Karen Swallow Prior wins the award for shortest and most accurate review of Dr. Ros Clarke’s Forty Women: Unseen women of the Bible from Eden to Easter. Her cover blurb for the book reads, “Wisdom, imagination and biblical fidelity.” Indeed, this summarizes this wonderful devotional by Dr. Clarke, who is Associate Director of Church Society. Ros wrote the original iteration of these devotions on her blog as a Lenten discipline in 2019. The devotions each feature a reading from Scripture, a reflection on the highlighted “unseen” woman, two or three reflection questions, and a prayer.
Some of the women highlighted are well known names: Eve, Ruth, Esther, and Mary. Others are lesser-known: Dinah, Zipporah, Athaliah, and Gomer. Some go unnamed in Scripture: Pharaoh’s daughter, the widow of Zarephath, the Shulammite, and the woman at the well. The common struggle with trying to give a portrait of Biblical characters is the temptation to go beyond what Scripture has said and to fill-in missing gaps in the narratives with culturally-conditioned eisegesis. Usually, in trying to make the characters relevant, they are molded into caricatures that serve a cultural agenda. Dr. Clarke avoids this pitfall through a close reading of the texts and a commitment to biblical orthodoxy. Through her work, these forty women leap off the page and demand to be given more than a cursory glance. They should be seen for who they are and why their lives have been included in the story of redemption.
Dr. Clarke’s reflection questions are thoughtful and poignant, and the prayers that conclude each devotion are powerful in their acknowledgment of who God is and in their petitions for what God might do for us. I intended to read Forty Women as a Lenten devotional. Often, Lenten devotionals are a chore, but Forty Women was anything but. I ended up completing it well before Easter and will be revisiting it for the remainder of Lent.
All of the devotions were valuable, but one in particular stood out to me: the woman at the well (John 4:4-26, 39-42). Dr. Clarke begins this devotion with two sentences that completely reframed how I think about the passage: “In the Bible, it seems, women needed to watch whom they met at the well. Very often, they ended up married as a result of these meetings: Rebekah to Isaac, Rachel to Jacob and Zipporah to Moses.”1Page 112. She closes with “The Samaritans are brought back into the kingdom, through this one woman, well-met at the well by the true bridegroom of the church.”2113.
Forty Women will be going at the top of my list of valuable Lenten resources.