WOMAN’S INDISPENSABLE ROLE IN SALVATION HISTORY
H.H. Pope John Paul II
March 27, 1996
1. The Old
Testament holds up for our admiration some extraordinary
women who, impelled by the Spirit of God, share in the
struggles and triumphs of Israel or contribute to its
salvation. Their presence in the history of the people is
neither marginal nor passive: they appear as true
protagonists of salvation history. Here are the most
crossing of the Red Sea, the sacred text emphasizes the
initiative of a woman inspired to make this decisive event a
festive celebration: "Then Miriam, the prophetess, the
sister of Aaron took a timbrel in her hand; and all the
women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And
Miriam sang to them: 'Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed
gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the
sea'" (Ex 15:20-21).
of feminine enterprise in the context of a celebration
stresses not only the importance of woman's role, but also
her particular ability for praising and thanking God.
contribution of women to salvation history
2. The action
of the prophetess Deborah, at the time of the Judges, is
even more important. After ordering the commander of the
army to go and gather his men, she guarantees by her
presence the success of Israel's army, predicting that
another woman, Jael, will kill their enemy's general.
the great victory, Deborah also sings a long canticle
praising Jael's action: "Most blessed of women be Jael, ...
of tent-dwelling women most blessed" (Jgs 5:24). In the New
Testament this praise is echoed in the words Elizabeth
addresses to Mary on the day of the Visitation: "Blessed are
you among women ..." (Lk 1:42).
significant role of women in the salvation of their people,
highlighted by the figures of Deborah and Jael, is presented
again in the story of another prophetess named Huldah, who
lived at the time of King Josiah.
the priest Hilkiah, she made prophecies announcing that
forgiveness would be shown to the king who feared the divine
wrath. Huldah thus becomes a messenger of mercy and peace
(cf. 2 Kgs 22:14-20).
3. The Books
of Judith and Esther, whose purpose is to idealize the
positive contribution of woman to the history of the chosen
people, present—in a violent cultural context—two women who
win victory and salvation for the Israelites.
The Book of
Judith, in particular, tells of a fearsome army sent by
Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Israel. Led by Holofernes, the
enemy army is ready to seize the city of Bethulia, amid the
desperation of its inhabitants, who, considering any
resistance to be useless, ask their rulers to surrender. But
the city's elders, who in the absence of immediate aid
declare themselves ready to hand Bethulia over to the enemy,
are rebuked by Judith for their lack of faith as she
professes her complete trust in the salvation that comes
from the Lord.
After a long
invocation to God, she who is a symbol of fidelity to the
Lord, of humble prayer and of the intention to remain chaste
goes to Holofernes, the proud, idolatrous and dissolute
with him and before striking him, Judith prays to Yahweh,
saying: "Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!" (Jdt
13:7). Then, taking Holofernes' sword, she cuts off his
Here too, as
in the case of David and Goliath, the Lord used weakness to
triumph over strength. On this occasion, however, it was a
woman who brought victory: Judith, without being held back
by the cowardice and unbelief of the people's rulers, goes
to Holofernes and kills him, earning the gratitude and
praise of the High Priest and the elders of Jerusalem. The
latter exclaimed to the woman who had defeated the enemy:
"You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great
glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation! You
have done all this single-handed; you have done great good
to Israel, and God is well pleased with it. May the Almighty
Lord bless you for ever!" (Jdt 15:9-10).
4. The events
narrated in the Book of Esther occurred in another very
difficult situation for the Jews. In the kingdom of Persia,
Haman, the king's superintendent, decrees the extermination
of the Jews. To remove the danger, Mardocai, a Jew living in
the citadel of Susa, turns to his niece Esther, who lives in
the king's palace where she has attained the rank of queen.
Contrary to the law in force, she presents herself to the
king without being summoned, thus risking the death penalty,
and she obtains the revocation of the extermination decree.
Haman is executed, Mordocai comes to power and the Jews
delivered from menace, thus get the better of their enemies.
Esther both risk their lives to win the salvation of their
people. The two interventions, however, are quite different:
Esther does not kill the enemy but, by playing the role of
mediator, intercedes for those who are threatened with
sketches Mary's role in human salvation
intercessory role is later attributed to another female
figure, Abigail, the wife of Nabal, by the First Book of
Samuel. Here too, it is due to her intervention that
salvation is once again achieved.
She goes to
meet David, who has decided to destroy Nabal's family, and
asks forgiveness for her husband's sins. Thus she delivers
his house from certain destruction (1 Sm 25).
As can be
easily noted, the Old Testament tradition frequently
emphasizes the decisive action of women in the salvation of
Israel, especially in the writings closest to the coming of
Christ. In this way the Holy Spirit, through the events
connected with Old Testament women, sketches with ever
greater precision the characteristics of Mary's mission in
the work of salvation for the entire human race.
Weekly Edition in English
3 April 1996
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