Finding out more about women in the scriptures wasn't so simple.
There isn't too terribly much about them, and many times what is mentioned isn't exactly flattering.
"What I had heard about women in the scriptures was really negative," said Camille Fronk Olson, an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. There were those who had murmured and others who hadn't made the best decisions.
"We would hate to be judged by one hour of our lives, especially when we weren't at our best," Olson said. "And that (record) is handed down for generations."
Olson's book, "Women of the Old Testament,"
takes more than 20 women from the Old Testament — both named and unnamed — and explores what is known about them, their time periods and local customs. As readers understand characters who played a role in establishing the gospel before Jesus Christ's birth, that can help bring them closer to Christ, Olson said.
So Olson started with the scriptures.
"I looked at the scriptural text that is associated with that woman," she said. Those scriptures are listed at the beginning of each chapter, which also includes timelines, maps, drawings, other informational boxes and photos. "Every one of them is a story within a larger story."
For anything that wasn't very clear, Olson went looking for answers, whether it was in the culture or anything that would influence women — the usual marriage negotiations that affected Rebekah and later Leah and Rachel, the differences of leprosy then and now, the importance of midwifery, or the caste system among a wife, her handmaidens and other servants.
"(Those) would help bring reality to that ancient world," said Olson, who has written other books about women in the scriptures, including "Mary, Martha and Me: Seeking the One Thing That Is Needful."
But there aren't many records documenting daily life from the eras of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "It's harder to find the detail I would love to find for everyday life."
Olson also points out what isn't known about many of the women with the questions she poses. In the chapter on Leah and Rachel, those questions include: What did they think about their father's marriage schemes for them? Why did the sisters go along with the plan? Did they have a choice? Where was Rachel during the ceremony?
She also includes questions to ponder at the end of each chapter, as she hopes the readers will use those in their own study as they explore the possible applications in their own lives.
Her research included a trip to the Holy Land when she was asked to lead a Deseret Book tour. Her husband, who hadn't been to the Holy Land before, ended up taking many of the photos from the tour that appear in the book.
"There are different things that you see for a project like this than as a tourist," she added.
Although "official" research for the book took place in the last few years, Olson started delving into studying the lives of women in the scriptures about 20 years ago, thanks to Margot Butler, a colleague at the LDS Business College who was developing a course on women in the scriptures. When Olson went to teach institute classes, she received permission to introduce a course on women in the scriptures and continued her research.
Olson also promised Butler that she would write something that would help others "discover the scriptures through the lens of women's experiences and testimony."
Another book like all the ones out there wasn't needed or what Olson wanted to do.
"I don't know what I had in mind," Olson said of how she was going to fulfill her promise.
That's when she went to her scriptures.
"I wanted to make these women accessible to others by having their scriptures with them," said Olson, who later went to teach at Brigham Young University.
"The whole purpose is not to help us understand individuals and their world. It would be a lot easier to do that," Olson said. "The purpose is to bring us closer to Christ." And in turn, have greater faith.
As the sections depict the women, their trials — from lack of children to a loveless marriage to poverty — are evident. Olson also points out how the women likely learned to rely on their faith in the Savior during their trials.
Putting faces with stories
Elspeth Young, a student studying visual arts, took one of Olson's New Testament classes in 2002. Then at a symposium, Olson gave an open invitation to art students to help portray some of the biblical stories that weren't as widely known.
That struck a chord with Young. With encouragement from her parents, she talked to Olson about possibly swapping some research papers for paintings in an upcoming class. Instead, they went through a directed studies program with her major.
"When I first started the project, I came with the idea of what they might have looked like," said Young, whose oil on panel paintings of many of the women are featured in the book. Her father, Al R. Young, painted the portraits of Eve, and Young's brother, Ashton, contributed line drawings. "The more I researched, I realized that we don't know much," added Elspeth Young, who graduated in 2003.
The first painting, 24 inches by 32 inches, was of the midwife Shiphrah, titled "The Protector," and was part of the directed studies program with Olson. Young also did some other pastel sketches to help illustrate materials for Olson's women in scriptures course.
The paintings for the book range from 14-by-18-inches to 32-by-52-inches and took anywhere from about 35 to 50 hours for the smaller paintings and more than 100 hours for the larger ones. One she recently completed of Ruth and Orpah took more than 180 hours to complete.
Young photographs models in costume with appropriate props but sans makeup in their family's home studio before painting.
"The models that I used are people who I find beautiful and have similar qualities," Young said. "I let them be the inspiration (for the painting)."
"Women of the Old Testament" includes an appendix with the stories of the paintings and significant elements and symbols in the paintings. The basket in the painting for Hagar represents her hasty flight into the wilderness, and the well behind her represents "living water." The sword Deborah holds represents the word of God, and the mountains behind her symbolize both challenges and Heavenly Father's tender mercies.
These are included on the Web site, alyoung.com
"Religious art is my passion," Young said. "I've done quite a wide range of endeavors."
Not finished yet
Olson and Young are working on the next book on women in the New Testament. A few women absent from the Old Testament volume, including Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, will be in the New Testament volume as part of "Women in the Savior's Lineage."
In the New Testament, the context and time periods aren't as complex as in the Old Testament.
"It's less than 100 years and two different cultures," Olson said. "I don't have to do a huge historical context."
There, too, are vastly different characters in the culture from Lydia, "who sold purple," to Mary and Martha, she added.
"It's just a cool thought that we will be able to meet these women," Olson said.