Old Testament, New Perspective
by Danielle Bean
When I first began research for my recent book, specifically focused on the stories of women in the Old Testament, I was a bit hesitant. Before beginning the project, I was, most decidedly, a New Testament kind of girl. Who doesn’t want to read inspiring stories of Jesus’ merciful love, his forgiveness of sins, and his healing of human ailments?
Who doesn’t want to know more about Jesus, who loves each of us personally and calls us to walk with him, learn from him, and share in the rewards of eternal life?
But the Old Testament? I mean, let’s face it, the Old Testament can be pretty weird. There are stories of terrible violence, rape, and incest. There are people worshipping golden calves, cutting off each other’s heads, and collecting wives by the dozens. And there is a seemingly violent, angry, jealous God who wipes out the earth with a giant flood.
This is not my comfort zone. And yet, as I read the sometimes familiar and sometimes foreign stories of the Old Testament with new eyes, specifically considering the perspectives of the women in them, I was surprised by what I found.
I discovered that, though our details may differ, these ancient women’s stories were not very different from the stories women live out in the modern world. I encountered the timeless tale of God’s eternal love for his people — and, in a unique way, for all women. Let’s take a look at some of these stories with fresh eyes and find out what we can learn from our ancient sisters who went before us.
Who doesn’t want to know more about Jesus, who loves each of us?
THE ORIGINAL #METOO
One especially difficult and tragic story we find in the Old Testament is that of Tamar. Tamar was one of King David’s daughters, a noble princess. We find her story in 2 Samuel where we learn that, as a princess, Tamar is beautiful and beloved, and she has likely been promised in marriage to a man from another high-status family.
Unfortunately, her half-brother, Amnon, falls in love with her. Well, the Bible tells us he “loved” her, but further description sounds more like an unhealthy, lustful obsession: “He was in such anguish over his sister Tamar that he became sick; she was a virgin, and Amnon thought it impossible to do anything to her” (2 Samuel 13:2).
He’s upset because he couldn’t “do anything to her”? I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like love to me.
With a friend, Amnon hatches a sinister plan to get what he wants. He lies down and pretends to be ill. When his father, King David, comes to him in concern, he requests that his sister Tamar be sent in to tend to him. When Tamar arrives, he sends all his servants away, and then assaults his sister, raping her.
Immediately following his crime, Amnon’s guilt and shame for his misdeeds express themselves in the form of hatred for his sister and he sends her away. She pleads with him to let her stay, so that she might salvage her reputation and they can make things right, but he refuses, telling the servants to throw her out and bolt the door after her.
There is no real justice for Tamar in this story. She puts ashes on her head, rends her garment, and goes out, speaking the truth about her brother’s crime against her, and she suffers dearly for telling the truth. No longer a virgin, she won’t be able to marry a noble man and enjoy the respect of her people. She lives out the rest of her days in isolation, bearing the shame of her brother’s crimes against her.
Long before our current day, when the #MeToo movement has emboldened women to speak the truth about how they have been victimized, God saw Tamar and allowed the truth about the injustice done to her to be included in Scripture for all the world to see and know. Even when her own people did not, God saw Tamar in her suffering — and he gave her a voice.
God sees us, too. He sees you and me and the ways we might suffer or be victimized, especially because we are women, and he gives us a voice. God helps us to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular, and he emboldens us to demand justice.
WE NEED EACH OTHER
The story of Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament is a touching tribute to the beauty and value of female loyalty and friendship. We all long to be accepted, known, and loved, and no one can know us and love us quite like sisters can — biological sisters, of course, but also the spiritual sisters we gain in close friendships.
We all long to be accepted, known, and loved.
We meet Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth, where we learn that after a famine, Naomi’s two sons (one of them was Ruth’s husband) and Naomi’s husband have died, leaving the women alone. Because women could not own property at the time, Naomi finds herself in a particularly desperate situation: She’s too old to remarry, and she has no husband or sons to support her. Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homes and their people so they can find the support they need. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, does decide to leave, but Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law alone, and she pledges her loyalty to her:
“Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried.”(Ruth 1:16–17)
The two women then travel together back to the place of Naomi’s people, where Ruth humbly requests permission to glean leftovers from the fields of a wealthy man named Boaz. Boaz notices Ruth’s humility and diligent work and asks about her. He learns the story of her devotion to Naomi, who happens to be a distant relative of his and he decides to reward her by giving her even more food and inviting her to eat and drink with his servants.
Upon hearing this news, Naomi, ever the wise, experienced mother-in-law, begins scheming just a bit, hatching a plan to secure a beneficial marriage for her daughter-in-law. She instructs Ruth to dress in her best clothes and lie at the feet of Boaz while he sleeps. Not fully understanding that this will be a suggestion of marriage, but trusting what her mother-in-law tells her, Ruth does as she is told.
When Boaz discovers Ruth lying at his feet, he is flattered, just as Naomi thought he would be, and he takes Ruth as his wife. Together they have a child, considered an heir of Naomi’s, and so all ends happily, with both Naomi and Ruth richly rewarded for their loyalty and dedication to one another.
God sees the strength of female bonding, and he gives us the gift of connection.
The inspiring story of Ruth and Naomi’s deep bond and friendship underscores the value of female friendships and connection. When we overcome temptations toward jealousy and competition, we women can accomplish great things together. The inclusion of this story in the Old Testament tells us that God sees the strength of female bonding, and he gives us the gift of connection with one another.
STRUGGLING TO TRUST
Do you ever lie awake in the early hours of the morning, wondering about God’s plan, and struggling to trust that it is a good one? We all have those moments when life feels overwhelming and we do not see a good way out.
The widow of Zarephath, whom we meet in 1 Kings, surely had a moment of anxiety the day the prophet Elijah paid her a visit. He arrives and asks her to bake him a small cake. The widow does not refuse his request, but she does explain the difficult circumstance she and her son are experiencing:
I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a few sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die. (1 Kings 17:12)
She is destitute. Elijah catches her just as she was preparing a last meal for herself and her son, expecting to die afterward because she had nothing left.
Do you ever feel as though God is asking for too much? I’m sure the widow felt that way when Elijah asked for a share of her meager last meal, but she did not refuse. She choose to trust, and God rewarded her for that trust. She did as Elijah asked. She shared what little she had, and miraculously, her jar of flour did not become empty, and her jar of oil did not run dry for many days.
[God] calls us and asks us to trust
This is how God works. He calls us and asks us to trust, sometimes in seemingly impossible ways. And when we do step out in faith, when we choose to place our trust in him, he rewards us for that trust. The tale of struggling to trust is a timeless one that we can see played out in the long-ago stories of the Old Testament, but also in the everyday stories of our lives today.
MORE TO READ AND LEARN
These are just a sampling of the hundreds of stories of women in the Old Testament that have application to our lives today. There is so much more to read and learn, and Scripture is a teacher that never tires of showing us something new.
If you have been hesitant to read stories of the Old Testament because you find them “weird” as I once did or think these ancient tales can’t possibly be relevant to your life in the modern world, I invite you open the pages of your Bible to them one more time. I encourage you to read about these women who have gone before us with new eyes and a fresh perspective, opening your heart to the words God might be speaking to you through them today.
What timeless truths might God have to teach you about his eternal love for you and the unique mission he has given you? What personal calling will you hear in these ancient stories of human pain, loss, struggle, triumph, and joy? I encourage you to find out for yourself.