Women in the Bible – saintly or schemers, victims or victorious in war or in wooing – don’t actually notch a lot of verses of dialog. But these days their choices and actions, resonating throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are “speaking” loud and clear in the religion book market. Titles featuring their stories draw attention from the mass market to the scholarly readers, among Christians and Jews.
Women of the Bible Speak: The Wisdom of 16 Women and Their Lessons for Today (FOX News Books, out now) by Shannon Bream, a FOX News host, legal analyst, and author of a memoir of evangelical faith, rocketed up the religion bestseller list. It has surpassed 165,000 copies in sales, including more than 50,000 in preorder sales that prompted seven reprintings before the March 30th release date, according to Michael Tammero, senior v-p of marketing and brand strategy and part of the team that launched FOX News Books last fall.
Charged by CEO Suzanne Scott to launch a books platform, Tammero and colleagues, drawing from “market research and audience feedback,” determined that “patriotism, faith, and family” titles by familiar FOX faces would capture attention. (The first title, Modern Warriors: Real Stories from Real Heroes by FOX & Friends Weekend co-host Pete Hegseth, became a best seller this winter and the third title is not yet announced.) Tammero tells PW, “We knew that Shannon could make a book on women of the Bible fresh and compelling.” Then sales were propelled by “the power of all our platforms behind the book,” he says, citing multiple promotions on every FOX show, a podcast, a streaming series and a FOX affiliate satellite media tour.
Bream worked with the team to structure the book – pairing notable women in ways that spark discussion, then highlighting discussion points so the book invited conversation in book clubs and Bible study groups. Ultimately, however, it was Bream’s research with pastors, scholars, and theologians coupled with her own evangelical faith that makes the book personal, approachable, and sometimes surprising.
For example, Bream pairs widowed and childless Tamar, who seduces her father-in-law so that she may carry on her late husband’s lineage, with Ruth, the Moabite widow devoted to her Hebrew mother-in-law who ultimately marries a descendent of Tamar’s child. Both women become matrilineal ancestors of King David and ultimately of Jesus. Bream writes that they exemplify “bold choices and God’s redemptive power in the midst of our messy lives.” In the stories of so many Biblical women, she writes, God is “using human frailty to miraculous end.”
Beyond the soaring sales, Bream says, the real pleasure has been all that she learned in the process of “giving voice to these women.” Hagar, the slave to Sarah who bears Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, struck her. Alone and afraid, she is comforted by God and calls him “the God Who Sees Me.” Says Bream, “These women lived centuries ago and they faced crises of health, family fights, widowhood, infertility, and more. The God of then is the God of now. He sees you too. My hope is women will study the book with each other and be encouraged.”
Of course, women crave these stories, says scholar Lynn Japinga, author of a two-volume series from Westminster John Knox that touches on just about every women who appears at any point in the Bible — From Widows to Warriors: Women's Stories from the Old Testament released in 2020 and From Daughters to Disciples: Women's Stories from the New Testament (released in February).
In decades of teaching and preaching on women in the Scriptures, she’s seen pastors and commentators overlook, minimize or disparage women while delivering endless sermons on male figures. “Every month is Men’s History Month,” jokes Japinga, professor of Religion at Hope College and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. When she introduces students and preachers to new perspectives on women, she says, “They are always amazed. They always say, ‘Why did I never hear this before?’”
Consider Delilah. Is she the evil Philistine seductress who ruins the Hebrew strongman Samson? Japinga flips the viewpoint. She tells PW, “We don’t really know Delilah’s story. As a Philistine, she’s doing a patriotic service for her country. And Samson is the clueless guy who tells her the secret of his strength. Yet later he shows up in the Bible in Hebrews as one among the faithful. Delilah gets all the blame for a guy who’s all brawn and no brain.” She tells PW, “Men, if they are willing, can see the powers and the layers of human complexity and the ambiguity of humanity in these stories.”
WJK editor in chief Robert Ratclliff agrees. He says, “You don’t know the Bible if you don’t know the Bible’s women. The female characters are central to the narrative. We’ve done books like this for a long time that sold mostly to our female clergy but now it is moving strongly to church laity and general readership.”
Another new title, Reading Ruth: Birth, Redemption, and the Way of Israel (Paul Dry, out this month) is a deeply personal little volume created by Leon Kass, Washington DC-based scholar of social thought and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and his granddaughter in Jerusalem, Hannah Mandelbaum, 21, an Israeli college student. Dry, a small independent publisher who publishes eight to 12 titles a year of fiction and nonfiction, tells PW, “I thought it was grand: Two people trying to get to the depths of a text by talking about it word by word and imagining the lives of Ruth and Naomi.”
Kass and Mandelbaum’s work together in 10 weeks of Facetime conversations began as they both mourned the death of his wife, her grandmother, Amy Apfel Kass, a scholar, teacher and insightful author. Loss, redemption, and renewal in the next generation are central themes in Ruth. After her husband dies, Naomi’s two sons marry Moabite wives, but both die 10 years later, and “Naomi is left alone,” the Bible says. Kass recalls Hannah’s insight. He tells PW, “Where,’ asked Hannah, ‘are the grandchildren? Ten years, two marriages, but no children?’ ” This discovery highlighted for us the primacy of procreation and its redemptive power in Israel."
Ruth famously clings to Naomi, follows her back into her Hebrew faith and community, and ultimately remarries a virtuous man and finally gives birth to a son. Kass tells PW, "Ruth’s famous principle is loyal devotion and friendship to her mother-in-law, Naomi; Naomi’s—speaking, we believe, also for the text—is marriage and children.” For him, the experience of creating this interpretive commentary “confirmed for me the redemptive powers of faithful devotion, new birth, and cultural transmission. In keeping with the spirit and teaching of the book, my loss of Amy has been partly redeemed also by Hannah’s Ruth-like (and Amy-like) chesed—her gracious kindness and loving devotion—which she has steadily showered on me and on Amy’s memory.”
Thus, these authors all say, the Bible comes to life, across all time and distance, in women’s stories from generation to generation.