Lydia is an important figure in the New Testament. One reason she is important is because she is named. So many women of the Bible with familiar stories aren’t: Lot’s wife, the woman with an issue of blood, and the Samaritan woman just to name a few. We are favored with Lydia’s name, and that is significant because she only appears in the sixteenth chapter of Acts.
Why is she important for us?
Lydia is important for modern believers because her story reminds us that God had a plan of salvation for the Gentiles, a biblical term that simply refers to someone who is not Jewish. Lydia was not Jewish, but she worshiped the Jewish God. Lydia is other. She is culturally different. She is a woman. Lydia reminds us that there is no universalist theo-hermeneutical singular agenda by which women receive the Gospel.
In the ancient world in which the books of the Bible were written, the views of the dominant culture dictated a few things about the space women could occupy. Women’s value was tied to their ability to produce sons, and their worth often had a proportional link to their husbands and fathers. Many try to impose ancient norms upon modern women in the way they describe a woman’s ‘place.’ But Lydia was a business woman. She ran things. She had a household. She was not described in terms of who her daddy is, who her husband is, or even how many children she had…or did not have. Lydia is described in terms of her work and her skill: “Lydia, a dealer in purple goods…”
Think on that for a moment. Lydia was an entrepreneur in the ancient world. Lydia probably had a large sphere of influence because her clients would likely have been in the upper echelon of society because it was the ancient one percent that could afford purple cloth. Lydia was self-sufficient. She was financially well-fixed. We know this because she is described as having a household, and that implies she not only had a home, but that she also employed servants. She also had enough space to house Paul and his companions as they traveled through the Roman colonies.
All of this makes Lydia unconventional. She was what they referred to as a ‘god-fearer;’ a Greek who believed in the Jewish God. Lydia was bold enough to believe in Paul’s report to the degree that she and her entire household were baptized. Lydia sounds like a lot of the Black women in churches across the country who have lived their lives outside of what people (particularly church people) consider normative: who may be unmarried by choice, who perhaps have no desire for children, or women who have taken the necessary steps toward making their dreams come true, whatever those dreams are. Women who walk by faith.
Those of us who love God and dismantle patriarchy owe a tremendous debt to Alice Walker. It is from her writings that the term “womanist” emerges. I was in high school when I read “The Color Purple” for the first time. Although I had read quite a bit about Black women historically by that point, “The Color Purple” was the first book I read that privileged Black women’s experiences. It was a Black woman’s story that was the skeleton that all the muscle and tissue clung to in “The Color Purple.” This shift in focus changed me; it still impacts me.
And this is why unconventional women like Lydia are important. They remind us that the coded social scripts we receive that tell us how to act, think and feel are suggestions. These suggestions are not always for our highest good, because they have the potential to make women who don’t travel down prescribed conventional paths feel less than worthy. Unconventional women know that not having children does not make them any less a woman. Unconventional women press on into ministry even when they’ve been told not to or don’t have any support. Unconventional women know life does not end at 40. Unconventional women stop trying to have it all and negotiate their own paths to success, however they define success to be. Unconventional women remind us that wholeness comes in many forms and that it is not limited to a singular prescription. Unconventional women remind us why it is important for us to tell our own stories, and that we do not have to tolerate human oppression in any form. This is why I love Lydia. She is proof that you don’t need to be on the scene for very long to make an impact!