The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman began scouring the Bible three years ago to do something that apparently had never been done: the cataloging of every word uttered by every woman in the more than 2,000-year-old holy book.
Meeting in a church library, Freeman and an unlikely research team systematically pored over every Bible chapter, documenting the words on spreadsheets and inserting context and highlights. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year.
The results give surprise insights into the lives of women ranging from Abigail to Zipporah. Eve, for example, may be the Bible’s most well-known woman, but she utters only 74 words. Yet an unnamed “Shulamite woman” in the Song of Solomon holds forth with 1,425.
The research, now compiled in a book, is part of a boom in interest in women in scripture.
“We were stunned nobody had done this before,” said Freeman, an author, lecturer and former pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, where the research team met.
Freeman said she studied dozens of research books on Bible women.
“We found that all these books looked at what women did, but not what the women said,” Freeman said. “We wanted to hold up their words, and bring them to life.”
The result is “Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter.” It joins an ever-growing world of blogs, websites and books putting the spotlight on women who for centuries were bit players in the march of biblical history.
“It’s introduced me to some women I’ve never met before,” said the Rev. Nancy Crawford, national president of Episcopal Church Women, which provided a grant for the project. “Usually we hear about sweet women: Mary, Martha, Sarah. Some of the women are very surprising.”
On a recent morning, Freeman and her three research partners gathered in the library at Trinity Church. They sat around a large table with their laptops, dog-eared Bibles and piles of academic books on biblical women.
Three years ago, the group started their work building on several known Bible facts: 93 women speak in the Bible. 49 have names. About 1.1 million words are quoted throughout the book.
They later discovered that about 14,000 of those words were spoken by women in the Bible — at least in the English translation of the New Revised Standard Version.
Digging deeper, they learned:
• Judith, who murders an enemy general in the Book of Judith, gets the most ink with 2,689 words. She’s followed by the Shulamite woman in the Song of Solomon, with 1,425 words, and Esther, with 1,207 words.
• High-profile women don’t fare as well. Mary, the mother of Jesus, utters all of 191 words. Mary Magdalene says 61. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, gets 141.
• The Samaritan woman, who has the longest recorded conversation with Jesus in the Bible, speaks all of 151 words.
The book, designed in part to be used in Bible and women’s studies’ groups, includes not just the number of words spoken, but the precise quotes, their context and a profile of the speaker.
In the process, it shows how women in scripture dealt with issues such as poverty, faith, infertility, marriage, prayer, rape and war.
“These are real people with real personalities,” said Freeman. “A lot of time, Bible studies are too complicated for people to digest. We didn’t want that.”
The findings were unearthed by an unlikely group of women from Trinity church: recent retiree Susan Webster, church group facilitator Joyce White, and energetic teen home schooler Christy Stang.
Board game next
Last month, the group had moved on to phase two of the project: creating a Jeopardy-type board game. They stared at a bulletin board on which they had listed categories such as “Political Leaders” and “Warriors.” Freeman, marker in hand, stood next to a work sheet labeled “Warriors” and asked for ideas.
“She beheaded Holofernes and stuffed his head in the food bag!” Answer: Judith.
“She killed a Philistine general with a tent peg.” Answer: Jael.
“She road into war on horseback.” Answer: Deborah.
“This is not your normal Bible study group,” joked Freeman.
The women in the Bible are healers, teachers, evangelists, wives, mothers — as well as victims of terrible violence, said Freeman. She and the other researchers say they were surprised to find themselves so drawn into these women’s lives. They cried when they read passages, such as when a woman is gang-raped.
“You think it’s just an old crusty book,” said White, “but the words meant so much to us.”
Growing interest in women
That a group of women sitting in a church library could break new ground in biblical research still boggles Freeman’s mind.
For centuries, Bible scholarship was the sole realm of scholars — largely men who could read religious texts in Hebrew and Greek. But the 1960s opened the doors to female seminarians, ministers and scholars, who began exploring the lives of women, said Carol Meyers, a nationally known biblical scholar at Duke University.
Interest has continued to grow, she said, but for different reasons.
“There are two groups in the general public looking at biblical women,” said Meyers. “Some are looking for role models. Some are showing how awful it was for women.”
Freeman said she had set forth simply to unearth more insights into the women who populate the world’s most-read book. Last month her book was awarded first place for Bible study in the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards.
“We want to get the word out that these were real flesh-and-blood women,” said Freeman.
Reading their words, albeit words recorded by men, “opens a whole new way to understanding the Bible.”