Say Her Name: Naming the Witness of Nameless Women in the Bible.
In this study, we will examine the witness of several women in the Bible whose names were never spoken but whose faith continues to inspire our own. We will consider together the stories of a few women who are well-known in the Christian community and some whose stories are nearly forgotten.
This is a study originally prepared for the Faith Formation for Laity series conducted in the ELCA Southeastern Synod, October 2020. For that event, it included a few Zoom poll questions and some breakout room opportunities. I think those can easily be added for your context. I have left in the content for the breakout rooms I used. I hope this Bible Study deepens your knowledge of scripture and supports your ministry. Please feel free to use it for your teaching and learning purposes. If you use it in its entirety, please acknowledge the source. Thanks, PMA
Especially from the 1970s to 2000, there was a lot of interest in women portrayed in the Bible. Much of this interest was driven by the current political and social trends as well as womanist theology that focused more seriously on the stories of women in scripture. No longer theological props, they were revealed as true witnesses to the faith – many were never named, but academic scholars and local theologians, like myself, worked to help them be known and remembered.
There are 205 named women in Scripture (OT, NT and Apocryphal Books). Ten of these women are the same person. For example, Naomi is also called Mara, and Doras and Tabitha are the same person. And then, of course, the same name is used for several different women, just like you might have three women in your congregation named Susan. Major and minor characters in the Biblical story are not named. Think of the “woman at the well” who had the longest conversation with Jesus recorded in the gospels. And then, in John 9 the significant theological story takes place around “the man born blind.” So, many significant women and men in scripture remain nameless. Not having a name to be remembered by has a bit of a tragic tone in the human spirit.
In scripture there are 600 nameless women or groups of women.
In this study, we’ll look at just a few and we’ll do so to learn a little information about some part of scripture we didn’t know before, but more importantly, we’ll consider how these stories of nameless women of faith help form our own faith.
Story 1 Jephthah’s Daughter – Judges 11:29-40
This first story comes from the days of the judges. This was a time when Israel lived in tribal societies free from any centralized government. We have here a collection of stories about some of the heroes from these early days of God’s people between 1200 and 1020 B.C.E. These leaders were called “judges”. It was like the Wild West. These stories from Israel’s Wild West days were told as stories around the tribal campfires. Scholars think that these stories were finally written down during the time when Israel was in exile in Babylon between 587 and 539 B.C.E.
The exile in Babylon was a dark time for Israel, just like the days of the judges were dark times. So the stories of the judges were retold and reshaped to support the people in sad times. The basic message was: God helped us before, God can help us again.
The cycle of stories about Jephthah, one of these judges, bring us a public and private crisis. We will focus for this time together on the crisis around Jephthah’s unnamed daughter. Let’s look at the story:
29Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD's, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering." 32So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. 33He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
34Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow." 36She said to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites." 37And she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I." 38Go, he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
For the historian who put these stories of the Judges together, all of the military threats Israel is experiencing are God’s punishment for her unfaithfulness. In these stories, every time Israel repents and returns to the Lord, God raises up a hero, a judge, a strong military leader to help them defeat their enemies. Invariably, they would become unfaithful again and the cycle would start over.
Jephthah’s vow to make a living sacrifice to God if victorious receives no comment from God. Whether Jephthah and the Gileadites are taking the Lord’s name in vain, breaking the 2ndcommandment to not use the name of God for your own selfish purposes is a question I have. Verse 29 already says that “the spirit of the Lord” was with him, so making this vow of a sacrifice doesn’t seem necessary for possible victory. Perhaps he is trying to boost his own image in front of his tribe. There may be another reason.
Earlier in the story, we’re told that Jephthah is a bit of a nobody. He’s the son of a nameless prostitute and the son of a father who is unknown. Then and now, being known, being known by name, carries power and prestige. I wonder if this craving is what becomes his downfall. Family-wise, Jephthah is building his own. The story emphasizes several times that he had only one daughter and no other children. Her mother doesn’t appear to be in the picture. Maybe she died in childbirth. His daughter is the person who will help him build a family. She will have children and his line will be established. He loves her and has a lot riding on her success. That’s why the story emphasizes several times that she was a virgin. She really has no children and now absolutely will have no children. Jephthah may be a successful military leader, but he will still be a nobody since nobody will carry on his bloodline.
We can only assume that Jephthah thought the first thing to come out of his house to greet him would be an animal or maybe even a servant. And that is a great example of why the old definition of assume is something that “makes an ASS of U and ME.”
The story continues with the unusual reactions and requests of the daughter when she learns that she is to be sacrificed because the vow must be honored. They both agree on this, even though God nor the tribe of Gilead are requiring it. The making of the vow itself is an act of unfaithfulness. (Jephthah did not trust that God would give him victory so he works to sweeten the pot.) She doesn’t look for a way out. There just is no balm in Gilead. The daughter is the sacrifice. She will pay for his unfaithfulness.
While Jephthah’s daughter understands that she must and will die, she takes charge as much as she can with some requests. She requests a period of two months to have time apart from her father and away from what was her life. She wants to go and lament her unfilled life with her friends. She is probably a young teenager. She just wants to be with her girlfriends during this time, after all, her father has now become her executioner. She gets to spend her last days as she requested. Unlike the story of Abraham and Isaac, God does not intervene, there is no happy ending. No one steps in to stop it.
But death and silence aren’t the last words of the story. There is a post-script. This nameless daughter has no child to keep her memory and so would normally go down as nameless and forgotten. But, we are told that a custom rose up in Israel. She became a tradition in that the women who went with her continued to remember her every year for four days. These women knew her name and kept her name and story alive.
They have done this in remembrance of her. The story then moves from death to life, from namelessness to remembrance.
Breakout Room Questions
1. When this story and this daughter were remembered every year in Israel, what do you think was remembered or done? (trust in God’s promises, the strength of this woman, how the unfaithfulness/foolishness of others causes suffering in others, a women’s retreat on God’s silence…?)
2. Can you no longer remember the name of someone who had an impact on you? How does that memory continue to live in you? How will you pass it on?
Story 2 Woman anointing Jesus in Mark 14: 3-9
Mark 14: 3-9
3While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Unlike the Judges story, this is probably a familiar story to you. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell a story about a woman who anoints Jesus. Since scholarship tells us that Mark was the first of the gospels to be written down of these four (around 60 B.C.) and since Mark was a source for Matthew, the stories are very similar. Luke’s story has several different elements making it seem to really be a different story all together. In Luke, the story comes early in the gospel and isn’t attached to Jesus’ passion. The woman is identified as a sinner and anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair.
In John, the woman is named, she is Mary of Bethany. John, writing his gospel decades after Luke and Mark, perhaps combines the two stories (John 12: 1-8) since the event is tied to Jesus’ death and has her anointing his feet.
Fun Fact/Poll Question:
Q: Why was this nard ointment so precious/expensive?
1. It contained traces of gold.
2. It was made from flowers that grow only in the Himalayan mountains.
3. It was believed to cure leprosy.
The correct answer is #2!
For feminist biblical scholars toward the last three decades of the 20th C, it was Mark’s account of this story that caught our attention and our imaginations. As with the story from Judges, this one also has a postscript about remembering the unnamed woman. We heard it at the end as Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
This verse inspired the first book-length scholarly feminist treatment of the women in Christian origins, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza’s book, In Memory of Her.
This account tells us that the woman prepares Jesus for his burial as an act of mercy. She and perhaps she alone seems to understand who he is and seems to understand that he must soon die. Jesus says it is a worthy and proper use of the nard.
What is it that will be told in memory of her? We don’t even know her name, although we certainly know Judas’. Her name is not commemorated by the Gospel writers or remembered by us. One wonders why Mark faithfully recorded Jesus’ prophecy when even 30 years later, it obviously wasn’t happening. Perhaps her prophecy of Jesus as the Messiah through the anointing is the prophecy that Judas betrays.
Throughout the Gospel, anonymous women figures offer themselves as ways for the readers to place themselves as ways for the audience to place themselves in the story.
Story 3 The Daughters of Zelophehad, Numbers 26 and 27
Lastly, we’ll consider a story of a group of daughters who are named, but only because they fight for their rights as women and who move from the disenfranchised to becoming landowners. Amazingly, their story has not been forgotten, even in the secular halls of American jurisprudence!
The setting for this story is in the Book of Numbers, a book that begins by counting, and that’s how the book got its name. Organization is one of the themes of this book of the Bible. There are several stories that organize for worship and organize for war. One of the ways to organize for war is to take a census of all the men who are fighting age. Numbers is a story of the Israelites journey in the wilderness of Sinai to the promised land of Canaan. In many ways it is Exodus Part 2.
As Numbers 26 begins, a census is being taken of the new generation who are men 20 years old and above. Women are not included in the census, until suddenly, they are! The Bible gives the total figures for each tribe, which when added up come to 601,730 people. But this did not include women and children. (Remember the story of the feeding of the 5,000 when we are told that number doesn’t include women and children. If it did, there would probably be 35,000 people.)
So, of course, only men’s names are recorded and spoken until we get to Zelophehad in the tribe of Manasseh.
The story of the Daughters of Zelophehad is found in Numbers 27:1-11.
Numbers 27: 1-11
1Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, 3Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 4Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father's brothers."
5Moses brought their case before the LORD. 6And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 7The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father's brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, "If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father's brothers. 11And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the LORD commanded Moses."
Zelophehad is part of the generation of Israelites who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. He died during the 40 years in the wilderness. His five daughters belong to the new generation who would enter and possess the promised land. God had decreed that the promised land would be divided up according to the number of names of those in this second generation counted in the census mentioned earlier. Since only men were counted in the census Zelophehad’s daughters didn’t count and would be left without an inheritance.
[An acknowledgment and lament: We acknowledge that the conquest of the Land of Canaan to take it as Yahweh’s Promised Land mean the taking of that land from the indigenous people who were already there – the Canaanites. Such colonizations and invasions are part of our history and our faith story. That’s a very worthy theological topic to consider for another time. But, alas, for our purposes today, we’re going to have to set that aside. ]
A census isn’t just about the numbers. It isn’t simple math. It’s about organizing power, people, and resources. In the census in Numbers, there were two purposes – counting up the number of men who could be in the military and how the new land would be distributed.
The Daughters of Zelophehad were about to be left out of land, power, and full life in the Promised Land. But to call the law into question was risky. Because Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah present their petition to Moses in public, their individual case serves to change the Israelite inheritance law. These sisters filed one of the earliest lawsuits on record. In fact, this case is one of the oldest still cited as an authority. As recently as 1924, the American Bar Association Journal cites Numbers 27, describing these five sisters’ victory as “an early declaratory judgment in which the property rights of women are clearly set forth.”
Here we are in a Census year ourselves. This story reminds us that counting is never neutral, that it is a tool for leaders and government systems to manipulate the numbers for their own purposes or to use them to advance the kind of kingdom Jesus call us to.
This story is one of empowerment as those who weren’t going to be named or counted stood up for themselves, argued their case before God and left the courtroom in the wilderness with their names well remembered and with a deed to their new land.
There can be movement from “nobody” to “somebody”. As the baptized, we do remember that we all have a name, “Child of God” and that God claims us, names us, and calls us. In this there is great power, purpose and possibility.
Breakout Groups Question:
Most of us will ultimately be nameless in the arc of human history. Many witnesses in the Bible were nameless, but you can be unknown and still be impactful.
You might not be remembered, but how would you hope to be impactful?
Be brave! Be impactful! God is with you!