The Law of Moses that was “discovered” in the Jerusalem Temple helped to solidify the monotheism that bolstered the “warrior God” and patriarchy of ancient Israel. Regardless, several stories survive of great women—like the bold daughters of Zelophehad, the clever & wise Rahab, the tremendously respected leader Deborah, the resourceful though nameless woman of Thebez, the honorable daughter of Jephthah, the faithful Ruth, and the generous Hannah. Darker stories—like those of the deceitful Delilah, the violated & dismembered concubine of the Levite, and Ichabod’s nameless mother—also illuminate aspects of human nature and provide hope for all who encounter similar persons and challenges in life. Be inspired by these stories of the important women during the conquest of Canaan and the time of the Judges—and join the army of advocates who champion all who have been marginalized by the Church, including the many amazing and very talented women around us who deserve their rightful place in the leadership of Church and society!
Have you seen the latest issue of Extraordinary Catholics magazine?
[Becky & Terry Ann]
Welcome to “Extraordinary Catholics,” a podcast for—you guessed it—extraordinary Catholics! In a world with over a billion ordinary Catholics, the Good Samaritans of Vatican-free Catholicism are truly extraordinary, seeking to model Jesus’ inclusive spirit and his discipleship of equals. Like Roman Catholicism, Inclusive Catholicism possesses valid lines of apostolic succession and shares valid sacraments. One in every ten adult Americans self-identifies as a former Roman Catholic. If we were to band together, we would form the second-largest religion in America. In Mexico, over 1,000 Roman Catholics leave the church every single day. To learn more about Inclusive Catholicism, please visit www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith, and join our Extraordinary Catholics Facebook group. And now, meet the host of Extraordinary Catholics, the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, the only inclusive Catholic community in Austin, Texas: Father Jayme Mathias!
[Father Jayme Mathias]
Welcome, extraordinary Catholics! I am Father Jayme Mathias, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
We thank the special saints who helped make this episode possible:
* Corey Hurt Montiel & Heather Lucas of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas; and
* Very Reverend Ben Jansen of the Congregation of the Servants Minor in San Diego, California, part of the Progressive Catholic Church International.
Looking to earn your wings? Visit dwy.io/podcast to join the list of saints who are stepping up to sponsor future episodes.
Can I ask you a favor? Will you prayerfully consider sharing a quick rating and or review of this podcast? You are a saint!
We’re back from a break after our third tremendous, interjurisdictional gathering of lay and ordained leaders here in Austin, Texas on May 19th through the 21st, so now, let’s continue our exploration of the theological foundations of Inclusive Catholicism!
Conquest by a Male, Monotheistic God
With the conquest of Canaan, we saw the emergence of a warrior God who continued to lead a warring people into battle. Now, we recall that these stories, told in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, were not written as they took place. There was no scribe sitting in the Garden of Eden. No one aboard Noach’s ark was writing down these stories. The patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith did not write anything, nor did Mosheh, Aharon or Miryam or anyone who accompanied them in the desert. Instead, all these stories were written down centuries after the purported events, before they were “discovered” inside the Temple’s walls during King Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century B.C. (2Kgs. 22:3-13).
By this time, the religion that surrounded our warrior God was becoming increasingly monotheistic and patriarchal. In their work, Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective, Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer and Marie-Theres Wacker explain: “The development of the religion of YHWH into an exclusive and patriarchal monotheism is a complex process….The Bible does not know the concept of theoretical monotheism; when Deutero-Isaiah denies the existence of other deities next to YHWH, it is not a matter of the pure being of divine existences, as conceived by Greek philosophical tradition, but rather of their agency. Israel’s God is only inasmuch as S/He acts, is being experienced, or exercises power over and against other powers” (p. 164). In simpler terms, our God, we said, was better and more powerful than their gods or goddesses!
So, sadly, we saw the rise of an exclusive, patriarchal monotheism—of the worship of a male God, imagined in male language, and whose worship was administered and presided over by men. And, sadly, we also saw the diminishing of the feminine divine. Schottroff, Schroer and Wacker continue: “Monotheism has been a tale of triumph invented by men. Justifications for monotheism have been associated with war and the search for identity, often in terms of an apartheid against other people and religions” (p. 164).
The Hebrew scriptures mention various goddesses: Ashtoreth (1Sam. 31:10 & 1Kgs. 11:5), Anat (in the towns named after her in Jos. 15:59, 19:38 & 21:18), and Asherah, the “Queen of Heaven,” the goddess of the tall, mighty Asherah trees from which we carved our asherim, the wooden Asherah poles that we integrated into our worship of YHWH for centuries and which are mentioned some 40 times in scriptures. The Jerusalem Temple, in contrast, worshiped a male God who was perceived as being very different. Schottroff, Schroer and Wacker note: “The profile of the God who was worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem had come about through the fusion of a combative, martial god of storms and mountains, with the sun-god who had originally been worshipped in that temple” (p. 166). And this God sought with vengeance to eliminate all other gods and goddesses.
But human nature is not, by nature, monotheistic. All eight billion humans on this planet can’t agree on a single god—nor could our ancestors in the faith. Schottroff, Schroer and Wacker write: “No sooner has one become convinced that the principals of good and evil cannot be delegated to different powers, than Satan makes an entry on the stage of theology (compare 1Chron. 21:14-17 to 2Sam. 24:15-17 and the narrative frame of the Book of Job). No sooner is the confession of the one and only God clearly formulated, when the ONE receives company: in the Book of Daniel it is one called “the Son of Man,” in wisdom literature it is “Wisdom,” the hosts of angels, and other intermediary beings (in Judaism there is, among others, the Shekhinah). With its doctrine of the Trinity, Christianity looked for other ways to lessen the problematic of a purely monotheistic symbol system. The veneration of saints and Marian piety are both theologically incongruous with the system; and yet, they always manifest in the praxis of religion the very needs of people to which monotheistic religion could not respond” (p. 165). With such figures as Jesus, Mary and the saints, one rightly questions the extent to which many ordinary Catholics truly embrace a monotheistic religion! But this is nothing new. Schottroff, Schroer and Wacker write: “In times of heightened political uncertainty, Israelite people readily reverted to cults that were rooted in the country and which promised fertility, peace, bread and blessedness. Not even the royal household could resist the cults’ attraction. When Israelite people offered their sacrifice to the Goddess, it is not likely that all of them were intent on abandoning altogether the worship of YHWH” (p. 166). That’s right: The ancient Israelites had no problem worshiping other gods without abandoning their worship of YHWH!
But the cult that was centered in Jerusalem had other plans. The scribes at the Jerusalem Temple began to paint the picture of an exclusive, male God, but they also included in their edited works various ancient stories that shed insight into the ways in which our ancient ancestors esteemed and lifted up certain women. In this episode, let’s explore those stories, which will take us from the conquest of Canaan, to the last of the “judges”—the military, political and spiritual leaders—of Israel.
The Oldest “Lawsuit” in the Bible: The Five Daughters of Zelophehad
Before our ancestors crossed into Canaan, God purportedly told Moses to divide the Promised Land among the Israelite tribes (Num. 26:52-56), and, because only men could own land in Moses’ patriarchal society, Moses divided it up among the men (Num. 34:13). A controversy erupted: Zelophehad the Manassite (a man of the tribe of Manasseh) died in the desert, and, not being part of the rebellion of Korah against Moses (Num. 16:1-40), Zelophehad was considered an upright man, worthy of his parcel in the Promised Land. But Zelophehad, who died, had no sons who could inherit his parcel. Instead, he had only five daughters—and these women were so significant in the history of Israel that all five are named: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah (Num. 27:1).
Though women had no property rights at the time, the five daughters came before Moses, the priest Eleazer, and the community to exert their claim over the property due their family (Num. 27:4). In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards write: “Rather than sit back quietly, the daughter sof Zelophehad brought their complaint to Moses and the leaders of the congregation….This incident is significant, for the story told first here in Numbers 27 is repeated in Numbers 36….These five sisters went before Moses with a legitimate concern. They asked why their father’s name should be removed from among his family because he had no sons. They asked to receive their father’s portion of land after he had died, since he left no sons to inherit it. A few things are noteworthy in this history. First, these young women recognized an injustice in the Law. Secondly, they responded to it appropriately. They took their case before Moses and presented it to him in a logical and respectful manner” (p. 78). You can understand why some people refer to this as the first “lawsuit” or “court case” in the Hebrew scriptures!
After consulting God, Moses declared that Zelophehad’s inheritance should pass to his daughters (Num. 27:7), and he shared a new law with the 12 tribes of Israel: that inheritances could be passed to daughters in the case of fathers who died with no sons (Num. 27:8). Models of courage, these women fought for their rights!
In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Rev. Bernardine Grant McRipley writes: “[Zelophehad’s daughters] were not trying to be aggressive and annihilate the values and norms of their culture, but they did want to be heard. So, they took a risk and made their claim within the context of their religious, cultural and legal system. They put themselves in a position of being rebuffed or blessed. Because they boldly presented a legitimate request, they were blessed, and so, too, were many who came behind them” (p. 50).
As the story goes, though, the men of Israel demanded that the case be reheard & they stated their case: What if a man’s property passes outside the tribe, to the tribe into which a daughter married? (Num. 36:3). And so, Moses’ original decision was modified, and property could only be passed to daughters who married within the same tribe (Num. 36:5-9). Rev. Bernardine Grant McRipley concludes: “The story of Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27:1-11 provides the following lesson for women today: Proclaim who you are and that you have God-given rights. Know how your culture constrains or support you as you claim your rights, and know that asserting yourself can lead to changes in your society that will benefit future generations” (p. 51).
I personally like the take-away of Sue & Larry Richards in their work, Every Woman in the Bible. They write: “These daughters of Zelophehad were intelligent, assertive young women. They were not militants; neither were they doormats. They did not say, ‘It's a man's world,’ hang their heads, and go through life dejectedly because they had been treated unfairly. Neither did they instigate a negative campaign of complaints, which would have been in keeping with the custom of these Israelites who had been set free from captivity. That’s how the people responded when they grew tired of manna and wanted meat as well as other things. In today’s terms, these young women were ‘pretty awesome,’ and a credit to themselves and their father” (p. 78).
Jesus’ Ancestress: Rahab the Harlot
Now that the Israelites were entering and conquering the “Promised Land,” the land of Canaan, Moses’ military commander and successor, Joshua, sent two spies into the walled city of Jericho, which he intended to conquer (Jos. 2:1)—and that’s where we meet Rahab, a prostitute whose home was on the city wall where men could come & go unsurveilled. Some storytellers have cleansed this tale, suggesting that Rahab was an innkeeper, but the scriptures make clear four times that she was a harlot or a prostitute (Jos. 2:1, 6:17, 6:22 & 6:25).
According to the story, Rahab sensed that the Israelites were going to take the city of Jericho, so she cast her lot with them and their God. When the king’s soldiers came knocking on her door, suggesting that they saw two suspicious men (Jos. 2:3), she hid them on her rooftop (Jos. 2:6) and bargained with the spies for her safety and the safety of her family (Jos. 2:12-13). She then risked her life, telling the soldiers that there were no men hiding in her house.
In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards summarize: “Rahab was a woman of strong courage as evidenced by her willingness to commit treason and help the enemy. When her king asked her to bring out the spies who had been seen entering her inn, she said, ‘Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them’” (Josh. 2:4-5).
In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Jean Syswerda summarizes: “Rahab was both clever & wise. She saw judgment coming and was able to devise an escape plan for herself & her family. As soon as she heard what God had done for the Israelites, she cast her lot with [God’s] people, risking her life in an act of faith” (p. 59).
Rahab’s faith is expressed in her words, which acknowledge how God had worked wonders for the Israelites: “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Sea of Reeds for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Jos. 2:9-11). Rahab’s choice to hide rather than reveal the spies made possible Joshua’s victory at Jericho, and he declared, “Only Rahab the harlot shall live; she and all in her household, because she hid the messengers we sent” (Jos. 6:17).
Jewish tradition later suggested that Rahab became the wife of Joshua, and that they bore Boaz, who in turn married Ruth and gave birth to Jesse, the father of King David. This incredible claim honored Rahab’s courage by suggesting that, as a result, she became the great grandmother of King David! In line with this tradition, most scholars identify Rahab as the Rachab in Jesus’ genealogy (Mt. 1:5).
As a result of her courage and her faith in Israel’s God, Rahab is found two more times in the Christian scriptures. The Letter to the Hebrews cites Rahab as a faithful woman alongside Sarah in the “Hebrews Hall of Fame” (Heb. 11:31; quote from Women of the Bible for Women of Color, p. 54), and James notes that Rahab was justified by her works (Jas. 2:25). In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Rev. Troy Janel Harrison-Dixon writes, “Rabah’s story has taught women throughout time that God uses whomever [God] chooses to fulfill [God’s] mission. God doesn’t always choose the most righteous; [God] chooses those who are the most willing….As women of God, we must remember to not discount others who do not act as we do. They, too, may be used by God and can become new creations” (p. 54).
The anonymously-written 31 Women of the Bible: Who They Were and What We Can Learn from Them Today says: “Seeing the name of a pagan prostitute listed in Scripture among spiritual icons like Abraham, Moses, and David is enough to make one wonder, “What’s a bad girl like her doing here?” But when you know Rahab’s story, the answer is obvious: Anyone who responds in faith to God's gracious overtures can and will be saved. A product of Canaanite culture, Rahab had surely grown up a devotee of false gods. As a practitioner of the ‘world’s oldest profession,’ her character was stained by immorality and dishonesty, her heart jaded and hardened by such a brutal existence. The good news is that if God is willing and able to rescue someone like Rahab, [God] can redeem anyone!” (pp. 40-41). In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards similarly affirm: “The frequent reference to [Rahab] as a harlot reminds us that God offers [God’s] salvation to sinners, not simply to those whom society classifies as ‘good’” (p. 79). Think for a moment about what this story says about the type of people God chooses for God’s work. This story certainly brings to mind the words of the Matthean Jesus, who declared to the religious leaders of his day: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt. 21:31).
31 Women of the Bible: Who They Were and What We Can Learn from Them Today asks: “Who in your life right now would be most encouraged by the lesson of Rahab’s life? Rahab had heard stories of God’s power, but the truth finally clicked—and her life changed—when she interacted with two of God’s people who were engaged in God’s mission. How involved are you in what God is doing in your family, church and community?” (p. 41).
Sue & Larry Richards remind us: “We pass judgment on what we see, but we can only see the outward appearance. God also passes judgment on what [God] sees. But [God] sees inside and out—yesterday, today and tomorrow” (p. 81).
As Extraordinary Catholics, we don’t judge and exclude others, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done in the past. It is suggested that Mother Teresa of Calcutta once famously observed, “I’ve never met a saint without a past, or a sinner without a future.” Rahab is a great story of a “sinner with a future,” reminding us to reach out and embrace all people with our love, letting them know that they are not defined simply by their past—but also by their present and their future!
Chosen with the Consent of the People: Judge Deborah
According to the stories that come down to us, now that our ancestors in the faith were settling without Moses in the “Promised Land”, they needed to devise new ways to govern themselves. We refer to this time of settlement as the period of the “judges,” of chieftains and military leaders who led God’s people through repeated cycles of punishment for infidelity to God, followed by God raising up a “judge” through whom the people returned to God, followed by a time of relative peace and stability—until the cycle repeated itself with the next infidelity of the people. With marked alliteration, Sue & Larry Richards summarize: “The age of the judges was marked by repeated cycles of national sin, servitude, supplication and salvation” (p. 92).
During this period, we saw 12 judges. You’ve likely not heard of the first three—Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar—but you may have heard of the fourth judge of Israel. In an era when gender roles were very clearly defined, men were chosen to be the military, political and spiritual leaders of the people, while women were largely confined to household tasks. In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards summarize: “The husband was responsible for tasks outside the house, the wife for tasks inside. This meant that the woman prepared the food, made the family clothing, cared for young children, and trained their daughters in the skills needed to run a household. The husband worked the fields, planted and cared for crops, maintained stone fences and grape or olive presses, and trained the boys for their future role as husband and provider” (p. 84). As the Richards point out, men and women rarely worked side-by-side, except during the very time-bound tasks of harvesting (p. 85). The Richards suggest that the virtue of women as “Mrs. Indoors” were best summarized in the characterization of women shared in Proverbs 31:10-31, where the virtuous woman oversees such indoor tasks as cooking and weaving.
It’s within this deeply patriarchal context that we find Deborah, a judge of humble beginnings whose name in Hebrew means “honey bee.” The only female judge of that period, Deborah began as the keeper of the tabernacle lamps. She grew in prominence as a counselor, then as a settler of disputes under a palm tree (Judg. 4:5), then as the type of Israelite leader that we now referred to as a “judge”—not to be confused with the likes of Judge Judy!
In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards write: “Yet in this unmistakably patriarchal society, where men held every significant leadership role, Deborah emerged as a judge. All of the people in the tribes she served submitted to her leadership. Without the example of Deborah we might perhaps conclude that gender somehow was disqualifying in itself, and that women may have been viewed as inferior in Old Testament times. But Deborah's judgeship prevents us from jumping to this kind of conclusion. In a strongly patriarchal society, we expect men to function as leaders. But Deborah reminds us that what restrained more women from serving as leaders was not inherent in a woman’s nature, but rather was inherent in those expectations that were deeply imbedded in society” (p. 91).
More importantly, Deborah was a prophetess (Judg. 4:4)—a title we hear applied only to one other judge, Samuel (1Sam. 3:20). Like Miryam the prophetess (Ex. 15:20), Deborah enjoyed a close relationship to God whose word Deborah heard and proclaimed. I like to note how the English word “prophet” comes from a Greek root, prophenein, which literally means “to speak through a mask.” In the same way that ancient Greek actors and actresses “spoke through masks,” God spoke through God’s prophets. The interesting note on prophecy, however, turned on the fact that the ancient Israelites could only listen to God’s prophets. They were not to turn to Canaanite mediums and spiritists, who were “detestable to the Lord” (Dt. 18:11). They were, however, to listen to the spokespeople who claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf, as God’s prophets. In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards write: “Unlike other roles in the religion of Israel, this was not a cultic position—such as priest or Levite—and it was not hereditary. God called whomever [God] wished to be [God’s] spokesperson, and those [God] called [God] confirmed as prophets and prophetesses in the eyes of the people. The first thing we learn of Deborah is that she had a special relationship with God. She had been called by [God] and commissioned to speak in [God’s] name.” (p. 93).
The anonymously-written 31 Women of the Bible: Who They Were and What We Can Learn from Them Today shares: “Somewhere along the way, Deborah added the job of "judge" to her roles as wife and prophetess. This was during that lawless, rudderless time in Israel’s history between Joshua and Saul, when the nation had no king (see Judg. 17:6) and even less of a sense of right and wrong. The judges apparently exercised some degree of legal authority. More often they served as military conquerors, securing freedom from outside oppressors and then presiding over periods of peace” (p. 43)
When the cycle of the judges repeated itself in Deborah’s time, King Jabin of Canaan had oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. The scriptures tell us that, as a result of the Israelites’ worship of idols, God allowed King Jabin of Hazor, whose people were conquered by Joshua a century earlier (Jos. 11:1-11), to destroy their vineyards, dishonor their women, and kill their children. (Quite an image of God, I know!) Deborah burned in indignation at the oppression. The challenge, though: In an era when the Israelites had yet to discover how to make iron, King Jabin had an army of 900 iron chariots under the skillful command of his general, Sisera. Because the Israelites didn’t have access to iron-making technology until the reign of King David, around 1,000 B.C., they were confined to the rocky highlands of Canaan and had little access to the fertile valleys, as expressed in Judges 1:19: “The Lord was with Judah, and they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowlands because they had chariots of iron.”
Confident and undeterred, Deborah asked Barak, one of Israel’s most capable military commanders, to take 10,000 soldiers against Sisera. Then, in “one of the most unusual passages in the Bible spoken by a man to a women” (Deen, p. 71), Barak tells Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, then I will not go” (Judg. 4:8). Jean Syswerda writes: “Barak’s reluctance to go without Deborah starkly revealed Israel’s lack of strong male leadership” (p. 64). A lack of male leadership, perhaps, but certainly not a lack of female leadership! In his book, Women of the Bible, Peter DeHaan writes: “Deborah lives in a male-dominated society. Yet, when a man doesn’t do what he is supposed to, she steps forward and acts. We commend her for her faith and her bravery” (p. 61).
In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards note that, unlike the male judges of her time, Deborah was not a military commander. “She was not a military leader. When Deborah was about to call on her people to fight the Canaanites of Hazor, she first summoned Barak, a military man, in the name of the Lord. She then passed on the instructions from God, which Barak was to follow….Deborah recognized Israel’s need to see Barak as the military leader, and she placed herself in the background” (pp. 94-95). As the story goes, Deborah replied to Barak: “I will certainly go with you, but because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judg. 4:9)!
In her work, All of the Women of the Bible, Edith Deen writes: “There are few women in history who have ever attained the public dignity and supreme authority of Deborah…. Because the men of Israel faltered in leadership, Deborah arose to denounce this lack of leadership and to affirm that deliverance from oppression was at hand. Her religious zeal and patriotic fervor armed her with new strength. She became the magnificent personification of the free spirit of the people of Israel” (pp. 69-70).
The famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus imagined the ensuing battle: A storm of sleet and hail fell on the charioteers, a biting cold crippled the swordsmen, beating rain disabled the archers, and the heavy, iron chariots quickly sank into the mud. Sisera, the sole survivor, ran for his life, reaching the tent of a woman named Jael, whose Hebrew name means “mountain goat.” She was part of the semi-nomadic tribe of Kenites, who were known to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 15:19) and whose name literally means “metalsmiths.” The Kenites were allies of the Canaanites of Hazor, so we might expect Jael to hide Sisera in the same way that Rahab hid the two Israelite spies (Jos. 2:4-6).
In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Rev. Jolene Josey refers to Jael as “just another woman on the Lord’s side” (p. 62). Jael provided Sisera the best she had: warm milk (when he asked for water) and a bed (Judg. 4:19). Then, after Sisera fell asleep, the decisive & courageous Jael picked up a hammer—and the last thing that went through Sisera’s mind was…a large tent stake! (I’ll hold any one-liners about splitting headaches, or of women trying hard to get things through the thick skulls of men!)
The Song of Deborah says it best: “[Sisera] asked for water, and she gave him milk; in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk. Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple” (Judg. 5:25-26). And Deborah was right: Sisera was indeed delivered into the hands of a woman!
For those of us in the Inclusive Catholic tradition, what a tremendous story we have here of how God brought about the seemingly impossible through our sisters! In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards write: “Jael's willingness to act without consulting her husband is significant. It was undoubtedly the husband's role to make the kind of decision that Jael made. Yet when consultation was impossible Jael relied on her own judgment and took an action that decisively reversed her husband's policy, committing her family and clan to the Israelite cause….Jael, is portrayed as a woman who acted decisively, without consulting her husband, even though the action she took reversed a long-standing clan policy and committed her family to a new alliance….Whatever we can say about women who are celebrated in Scripture, we must agree that they are celebrated for their strengths, not their weaknesses.” (p. 97).
In the scriptures, Deborah and Jael are memorialized in the Ode or Song of Deborah (Judges 5). In his book, Women of the Bible, Peter DeHaan pointedly asks: “Will the things we do be worth singing about and told to future generations?” (p. 63). The anonymously-written 31 Women of the Bible: Who They Were and What We Can Learn from Them Today shares: “The ‘Song of Deborah’ has long been praised for its literary qualities. Lyrically the song taps into all of Deborah's life experiences. It is God-centered, as we would expect from a spiritual leader or prophetess. It is full of the kinds of historical and military references that only a seasoned national leader (i.e., a “judge”) would be able to describe. It is further filled with domestic imagery—concluding with the poignant picture of Sisera’s mother looking out the window, waiting in vain for her son to return home from battle. Mostly, Deborah’s song is humble. It avoids any hint of self-congratulation, beginning with the words, ‘When the leaders lead in Israel, when the people volunteer, praise the LORD.’ In other words, victory is a team effort and ultimately the work of the Lord. While the nation looked on, Deborah performed her composition with Barak (see Judg 5:1). The fact that we still have the song suggests it was quite a hit in Israel” (p. 44).
What I love about the Song of Deborah, though, is that, even after such a tremendous military triumph, Deborah doesn’t refer to herself in any inflated way. She simply calls herself “a mother in Israel” (Judg. 5:7)—a mother to the “children” of Israel! We do well to ask ourselves how well we are being “mothers” & “fathers” to those around us. Jean Syswerda asks: “Which of Deborah’s characteristics would you most like to have? What would you do if you had that characteristic? What can you do to develop that characteristic?” (p. 65).
And guys: We do well to reflect on Syswerda’s subsequent question. If Newton was correct, every action has an equal & opposite reaction. Syswerda asks: “How do you think the Israelite men felt about the honor for this victory going to Deborah and Jael? When a woman succeeds today, what are the reactions of the men around her?” (pp. 65-66). Misogynist rabbis suggested that Deborah wasn’t a honeybee—but that she was a stinging wasp! In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards write, “Later rabbis…were disturbed by the Old Testament’s portrait of Deborah. They developed a play on Deborah’s name, ‘honey bee,’ rendering it ‘hornet’ in an attempt to ridicule her as a woman who overstepped. Despite the respect clearly showed for Deborah in Judges, the rabbis implied that she was an arrogant woman who stung rather than provided good things for her people ” (p. 94). They beautifully summarize: “What an unusual combination of traits Deborah displayed! She was self-confident and assertive, and yet modest and self-effacing. She was bold enough to step out of the shadows in which most women of her time lived, yet she was unassuming enough to seek to avoid the spotlight in a military campaign whose results would define her own leadership. In displaying these qualities, Deborah stands as a timeless example for spiritual leaders of either sex….We do violence to scripture if we rule women out of leadership solely on the basis of gender” (p. 95).
Rev. Jolene Josey in Women of the Bible for Women of Color says: “Deborah’s name means ‘bee,’ which is very appropriate. She gathered the people to her as honey, but her sting was most fatal to her enemies. She was a godly woman who wore many hats—that of prophet, poet, encourager, warrior, wife and ruler. God chose Deborah to minister justice and to lead [God’s] people out of bondage into peace. Deborah was one of several women distinguished in Scripture by her ability to discern the purpose of God. When God spoke to her, she took action….Because of Deborah’s obedience and willingness to act, she is remembered today for her leadership and courage” (pp. 60-61).
The Nameless Woman of Thebez
Ready for the story of another valiant woman in the Hebrew scriptures? When the people of Thebez were under siege by King Abimelech of Philistia (Judg. 9:50-51), his soldiers pushed the people of the town back, into their tower, which Abimelech intended to set on fire—until a woman dropped “a millstone on his head and cracked his skull” (Judg. 9:53).
In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Dr. Janet Hopkins writes: “Since grinding grain was considered ‘women’s work’ during this period, we can see that the woman used what she had on hand—a millstone—to defeat her enemy….Obviously, she was a women who could assess the situation at hand, make a decision, and act on that decision with haste. Her immediate response in that moment saved not only her life but also the lives of all those who sought refuge in the tower. Surely the woman understood that in her culture it was unlikely that she would receive any credit for her heroism. God used this unnamed woman to perform a small yet significant act (see Judg. 9:56) How willing are you to step forward when called upon—without worrying about what’s in it for you?” (pp. 64-65).
Spiritual Strength: Jephthah’s Daughter
As our spiritual ancestors continued to conquer Canaan, an Israelite military commander named Jephthah led the people of Gilead against a much larger army of Ammonites. Jephthah himself enjoyed an amazing rise to power, since he was the bastard son of an expelled Israelite (Judg. 11:1-2). Now, to inspire his troops as they prepared to take on a much more powerful enemy, Jephthah made a vow to God, publicly proclaiming: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:30-31).
You likely know where this story is going. Jephthah and the Gileadites routed the Ammonites and captured 20 Ammonite cities. Jephthah returned home, likely hoping that a chicken or dog or servant would be the first to run out of his home to meet him. Instead, the first to come through the door was his only daughter, who ran to meet him. Distressed, Jephthah told his daughter of his vow to God (Judg. 11:35), and his daughter, whose name is lost to history, had the spiritual strength to tell him to proceed with the action promised in his vow. According to the tradition, Jephthah sacrificed his daughter (Judg. 11:39), and Israel mourned her.
In their work, Every Woman in the Bible, Sue & Larry Richards share three reasons for believing that the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter involved her dedication to the Lord, rather than her death: (1) Jephthah knew the Old Testament history and law, as evidenced in his letter to the Ammonites (Judg. 11:14-27), every sacrifice to God required a priest officiate, and no Hebrew priest would have offered a human sacrifice, and (3) Jephthah's daughter lamented not her death, but “because I will never marry” (Judg. 11:37) (p. 98).
In his book, Women of the Bible, Peter DeHaan writes: “Jephthah's daughter doesn’t complain about her father's careless pledge. Instead, she confirms he must follow through. Her only request is a two-month reprieve to mourn her fate with her friends. Then Jephthah does as he vowed. What is unclear is if Jephthah physically sacrifices his daughter, something Moses prohibited, or if her life is redeemed for service to God, like Hannah's giving of Samuel to serve God in the temple. Regardless, it’s clear that Jephthah's daughter will not enjoy the future she expected, for she willingly accepts the consequences of her father's impulsive promise to God. We commend her for her pious attitude, all the while being reminded to be careful with what we promise” (p. 67).
Talk about honoring one’s word—and encouraging others to honor their word! As Extraordinary Catholics, we do well to consider the power of our words—particularly of our promises and vows. Personally, I’ve learned this the hard way, knowing how my husband worries about me when I don’t arrive home by the hour by which I had assured him I’d be home. An ancient Chinese proverb warns: “Water and words: Easy to pour, hard to recover.” Let’s not carelessly pour out our words—as Jephthah did!
Deceitful Delilah & Weak, Deceitful Samson
We’ve spoken of strong women, like Deborah, Jael and the nameless daughter of Jephthah. Now let’s speak of a weak man: Samson. We know him as physically strong, but the strongman Samson was actually quite morally weak!
According to the stories that come down to us, the people of Samson’s day thought this judge to be unconquerable. According to the legend, his physical strength came from the seven braids that resulted from his Nazirite vow (Num. 6:5). Morally, though, he who poured out his life fighting the Philistines, purportedly killing 30 to a thousand of them at a time, allowed himself to be seduced by an unnamed Philistine wife who soon betrayed him (Judg. 14:16-17). The scriptures then tell us of his one-night stand with a prostitute (Judg. 16:1)—seemingly for no other reason than to foreshadow his weakness. Then we come to the story of Samson’s new Philistine paramour, Delilah. A woman whose Hebrew name means “dainty one,” Delilah sought to destroy Samson for personal profit. The biblical tradition has painted Delilah as deceitful, but let’s be honest: Samson was just as deceitful: He lied to her three times about the source of his weakness (Judg. 16:6-15).
Reflecting on this story and making it personal for listeners today, Jean Syswerda asks: “What are Samson’s strengths? What are his weaknesses? What are Delilah’s strengths? What are her weaknesses? List five areas where you think you are strong. Now list five areas where you think you are weak. What can you to do to improve in those weak areas?” (p. 73).
Syswerda suggests that there are other important lessons from this story of Samson and Delilah. We’re all likely guilty of nagging and wearing down certain others. How do such actions make us feel? We’re all likely guilty of lying from time to time—even if only “white lies.” How can we tell if others are telling the truth? How can others know whether we are telling the truth?
According to the saga, the defeated Samson—strangely strong again for a moment—killed more Philistines during the moment of his death than during his entire life (Judg. 16:30). In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Rev. Bessie Whitaker writes: “Delilah, as many women in the Bible, reminds us of the unusual strength women have—a strength that can either build up or destroy those around us. While women are naturally the weaker sex physically, we possess an exceptional, yet subtle, spiritual and emotional strength….Delilah chose to destroy a man for money. She could have chosen to help build up his character, as Deborah attempted to do with Barak (see Judg. 4:6-7). Instead, as a result of her decision, at the same time that Samson was destroyed, so were thousands of Delilah’s people (see Judg. 16:26-30)” (p. 72).
In his book, Women of the Bible, Peter DeHaan suggests another question for reflection: “Whatever Delilah thinks of Samson at first, she readily sells him out for a few sacks of silver. What will we do for a paycheck? How far will we go to get money, power or prestige?” (p. 71).
The Nameless Concubine of the Levite
As we continue our journey through the period of the judges, we come across the nameless concubine of a Levite. The two were traveling from Bethlehem to the hill country of Ephraim (Judg. 17:8). As in the story of Sodom & Gomorrah, townsmen pounded on the door, demanding to have sex with the Levite’s legitimate but secondary wife, and he obliged. The subsequent violation and murder of his concubine led to the conscription of a tenth of all Israelite men to avenge her death (Judg. 20:8-11).
Referring to the Levite’s dismemberment of his own dead concubine (Judg. 20:6), Rev. Cheryl D. Ward writes in Women of the Bible for Women of Color: “There are countless women around us today who are broken into many pieces. They have suffered horrors, violence & abuse. Many of these women darken the doors of our churches and ministries; often they remain anonymous, unheard and unspoken to. They literally are standing at the threshold crying out for help, and we step over them and continue on our own journeys, just as the Levite tried to do (see Judg. 19:27). If you feel broken and wonder if anyone even knows your name, remember that God knows who you are. When society continues to rob you of your dignity, God is able to take every broken piece of your life and bring about wholeness” (p. 81).
As Extraordinary Catholics, we read such stories with horror. We do well also to ask ourselves how we, too, sell out others and expose them to some of the darkest tendencies of human nature.
The Persevering & Faithful Daughter-in-law (& Ancestress of Jesus) Ruth
We now come to a woman whom Edith Deen describes as “one of the most lovable women in the Bible. And her abiding love embraces the person you would least expect it to, her mother-in-law, Naomi” (Deen, p. 81). Her name was Ruth, a Hebrew word meaning “friendship.” Being from Moab, Ruth was a foreigner in Judah. She was further dispossessed, now destitute as a young widow, with her widowed mother-in-law and her widowed sister-in-law, Orpah.
There’s a certain irony in the play on words here: Due to a famine, Ruth’s future mother-in-law, Naomi, moved with Ruth’s future father-in-law, from Bethlehem—a Hebrew word meaning “House of Bread”—to Moab, where their two sons married Ruth and Orpah (Ruth 1:1).
After the death of her husband & two sons, Naomi, whose Hebrew name means “joy” or “pleasant,” blamed the affliction on God (Ruth 1:20-21). She even changed her name to reflect her sad state. In her work, Women of the Bible, Jean Syswerda asks: In what life situations have you felt bitter and/or thought that God was afflicting you? How did you change your perspective on the circumstances of your life?
The wise Naomi pleaded that her daughters-in-law return to their fathers’ homes, where they could be taken care of. In his book, Women of the Bible, Peter DeHaan notes that “Orpah does the logical thing and goes home. That’s the last time we hear of Orpah. We don’t know if she marries again or ever has any children. We don’t know how long she lives. We just know she does the sensible thing. However, Orpah’s sister-in-law [Ruth] chooses the path that doesn’t make sense, and God honors her” (p. 76). Ruth remained faithful to her destitute mother-in-law, sharing the words that have inspired wedding songs for generations: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried with you. Not even death will separate us” (Ruth 1:16-17). Think for a moment of the faithful response that Naomi’s character inspired. Jean Syswerda challenges in-laws to reflect on how they might be better “Naomis” to each daughter-in-law and son-in-law. Consider for a moment the model we have in Ruth: Rather than abandon an old woman, Ruth chose unselfishly & without complaint to serve her mother-in-law, even following her from Ruth’s homeland in Moab to Naomi’s homeland in Judah.
Having arrived back in Bethlehem too late to plant & harvest their own grain, Ruth proactively gathered fallen grain for the two—part of the ancient Israelite welfare system where the poor worked to gather their own food from the harvested fields of others (Lev. 19:9, 23:22, Dt. 24:19-22). Ruth’s faithfulness and industriousness opened the door for her to meet the landowner and her future husband, Boaz. What a tremendous story of God’s providence!
In Women of the Bible for Women of Color, Keya Belt sees the world through Naomi’s eyes: “When we arrived in Bethlehem, our status as widows meant we had no one to care for us. We had no food, and I was too old to work. When my friends tried to comfort me, all I could say was, "Call me bitter!” [Ruth 1:20]. Now I realize just how God blessed me by giving me Ruth. She gleaned in the fields so that we could eat. And when she was fortunate enough to work on the property of one of my relatives, Boaz, she followed my advice and eventually married this kind man. Ruth and Boaz then took care of me. But my story does not end there. When Ruth had a son, she brought him to me to care for! Call me bitter? No! God has taken my bitterness and given me a garment of praise! I praise [God] for Ruth, because I now know that she is more valuable to me than seven sons [Ruth 4:15]!” (pp. 84-85).
In the same work, Rev. Karen Mosby-Avery states that the story of Ruth poignantly highlights many of the issues faced by African-American women today, including family security, loss, racism, sexism and survival.
As a reward for her perseverance & faithfulness, Ruth, like Rahab, became an ancestress of King David and subsequently of Jesus (Mt. 1:5). Just as importantly, as a reward for his following of the Mosaic law & for his kindness toward a foreigner (Ruth 2:15-16), Boaz was rewarded as an ancestor of King David and subsequently of Jesus (Mt. 1:5).
Foreshadowing Miryam of Nazareth: Hannah
As we come to the end of the period of the judges, we find the example of one last woman whose story we dare not forget, since she is the ideal for scriptural mothers and, for Christians, her actions and words (1Sam. 2:2-10) foreshadow those of Miryam of Nazareth (Lk. 1:46-55). Her name was Hannah, and she was the mother of the last Israelite judge, Samuel. In the context of the polygynous times in which she lived, Hannah’s husband, the priest Elkanah, had another wife, Peninnah, who gave him children. Hannah, in contrast, was childless. During their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah’s prayer was inevitably to bear a son, since Peninnah continually tormented and humiliated her for being childless” (1Sam. 1:6). During one trip to Shiloh, Hannah promised God that, if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord’s service as a Nazirite (1Sam. 1:11). We immediately note how Hannah is the fourth woman in scripture to grieve her inability to conceive a child, in company with Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.
In her work, All of the Women of the Bible, Edith Deen suggests that Hannah was a model of perseverance in prayer. She writes, “This continued reverence was significant. It showed she was not one to pray once and be satisfied, but was willing to pray again and again. When her prayer was answered and there was born to her a son, she named him Samuel, meaning ‘asked of the Lord’ (1Sam. 1:20). In her loving care of Samuel, Hannah becomes the prototype of the good mother everywhere, setting a stirring example of high morality and spirituality, which could bring a new order into the world” (p. 90).
The Hebrew scriptures warn parents that their children are like arrows, which are not meant to remain in the “quiver” forever (Ps. 127:4); they’re meant to fly—which requires letting go. Hannah personified this spirit, dedicating her son, Samuel, to the Lord after he was weaned. Edith Deen writes, “Before [Hannah] left Samuel in the tabernacle with Eli, however, she prayed to God a triumphant prayer that has been called the forerunner of Mary's Magnificat. In it Hannah exhibited the fervency, depth, and fire of a woman who was happy and who sang her happiness and belief in God. She loved her God, not mainly because [God] had delivered to her a son, but for what [God] was to all, a God of knowledge and of power….Hannah, like Mary, gave her child to God, and after she did, slipped into the background and became immortal through her son” (pp. 91-92).
A Mother Without Hope: Ichabod’s Nameless Mother
I hate to end on a downer, but the last woman I’ll mention from this period of the judges was a woman who died with absolutely no hope, thus mirroring to us the many types of people we find in the scriptures. Edith Deen says: “She symbolizes the mother who succumbs to dark, despairing hopelessness” (p. 93). We know her only through her relationships: She was the wife of the immoral and obstinate Phinehas (1Sam. 2:22-25), who was Eli’s son, and she gave birth to her son, Ichabod, after receiving the news of her husband’s death in battle. Her only recorded words in scripture are: “The glory has departed from Israel because the ark of God has been taken” (1Sam. 4:21). This woman died disgraced. The scriptures tell us that Phinehas “lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle” (1Sam. 2:22). He and his brother, who also died in the same battle, were the guardians of the ark when it fell into enemy hands. Upon hearing the news of the capture of the ark and of his sons’ deaths, the blind, heavyset, 98-year-old Eli fell off his chair and broke his neck (1Sam. 4:18), and his daughter-in-law heard the news and died while giving birth to her son, Ichabod (1Sam. 4:20)—the second woman in scripture, after Rachel, to die as a result of childbirth (Gen. 35:16-19).
Edith Deen writes: “Ichabod's mother held out no hope for her son, who had been born into a land from which the symbol of God had departed. She knew all too well that the child’s degenerate and greedy father had died in battle, but not as a hero of the godly people of Israel. She probably remembered, too, that this child’s grandfather, Eli, though a good priest, was a weak and indulgent father. And she did not have the faith or the stamina to rise above such overwhelming disappointments and shocking tragedies, or the courage to live and nurture her son Ichabod” (p. 94).
I conclude. As Extraordinary Catholics, we honor and esteem all people—including our sisters who have for far too long been marginalized by patriarchal churches, despite their being the backbone of those same churches. Let’s challenge ourselves to be inspired by the incredible stories of women in the Hebrew scriptures and to see our sisters through new eyes, recognizing the marvelous gifts with which God has blessed them and allow them to exercise their rightful place in church and society.
Ordinary Catholics seek to exclude others and to deny others the power and privileges they enjoy. Let’s not be ordinary Catholics. Let’s be Extraordinary Catholics!
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