Stories from, about and for women at work have not often been told as prominently as those of men in Christian contexts and discussions about work and economic life.
Where to Start?
One important starting point for Christians must be to take a fresh look at what the Bible has to say about women and work. As a member of the Theology of Work Project committee, I have discovered how much there is to be learned about women at work from the Bible. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because previously I didn’t realise that the Bible had so much to say about work, either.)
Prior to this work, I seldom looked beyond Mary and Martha, Ruth, Lydia and perhaps one or two other women, but now I realize that dozens or even hundreds of passages in the Bible depict the work of women. For example, I had never stopped to think seriously about how those poetic passages in the Song of Songs about grapevines and little foxes and a woman’s darkened complexion were related to long hours of hard work under a hot sun planting grapevines and chasing off vermin in the process of establishing a family business (see November 2016 Oikonomia Newsletter).
Why so Important?
Neglecting the the experience of women at work in the process of developing theologies of work is unfortunate for a number of reasons:
- The experience of women often challenges us to recognize the value of both paid and unpaid work.
- Women, are more likely to experience tension juggling parenting/homemaking, community and marketplace commitments in a way that forces us to consider the significance of a whole life’s work.
- From the underside of history, the work of women in the Bible includes the perspectives of foreign migrants, widows, slaves, prisoners of war, despised women and prostitutes.
- From the more privileged side, the work of women in the Bible includes numerous influential leaders, businesswomen, benefactors who Jesus depended on for support and women as fellow workers with Paul.
A Useful Introduction
A very useful and condensed introduction to this variety of work experiences in the Bible is provided in two papers prepared by Alice Mathews for the Theology of Work Project, “Women and Work in the Old Testament” and “Women and Work in the New Testament.” These papers include thoughtful discussions of the work of Eve, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, Huldah, Esther, Lady Wisdom, Elizabeth and Mary, the women who followed and funded Jesus in the Gospels, Lydia, Damaris, Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia. Women still struggle to be acknowledged for their work. Yet it is clear that from the time of creation God has always valued the essential work of women. And the Bible provides a rich history of women working at home, in the church and the marketplace for God’s purposes. The content of these papers is further developed in two books of Bible studies, published by Hendrickson under the same titles: Women at Work in the Old Testament and Women at Work in the New Testament.
The TOW Bible Commentary also offers further commentary on all the pasages that relate to the women mentioned in the articles above.
Some think the world of the Bible is so far removed from the world of the modern marketplace that we shouldn’t expect to draw contemporary insights and lessons from these ancient stories that apply to our working lives today. How true is this of your interpretation of the relevance of the stories that the Bible recounts about working women?
Choose one woman whose story is recounted in either Women at Work in the Old Testament or Women at Work in the New Testament. Read the relevant Bible passages for yourself and any other useful resources. Then respond to the statement and question above.
Some Useful Resources
- “Occupations, Skills and Crafts of Women” by Marsha Ellis Smith in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Katherine C. Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 337-338.
- Cohick, Lynn H. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids, IL:Baker, 2009).
- Ackerman, Susan. Women in Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible (Online publication, April 2016).
- Susan DiMickele in Working Women of the Bible (Abilene, TX:Leafwood Publishers, 2013).
One woman’s perspective on work in the Bible can be found in Denise Daniels’ paper on “A Management Professor’s Perspective on Work in the Bible”; a six-day devotional series, Created and Called: Women in the Workplace, is also available.