An article last year in the Biblical Archeological Review (“How Many?” Biblical Archaeology Review 42.1 (2016): 10, 62), noted that there were 3,237 characters named in the Bible. The excellent reference work, The Biographical Bible (2002), by David G. Stephan, corroborates this figure. That is a lot of people, isn’t it! The BAR article goes on to say that, of these named, only 188 are women. I have not checked this but it sounds right to me. (And there are another few hundred women in the Bible that are not named.)
Considering this data, the question arises: why are there so fewer women names in the Bible compared to men? The superficial answer, of course, is that the Bible is a misogynistic book, written by men who oppress women. This blame-patriarchy answer, however, does not bear up under scrutiny. As I mentioned in the last post about The Woman’s Bible, and explained at length in chapter four of enGendered, the Scriptures present women from beginning to end as equal image-bearers of God. It is not possible to square this culture-defying advocacy with a view of the Bible as just a man’s book.
So then what gives with this mathematical difference? Well, the answer is in another math term: asymmetry. The equal souls have asymmetrical callings, which explains the gap.
Men are called to representation in family relationships. It is a critical part of what the Bible calls being a ‘head.’ It means being the place where the buck stops, the responsibility is taken, and the bearing of family burdens is born. Most of those 3,237 names refer not to main characters in the history at all, but to men about which little or nothing else is known. Many of them occur in genealogies giving—you guessed it—the representatives of families. Hence, men.
The other relevant asymmetry is the call of the guy to lead in mutual mission. That will result in an eminence, expressed in the covenant community for example, with masculine kings and priests, that will make for more guy names.
But all this doesn’t mean that women do not feature prominently in the Biblical stories over and over. In fact, if one limited one’s study to characters playing a “starring role” in the Biblical drama, or maybe just those with speaking parts, the gap between counts of men and women would narrow significantly.
I experienced this dual prominence recently when I preached through the two volume biblical book of Samuel for my congregation. I marveled at how major themes of the book were introduced by women. Whether Hannah’s song at the beginning (1Samuel 2), or the feminine medium’s message to Saul (1Samuel 28), or Abigail to David (1Samuel 25), the most weighty matters of kingship come by womanly mouths. There aren’t as many women mentioned in Samuel as men, but they sure do get the best lines in its story.
Do you see the Bible giving an important message in the gendered counts of its names?