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Biblical Women: International Women's Day 2019

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Friday, March 8, 2019

Today is International Women's Day and the theme this year is #BalanceforBetter 

Many of us grew up hearing Bible stories - Daniel in the Lion's Den, David and Goliath, Noah and his ark - they are wonderful stories, inspiring stories. But so often we are told only the stories of Biblical men. Today we are taking the opportunity to balance the scales by highlighting some of the incredible women of the Bible: some you may have heard of, some you may not.

I asked eight Christ Church Cathedral women who their favourite Biblical woman is, and why. They responded with a panoply of wonderful women. Courageous Witnesses: Huldah, the prophet, and Mary, of Magdala; Brave Heroines: Rahab, the Prostitute, and Judith, the warrior; Amazing Mothers: Sarah, the Mother of Nations, and Mary, the Mother of God; and Sacrificial Givers: Ruth, the Moabite, and The Poor Widow.

These images connect women from vastly different parts of the Bible, but each has her own particular story to tell...

Philippa White

The Revd Philippa White is the Cathedral's Succentor, Assistant College Chaplain, and School Chaplain: a ministry that brings together pastoral care for children and students with responsibility for preparing and leading Cathedral services. 

Andrea Mantegna 'A Sibyl and a Prophet' [Public Domain]Huldah, the prophet

Huldah declared to the high priest and royal officials: ‘As to the king of Judah... thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord... I also have heard you, says the Lord.' -- 2 Kings 22:18-19

"Huldah is an advisor to King Josiah and his court, the high priest and royal secretary.  She is a trained scholar-prophet, and for this reason the king's envoys consult her about the discovery of the Book of the Law: the most significant thing to happen during Josiah's reign. When consulted, she speaks the word of God with confidence and clarity. Like male prophets, she uses technical prophetic language and speaks God's word in the first person. It is she who authenticates the Book of the Law as true; and Josiah, the most righteous king in the history of Israel and Judah, accepts her words as the true speech of God. 

"Huldah deserves to be better known. She, like other women scattered through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, is an authoritative and authentic prophet: there is no sense that her gender makes her lesser, or makes her status as prophet unusual. She plays a crucial part in the story of Josiah, which forms a centrepiece of the Books of Kings; and she speaks God's word without hesitation, even though it is not the message the king wants to hear. As a woman who presides, intercedes and preaches, I see in Huldah and her sister-prophets an important witness that God has always called women alongside men to speak truth, to speak of God and to mediate God's presence in the world."


Clare Hayns

The Revd Clare Hayns is the College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator at Christ Church. Clare's job involves caring for students and staff across the whole institution. The Cathedral is Christ Church's College Chapel, and Clare leads college services as well as being one of the team of priests in the Cathedral.

Fra Angelico 'Noli Me Tangere' [Public Domain]Mary, of Magdala

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. -- John 20:16-18

"Mary Magdalene (of Magdala) is perhaps one of the most misrepresented women of all time. She’s been portrayed in film (Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar), books (Da Vinci Code) and painted by countless artists. Her image is often that of a demon possessed woman, repentant prostitute or even as the lover of Jesus. Much of what we imagine about her was due to the conflation of several stories by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. However what was clear in all four Gospels was that she was a loyal follower of Jesus, the first witness of the resurrection, and the first to tell others. I love the fact that even at a time when the testimony of women wasn’t accepted in court, Jesus chose Mary Magdalene to be the first witness of his resurrection. She was the first of many courageous women to proclaim the Good News, and I like to think I might follow in her majestic footsteps."


Emily Essex

Emily Essex is the Cathedral Assistant. She is working at Christ Church to gain experience of Cathedral life whilst exploring a possible call to ordained ministry.

Elias van Nijmegen 'Verspieders ontsnappen uit Jericho' [Public Domain]Rahab, the Prostitute

The king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.’ But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, ‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know.’​ – Joshua 2:3-5

"Rahab was a prostitute. As a woman in the Bible it isn't a great start. We know nothing about her early life or how she found herself in that line of work but the chances are it wasn't exactly her childhood dream. Rahab was a total outsider: popular when men wanted something from her, looked down upon the rest of the time. But her position as an outsider was her salvation, because when two spies were sent by Joshua to search out the city of Jericho where Rahab lived, she saw them for who they really were, and who it was they served, and she risked her life to keep them safe. The king's henchmen never imagined that Rahab was capable of disobeying the king, but she knew that she served a greater king and it was in Him that she had faith. Her bravery and her quick thinking saved the Israelite spies, and it saved her family too, because in exchange for her kindness she asked the Israelites to spare her father, mother, brothers and sisters and all their households from the destruction that was to come.

"Rahab's story is inspiring because someone the world regarded as without value became, for a moment, the most important person in the history of God's people. Without her the spies' mission would have failed. But because of her faith and her courage, Jericho fell, and she was made part of the tribe of Israel. Rahab married a man called Salmon - tradition says he was one of the spies whose lives she saved - and they are listed together at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel in his account of the lineage of Jesus. This woman, who seemed to have no future, gained the most incredible future that could be imagined. God does not forget the outsiders, the inconvenient, the abused, or the broken; He redeems us."


Miranda Hockliffe

Miranda Hockliffe is the Cathedral Visitors Officer. She looks after our many visitors and volunteers, drawing on her experience as a Tour Guide in France, Spain, and Italy, and helps us to make the Cathedral a welcoming space for tourists and pilgrims.

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Judith Beheading Holofernes' [Public Domain]Judith, the warrior

Judith said to the leaders of the town, ‘Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants. Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. Only, do not try to find out what I am doing; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do.' -- Judith 8:32-34

When the tiny town of Bethulia was besieged by the forces of the Assyrian leader, Holofernes, Judith - a beautiful and resourceful widow - managed so to charm his guards that she made her way into Holofernes’ tent and seduced him. Having made him drunk, she used his own sword to cut off his head, and calmly went back into the town, with her maid carrying Holofernes’ head in her food bag. Once they realised their leader was dead, the Assyrians took to flight and the Israelites defeated them. Judith freed her maid and remained happily unmarried for the rest of her life, distributing her property fairly amongst her and her husband's families before she died at the age of 105.

"I have chosen Judith. When I was sixteen my mother took me to Florence for the first time, and as an art historian she introduced me to every church, fresco, sculpture and painting in the city that you could see in a week.

"One painting that remains with me amongst the hundreds of great works I saw that week was Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting  ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ in the Uffizi Gallery.  The subject matter left a lasting impression on me, as did Gentileschi’s personal and professional life – not easy (to put it mildly) as one of the very few acclaimed 17th-century female Italian painters.  Unsurprisingly, her paintings often depict strong women from the Bible and mythology."


Sarah Hope

Sarah Hope is the Dean’s PA and works with a variety of departments across Christ Church, including supporting the Cathedral Clergy and administrative team.

Jan Provoost 'Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel' [Public Domain]Sarah, the Mother of Nations

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him...Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ -- Genesis 21:1-2, 6-7

"Would it be hugely egotistical to pick my namesake, Sarah (Sarai)?! Probably... But what I like about Sarah is that despite her disastrous attempt to ensure a line came from Abraham, through Hagar, God was gracious. He carried out what he had promised regardless.

"Sarah laughs at the visitors’ claim that she will be a mother, and then lies that she laughed. It’s not an A* faith-filled response! This incident is often used to mar her name, but I feel it’s more a reflection of her self-doubt rather than a statement of unbelief; her fear that she is unusable; unsuitable; that she has blown it. Sarah is named in Hebrews 11 as one of the faithful, and is therefore a prime example of God’s infinite ability to redeem and recover."


Eileen Head

Eileen Head is the Cathedral Office Manager, she works behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the Cathedral and its many events.

Mary depicted in the Annunciation window in Christ Church CathedralMary, the Mother of God

The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with will conceive in your womb and bear a son.’ ...Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.' -- Luke 1:28, 31, 38

Mary's story is perhaps the best known of all the Biblical women. As a young woman engaged to be married she is visited by an angel who tells her she will give birth to the Son of God. She journeys to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, and then flees to Egypt to protect her son from a jealous king. She prompts Jesus to perform his first miracle, the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Galilee, and when Jesus is crucified she stands at the foot of his cross, with him to the last. Her courage and obedience are celebrated throughout the universal church.

"I have a great devotion to Mary, Mother of God. It was just how I was raised. I was baptised as a baby on 8 December (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic Church) and it seems my whole life has been about Marian devotion. I was always told ‘To Jesus, through Mary’.

"May is the month of Mary and at primary school in May we had services outside and sang Marian hymns (I won’t say in the sun because this was Scotland!) but it was just lovely.  I had a Marian hymn sung at the end of my wedding (in May, when else!).

"I also love ‘Thoughts on Our lady’ by St Bernard.

In danger, in peril in every hazardous issue, think of Mary, call on Mary.
Keep her name on your lips, that you may secure her help as your advocate.
Cease not to follow the example of her life.
Following in her footsteps you will not go astray, nor fall into despair.
Thinking of her you will not err.
While she keeps hold of you, you will not fall.
With her as protectress, you will have no fear."


Sarah Foot

The Revd Canon Sarah Foot is the Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History and a scholar of the Anglo-Saxon Church.  She has served as a Canon of the Cathedral since 2007 and was ordained priest in December 2017. 

Jan Victors 'Ruth swearing allegiance to Naomi' [Public Domain]Ruth, the Moabite

Naomi said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said,

‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’  – Ruth 1:15-18

"My favourite Biblical woman is Ruth because of the loyalty she showed to her mother-in-law, Naomi, after the death of her husband (Naomi’s son). Ruth left her own people in Moab and accompanied her widowed and now childless mother-in-law back to her people, declaring that ‘your people shall be my people and your God my God.’ In Judah, a kinsman of Naomi’s called Boaz took care of her and married her, providing her (and Naomi in her old age) with a home. But Ruth’s real importance in the story of salvation (and thus presumably the reason why it is preserved in the canon of scripture) is that her son, with Boaz, a man called Obed, was the father of Jesse (the Bethlehamite) who was the father of David. I have always admired Ruth for her willingness to give up everything of her home, including her religion, out of loyalty to her mother-in-law, whom she followed into a strange land, knowing that she would die and be buried there."


Nico Dwyer

Nico Dwyer is the Liturgy Administrative Assistant. She looks after the production of service booklets, rotas, visiting choirs and countless other tasks to ensure our worship runs smoothly.

Edouard Louis Dubufe 'Het penningske der weduwe' [Public Domain]The Poor Widow

Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’ -- Luke 21:1-4

"It's hard to choose a favourite because different stories mean different things to me at different times, but I do love the small bit in Mark and Luke about the widow who gave two small copper coins out of her poverty, all she had to live on. One, because I hope to live like that, giving God my heart, my soul, my mind, my strength to the point that I may even come up lacking. And two, because (I suppose) an entirely un-noteworthy widow was noteworthy to God, which reminds me, even now, that God does not measure our lives as we do."


These women are only the beginning: the Bible is full of stories to inspire and to challenge. Join us on twitter today @ChChCathedralOx and let us know who is your favourite Biblical woman