The Exodus is the Jewish people’s founding narrative. But stark differences emerge when we compare the biblical version of this tale of deliverance with the text that we read annually at the Passover feast. Among the most striking? The prominent roles women occupy in the former and their complete absence in the latter. In the biblical Exodus women play an such an essential role that one of the Talmud’s most important sages states that the redemption from Egypt only took place because of the righteousness of the women of that generation.* When Pharaoh plans to reduce the burgeoning Israelite population he calls on two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill newborn males. The midwives “fear God” and refuse to participate in the king’s murderous plan. Mighty Pharaoh remains unnamed, but these two defiant women are recognized with names. “And God dealt well with the midwives . . .” (Exodus 1:20). “Then Pharaoh charged all his people saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’” (Exodus 1:22). Yocheved hatches a risky plan to save her infant Moses.* She fashions a basket, lines it with pitch, and floats him down the Nile — with Miriam, Moses’ sister keeping a watchful eye — toward the place where Pharaoh’s daughter bathed.* Realizing “this must be a Hebrew child,” she took pity on him. Miriam arranged for his mother to nurse him and Pharaoh’s daughter raised him as her son in the palace. Reaching across class and religious lines, these women reject despair as they risk defiance of a brutal king. Women lay the groundwork for the Exodus, a saga that continues to inspire struggles for freedom around the globe.
Recent scholarship reveals the complexity of roles women play in biblical texts.*
Women play significant roles in the four gospels, and St. Paul names a number of women among his co-workers in the early church.* Among the most prominent in the gospels are Mary, the mother of Jesus: Mary of Magdala: and the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.
The Gospel of Luke tells stories related to the birth of Jesus largely through Mary. He depicts an annunciation scene, in which the angel Gabriel announces that Mary “has found favor with God” and “will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (1:30-31). Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). Shortly thereafter she departs to be with her relative Elizabeth, about to give birth to her son, John (“the Baptist”). In Luke’s account of this encounter of the two pregnant women, Mary utters a canticle related to that of Hannah (see 1 Samuel 2:1—10), praising God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (1:52). This prayer, usually known as the “Magnificat,” (from the Latin translation of the first word) is one of the most important prayers of Christians; it has inspired many musical settings, such as the more elaborate compositions of Monteverdi, Bach, Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff, or simpler versions more suitable for liturgical use.
Interestingly, the high regard for Mary in the New Testament does not stem from her motherhood, but rather from her fidelity as a disciple. For Jesus, family is not so much constituted by blood relations as by faithfulness to God: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).
The early church spoke of Mary of Magdala, a town in Galilee, as the “apostle of apostles” because after her encounter with the risen Jesus, he sent her to announce his resurrection to the apostles (John 20:1-18). Unfortunately, because various texts with women characters were conflated—many of them named Mary—Mary of Magdala came to be known as a repentant sinner, even as a reformed prostitute. An influential sermon by Pope Gregory I (540-604) gave this mistaken identity greater prominence. Contemporary biblical scholarship has restored Mary of Magdala’s rightful identity as the apostle to the apostles.
Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus of Bethany near Jerusalem seem to have offered hospitality to Jesus when he was in Jerusalem. In one of the best-known accounts of the Gospel of John (11: 1-44), Martha makes a confession of faith in Jesus as the “Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”—similar to what the apostle Peter professes in the other gospels (Mark 8:29).
Although passages in some of Paul’s letters and those written in the tradition of Paul, such as Colossians and Ephesians, have given him a reputation as a misogynist, it is clear that he worked with and depended upon the gifts of women: Prisca (Romans 16:3-4; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19); Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2); and Junia, whom Paul says is his relative and is “prominent among the apostles” and “in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7).* In fairness, the Pauline literature must be situated in the patriarchal context of Greco-Roman life.
Later, particularly after Constantine, women’s leadership roles in the church were curtailed. For the most part, women’s experience ran parallel to the official, institutional story of Christianity:
It is a different tradition that has kept alive many elements of the Christian vision that are otherwise forgotten. It is the story of Christianity as lived from the outside, from the margins, from the perspective of those members who were, for the most part, not considered to be full members with all the privileges enjoyed by men. This is the story of those who, for most of the story, are not heard, could not preach, whose Christian insights were not considered necessary, who risked their lives even in the act of thinking independently. It is the story of the millions of women whose grief at the death of children and whose joy at the birth of live children were equally considered inessential to the forming of Christian meaning. It is the story of women religious who had to strive ceaselessly for the right to engage in the public exercise of compassion, to which they felt called. It is the story of thousands executed as witches and heretics, for no other reason than that they were women. It is the story of millions denied an education, and therefore denied the opportunity to hand on their history, to reflect publicly on their lives, to name the God of their being.*
Women play a significant role in the Qur’an and the Hadith. Chapter 4, one of the largest chapters of the Qur’an, is named after women and deals with women’s issues. Chapter 19 of the Qur’an is named after Mary the mother of Jesus, praising her purity and giving a glad tiding of the birth of Jesus. Praising Mary, the Qur’an says: “AND LO! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Behold, God has elected thee and made thee pure, and raised thee above all the women of the world’” (3:42). Women and their role in society are mentioned almost in all chapters of the Qur’an.
I shall write briefly on Umme Musa (the mother of Moses)* in the Qur’an. The story of Moses’ birth is narrated in chapter 28 of the Qur’an. Pharaoh had oppressed the Israelites for a long time. He had a dream that that a leader would arise among the Israelites who would bring him and his nation to ruin. In response he ordered the killing of all male children among the Israelite bondsmen.
Pharaoh had a plan and God had His own plan. God wanted to destroy Pharaoh and his army and blessed the Israelites with power and leadership. When Moses was born, God sent an inspiration* to his mother to feed Moses but when she feared for his safety, she placed him in a padded basket with air-holes and let him down into the reeds on the banks of the Nile. God assured the mother of Moses that her son would be protected and she should not grieve over him. God assured her that Moses would be returned to her and he would be chosen as a messenger (28:7).
The Pharaoh’s people picked up the baby from the banks of the Nile. When Pharaoh’s wife* saw the baby, she exclaimed with happiness, the Qur’an says: “A joy to the eye [could this child be] for me and thee! Slay him not: he may well be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son!” And they had no presentiment [of what he was to become]” (28:9). She asked Pharaoh not to kill him and said that he might be of benefit to them. They might adopt him as their son as they had none. On one occasion, Moses’ mother was so much in grief over losing her child that she was close to disclosing his story if God had not strengthened her with patience and the promise she would be taking care of her baby soon. Moses refused to nurse and Pharaoh’s wife feared the baby would not survive. She needed a wet nurse to feed her new-found babe.
Moses’ mother had asked her daughter to follow the basket in which Moses had been placed. The daughter arrived at Pharaoh’s house as a stranger. Looking at the situation, she said, “Shall I direct you to a household who will rear him for you, and look after him in a good manner”? (28:12). She brought him to her mother, from whom the baby Moses at last suckled with will. In this way God restored the baby to his mother that she might be comforted and not grieve. The Qur’an says that God fulfilled His promise to the mother of Moses, and God’s promises are always true.* The story of the mother of Moses displays a mother’s love for her children and care for the welfare of the family. There are no female prophets in Islam in the strict sense of the word, but in Islam God has communicated with and sent inspiration to women on many occasions.