Joan Chittister on Biblical Women Leaders

In the run-up to the Sept. 26 “Sunday Without Women,” here’s an excerpt from Benedictine leader Joan Chittister on the power of women in the Bible.

Finding role models to live by in Scripture, if you are a woman, is slim picking. I spent a fair amount of my young life looking for them, in fact. I heard a great deal in church and school about the kings, Solomon and David. They taught us about the faithful ones like Job and Joseph, for instance, who, despite their sufferings, never cursed God. But they said precious little, hardly a word, about women. Except about Delilah, of course, who had tempted Samson, leading to his ruin, and about Eve, who had tempted Adam and left us all in ruin.

Such teaching left girls with very male images of what it meant to be loved by God, or “made in the image” of God. Abraham and Moses and any number of men–such as Noah, Jacob, Daniel, Isaac, Joshua, and Isaiah, to name a few–had been entrusted with the work of God. But you didn’t hear much about women at all, except, of course, for Mary, “the mother of God,” who was clearly too exalted, too divinized to be a real model for real women. Women, it seemed, were also-rans where the work of salvation was concerned.

It takes years for a woman to realize how effective, how distorting, that exclusion can be to a woman’s sense of herself before God. What had become clear to me, over the years, is that men got us to heaven; women went along. Men were the doers of God’s will; women were everybody’s “helpmates,” but never their leaders. Women, in fact, were seldom or never the carriers of the vision. They were almost never the speaker of God’s word. I admit to being disappointed by it all.

As a result, I did what most girls did. I looked to male figures and male saints and male spiritual leaders, for direction, for the interpretation of what, if anything, God expected of me in life. But somehow or other, little or none of it fit. Worse, all of it reminded me of a woman’s secondary status, even where God was concerned. There was something not right about that.

Then, one day, I discovered, almost by accident, the books of Ruth and Judith – two women who were strong leaders and committed followers of the Word of God. But these books had never been read in my church. I had never heard anyone even preach a sermon on them. I never saw any pictures of these two women hanging anywhere on sacred territory. But there were their stories, full and entire, right in the middle of the Bible. They were not pieces of religious fancy. These were, the priest told me, solemnly, “the Word of God.” Suddenly, things began to change.

If anything in Scripture prepares us for the Jesus who walked with women, taught women, and commissioned women, these stories are surely it. They prepare us to see, if only we will open our eyes, the place and power of women in the Work of God. They enable us to realize the message of redemptive presence that comes through the stories of the women around Jesus–Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman, the woman in the house of the Pharisees and all the women of all the house churches in the New Testament.

The books of Ruth and Judith are signs to us all. They are signs to men of the ministry, that they must share equally with women. They are signs to women of the ministry, for which they, too, must take clear and conscious responsibility, knowing, indeed, that God is with them, in them, calling them on, as witnesses, ministers and leaders–for all our sakes.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Joan Chittister’s introduction to the book Judith and Ruth (Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2010)

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