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Holy Gadoly: Great Women Leaders

September 25, 2013

Bonnie St. John with her daughter, has written a book called How Great Women Lead. She also has an amazing story of her own. But this leads to the problem of how “great women” are translated from Hebrew into English. What happens to the “great women” of the Hebrew Bible. Here is a brief translation history of a woman who was gadol in Hebrew or “great,” in 2 Kings 4:8.

And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman; and she constrained him to eat bread. And so it was, that as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread. King James

One day Elisha went on to Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to eat some food. So whenever he passed that way, he would turn in there to eat food. ESV

One day Elisha went to Shunem. And a well-to-do woman was there, who urged him to stay for a meal. So whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat. NIV 2011

But what about men who are gadol? What does Bible translation do for them?

Now the king’s sons, being seventy persons, were with the great men of the city, which brought them up. King James

Now the king’s sons, seventy persons, were with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up. ESV

Now the royal princes, seventy of them, were with the leading men of the city, who were rearing them. NIV 2011

It may seem a detail, but great men morph into “leaders” and a great woman morphs into a “wealthy” or “well-to-do” woman. If you have a firm belief that women are not really “leaders” this is a helpful transition. This also reinforces the notion that men are one thing, and women are something else. Of course, nothing wrong with being wealthy, but nonetheless, women need to be represented as the leaders that they were. Examples of women who were leaders in the Hebrew Bible are Deborah, the judge, and most likely Jael as a judge also; and the wise woman of Abel and the wise woman of Tekoa, both clearly the leaders of their community.

The Bible continues to be used as a well from which one can draw stories to illustrate issues of our day. Malcolm Gladwell has just written David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  Women also should be able to draw on the Hebrew Bible as a source of leading women, of women who come out from under as David did. We should think of Esther, not as a beauty queen, but as a politician and saviour of her people. She was clever and calculating and successful.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2013 1:08 pm

    Very informative and encouraging. Thank you.

  2. September 25, 2013 3:48 pm

    I think this is a bit unfair. Gadol indicates a person of esteem and status — that status may have come from wealth. While it is certainly true that not every “great man” was wealthy, they often were: in the Samuel-Kings story, both Nabal (1 Sam 25:2) and Barzillai (2 Sam 19:33) certainly were rich.

    In this passage, the story of the barren woman, the woman offered Elisha an apartment and unlimited food, and as well had access to a vast number of servants (see v. 22), suggesting that in this case, she was wealthy; while her status as a barren woman would have argued against her being “great” based on then contemporary values.

    Leviticus 19:15 contrasts gadol with dal (“poor”).

    Finally a nitpick — a woman is not gadol, but gedola.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 25, 2013 6:52 pm

    I did acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with being wealthy, and I implied, nothing wrong with being called wealthy. I agree that this applies to her.

    But just the same, she was gedola, as you say, and therefore, had the same attribute as the men. There is still way too much of “men are this and women are that,” going around. In Hebrew both men and women were gadol/gedola. Although I concede that the men were taller on average.

    But I disagree that having a child would make a woman gedola. Quite the opposite. THe women leaders of the Hebrew Bible are not known for their children, although this woman did have one. But who are the children of Miriam, Deborah, Jael, the queen of Sheba, Huldah, Esther, etc.?

  4. September 26, 2013 8:03 am

    Your demonstration of the contrasts in translation (depending on whether the ESV translator is describing men or women) is powerful! It’s no surprise for a number of reasons that Julia E. Smith uses the English “great” in both of the verses you quote here.

    I do have a question that’s tangential perhaps: What do you make of the addition, in the LXX, to 1 Sam. 30:2? There’s γυναῖκας for אִשָּׁה, but for אִישׁ, there’s not only ἄνδρα but also γυναῖκα. In other words, there’s gunaikas in Greek for women, for the Hebrew isha, but there’s andra kai gunaika for ish, or men and women for the Hebrew phrase for men. And, in this context, there’s gadol, or must it include gedola?

  5. September 26, 2013 9:13 am

    Wow. Thanks, Suzanne.

    Anybody have a CEB at hand to look up those passages there?

    On Theophrastus’ point that the details about the woman suggest that she was wealthy, I would argue that that’s an additional reason to translate the word as “great”, because the reader already knows she’s wealthy from those other details.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 26, 2013 9:16 am

    1 Sam. 30 – that’s an interesting interpretation of ish. Not one person. Of course, it has to include the women because the text says the women were not killed.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 26, 2013 9:17 am

    Biblegateway has the Common English Bible.

  8. September 26, 2013 12:40 pm

    You know, it’s sad– but I was just thinking about that word “great” in English, and how it can mean both “well-known, admired person” and “large.” In English, when we say a “great man,” we usually understand the former. But the term “great woman” is hardly ever used, and when it is, people usually mean she’s fat!

  9. September 26, 2013 1:44 pm

    γυνὴ μεγάλη is the LXX translation of the Hebrew. Brenton makes that into English as “a great lady” and Paul D. McLean (for NETS) as “a great woman.”


    τῆς μεγάλης θεᾶς Ἀρτέμιδος – ESV, Acts 19:27: “the great goddess Artemis”

    μεγάλαιν θεαῖν “the Great Goddesses” (Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus)

    γυναικὶ καλῇ τε μεγάλῃ τε καὶ ἀγλαὰ ἔργα ἰδυίῃ “a woman, beautiful, tall/grand?, craftsworking” (Homer’s Odyssey)

    γυναῖκα μεγάλην καὶ καλὴν “her great height / grandeur? and beauty” (Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution)

    κλέος μέγα τῆς γυναικὸς “her great fame” (Chariton’s Callirhoe)

    ἡ γυνὴ μέγα δυνήσεται “this woman… great power” (Chariton’s Callirhoe)

  10. John Radcliffe permalink
    September 27, 2013 7:47 am

    “In English […] the term “great woman” is hardly ever used, and when it is, people usually mean she’s fat!”

    Well, I’ve heard many women described as “great”, but never in the sense of being fat. In my experience it usually means they are considered (as the Oxford Dictionary of English puts it) “of considerably above average ability, quality, or eminence” (to which I would add “or influence”)

  11. krwordgazer permalink
    September 27, 2013 1:30 pm

    John, I’m glad to hear that. Maybe it’s just my age…

  12. krwordgazer permalink
    September 27, 2013 1:32 pm

    But the range of meanings of the word “great” in English is interesting. Think about the difference in what is meant between “He’s a great man,” and “He’s a great guy.” I’d be interested, Suzanne and Kurt, to know more about the range of meanings of “gadol.” Can it also mean what we mean by “she’s a great gal”?

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