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Monday, April 27, 2009

"Daughters of Miriam"

Our book club discussion this month is on the book we read and discussed at the recent BE 2.0. The book was written by The Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney who also facilitated the discussion at the conference. Here are some thoughts to get our discussion going:

Daughters of Miriam
Women Prophets in Ancient Israel
By Wilda C. Gafney

You’ve heard of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, three of the primary prophets with books in the Bible. Maybe you have a fondness for Amos or Hosea or another of the “minor” prophets. Maybe you have wondered on occasion why none of these prophets is a woman. As a result of the prophets listed in the canon of the Bible perhaps you had no idea that the Judeo-Christian tradition includes women prophets? Perhaps as you read the Bible, or hear it read on Sunday mornings, you notice that women are rarely mentioned, let alone named. And perhaps it never occurred to you that something, or rather someone, might be missing from the Christian salvation history story? These are just a few of the questions addressed in Daughters of Miriam.

“More than three thousand years after the prophet Miriam led the Israelites drumming and dancing across the Sea of Reeds, some Jewish and Christian communities still restrict the role of women in proclamation, leadership, and presence in the pulpit on what they call biblical and traditional grounds. However, the biblical text presents female prophets leading the people of God and proclaiming the word of God unremarkably, as part of the natural order of things.” (Daughters of Miriam, page 1). So begins this amazing book that challenges, using excellent scholarship, the common understanding of women’s role in scripture and our history.

To begin, a summary of some of the women prophets found in the Bible is mentioned in the preface: Huldah (2 Kings, 2 Chronicles), Miriam and Deborah, the woman with whom Isaiah fathers a child, seemingly out of wedlock, No’adiah who faced down Nehemiah and won over all the other prophets in Jerusalem, the community of women-prophets in Ezekiel who have the power of life and death, women prophets living around the communities of biblical Israel, Hannah, Abigail, Sarah, Rahab, Rachel, Esther, Rebekah, the women who guard the wilderness sanctuary, Lemuel’s queen-mother who composed Proverbs 31, and untold numbers of female prophets hiding in the masculine grammar and androcentric focus of the Hebrew scriptures. It was this latter point, the female prophets hiding in the text, that became the focus of much of our time with Wil at the recent BE 2.0, leaving many of us astonished and perhaps a bit angry.

One might wonder, just what are the characteristics of a prophet? These are outlined in Chapter 6 based on practices and behaviors of prophets and their counterparts in other texts from the Ancient Near East which are also exhibited by women prophets in the Hebrew texts. Wil’s criteria defining one a prophet includes a list of behaviors in combination with the person being in an intermediary relationship with YHWH on behalf of human beings. The behaviors are: interceding with YHWH on behalf of human beings AND performing musical compositions, commanding military forces, performing miracles, appointing monarchs, advising monarchs, archiving monarchal reigns, evaluating and legitimating Torah, making, teaching, and leading disciples, mediating human disputes, archiving prophetic utterances, constructing and guarding the temple, serving as executioner, inquiring of the Divine, and proclaiming the word of YHWH (page 152). This list proves helpful in uncovering the women prophets hidden in the texts and became part of one of our exercises during the BE 2 Conference.

Most of us who attended the BE 2.0 agree that the most significant exercise we did was the one using She-Verbs. For this exercise we assigned the task of choosing a story from scripture where a woman plays a major role. Read that story and record all the verbs, the action the woman takes in the story. Then tell the story again using only “she” and the verb. For example, “She sat.” “She spoke.” “She touched.” And so on.

This book is not the sort of book one can assign to a parish book club or an adult forum and expect the average church person to understand it. Written in an academic style the book is most useful for leaders of churches and seminary students to read and become informed. It is then our job to teach and share the material with others.

So, here are my questions to get this discussion going:

How will you begin to teach your congregation about the reality of women playing a larger role in our Judeo-Christian history than we have been led to believe?

If you preach, how will this book inform and shape your sermons? What questions will now be raised for you as you prepare your sermon?

If you are a Spiritual Director or hold a lay leadership role in a congregation, how will this book shape your ministry?

Whether lay or ordained, what questions will you ask of the stories of the Bible and the stories of our lives?

I encourage you to try the “She-Verb” exercise and see what the story tells you, then share your insights in the comments below or with a link to your blog.

Lastly, what questions did the book raise for you?


  1. Here are my she-verbs using the Samaritan women in John and then Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1.

  2. I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of this yet, tho' it's certainly on my Oh-My-Gosh-I-Really-Want-This-Book list.

    If any of you have done/attended a Passover Seder, there's a wonderful feminist addition to the ritual. It's called "Miriam's Cup," and it provides a time and place to honour these wonderful Foremothers in our shared heritage of faith.

    There's more information on it here.

  3. MaineCelt, the only seder's I've attended have been "women's seder's" designed for mothers, daughters, and other female relatives to attend together...and they tell the story through Miriam's perspective - awesome! I went for several years because a good friend of mine was the rabbi...

  4. My She Verbs are at my blog. I found it a powerful exercise. So much about women is hidden in the Bible. I appreciated learning more about how intervening interpretations and translations have downplayed women's roles.
    I think the She Verb exercise would be great in an Adult Ed setting. The book itself is a hard enough read for a person no longer in an academic setting (I hate to admit it, but there you go). Hearing Wil Gafney's own expansion of her text was great.
    I fully expect to use this material in preaching, perhaps very soon!

  5. A crazy day for me, so my check-in here is a little lunchtime respite. Phew!

    My She Verbs can be found here. And MaineCelt, I have 2 copies of the book and would LOVE to send you my extra. Please send your mailing addy to me at marybethbutler AT gmail DOT com.

    :) Yay! Recycling!

  6. MomPriest-- the Women's Seders sound wonderful. I took some classes from a rabbi in college who took time to emphasize and celebrate the powerful women of the Hebrew Scriptures, and his approach was so deeply appreciated! Haven't been to a women-only seder, though. What fun!

    Mary Beth-- Hurrah for Fairy Bookmothers! Thank you very, very much!

  7. There may even be an option for an "Ask the Author Guest Blog" if the web-weavers can set it up.

  8. attended a retreat not too long ago centered upon miriam... and during one exercise we were to draw what came to mind or journal... i still have this in my sketch book... but i remember being particularly struck by the fact that she stood up. she tood up to be seen. she tood up to be heard... there at the water...

    and well... many moons later those words bounced in my brain, and now my new life is underway b/c i stood up to be seen and heard...

  9. I emailed Wil and invited her to comment and discuss here as she likes, then, if there is enough interest I can set up a blog to continue the discussion...I think that could be an exciting way to have an ongoing dialogue...

  10. She-words... what a lovely exercise! I posted mine here. Thanks Wil!

    my words are here

  11. I'm actually still processing a lot of the material (I'm the founding member of the Slow Learners for Jesus Club) and will be pulling together my She-Verb exercise in the day or so. I'll post it here when it's done, but I think I may bounce off of mid-life rookies inspiration and work with Abigail's story. Something about it resonates with me on a really visceral level and I need to meditate some more on that...

    I also found the "begats" exercise to be quite enlightening. What we tend to think of as tedious dusty old geneology just jumped off the page for me when I viewed it through the lens of women prophets.

  12. Sue - good point, the begats were interesting. I was also intrigued by Wil's comment that not just women but all people named in the Old Testament, (or maybe she said Bible) are known by their relationships to other people - their family, their community...that men and women were known in community...unlike being individuals in our world today....

    Did I hear that correctly? Therefore it is also interesting to me in the begats, the matriarchies

  13. Mompriest: yes, it's the same for Gaels and, I suspect, most indigenous peoples throughout the world. In Gaelic, one is not asked "where are you from" but rather "WHO are you from" or (a more literal translation) "From within what people do you come?" One is defined--given a location in the social landscape--in terms of one's relationship to others. One's lineage, therefore, is a precious thing to be maintained/recalled/preserved. Without it, a person becomes dislocated.

  14. Ooh, I just tried out the She-Verb exercise with the 4th chapter of the Book ' Judges. How exciting! (Not posting this to my blog, as it might confuse my farm customers, so I hope it's okay to post here instead.)

    Deborah's story is grand, but Jael's is compelling in a different way:

    She came out
    She said
    She opened
    She gave
    She took and she took
    She went softly
    She drove.
    She went out
    She said. (Judges 4:17-22)

  15. I look forward to doing the she-verbs exercise with an adult Sunday school class. There is a lot here that can (and will) be adapted for Adult Ed.

  16. MaineCelt - love the she-verb...powerful! And your comment on "from within what people do you come?" I could do a whole reflection on that concept....may be I will!

    Zorra - it will make an interesting adult forum - let us know how it goes!

  17. Ooooo MaineCelt - love that one!!!

    I may link my sermon for Sunday over here as it will be directly related to our work over the BE weekend. It's beginning to form in my mind, but nothing has hit paper yet. I'll keep you posted.

    Yes, mompriest, you heard that in the same way that I did. This may actually be the part that best connects with my congregation as we enter into discussions re: amalgamation with another congregation. The biggest worry I've heard from our people is that the sense of "family" within our church will be lost. Something is connecting there about "who and whose we are".

  18. Sue, I look forward to the link to your sermon and how it plays out over time helping your congregation and their fears of losing "family"...

  19. I thought it might be helpful to post the reading strategy my students came up with for those for whom academic reading was some time ago.
    1) Start with the glossary.
    2) Go to Chapter 3, this where the women prophets in the Hebrew Bible are and why most people bought the book.
    3) The last section of Chapter 5 has the female prophets in the New Testament and some discussion of the early church.
    4) The beginning (and middle) of chapter 5 talks about how the Rabbis in the first - fourth centuries understood the female prophets in the Hebrew Bible.
    5) Chapter 6 is my list of women who fit the category prophet in the bible but do not have the title.
    6) Chapter 2 is the discussion of female prophets in neighboring nations, like Assyria.
    7) Chapter 4 has some of the other professions in which ancient women engaged - the section on scribes comes highly recommended.
    8) Chapter 1 is for the strong-of-heart: scholarly background, Hebrew vocabulary, etc.
    Happy reading!

  20. Yes, thanks Wil! Most helpful...


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