A while back one of our sister churches donated a bunch of books from their library to my church. They just had too many donated duplicates. Many of them I was familiar with, and some I had read before. But one that caught my eye was a volume by Carolyn Custis James, author, speaker, and wife Dr. Frank James who was one of my seminary professors. So I plucked this book, Lost Women of the Bible: Finding Strength & Significance Through Their Stories, off our library shelf and added it to my reading stack on my desk.
Two years passed. I kept postponing reading it as other titles grabbed my attention. Then one day I spied a copy of the same book on my mom’s end-table. “Hmm,” I thought to myself. “I wonder if it’s good?” So we talked and my mom loves it. Over lunch one day she shared which chapters touched her most. It seemed to me that the timing was right to check off my “women’s studies” category on my annual reading list by dusting off Lost Women of the Bible. And I’ve got to say, I agree with Gordon MacDonald (the first endorser listed on the book jacket) who says this book “easily makes my most provocative book list for this year.” As a self-described complementarian when it comes to gender relationships in the church, James has rubbed some of the more patriarchal complementarians the wrong way with her rereading of God’s design and call for men and women. Some accuse her of egalitarian, even pseudo-feminist views. But that’s not the way I see it. To me, James is offering a much needed corrective in her analysis of biblical narratives that in the past have misrepresented women in the Bible. The limited traditional roles that women are granted in the church need to be reexamined from a biblical basis. Her thesis is God created Woman to be a co-laborer with Man in the cultural mandate and Great Commission. God made Woman to be an “ezer” (Hebrew word traditionally rendered “helper” or “help mate”) who is a vital partner in the Blessed Alliance that is the Male-Female complementary team who, in the image of God, are made to reflect God’s glory, to labor in his kingdom, to fight for the faith, and to raise the next generation of God’s people.
The author frames her study with the idea of “lostness”. James confesses the traditional path mapped out for her as a good Christian girl didn’t seem to come on schedule. While her friends got married, had babies, and slid into the pre-fit mother-role in the church, her life seemed to stall. She found herself wondering how it happened that she “got lost” even though she wanted all the right things and was pursuing them in all the right ways. It sounds like women, even Christian women, often fall into this trap of feeling lost. Another angle on the “lostness” is James’s study of neglected or forgotten aspects of women in the Bible. Some of the women she studies are famous (like Sarah and Mary), others are obscure (like Mrs. Noah and the women of the church at Philippi). The last angle on “lostness” the author explores is how these women of the Bible reflect the sinful and lost condition in which everyone finds themselves in relation to God. A close reading of the Bible’s narratives uncover the truth that these women in the Bible were all lost children who needed God to find them, restore them, and love them. Thus the frame of “lostness” works three ways to paint a surprising picture of God’s will for rescuing women from their lostness, even today, through Christ.
The chapter titles say a lot about who these lost women of the Bible were:
- A Forgotten Legacy—Eve
- The Unknown Soldier—Mrs. Noah
- Life in the Margins—Sarah
- The Invisible Woman—Hagar
- Missing in Action—Tamar
- The Power Behind the Throne—Hannah
- A Sleeping Beauty—Esther
- The First Disciple—Mary of Nazareth
- Apostle to the Apostles—Mary Magdalene
- Recovering the Blessed Alliance—Paul and the Women of Philippi
- Conclusion: Lost and Found
A study guide follows the end of each chapter, making this book ideally suitable for personal and small group study. I appreciate the format of the study guides because it points the reader first to the primary source (Bible) for the passages where to find the woman’s story, then lists some Bible verses to review for discussion, and finally suggests 8 discussion questions that apply the author’s insights gleaned from her study of the biblical women to the lives of those living the Christian life today. Every chapter ends with a “Focus” section that explains in couple sentences the main lesson derived from the chapter. For example, the chapter 1 focus reads: “Eve has enormous influence over women’s lives today because she was the first woman God created. We want to recover Eve’s forgotten legacy and rediscover God’s creation blueprint for women” (p. 45). Eve is the fountainhead of this study of lost women in the Bible. For another generic example, the chapter 2 focus wrings this lesson out of the ultra-obscure unnamed wife of Noah: “The Bible tells us next to nothing about Mrs. Noah, so she provides the perfect test case for us to see how Eve’s legacy applies to a real woman’s life. By viewing Mrs. Noah as God’s image bearer, the ezer, and an active member of the Blessed Alliance, we will learn to see ourselves in the same way” (p. 63). James gets specific in the lesson she draws from chapter 3 to the end. Here is the focus of chapter 3: “Sarah struggled to secure her place in God’s purposes, as life passed her by and her hopes of bearing the child of promise expired. We will learn through Sarah’s story that even when it looks like we’re missing out on the big things God is doing, we have a high calling and a vital mission to carry out every day of our lives” (p. 83). I hope this whets your appetite for more!
In my church we have a ministry called Titus 2. It is a program designed to equip older women to mentor and disciple younger women through the means of Bible study, discussion, and friendship. Perhaps you have a similar ministry in your church. Lost Women of the Bible would be an ideal study book for such a purpose. But please don’t mistake this as a “women’s only” book. Most men (and many women) are scared off by Christian books marketed to women because so many of those are fluffy, vapid, shallow, and frankly full of not much more than worldly wisdom. Those kinds of books are so unoriginal. I find them boring rehashes of what the other female conference speakers on the circuit repeat ad nauseum. This is no such book. The author’s secondary sources are mostly well-respected Bible commentaries. Clearly James has done her homework. As a husband, a father of five kids (include three daughters), a son of my beloved mother, and a pastor, James’s book taught me a lot. She reminded me to never forget the value of the women in my life. To appreciate and cultivate their God-given gifts, talents, work, accomplishments, and abilities, and faith in God. We men need the women in our life. They are “ezers”, co-laborers, and precious gifts of God to creation that image God just as much as men.
Missio Alliance Blogs by Carolyn Custis James
Carolyn Custis James articles at Huffington Post