Women in the Bible

Many views of women and their roles in human society are expressed in the Bible, some positive, some negative. These views have been further interpreted in various ways during the history of the Church.

Some women in the Old Testament


In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the writer describes the creation by God of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. However, in explaining how mortality and sin came into the world, the writer tells how Eve succumbed to the temptation of the serpent (traditionally associated with the devil) and then seduced Adam into evil, resulting in their being expelled from Paradise (see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam').

Women as leaders and role models

  • Miriam, described as a prophet, is depicted alongside Moses during the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 15:20-21)
  • Deborah is an important leader of the Israelites and prophetess (Judges 4:4-16) who leads the Israelites against the enemy commander Sisera
  • Jael, wife of Heber, brings about the death of Sisera, rather than him being killed by the ten thousand soldiers pursuing him (Judges 4:17-24)
  • Huldah is another woman prophet consulted by the king in 2 Kings 22:14-20.

Two books in the Old Testament (Ruth and Esther) and two in the inter testamental Apocrypha (Judith and Susannah) are named after the women whose lives and deeds feature in them. The women show considerable courage and resourcefulness:

  • Esther successfully defends her people, the Jews, against a conspiracy to destroy them
  • Judith kills an invading general
  • Ruth, a widow, is a model of faithfulness and self-sacrifice, whose devotion to her mother-in-law leads to her marriage to Boaz, and hence to her becoming the ancestress of King David and of Jesus
  • Susannah successfully defends her honour against some scheming men.

The ‘good woman'

The book of Proverbs praises women who are wise, declaring that ‘a wife of noble character is her husband's crown', and providing a long description of the ‘good wife' who is wise, kind and very able, managing home, family, and her business affairs with considerable skill (Proverbs 31:10-31).

‘Dangerous' women

  • Delilah was the wife of the hero Samson. She was persuaded by the Philistines, Israel's enemies at the time, to discover the source of Samson's extraordinary strength. Eventually, Samson confided his secret and Delilah betrayed him, bringing him ultimately to his death
  • Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers of King David. Attracted by her beauty, David began a relationship with her. When she became pregnant, David arranged for Uriah to be killed and then took her to be his wife. As the object of David's desire, Bathsheba was therefore viewed subsequently as the catalyst for adultery and murder
  • Queen Jezebel features in the Old Testament as a woman who led her husband Ahab into the worship of false gods. He then persecuted God's prophets and committed murder. Jezebel's name has become synonymous with shamelessness and wickedness, and is used by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid's Tale as the name of a sexually corrupt night-club.

Some women in the New Testament

The Virgin Mary

Mary with JesusThe New Testament describes how Jesus Christ, the son of God, was born miraculously to a virgin, Mary. Since Christ, by obedience to God, brings new life, he is often described as a ‘second Adam', and Mary too is seen as a direct contrast with Eve who brought death into the world.


Anna is described in Luke's gospel as a prophet, who recognised the infant Jesus as the Messiah when he was brought to the temple in Jerusalem by his parents. She:

‘gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem' (Luke 2:38).

Women followers of Jesus

In the New Testament several women are described as being followers of Christ, such as:

  • Martha and Mary of Bethany, sisters who offered Jesus hospitality at their home in Bethany
  • Mary Magdalene, traditionally identified with the sinner (prostitute) who reformed and followed Christ, anointing his feet with perfume and wiping them with her hair (Mark 14:3). Later in the story, she was the first person to see the risen Christ (John 20:11-16).

Women are also later seen playing a significant role in the growth of the Early Church through the book of Acts and the letters written to newly-formed groups of Christians which are contained in the New Testament.

The Whore of Babylon

In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, a ‘great prostitute', dressed in scarlet and sitting on a scarlet beast, is described as being responsible for untold evils and adulteries, and being:

‘drunk with the blood of God's people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus' (Revelation 17:6).

She is also described as the Whore of Babylon, an association with the hugely strong earthly kingdom that took the Jews into exile as slaves for many years (see Big ideas: Exile).

The Medieval Church

The medieval church tended to stress the contrast between Eve and the Virgin Mary, leading to a polarised view whereby women were seen as either pure and virginal, or as temptresses and whores. Such attitudes are examined in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, where the Wife of Bath rejects the idea of virginity as being a morally superior state, while the Clerk's Tale of patient Griselda demonstrates the view that women should be pure and docile. Many medieval commentators adopted a strongly anti-feminist stance, using negative figures such as Eve, Delilah and Bathsheba to support their case.

Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, commentators' views on biblical women were widely discussed in literature. Perhaps the most well-known work was Tess of the d'Urbervilles, where Thomas Hardy controversially described the ‘fallen' Tess, mother of an illegitimate child, as ‘a pure woman'.

Related topics

Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Exile

Other cultural references

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

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