Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel. Judges 5:7 (NIV)
Wendy and I just returned from spending a few days at the lake with our youngest daughter and her husband. It was so good to catch up with them. As always, the slow pace of life at the lake allowed for a lot of great conversation.
One of the topics of conversation was about struggles that each of them had with their own local gathering of Jesus followers. To their credit, they scheduled a meeting to share their feelings with leaders rather than continue to sit and stew in their frustration.
Our daughter shared her frustration with the lack of opportunities that women had in leadership. As she discussed her feelings, she referenced the strong female leaders she’d grown up with and the positive impact that they had on her and others. In contrast, what she was experiencing felt like suppression; She knew from experience the advantages and blessings of having gifted women leaders.
I couldn’t help but think of those conversations as I read today’s chapter, which is a victory song that Deborah and her colleague Barak sang after their victory over Sisera and the Canaanite forces. Deborah, “mother of Israel,” arose to lead them to victory.
Along my own life journey, my own thoughts and perceptions have been transformed, as God has surrounded me with strong, gifted women. There are clear waypoints along my path in which my own errant thinking has been brought to light. I’ve been so blessed by women who have led me in various ways and taught me things about God, life, and myself. And, listening to our daughter’s story, they have also been role models to her.
In the quiet this morning, I’m reminiscing and picturing some of the amazing women who’ve impacted my life, who have capably led me, and for whom I am so grateful to call teacher, director, boss, pastor, partner, and friend. I love the story of Deborah and the 3,000-year-old example that God provides me of the strong, capable leadership of a woman.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. Judges 4:4 (NIV)
One of my favorite characters in the Harry Potter epic is poor Professor Trelawny, and not just because my sister is a dead ringer for Emma Thompson’s portrayal of her. Professor Trelawny teaches divination at Hogwarts. The problem is that she’s terrible at it, and none of her prophesies come true. Only once had she uttered a true prophetic word, a critically important prophecy about Harry and Voldemort, but she didn’t even know or realize that she’d uttered it. Dumbledore hires her in case she ever has another one (which she eventually does). The students are stuck with a poor teacher who is terribly inept at her subject.
Prophecy has a bit of a mysterious role in the Great Story. In the law of Moses, God said that He would raise up prophets and gave instruction on discerning if they were truly a prophet of God or not. In the ancient Near East, prophets were common across religions. Kings and Pharaohs had official prophets on their courts. Interestingly enough, in Mesopotamia, the profession was predominantly held by women.
Today’s chapter is one of the most unique in all of the Great Story. In what is a predominantly patriarchal culture, God uses two women to respectively lead and deliver the Hebrew tribes from their enemy. The chapter opens with Deborah, a prophet, leading the people. When she prophetically tells a man named Barak that God wants him to raise an army and march against the Canaanite army he agrees, but only if Deborah will accompany him. She agrees but prophetically tells him that because of his lack of faith, the victory will go to a woman.
That woman was Jael. It’s hard for a modern reader to understand just what Jael had done. She invited a man (the fleeing general of the Canaanite army) who wasn’t her husband into her tent. This was a huge social taboo. By killing him, she broke a covenant her husband had made with the general’s superior which would have brought shame on her husband, another cultural no-no. She also invited him into her tent, and he was therefore her guest. To this day, Near East culture has strict cultural rules that place honoring guests, even above one’s own children. Jael’s assassination of the Canaanite general was a blatant violation of multiple cultural rules.
But Deborah’s prophecy was true.
Before Jesus, prophecy just was. It appears in the story with little or no explanation. God raised up prophets and utilized prophets, but there’s no understanding of how that exactly happened. After Jesus, the spiritual gift of prophecy is recognized as one of the important gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on certain followers of Jesus. Paul even hailed it as being the spiritual gift of prime importance.
Both Wendy and I have, along our spiritual journeys, had the experience of receiving prophetic messages. We even have some fairly dramatic experiences of God speaking prophetically through others. I also have a number of prophetic words given to me that might as well have come from Professor Trelawny. Along my spiritual journey, I’ve learned to be discerning. I listen carefully. I hold it loosely. If it means something, I’ll know. If it doesn’t, I let it go.
As I sit and ponder today’s chapter in the quiet, the larger lesson for me is the fact that God raises up and uses women to get the job done. This is one of several examples within the Great Story in which God uses unlikely people for His purposes. It’s a reminder to me 1) never to prejudge a person since with God, all things are possible, including using unlikely tools and means. It also reminds me 2) never to think or say “God could/would never use me.” God did, after all, speak through Balaam’s ass. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You can read it in Numbers 22:28, btw).
I also see in Deborah and Jael a foreshadowing of what Jesus will do in raising the status of women within the early Jesus Movement. Paul writes to the believers in Galatia: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And so, I enter another day of the journey with a couple of good reminders. I’m afraid I have no prophetic word for you. It’s not my gift. When it comes to prophesy, I’m afraid I’m about as capable as Professor Trelawny.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Before the spies lay down for the night, [Rahab] went up on the roof and said to them, “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…for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.“ Joshua 2:8-9,11b (NIV)
I have often commented that God blessed me by surrounding me with strong women throughout my entire life journey. When I sat down to pen my first words to my grandson, that’s what I wrote about. When I was in high school I was blessed to have a history teacher who made the status of women a core part of the curriculum. That laid the foundation for me to begin to appreciate just how difficult life has been for women, and it still is in many ways. It’s taken me a long time of living with and walking the life journey with good women to grow in that understanding. I haven’t arrived, by the way. I’m still learning.
In today’s chapter, we meet one of the most amazing, underappreciated characters in all of the Great Story. Perhaps one of the reasons this person is underappreciated is that she was a woman, a prostitute, a sex worker, a woman of ill-repute. She was the kind of woman that doesn’t get mentioned by name in polite society. She’s “that” woman, and she lived in an ancient, walled city called Jericho. The walled city-state was just across the Jordan River from where Joshua and the Hebrew people were camped and poised on conquest.
Espionage is as old as war itself, and the newly appointed leader of the Hebrew people, Joshua, sends spies into Jericho to case the joint. It would not have been at all odd for two road-weary male travelers to enter a city and high-tail it to the red light district in search of a prostitute. That’s exactly what they did. They entered “that woman’s” house.
Now the twelve Hebrew tribes have been nomads for 40 years, continually growing in population. Scholars estimate that there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Hebrew people along with their flocks and herds. It is what scholars call the Late Bronze Age and in the land of Canaan life is a dog-eat-dog world of peoples and city-states conquering one another. The people of Jericho are well aware that the Hebrew hoard is camped on the other side of the Jordan. They have heard the stories of the miraculous escape from Egypt and of the Hebrew exploits in Sinai. In their world gods were one of a myriad of deities typically associated with a specific town or region. The Hebrews had this one mysterious, invisible God that traveled with them; The God who brought mighty Pharaoh to his knees and held back the seas.
“That woman” knew who these men were, as did others who saw the spies enter the city gate and enter “that woman’s” house.
“That woman” does two important things as she speaks with the Hebrew spies. First, she makes a statement of faith, proclaiming to her clandestine visitors that she believes the God of the Hebrews is the God of heaven and earth. Second, she acts on that faith by offering to hide the spies and save their lives, asking only that they return the favor to her and her family when Jericho falls.
She believed, and she acted on that belief.
“That woman” the Canaanite foreigner. “That woman” the prostitute. She has a name. Her name is Rahab, and her name appears, not only in today’s chapter but also in a couple of very important places in the Great Story.
Rahab is named in Jesus’ family tree. (Matthew 1:5)
Rahab is mentioned by James as an example of faith in action. (James 2:25)
In the quiet this morning, find myself thinking about the fact that a foreign, female, pagan, prostitute became a pivotal character in the Great Story. Rahab checks all the boxes of a person who doesn’t measure up on humanity’s religious status scale. Rahab foreshadows what Jesus said that He came to do: to tear down humanity’s religious status scale altogether and to save and redeem anyone who believes and acts on that belief regardless of gender, race, language, nation, tribe, creed, or broken, sinful past. No matter who a person is, where they are from, or what they have done, redemption is sitting there for any who believe and act on that belief.
I also find myself thinking about the amazing, underappreciated women in my story, and I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18 (NIV)
For whatever reason, God saw fit to surround me with women most of my entire life journey. My eldest brothers are twins, my sister came five years later, and I brought up rear. Most of my childhood the sibling dynamic in my family system was two pairs: the twins and Jody and me. When I was very young, I can remember times when dad and the twins would be off doing something and I was home with mom and Jody. It made an impression on me.
Further down life’s road, I find myself the father of two girls, and then was blessed to have Wendy’s sister live with us for a few years. I always seem to find myself in situations in which I’m surrounded by women. About four years ago I wrote a post with my first words to my grandson, discussing this very phenomenon.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I rather enjoy it most of the time. In fact, the experience has significantly changed my view and understanding of women along my life journey. For most of my early journey I loosely held a fairly fundamentalist view of the roles of men and women, husbands and wives. And, I confess that many of my views early on were downright misogynistic. My life experiences, my spiritual journey as a Jesus follower, and the amazing women in my life, have led to embracing what I consider to be a deeper understanding of women and all the incredible things they are in creation.
In today’s chapter, God looks at Adam and makes a “helper suitable for him.” The Hebrew words are ezer kenegdo.Ezer simply means “help” or “assistance.” Kenegdo is made up of three words. The study text I read this morning stated that it suggests: “someone God fashions for the man who would correspond to him.” This does not imply inferiority, weakness, or submission, but rather one who “uniquely his counterpart and uniquely suited for him.”
And that brings me to Wendy, the woman who is the definition of my ezer kengdo. We couldn’t be more different in so many ways, and the Enneagram Institute describes relationships between Fours (me) and Eights (Wendy) “the most inherently volatile” of combinations, though it adds the combination can be “one of the most creative relationship couplings.”
Wendy and I do everything together. We work together out of our home, we serve together, and we play together. There are certainly things each of us do and enjoy alone, but for the most part we are around each other 24/7/365 in our daily lives. And that’s a good thing for me. It’s a great thing for me.
I had a member of my company’s Board of Directors once ask me if I could imagine doing my job without Wendy. My response was immediate: “Absolutely not.” In fact, I can’t imagine doing it without her. I can’t imagine doing anything without her. She’s “uniquely suited” to make me better at everything I do in life, in community, and business as I like to believe I am uniquely suited to make her better in the same.
Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. We’re not perfect. We clash. We have flashes of volatility as the folks at the Enneagram Institute describe. Sometimes sparks fly. Yet that, I believe, is inherently a by-product of ezer kenegdo. Not alike, but uniquely suited.
So, in the quiet this morning, I think there are a whole host of things that I could have blogged about from today’s chapter. It is chock full of truth on multiple layers. Yet, on this chapter-a-day journey, I often find that the thing that is most meaningful to me is the thing that rises to the top of mind and soul. To me, this day, that is ezer kenegdo; that is Wendy, and all of the women with whom God has surrounded me my entire life journey to teach me about manhood, and to make me a better man.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Those who are even occasional readers of my posts know that I often make reference to the Enneagram. We were first introduced the Nine Types by our daughter many years ago. As it’s grown in popularity, we have been asked to introduce it and discuss it with various groups. We are, by no means, experts. We have simply shared our personal experiences of understanding and how the Enneagram has helped our relationship as we have come to understand and appreciate one another in deeper ways.
Over the years we’ve had many, many conversations with individuals, couples, and groups about the Enneagram. Of course, one of the first questions that is asked is, “Do you know what type you are?” Wendy and I quickly began noticing a certain pattern among women who are card-carrying followers of Jesus living primarily in Christian community.
They almost all say they are Type Twos (a.k.a. “The Helper”). Here’s the summary description of Type Two from the Enneagram Institute:
Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not possible for 80-90% of Christian women to be Twos. Either only females who are Twos follow Jesus, or those who do follow Jesus are miraculously transformed into Twos by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Wendy and I pondered and contemplated this phenomenon, we came to the realization that “Twos” sound eerily similar to the ideal wife and mother described in the epilogue of Proverbs; She is otherwise known as “The Proverbs 31 Woman.” Motherhood, in and of itself, requires the actions of self-sacrifice and unselfishness that come naturally to Twos. Yet, a person’s Enneagram Type is not rooted in actions, but motivations. I have come to believe that many individuals fall prey to this confusion. They may project themselves to be, or truly desire themselves to be, that idealized version of womanhood that both the church and Christian community have relentlessly told them they should be.
In today’s chapter, the book of ancient wisdom ends with a rather eloquent description of a “wife of noble character.” She’s the picture-perfect supportive spouse who is an asset to her husband’s public image and career. She’s the super-charged industrial homemaker and the perfect mix of Joanna Gaines and Martha Stewart. Her clothes, decor, and children are all Pinterest-worthy. She’s tireless and shrewd. She’s the undisputed CEO of the home which always runs with efficiency, organization, productivity, timeliness, and keeps the household budget always in the black. She is intelligent, spiritual, and practically wise; a combination of Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker. Her children think she’s the coolest mom in the world, and they all dutifully reflect her Proverbs-Thirty-One-ness in dress, appearance, and behavior. Her husband would never look twice at any of the “wayward” and “adulterous” women that Proverbs has been incessantly mentioning for thirty chapters, and this is because…well…while charm may be deceptive and beauty fleeting, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” actually has those, too! She’s the whole package.
Except, no woman is all these things. In my almost 40 year journey of being an adolescent-to-adult male and a follower of Jesus, I’ve never met a Proverbs 31 Woman. I’ve met women who seem to look like her. They project her image, but it’s never real. She’s just an air-brushed model on a magazine cover painted and lit to look like the ideals of maternal, marital, and spiritual virtue.
I’m probably going to get into trouble writing this, but let me share with you the observation of an old dude who’s spent his entire life surrounded by and in relationships with amazing girls and women.
Unintentionally, the book of Proverbs can easily do a disservice to the women in my life. The ancient sages Solomon, Agur, and Lemuel lived in a brutal, patriarchal society that developed out of a need for a strict social order (as I explored yesterday) to ensure survival. Women are presented in Proverbs in a binary fashion: bad (wayward, adulterous, contentious, quarrelsome) or ideal (The Proverbs 31 Woman). So, lady, what’s it going to be? Do you want to be good or bad? And, if you want to be good, then you must be ideal.
I’ve observed along my journey that the women in my life often allow themselves to fall into these binary mental traps: fat or skinny, beautiful or ugly, sexy or lonely, smart or dumb, popular or not, trendy or so-not-with-it, and etc. So, what I’ve observed happening are perpetual cycles of pressure, hopelessness, despair, striving, depression, and never-ending comparison to others hoping (and/or judging) “If I’m not ideal then at least I’m better than….”
So, I’m going to wade into dangerous territory this morning and I beg your grace and forgiveness upfront. If this old husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, employer, mentor, colleague, neighbor, and friend were to re-define what Proverbs calls a “woman of noble character” for all the amazing women in my life it would go something like this:
A Becoming Woman
If you find a becoming woman, you are blessed.
She is learning to embrace the individual, in mind, body (all of it), and spirit just as her loving Creator intentionally and uniquely knit her DNA together.
She has made an honest inventory of both her personal strengths and her intimate struggles; She is persevering in her efforts to build on the former while diminishing the latter.
She seeks roles and positions that make the most of her unique gifts and abilities, though they may not fit the dreams she once had, the norms of her community, or the expectations that others have placed on her.
She is learning how to accept God’s grace and forgiveness for all of the mistakes, faults, imperfections, and sins that she knows so well, even when others have not forgiven her; She is learning how to be gracious with herself, letting go of her own desires for perfection. She embraces the knowledge that she’ll still be learning all of these things when she reaches the end of this earthly journey.
She loves her husband and children genuinely, sometimes passionately, though often deficiently. She embraces the journey of becoming that is being a friend, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She presses on, neither denying the many faults and mistakes of her past nor becoming complacent in the onward journey of becoming that is always leading her further up and further in.
She is doing her best for her family even though it feels like a thankless task most days. She is struggling constantly against the lie that she is a hopeless failure in her role and responsibilities. She is learning to let it go when all that she has already done is summarily ignored while the incessant demands for more keep building up, seemingly with every moment.
She is realizing that the Creator has lovingly made each of her children as unique as she, herself, is unique. She desires that each of them becomes the individual God has made them to be. She desires that each child discover the unique purposes God has for them, even as she’s learning in fits and starts to let go of her own personal desires and expectations which can feel so instinctual and can be so strong at times.
She is learning to care more about the emotional and spiritual needs of her child than she cares about how her child’s appearance, actions, achievements, failures, words, and/or behaviors might influence how others, especially other women, in the community perceive her and her mothering skills.
She is purposefully mindful of her own needs and is learning that taking care of herself in mind, body, and spirit is necessary to manage every other role and relationship in her life.
She is purposefully mindful of her husband’s needs. She is learning to meet the unique needs that fill his love tank (though it may not fill hers), speak his unique love language (though she may not be fluent), and to be gracious with his unique shortcomings as she needs him to be gracious with hers. She is learning to encourage his own unique gifts, strengths, and purposes even when she realizes that they aren’t what she once thought they were or what she wants them to be.
She has surrounded herself with other good women who know her faults and love her anyway and who speak truth into her even when she doesn’t want to hear it. They are present even when time and/or miles create physical separation. They pick her up when she is down. They cheer her on in her endeavors and celebrate her in her accomplishments. They struggle through and survive relational strife with one another, learn to forgive one another, and graciously walk life’s journey together all the days of their lives.
She is learning, persevering, seeking, letting go, embracing, pressing on, realizing, desiring, purposeful, struggling, endeavoring, loving, giving, caring, forgiving, and she is surrounded.
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Luke 24:9-11 (NIV)
Of the three authors of Jesus’ biographies (aka “the Gospels”), Dr. Luke is known for his attention to details not found in the other three. One of these details that stands out for me is the attention he gives to the women among Jesus’ entourage and inner circle.
Much earlier in his accounts, Luke shares with us that a group of women were traveling with Jesus and the Twelve. They were also financially supporting His miraculous mystery tour around the shores of Galilee:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Luke 8:1-3 (NIV)
Contemporary followers of Jesus don’t give enough attention and credit to Jesus for radically shifting the status of women in Hebrew and Roman society. The status of women in those days was as poor as it has been throughout most of history. Women were perceived and treated as inferior to men. One of the daily prayers that a good Hebrew man would recite thanked God that he was not born a woman, a dog, or a Gentile. It was socially unacceptable for a man to speak to a woman in public. Freeborn women in the Roman Empire fared somewhat better than women in Hebrew world of Judea, but not much.
Jesus was a game-changer. He broke with convention. He spoke to women publicly. He touched them, healed them, and treated them with love and grace. It is no wonder then, that women would be among his most staunch supporters. I also find it fascinating that among the inner circle of female advocates is Joanna, the wife of the head of King Herod’s household. Another fact comes to my mind this morning that among all the accounts of Jesus’ kangaroo court trials before the Jewish High Priest, the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman Governor Pilate, and the Judean King Herod, there is only one person who speaks up on Jesus’ behalf. The wife of Pontius Pilate sent her husband a private message urging him not have anything to do with Jesus and all of the turmoil being stirred up against Him.
In the years to follow, the spread of the Jesus movement was, in part, fueled by the fact that the status of women within the movement broke with social convention. “In Christ,” Paul wrote, “there is neither male or female.” When Jesus followers gathered for their love feasts women were welcome at the table with men. It may seem like a baby step in contrast to modern society, but in the day it was a major game-changer. It should also be noted that once the Jesus Movement became an institution called the Holy Roman Empire, women were quickly stripped of what gains in status that they had been enjoying.
In the quiet this morning I find it, therefore, worth pondering that in yesterday’s chapter Luke makes it clear that it was the women of Jesus’ inner circle who followed Jesus to the cross and witnessed the entire bloody affair while the men were hiding in fear for their lives. In today’s chapter it was the women to whom word of the resurrection was first given, and the men who concluded that the silly women were being non-sensical.
“According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.” Esther 1:15 (NIV)
In the days after the end of Game of Thrones, I have suffered a bit of withdrawal. I know I am not alone in this. While nothing in the current entertainment market is going to really compare to the epic series, of late I have been catching up on the series, The Last Kingdom, (on Netflix) which has enjoyably filled the void. It follows the life of a young English noble who is captured and raised by Vikings while his uncle claims the title and land rightfully his by birth. The series is set in a period of actual history when Vikings threatened to conquer all the kingdoms of the British isle while Alfred the Great sought to join the disparate Kingdoms of the isle into one united England.
One of the interesting themes that I have noticed of late in multiple series and movies set in medieval times is how the role of women is handled. Certainly, the dark ages and middle ages were a time in which women had little or no social standing. Daughters of nobility were married off to create political alliances. Writers seem to enjoy creating female characters of strength and courage who challenge and undermine the status quo of that time. I laughed a lot as I watched the character of Brida (played expertly by Emily Cox) in The Last Kingdom (who, like the male protagonist was a young Brit captured and raised as a pagan Viking) who re-enters English society and all of the male priests and nobles have no idea how to handle this strong, fiery, female warrior. Earl the Bruce’s wife in the movie Outlaw King (also on Netflix) is another recent example.
Today we begin another chapter-a-day journey through the book of Esther. Along with the stories of Daniel and Jonah, which we just blogged through in the past few months, Esther is set in the period of exile when many of the Hebrew people were living in exiled captivity to a successive series of foreign empires (Babylonian, Mede, and Persian). Esther is one of the most enjoyable and unique reads in the entirety of God’s Message.
The first chapter sets the scene as the Persian Queen, Vashti, refuses her intoxicated husband’s demand that she present herself to him and the drunken, seven-day binge of a frat-boy party that he and his court were having. King Xerxes wanted to serve his wife up to be sexually ogled by his “noble” entourage. When Vashti has the self-respect and courage to refuse her husband’s demand, the boys decide that she must be punished so that all women would know their place and all men could cement their power over their wives and households.
Today’s chapter sets the scene for the story on which we are about to embark. It establishes the setting in an ancient culture in which men systemically dominated politics, society, and culture. Women had little or no power, and to challenge the system – even for the best of reasons – could lead to very negative consequences. The Hebrews, as a people living in exile, understood this position of powerlessness.
As I think about the historical setting of the story of Esther, of the courage of Vashti to stand up to her drunken husband, and the examples of strong women in weak social positions that I’ve been watching of late, I can’t help but think of my wife and my daughters. God has surrounded me with strong women whom I greatly respect. I am partnered with a fiery, Enneagram 8 of a wife, who compliments and challenges me in all sorts of healthy ways. I also know, however, that most of human history would not have treated her and her God-given temperament kindly, despite what Hollywood writers portray as they try to bring 9th-century realities to 21st-century audiences.
In the quiet this morning I find myself excited to once again wade through the amazing story of Esther. It reminds me of the spiritual paradoxes that lie at the heart of being a follower of Jesus: that strength is found in weakness, that spiritual power is often unleashed in temporal impotence, and that the power of Life is found on the other side of death.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Acts 6:6 (NIV)
When I became a follower of Jesus as a young person, it so happened that my sister and a handful of other young people from our mainline Protestant church had made similar decisions. Excited about what God was doing in our lives, we had some great ideas about how we could share the good news. We thought it would be cool to do a series of meetings over a weekend with live music and to invite a good speaker that people would want to hear. So, we took our idea to the pastor and educational administrator of our church. Our idea was shot down immediately.
This was the first of many run-ins I’ve had along my journey with institutional churches. Most traditional, institutional churches have been historically hierarchical (and patriarchal, as well). Authority is given from the top-down, and power is dispensed and brokered just as it was among the temple priests and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day; Just as it is in almost any large institution. My friends and I were shot down because we were just kids, our idea was not approved by the denominational institution, and the speaker we wanted, while highly educated and capable, wasn’t credentialed in our particular denomination.
The thing I find fascinating in reading through the book of Acts is this early, dynamic explosion of faith. Thousands were choosing to follow Jesus, believe His resurrection, and give everything to what had become a “movement.” But it was different than the institutional Temple where it began. The Temple divided people. There was a section for women, a section for Gentiles (non-Jews), and a section only for priests. The followers of Jesus, however, met together. Everyone met together, ate together, and prayed together whether old, young, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, or priest.
In the institutional, hierarchical Temple, only priests and approved teachers of the law had the authority to do certain things. When the Holy Spirit pours out in and through the followers of Jesus, suddenly the “unschooled, unlearned” believers began teaching and speaking with spiritual authority. Signs and wonders began to be displayed through all believers, irregardless of education, age, gender, tribe, or social standing.
In today’s chapter, a man named Stephen is described as having performed many signs and wonders. He speaks in a synagogue and, filled with Holy Spirit, argues circles around the institutional lawyers and teachers. Stephen wasn’t one of the twelve. He wasn’t an original apostle. He was just another member of the “Body” of Christ. He was simply an every day believer, filled with Holy Spirit, ministering to people whenever, wherever he could.
Last night there was a meeting at our house with brothers and sister from among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Those who sat around our dining room table are going to be teaching in the coming weeks. There were two pastors from our local gathering’s staff, but there was also a banker, a diesel mechanic, a corporate middle manager, and a small business owner. Everyday people, male and female, older and younger, classically educated and not, all together using the gifts of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Greatest Commandment so the Great Commission can be fulfilled.
Jesus’ mission was never about building or protecting an institution. It was about every day people connecting with God and loving others so that anyone and everyone can make the same connection.
This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan. Numbers 36:6 (NIV)
Almost every morning Wendy and I meet in our dining room for our requisite cups of coffee and tea. We read the newspaper together and start each day catching up on current events and solving the worlds problems. Over weeks and months and years we begin to see patterns that you can count on. For example, no matter what piece of legislation is presented by Congress here in America, all parties will get out their crystal balls and predict either blissful utopia or utter apocalypse depending on which side of the aisle they butter their womb-to-the-tomb pension and benefits package. The same clichés will be used like worn-out rags for the public while behind closed doors congressional staffers will be hammering out appeals and deals.
Along life’s journey I’ve observed that there are always unintended consequences to virtually any law. Laws may benefit the majority but will typically have unintended negative effect for others. Laws always get amended, altered and changed by additional legislation or by interpretations and clarifications from the judicial branch. It’s just the way the system works.
In today’s chapter we finish our journey through the ancient book of Numbers with a rather odd, anti-climactic story. A few chapters ago the unmarried daughters of a guy named Zelophehad approached Moses and argued that their father’s inheritance should pass to them, even though they were women. Women in near east cultures of that day could not own property and, in fact, were typically considered the property of their fathers or husbands. In a law that was incredibly progressive for the time, Moses agreed with the orphaned daughters and set up a new law granting unmarried daughters of a dead father the father’s inheritance. The inheritance would then pass to their husband if/when they eventually married.
Today we have an appeal to the original law. The ruling men in the tribe begin to ask themselves “What ifs.” It would not surprise me if multiple men from various tribes were lining up in an ancient version of The Bachelorette. Marrying Zelophehad’s daughters and getting your hands on Zelophehad’s inheritance would be a lucrative deal. “Mazel tov!”
The problem was that tribal inheritance in the promised land was to be set in stone and absolute. Land was not to pass back and forth from one tribe to another. The case of Zelophehad’s daughters created a problem. Their father’s land would go to their future husband. If they married outside the clan then their tribes land would be owned by another tribe. Moses quickly amends the original law stating that Zelophehad’s daughters must marry inside their own tribal clan.
Of course, when you follow the news long enough and acquaint yourself with human history you begin to see patterns. Today’s amendment will have its own unintended effect. When human tribes isolate and insulate themselves socially it creates “us versus them” mentalities. Eventually the tribes would turn against one another in a protracted civil war.
This morning I’m thinking about tribes and clans. In the business world we often speak of “Silos” in which departments and divisions of corporations operate within themselves and largely function in exclusion to the corporation as a whole. In the world of institutional Christianity we see this same paradigm in silos we call denominations. Across the U.S. I see silos in politics and in my own community I see silos culturally among groups with different ideas and interests. Silos we build with the best of intentions to shore up the identity and cohesion of certain groups become exclusionary protectorates that eventually contribute negatively to the whole.
The further I get in my life journey the more inclined I am to stop building silos and to start tearing them down.
So Moses brought their case before the Lord,and the Lord said to him,“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Numbers 27:5-7 (NIV)
This past week I posted my first words to my grandson. The post “had legs” as is said of posts that become popular and start getting shared in multiple outlets. That makes me happy. They are words that young men, all men, really need to hear and take to heart.
It is, perhaps, a bit of synchronicity that today’s chapter should be a fascinating story of four daughters whose father had no son. The prevailing tradition appears to have been that they and all of their father’s property would be absorbed by their father’s nearest kin and they would officially become part of that man’s family. Essentially, their father’s name and legacy would be snuffed out. Their branch would be pruned from the family tree forever.
So, the women bring their case before Moses, and Moses took the case before God. Those following along on this chapter-a-day journey may have noticed that Moses bringing things before God is a repetitive theme in the book of Numbers. Interestingly enough, God rules in favor of the women. It had to have been a radical verdict in that day, and I imagine it was intensely unpopular with the power male leaders of the Hebrew clans.
I am certainly aware of the many arguments my female counterparts have about some of the historical mores that the Bible describes and prescribes regarding the role of women. Believe me, I am married to a strong woman and we enjoy spirited discussions over our morning smoothies when we journey through stories or teachings that strike women as particularly offensive. Nevertheless, I also find it fascinating that there is continually evidence through the Great Story of God specifically honoring women andraising up women. This is specifically true of Jesus who broke many societal barriers in his behavior towards loving and honoring of the women around Him.
This morning I’m struck that amidst ancient social and political traditions that were rabidly patriarchal, God decided the case in today’s chapter in the favor of women. It did not change all of the prevailing patriarchal attitudes of the day but it is a specific instance of a radically equitable verdict from God in an ancient society whose concept of gender was incredibly more repressive than our own.
Which is what I was trying to get at in my post and my words to my grandson. I myself can’t reverse thousands of years of injustice and single-handedly change society. Yet, I can make a difference in my own thoughts, words, and actions in my spheres of influence. I can influence the attitude of my grandson to do the same in his. Perhaps it will be the rolling of a small stone that will eventually start an avalanche.