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Unnamed Women in the Bible

Nicolas Poussin

The Bible has a host of named, speaking characters—and a much larger cast of anonymous and nonspeaking ones. We tend to focus on and remember the former and may overlook the latter.

Female characters are particularly interesting. Instead of supplying names, the Bible often emphasizes a woman’s status (royalty, prostitute, servant, wise woman) and relationships (wife, mother, daughter, widow). On the biblical stage, unnamed women function as secondary characters and help propel the plot, expand a book’s themes, and shed light on the “stars,” the named, speaking characters.

Consider these cameo appearances of anonymous Hebrew Bible women.

In Exod 2:1-10, an unnamed Egyptian princess, daughter of an unnamed Egyptian pharaoh, becomes a Hebrew slave-child’s foster mother. The princess names the baby Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”  The baby’s name indicates the princess chose to acknowledge the baby’s origin and knew a bit of Hebrew herself, for the name Moses is related to a root word in Hebrew meaning “to draw out.”

The text shows her as an independent thinker, one who confidently defies her father’s order to kill all newborn Hebrew males. Thus she becomes—along with the baby’s resourceful, unnamed mother and quick-thinking, unnamed sister—a deliverer of the one who delivers God’s people from slavery some 80 years later. This cluster of anonymous characters sets the tone for Exodus’s major theme, deliverance.

1Kgs 17 introduces Elijah and records his interactions with Ahab, king of Israel, and a widow living in Zarephath, a seacoast town. Elijah audaciously tells Ahab there will be neither dew nor rain until he says so! Famine subsequently stalks the land. But who is Elijah? Who gives him his authority? His dealings with Ahab and the widow fill in this silence. God has commanded the widow to feed Elijah. They meet as she gathers sticks to prepare her last meal for herself and her son. Elijah decrees that her flour and oil will not run out, and these staples remain steady. Later, her son dies suddenly. When Elijah prays, the boy’s life returns! These miracles of pronouncement, provision, and restoration of life provide Elijah’s credentials. The chapter contains subtle humor. It muzzles powerful Ahab but chronicles the feisty, faith-filled opinions of this vociferous, hospitable, unnamed Gentile woman. Arguably, Elijah’s sojourn in her home prepares him for his confrontation with the 450 prophets of Baal. He is called a prophet for the first time in the following chapter.

In Dan 5, an unnamed Babylonian queen validates Daniel and perhaps declares herself a believer in Daniel’s god. During a state banquet hosted by King Belshazzar, drunkenness prevails. Fingers of a human hand suddenly appear and write words on a wall. This astonishing event prompts the queen to advise Belshazzar to call Daniel, the exiled Israelite, because he “is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods” (Dan 5:11). Interpreting the words on the wall, Daniel says God has brought Belshazzar’s reign to an end. That night Belshazzar is slain, and Darius the Mede seizes the kingdom. The story showcases the sovereignty of Daniel’s god over nations. The identity of the unnamed queen puzzles scholars. Perhaps a dowager queen, she provides a lengthy assessment of Daniel from someone outside the covenant, calling him one “found to have enlightenment, understanding, and wisdom” (Dan 5:1/).

Anonymous women, although supporting characters on the biblical stage, nonetheless emerge as forceful personalities. They contribute to the development of ongoing themes like God’s sovereignty, faithfulness, and care for widows. Sometimes they have the last word: unnamed women in Bethlehem remind the widow Naomi that her daughter-in-law Ruth is better for her “than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). 

  • Robin Gallaher Branch

    Robin Gallaher Branch is extraordinary associate professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She has written extensively on biblical characters and has published five biblical plays.