In honor of Queen Esther, heroine of Purim -- and of her predecessor, Queen Vashti, who gets a lot less scroll-time in the Purim story but is no less fascinating -- here's a roundup of some especially badass ladies of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish legend. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of my favorites.
The Purim story begins in the palace of Shushan with King Ahasuerus and his wife, Queen Vashti, hosting separate men and women's feasts for the people of the town. After seven straight days of partying, the King sends for the Queen, commanding her to appear, wearing her royal crown, to parade her beauty before the men's feast. Vashti refuses. A classic commentary explains her reluctance by saying that the King asked her to appear "wearing only her crown," though that's not in the original text. The King is horrified at her refusal and consults his adviser, who points out that if Vashti is punished, all the women of the kingdom will get the wrong idea and begin to look down on their husbands. So Queen Vashti gets booted out of the castle, and for good measure, the King sends out a decree that man is the master of the home. Vashti's story doesn't end in triumph -- she was a few thousand years before her time, perhaps -- but I have admire the woman's principles.
With Vashti gone, Ahasuerus needs a new queen, and he decides to choose his wife by inviting the virgins of his kingdom to compete in a beauty pageant. One of these young women is Esther, also called Hadassah, a Jewish orphan being raised by her uncle, Mordechai. Esther joins the other contestants for full year of beauty treatments, and at the end, the King selects her as the winner. As instructed by her uncle Mordechai, Queen Esther never reveals her Jewish roots. Some time later, Esther finds out that her people are in danger: The King's evil adviser Haman, infuriated by Mordechai's refusal to bow down to him, has recommended that the king kill all the Jews. Mordechai calls upon Esther to help, sending her a pointed message that if the massacre occurs, she shouldn't expect to be spared, and perhaps this was the very reason she had risen to such a position of power. Despite the risks (after all, her husband has already shown himself to be intolerant of uppity wives) Queen Esther embarks on a complicated diplomatic effort. Through a series of planned feasts, subtle hints and well-timed revelations, she convinces the King to rescind his decree. She saves her people, and the evil Haman is punished.
Bear with me on this one. The setup is complicated, but the story is worth it. Tamar is a young widow whose first husband, Er, has died and left her childless. According to custom, Er's father Judah arranges for Tamar to marry his second son, Onan, to provide her with a child who will carry on Er's name. Onan, however, displeases God (with onanism, actually) and dies without giving Tamar a child, at which point she should by law be entitled to marry the next brother in line, Shelah. But Judah, afraid to lose a third son, keeps Shelah away from Tamar, putting her in an tremendously vulnerable position as a childless widow. One day, Tamar hears that Judah will be traveling north. She veils herself in the manner of a prostitute and sits at a major crossroads waiting for him to pass by. When he does, he solicits her services, but says he has no payment on him. Tamar insists that he leave his cord, seal and staff -- the personal ID of the day -- with her as collateral. Judah agrees and spends the night with this mysterious prostitute, having no idea it's his double-ex-daughter-in-law. But when Judah sends a servant to pay the woman and retrieve his ID items, she is nowhere to be found. Three months later, Tamar reveals that she is pregnant. Judah's response is that she should be burned alive for harlotry. Tamar appears with Judah's ID items and says, "I am with child by the man who owns these." And to his credit, Judah immediately admits his wrong and apologizes. Tamar becomes the mother of twins, and it's worth noting that from those twins will eventually come the lineage of King David and the Messiah.
Miriam, the older sister of Moses, is the first female prophet. She has a remarkably active role in the redemption from Egypt: as a girl, she saves her little brother's life at least once; after crossing the sea, she leads the women in song; and during the 40 years of desert wandering, she provides the Israelites with water. (Miriam also endures a seemingly unfair episode, mid-desert-wandering, when she's stricken with leprosy after criticizing Moses; elsewhere I've focused on that moment, but here I'll focus on the positive and celebrate her leadership.) Miriam's two-verse song at the sea is considered by many scholars to be among the oldest words of Torah. The fact that the text preserves the image of a woman leading a song, and the words of that song, especially when Moses has already led a full song of his own -- all of these make Miriam the first rock star of Torah.
Full disclosure: the story of Judith is in some Bibles and not others. The book containing Judith's story is apocryphal in Judaism and Protestant Christianity, meaning it didn't make it into the core Jewish Bible of those traditions. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians do include it. But it's still part of the broader Jewish text-family. In fact, the rabbis connect this story to Hanukkah. And Judith herself is just too badass to leave out of this list. Judith is a beautiful young widow; her husband died unexpectedly three years ago, and she's been in mourning ever since. It's a time of war, and her city is surrounded by the enemy army, who are preventing supplies from coming in. The children are starting to starve, and all the men in power say it's time to surrender and that it must be God's will. Judith hears this and asks them to let her try one thing before they surrender. Judith takes off her sackcloth and ashes, dresses in her finest clothes, and grabs a bag with some salty cheese and wine. Under cover of darkness, Judith and her maid sneak out of the city and straight into the enemy army's camp. It takes a while, but they eventually manage to reach the tent of the general Holofernes himself, using Judith's good looks and false promises of information. As her maid waits outside, Judith sits down beside Holofernes in his tent. She feeds him bits of salty cheese until he grows thirsty; then, sips of wine until he grows tired; then, as he drifts off to sleep, she takes his own sword from the bedpost and cuts off his head. Judith brings the head back to her city, where they hang it on the gate. When the enemy soldiers wake up and see Holofernes up there, they flee, and the war is won. Definitely badass, but the story extends into art history. Judith with the head of Holofernes was a favorite subject of Old Masters painters. Among them was a woman, Artemesia Gentilleschi, who was the victim of a rape. In <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GENTILESCHI_Judith.jpg" target="_hplink">Gentilleschi's painting</a> (pictured here), Judith looks a lot like the artist -- and the beheaded general bears an uncanny resemblance to her rapist.
In Egypt, Pharoah devises numerous methods of oppressing the Jews. One of the most violent is attempted infanticide. Pharoah calls the Israelite midwives, Shifrah and Puah. He instructs them to allow newborn girls to live, but to kill any boys immediately. Shifrah and Puah, though, disobey Pharoah's order. They save the boys, and when Pharoah calls for an explanation, Shifrah and Puah explain that the Israelite women give birth so quickly that the babies arrive before the midwives, giving them no chance to kill the babies. This answer seems to satisfy Pharoah. He moves on to other murderous tactics, but thanks to the midwives' act of quiet resistance, a next generation of male Israelites survives infancy -- including Moses, future leader of the Exodus.
What are the chances? Quite similar to Judith, except this story is alcohol-free. In this war story, the female general and prophetess Deborah has already predicted that the enemy would be delivered into the hands of a woman. The Israelites indeed win the battle and the enemy general, Sisera, is fleeing. Yael, wife of Heber, invites him into her tent. He's thirsty and asks for water, and instead she gives him milk. Sisera falls asleep on the floor and Yael drives a tent-peg through his head with a hammer. Gruesome, yes, but definitely bad-ass.
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