Chapter 7. BIOGRAPHICAL STUDY OF A BIBLE WOMAN
That Scripture female biography ever proves a fascinating and fruitful aspect of meditation, is evident from the fact that books on the women of the Bible abound, as can be seen in the exhaustive Index which Edith Deen cites at the end of her own volume on all the named and nameless women of the Bible. A perusal of some 30 volumes which the writer possesses on such a theme, revealed that the majority of authors deal with 25 to 50 characters at the most, and in the majority of cases, the same women. But as we have already indicated, there are almost 200 named women in the Bible, and almost the same number who are unnamed. Thus the preacher or teacher has a wide field to work when it comes to biographical material.
The Bible revolves around personalities, and is the biography of humanity. Sometimes the biographies of men and women outside the Bible leave us cold. The characters portrayed seem to be too ideal. Theirs are heights we cannot reach. Nothing is said about their faults, weaknesses and sins. But with the Bible it is different for here are men and women of like passions as ourselves; and as Augustine expressed it, “The Sacred Record, like a faithful mirror, has no flattery in its portraits.” In an arrestive chapter in his volume on The Joy of Bible Study, dealing with “Composite Portraits,” Dr. Harrington Lees reminds us that—
The lives of men and women who speak to us from the pages of Scripture may be a veritable gold-mine of experience to us if we can remember the fact that they lived similar lives, and triumphed by faith, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us—or, if they entered not into their land of promise, failed through disobedience or unbelief. All good biography is fruitful, but Scripture biography is singularly so.
Endeavoring to deal with any Bible character in a biographical way there are several principles to bear in mind.
First of all, it is essential to gather together all references to the person studied. This can be easily done with the aid of a Bible concordance. For instance, if Eve is taken, the Scriptures in which she is mentioned are Genesis 3:20; 4:1; 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Timothy 2:13. If these are written out in full on a slip of paper, and carefully scanned, all pertinent facts concerning the world’s first woman can be noted.
Secondly, with all listed passages before you, check elements of power or weakness, success or failure, privileges or limited advantages and disadvantages; mistakes made and perils to be avoided, as well as help and pardon obtained from God. It will be found that the lights and shadows stand out in bold relief. Character and conduct are set forth in no uncertain terms. Angel heights and devil depths are displayed causing one to confess with Carlyle that, “Biography is the only true history.”
Thirdly, the gaps must be covered as well as the wealth of detail given. It will be seen that some lives are more fully described than others. Where facts are meager, imagination or history of the times can provide expansion. Not much is said of Lot’s wife, but a knowledge of Sodom enables us to understand why she was destroyed as she looked back to Sodom as the family fled from it. She left Sodom as a place, but Sodom was ever in her heart and she was loathe to leave it.
Fourthly, characters may be studied in a variety of ways. One can follow them consecutively, marking how strong yet vulnerable they were. Causes of success and failure can also be traced. Persons can be treated in a typical fashion as Jezebel is when John does so in connection with the church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:20). What one must guard against is the tendency to over-spiritualize a Bible character. As Harrington Lees says in this connection, “It may be overdone, but sanity and spirituality taken for granted, it cannot well be denied that both our Lord and His apostles read the Old Testament, to some extent, in this way. The lives of individuals may be outlined and filled in by holy meditation and wise inference.” As demonstration is worth more than description, let us take one or two illustrations of female biography.
Mary of Bethany, who is among the most renowned in God’s portrait gallery, comes before us in Mark 14:3-9; Luke 10:39, 42; John 11:1-45; 12:3, all of which references must be carefully examined for a complete cameo of one of the best among Bible women. She belonged to Bethany, a favorite haunt of our Lord. She was a member of a close-knit family, and along with her sister and brother, was loved of the Lord. She was of a deep, meditative frame of mind—devoutly religious with an intuitive insight into the mission of her Lord. She was extravagant in her preparation of Jesus for His death. Dealing with these and other traits in her character, the teacher could use Tennyson’s poem which we have quoted at the end of Chapter 5. A dual keynote can be stressed. On the human side Mary was misunderstood, but on the divine side she was at the place of blessing when sitting at the feet of Jesus. Here is an outline combining this double trait—
1. Her misunderstood stillness—Luke 10:40—understanding at Christ’s feet—Luke 10:39, 42; Isaiah 60:13.
2. Her misunderstood search—John 11:31, 32—understanding at Christ’s feet—John 11:31.
3. Her misunderstood service—John 12:2-8—understanding at Christ’s feet—John 12:3, 7, 8.
For a perfect example of how to deal with a female character, we go to Biblical Character Sketches, published by James Nisbet and Co., London, in 1896. This rare volume, long out of print, is made up of 13 male characters and 7 female characters of the Bible. Among the latter is a contribution from Dr. F. B. Meyer on Mary Magdalene, which one feels should be recovered for the benefit of Bible lovers today. Here it is in full—
“There is nothing to attract the modern traveller to the site of Magdala save the fragrance of this woman’s name. A squalid Arab village looks out from the south of the plain of Gennesaret on the same sapphire lake, with its encircling hills, but the joyous stir of life, the gleam of thickly-populated cities, familiar to her girlish eyes, are gone. How marvellous is the interest with which a human life can invest scenes in which it was nurtured!”
“Thither, probably, the Saviour came, in the course of His itineracy of Galilee, and there expelled from her the seven devils, who had held her nature as a gang of pirates might seize a man and employ a vessel which they had torn from its legitimate use. Her case was one of those many unrecorded miracles which are concealed beneath the general statements of the Gospels, as when we are told, ‘They brought unto Him all that were sick, and holden with divers diseases and torments, and possessed with devils, and He healed them.’ The miracles of the Gospels are but a fraction of those which He wrought, as He went about doing good and healing those oppressed with the devil.”
“Tradition has been more than usually busy with her name, and has woven many a legend into the simple statements of the Gospels. With the majority of these we have nothing now to do; most of them were dictated by the desire of the enemies of Christ to load His name with contempt.”
“There is that, however, which identifies her with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom, we are told, Jesus loved. But this is surely in direct collision with the Lord’s own statement that she came beforehand to anoint Him for His burying. This interpretation, placed by Jesus on her act of love, indicates that she had a closer sympathy with His intentions, and a deeper insight into his predictions concerning Himself, than any other human being. She probably realized all the tragedy of His death and burial as no one else of the little band which surrounded Him, and she would not have been likely to overlook His express anticipation of resurrection.”
“The only other legend to which we need refer is one which has obtained great currency in the Western Church, and has discerned Mary of Magdala in the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus in the earlier days of His ministry at the house of Simon the Pharisee, who wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Some color is given to this tradition by the statement that out of Mary Magdalene Christ cast seven demons. Whatever that expression may mean—and there is no reason to dispute its literal accuracy—there had been, not improbably, some collusion between her and those foul spirits, both in disposition and habit, before they had been able to make her nature their home. Such are the barriers that the Creator has reared between us and the evil spirits which haunt even the heavenly places, that they cannot enter us unless we unbar the door and open it from within. And thus we infer from the possession of Mary Magdalene by so foul a crew that she had yielded to the solicitation of sense, had allowed her nature to be swept to unlawful indulgence before the current of unrestrained and unholy passion, and that on the wings of this wild hurricane the spirits of evil had entered her.”
“Beneath the influence of Jesus these unhallowed passions had been succeeded by holy love. ‘She loved much.’ Her tears, her tender ministry to the beloved feet, the shattered box of ointment, all attested the strength and earnestness of her devotion. But, after all, there was a good deal of the merely human element in this. She ministered to His physical needs, waited by His cross keeping watch with Him till He expired, and hurried to anoint the cold, stiffened body with all a woman’s tenderness to a reverend and beloved teacher. And Christ sought to lift this love to a higher level, from the human to the divine, from sense to spirit, from earth to heaven. ‘Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended.’”
“What a gracious development of character awaited that warm-hearted woman, who was destined to pass from passionate gratitude for deliverance, to the ‘Rabboni’ of the Easter morning, and finally to the reception of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost! ‘These all with one accord continued stedfastly in prayer, with the women ...’ ‘And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’”
“There were, therefore, three stages in the development of her character. In the first place, passion was replaced by love. These two are too often confused in thought and ordinary talk; but they are essentially distinct—as distinct as the orgies of the groves of Astarte and the shrine of Aphrodite from the courtship of Miles Standish. Passion is always selfish, and brooks no obstacle in the way of personal gratification. It will tear up the very planks out of its home to feed its fires. Love, on the other hand, is full of reverence and respect and consideration. It will suffer the uttermost of pain rather than seek its own at the expense of another. It looks not on its own, but on the interests of the beloved objects of its solicitude. It is strong and self-restrained, and lives with the girded loin.”
“Thus these two are mutually destructive. Let passion have its way, and love shows signs of consumption. It pines and withers. It cannot live in the poisonous air, like that which lurks in the tropic jungle or beside the fatal Congo.”
“Jesus Christ comes to extinguish the lurid glow of passion. But His work does not stay with this, great and blessed as it is. A mere negation will not save. It is not enough to extinguish the unhallowed fires of passion from the altar by emptying on it barrels of water: a fire is still needed for the sacrifice. And the true Prophet of Heaven must furnish the latter as well as accomplish the former, or He will fail to meet man’s most urgent need. Thus the glory of our Master lies in this—He replaces the fires of hell by live coals from heaven’s altar. He readjusts us with human relationships. He drives out the pirate crew, and fills the vessel with a heavenly one. Mary not only is delivered from the frenzy of wild passion, but clad in the white robes of stainless purity. ‘She loved much.’”
“But, in addition to this, human love was lifted to the divine. The love of Mary Magdalene to Jesus exhibits all those traits which we are accustomed to associate with woman’s love when it reaches its ideal.”
“It was so faithful. Men dread to fail in life, not for themselves so much as for the anguish which it will bring on those that love them. Often a man reasons with himself that to fail will alienate from him precious friends. This is true of some. They are hollow and superficial. Like the nautilus, they swim on the surface in all their glory and beauty in fair weather, but disappear at the first overcasting of the sun. But no man ever lost a true woman’s love when he failed. Failure and loss and trouble only bring out a woman’s noblest traits, and principally her tenacity of affection, which strong waters cannot drown. So Mary clung to the cross, the grave, the mangled body. ‘There was standing by the cross of Jesus ... Mary Magdalene.’ ‘Mary Magdalene was there, sitting over against the sepulchre.’”
“A woman’s love must always find something to do for its beloved. As long as a woman can nurse or minister, or get ointments ready, or come to anoint, she can endure her sorrow. She will put away the thought of what may come afterwards of blankness and despair by her occupation in doing something practical in the present. This saves her from entire collapse. It was this that made Mary so eager to anoint the dear body, and so agonized when it was not where she had left it. To her, that ministry was more than she realized, as a salvation from heart-break.”
“And how brave it made her! She was indifferent to the perils of an Eastern city, not a fit place for defenseless woman while it was yet dark. She beheld with steadfast gaze the glorious forms of the angels, that else had filled her with panic. She did not hesitate to assure the gardener that she, lonely and weak, would carry off the body unaided, if only he would show her where it was. Ah, woman’s love, what will it not dare and do? The mother for her babe! The wife for the husband! The girl for her lover!”
“Of course there was mistake—gross and palpable mistake—mistake that was almost culpable, for He had so often tired to explain each of these scenes, that His friends might not be surprised when they arrived! And yet through all there shines that blessed love, which, like the river in the prophet’s vision, has done so much to sweeten the marshes and dead seas of our world.”
“Ah, sisters, compete with us if you will in literature and science and business, but never let anything rob you of this marvellous faculty of holy love, the divinest gift of any that lingers amid the wreck and ruin of our fall—like the Virgin’s Well amid the ruins of the Roman Forum, as old as Rome, but fresh and beautiful today.”
“But this love could not satisfy. It clung to the Man, the Brother, the Flesh, rather than to the Word who had assumed it. Christ loved her too well to be willing to pass over this incompleteness. He is the true Gardener of souls, and when He finds a plant capable of the best He will not let it come short. If the highest ideal can only be realized through the use of the knife, He will not scruple to employ it. And so the sepulchre was vacated, the body was gone; those loving hands must not ever touch Him. Thwarted, frustrated, deprived of its object, the Magdalene’s love was first stunned, benumbed, struck dumb with grief, then suddenly it saw”
‘Gleaming on high, diviner things.’
“She reached up towards the risen Christ; addressed Him in her mother-tongue, ‘Rabboni’; realized that though He were essentially unchanged, yet she must no longer know Him after the flesh, but enter into a spiritual relationship, which would give her deeper draughts of throne-water higher up the stream, satisfying divine capacities with the divine.”
“So still does the Gardener of souls deal with us. He will not let His white flowers trail on the earth, lest they become soiled. He lifts them sunwards on trelliswork, but the process is sorely painful and against nature. The earthly objects to which we had clung are taken away. We cry out. We think we must die. We ask what there is to live for. Then He speaks about His ascension to the Father. Slowly we take in His meaning. We too begin to ascend. We set our affections on things above. We seek the things where He sits at the right hand of God. As time goes slowly, very slowly by, we find that we have gained, not lost. The mould is destroyed, but the casting is left; the scaffolding is taken down, but the house is finished; the earthly and human are gone, but the heavenly and divine are ours for ever. All our love is permitted to entwine around some human object then all suddenly it is removed; but the wrenched tendrils are taken by a man’s hand and gently taught to grasp the unseen and eternal. The sap ebbs for a moment, and then begins to return, and pulse and throb with an intenser energy than ever. Such things worketh God oftentimes with men and women.”
“But when the training is complete, the gains are great. Mary Magdalene came to anoint the dead; she found the living already anointed of the Holy Ghost. All His garments smelt of aloes and cassia, the perfumes of heaven, with which His Father had made Him glad.”
“She came to a Victim; but lo, a Priest, who was on the point of entering the presence of God for her, and all mankind.”
“She came to the Vanquished; but a Victor over the principalities and powers of hell stood radiant there, the keys of Hades and the grave hanging at His girdle, the devil bruised beneath His feet.”
“She thought she had come to put the final touch to a life of sad and irremediable failure; but she discovered that on that morning a life had been inaugurated which was destined to be endless and incorruptible.”
“With what better response could she greet her risen Lord than by the cry, ‘Rabboni,’ He is Brother, but He is also King? Through the door of service we enter the temple of fellowship. The slaves of Jesus alone become nobles and friends. To obey is to be His mother, sister, and brother. Then we consort with His brethren and disciples, and wait in prayer and supplication, and tarry expectant in the upper room, until the heavens open, the coronet of flame encircles our brow, we are baptized in the fire of celestial love, whilst the power of the Holy Ghost enters to fill and flood the inner shrine of the spirit.”
“When souls are thus baptized, they are proud to become the patron-saints and beacon-lights for other souls as low down as they once were. Do you not think that even if Mary Magdalene never fell so low as the fallen of our streets, that she is proud to be identified with efforts for their deliverance? This is the only light in which we can find comfort from our past sins, that by them we have learned the stepping-stones across the Stygian log, and have learned to point the way for those who are almost in despair.;”
Biographical study convinces one that Scripture was not given merely to satisfy the intellect, but to enrich one’s own life, to quicken the conscience, correct judgment, reinforce the will and direct the feet. Allowing for differences of time and place, the temptations and possibilities coming to Bible women meet the daughters of Eve today. Their God is the God of modern women, who have a spiritual armory Bible saints did not possess. Women on this side of the cross and of Pentecost need not know shame and defeat in life. Christianity has supplied women with a full emancipation.