Women of the Old Testament make more than 120 of the 170 named female figures in the standard works. How many of their stories do we know? How many names can we name? Why does it matter? BYU’s Camille Fronk Olson says that the lessons of biblical women matter now as much as ever.
Special thanks to Lu Wells for recommending this interview with Camille Fronk Olson.
When did Camille Fronk Olson develop a passion for studying the lives of Old Testament women?
In the early 1990s, Margot Butler was an institute instructor at LDS Business College where I worked as Dean of Students. She had started a course on Women in the Scriptures and invited me to brainstorm different approaches and research background to the stories. I instantly felt a connection to these women and wanted others to discover their stories.
Then I was hired to teach at the institute of religion adjacent to the University of Utah. I received permission to teach the course there even though others on the faculty feared that the scriptures didn’t convey enough material to make the course last for the full ten weeks.
When I joined the faculty in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU, I introduced the course there.
Each time I taught the course, I increased in my own appreciation for these women and witnessed the positive and profound response from the students.
Introduce Women of the Old Testament
After I joined the faculty at BYU, Margot encouraged me to write a book on the women in scripture to reach more people than our classes ever could on their own. I promised her I would do it, but I wasn’t ready yet. I knew that I would have one crack at such a book and I wanted it to be right. I was still learning so much and didn’t have the format clear in my mind.
When I was finally ready to start, I knew I wanted it to have illustrations because I believed they could assist readers in visualizing these women and the world they lived in. These were real people who lived on earth in eras very different from our own.
Elspeth Young had been a student of mine at BYU when she was a senior in art and had elected to paint women in scripture for her senior project. I became well acquainted with her as a result and remained close in the years that followed. She was the first one I contacted when I was ready to begin the book. I invited her to paint her interpretation of many of the women in the Bible to illustrate each chapter. Her brother Ashton agreed to produce additional drawings to illustrate material culture of the day. As it turned out, their father Al Young added his talent by painting a few of the portraits for the book.
Women of the New Testament
Initially, I had planned on one volume for all the women in the Bible, but a strong sampling of the Old Testament women filled a volume by themselves. Five years later, I completed a companion volume, Women of the New Testament, which invited Elspeth’s remaining sibling, Tanner, as the creator of my maps for that book.
Did the Dead Sea Scrolls provide Camille Fronk Olson with new insights into the lives of Old Testament women?
The Dead Sea Scrolls contributed to my appreciation and understanding of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). In the King James version of the Bible, Hannah’s husband Elkanah tells her, “only the Lord establish his word” (1 Sam. 1:23), indicating an understanding that Hannah was free to make daily decisions as she deemed best, except when they violated a promise to the Lord.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, Elkanah tells Hannah, “May the Lord establish that which cometh out of thy mouth” (4QSama), showing that Elkanah believed that Hannah spoke the words of God—and that God was working through her.
This same wording also appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. By this attribution, Hannah also fits the description of a prophetess.
How many women are mentioned by name in the scriptures?
Over 170 women are identified by name in all the standard works, with only two named in the Doctrine & Covenants (Emma Hale Smith and Vienna Jaques) and three Book of Mormon women named (Sariah, Isabel, and Abish). Clearly, the great majority of named women are found in the Bible, with over 120 of them found in the Old Testament.
What are some of the benefits of studying the lives of scriptural figures who are never mentioned by name?
In many instances, unnamed individuals are arguably more noteworthy and inspiring than their named counterparts. Whatever the reason for the absence of names, unexpected benefits may be derived.
First, studying the scriptural account of an individual’s role, contribution, challenges, and victories without knowing the person’s name invites us to place sharper focus on decisions made and actions taken, rather than on the individual.
Second, we often find ourselves more closely identifying with people in scripture who are not named—perhaps because we can more easily insert our own name into the story.
And third, not knowing a person’s name frequently directs us to see and praise God’s influence in the story and avoid glorifying someone who has need of the Redeemer as much as each of us.
How are scriptural figures categorized in Women In the Old Testament? Were there any that didn’t neatly fit?
Some women may fit well in more than one of these categories (they aren’t mutually exclusive):
- Women Who Influenced Law
- Wives of the Patriarchs
- Unnamed Women
- Women in the Savior’s Lineage as listed in Matthew 1
- Barren Women (not only who could not bear children but those who were bereft of their husband’s love or inclusion in the family)
- Men and Women working together to accomplish God’s work
But for the most part, nearly all of the women who have a story related in the Old Testament can fit into one of these categories. Eve is the major exception. She is in a category alone. The mother of us all.
We often talk about Abraham’s faith waiting for and then offering to sacrifice Isaac. What lessons do we miss by overlooking Sarah?
Sarah’s faith in Jehovah is every bit as unshakeable as Abraham’s. She risked her happiness and life to save Abraham’s life when she agreed to pose as his sister on two different occasions.
Sarah exercised unimaginable faith in offering her handmaid Hagar to Abraham to have a child and thereby fulfill God’s promise. Later:
Through faith . . . Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.Hebrews 11:11
However, no record remains that tells of Sarah’s feelings or faith when Jehovah commanded Abraham to sacrifice their only son Isaac. What does remain invites us to imagine her pain at the thought of losing Isaac and her faith that God would keep his promise.
Interestingly, Sarah is never mentioned in the story after Abraham and Isaac return—leading us to at least consider that she may have died while they were away.
What makes the portrayal of Miriam unique compared to the stories of other Old Testament women?
Miriam is unique in a few ways. We meet her as a mature and wise child when she ensured her baby brother Moses was safely rescued and cared for. We then catch important glimpses of her throughout her life and finally read of her death and burial.
In essence, we know more about her entire life than any other woman in the Old Testament. She is the first woman named a “prophetess” in context with the song she sang with the other women in which they praise Jehovah for their deliverance from the Egyptians.
Finally, Miriam was publicly chastened by the Lord because she openly criticized the Lord’s prophet. Her subsequent repentance and return to active service to the Lord’s work is as important a lesson for us today as in her day.
Who was Huldah?
Huldah lived in Jerusalem in the days of King Josiah, shortly before the Babylonian captivity, about the same time that Lehi and Sariah would have lived there.
In repairing and cleansing the temple to rededicate to Jehovah, Josiah’s men discovered a scroll that foretold of dire circumstances to Israel is they turned away from the Lord. Wanting to authenticate the scroll’s veracity, Josiah instructed his advisors to “go, inquire of the Lord for me.”
Without any explanation, the advisors took the scroll and went to Huldah the prophetess to ask her what meant. Six verses of scripture record Huldah’s words after she read the scroll, including three times saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” Her recorded testimony indicates that the scroll contained at least a major portion of the book of Deuteronomy. It led Josiah to assemble his people to the temple to renew their covenant with Jehovah and turn away from the worship of false gods.
Why did Josiah’s advisors go to Huldah for counsel?
Because other prophets were known to have been functioning in the Kingdom of Judah at the time (including perhaps Jeremiah), many have asked why the advisors went to Huldah for her prophetic counsel.
The only viable answer is we don’t know.
Clearly the advisors and King Josiah weren’t concerned with that question. Perhaps Huldah was most conveniently located. Perhaps they had previously worked with her and already had developed a trusted relationship. Perhaps it was because Huldah was literate (a rarity for anyone in that day) and could therefore read the scroll whereas Jeremiah needed a scribe to record his messages to the people.
Whatever the reason, Huldah’s story within the national saga of her day is one of the most remarkable accounts of a woman in scripture.
How does Tamar figure into the ancestry of the Savior?
Judah, son of Jacob and Leah, married a Canaanite woman, had three sons by her, and lived among the Canaanites rather than among his own people. He married his first son to Tamar. Judah’s oldest sons died because of their wickedness, leaving Tamar childless and unable to marry anyone outside of Judah’s family.
Mistaking her for a harlot, Judah propositioned Tamar and she conceived. When Judah learned that his daughter-in-law was with child, he sentenced her to be burned. Only then did Tamar give evidence that Judah was the father and that she was therefore within her rights under the levirate law.
Upon realizing his role in Tamar’s pregnancy, Judah confessed his hypocrisy and declared, “She has been more righteous than I.”
This is the only story that separates the account of Judah instigating the sale of his brother Joseph to the Ishmaelites and the narrative of Judah being willing to give his own life to save his brother Benjamin. One could argue that Tamar awakened Judah to his covenant family and returned him to worship Jehovah.
Tamar bore Judah twin boys. They are numbered among those of Jacob’s family who relocated to Egypt and later their descendants are numbered with those who followed Moses out of Egypt. One of Tamar and Judah’s descendants was the honorable Boaz who married Ruth, and later in the line came King David, King Solomon, and all the future kings of Judah. And eventually, through this same line was born Jesus of his mother Mary, as chronicled in Matthew 1.
What qualities does Camille Fronk Olson most admire in Ruth?
The story of Ruth, like that of Tamar, demonstrates how family heritage and the hope of ages were preserved by a woman. The story of Ruth is not an account of national or religious leaders, but a story of everyday people in an unremarkable community at an undisclosed period of time.
Ruth was not a queen or the daughter of a prophet, but a Moabite widow of an Israelite farmer. She is remembered and loved not because of any physical beauty or wealth or political power. She was noteworthy for her kindness, love, and concern for the elderly and vulnerable.
She became the catalyst to restore a family to a hopeful life. She voluntarily sacrificed all that she had to show kindness beyond what anyone would expect or require. Void of material possessions, Ruth gave of who she was—unselfish, proactive, virtuous, respectful of others regardless of age or position, and loyal.
In many ways, Ruth exemplifies Christlike attributes and inspires merciful kindness for others.
How has studying the lives of Old Testament women affected Camille Fronk Olson’s relationship with the Savior?
As a result of studying women in the Old Testament, we remember that the purpose of scripture is to bear witness of Jesus Christ, not to define the level of righteousness of the various individuals portrayed therein.
As is true for all of us today, none of these biblical women was without weakness, and all of them had a divine potential to contribute to the Lord’s work. That is why careful gospel study never confuses the Savior with anyone else in scripture. He alone is without sin; everyone else has a desperate need for the Redeemer. Each of us can do extraordinary things in the work of the Lord with Him who is our anchor and compass.
By acknowledging that God performed some of His work in ancient times through a variety of women with a broad diversity in personalities, strengths, life circumstances, and opportunities, we are less likely to fear diversity in those same areas among today’s women who likewise love the Lord and desire to serve Him.
It is the Atonement of Jesus Christ that unites us, not our physical appearance, talents, cultural background, or comparative gospel knowledge. Just as these Old Testament women’s contributions and stories are easily missed in our gospel study, so women’s voices and contributions are often overlooked today. But that doesn’t prevent women then or now from showing tremendous faith in Jesus Christ and acting on that faith to do His work in essential ways.
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About Camille Fronk Olson
Camille Fronk Olson is a BYU professor emerita in ancient scripture and author of several books and articles about women in scripture.
- Is the Song of Solomon Scripture?
- Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls
- Let’s Talk about Polygamy
- Latter-day Saint Women and the Priesthood
- ‘Hello Girls’: The Story of American’s Forgotten Female Soldiers
Women of the Old Testament resources
Camille Fronk Olson books
- A Place to Belong: Reflections from Modern Latter-day Saint Women
- Becoming Perfect In Christ
- Covenant Keepers and the Family of God
- In the Hands of the Potter
- Mary, Martha, and Me
- Mary, the Mother of Jesus
- Too Much to Carry Alone
- With Healing In His Wings
- Women of the New Testament
- Women of the Old Testament
Old Testament heroines
- Motherhood in the Old Testament (John Hilton III)
- Faith and Fortitude (Ensign)
- Latter-day Saint Author Creates Comprehensive List of All Women in the Book of Mormon and Bible (LDS Living)
- 11 Things about Women in Ancient Israel You Probably Didn’t Know (Oxford University Press Blog)