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?