When Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda first released their devotional Women of the Bible, a colleague spotted it at his local bookstore. “That’s never going to sell,” he said, shaking his head. Little did he know how wrong he was about the collection of devotions for women.
To know the full story of this bestselling devotional, you need to go back to when Ann and Jean decided to write it. Ann was a senior acquisitions editor at Zondervan, the renowned Christian publishing company; Jean also worked there, as an associate publisher in their Bibles division. Ann, ever a studious editor, loved to go through the sheets and sheets of sales reports to see what their readers wanted. She noticed that “women of the Bible” was a topic many people were interested in, yet there just weren’t many new options that put the women of the Bible in a more modern lens.
“That got me interested in the topic,” said Ann, “and because of Jane’s experience with the Bible, I thought we should do this together.”
Thus, a beautiful friendship was born. But it wasn’t always easy. When the women first sent the manuscript around, it was turned down by a male associate editor. They were shocked. But when their agent sent it out again, this time to a woman, it was quickly accepted.
“Sometimes things get missed,” Ann said. “I might have been missing out on books that men would have liked to read because I was not perceiving the felt need. My colleagues didn’t get why this book would be interesting to women.”
And women were definitely interested. Women of the Bible went on to sell over one million copies. (The colleague who said it would never sell, said he was very happy that he had been so wrong.) The book takes readers on a weekly study of 52 women of the Bible. And not just the most prominent ones.
“We also wanted to include women characters that most women had never heard of,” said Jean. “Not just the shining stars, but also the women who were not so admirable and [focus on] what we could learn from them.”
For example, take Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines. The book of Samuel recounts how, after her sons were killed by the Gibeonites, she sat by them for months in a form of public protest until she received justice for their murder. “When you think about people protesting and lamenting today because of injustices in our world,” said Ann, “it makes her an interesting person to study.”
Perhaps that is what makes these devotions for women so unique: they put the biblical story of women into a modern-day context. “That’s a beautiful thing for women of today to know,” said Jean. “That standing up for what’s right is an important trait.”
Ann and Jean wanted to show every part of these women— both the good and the bad. How these women interact with God and approach their own faith makes them relatable and real. “These are ordinary people,” says Ann. “They are not that different, emotionally, from us. They respond to God. Sometimes with faith, sometimes with very little faith. For me, that makes scripture even more authentic.”
Whether it’s Rizpah having the courage to stand up for what is right, Sarah becoming a mother later in life, or Abigail stepping out of her cultural role as wife, each of these women have something to teach us now. “I hope women see themselves in these characters,” Jean said. “God cared enough to put that story there so that they can receive what He has for them.”
Women of the Bible isn’t just for personal use. Ann, Jean and others have used the book in group devotional studies all over the world, from Florida to Mongolia. There was even a group of men who got together to study the stories and learn more about the women of the Bible they knew so little about. “This devotional has given me an opportunity to share and connect with people in a way I ordinarily wouldn’t,” said Jean. “There’s so much beauty in that.”