When it comes to strong and crafty women, the Bible has many to choose from. Judith snuck into the tent of an enemy general and sliced off his head. Miriam danced on the graves of the Egyptians who had enslaved and slaughtered her people. And then there's Lilith, the maybe-apocryphal first wife of Adam who sprouted wings and turned into a demon, not unlike the biblical stories of violent archangels.
What makes a Biblical woman strong? Some acted as leaders, like Deborah, who led the Israelites to victory against their enemies. Others used their craftiness to protect their people and save lives. And both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary supported Jesus with their strength. For their brilliance and their craftiness, these women hold a special place in the Bible.
For thousands of years, Mary Magdalene has been widely known as a former sex worker. But research suggests Mary Magdalene was an independently wealthy woman who provided critical financial support for Jesus. If she'd been a man, Mary almost certainly would have been one of the apostles.
Dean Claire Pfann of the University of the Holy Land describes Mary as "an independent woman who has discretionary time and wealth from the city of Magdala, not identified by a father or a husband, whose life was dramatically restored, healed, changed by her encounter with this Jewish itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus of Nazareth."
Because of her close relationship with Jesus, Mary was present at the crucifixion, and she was the first to see the resurrected Christ. Mary even told the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected.
So why was Mary described as a sex worker? Many scholars believe it was part of an effort to exclude women from positions of power within the church.
Esther saved the Jewish people through her craftiness. After being married off to the Persian king because of her beauty, Esther used her power to protect her people. When Esther learned that the king's adviser, Haman, planned to slaughter all the Jews in the kingdom, she persuaded her husband to spare them.
The showdown appears in Esther 7. Esther secured the king's promise to give her one wish. At a banquet, she said to the king, "If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life - this is my petition. And spare my people - this is my request."
Esther explained, "I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated," naming Haman as the culprit. The king turned on Haman, ordering him to be impaled, and granted all his lands to Esther.
Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron, and she took a starring role when the three siblings led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the parted Red Sea. When Miriam was just a girl, she showed her craftiness when her mother, Jochebed, hid Moses in a basket and floated him down the river to save his life.
Miriam hid in the reeds, watching as the pharaoh's daughter found the basket. Then Miriam appeared, offering to find a nurse to care for the baby. Miriam's quick thinking saved Moses's life.
Forty years later, as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, Miriam burst into song and dance when the Egyptians chasing them drowned. She sang, "Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea."
In Micah 6:4, God listed Miriam alongside her brothers as leaders of the Jews: "I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam."
When it comes to Old Testament women, Jael is in a category of her own. Jael single-handedly took out an army general with a tent stake. During a battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, described in Judges 4, the Canaanite general Sisera fled to Jael's tent.
She welcomed him, saying, "Come, my lord, come right in. Don't be afraid."
Sisera soon fell asleep on the tent floor. Jael grabbed a tent peg and a hammer, and snuck up on the leader. According to Judges 4:21, "She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died."
Deborah, the female leader of the Israelites, praised Jael's act of bravery. "Blessed above women shall be Jael," Deborah declared.