Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for May, 2012

She Built A City: Sheerah the Biblical City-Builder

Woman Construction Worker

The book of Chronicles tells many of the stories of the scriptures all over again beginning at the beginning. The first word of Chronicles is “Adam.” And for 9 chapters, in 407 verses, Chronicles chronicles the peoples of the scriptures in a genealogy that runs from Adam to Saul’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandsons, Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan. Now I know we are in uncharted territory for some of you; I have found that most folk don’t choose genealogies to study in the church or in the academy. But I have to confess that I love the begats. You know, “this one begat that one,” and “that one begat this other one.” The begats.

However, the massive genealogy in Chronicles is more than a list of begettings and birthings. Chronicles also tells the story of many women who were left out of the stories from Adam to David – from Eve to Bathsheba – in other parts of the scriptures. There are stories woven into the fabric of Chronicles like the one in chapter 7 that forms our primary lesson.

1 Chronicles 7:20 The descendants of Ephraim were Shuthelah, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, 21 Zabad his son, Shuthelah his son, and Ezer and Elead. Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. 22 And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. 23 Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. 24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.

Sheerah was a daughter-descendant of Ephraim, who was the son of Joseph. Now Joseph was living in Egypt when he married. He married an African sister, an Egyptian woman named Asenath. Their children Manasseh and Ephraim who were counted among the tribes of Israel were half-Egyptian, half-African, or as one of my bi-racial friends would say, “hafrican.” And Sheerah, the sister-builder was their daughter-descendant.

Eprhaim’s offspring are listed in a confusing jumble in 1 Chronicles 7, some are his children, some are his grandchildren, some may even be his great-grandchildren, v 20: The descendants of Ephraim were Shutelach, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, Zabad his son, Shutelach his son, and Ezer and Elead. 

But something happened to those young and perhaps even older men. A whole generation, maybe more, was lost, wiped out, because of the choices they made, v 21: Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. Now I’m half-Texan which you may know was once a nationality and is now a culture, a language and some might argue a religion. And in Texas we have ways of dealing with cattle rustlers, you might say biblical ways, such as the ways employed by the people of Gath. And while it’s easy to read this text in light of Western classics like The High Plains Drifter and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ephraim’s children and grand-children weren’t extras in a movie; they were his hope for the future and they were dead. The thug life killed everyone of them because they tried to be gangstas – but that’s another sermon…

The death of all of his descendants, children or children’s children, devastates Ephraim, v 22: And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. Some folk in the house today have had to bury children, and some may have had to bury more than one. You know this is devastating. You don’t get over it, even as you figure out how to go on, the pain remains. And in inexplicable and unjustifiable mercy God chose to do something for Ephraim and his wife that doesn’t happen for everyone, God gave them another family. 

Apparently, Ephraim has a little juice left in him, 23: Ephraim went into his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. This is the only text in which Ephraim’s wife appears. When the Ephraimites are counted in Numbers, the other place where some of this genealogy is found, there is not even a passing reference to an ancestral mother. It was as if all of those birthings and begettings happened by magic, like menfolk could do that all on their own. Like it was the men who were throwing up and swelling up, walking around with their hands on their backs looking for their puffy ankles. It’s all right to tell the truth and say there’s a little sexism in the text, after all we’re talking about the Bronze Age after which the Iron Age will be cutting edge – no pun intended.

This is one of the things I like about the book of Chronicles, while the author is chronicling the begettings and birthings in Israel she – and the Chronicler could have been a woman – she stops to tell us about dozens of women in short stories and half-verses, many of whom we would know nothing about if it were not for the work of the Chronicler: There is Abraham’s other, other woman, Keturah, David’s sisters, Abigail and Zeruiah, some of David’s baby mamas, (a different) Abigail, Ahinoam, Haggith, Maacah, Abital and Eglah along with Sheerah the city-builder. 

The scriptures tell us that she built three cities, but nothing else about her, v 24: His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. Two of the three cities, Lower Beth-Horon and Upper Beth-Horon were on a hillside, one high above the other. The third city, Uzzen-Sheerah, is my favorite because she named it after herself – like all the men who built cities in the ancient and modern worlds. Uzzen-Sheerah means “listen to Sheerah.” 

Using my sanctified imagination, I’m listening to Sheerah this morning. I hear her saying: I’ve got work to do. You don’t just build a city, whether you are a woman or a man, with no planning or preparation, not even in the Bronze or Iron Age. So then, how did Sheerah become a city-builder? Maybe it was it her childhood dream. We’ve got to stop telling children that can’t do something because we wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t. Maybe her family nurtured her dreams. But maybe her family and friends, neighbors and strangers told her she was crazy: You can’t build a city. What makes you think you can build a city? What city was ever built by a woman? Go get yourself a man and make some babies – or go cry about why you can’t get a man. Your people aren’t city-builders. Your people are thieves. Everybody knows what kind of people you came from. You can’t do it. If there were any naysayers, Sheerah didn’t listen them.

Sheerah started building. She had a dream, she had a plan, she had a vision, she had a calling; she had a commission. She was born to do this work; it was in her bones and in her blood, in her heart and in her hands. And it didn’t matter if nobody else understood. It didn’t matter what the other women and men were doing or saying. 

She planned her work and she worked her plan. Somehow she learned to design and build cities. She chose the sites for her cities, taking into account water and other natural resources with an eye to defense. Maybe she had to go back to the drawing board, over and over again. Visions and dreams don’t always come to fruition the first time out. She didn’t quit when it got hard – and it got hard – she had to hire and supervise contactors and subcontractors. She had to manage her workforce: paid labor, forced labor and slave labor were the only options. She couldn’t be everywhere on the construction sites so she had to mentor some other women and maybe men to share in the responsibility. Maybe she had to make or commission architectural drawings. Could she even read? I don’t know, but I know she planned her work and she worked her plan. 

Since it was the Iron Age or perhaps the Middle Bronze Age it may have mattered to some folk that the chief architect, and project manager was a woman, they could be kind of sexist in those days… And we’re no longer living in those days, right? I mean we’ve figured out that God has been using women to build, lead and change the world for more than four thousand years. Right? Sheerah didn’t let nobody turn her around. She got it done. She built her cities. She planned her work and she worked her plan. But she didn’t do it alone. She needed a whole city to get the work done: Her dream wasn’t hers alone. Someone else had to buy into it. It took a whole village to raise that city, clearing the land, quarrying the stone, transporting the stones – there had to be some men who didn’t mind taking orders from a woman, men who could see the vision, or men who if they couldn’t see the vision themselves trusted the woman with the vision, the plan, the call and the commission.

Before Sheerah built, she had to dig. She had to dig canals and trenches, sewers and ditches. I don’t imagine that she stood around giving orders all the time – although I’m sure she had to do that some of the time. I see her tying up her hair, rolling up her sleeves and doing the work with her own hands. When you’re giving birth to a vision, when you’re making your own dreams come true, when you’re doing what God called you to do, you don’t mind getting a little dirty, you don’t mind putting in the hard work and long hours. 

She had to build her city in the right order. She couldn’t start with the wallpaper and the flower arrangements. She had to start in the dirt. She had to lay her foundation. She had to build her walls and those walls had to hold – they were still at war with some of the Canaanite nations. She had to choose which buildings would be built first. Sheerah built her own house; maybe she built a house for her mama and daddy if they were still alive. She built houses for her people and perhaps for folk she didn’t even know. And when she finished building her city, Sheerah didn’t retire. She built another city. And then she built one more. Sheerah never married or gave birth. That wasn’t her calling. Sheerah became the mother of cities. And her name lives on in the scriptures through her cities, the works of her hands.

The bible tells us about two of Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon. Many people know the story in Joshua about the day the sun stood still. But did you every why did the sun stand still at that exact moment in that exact place? 

Joshua’s memoirs as preserved in the book that bears his name are full of war stories and he is their hero. Joshua claims a spectacular victory at Jericho and Ai, the archaeological record disagrees and Judges says that the Canaanites remained in the land, but something happened. Something big. And everyone knew it and told somebody who didn’t. Anyone who has spent time with veterans knows that each soldier’s story is different from another's, and all are different from the official story and they’re all true. More or less.

Word came to Gibeon that Israel was on the march, and they decided not to take any chances. They disguised themselves as travelers from far away and struck a deal with Joshua to spare them. Their neighbors, the five Amorite monarchs became furious and attacked them. And Joshua and Israel were duty-bound to protect them. So Joshua and his army marched all night – and there was no road from the camp in Gilgal to Gibeon. They must have been exhausted. They were in no condition to fight. But they had to fight; they had given their word. God held them to their word.

God could have told them to stand back and see the victory of the Lord, but that was another story. This time God said, “Don’t be afraid. I have handed them over to you.” Yet the Israelites had to do their part. They had to stand and fight even though they were exhausted. God confused the enemy and sent them into a panic; it was an easy victory for Israel.

And then something happened. They were all on the slope of a hill between two towns, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. The Israelites were already winning, the enemy was already panicked. They had already been beat back over 15 miles to Azekah and Makkedah. All of a sudden God began to hurl down stones from the heavens. Then came Joshua’s prayer for the sun to stand still which God granted. 

Joshua 10:10 And the Holy One threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, then chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Ruler of Heavens and Earth threw down huge stones from the heavens on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword. 12 On the day when the Holy One gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Holy One; and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,

and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” 

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,

until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

But why did God add the hailstones? I think it has everything to do with Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. For it was when the battle came to Sheerah’s front door that God stood up, stepped in and personally fought the battle. I’m going to suggest to you that God listened to Sheerah, who named her third city after herself, Uzzen-Sheerah, “listen to Sheerah.” God listened to her hopes and prayers for her cities and the people in them and when Sheerah’s cities were in trouble, God came to the rescue. God saved Sheerah’s cities. God’s saved Sheerah’s work. The work that she did speaks for her. The very stones bear witness to her faithfulness. 

I said the stones bear witness, not bore witness, because Sheerah built on a firm foundation. Sheerah’s cities lasted for centuries after her death: Two hundred fifty years after Sheerah built her cities and God protected them, Solomon fortified her cities in 1 Kings 9:17. 2 Chronicles 8:5 explains that Solomon only added walls and towers and bars – you see the city was built on a firm foundation. Solomon didn’t have to relay Sheerah’s foundation.

Sheerah’s cities endured through the end of the Old Testament into the period of the Maccabees, more than a thousand years after she built them, the Maccabean warriors who took back the Temple of God in Jerusalem from the Greeks who desecrated it used Sheerah’s cities as their base of operations. And today, more than 3000 after Sheerah built her cities, the remains of Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon are visible in the Palestinian villages Beit Ur al Fuqua and Beit Ur al Tahat. Their foundations are still visible.

Sistren and brethren, let me ask you this morning? What are you building? What are you building for God? What are you building for your community? What are you building for those who will come after you? What legacy will you leave behind for the people of God to build on? And how are you building? Do you have a plan? Maybe you started out with a good blueprint but something went wrong along the way. 

Are you building on a firm foundation? Are you building on level ground? Are you building on solid rock? Did you remember to lay a sewer system to remove all that pollutes or infects? Or has your building become infested and infected with dirt and disease? Is it time for you to clean house? Did you choose a good cornerstone to bear the weight of your building for generations to come? Are your walls straight? Are your windows cracked and crooked? Is your roof leaking? Or do you need to go back to the drawing board and start over? Brothers, if called has called you to work on a building project would you turn up your nose if God chooses a woman to be the foreman? 

Build your own cities if that’s what God called you to do. Or help the woman or man called to lead the building project. Survey the promise that the Holy One of Sinai, your God, Sheerah’s God has given you. Draft a sketch of the contours of your city, from corner to corner. Remember you have to see your land in order to know how to build on it, how to account for the hills and valleys, and the even ground. Building a city is hard work. And when you lay your foundation, make sure you use solid rock. Build on the rock that is higher than you. 

Build on your foundation. Build your city. Raise the walls; let the towers touch the skies. Fill it with your folk: family and friends, neighbors and strangers. And when your city comes under siege, and it will, when your enemies surround you like a flood, and they will, God will fight for you from the heavens to protect God’s work and if God lets it fall God will stay with you after the fall and strengthen your hands to build again. Now I can’t say that the s-u-n will stand still for you as it did for Sheerah, but I know the S-o-n will stand with and stand for you until he welcomes you to a city not made with hands. And who knows there just might be a little renovation going on in heaven since Sheerah the City-Builder crossed over from labor to reward.

In this season of celebration, stand on the promises of God. Claim your own inheritance. And particularly if you are God’s daughter, don’t let anyone get in your way. Stand in halls of power. Speak truth to power. Build your own city. And may your works praise you in the gates of the city you have built, for the builder of a house or city has more honor than the house or city. 

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.  


Union Baptist Church

Baltimore MD

20 May 2012

Black, Jewish and Queer: The Ethiopian Eunuch

The Ethiopian Eunuch

The story in Acts 8 takes place on the side of the road in the wilderness, and at a crossroads, an intersection. I am not referring to the wilderness of the roads from Jerusalem to Gaza – there was no single road in the Roman era that transversed the fifty miles from Jerusalem to Gaza. One would have to travel a series of spider-web zig-zagging roads from Jerusalem south to Hebron, west to the Ephrathah Valley crossroads, south to Beersheba and northwest to Gaza on the coast, if one wanted a chariot-capable road. (Hebrew Bible students should be checking their atlases and reminding themselves for whom the Ephrathah Valley is named in preparation for next week’s examination.) 

The other wilderness in which this story from Acts takes place is the wilderness of biblical interpretation. This wilderness is also marked by a crossroad. At the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat whom I’ll name shortly. 

In this same wilderness, Jewish Scripture intersects Christian Scripture and Jesus is right in the middle, literally at the crossroads. For Philip, the Gentile, the whole bible is apparently all about Jesus. But to be fair, he was probably taught this system of exegesis by Jews, who although and perhaps because, they recognized Yeshua ben Miryam L’Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Baby, as the Messiah of whom their prophets prophesied, still identified themselves as Jews, as Israel.

What can we learn from this wilderness encounter at this particular crossroad? Should you who have been laboring for the better part of a year to supplement your Christian interpretive lenses with ancient Near Eastern and Israelite contextual lenses grind those new spectacles under foot and return to wearing your former prescription? Does the story in Acts mean that the Hebrew Scriptures are really the Old Testament and are in fact all about Jesus who is in fact lurking under every bush in the bible? Is this going to be on the final?

What if I were forced to answer the question I keep asking my students: What is a faithful Christian reading of Isaiah 53 that preserves its ancestral contextual integrity? What if I were in that chariot? What would I say? And perhaps most importantly, would the Kandake’s servant still be baptized? 

Let me begin (again) by retelling the story and filling in a few details. There is a biblical tradition that extends to modern Ethiopia of naming royal servants after their monarchs. Some of the names of biblical servants and eunuchs that are attested in Amharic, the contemporary Semitic language of Ethiopia include: Avimelek – my father is king, (this name is also found in the bible for men who are not royal – or other – eunuchs or servants.) Abdimelek – servant of the king and Melech – literally “king” but used as an indication of servitude. These two names belonged to Ethiopian eunuchs who served in the Roman Era in Rome.

Borrowing from this tradition, I will call the official Abdimalkah, “servant of the Queen.” Because he has a name and, the fact that it has been lost to us does not mean that he should be stripped of his dignity along with whatever else he may have had to surrender for his career. We’ll come back to his sacrifice.

I have named him Abdimalkah, because he was in fact, a servant of a queen. The Kandakes were the Queens and Queen Mothers of Meroe on the Nile – the Anchor Bible Dictionary persists in calling it a “kingdom” in spite of the fact that women and ruled there individually and only occasionally had male co-regents. The Kandakes were well-regarded warriors; some taking on the mighty Roman Empire and, the Kandakes were also priestesses of Isis. A second century BCE historian said that the Kandakes were the only real rulers in what I translate as “a queendom.”

While the Kandake in Acts is not named, she is very likely Kandake Amanitore, the co-regent of Meroe, called Kush in the Hebrew Scriptures who reigned from about 1 to 20 or perhaps as long as 50 CE. Kush was later called Nubia and finally, Ethiopia. It corresponds with parts of contemporary Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Kandake Amanitore is the most likely referent because her monuments that exist to this day would have been well known during the first century. Her successor, Amantitere, is also a possibility. 

The writer of Acts may well have expected readers to know all of these things. There is another relevant tradition, that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that when Solomon and I quote 2 Kings – “gave the Queen of Sheba her every desire” she returned home pregnant and the two monarchies maintained friendly diplomatic relations across time, exchanging gifts including the scriptures of Israel after their production.

This tradition maintains that Abdimalkah as I call him, was reading Kandake Amanitore’s copy of Isaiah on that wilderness road when he arrived at that crucial intersection. There is some support for this in the text; Abdimalkah has been to worship in Jerusalem. He is a Jew. Israelite religion would have been introduced to the people in the broader Ethiopian cultural context by the Sheba-Solomon connection.

So let us use what my ancestors called sanctified imagination and see what would happen if I were Phillipa and I joined Abdimalkah in his chariot. I would say, “Abdimalkah these words:

And he, because he has been ill–treated,

does not open his mouth;

like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

and as a lamb is silent before the one shearing it,

so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.

Who will describe his generation?

Because his life is being taken from the earth…

These words are from the Greek Scroll of the prophet Isaiah and were written more than four hundred years ago. I know that they are a bit different from the Hebrew Scroll of this same prophet; that line about this man’s life being taken from the earth isn’t in the Hebrew one. 

You ask of whom does the holy prophet speak? I tell you, it is Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, and more than that, who rose from the dead in our very days. I knew him; I sat at his feet and learned the scriptures of Israel from with and through him. I heard him teach that we should touch the untouchable, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable because that is how God loves us. And more, this virgin-born Jesus, who was and is God-in-Human-Flesh, Immanuel in the Hebrew tongue which I know is related to your own language, has power that no one has seen since the days of the prophets of old. When I hear these texts, I hear Jesus because of my experience with Jesus.

But they have other meanings as well. The ancestors of the followers of Jesus from Judea believed that these words spoke of people in Judah in days gone by. The holy words spoke to them of those who suffer as they did when the Babylonians destroyed their nation. It spoke of the suffering of the innocent with the guilty and perhaps of the suffering of the innocent on behalf of the guilty. For many believe that the sins of their ancestors brought the destruction of the nation and even the Temple in which God dwelled on earth. But they were not all guilty. Yet they all suffered. In ancient days, people believed that to be cut off from the land of the living in this text was a description of Israel in exile and, the lengthening of days refers to the restoration of the monarchy. This caused no end of confusion when Jesus was teaching among us; some believed that he would launch an armed revolt against the Romans. 

I have learned from studying the scriptures of Israel with the Judeans that even when sacred scripture was understood in a completely different way in another time, it speaks to those of us who hear and read it today in our time. And some say, that it will continue to speak to generations, yet unborn across the ages.

Abdimalkah, I believe that these verses speak of Jesus of Nazareth who waded in the waters of the Virgin’s womb, walked the way of suffering, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning.

And, seminary community, I believe that interpreting the scriptures of Israel in their own context does not diminish the proclamation of the Gospel. It is in fact a greatly impoverished gospel that can only stand on texts whose sure foundation has been eradicated. 

And I believe, that when God decided to give birth to the African Church, a Church that survives into modernity without schism or reformation, and God appointed Philip as its midwife, and that Abdimalkah the eunuch becomes God’s firstborn in this new and continuing community.

In order to work for most monarchs in the ancient Near East and North Africa, men had to be surgically neutered. The monarchs did not want top-level employees trying to pass on power to their children and establishing dynasties of their own, or forming adulterous liaisons and undermining the government. Ironically, most eunuch formed intimate partnerships with other eunuchs or intact males, not royal women.

What then are we to make of these things as we prepare to leave this place for all time or for some time? There are several ways in which we can consider eunuchs. 

First, we can consider them to be anachronisms; that is, they are relics of an ancient time and antiquated social system and do not have parallels in our modern-techno-web-based society. For who among us would voluntarily sacrifice his plumbing for a job? There is at least one contemporary parallel, in a nuclear reactor in a small town, nearly destroyed by unemployment some years ago, some women were hired at an unimaginable cost. Those who were of child-bearing age had to agree to be sterilized, so that there would be no possibility of lawsuits over babies with birth defects. That employment contract was eventually overturned.

The last way we can understand eunuchs is as social and sexual outsiders. There are many who view lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and those in the process of having their gender surgically altered as outsiders from the fold of God and society at large. Those who are born with an indeterminate gender or who have been injured – burn patients often loose all of their extremities including their genitalia – quadriplegics, paraplegics and infertile women and couples can also feel like sexual and social outsiders. 

All of these folk for one reason or another do not fit in the dominant image of the American dream in which every woman was born to be a mother and every man was born to be a father in a hetero-patriarchal marriage that produces 2.4 children. There are many who consider anyone who doesn’t want to, or is not able to have a ‘traditional’ family as outsiders to the American dream and ‘traditional family values’ advocated by churches in the name of God.

Eunuchs can then be seen as those who do not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish. If we understand eunuchs to be social and sexual outsiders whether born or made, then God chose to birth the faithful African Church though a queer person’s body.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born: gay, straight, crooked and confused, from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

13 May 2009

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Hebrew and Hebrew Bible

The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia