Twenty Minutes with the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman
By Sarah Puryear
The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman is an Episcopal priest, writer, and speaker who lives in Minnesota. She has written and edited six books, including The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women (Circle Books, 2010) and The Spy on Noah’s Ark and Other Bible Stories from the Inside Out (Forward Movement, 2013). In Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter (Forward Movement, 2014), Freeman explores the words of each woman who speaks in the Bible. Bible Women was cosponsored by the national board of Episcopal Church Women.
Bible Women wasn’t written in an ivory tower; instead, you shared this work with your parishioners, who helped you research the women who speak in the Bible and what they say. How did this origin within your parish influence the book?
In 2011, I’d just finished a book, The Scarlet Cord, in which I explored the lives of 12 Bible women by projecting into what they might have said and felt. At that time, my husband, the Rev. Len Freeman, and I had just started work as interim rectors at Trinity Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, and I found myself really curious to know which women actually talked in the Bible and what they had to say. I asked if there were people who would be interested in working on these questions, and three stepped forward: a recently retired woman, a homeschooled teenaged girl, and the church librarian.
After a thorough search of seminaries and libraries, we concluded that it was in fact new territory, that no one had pulled women’s words out of the Bible and studied them on their own terms. So we worked chapter by chapter, word for word, using sticky notes, markers, and spreadsheets over the course of three years. The group was incredibly conscientious, analytical, and honest. We laughed over some of the stories, cried over others, and felt sick to our stomachs at some of the brutality encountered by some of the women in the Bible.
Our group ranged in age from 15 to about 65, and we drew on a women’s group within Trinity, “Wednesday Women,” for support and inspiration as well. We’re not PhDs or literary critics. We’re Episcopalians, active in our faith and steeped in the tradition, reason, and Scripture. Turns out there were 93 women who spoke in the Bible; we identified each one and recorded every word. But more important than numbers are their stories. And as we learned and retold their stories, we found we have much in common with them. I couldn’t have written the book without the research group; every page is steeped in their hard work and discipline, as are many of their words.
The Bechdel test reveals gender bias in media by asking one question: does this movie or book depict two women talking to each other about something other than a man? I’m afraid your book reveals that few conversations in the Bible pass that test! What are we as women in the 21st century to do with, on the one hand, the disappointment we might feel upon learning how rarely women’s voices are heard in the Bible and, on the other, our belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God?
I asked the research group about this question, and Sue Webster, one of our researchers, stated it best: “The Bible is what it is.” It wasn’t written to please us. It was written over thousands of years to tell God’s story. In the loftiness of the 21st century, we may be disappointed that women’s words account for only about 1.2 percent of the total word count of the Bible. Yet look at it this way: the words of Bible women are like pearls. When someone wears a rare set of pearls, people don’t complain and say, “Your pearls only account for a small percentage of pearls found in the ocean!” Rather, they are valued because they are unique; we give them more value because they are hard to find. It’s like that with women’s words in the Bible. Now that we can look at them clearly, let’s see what they say. Let’s learn from them. Let’s treasure them.
I also don’t know of any other document in human religious history, across all religions and cultures, that holds up the words of 93 women throughout the ages — women who are both fallible and flawed, faithful and focused. If anything, the fault is in the way humankind has looked at the viability of these Bible stories about women over the years. Women’s voices are clearly in the Bible, but over the years they’ve been largely dismissed. Our goal is to change that, and we’ve had some success in doing so. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a front-page news story about Bible Women and the process of writing it in early February 2015, and since then, news outlets around the world have picked up the story.
That intersection of Church and world is a tremendously exciting place to be, and it’s where Bible women have always been. Women of the Bible have been taking missionary steps for thousands of years, and it’s a great honor to highlight their efforts.
You talk in your book about the stereotypes of female characters in the Bible, that they are either all good or all bad. What kind of nuances did you discover in your research that challenged that two-dimensional view?
Somehow over the years, women in the Bible have emerged as really good (Mary the mother of Jesus), or really bad (Jezebel or Delilah). But we forget that the women in the Bible are just like us: flawed and sometimes broken, but always beloved. Most of the women in the Bible were brave. Almost all of them were highly focused. Most were faithful. But being human, they had both positive and negative personality characteristics — and God was able to use all of their gifts and limitations, much like today.
Rather than chapters written in paragraph form, most of the book consists of profiles of each woman who speaks in the Bible. How do you envision people using this book?
One can read it straight through, or one could go by subject guides in the back, such as “Women and Business,” “Mothers in the Bible,” or “Diplomats and Survivors.” It’s written for both group Bible study and individual reading.
It’s also written with a light touch. For example, some women are widely known. But others most people have never heard of, like the wives and women of Pathros who harass the prophet Jeremiah. We acknowledge in the book that Felix the Cat is better known than they are, and then we explore what it means to be in exile and what that has done to their faith.
Tell me about one female character in the Bible with whom you were unacquainted before this project and who has stayed with you since working on this project. What have you learned from her story and the words that she spoke?
The women in the Apocrypha had somehow passed me by over the years, even though I’d read the Bible cover to cover in seminary. There’s a woman in 2nd and 4th Maccabees who was forced to watch her seven sons be tortured to death in front of her, yet she encouraged them to keep their faith — and they were killed because they worshiped God. She, too, went down to the grave proclaiming her love for God. I cannot shake that image, as I cannot shake the image of the concubine in Judges 19 who was never allowed to speak but who was sent out by her husband to be gang-raped so as to answer the brutal demands of desert hospitality. He then divided her body into 12 pieces the next morning, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. She and others who could not speak or were not quoted are actually the ones to whom this book is dedicated.
What cultural filters do we bring to the Bible that may prove unhelpful? What realities about the various cultures reflected in the Bible do we need to keep in mind while reading these stories?
We forgot how brutal life was for women in Old Testament days, not just in the Bible but in most of the world back then. Love was not part of the equation for most of them. They really were considered property. So to look at the stories through the lens of living in a fairly oppressive society required a new way of seeing things on our part as researchers. For example, there’s the story of Aschah, in Joshua 15 and Judges 1, who is offered by her father as a bride prize to the man who would defeat the Canaanites in battle. To think of anyone being offered to the so-called highest bidder these days is awkward and unpleasant, never mind illegal. But those were different days. Her father found someone for her who was strong, bright, and a leader of men. And then, in an unprecedented move, he also gave her land. By itself, that is a fairly big deal. But she knew that she needed water for that land if it was to prosper. So she turns around and reminds him that she needs water. He comes through with more land that contains significant sources of water. It’s a great story — but you do have to see it through an ancient lens to appreciate its significance.
My favorite theological takeaway from your book was the reminder that being the “least” is not a disadvantage in God’s kingdom, for God often does mighty things through those who are powerless and lowly. What was the central truth about God that was reinforced for you as you studied the Bible for this project?
The central truth is that God loves us all dearly and, yes, those without power often have the most power in God’s eyes. Another stunning central truth is found in the depth of relationships that Jesus had with women, friends and strangers alike. For example, the very first woman to talk in the New Testament (Matt. 9:20-22) is the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and powered her way through the crowd, sure that if she could touch Jesus she would be made well — and she was. We often stop there in looking at that story and miss this part: that, after she was healed, Jesus asks her to come forth, identify herself, and tell her story of healing and redemption. That’s huge: a despairing, untouchable, poverty-stricken woman not only finds healing but is affirmed for who she is, for the faith journey she has made.
We also find substantially deep relationships between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and wonderfully profound encounters with the Samaritan woman in John 4 and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. In John’s Gospel, the first word spoken by both the angels at the tomb and Jesus is Woman. Lots to think about there; lots to celebrate.
Do you have a favorite female character in the Bible? Who and why?
My favorite has always been Rahab, a prostitute in the city of Jericho, who hid two men from Joshua’s army on her roof under piles of flax. When the king’s guards demanded that that she turn them over, she said they had already left. Risking her own life, she saved theirs — but would not let them go until they promised to save her and her family when Jericho was destroyed. She’s an ancestor of Jesus and a strong woman acting with the resources she had. She was from outside the circle in several ways, but her actions saved tens and, most likely, hundreds of thousands of people. She’s one of several colorful maternal ancestors — the kind that always spice up family reunions.
The Rev. Sarah Puryear lives in Nashville with her husband, Dan, and son, Hays, and serves as priest associate at St. George’s Church. She writes for TLC’s weblog, Covenant.
Bible Women has been featured in a number of national and international publications recently: