Talking to God: Subversive Women in the Bible
Throughout the Bible we read of many conversations between men and God. The back-and-forths between God and Noah, Abraham, and Moses are numerous and well known. However, there are a few notable cases where a woman speaks directly to God. This paper analyzes these conversations involving four significant women: Eve, Hagar, and Rebekah in Genesis, and Hannah in I Samuel. The sequence of events, God’s tone in the conversation, the parallel key male figures, and the resulting male children are important aspects that define these conversations. Ultimately, the most profound dynamic is that each woman speaks directly to God when she has stepped outside of her traditionally defined role and asserted her own independence. By doing so, each woman is further empowered to take control of her future.
The first woman to speak directly to God is Eve in chapter three of Genesis, after the creation of man and woman in The Garden of Eden. After creating Adam, God tells him, “…as for the tree of knowledge between good and bad, you are not to eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” God then creates woman. It is unclear if Eve was ever told of these instructions. Soon after her creation, the woman eats of the forbidden fruit and gives some to Adam to eat as well. Interestingly, it is the woman who instigates the eating of the fruit,
When the woman saw…that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of the fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
As Cheryl Exum points out, “…whereas the important events in Israelite tradition are experienced by men, they are often set in motion and determined by women.” This is certainly true in this case of the first woman, and, as we will see later, is also true in the case of Rebekah and Hannah, two other women who speak directly to God. Knowing that something has gone wrong, God speaks to Adam to find out what has happened. After hearing from Adam that the woman gave him the forbidden fruit and that both he and the woman had eaten of it, God asks the woman what she has done. She replies that the serpent tricked her and she ate of the fruit. God then responds separately to the woman and to Adam, telling the woman that she will endure pain in childbirth and that Adam will rule over her. Immediately following this conversation God expels Adam and (the now-named) Eve from the garden, Eve and Adam procreate and Eve bears Cain and Abel. In this communication between God and the first woman, the woman has violated a rule set in place by God. God then explains the consequences for breaking this rule. It is notable that immediately following this conversation with God, the woman involved bears a son who is pivotal in the lineage of the Israelite people.
Hagar is the second woman to speak directly to God, and does so through two separate conversations. Leading up to the first conversation, Hagar’s life is shaped by the challenges of Sarai and Abram. Distressed that she and Abram have been unable to conceive, Sarai takes Hagar, her maidservant, and gives her to Abram in the hopes that Hagar will be able to give her Abram offspring. Abram and Hagar lay together and Hagar conceives a child. Outraged and ashamed that her maidservant is bearing her husband’s child, Sarai beats Hagar and causes her to flee. Following Hagar’s escape from Sarai God finds her by a stream and asks her where she is going. Hagar responds that she is running away from Sarai. God then gives Hagar a directive to return to her mistress. God promises to increase her offspring and to grant her a son, whom she is to name Ishmael. In response, Hagar names God El Roi because she went on seeing after God saw her.
Following God’s directions to her, Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai with her son, whom Abram names Ishmael. Soon after, (now renamed) Sarah and Abraham become pregnant. Thinking ahead to the birth of her child and the issue of inheritance between her child and Ishmael, Sarah tells her husband to force Hagar and Ishmael out. Interestingly, God speaks to Abraham during this time and directs him to follow Sarah’s wishes and notifies him both that his lineage will be continued through Sarah’s son, Isaac and that God will make Ishmael a great nation. Abraham follows the commands of Sarah and of God and sends Hagar and Ishmael out. It is here, in the wilderness, parched, exhausted, and on the verge of death that God speaks to Hagar again. Hopeless and out of water, Hagar leaves Ishmael by a bush and bursts into tears of desperation. Notably, it is written that God heard the cries of the boy and addresses Hagar. Consoling the desperate woman, God reassures her that Ishmael will be a great nation. Then, God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a stream of water to revive her and her son.
Another conversation between a woman and God occurs with Rebekah, wife of Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac. In this narrative, Isaac pleads with God on behalf of his beloved and barren wife, Rebekah. God responds to this plea by opening Rebekah’s womb. During her pregnancy, Rebekah feels the struggle between two children in her womb. First she asks, “If so, why do I exist?” and then she goes to inquire of God. God responds to Rebekah’s question by telling her of the two nations in her womb. God explains that two separate peoples will issue from her, and that the older will serve the younger. Immediately following this conversation, Rebekah gives birth to Esau and Jacob.
In Samuel I another woman, Hannah, speaks to God. In this narrative, Hannah, beloved wife of Elkanah, is barren, while Penninah, the less-favored wife has many children. It is written that year after year the family would go up to the Temple of God to make sacrifices and Penninah would taunt Hannah because her womb was closed. In response, Hannah would break down in tears and refuse food. It is during one of these moments when Hannah speaks to God. First, Elkanah sees Hannah in her state of sadness and asks her why she is so distraught when she has him as her husband, who surely is better than ten sons could be. Following this interaction, Hannah eats dinner with her family and then leaves to go to the Temple of God. Here she prays to God through her tears. In her prayer she vows to God that if God will grant her a male child, she will dedicate him to God forever.
During her time praying, a priest named Eli was sitting at the entrance of the Temple watching her. As Hannah leaves, Eli accuses her of being drunk because he saw her moving her lips and not making any sound. Hannah replies by telling Eli that she had consumed no drink, bur rather has been pouring her heart out to God out of her pain and anguish. Eli tells her to go in peace and asks that God grant Hannah what she has asked for. Rather than responding to Hannah in words, God responds in action. Immediately following this scene we read that upon returning home, Elkanah and Hannah lay together and Hannah conceives a son.
Analyzing the characteristics of these conversations allows us to understand how Eve, Hagar, Rebekah, and Hannah were able to uniquely access God. These characteristics include the sequence and tone of the conversations, the image of God portrayed, God’s parallel conversations with key male figures, the content of God’s words, issues with fertility and motherhood, and the subsequent birth of important male children.
Each conversation where a woman speaks directly to God follows a different sequence of events. In the case of Eve, God initiates, Eve responds, and then God replies back. There is no record of Eve’s reaction to God’s description of how her life will drastically change now that she and Adam have eaten of the forbidden fruit. Both conversations between Hagar and God, are God-initiated. In the first conversation, Hagar responds verbally, while in the second conversation Hagar responds in action by seeing the stream and reviving herself and Ishmael. In contrast, in the conversation between God and Rebekah, Rebekah initiates and God responds verbally to her question. Similarly, Hannah initiates the conversation she has with God, but dissimilar from any of other three narratives, God answers her request in action rather than in words.
Eve does not seek anything from God, but rather responds to God’s inquiry of “What is this you have done?” In knowing that Eve has transgressed the ultimate rule of The Garden, God’s tone can be read as disapproving, simply as inquiring, or as disappointed and sad. It is unclear from the text whether there is a tone of apology or remorse in Eve’s response, or whether she is simply responding directly to God’s inquiry. In contrast, Hagar’s conversations with God occur when she is wandering lost and abandoned in the wilderness, on the verge of death. In both instances God speaks to Hagar assertively but with care, directing her to keep up the struggle for survival and predicting great things for her son. From Hagar’s brief response to God in the first conversation, it can be understood that, after hearing from God, she is comforted and reenergized to commit to the responsibility of bearing and raising her child. God’s response to Rebekah’s inquiry is oracular in nature. Rebekah addresses God seeking information about what is going on inside her body and, presumably, what it means for the future. God’s response is poetic in nature and predicative of the future in content; yet not clear in terms of details. Unlike any of the other three women, God does not speak to Hannah, but rather answers her petitionary prayer by heeding her plea and causing her to conceive.
As can be seen from looking at the tone and circumstances of these narratives where a woman speaks directly to God and God responds, the god that is portrayed in each case is notably different. In Eve’s conversation with God, God acts as a parent whose rules have been violated: hearing testimony and stating the consequences for the transgressions. In both conversations with Hagar, God acts as a consoling guide and a watchful angel, lifting Hagar up with hopeful news about the future of her line just in the nick of time. In the case of Rebekah, God can be seen as oracular, both in the circumstances of Rebekah’s address to God and in God’s response. Dissimilarly, in the case of Hannah, the reader learns nothing of God other than that Hannah’s plea to God was effective. Out of these four women, Hannah is the only one to converse with God through prayer and the only one not to hear a response.
God’s Parallel Conversations with Key Male Figures
Not only does God have a unique way of speaking to Eve, Hagar, Rebekah, and Hannah, but God’s conversations with the key male figure in each of these are also distinctive. During God’s inquiry and subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve from The Garden, God’s conversation with Adam is similar to God’s conversation with Eve. While God does first ask Adam to describe what happened and only afterwards questions Eve, the tone and content of God’s words to Adam and Eve are similar. In the case of Hagar, Abraham is also in direct verbal communication with God during the time that Hagar and God converse. God not only directs Hagar what to do with Ishmael, but God also tells Abraham how to manage the demands of Sarah and tells him what the future holds for his sons. Whereas God’s conversations with Adam and Eve could have been happening simultaneously, while Adam and Eve were together, God has distinctly separate conversations with Abraham and Hagar. Similarly, in the case of Rebekah, immediately preceding her pregnancy a conversation between Isaac and God transpires where Isaac pleads for Rebekah’s womb to be open and God answers in action by causing her to conceive. Like Abraham and Hagar, God seems to have separate and unique relationships with Isaac and Rebekah. In this case, Isaac’s verbal request and God’s response through action resemble Hannah’s conversation with God. Unique from the other three narratives, when Hannah cries out to God, there is no mention of Elkanah having a parallel conversation with God. The closest thing that could be seen as a man having a conversation with God in this narrative may be Eli’s blessing to Hannah that God may grant her all that she has asked for or Elkanah’s non-verbal communication with God through the annual sacrifice.
Fertility and Motherhood
Each woman who speaks directly to God does so either during or directly before her pregnancy, and each has either a direct or an indirect struggle with fertility. Until she eats of the forbidden fruit and speaks with God, Eve presumably has no knowledge of procreation. While she does not struggle with infertility, until her conversation with God, she does not have the ability to procreate. Immediately following her conversation with God, Eve lays with Adam, conceives sons, and later bears Cain and Abel. In contrast, Hagar’s conversations with God occur when she is pregnant and soon after she gives birth. While Hagar does not personally struggle with infertility, her motherhood and subsequent conversations with God are the results of Sarai’s inability to conceive. Rebekah’s conversation with God takes place when, after years of barrenness, she has become pregnant. Rebekah inquires of God because of the fighting children she feels inside of her womb. Interestingly, she is also the only woman who both initiates conversation with God and receives a verbal response. In Hannah’s interaction with God, she is barren. She addresses God after withstanding continual ridicule from her co-wife, and lack of true empathy or sympathy from her husband. Seeing the state that Hannah is in, Elkanah can only ask, “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you sad? Aren’t I better to you than ten sons?” Hannah’s struggle with infertility and her deep desire to have a male child prompt her to call out to God. While in the cases of Hagar and Rebekah God tells both women what will become of their offspring, in contrast, in Hannah’s address to God she tells God what the future of her son will be if God will grant her a male child. Following her prayer to God, Hannah conceives.
Content of God’s Words
All four conversations between a woman and God revolve around the future of that woman’s male children. Even the conversation between Eve and God, which is the least direct in terms of reference to the specific sons she will bear, results in God conveying to Eve that she will now be able to conceive and give birth. In the case of Hagar, all information that God speaks to her revolves around the future of Ishmael. Similarly, God responds to Rebecca’s question about the meaning of her existence by explaining the dynamics that will shape her future son’s lives. Following this theme, God’s has no words for Hannah, only a response through action by causing her to conceive Samuel.
Birth of Important Male Children
It follows, then, that one major characteristic uniting each of these women who speak to God is that each becomes the mother of men who play pivotal roles in the lineage of the Israelite people. Though Abel is killed, Cain goes on to marry, procreate, and establish his own city, as it is written, “And then he founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch.” Further, Cain’s lineage is recorded; an honor that is accorded only to those most important to the biblical narrative, and eventually his line produces Noah. According to the words that God speaks to Abraham, God makes Ishmael a great nation among the peoples. It is written at the end of Hagar narrative that God was with Ishmael as he grew up. Further, Ishmael’s full lineage is listed. Jacob, for his part, becomes one of the three fathers of the Israelite nation and is privileged to have access to personal communication with God the way his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, were. Jacob’s lineage, of course, is listed. Esau becomes prosperous and important in his own right and becomes the father of the Edomite people. Like Ishmael and Jacob, Esau’s full lineage is listed. Samuel grows up to be a servant of God and is privileged to have God appear and speak to him throughout his life. Samuel is the leading figure for the Israelites at a pivotal time in history.
After examining these narratives in detail, the question arises: What was unique about each of these women to allow her to speak directly to God? Conversing with God was non-normative for women in biblical times. As Judith Romney Wegner points out in her essay “Coming Before the Lord,” the biblical phrase lifnei hashem, which encompasses the capacity of human being to come close enough to God to communicate, is never used to describe the actions of a woman. The one exception to this is Hannah, of whom it is written, “v’haya ki hirbtah lehitpalel lefnei hashem…” Wegner aptly points out that in looking at Eli’s response, this exception proves the rule. Women were kept away from communication with God to such an extent that Eli’s only possible interpretation of what Hannah’s prayer at the Temple was that she was drunkenly mumbling to herself.
The narratives in Genesis not only trace the origins of patriarchal society, but they also demonstrate the increasing power of patriarchal norms on women. Considering the extent to which these norms dominated the societies in which these narratives were recorded, the obvious answer would seem to be that these women were able to speak directly to God because of their role as mothers-to-be of pivotal male figures in Israelite society. This explains why the conversations occur immediately before the birth of these important sons, and why the entirety of God’s answer to each woman is focused on her becoming a mother. Eve is the only woman to whom God articulates anything specific to her life and state of being, regarding the pain she will experience in childbirth and the power dynamics of her relationship to her husband. But even as the details are focused on her, in essence they still describe what her life as a mother and wife will be like.
However, as Rachel Havrelock argues in her article “The Myth of Birthing the Hero,” in addition to the importance of her offspring, each woman’s transition into motherhood allows her access into a relationship with God. If so, then why don’t other mothers of important male children have this same experience? To examine this further, Sarah and Leah are useful for comparison. As both women would seem to fit the criteria. Both mother important male children, both face profound personal trials—from infertility to lack of love—and would seem to merit direct communication with God. Looking at Sarah and Leah reveals another, perhaps even more powerful, connection between Eve, Hagar, Rebekah, and Hannah’s experience talking to God. For each woman, communication with God occurs as she is going beyond the defined bounds of society, in one way or another. Each of these women emerge as active agents who receive Divine recognition and, ultimately, a male child, by taking charge of their own future. These narratives show that women in the Bible enter into communication and partnership with God when they have gone beyond their traditionally defined role and assert their own power.
Neither Sarah nor Leah subverts the defined social structure; in fact, both women can be seen as paradigmatic of the proper role of women. For instance, Sarah never argues with Abraham or takes the initiative to shape the destination of Isaac. Poignantly, throughout the entire narrative of the Akedah, there is no mention of Sarah attempting to have any influence on the situation beforehand, or to challenge Abraham for his actions afterwards. There is only one moment where Sarah can be seen as deviating from the norm: when, after being told she would conceive, she laughs and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyed—with my husband so old?” Incredulous of her ability to conceive at her old age, Sarah laughs in apparent disbelief. God then asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, to which Sarah asserts that she did not laugh. God then speaks God’s only words to Sarah saying “You did laugh.” This slightly subversive action leads to the only moment when God speaks directly to Sarah.
Similarly, Leah serves as a symbol of the role of a woman within the patriarchally defined system. The first time Leah appears in the biblical narrative is as Jacob’s surprise wife. After working seven years in Laban’s fields for the hand of his younger daughter, Rachel, Jacob is duped by Laban into marrying Leah instead. Laban’s response to Jacob’s protest upon realizing that he married the wrong daughter seems particularly apt. Laban explains, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” From the beginning, Leah serves to help reinforce the dominant system. Further, the names Leah chooses for her sons seem to emphasize her desire to gain acceptance by her husband through the traditional method of producing male children. This theme is emphasized by the meanings of the names Leah chooses: “Reuben…for now my husband will love me,” “I was unloved and he has given me this one…Simeon,” “This time my husband will become attached to me…Levi,” “…this time my husband will exalt me for I have borne him six sons…Zebulun.”
In contrast to Sarah and Leah, Eve, Hagar, Rebekah, and Hannah each step outside of the defined social structure. In The Garden, God addresses Eve after she has eaten of the fruit, therefore disobeying the one rule that had been put in place. This action is so subversive that it causes the destruction of The Garden and propels Adam and Eve into an entirely new universe of mortal existence. Eve is accorded conversation with the Divine by subverting God’s rule and taking it upon herself to drastically alter her and Adam’s future. From this conversation, Eve is granted the power to be like the gods in becoming capable of reproducing.
Hagar speaks with God not when she is living under her master’s roof, performing her duties as servant, responding to the emotions and orders of Sarah, but rather when she is physically and emotionally out on the fringes of society, wandering in the wilderness, venturing into a new life in the unknown. Further, as Savina J. Teubal states, by running away from Sarah and Abraham, Hagar is able to successfully extricate herself from her lowly position in a system of servitude and attain social and spiritual freedom. So not only is Hagar physically apart from society when she converses with God, but, by running away, she has subverted the social structure that defined and controlled her life. Teubal writes, “Her first step to autonomy was in claiming her own child.” By taking Ishmael into the wilderness, even though she does so at Abraham’s urging, Hagar asserts possession of her son and subverts the patriarchal system. It is important to note, as Teubal does, that even before naming Ishmael, Hagar asserts her autonomy by naming God in relation to her direct experience. By leaving the system of servitude she was born into, Hagar is awarded direct communication with God.
Rebekah speaks to God immediately following Isaac’s plea to God on her behalf. In the throes of intense discomfort during her pregnancy, Rebekah does not involve her husband, but rather goes directly to God. This conversation with God is the starting point of her deviation from the status quo. In this conversation, Rebekah, not Isaac, is given the essential information about the couple’s future offspring, therefore shifting the power of knowledge and decision-making to her. As Frymer-Kensky states, this then allows Rebekah to subvert Isacc’s male authority in order to bring about God’s will. Rebekah goes on to use the information from God to continue to subvert her husband’s power. As Havrelock writes, “Her encounter with God occurs through the medium of this prophecy that binds the divine and the female in the plan to upset the hierarchy of the birth order.” Most notably, Rebekah devises and helps execute a plan for Jacob to steal the blessing of the first born from Esau, thereby subverting her husband’s power and taking control of the future of her lineage. By going beyond the traditional role of women and initiating conversation with God, Rebekah is given the power to take matters of the future of her family into her own hands, and further subvert the dominant social structure.
This paradigm is also true in the case of Hannah. Hannah’s conversation with God does not happen during the many years that she is in her husband’s house, quietly lamenting her infertility and suffering taunts and ridicule. As it is written, “This happened year after year.” Rather, it is once she has left the defined social structure of her house and family that she accesses communication with God. Hannah refuses to acquiesce to her husband’s insinuations that she simply enjoy his love and give up on her dream of having a son. Hannah challenges the societal norms by praying at the temple. Hannah not only defies her husband but she also stands up to the accusations of Eli. Rebuffing Eli’s accusations that she was drunkenly mumbling to herself, Hannah politely yet firmly explains that she had been pouring her heart out to God. Hannah’s boldness in taking charge of her future and speaking directly to God leads to the fulfillment of her desire for a male child. Defying the status quo, Hannah enters into relationship with God and is propelled into a further state of power by receiving total control over her son once he is born, first by naming him, and then by deciding when he should be weaned. Hannah names her son Samuel, explaining “I asked God for him.” Even this name reinforces Hannah’s deviation from the status quo by, as R. Havrelock writes, “speaking directly to God in the language of her own devising from a place ordinarily restricted to her.” By sidestepping male authority and asserting herself by speaking directly to God, Hannah’s prayer is answered. She is empowered to determine her child’s future and in so doing further subvert the social norms of her day.
Initially it may appear that women who speak directly to God in the Bible are given this opportunity simply because they are vessels for producing important male children. This reading reinforces the centrality of men and marginal nature of women in the Bible. Rather, by looking closely at the narratives of Eve, Hagar, Rebekah, and Hannah, it is clear that the women who speak directly to God have a profound and unique relationship with God. Each of these women steps outside of her traditionally defined role and defies the patriarchal norms of society. It is this act of subversiveness that opens a pathway to God. Each of these women takes great risks and is rewarded by being granted access to God. These conversations with God not only convey important information about male children, but, perhaps more importantly, serve to further empower each woman to take control of her own future and that of her son(s), thereby helping to shape the future of the Jewish people.
image by Joanna Sikorska (2002). Albrecht Durer. Znaczenie i oddziaływanie jego grafiki w XVI wieku. Katalog wystawy. Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, via wikimediacommons.
Exum, Cheryl J. “Mother in Israel: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered.” Feminist Interpretation of The Bible. Ed. Letty M. Russell. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.
Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: Shocken Books, 2002.
Havrelock, Rachel. “The Myth of Birthing the Hero: Heroic Barrenness in the Hebrew Bible.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 154-178.
Romney Wegner, Judith. “Coming Before the Lord.” The Book of Leviticus. Ed. Rolf Rendtorff and Robert A. Kugler. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2003.
Speiser, E.A. 1964. Genesis. Vol. 1, The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday.
Teubal, Savina J. “Sarah and Hagar: Matriarchs and Visionaries.” A Feminist Companion to Genesis. Ed. Athalya Brenner, Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
The Jewish Publication Society. JPS Hebrew English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, Second Edition. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
 The Jewish Publication Society. JPS Hebrew English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, Second Edition. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999. Gen 2:17.
 Gen 3:6.
 Cheryl J. Exum. “Mother in Israel: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered.” Feminist Interpretation of The Bible. Ed. Letty M. Russell. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985. 73-85.
 Gen 3:13-4:2.
 Gen 16:13.
 Gen 25:22.
 Gen 5:13.
 Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: Shocken Books, 2002. 16.
 I Sam 1:8.
 Gen 5:17.
 Gen 21.13.
 Gen 21:20.
 Gen. 25: 12-18.
 Gen 28.13.
 Gen 46: 8-27.
 Gen 36:6-7 and Gen 36:43.
 Gen 36: 1-20 and Gen 36:40-43
 I Sam 3:19.
 Judith Romney Wegner. “Coming Before the Lord.” The Book of Leviticus. Ed. Rolf Rendtorff and Robert A. Kugler. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2003. 454.
 Wegner, 460.
 Savina J. Teubal. “Sarah and Hagar: Matriarchs and Visionaries.” A Feminist Companion to Genesis. Ed. Athalya Brenner, Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993. 234.
 Rachel Havrelock. “The Myth of Birthing the Hero: Heroic Barrenness in the Hebrew Bible.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 154-178.
 Havrelock, 172.
 Gen 18:15.
 Gen 30:26.
 Gen 29:32-30:20.
 Teubal. 235.
 Teubal. 249.
 Teubal, 247.
 Frymer-Kensky, 19.
 Havrelock, 160.
 Genesis 27:5-17.
 I Sam 1:7.
 I Sam 1:8.
 Havrelock, 164.
 I Sam 1:15-16.
 I Sam1:19-23.
 I Sam 1:20.
 Havrelock, 177.