Why Hebrew narrative could teach Hollywood a thing or two about interesting female characters

Preparing for this semester’s lectures on the Former Prophets I’m struck by how compellingly three dimensional the female characters in Hebrew narrative are. While the men are, almost without exception, deeply flawed, weak, or abusive (often all three), it’s hard not to admire these women of God… five of my favourites from today’s reading (what are some of yours?):

  1. Deborah: prophet, supreme civil judge, and chief military strategist, who lead Israel to escape 20 years of oppression by the king of Caanan. (Tell Deborah women can’t be leaders and she’ll chase you and your chariots all the way back to Hazor)
  2. Jael: double agent responsible for assassinating a key enemy general, thus turning the tide of battle against Israel’s oppressor. (The General assumed she was just the submissive and hospitable wife of his ally, and thus made the fatal mistake of coming into her tent and telling her to fetch him a drink. She got him the (wrong) drink … then drove a tent peg through his temple with a hammer.)
  3. Hannah: marginalised and cruelly treated because of her socially shamed infertility, slandered by a corrupt and pastorally inept priest, her lonely faithful voice becomes a programmatic commentary and guiding light through a dark chapter of history.
  4. Michal: youngest daughter of the king, sold off, forcibly divorced and married off again by her abusive father, she reclaims agency by organising her lover’s escape, helping to bring her father’s dynasty to an end. (Incidentally one of the few women in ancient literature depicted as being in love with someone … you know, like with her own desire and will … and not just as the object of men’s desire.)
  5. Abigail: quick thinking, decisive and an excellent negotiator, she saves her entire family from certain death at the hands of a violent protection racket after her husband, Fool (that’s his name), insults David who is going through his mafia phase. (Her husband literally died when he heard how close they’d come.)

Of course, there is lots about this violent patriarchal era I also find jarring — but it is humbling that it’s easier to find interesting female characters in this Iron Age narrative than in your average Hollywood movie today.