Meet the author: Clare Hayns
A few weeks ago, we had Freshers Week, probably the busiest week of the year for a university chaplain like myself. After last year’s Freshers Week, where the only events were online or in small bubbles of six people, it was wonderful to see so many young people making new friends and enjoying those early days of this exciting new stage of their lives.
This year we wanted to be able to gather all our students in person for their mandatory talks and workshops and we needed a large venue to be able to this while maintaining social distancing. The largest building we have site is the Cathedral (Christ Church is unique in having a college and cathedral under one foundation) and so this year, for the first time ever, we held all the talks there, including the mandatory sexual consent workshops. There was something wonderful about seeing this holy space being used to explore important topics around relationships, such as how to ensure those relationships are healthy and consensual, what to do and who to turn to if they turn out to be damaging and abusive.
I love seeing how freely young people of this generation engage with these topics, and how much more confident they are in discussing these issues that I would have been at their age. When I was a university fresher none of this was discussed openly, but now consent workshops are taken by two thirds of all university students and they are considered a normal part of the induction process.
It is heartening to see young people growing up in a society where they are free to make choices of their own: what and where to study, how to use their time, whether or not to enter into a relationship, and so on.
Most women in bible times had very little choice over any of these things of course, and particularly women in the Old Testament. But does that mean that they were all dominated by men and unable to have agency over their lives? Not at all!
In 2020 I decided to set myself the challenge of writing a blog post a day for the forty days of Lent as I wanted to find out more about the women of the Old Testament. The blog formed the basis for new book Unveiled: Women of the Old Testament and the choices they made, which I wrote in collaboration with my son Micah, who created forty original images to bring the women’s stories to life.
I began the project because I realised how ignorant I was about women from the Old Testament and was frustrated that their stories weren’t told often enough in our churches. I only really knew the most obvious and well-known women, such as Eve, Rebecca, Ruth and Naomi. As I started writing I found there were many women who I had never even heard of before, such as Abishag, Huldah and Athalia, and their stories were captivating.
What was interesting was that even though these women lived so long ago, their stories seemed to be both distant and remote but also at the same time incredibly current. There were women with fertility struggles (Sarai, Rachel, Hannah) and relationship problems (Michal, Leah); women who worried about their children (Jochebed, Rizpah), and who struggled with poverty (widow of Zarephath). Any book narrating stories of women will also find examples of sexual harassment and assault, and the bible is no exception. The stories of Dinah, Bathsheba and Susannah are hard to tell, but sadly their experiences are still happening to women every day. This is why it’s so important to hold consent workshops in our schools and universities and why the #metoo movement is so vital.
Many of the women showed a deep faith in God, a faith which pervaded their lives and gave them strength when times were tough. I think of Esther’s courage to speak up to save her people and Naaman’s maid who told her master how he might be healed. I also learned of the incredible capacity that women have to find ways to exercise power, even when living in a strongly patriarchal system. For example, Shiprah and Puah ‘the Rebel Midwives’ who used cunning deception to save the lives of Israelite baby boys, and the brave ‘Daughters of Zelophehad’ who joined together to lobby Moses to change laws regarding land ownership, which affected women for generations to come.
What I found interesting was that over the 1500 (or thereabouts) years that span the narrative of the Old Testament, women gained more autonomy and choice over time. Some used this for harm (Jezebel and Athaliah were particularly gruesome), but others for learning (Queen of Sheba) and prophetic teaching (Deborah, Huldah).
The final women (Shallum’s daughters) that we look at in the book are only mentioned in one single line of scripture, found in the midst of Nehemiah 3 which is a long list of men and boys who help build the ruined wall surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem. We know very little about them, but we know that these sisters were part of the great rebuilding project. To me, they represent all women, past and present, who take their place in the world to build a better future, for themselves, their families, and for generations to come. They remind me of our students taking their place on their respective courses, eagerly getting to work, and hoping that one day they will make a difference in the world.
The women from the Old Testament have inspired me and I dearly hope that as you read their stories you will be similarly inspired.