Working Mothers and family Life – Part 1 – Female occupations in the Bible

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This two part post has been written to challenge the opinion popular in some evangelical circles that Christian mothers “should not work” outside the home; that the Biblical model is for mothers to stay at home looking after the children, while fathers go out to work to support their families financially.

In this part of this post, I will look at occupations held by women in the Bible. This should demonstrate very clearly to people clamouring for a return to Biblical values that the idea of women, and mothers working is Biblically legitimate. I must say that I do understand why many people are seeking this change. It seems as if society is breaking apart (and it is) and people have identified the lack of adequate upbringing as a reason why many children and young people are going astray and disobeying authority. For this reason they desire to see mothers on the whole “return to the home” as the “primary care-givers” to concentrate on providing care, nurture and adequate training for children, while fathers can remain in the workplace to provide materially for their families.

I know that people mean well and I sympathise fully with their desire to see children well brought-up. My point in this two-part post is simply to demonstrate that targeting working mothers is a misguided way of achieving these noble intentions. It is simply not true that in the Bible women “stayed at home to look after the children” (while the men “went out to work”). Let us remember that as Christians it is never acceptable to twist the teachings of the Bible to achieve our aims, no matter how valuable those aims may be. What was true, and remains true for many communities around the world is that both men and women worked locally, often at home, and childcare was distributed among generations of families and friends, when children were not actually present in their parents’ workplaces.

So then, let us look at some female occupations in the Bible:

OLD TESTAMENT

Offering Spiritual Leadership
In another recent post, “Vindication of Female leadership in church” I wrote at length about Deborah who was a prophet and a Judge over Israel in the time of the Judges, before a King had been established over Israel. I also spoke about Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Moses and Aaron, and Huldah another prophetess.
Both Deborah and Huldah were wives, and Deborah describes herself as being a mother in Israel, although admittedly we do not know how old her children were: Judges 5v7

Rebekah: Going to draw water, watering the camels
In Genesis 24, we come across the person of Rebekah. She physically, personally drew water for all the camels of Abraham’s servant. We are told in verse 10 that the servant took ten of his master’s camels. This Wikipedia article tells us that a thirsty camel can drink 200 litres of water in three minutes. (Other articles say that a camel can drink altogether 200 litres of water in a day) If Rebekah drew 200 litres of water each for all ten camels then that would have been quite a feat. However, if she drew even only 200 litres in total, including the water that the servant drank, that would still have been a huge task. So what is not immediately apparent from this account until we probe a little deeper is the physical strength that she must have demonstrated, even as a young unmarried woman. Verse 11 tells us that it was commonly the task of the women to come out to draw water.

Rachel, a shepherdess:
Genesis 29v9 tells us that Rachel was a shepherdess, looking after her father’s sheep.

Shiprah and Puah, Widwives
Exodus 1:15ff

Jethro’s daughters: shepherds
Exodus 2v16 tells us that Jethro had seven daughters, and they drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.

Weavers:
Exodus 35v25 tells us that skilled female weavers brought what they had spun, blue and purple and scarlet and fine linen

Ruth and the young women of Boaz: Gleaned the fields
Ruth 2v3 tells us that Ruth went and gleaned in the field of Boaz after the reapers. Verse 8 tells us that Boaz had young women who were working for him in his field.

Samuel’s warning about a king: perfumers and cooks and bakers
In 1 Samuel 8v13 When Samuel was warning the Children of Israel about the behaviour of a king, he warned them that the king would take their daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers

Sheerah – Built towns
1 Chronicles 7v24 tells us in passing of Sheerah, the daughter of Beriah, who built the Towns of both Upper and Lower Horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. This does not necessarily mean that she physically built the towns herself, but perhaps organised builders to accomplish this task. Verses 25 and 26 tell us that she had brothers. However, they were not recorded as building anything – it seems that she was the builder in the family!

Daughters of Shallum: Repaired the walls
Nehemiah 3v12 tells us of the daughter of Shallum, who accompanied their father to repair the city wall, alongside lots of men.

Woman of Proverbs 31
The woman of Proverbs 31 completes a number of things. She is described as being a wife and mother (v28)
v13 She works with her own hands in wool and flax
v14 She brings her food from afar
v15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household
v16 She considers a field and buys it, she makes a profit, she plants a vineyard
v17 She is strong, she strengthens her arms, she works hard

v18 She has merchandise, she keeps working at night, she also spins cloth

v19 She takes care of people who do not have enough of their own

v22 She makes tapestry for herself

v24 She makes linen garments and sells them, she supplies sashes for the merchants

v27 She watches over the ways of her household
 
Shulamite woman: Keeper of the vineyard
Song of Solomon 1v6
 
The Prophet’s widow: seller of oil
2 Kings 4v1-7
 
NEW TESTAMENT
I have already spoken at length about Phoebe the Deacon and Priscilla who along with her husband Aquila taught Apollos. However, Acts also records that Priscilla was a tentmaker, with her husband Aquila: Acts 18v3

Lydia, the seller of purple
Acts 16v14

Slaves and servants:
The Bible records domestic servants and slaves in both Testaments. These would be men, women and children and they definitely worked.

For more on this topic, please see this article

In many of these cases, like the Proverbs 31 woman, women performed these tasks while at home. However, please stay tuned for Part 2 where I will look further into detail about the fact that working lives for everyone were often based at home.

Image of woman with money by Petr Kratochvil at http://www.publicdomainpictures.net

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