was the words of persuasion to her husband to not slaughter the Jews, in which she succeeded.
St. Paul elaborates on this in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord'” (1 Col. 1: 26-31). So God gives us the necessary tools to complete the work he sets us to and, therefore, the glory of these victories and successes belongs to him alone.
Judith almost seems to good to be true; physically beautiful, wealthy, an amazing pedigree, virtuous, and God-fearing. She definitely would’ve been one of the “It” girls in high school had she not also been so deeply devoted to God. That kept anyone from speaking ill of her, because they knew her heart and devotion was good and pure. When her people were about to put God to the test, she actually devised a plan to conquer their enemy and put her people back in their place in righteousness before God. Her prayer is amazing: “Behold their pride, and . . . give to me, a widow, the strength to do what I plan. By the deceit of my lips strike down the . . . prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman. For thy power depends not upon numbers, nor thy might upon men of strength. . . . Cause thy whole nation and every tribe to know and understand that thou art God, the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who protects the people of Israel but thou alone!” (Judith 9:9-11, 14). So what Judith did next was to dress herself up and make herself as beautiful as possible and then marched into the enemy’s camp.
After thoroughly grabbing Holofernes’s attention with her looks, she then persuaded him to herself further by use of her wit. Holofernes totally thought he was gonna get some, but Judith had no such intentions and remained chaste, wielding her new-found power to protect her people, rather than use it to her advantage. One night, when she was shut up with Holofernes for the night and he passed out drunk, she took his sword, prayed to God for strength, and chopped off his head. Because of her, the people of Israel defeated their enemy and once again gave thanks to God. For her part, Judith gave all of her plunder in offering to the Lord and her faithfulness inspired all of the people.
“And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, or for a long time after her death” (Judith 16:25). What’s cool about Judith is she neither feared nor revered her beauty, but just used the gift that it was to do the work of the Lord. Judith’s legacy is then to be who you were created to be. This directly resonates with what St. Catherine of Siena later said, “Be who you were created to be and you will set the world on fire.” St. Catherine is another who went up against male leaders of the faith to call the faithful into further faith and obedience to God.
Like Judith, Catherine used her God-given gifts to accomplish his work. “Beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky wrote, and we see that no clearer than in God himself and through his amazing women like Judith, Mary, and St. Catherine.
The women of the Old Testament teach us so many good things about our faith, even the ones who royally screwed up! They pave the way for us to see God fully and to give ourselves over to him fully. Our legacy is rich because of them. To get to know the women of the Old Testament even more, look no further than Sarah Christmyer’s book Becoming Women of the Word: How to Answer God’s Call wtih Purpose and Joy.