Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “biblical women

Yeshua ben Miryam, the Son of Woman

This Epiphany as we reflect on the ways in which Jesus the Messiah is revealed I celebrate that his life giving Body and Blood were consubstantiated in the Virgin's womb and that he is Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. While hailed as the Son of David, Jesus is also the Son of Ruth, the only woman who figures in both his and David's genealogy.

 

Ironically, most of the women in biblical genealogies are erased even as their reproductive labor and child-nurture perpetuate and preserve their people. The genealogy below reclaims women whose names are given in the scriptures and re-inserts them in Matthew's genealogy. 

 

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam, the daughter of Anna:

Sarah was the mother of Isaac,

And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,

Leah was the mother of Judah,

Tamar was the mother of Perez.

The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,

    Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.

Rahab was the mother of Boaz,

    and Ruth was the mother of Obed.

Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.

The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.

Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,

Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.

Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.

Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.

The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.

Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,

Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.

Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,

Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.

Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,

Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,

Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,

Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.

Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,

    Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,

Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.

Then the deportation of Babylon took place.

After the deportation to Babylon

the names of the mothers go unrecorded.

These are their sons:

Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,

Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,

Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,

Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.

Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

The sum of generations is there: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother; 

    fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;

    and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

 

“A Genealogy of Jesus Christ: Alternative to Matthew 1” was complied by Ann Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York, who has graciously put this text in the public domain for all to use.


Shabbat Shemoth

Exodus 1:1 These are the names (shemoth) of the sons of Yisra’el who came into Egypt with Ya‘akov…

Baniym can of course mean "sons" or "children" and usually I err on the side of inclusion. But in this text, it is clear that only male progeny are indicated, demonstrated by the list of names that follow. These are the names of Israel’s sons, but what about his daughters?

5 So it was that all the souls, the ones who went out from Ya‘akov’s loin, יוצאי ירך יעקב, were seventy souls.

“The ones who exited, went out” – dare I say “squirted out”? – of Jacob’s singular loin, a euphemism for the specific male organ rather than “genitals” in general usually indicated by the plural or “thigh” when ירך is singular in other contexts, were seventy souls. There are twelve names given for those sons in v 1 and seventy souls altogether in v 5. Perhaps then,  Jacob had fifty-eight daughters with Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah – the text being clear that Rachel had only Benjamin and died giving birth to him. Who were these fifty-eight benei-or perhaps better-banoth-Ya‘akov? We know Dinah’s name. What about the other fifty-seven? Were they all daughters or were there lesser sons deemed insignificant by the authors of the text?

Today I’d like to reflect on the stories of Shemoth from the perspective of Jacob’s daughters, daughters-in-law and the other women whose stories become intertwined with those of Israel: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, an African princess, nearly invisible servant girls, Zipporah and her seven shepherding sisters – and their mother along with the daughters of Israel…

In response to this prompt the Dorshei Derekh Minyan engaged with me in some contemporary midrash – not bound to the rules of the classical schools – but allowing ourselves to retell the sacred stories in order to ask questions of and answer questions left by the Torah.

Here are some of the fruits of our sanctified imaginations (to use the language of the Black Church):

  • Were Shiphrah and Puah Hebrew women or women who provided midwifery services for the Hebrew people? (The Hebrew is ambiguous.) Their names are Semitic: Shiphrah’s name is sh-ph-r, “to be beautiful” in Hebrew and “to be pleasing” in Aramaic; perhaps sapphire.  Puah’s name might be Ugaritic for “girl-child,” like Nina in Spanish and Walidah in Arabic. 
  • What does it mean that Pharoah spoke to Shiphrah and Puah in person? Did he know them? How did he know them or know of them? What did it mean for them to speak to a man who was a living god in their world?
  • Was the Egyptian princess who became Moshe's adoptive mother infertile? (Was she even married?) Did Moses grow up alone, a child among adults in a palatial home?
  • Did Yocheved, Moshe's mother, arrange for him to be taught the ways of his people aftershe weaned him? Did she recommend a tutor? Did she and the princess collaborate in raising him? Did she send Miryam in to be his teacher? Did Miryam send herself in to be Moshe's teacher? (How many years were there between Miryam and Moshe? – enough that Miryam was old enough to watch over her baby brother: 5, 10, more?)
  • How did Yocheved's experience growing up in Egypt watching things go from bad to worse after one Pharoah with whom her people had good relations was replced by one who would seek to anihilate them all affect her choices? It strikes me that Yocheved prefigures European Holocaust victims, watching the governments and people they knew turn into monsters whom they no longer knew or recognized. Then Yocheved became an agent of resistance: the very decision to give birth was an act of defiance.
  • Yocheved’s experience, trying to maintain family unity as a slave-woman – albeit one with a beneficent mistress – was comparable to the experiences of enslaved African women in the American south, regularly separated from spouses and children, even if they labored on the same plantation. Indeed the experience of Moshe having more than one mother has ongoing corollaries in many African diasporic contexts where mothering is not limited to women who give birth. Many black churches in the Americas celebrate birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, heart-mothers, other-mothers and single fathers on Mother’s Day.

 

  • What happened in Moshe's life in exile that prepared him for his encounter with the Burning Bush and for leadership. How did the hotheaded murderer become patient enough to observe that the Burning Bush was not being consumed?
  • What effect did Zipporah's worship of the God whose Name Moshe did not know have in preparing Moshe to fulfill his vocation? What on earth is going on when God later tries to kill Moshe – I call it a Divine Drive-By – and Zipporah has to stave God off with a penile blood offering.
  • What's going on in Moshe's family that he sends his wife Zipporah away – divorcing her – takes them back when her father brings them back to him but doesn't speak to them again in the text? Why are the biblical authors unclear about how to spell the name of Moshe's younder son? Why does their family virtually disappear from the pages of scripture?
  • When the tribes are arrayed before the Presence of God with the tents of Aaron and Moshe in the fromt, in the vanguard of the tents of Levi, where is Miryam's tent? Isn't she in the vangard with them?

Today, Shabbat Shemoth, Sabbath of the Names, we remembered that not all names are named in the scriptures. We looked for their stories if not their names in the text, behind the text and in the spaces in and between the words in the text. And when necessay, we named  them ourselves. Shabbat shalom. שבת שלם


An Army of Preaching Women

My fellow sister US Army women chaplains in basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC in 1999.

Psalm 68:11 The Sovereign-Commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.

Isaiah 40:9

Woman, go up to a high mountain, you who proclaim good news to Zion.

Woman, raise your woman’s voice with power – proclaiming good news to Jerusalem.

Raise it woman, do not fear woman; woman, say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

1 Chronicles 7:24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.

“An Army of Preaching Women” a sermon delivered at the the William Harvey III Memorial Malawi Mission Portrait of Excellence Banquet, 20 October 2012. Click to listen to audio of the sermon An Army of Preaching Women Sermon (mp3).


Drag Queens and Did Jesus Just Call that Woman a B—-?

RuOaul

(Listen to or download the sermon as recorded in chapel – mp3 format)

[Dons feather boa.] I love drag queens. I love the way they make me think about gender, its construction and its performance. Drag queens like RuPaul, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale are some of my favorite critical gender theorists and theologians. Now drag queens are not female impersonators; for the most part they don’t want to be women. They can be gay men and there are straight men who drag it out. There are women who perform as drag kings. Drag performers are folk who have chosen to express themselves and (hopefully) make a living by publically performing another gender. While all gender performances including those of us here today who are not professional gender performers, choose some elements of gender presentation over others to represent publicly, drag performers tend to center their performance in the stereotypical: voluminous hair, curvy bodies, sequined eveningwear, feathers and eyelashes that would shame a giraffe.

While there are a few petite queens – Ongina boasted of being a size 4 – many queens are well over 6 feet without their 5-inch platform heels and some are so full-figured that they could play professional football. One of my favorite queens, Latrice Royale is famous for what she calls her “curves and swerves,” for being “chunky yet funky.” Drag queens have also been subject to public censure, ridicule, harassment and violence. RuPaul, the reigning Queen of Queens is famous for saying “wearing drag in a male dominated society is an act of treason.” Ru knows that choosing any kind of female gender performance by intentionally surrendering and/or sabotaging male privilege is an act of treason – or resistance – against the androcentrism is this planet’s original sin, pervading the scriptures and on display in the Gospel, on the lips of Jesus, no less.

You don’t have to be a drag queen to feel the wrath of some sections society – church and society even – for your gender performance and presentation: If you are a man who is deemed not to be appropriately masculine whether because you’re gay, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you knit or love babies, puppies, kittens, manicures and mascara, and think women are your equal… If you are a woman who is deemed not to be appropriately feminine whether because you’re lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you earn more than some men, coach sports, wear your hair short and spikey, hate make up or love trucks and wrenches, think men are your equal… Or because you’re a man, woman or child who has been raped or sexually abused and no longer fit in the hierarchy in the same way. In this rigid gender binary masculinity and femininity are immutable and fixed characteristics of immutable and fixed genders and those genders are not equal. The gender binary serves to keep women and feminine folk in their place and has little patience for folk who occupy an unanticipated, unscripted place in the hierarchy.

Like other marginalized members of society, drag queens have taken the hateful language spewed at them and transformed it into community and self-affirmation, like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. Latrice Royale has taken one of the more hateful epithets thrown at all kinds of women and folks who perform as women and redefined it: Being In Total Control of Herself. The b-word in case you didn’t catch it, a female dog.

In a gospel that does not sound like good news to me, Jesus said to a woman kneeling at his feet begging for help for her child, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus just call that woman a b—-? I know this is Jesus and we’ve been trained to read him and hear him religiously, more than religiously, divinely, incarnationally. But where I come from you cannot call a child a dog without calling her mama a dog and you cannot call a woman a dog without calling her a b—-.

In my best Queen Latifah – I want to ask Jesus, “Who you calling a b—-?” (I know some of you don’t know that song, U.N.I.T.Y., it’s from the previous century.) In our supposed-to-be-good-news Gospel lesson Jesus calls a woman like me, a non-Jewish woman, a b—. There is no honest way around it. Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. Yes, he or the evangelist used the term kunarion, which sometimes meant a smaller dog like those kept indoors in other cultures; but the Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. “Dog” was also the code word for a man who sold sex to other men – voluntarily surrendering his proper place in the gender hierarchy. Dr. Mounce’s dictionary makes the point that a kunarion is a worthless specimen of a dog, reminding me of the way some folk who love big dogs think about little yapping dogs – that they’re not even worthy of the title “dog.”

When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets. He’s talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table, walking it outside and throwing it in the gutter – Greek students note the ballistic verb in the text – so that the scavengers that are rooting through the garbage and maybe even eating the corpses of other dead animals can dine on what you prepared for your children. And the children in the analogy are the Israelites, the Syrophonecian, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.

The woman’s response, emerging from her context – after all Jesus is in her country, at the beach, blissfully outside of Herod’s jurisdiction – she reframes Jesus’ words and changes that context. She does that. In her words, not those of Jesus, dogs are if not pets, at least not scavengers; they eat under the table. Now she has already humbled herself. She is now kneeling at the feet of a strange man. She is begging him for help. She probably knows that he is a Jew and what Jews thought of Gentiles. And while there is no reason to believe that androcentrism was any worse in ancient Israel than any other place in the Ancient Near East, she is dealing with a religious leader from a tradition that alternated between suspicion of and outright hostility towards women.

And taking the words that David Henson calls racist and sexist,” (in Jesus Was Not Color Blind on Patheos), and that Matt Skinner (on WorkingPreacher) calls “palpable rudeness” while being “caught with his compassion down,” she shows Jesus what it is to Be In Total Control of Herself. She doesn’t ask, “Who you calling a b—-?” But she does werk. She werks the Word. And because of what she said, what she did, not what she believes – this is werk without articulated faith, Jesus healed her daughter. In v 29 he is converted by her logos, “that saying” not “saying that” – rendered as a verb in the NRSV, but her word, her logos. She is the embodiment of the divine Word.

Now, many will say that Jesus didn’t really call her the b-word. He just made an analogy in which the healing she wanted was compared to food for those whom he intended to heal, who were children and she and her child were dogs. So she was only a b-word by analogy. And that’s not the same thing. Well, one day I was in the chapel of another seminary and a seminarian walked up to me and said to me “I grew up calling black folk n-words – and the seminarian actually said the word, to me in chapel, then asked – what word should I use to refer to black people now?” She used the n-word about people like me while talking to me, in the chapel. When I discussed this with a variety of folk I was surprised that some of my colleagues said, “She didn’t reallycall you the n-word, she just used it in a sentence while talking to you.” They were of the belief that was a distinction that mattered. To me, that was a distinction without a difference.

And that’s how I feel about this text, that the difference between comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs in an analogy and calling her and her daughter the b-word is a distinction without a difference. Now I understand that not everyone experiences this passage that way. And I’m not claiming that this is the only way to hear this Gospel. I’m sharing with you how I hear it because the principles of womanist preaching include affirming the dignity of black women as legitimate interpreters of the Scriptures whether or not our interpretations converge with those of the dominant culture, because our interpretations are God-breathed and revelatory, Gospel to more than folk who look and think like us.

It’s alright if you have your own way of understanding this text. But I ask you to proclaim this Gospel in such a way that it doesn’t take lightly how deeply entrenched gender bias is in the world of the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves and our world, that you don’t dismiss the concerns of girls and women who feel marginalized by the Church and even by the Scriptures and that you don’t empower people who call women outside of our names.

The church has taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, taught and fought, killed and died over that notion and it’s implications. But most of us are not ready for Jesus who was quite that human. Who you calling a b—-? A fully human Jesus is a product of his culture. Perhaps he was influenced by his own scriptures, Sirach who shared the same Jesus says in 26:25: A headstrong woman is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord. The Anchor Bible Commentary (Skehan and Di Lella) has, The unruly [woman] will be thought of as a bitch… Even Jesus is affected by the androcentrism and ethnocentrism that characterize his people and their time. As am I.

I’m a black woman living in an American context that alternately demonizes and exploits my womanhood. If the Gospel isn’t relevant to my context then it’s not Gospel, good news to me. And I stand with and in the place of all of those girls and women who are called the b-word by men and boys and other girls and women. Who hear the word on television and in the movies and in the music that is marketed to them, to us. I stand with the women and feminine-gender performing folk of various subcultures who use the word affectionately and with those who have redefined it for themselves.

And I’m standing up to Jesus, talking to and about women like me using language like that. Some of you maybe asking, where is the Jesus I know and love? Well, I think I caught a glimpse of him, in the midrashic space between their words. The listening, learning Jesus is the one I know and love. In this story, this nameless woman is also a Christ-figure. She is the one who humbles herself and will endure whatever is dished out to her in order to bring healing and new life. She is the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the reign of God for all of God’s children. She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the savior of the whole world. Apparently even Jesus needed a little help. In becoming her student Jesus becomes our teacher.

As a colleague recently reminded me, this is a passage that will sort out your Christology. How human, how divine is your Jesus? Is he human enough to be bigoted and biased? Or does your preconceived notion of the divinity of Jesus mean that whatever he said was holy, therefore comparing a woman to a female dog isn’t really the same as calling her a b—–, or it’s alright as long as it’s Jesus. How divine is your Jesus? That Jesus listens and responds to the woman, is that an indication of humanity or divinity? Or is it both? I think the humanity and divinity of Jesus are all tangled up in this passage, sometimes thick and sometimes thin, neither distinguishable from the other, impossible to sort out.

In this troubling story, Jesus teaches me the value of listening, the value of hearing, and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Perhaps Jesus is a process theologian. In either case he models divinity and humanity in a muddy, godly, morass. Jesus is God enough/human enough/man enough to change his mind. And that is Good News.

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 from fear and from death itself. Jesus, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.


Restoring Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba

Our first lesson says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” In so doing the text jumps from 1 Kings 2:12 to 1 Kings 3:3. There is a gap in the text. The story as we have it framed by the lectionary presents a smooth transition from David to Solomon. But it wasn’t that smooth. You may not be surprised, because if you’re like me, you know that life is not always smooth. And if you know anything about the biblical narrative, you know that life in the bible is most certainly, not always smooth. If you’ve been hearing David’s story preached this summer, you know that his life was not always smooth. The lectionary framers skipped something, cut something out. Don’t you want to know what it is? This morning I’m preaching the gap, “Bathsheba Restored.”

As David lay dying just before our lesson, with his professional and personal impotence on display, his sons began fighting over his throne. Even before David was in the ground one of his sons, Adonijah, began trying to claim some of what was his. Adonijah wanted David’s throne and his last woman, Abishag. She had been brought in as a bed warmer for David, to warm up his old bones. But he wasn’t the man he used to be. And he could do nothing with her. And when she got up from what became David’s deathbed, his son Adonijah began asking for her.

This didn’t sit well with everyone. Solomon and Bathsheba understood that by asking for a royal woman even if she had only been a royal woman for a very little time, Adonijah was making a claim on the throne. While he was David’s fourth son, he was now at the head of the line. His oldest brother, Amnon was executed by his third brother Abshalom who was in turn executed by their cousin Joab. (Forget the Borgias, David’s family put the “OG” in original gangstas.) The second brother probably died in infancy because the bible says nothing about him after his name. 

The king is dead! Long live the king! As David lay dying, folk began maneuvering, choosing sides. Who would be the new king? There were a lot of options because as quiet as it’s kept, David had a whole lot of children with a whole lot of women:

2Samuel 3:2 Sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream, of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.

But hold on! Chronicles continues chronicling David’s children:

1Chronicles 3:5 These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua, daughter of Ammiel; 6 then Ibhar, Elishama, Eliphelet, 7 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 8 Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet, nine. 9 All these were David’s children, besides the children of his secondary wives; and Tamar was their sister.

In case you missed it, Solomon was David’s tenth son out of nineteen. Adonijah was way ahead of Solomon in the line for the throne. But he didn’t count on Bathsheba. Today we’re talking about “Restoring Bathsheba.” Bathsheba had been so callously used by David. When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting the king’s war and the king took her, used her, raped her and tried to discard her. But she became pregnant and David tried to get rid of her and the baby by setting them up to be claimed by her husband. And when that didn’t work, he got rid of her husband by murdering him. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes.

That’s all that most people remember about Bathsheba, the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day she was raped, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to live with David as his wife. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband in the sight of God, the man I love, the husband I chose to live with. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. I will be the mother of kings.”

I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. Now don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands must stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that in her time she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. She made the best she could out of the situation and God was with her.

God was with her in the form of Nathan. The one man who stood up to David. He had no way of knowing whether or not David would kill him, but he told David what he was doing wasn’t right and he told him in such a way that David pronounced judgment on himself. I believe that Nathan became a friend, advisor and perhaps a father figure to Bathsheba. She even named one of her children after him. And then there was the confusion as David lay dying, who would be king after him? Nathan and Bathsheba worked it out.

The king is dead! Long live the king! But who would be the new king? Adonijah is sure that he will be king. He had the support of David's chief enforcer, his nephew Joab, the man that killed one of David's sons and then told the king to stop crying because his grief was taking too long. The rest of the warriors didn’t back him; the priesthood was split. They didn’t have another candidate; they just knew that they didn’t want Adonijah. And yet, Adonijah throws a big party; he invited all of his brothers except for Solomon and he left Nathan off the list too.

David’s oldest surviving son, Adonijah, was making moves, claiming royal property, claiming David’s last woman. And Solomon is only tenth in line; even with the death of three of his older brothers he only moved up to sixth place. And Mama stepped in. I believe Bathsheba said “Baby, let Mamma handle that.” While the man who would be king was partying the night away, Nathan went to see Bathsheba. He said to her look, “If this boy becomes king he will kill you and your son. You and I are going to make sure that doesn’t happen. You and I are going to put your son on the throne. You’re going to go into his room and remind him that he promised to put Solomon on the throne.” Of course, there is no record of that promise in the Bible. Scholars are divided over whether or not David actually made that promise. Some of us think that Nathan and Bathsheba simply decided that Solomon should be king and used David's old age and failing memory against him. 

Bathsheba went in and asked the question while David was lying there with his latest pretty young thing curled up with him in the bed. She spoke to his pride saying, “Aren’t you still the king? Why is it that Adonijah can proclaim himself king while you’re still alive?” She closes by reminding him that Adonijah will surely kill her and Solomon and the rest of her children with David. She doesn’t have to say the rest out loud; she just looks him in the eyes and reminds him of everything he did to her and why she is even in his house. Then, just as they planned, Nathan walked in on cue and Bathsheba slipped out. “Did you say that Adonijah was supposed to be king? He has proclaimed himself king and is throwing a party – and he knew better than to invite me. And by the way, the people are saying long live the king!” David called for Bathsheba to come back in and said to her, “I promised you that I would make Solomon king and I am going to keep my word.” At that very moment, David proclaimed Solomon King. Then David died. The king is dead! Long live the king!

Our last verse before the break says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” But there’s a gap in the text. In that gap in the text, in the space between the two pieces of text of assigned for us today, there’s a whole lot going on. Adonijah knew that the tide had turned against him; he tried to cut a deal with Bathsheba. He said, in the text between our texts, “You know the throne was mine, but I’m going to step aside for your boy because I’m sure that’s God’s will. I do want just one thing for my trouble, that girl.” Bathsheba said, “I will speak to the king about you.” What she meant was, “I’m going to see to it you get exactly what you deserve.” 

She knew that if he had a royal woman and got her pregnant he could claim the throne. And she knew that Solomon knew that too. She raised him well. She also knew that Solomon had to decide on his own what to do about Adonijah. So she asked for the girl for him. Solomon’s response did not disappoint her:

1 Kings 2:22 King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! 23 Then King Solomon swore by the Holy God, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! 24 Now therefore as the Holy God lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as God promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death.” 25 So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died.  

The violence in this text and much of the bible is symptomatic of the barbarity of the times. God met folk where they were and they were in the Iron Age. Three thousand years later we haven’t learned that power to hurt and kill is not strength; it does not last and does not bring happiness. In this city plagued with murderous violence and sexual assault God is still trying to show the Davids of the world that they cannot do whatever they want just because they have power. There is seemingly no end to those who use their power against others. I wonder how many Nathans there are, willing to stand up and say that what you have done is wrong; you can’t do whatever you want to people.

After the death of Adonijah, the words of the text came true: “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And Bathsheba, the woman who had been stolen and raped and stolen again, who had married, lived with and lay down with the man who raped her – a man who collected women like dolls and set them aside when he was no longer interested in them – Bathsheba survived him. Bathsheba survived and thrived. Her agency, her ability to make decisions for herself, her life and her body was restored, in part because of Nathan’s friendship and in part because of Solomon.

In that scene in the throne room where Bathsheba is making sure that Adonijah will never threaten her son or his throne again, Solomon elevates his mother in 1 Kings 2:19: “The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.” He places her on a throne that he has set on his right hand side; from now on she will be the right hand woman in the kingdom. How different this is from her first encounter with an Israelite king! The physical postures are reversed; now she is elevated above him and it’s voluntary. And in the generations to follow in the monarchy of Judah the king’s mother, the Queen Mother will rule with her son. Bathsheba is no longer the broken woman David used to flex his power. God has transformed her brokenness, given her back her power and more power than she could ever imagine. God restored Bathsheba.

This is the point where poor preachers will say that there is a reason for everything and that everything happens for a reason and that everything happens for our good. I’m here to tell you that’s bad theology and bad preaching. God who can create anything out of no thing can transform any situation and restore any brokenness but God does not need us to be broken, devastated, raped or abused to elevate us. It’s true that Bathsheba would not have had Solomon if David had not kidnapped and raped her; it’s true that she would not have had this life. But we will never know what kind of life she and Uriah would have had. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have risen up through the ranks of David’s army and when after David died one of David’s fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom, he could have stepped in and stepped up making Bathsheba the right-hand woman with out all that mess. 

It could happen. It did happen. That’s what happened with the general and his wife after Solomon died and one of his fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom. He became king in his place. Bathsheba made the best out of a bad situation. And God was with her. Our text says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” But that’s not the whole story. There’s a gap in the text. And God is in the gap, restoring Bathsheba.

May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.

19 August 2012
Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & St. Monica
Philadelphia PA


The Scandalous Gospel According to a Bleeding Woman: A Re-Telling

Let us pray: 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.

Sarah’s daughter was bleeding from her vagina, again, still. It wasn’t the not-so-secret monthly blood whose scent was part of the cacophony of smells which perfused the Iron Age and passed largely without comment from anyone else. This was something else entirely. This was a flow that never quite stopped. It dwindled from time to time, giving birth to aborted hope that this time it had stopped for good. A day or two of respite, and then the bleeding started again. There were some years that she had gone for months without bleeding at all. And just a few months – she could count them on one hand – that she bled like other women. She had bled this way since her first bleeding. It was nothing like what her mother and aunts told her to expect. Her sisters didn’t bleed like this. She drank the teas the midwife gave her, tied the knots in the cord around her body as prescribed by the healing prophets (like those in Ezekiel 13), nothing helped. She never felt clean. There were stains on all her clothes, her chair, her bed. She was tired, tired of bleeding and just tired.

She had moved to a town where no one knew – or admitted that they knew – her story. She couldn’t stay at home any more; all of her sisters were married and having children. She loved her sisters and their children and yet every time she saw one of them blossoming with yet another pregnancy or putting a baby to her breast she felt an ache in her empty, broken, bleeding womb. The other mothers in town wouldn’t consider her for their sons. She could have married an older, widowed man to help him with his children, but that wasn’t the life she wanted for herself. And she made a decent life for herself, as a midwife, a healer, hoping to learn something that she could use to heal herself. She also became a midwife because she hoped no one would think twice if they saw blood on her skirts. All of the money she earned, all of the goods and services she received, she sold or bartered away in hopes of healing herself. She spent all of her income on every healer and physician in her town, within walking distance and sometimes beyond. She was Sarah’s daughter and she decided to do whatever it took to heal herself, save herself, to live.

Her vaginal hemorrhage didn’t affect her day-to-day life as much as people might have imagined when the flow wasn’t too heavy. After all, being ritually not-yet-ready for worship – a better translation than “unclean” in terms of illness or naturally occurring bodily cycles – was quite common and in most cases remedied by bathing and an inexpensive offering. Some cases also required physical inspection by a priest or for women – I believe – a woman who was both the daughter of and the wife of (another) priest with the pronouncement of restoration being made by the priest. But her vaginal bleeding would have to stop first, long enough for her to qualify for and pass inspection. And in the past twelve years it hadn’t and as a result she couldn’t go to Jerusalem and worship in the temple, and she wanted to go. She had been there as a child, but she wanted to go as an adult and take her own offerings and say her prayers facing the place where the living God resided, bathed in clouds of incense. It wasn’t required for women, but so many women went that there were mikvahs – baths – dedicated for them, there was a plaza named in their honor and, special gates and balconies for women who didn’t want to mix with men.

Even though she poured herself into the healing arts and her life-giving work, rejoicing at each new life born into her hands, Sarah’s daughter longed to be free of her terrible illness, the weakness, the pain, the constant washing and cleaning and to have some new things, new clothes, unstained. Her affliction also affected her sense of herself, her sense of her own value and beauty and worth. She was distant from her own family and had no family in this town. She had no one with whom to share Shabbat meals, she lit the candles by herself. Sometimes families she helped invited her for celebrations but she was always afraid her body would betray her, like that one time she thought she had enough padding and then it broke through in front of everyone. She had moved again after that. She was keenly aware that her body didn’t work like other women. She felt broken. And she knew she could die from this. 

But Sarah’s daughter refused to be destroyed by her pain or paralyzed by fear. She didn’t know why her body was the way it was, but she knew it didn’t have to be. She knew it could be, should be, would be different. And she would do whatever it took to save herself, be healed, be made whole, be restored, to live – the verb means all of those things. She had heard that there was a miracle-working rebbe, Yeshua ben Miryam, (Jesus, Mary’s child) based in Capernaum who regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee. And today he was here. She was going to see him. 

As she hurried after the crowd, she thought about what she was going to say. She followed the sound of the commotion and saw more people gathered than lived in her town. All of them pushing towards a group in the middle, and one of them… Yes him. He’s the one. She pushed. Not caring if some stepped out of her path because they saw or smelled the blood that was flowing even harder. She had to reach him, had to get his attention…

But he was walking with Ya’ir (who the Greeks called Jairus). Ya’ir’s daughter – what was her name? was it Me’irah? Named for “light” like her father? I think so – Me’irah had died. A child whose whole life was the length of her disease, twelve years. And now she was dead. Sarah’s daughter said to herself, I won’t bother the Rabbi. He must go to comfort Me’irah’s mother. 

She was all alone as she watched her daughter die, she was all alone as she planned and began the funeral of her child. She was like so many mothers left alone to do the difficult work of holding her remaining family together through the most trying of times. Her husband had not abandoned them, but he had left them. He missed the moment when the light left his baby girl’s eyes as she passed from life to death. He left her on her deathbed and her Mama in her deathwatch in the hope that he could persuade Rebbe Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus, to come and lay his hands on her. But she died in his absence and they started her funeral without him…

Yet Sarah’s daughter couldn’t walk away; she couldn’t take her eyes off of him and found herself within a hand’s breadth. Falling to her knees, reaching out, not knowing what she would do until she did it; (according to the other two gospels) she touched his tzit-tzit, the knotted fringe on the corners of his clothing – the sign of an observant Jew. She believed that this time she would be healed. She had believed before and been disappointed, but that didn’t matter. Sarah’s daughter had resilient, indefatigable, inexhaustible, inextinguishable faith. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be saved.” 

More than healed, saved, saved from the death that was surely coming closer. Twelve years of pain, disappointment, sorrow and struggle did not diminish her faith; it was a living thing, carried inside of her, extended through her hand to One who was so worthy of her faith that he didn’t have to see her, speak to her or even touch her to save her, heal her, make her whole, grant her life and transform her.

And it was so. She drew the healing power from his body. She did it. The text is full of her verbs: She endured, she spent, she was no better, she grew worse, she heard, she came up, she touched, she said, she felt, she was saved/healed/restored and then she told him everything. Everything. All her pain, all her grief, all her hope, all her faith. All. She is the active agent in her healing eleven times, and once passive – her hemorrhage stopped.

And Ya’ir, Jairus, is waiting and watching. He left his child on her deathbed to find Rabbi Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus. He didn’t know if she would be living or dead when he got back; but he knew that if Yeshua, Jesus, just laid his hands on her, she would be alright. Ya’ir started his journey in faith. He said, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be saved, and live.” (There’s that verb again.) And Ya’ir ended his journey in faith. When he found Jesus, he found resurrection and life at the same time Sarah’s daughter found restoration and life.

One of the great ironies of the aftermath of this text is that the church of Jesus Christ and nominally Christian societies like ours have become so scandalized by women and our bodies that we dare not name our parts or the problems with our parts in polite company according to some folk. It is ironic, because silencing women and censuring our bodies denies the Gospel story itself: That God became flesh and blood in the body of a woman, was nourished by her blood in her body passed through an umbilical cord attached to a placenta, rooted in the wall of her uterus, and one day pulsed into this world through her cervix and vagina. Just like the rest of us – give or take the occasional caesarian. 

This is the scandal of the Gospel, the Incarnation of a woman-born God. At the heart of Incarnation theology is the notion that the human body – and women are fully human – is neither accidental nor unworthy of the habitation of God. The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body in all of its forms, genders, expressions, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, limitations, communicable diseases, poverties. And this is what God became, for Sarah’s daughter and Ya’ir and his daughter and her mother and you and me, for the whole world, for all of groaning creation. To paraphrase Brother (Cornell) West: Jesus was born too close to urine, excrement and sex for the comfort of many. God became human to touch and be touched by the broken, bleeding, dead and dying and to be broken, bleed and die. And in so doing transformed that brokenness into a sacrament, body and blood, bread and wine, the shadow of death, grave-robbing resurrection. 

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 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. Amen.


Saying “Vagina” In the Pulpit

Looking forward to next week's Gospel and reflecting on the censuring of a Michigan State Representative, I discuss the woman with a vaginal hemorrhage in light of contemporary politcal and public discourse in my latest Huffington Post bog entry.


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


Lessons from the Prophet Miriam: When You Mess Up, Step Up

Harriet Tubman

In these last and evil days someone needs to be reminded and someone else needs to learn that the word of God about a woman through a woman to women on Women’s Day works for men too, because women are the image of God, not once removed, but in everyway, image-bearers. And it’s a good thing for men who are used to being at the center of the story – even sharing pronouns with God in some preacher’s mouths – to have to think about where they fit into the story and find their place in a woman’s story.

The inability to see some people as fully human, hand-crafted by God, is potentially lethal as we saw once again in the past month. But it is not only white folk (or half-Hispanic folk as it’s mow being said) who willfully ignore the divine image in other people’s bodies. There is enough murder, rape, forced prostitution, and child abuse in the black community to bear witness to our own failings. As we advocate for our Trayvons, let us not forget our Trayvinas, little (and big) black girls who suffer physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of black men and boys, sometimes with the knowledge or willful ignorance or even participation of black women. So let us women and men pray over the theme “If You Mess Up, Then You’d Better Step Up”:

My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.

Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.

With these words

the word of God was formed in the woman of God.

On this day, as on that day,

let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God

bring forth your word again. Amen.

There are two hundred and seventy-four shopping days until Christmas. There are forty weeks until Christmas. There are nine months until Christmas. Today, the Good News is that God became incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. This Good News 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 from sin – the sin that we’ve done and the sin that has been done to us – and from death itself. Yeshua HaMeshiach, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. In my church we celebrate the announcement of that holy mystery today, with the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Feast of the Annunciation was once so important in Christendom that the date of the year changed then, in the middle of March, for time could no longer be the same once the Holy Spirit wrapped her glory around the Virgin of Nazareth and quickened life in her womb.

The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary, as we call her in my church, was bat Zion, a daughter of Zion, of the tribe of Judah. But her name wasn’t Mary; it was Miriam. Names in your New Testaments have been translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin, and to German in some cases, and then into English, rendering many familiar and beloved names distantly related to their original forms.

Miriam is the most popular woman’s name in the New Testament because it was the most popular woman’s name in Jewish communities for as much as five hundred years before the time of this Miriam and her son Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. All of those Marys, all of those Miriams, were named for one woman, the mother of them all although she never married and never gave birth, the prophet Miriam.

One of the things I like best about the prophet Miriam is that when she messed up, she stepped up. Miriam made mistakes, but she was more than her mistakes. She left a good name, a great name and an enduring legacy. Miriam is one of the most important women in the bible. She is mentioned in more books than any other woman. And she is the only woman to have her childhood, adulthood, old age, death and burial recorded in the scriptures.

You may be familiar with the first story about Miriam in the bible. She saved her baby brother Moses so that he could save their people. She saw him safely to the waters of the Nile where he could be rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. We don’t know how old she was but she was old enough to negotiate an employment contract for her mother and make sure that Moses was placed in an open adoption so that he would always know who his people were.

And then there is a great space in her story. The bible is full of these spaces, many, disproportionately, in the stories about women. Did Miriam continue her relationship with the Princess? Did she and her mother live in the palace while Moshe was nursing? Why did she never marry? How did she become a prophet? How did she serve God and her people? We do know that at some point in her life she becomes recognized as a woman of God, not Moses’ prophet like Aaron, but a prophet of God in her own right. God spoke to her and through her and she spoke for God in song and verse. The bible’s oldest passages are songs and poems composed by the prophets Miriam and Deborah.

Moses and the Israelites sing Miriam’s song, the Song of the Sea, at the water’s edge. But the people wouldn’t move, they wouldn’t walk through the waters. So Miriam took a small hand-drum – I know your bibles say a tambourine in Ex 15, that’s a translation error, it was a tambourine-shaped drum without the metal pieces – she took a drum in her hand and led the people through the water singing her song. First she sang by herself and danced by herself. Moses was on the side holding his arms in the air. He didn’t lead the people through the water. The prophet Miriam led her people to freedom beginning with the sisters. The women joined Miriam in the Song of the Sea and Dance of Deliverance. Leading her people through the danger water, Miriam was the first Israelite to set foot on the other side.

And when Miriam led her people to the other side of the sea she was at least ninety years old. For Moses was eighty and Aaron was eighty-three when they told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And Miriam was their older sister, old enough to negotiate on behalf of the baby Moses.

And then one day, Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up. She got sat down. But she didn’t stay down. She got up and moved on. She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and moved on. She messed up. She made a mistake. Yet the sum of her life is so much more than her most infamous mistake. Some of you have made some mistakes.

In our lesson, Miriam has something to say about the state of Moses’ household. She was right in her criticism. Moses wasn’t God’s only prophet; she was God’s prophet too. But she was wrong in talking about Moses and not talking to him. And don’t get it twisted, Moses needed talking to. He had just shown up with a shiny new wife. Black and shiny. A Nubian sister, perhaps blacker than the range of beige, brown and black that made up Israel and the multitude that left slavery on their dime. But perhaps not. Skin color wasn’t an issue in their time. The issue was that Moses just showed up with a new woman having put out his old woman and their children. Polygamy was acceptable to the Israelites, child abandonment was a whole ‘nother issue.

In Exodus 18:2, Moses sent away his first wife Zipporah and their children. Some of you may know the passage in Malachi 2:16 where God says “I hate the sending away,” sometimes and appropriately translated as “divorce.” That’s the same word used here but some translators can’t bring themselves to write that Moses divorced his wife. Yet in Exodus 18:3 his father-in-law Jethro shows up with his wife and their children in an attempt to put the family back together, and Moses hugs his father-in-law and only his father-in-law, asks about his welfare and never says a mumbling word to his family. In fact there are no stories about Moses’ sons in the wilderness, unlike Aaron’s, suggesting that he sent them away again. Some scholars speculate that’s why Moses’ descendants were banned from the priesthood; they weren’t around to be trained with or instead of Aaron’s sons. We don’t hear anything more about Moses and his family business until he shows up in our lesson with a brand new wife.

Miriam was right to want to hold him accountable for his personal conduct. Preachers and prophets don’t get an ethical pass. But she was wrong to talk about him and not to him. Moses messed up and God would deal with him. But today we are telling Miriam’s story. Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up.

When God called her name, calling her on the carpet, calling her to account, she didn’t shuck and jive, she didn’t duck and dodge, she stepped up. She stepped up and stepped to God, placing herself, her life, her skin, her beautiful face, in the hands of a living God. First God said, all three of you, come here! And she went. She messed up so she stepped up. Then God said to Miriam and Aaron, you two, come a little closer to the Fire. And she stepped up again. She was woman enough to take responsibility for messing up. She stood up on her own two feet in her big girl pants to hear the judgment of the Fire of Sinai. She didn’t make excuses, she didn’t pass the blame or the buck; she stepped up.

She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.

Miriam – and in my reading Aaron – were punished by God with a skin disease. The text doesn’t clearly say Aaron was afflicted but the Hebrew allows for that possibility reading between the lines. Since the biblical disease is never described with the numbness and loss of body parts associated with leprosy in other parts of the world and because houses, clothing and other inanimate objects could be contaminated, most biblical scholars identify this disease as something else. What ever it was, it was disfiguring: flaky patches, oozing sores and peeling skin.

Miriam bore her punishment and never uttered a complaining word. She didn’t know how long she would be afflicted. Yet she didn’t throw Aaron under the bus for going along with her at every turn. But Aaron, her partner in crime, confessed his own part and begged Moses to intercede, and he did. And she was healed instantly, but she still had to bear the consequences of her actions. And it was decided that Miriam had to leave the community and stay in the camp beyond the camp. She was banished to the place were those who were taboo for periods ranging from one day to the rest of their lives were quarantined apart from the rest of the people. And so Miriam went into exile among the last and the least. She no longer stood up front with Moses and Aaron at the Tent of Meeting in front of the congregation. She sat down, exiled, banished.

But she didn’t sit alone. The people sat with her, and get this; they sat down on God and so God waited for her too. Ordinarily, the people followed the leading of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, watching over them by night as a pillar of fire by night. But Numbers 12:15 says that the people would not get up and go without their prophet. They knew she was more than her most public mistake.

I always imagine that God picked up the cloud and started out on the next day’s journey… and no one followed. So God waited on Miriam, with her waiting people, waiting on her restoration.

Miriam messed up, she stepped up, sat down and then she got up.

And when Miriam got up, God and the people got up with her. And then they got going. Miriam messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved on past her mistake. She didn’t hang on to it and she didn’t hang around with anyone who wanted to tie her to her past. She went on with her life and her life’s work. And then, one day, she died. In Israelite culture, a person had immortality through their children, specifically through their name passed down to and through their children. But Miriam didn’t have any children. She never married. Yet her name lives on forever.

There was something about Miriam. Sure some people would never allow her or anyone else to forget that one time she messed up big time. Look at Deuteronomy 24:9, Remember what the Holy One your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.

But that’s not the only was Miriam was remembered, in 1 Chronicles 4:17, another Egyptian princess married into the tribe of Judah and named her newborn baby daughter Miriam. Miriam’s legacy to her people – and to those who were not even her own people – is more than her mistakes.

And then there is God. And when God looked back on Miriam’s life and death, all God saw was her gifts. It was how Miriam conducted herself before and after her mistakes – and I’m sure she made more than one – it was Miriam’s service to God, serving God by serving God’s people that God remembered and testified to in her memory.

Do you remember when God took the witness stand and testified about Miriam? You probably know the verdict:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Holy One require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

But a text without a context is a pretext. The Rev. Dr. Dennis Proctor told me that. You see in Micah 6, more than six hundred years after the death of the prophet Miriam, God is being sued by Israel. The bailiff speaks, calling the court to order in Micah 6:1-2:

Hear what the Holy One says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains,

and let the hills hear your voice.

Hear, you mountains, the dispute of the Holy One,

and you enduring foundations of the earth;

for the Holy One has a dispute with God’s people,

and God will litigate with Israel.

Then God takes the stand and testifies in verses 3-4:

“O my people, what have I done to you?

In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

and redeemed you from the house of slavery;

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

God’s testimony, God’s self-defense was Miriam. The proof of how good God was to Israel was that God sent not just Moses, not just Moses and Aaron, but God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And the mountains and hills, serving as the jury, ruled in God’s favor.

I like to think that it was the memory of Miriam that decided things in God’s favor. Yes Miriam messed up.

She messed up and then she stepped up.

She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.

She messed up, stepped up, sat down and then she got up.

She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved past her mistakes.

God used the prophet Micah to vindicate and validate the prophet Miriam, she was more than the one mistake that some folk wouldn’t let her forget and talked about after her death. And her people began naming their daughters after her so frequently that in the first century her name was the most popular woman’s name among her people.

And one of the daughters of her name, named for the most famous and beloved of Israel’s women prophets elevated her name to a whole new level. Listen now to the geology behind the genealogy in Matthew 1:

A genealogy of Miriam, the daughter of Hannah called Anna:

 Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

Sarah was the mother of Isaac,

And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,

Leah was the mother of Judah,

Tamar was the mother of Perez.

The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,

            Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.

Rahab was the mother of Boaz,

            and Ruth was the mother of Obed.

Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, gave birth to Jesse.

The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.

Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,

Naamah the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.

Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.

Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.

The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.

Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,

Zibiah of Beersheba was the mother of Joash.

Jecoliah of Jerusalem gave birth to Uzziah,

Jerusha gave birth to Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.

Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,

Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,

Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,

Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.

Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,

            Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,

Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.

Then the deportation of Babylon took place.

After the deportation to Babylon

the names of the mothers go unrecorded.

The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;

            fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;

            and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

Miriam, the prophet-woman, messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. When you mess up – when and not if – when you mess up, step up. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Own it. Give it to God. And know that that you may have to pay a price and that you may have to bear the consequences, in public, in your community. You can’t run and you can’t hide. And then take the time that you need to get your life back on track. Don’t run from mistake to mistake. Sit down in the company of folk who know what it is to go through what you’re going through. And if no one sits you down, sit your own self down. But when you sit down then don’t stay down. Get up. And move on. Go forward; go with God. You have no way of knowing how God will use you, your name, your legacy, to change the world.

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


Torat Bilhah: The Torah of a Disposable Woman

African American Art - Eve

[This D’var Torah led to a rich and ongoing discussion at the Dorshe Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia on the possibility of adding the names of the enslaved Mothers, Zilpah and Bilhah, to the liturgy. Some of that conversation can be found here. Ultimately it was decided that prayer leaders would have the option to invoke their names as Immahoth, Mothers of Israel.]

Today, I’d like to share with you Torat Bilhah, Bilhah’s Torah, the torah of a disposable woman. Today’s drash is based on an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Womanist Midrash. Womanism is black feminism by another name, coined by Alice Walker.

Genesis 30:3 Rachel said, “Look! My womb-slave Bilhah – come in her, and she will give birth on my knees that I may also build-babies, through her.”

Bilhah is one of two slave-women whose bodies were used to produce a full third of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bilhah and Zilpah are often overlooked – in prayers naming the matriarchs in Judaism and Christianity – and, in my experience as a congregant and student they are combined as a footnote to Israel’s story. Bilhah figures more prominently in the scriptures than does her sister in slavery, Zilpah. There are eleven references to Bilhah; in comparison there are only seven for Zilpah.

Both amahoth and shiphchoth are enslaved women or girls regularly associated with sexual and reproductive duties. Translating either as “maid” intentionally obscures the sexual nature of their servitude. Both terms seem to refer primarily to foreign women; Lev 25:44 stipulates that they should be bought from foreigners. However, a survey of the passages in which these terms occur does not indicate that these women are entirely or even preferentially non-Israelite.

In some cases I translate amah and/or shiphchah as “womb-slave.” In these cases, the girls are given by other women to men for sex for the express purpose of impregnating them. I believe that it is more appropriate to describe the womb-slaves as girls rather than as women because they were likely young enough to have been presumed fertile and possibly virginal in order that the paternity of their children not be disputed, however, it may be that in some cases, perhaps Bilhah’s, that they were already proven fertile. Bilhah is first enslaved to Lavan the father of Leah and Rachel before being passed on to his daughter Rachel. While she is enslaved to Lavan, Bilhah is initially referred to as a shiphchah. Later, she is called an amah. The two terms are used nearly interchangeably in the Hebrew Scriptures although there was likely once a distinction between them.

The text is not interested in how a girl (or woman) young enough to be presumed fertile came into Lavan’s household. Was Bilhah once the woman-servant of Lavan’s mysteriously missing wife? Was Bilhah born in captivity or captured as spoils of war? How long was she in Lavan’s service before he gave her to Rachel? And what sorts of services did she provide Lavan? Given the absence of Lavan’s wife from the narrative it is entirely possible that Lavan used Bilhah sexually.

Bilhah’s sexual subordination to Rachel (with or without the possibility that Lavan used her sexually previously) evokes for me the sexual abuse of enslaved Africans in the United States, Caribbean and other places. Religious readings that valorize Rachel place the descendants of those held as chattel in the American slavocracy in the position of identifying with slave-holding values and against the interests and experiences of our foremothers. Rachel, like her foremother Sarah does not to hesitate to use the body, womb and sexuality of another woman for her own purposes. Unlike the white women who benefited from slavery in the Atlantic, Rachel does not pretend not to know about sexual contact between her man and her slave. And, when Rachel gives Bilhah to Ya‘aqov, she gives her as a primary wife, an isshah. Yet Bilhah remains Rachel’s slave; she is regularly referred to as a shiphchah. Bilhah proves fertile and gives birth to Dan and Naphtali.

In each slave-surrogate story the text portrays a singular accounting of the sexual contact between Avraham and Hagar, Ya‘aqov and Bilhah and Ya‘aqov and Zilpah. The reader must imagine how many times the slave-women were forced/required to have sex with these men in order to provide their mistresses with the children they craved. Rachel like other women who use their slaves as child-bearing surrogates claims the children; this is not comparable to the vast experience of enslaved women of African descent forced to bear children at the whim of their enslavers, whose children were sold off or abused to punish them for a sin that was not theirs. (Perhaps a modern parallel to Rachel’s use of Bilhah’s body might be the women of privilege who travel to the two-thirds world to pay a surrogate to bear their children at a tenth of the cost of an American surrogate. While the poor women do consent to the practice, the financial disparities and cultural consequences of carrying someone else’s child in traditional societies complicate that consent.)

Bilhah’s body is used again in Gen 35:22. Re’uven ben Leah, Ya‘aqov’s firstborn son, rapes Bilhah. That Bilhah does not consent is indicated by the Hebrew, vayishcav et-bilhah, “he lay Bilhah.” There is no “with” indicating consent. Bilhah is the grammatical and sexual object of Re’uven’s actions. Re’uven is young enough to be her son. He may have been like a son or nephew to her. But he uses her nevertheless, whether for his own power and control needs or as a pawn in a battle with his father. The pain, anguish, rage and shame that Bilhah must have felt are and are not difficult to imagine. No punishment is meted out to Re’uven in the text at the time of the assault. (It is held against him and eventually given as the reason he is demoted from the privilege of being the firstborn.) No comfort is offered to Bilhah in the text. Was she supported by other slave women, by Zilpah who shared her lot in life? I cannot imagine Rachel or even Leah coming to her aid. Her body has belonged to Lavan, Rachel, Ya‘aqov and now Re’uven. Bilhah may be the woman with the most sexual partners in the scriptures, none of whom she chose. In the rape narrative Bilhah is described as a secondary wife, a pilegesh. She has been degraded in body and status.

Yet something of Bilhah endures and transcends the abuse heaped on her body. In 1 Chron 4:29 there is a town named Bilhah settled by the descendants of Simeon. Textually speaking, the town is likely the same town called Ba‘alah in Joshua 15:29. Since Ba‘alah and Bilhah are more than one letter apart, scribal error does not seem to be responsible for the discrepancy. There are likely two different traditions about the ancient city list. The space between the two traditions provides a midrashic space. I’d like to think that Bilhah is the Ba‘alah, (“lady” or “mistress”), for whom the town is named, regaining the dignity that had been stripped from her. Finally, in Genesis 46:23-25, Bilhah takes her place in the genealogy of Israel as a matriarch, credited with seven children and grandchildren; this is largely repeated in 1 Chron 7:13.

In a womanist reading, Bilhah represents the woman who has had more than one abusive relationship, the woman who has been raped by more than one perpetrator, the woman who has been betrayed by women and men, who has never known anyone to value her for more than what they think about her body in part or the whole. And Bilhah represents the woman survives her abuse.

There is a prayer in the Mass of my church, (Eucharistic Prayer C in the Holy Eucharist, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church), in which the celebrant invokes “God of our Fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I always add Hagar, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Because Bilhah is one of the mothers of Israel and after all that she has been through – after all that was done to her, to erase her name from the chronicle of her descendants and their people is to do further violence to her. Likewise when I pray the Amidah, I add Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah for the same reason.

Lastly, calling the names of familial and spiritual ancestors is a womanist practice with roots in a number of African societies. In ritual practice, the affirmation “Ashé!” from the Yoruba tradition concludes the name-calling of the ancestors. Mother Bilhah, womb-slave of Israel, we call your name. Ashé!

Questions:

Who are some of the marginalized characters in sacred writings that you would like to see in the center of discourse? Given that this text functions as scripture – with all that entails – what torah does Bilhah offer you? What (if anything) does midrash from the margins offer the broader interpretive tradition? I welcome your questions and comments.

D’Var Torah delivered in the Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre for Shabbat Vayetzei 7 Kislev 5772/3 December 2011


Deborah Speaks: A Call to Arms, A Call to Service

Judges 4:3 And the women-and-men-of-Israel cried out to the Faithful One for help; for King Jabin had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the women-and-men-of-Israel cruelly twenty years. 4 Deborah, a woman, a female prophet, a fiery woman, she was judging Israel at that time. 

I want to thank the All Saints ohana for your wonderful gift of hospitality to me, especially Ben, Linda, Cooper, Chris, Warren and Wendy, Lacee and Jeff my hiking partners, the congregation at Christ Memorial and the hona [giant sea-turtle] who swam with me in Poipu. I knew when I saw the lessons for today that I wanted to preach on Deborah, having written – if not the book on Deborah – then a major contribution to her study. I love this woman-prophet-military-commander-strategist-and-head-of-state. Sometimes I think my Hebrew name should have been Deborah, but Rabbi Lynne Gottllieb named me Huldah; that works too. And I find as a veteran a message that honors the service of all veterans and everyone else who serves their community in her story: A Call to Arms, A Call to Serve. But I’m not going to preach it. I’m going to let her do that.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

Good morning, my name is D’vorah, you call me Deborah. Fr. Wil asked me to preach for her today because she is getting ready to go to San Francisco before returning to Philadelphia. As I said before, I am Deborah, the former Judge of Israel; my people call me “Mother,” even though I never married and never had any children of my own. They were all my children. What may seem to be two disparate roles, prophetic mother of the nation and professional martial strategist are in fact united by the single focus of answering the call of God in and through God’s people. You heard part of my story read to you earlier today. I am the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to me.

Judges did more than settle disputes; we ruled the tribes from actual thrones – mine was near the large palm tree beside the intersection of Beth-El Boulevard and Ramah Road. As judges we governed the people and led the army – well more of a militia. And I’m more than just a judge. I’m also a prophet and in one sense Moshe’s heir, (you know him as Moses). I know most folk think Joshua was Moses’ heir, but he was no prophet. But he could tell a good story. His book is full of war stories – he reminds me of some other veterans I know, to hear them tell the story every skirmish was a major battle, our side never lost a battle and he was in the center of all the action. Nobody else remembers the stories quite like he told them; but each veteran is entitled to their memories and their stories even when they don’t agree with the official history. They have earned the right to tell their stories however they want. How many of you like Fr. Wil served in the military? I salute you, veteran to veteran.

Joshua’s story comes before my story and our stories together are each part of a larger story. Some of my story is recorded in chapters 4-5 of the book of Judges. The first part in Judges 4 is something like liner notes for an album; it was written after my song in Judges 5 which was at the top of the charts in my day, to tell my story to the folk who only knew my songs. You see when God appointed me to lead the nation, 80 years of rest and prosperity had just come to a crashing end under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. For twenty long years they rode us into the ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines singlehandedly when they joined in, but it wasn’t enough. And Judge Ehud had died. The version of the story you have says that the people sinned after Ehud died. The old story actually says the people sinned and Ehud died. It might be that their wicked ways sent him to an early death. I had that on my mind when God called me to be the mother of the nation, but I still answered the call to serve.

For twenty years we suffered under Canaanite oppression; I suffered with my people before God called me as a prophet and judge, to walk in Moshe’s oversize footsteps – no wonder Joshua felt the need to tell so many outsized stories! No one tells the stories of how I came to be a prophet or judge. No one remembers that I answered the call to serve when no one knew my name like so many soldiers, sailors, marines and air force service members. I just did my duty. And I wasn’t in the military at first.

The truth is all of our communities need more than one type of service. I just did what I could with the gifts God had given me to help my family, my community. That’s how we made it through the difficult days, every day, every week, every month, every year for twenty years until I went to war, we worked together as a community. We each did our part to hold it together and support each other, with no one calling our names or remembering our service. Your sacred story doesn’t tell you what happened in the 20 years that Israel was oppressed during my time. In fact the big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day focusing on kings and prophets.

You see our people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is we figured out how to get along together, more or less.

Joshua (24:11) says, “When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you.

Just before my story the sacred story says:

Judges (3:5-6) says, “So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods.

Now all that mixing was a problem for some, but in most cases we were just building community and making families with our hearts the way so many kama’ina [locals] do here in Hawaii. Sometimes what looked like the worship of other Gods was the development of new and different ways of worshipping the God of our ancestors whom we found was also worshipped by some of our neighbors. But there were folk who completely turned their back on the God who brought us so far, so faithfully. I’ll never understand that.

All of the Canaanites didn’t welcome us into their families and land. There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when we had carved out a little space and paid for our peace in the blood of our fallen, within four generations we were overrun. Canaanite oppression was physically violent, often lethal. And it was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. We lived through hard times, a whole generation of privation. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today and express through the Tea Party and Occupy  Movements. People were hurting. And we took our pain to God.

My people cried out to God. I cried out with them and for them. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. For twenty long years we struggled under the burdens laid on us by someone else. And while I believe that God heard every prayer and touched every tear, God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And while God hears their cries and touches their tears, in many cases God is moving at a pace that feels far to slow for those who are suffering today.

Yet God heard and God responded. God called me. I seem like a pretty unlikely candidate. No one remembers much about me or my family. They called me a fireball – I think that’s why Fr. Wil likes me so much – but some folk pretend that lappidoth, fireball, is a man’s name so that they could claim I was married. My culture didn’t know what to do with single women. I answered the call like so many men and women who volunteered or were drafted into military service. No one starts out as a hero or leader of a nation. We just answer a call to serve. No one even remembers the call I answered or how I served before I was appointed commander-in-chief. Like so many veterans, much of my service was anonymous. And like many veterans, I also have a couple of good war stories.

When God called me to serve God by serving God’s people, I issued my own call to service. I called for war. It wasn’t a popular call. Your people have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for ten years. And some of your people and families have borne the war-fighting burden, answering the call to serve while others remain scarcely touched. That’s how it was in our time. We were spread out and everybody didn’t show up when I called, everyone didn’t answer the call. Some couldn’t. Some could but didn’t. Some let others take the risks for them.

I took the troops I had and deployed them. My plan was to lead one flank and send my second-in-command, General Barak to lead the other. But he wouldn’t go without me. He wasn’t ashamed to say he needed the woman of God. The previous generation had Joshua, and the generation before had Moses and Miriam as their prophets, and Barak wasn’t going anywhere without his prophet. And he did not care that the senior warrior gets the glory. Barak wanted victory, not glory. I led and accompanied Barak, fulfilling my calling and enabling him to fulfill his. We led a force of 10,000 and defeated our enemies even though some of our own people, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Asher along with the clans of Meroz failed to honor the call to serve.

We prevailed even though we were out-classed and out gunned. They had the Iron Age equivalent of mechanized infantry or an armored tank division, almost a thousand iron-plated armored chariots. We had some iron-tipped arrows and spears and a few iron swords for hand to hand, but we also had a lot of bronze. And our troops were not professional soldiers. But they answered the call. And God made the difference. God took our service and multiplied it and used it to protect our families, homes and community.

I also had a battle-buddy, a sister-in-arms, her name was Ya‘el Eshet Heber; she was a covert operations specialist, an assassin, she had a license to kill, or if you prefer, to terminate her objectives with extreme prejudice. She was an assassin, but not a sniper. She went in close for her kills. I wrote a song about her, I called her “most blessed among women” after she took down the Canaanite general, Sisera, a notorious rapist. In one of the saddest comments on the whole affair, his mother doesn’t even worry when he is late coming home from the war because she knows it is his custom to violate the women of his enemies.

More than six hundred years later the Israelites sang my song to another Mother-Savior, Judith after she assassinated the enemy general oppressing her people who wanted to rape her. That’s one thing that has not changed from my time to yours, the use of rape as a tool of war against women and men and boys and girls. Many veterans and active duty soldiers bear scars that can’t be seen because of sexual assault. Those assaults are not limited to enemy troops; some soldiers are raped by our own colleagues-in-arms. And there are some folk who take pleasure in using their power and physical strength against the most vulnerable among us off the field of battle in their personal campaigns of conquest.

Father Wil tells me that there are many folk who long for an Old Testament solution for child predators and rapists, and she counts herself among them in times like these when the news cycle is full of atrocities. Yet even in my day a person who was accused of horrific acts was brought before a judge. Hearing all of the evidence before passing sentence, particularly when that sentence is life-or-death is a sacred duty, and for some that is their call to service.

Some six hundred years after the elders of Israel sang my song to Judith, the pregnant prophet Elizabeth sang my song to her young cousin, the mysteriously pregnant Miriam, soon to be the mother of not just a nation, but the mother of God. Let me suggest that what each woman had in common was her willingness to offer her body in the service God. In spite of the lives of these women most of us do not expect God to use us to accomplish Divine purpose through assassination and unwed pregnancy.

These women teach us that there are some, not all, whose callings lead them to do incredible things in the Name of God, most of which we would not be comfortable doing. They teach us that leadership is not without cost and that God calls whomever God wills. All of us are not called to be assassins or prophets, maybe some of us are. But we all are called. The question that each of us must answer is whether or not we are living out our divine calling.

Lastly, Fr. Wil wants me to tell you that you may not have legions of warriors at your disposal, experienced military commanders, assassins or even anti-rape activists at your beck and call, but if you go where God calls and sends you, God will go with you and before you and will meet you there. You will not go alone. Perhaps you will be able to follow a seasoned prophet. Perhaps you will be accompanied by angels. You will not go alone.

There is an afterword to today’s story. Fame is fickle. Hebrews asks (11:32-34) “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has a gendered recollection of history without the herstory of Deborah and Ya‘el. You can do what God called you to do and people may forget that it was you God chose to use. Someone may rewrite your story in their own image, but God will not forget. God will be with you when others forget you.     

May God the Mother and Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,

Sarah, Hagar, Rebekkah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,

Who took the tangled threads of their lives

And wove a tapestry of Redemption

In the Blood of Jesus

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design.

13 November 2011

All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI


A Bruising Blessing

My commentary on Genesis 32:22-31 from WorkingPreacher.com
In Genesis 32, Jacob and his family have finally left the homestead of his father-in-law Laban who is responsible for much of Jacob's present circumstances:

Laban had deceived him into marrying sisters, Leah and Rachel whose conflict and competition with each other resulted in dozens of children with them and with their slaves whom he dutifully impregnated upon command. (For estimates of the total number of children fathered by Jacob see Genesis 46:15 and 46:26.) Laban is also responsible for Jacob's wealth, indirectly, he agreed to give Jacob all of his spotted and speckled livestock not knowing that Jacob would use magical means to multiply them while suppressing the fertility of the solidly colored stock (Genesis 30:32ff).

As Jacob leaves his father-in-law he crosses paths with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified and for good reason, the last words of Esau reported to him by their mother Rebekah was that Esau intended to kill for taking his birthright. (See Genesis 27:41-45.) First Jacob sends word to his brother that he is coming, that he is quite wealthy, and that he wishes to find favor in his brother's sight in Genesis 32:3-5. The response is swift; Esau approaches with four hundred men. Jacob is terrified, he prays for divine assistance and then takes matters into his own hands by setting aside a significant portion of his holdings and sending them ahead as a gift to appease Esau (Genesis 32:7-21).

All of this happens before our lesson begins. It is with a very real fear that Esau will kill him for taking his birthright that we encounter Jacob in Genesis 32:22-31. He has not heard back from his messengers; he does not know if Esau has accepted his gifts. He does not know if his servants are even still alive. And yet he sends his wives and children into the path of Esau and his riders — without him in verse 23. (NB: there is a discrepancy between the Hebrew and English verse numbers; I am using the English versification in the NRSV.)

Jacob has evaded his greatest fear up to that point. The danger is across the water from him. He is safe, for a while; so he thinks. A person or personage he does not know (or does not recognize) grapples him to the ground. There is a pun in verse 24: the verb "wrestle" has the same letters as a word for dust, (abaq, in Exodus 9:9; Deuteronomy 28:24; Is 5:24, etc.). Jacob gave as good as he got. There was a stalemate. And then, the person did something to Jacob's hip and put it out of joint. Because the same verb means "touch," "strike," or "plague," it is not clear if it was a great violent blow or a gentle touch with more-than-human strength and/or abilities behind it.

Jacob the Heel whose name in Hebrew, (Yaaqov), is a reminder that he came into this world with his chubby baby fist wrapped around his brother's heel, (aqev), now finds his own heels under assault. He can no longer balance on them quite so easily. His injury and its imposition are revelatory. Jacob knows he wrestles with one whose blessing matters. The one with whom he wrestles knows that even wounded Jacob is tenacious. The mysterious wrestler reveals a concern for the coming dawn. Is the wrestler concerned about what the sunlight will reveal? Does it matter whether or not Jacob can see his assailant's face? The wrestler demands freedom.

Jacob demands a blessing. Jacob has decided that he will not let go of the wrestler whose power he knows is more than his own and, the wrestler who wounds with a touch has neither destroyed nor rejected him. He may just get his blessings if he holds on long enough. The wrestler asks Jacob's name and Jacob answers with no ancestors, clan or people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, "Yaaqov — Jacob — a Heel."

Then the wrestler grants him with a new name: "God-wrestler — Israel." Once again Jacob asks the name of the wrestler. Once again the wrestler refuses to answer. Now the wrestler (formally) blesses him in the text. In the literary context of the scriptures, the blessing would have been spoken. Yet the whole struggling, questioning, name-changing encounter can be read as a blessing, albeit a bruising one.

The reader, like Jacob, seeks to unfold the mystery of the wrestler whose departure before the dawn breaks is not described. There are tantalizing hints with which the reader must wrestle: The text says "a person/a man" in verse 24 and the wrestler tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God in verse 28 to which Jacob assents in verse 30. Jacob says that he saw God "face to face" in verse 30. Was he granted a glimpse of the wrestler's face in the pre-dawn light in the space between verses 29 and 30, between the blessing and the parting?

By following these clues and assembling them into a coherent picture the reader like Jacob comes to the conclusion that the wrestler is God. The injunction of Exodus 33:19, that "no one can see God and live" is either unknown or non-binding to the authors and editors of this text. God appears on earth (sometimes disguised as a messenger called "the angel of the Lord" in many translations who speaks as God in the first person and perhaps as Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18ff) frequently in Genesis. See Genesis 3:8; 11:5; 16:10-13; 17:1; 18:1; Genesis 26:2, 24. In the rest of the Torah, God will hide from the people in smoke and fire, but God will later appear to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5 and 9:2.

In the closing verse of the lesson, Jacob limps away from site of his transformation. He will never be the same again. Each step he takes is marked by the divine touch.

 


Love Triangle: Leah, Rachel and Jacob

My commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 from WorkingPreacher.com.
This is the story of the Mothers and Fathers of Israel and their descendents, the people of Israel. Rebekah and Isaac have sent their son Jacob to his mother's brother Laban, with instructions to marry one of his daughters, (the as yet unnamed Leah and Rachel in Genesis 27:46-28:1).

Their family practices internal marriage among relatives: Jacob's grandparents Sarah and Abraham were siblings, his grand-uncle Nahor married his own niece, Jacob's aunt Milcah, his cousin Lot fathered children with his own daughters in a bizarre set of circumstances, and he, Jacob, has been given instructions to marry one of his cousins. Leah and Rachel are the only two women who meet his parents' requirements.

In the back-story, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father's flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah's son (ben Rivkah) but never as Isaac's son, (29:12). And he spends an undescribed month with them before the subject of marriage is brought up. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah's mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.

In our lesson, the story is told from Jacob's perspective. Jacob is famously described as loving Rachel, so much so that when he is thwarted in his desire to marry her, he soldiers on in servitude to her for a total of fourteen years that pass in the blink of an eye for him. The story has no interest in Rachel's or Leah's lives or experience of those years. Rachel's feelings for Jacob are never described. (In fact no woman in the scriptures is described as "loving" anyone else, using the primary Hebrew verb ahav or even "love" in the NRSV.) This is a reminder that even when the text seems inclusive or even egalitarian, it is an androcentric text, that is, it is written from (and primarily for) a male perspective.

This lesson has a number of challenges for women and other readers: Rachel and Leah are given to Jacob like chattel. This contrasts dramatically with his own mother's marriage, to which she consented (24:57) after a ten-day deliberation period. Laban's claim that he could not give his younger daughter in marriage before the elder has no foundation in the text. If that were the case why did he not tell Jacob?

Laban may well have lied, adding dishonesty to his deceit. He may have thought that he could only marry Leah off through deception. The larger narrative says that there was something peculiar about Leah's eyes — a notoriously difficult to translate expression. Whatever Leah's circumstance she was compared unfavorably to Leah. And perhaps, the largest challenge: How could Jacob not know with whom he was being intimate? The story conjures up images of complete darkness, total silence, and perhaps drunkenness, perverting the biblical sense of intimate "knowing."

Whether Rachel and Leah had a difficult relationship prior to their marriage is not revealed in the text. But there is a suggestion that Leah was regularly devalued in comparison with her sister in the way that they are described. Laban's deception, combined with the assessment that Rachel was more desirable — including to Jacob, set the stage for a sororal sibling rivalry that would plague Jacob and populate Israel at the same time. Leah, Rachel and their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah would become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes while competing for Jacob's time and attentions.

This story demonstrates that "love is not enough." Even if Jacob's love for Rachel is not based on her appearance or the fact that he was limited in his choice to Rachel and her (in some way undesirable) sister Leah, his love does not translate into a happy, healthy family.

In modernity, some people elevate romantic and sexual love as the highest expressions of love. Neither form of love brings enduring happiness to Jacob who loves Rachel or to Rachel or to Leah who compete to sleep with Jacob and bear his children in the aftermath of the text. This story also illustrates the common practice of reducing people, women in particular, to their physical appearance: Rachel was beautiful; there was something odd about Leah's eyes.

Yet both women found themselves in the same situation. Only in death were they separated. Rachel was buried alone on the road to Bethlehem, (Genesis 35:19). Leah was buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, (Genesis 49:31). And before he died, Jacob gave Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb, (Genesis 50:13). He was buried with Leah.