From Widows to Warriors (Lynn Japinga) -- A Review
FROM WIDOWS TO WARRIORS: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Vii + 209 pages.
When you think of biblical characters, who do you think of? How many of them are women? Probably not many. Perhaps Sarah or Ruth or Esther come to mind, and we probably don't spend much time with them. Nevertheless, there are many important characters in Scripture (both Testaments) who are women. Some of these women might be nameless, and yet they are important to the story. Others, like Ruth or Esther, are featured in books named after them. And, even in these two books, there are other women of note, who should not be forgotten. Consider the role of Naomi in the book of Ruth and Queen Vashti in the book of Esther. Of course, there is Mary. Then again, Mary gets more space in the Quran than in the Gospels (and no space in any of the letters). Now there have been books written in earlier years about the women of the Bible, but most of them have not stood the test of time, and often paint women in more subservient roles. So, what is needed is something up-to-date that can bring to mind important stories of women who play major and minor roles in the biblical story.
Lynn Japinga brings to light the stories of biblical women well-known and not so well-known, beloved characters and villains (it’s all a matter of perspective). Japinga is a professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland Michigan. She is also an ordained minister in the Reformed Church of America. In From Widows to Warriors, Japinga introduces us to just about every woman who appears at some point in the Old Testament, from Eve to the "Woman of Substance in Proverbs 31."
Japinga notes in the introduction to the book that other than Eve and Mary, we rarely hear about the role of women in Scripture. She writes that in her Christian Feminism class her students are "surprised to find positive stories about strong, talented, and faithful women. Some have regularly attended church and Sunday school or religious schools, and they wonder why they have never heard these stories before" (p. 2). They are surprised, for instance, to learn about Deborah, a leader of the nation during the time of the Judges. The reason that this is true is that these stories are simply not being told in Sunday school or in sermons. For those of us who preach from the lectionary, few texts lift up women in Scripture. Nevertheless, there are at least twenty texts do speak of women. There is another reason why we don’t hear these stories, especially in our lectionaries, and that is because many of the stories include sex, violence, or both. While that might not seem appropriate for church, our culture is permeated by both. Therefore, Japinga concludes that "if the Bible can talk about sex and violence, perhaps we should be willing to do so as well" (p. 2). To help us learn these stories, Japinga takes us on an impressive tour of these stories of women of valor and women who are abused or murdered, sometimes by their fathers. It's not always a pretty scene, but it's important that we take note of the stories.
The book is divided into six chapters that for the most part take us chronologically through the Old Testament story. The first chapter focuses on the Matriarchs, beginning with Eve. From there we encounter Sarah and Hagar, Lot's Wife and Daughters, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Dinah, Tamar, and Potiphar's Wife. As you can see, she doesn't discuss every woman mentioned in these passages, but she makes sure to spend time with the key figures. The second chapter focuses on the women of the Exodus, beginning with the midwives who rescue the babies, before moving to the stories of Moses’ sister Miriam and Zipporah, his wife, along with the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27; 36). What's interesting about this last set of women is that they are known for challenging standard practice, and getting Moses to provide them a land inheritance from their dead father, though they were women and not typically included in the disbursement.
From the Exodus, we move to the Women of the Promised Land in chapter 3. Here we encounter Rahab, Achsah, Deborah the Judge along with Jael who kills the Philistine general by driving a tent-pole into his temple (a little violence in that story). There's also a section on Jephthah's Daughter, in which learn of the woman sacrificed by her father because he made a promise to offer to God whatever/whomever he saw after winning a battle. It was his daughter. That he thought God wanted this should cause us to stop and consider our vision of God. There's also Samson's mother, Delilah (yes Delilah---we get to see the other side of the story). Then there's the Levite’s concubine who is raped and murdered. Of course, there is the story of Ruth and Naomi as well as Hannah. The stories vary from positive to sad to troubling.
Moving beyond the era of the conquest and settlement, we meet the women of Israel and Judah, including three of David's wives, the medium at Endor whom Saul engages to contact the dead Samuel. There's David’s daughter Tamar who is raped by her half-brother, which sets up a sibling blood-bath. Other stories include Saul’s concubine Rizpah, the Queen of Sheba, as well as Jezebel (yes, once again, Japinga gives both sides to this story). Paralleling these stories are those that are connected with stories of the prophets, including the widow of Zarephath, the Widow with Oil, the Shunamite Woman, the Maid of Naaman's wife, and the story of Gomer, wife of Hosea. Some of these stories have positive endings, but not all do.
The final chapter is sort of a catchall. Simply titled “Other Women of the Old Testament,” Japinga tells the stories of Vashti and Esther. Each woman gets her own focus, and as a result, we see the strength of character present in both. Then there is Job's Wife who is portrayed in a more positive light. Finally, there is the woman of Proverbs 31 who too often is portrayed as super-wife.
Each chapter focuses on several women, each of whom has her own section. These are divided into two parts. First, Japinga shares the storyline, introducing us to the person and her context. Then Japinga dives deeper into the story, picking out important themes. Thus, with Rizpah, for example, Japinga lifts up themes of goodness being stronger than evil, "the power of people with little left to lose, and "a different ending." She asks the question of how the story might have ended had David not allowed the brutal murder of the young men of Saul’s family to satisfy the Gibeonites' need for revenge? With each woman's story here are questions for reflection and discussion.
If one is interested in doing a group study, a six-session guide has been provided by Mark Price. The study guide takes up each of the six chapters, but not all of the women. Thus Session 1, on The Matriarchs, focuses on the stories of Eve, Sarah and Hagar, and then Tamar (wife of Judah)
Whether you use the From Widows to Warriors in personal reflection, group study, or as a reference work, despite its brevity, it should prove most helpful in unearthing important but often neglected stories. If you read this book you will no longer have the excuse that there are no stories about women to be found in Scripture. You might not like all that you see, but you cannot neglect the stories. The book is written with a general audience in mind, though deeply rooted in scholarship. The book flows well and draws you into the lives of the women lifted up, whether widow or warrior. If you want to know the full story of Scripture, these are figures you cannot ignore and Japinga does an excellent job in bringing to light their stories.