Presentation and Art Workshop for Church/Community Groups

Women of the Old Testament

Clare speaking at an event in Hazlemere, Bucks

How many women from the Old Testament can you name? Did you know the first worship leader in the Bible was a woman (Miriam), that Shiprah and Puah were the brave midwives who stood up to Pharoah, that Abigail was a peacemaker who stopped a war, and that five plucky sisters transformed land rights for women down the centuries?

Clare and Micah Hayns are a mother and son team and together created the book Unveiled: women of the Old Testament and the Choices they made which is published by Bible Reading Fellowship. The book tells the story of over forty women with each chapter written by Clare and illustrated by beautiful and original artwork by Micah.

They would love to come to your church/women’s group/community to speak about the wonderful women of the Old Testament that feature in the book. Their talk brings these stories to life in an engaging and lively way which is illustrated with Micah’s images and can be accompanied by a short art workshop and table discussion questions. It’s suitable for those with no prior knowledge of the Bible/Old Testament as well as those who have been in church for years.

About Clare and Micah

Micah and Clare Hayns

Revd Clare Hayns is College Chaplain & Welfare Coordinator at Christ Church, Oxford. She grew up in rural Bucks, her childhood more Pony Club than church youth group. Pre-ordination she was a Social Worker specialising in substance misuse. She is married to John, an entertainer, and has three creative sons

Born in 1997, Micah Hayns is a contemporary classical painter from Oxford. He takes the classical techniques and tradition of the old masters, whom he studied at the Florence Academy of Art, and infuses them with a contemporary aesthetic, inspired by street art, abstract expressionism, and collage. He has a gallery and studio in Oxford and teaches drawing to children and young people.

Testimonials

Clare and Micah visited one of our regular Ladies’ nights and what a super evening we had! We learned about some awesome women of the Old Testament and Clare had a wonderfully warm way of bringing the stories alive and connecting with both our teenagers and those wise in years. Micah is an outstanding artist and with his gentle direction and encouragement enabled us to create our own masterpieces within 45 minutes! A fabulous evening celebrating awesome woman – then and now – and we felt truly blessed by them both. Thank you for a memorable evening!

Revd Trudie Wigley, Rector of the Dorcan Group, Swindon (March 2022)

Clare and Micah did a fantastic joint presentation for us as part of our Pause for Thought in Marston. Clare bringing to our consciousness the women who’s voices are seldom heard in the old Testament and Micah giving them substance and colour through art and form. The evening was a highlight this year and as one of our parishioners said it was one of the best evenings they have had in a very long time! The fact that Mothering Sunday was close by and we were in Lent made unveiling the Old Testament women even more special. 

Revd Skye Denno, Vicar of Old Marston and Elsfield, Oxford

Costs and details

The costs are:
Talk with Q&A – £100 plus travel expenses
Talk with Q&A plus art workshop and table discussion questions – £150 (includes materials) plus travel expenses

The talk lasts approximately 45 mins which includes Q and A
The art workshop/table discussion lasts up to 45 mins
We can also bring along books and prints/original art to sell

Art Workshop using charcoals led by Micah (lasts approx 45 mins) – image is Tamar’s eyes
Three generations of women enjoying an art workshop with Micah

How To Book

To enquire about booking, please contact Clare on haynsclare@gmail.com

Artwork Display

We can also bring along original paintings by Micah Hayns for sale and/or display

Original artwork by Micah on display
Original artwork by Micah on display

Jochebed: a tale for Mothering Sunday

Magnificat by ©micahhayns

Exodus 2

Moses is no doubt the most important prophet in Judaism, and one of the most significant for Christianity and Islam. He led the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, was given the Ten Commandments thereby establishing Jewish law, and he is believed to have been the author of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. However, without the bravery of several women, he may never have made it beyond the first few months of life. There was the bravery of the midwives (Shiprah and Puah) who prevented infanticide, and now we learn of how his mother (Jochebed), sister (Miriam) and an Egyptian princess came together in an extraordinary way to protect his life.

Having a baby at the time of war or persecution must be a terrifying ordeal, one that millions of women encounter every year – we have all seen with horror the images of pregnant women fleeing bombing in Ukraine. The situation for Jochebed and her child was dire. The Pharaoh had issued an edict to murder all the Hebrew baby boys by throwing them into the River Nile and Jochebed had given birth to ‘a fine baby’ at this dangerous time.

Jochebed was one of Levi’s daughters, therefore was one of Jacob’s grandchildren.  She was married to Amran and had two older children, Aaron and Miriam. She had successfully hidden her new-born baby for three months but this was becoming impossible and so she needed another plan. She created a basket out of reeds, waterproofed it with a plant resin and took the ‘moses basket’ and hid it near to the place the wealthy women bathed in river. Her daughter Miriam was stationed to watch over the baby, and I imagine both mother and daughter prayed earnestly to God for his protection. They could not have imagined in their wildest dreams that his salvation would come from the very place that also posed the greatest risk to his life.

Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia was bathing in the river alongside her entourage and she spotted the baby in the reeds. If she had followed her father’s rules she would have been obliged to hand him over to the authorities. What she did was far more risky. Realising he was a Hebrew baby she took pity on him and decided to adopt him. He was still breastfeeding and, in an extraordinary twist and an answer to Jochebad’s prayers, Miriam, who had been watching all this unfold, stepped forward and offered to find a ‘wet-nurse’ for the baby. So Moses’ own mother was paid to look after her child until adulthood, presumably from the safety of the royal palace or its surroundings.

Reflection

We can imagine Jochebed’s joy at the return of her beautiful son and the delight that they could now live in safety without fear. It’s Mothering Sunday in the UK and this story reminds us of the sacrifices made by mothers through the ages. Many of these acts are unremarkable and go unnoticed, such as those who take two jobs or who put their careers on hold for a time. Sometimes the sacrifice is costly. I remember meeting a woman whilst working for a homeless charity who offered up her child for adoption as she knew she wouldn’t be able to have looked after him. Her decision was painful and was clearly made out of a deep love for her little boy. This story also reminds us that the care of children is so often done by a community working together, and so we think of all the foster parents, respite carers, nannies, and siblings who so often take on these caring roles to help children thrive.

Prayer

God of Miriam and Jochebed,
you care for those the world forgets
and you never forget the needs of your people.
Be present with all who make agonising decisions;
protect children who have nobody to protect them;
bless those who foster, adopt and take care of children;
and may all teh members of your family
live for one another in self-giving love. Amen


Naomi: bittersweet

This post is part of a series on forty women from the Old Testament originally written for Lent 2020. It is now published by BRF as Unveiled: Women of the Old Testament and the choices they made.

The Book of Ruth

The ‘Bechdel Test’ is a measure of the representation of women in fiction and film and asks these three questions: does this feature at least two women; do the women have a conversation with each other; is that conversation about something or someone other than a man? It’s remarkable how many fail this simple test! The Book of Ruth passes the Bechdel Test. It is one of only two books of the bible named after a woman (the other being Esther), and it is a story that tells of the power of a deep, sacrificial relationship between two grieving women, Naomi and Ruth, and of their journey of friendship, faith and healing.  

Naomi and her husband Elimelech lived in Bethlehem in Judah with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, at a time when Israel was ruled by the Judges (probably Gideon.). When a famine hit the region, Elimelech decided to move his family to Moab, a land on the other side of the Jordan with a non-Jewish population. He died soon after arriving and the sons took Moabite wives and settled. Tragedy struck again and both sons died leaving Naomi’s world devastated. It is akin to the tragic blows faced by Job, but Naomi’s situation is further exacerbated because she is a woman without the protection of a single male family member, and she is in a foreign land far from her extended family.

It isn’t surprising then that Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, particularly as she had heard the famine was over. Her two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, both began the fifty mile journey with her, but at some point along the way Naomi realised that taking these women far away from their own people would be the wrong thing to do. As they were still young there was still some hope for them and their future. She encouraged them to return to their families, to find new husbands, and rebuild their lives. Naomi had no such hope for herself. She believed God had turned against her and her pain was so deep rooted she even asked for her name to be changed from Naomi (which means delight) to ‘Mara’ (‘bitterness’).

After a great deal of persuasion Orpah tearfully turns back to join her family, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and ‘clung to her’. (Ruth 1.14) Naomi eventually relented and the two widows make their way together back to Bethlehem, where they arrived in time for the harvest. Ruth went to work in the fields gleaning, harvesting the wheat reserved in the Torah for widows, and the pair began the slow work of healing. This takes time for Naomi, but the dual balm of steadfast commitment alongside the practical support offered her by her daughter (as she now saw her) began to bring signs of hope that the bitterness was melting. One of these signs was the energetic support Naomi gives Ruth in securing a husband, Boaz, a match that would ensure the land lost by Elimelech’s death would be restored to the family.

This wasn’t all that was restored to Naomi. By the end of the book she had a secure home, a daughter who loved her, and a grandchild. She also had the respect and blessing of her community, and above all this, her faith in God.

Reflection

What is so lovely about Naomi and Ruth’s relationship is that their friendship seems to be without the rivalry and jealousy that we’ve seen in some of the other female relationships so far. There is a mutual reciprocity at the heart of it – Naomi relies on Ruth’s youthful energy to provide food for them, Ruth relies on Naomi’s wisdom and contacts in a strange land, and they walk together in their grief.

Friendships like this are a gift aren’t they? Let’s give thanks for them.

Prayer

Loving God, we thank you for the joy and comfort of friendships:
for those who have been their through the ups and downs of life;
for those who have walked beside us even when we’ve not
been great company; and for those friends who are no longer with us and who we long to meet again. Amen

Esther: for such a time as this

The Book of Esther

Queen Esther ©MicahHayns

Yesterday’s post ended with the deposition of Queen Vashti for her disobedience to the King Ahasureus’ demands. This opened the way for one of the great heroines of the Hebrew Scriptures and a story that is told each year during the festival of Purim. It is the story of Esther, the woman who saved her people from extermination.

Esther was very different to the aristocratic Vashti. She was an orphan and so had been brought up by her uncle Mordecai, and she was Jewish. This was at a time when the Jews were still in exile but they were able to live in relative peace under the authority of the Persian rulers.

The king had sent out his servants to find a suitable replacement wife and so beautiful young women from around the land were taken to the palace to join the harem under the watchful eye of Hegai, the king’s eunuch. Esther, being ‘fair and beautiful’ was one of them. She quickly became one of the favoured women.

Those of us who enjoy the odd beauty treatment might like to pause to reflect at the description of the process whereby these women were prepared for their ‘audience’ with the king:

Their cosmetic treatment [was] six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women.

Esther 2.12

A whole year of beauty treatments!

Esther pleased the king and he ‘loved her more than all the other women’ and so he ‘set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti’. There was a banquet and national holiday in her honour, and the king distributed gifts around his kingdom in celebration.

She had a secret however: she didn’t tell anyone that she was Jewish. She continued to keep in touch with her uncle Mordecai, who spent his time sitting at the king’s gate, perhaps so he could hear news of his adoptive daughter. One day Mordecai foiled a plot against the king by overhearing rumours of rebellion: he informed Esther who told the king and the rebels were hanged.

Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder, circa 1685

If this was a fairy tale and Queen Esther was the beautiful princess, then the evil villain now comes on the scene: Haman. He was promoted by the king to be his ‘first official’ and is given authority over all other public servants. A vain and arrogant man, Haman demanded everyone pay him homage on bended knee. Mordecai refused to bow. Haman is furious and used this slight as an excuse for his anti-Semitism and he determined to ‘destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom’. (Esther 3.6).

Haman erects a vast gallows to carry out his murderous plan, the king passively agrees to his proposal, and the city is ‘thrown into confusion’ as edicts to kill the Jewish people are sent out.

Queen Esther is deeply distressed. Mordecai asks her to intercede with the king for their salvation and tells her that she has been put into the palace ‘at such a time as this’ for the purpose of helping her people.

But Esther realised it wasn’t going to be simple. She would have remembered what happened to Vashti. She would need to tread carefully.

She takes control of the situation, first asking all Jews to fast (and, we assume, pray) for three days. She then goes to the king and asks him if she can host a banquet for him and Haman. The king is delighted and offers her anything she desires, but she holds back and hosts a second party the next day. At the second banquet Esther makes her request, and by this stage the king is fully on her side, particularly as during the night he had had a dream where he remembered the loyalty of Mordecai who had warned him of the assassination threat.

Esther’s request is bold. She discloses her background and tells the king of the ensuing massacre:

let my life be given me… and the lives of my people, that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed 

Esther 7.3-4

The king’s eyes are opened to what is being done is his name, and the wicked Haman is killed on his own gallows, and the Jewish people are saved. In a final twist to the tale, Mordecai is given Haman’s position in the palace and Esther and her uncle are given his house and household.

for the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honour…a festival and a holiday

Esther 8.17

The festival of Purim was instituted and every year Queen Esther continues to be remembered for her part in the salvation of the Jewish people.

Reflection and Prayer

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives..he knelt down and prayed, 
'Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; 
yet, not my will but yours be done'
Luke 22.42 

Before taking any action Esther’s first instinct was to insist all her people spent three days in prayer and fasting. This week is Holy Week and today we remember Jesus in Gethsemane before his arrest where he spent time in prayer grappling with his Father as to whether this journey was really his to take.

There is a wonderful line in Esther’s story where Mordecai tells her that perhaps she had been placed in the palace at that particular time for a particular purpose that only she could fulfil. ‘Who Knows?’, he says, ‘perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this’.

For such a time as this

I wonder if Jesus thought of Esther as he pleaded with his Father in Gethsemane? I wonder if he recalled her courage to face the king when he was being dragged in front of Pilate? I wonder if he found himself realising that he too had been chosen ‘for such a time as this’.

O Lord, who when thine hour was near, didst go without fear among those who sought thy life; give us such boldness to confess thee before others, and such readiness to bear thy cross, that hereafter thou mayest confess us before thy Father which is in heaven. Amen
A prayer of Joseph Oldham, 1874-1969

Athaliah: the vengeful queen

Athalia ©MicahHayns

2 Kings 11

I tried reading Anna Karenina by Dostoyevky once but remember getting utterly confused by the similarity of so many of the names, with the added complexity that at times characters were called by their middle names. Our next woman, Queen Athaliah appears in a similarly confounding section of the Bible where the characters have names that sound the same and most seemed to begin with the letter J (or A).

We have Joram, Jehoram, Jehosophat, Jehosheba, Jehoash, Jehoida and they live in Jezreel. It is further confused by the fact it is a time when the kingdom is split into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and at one stage the kings of both nations had the same name (Jehoram, but sometimes called Joram, in the same passage)!

Athaliah from Guillaume Rouillé’s Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, 1553

Athaliah was the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel and lived in around c. 841 – 835 BC. She was married to King Jehoram of Judah and it is likely that the marriage was intended to be a union to unite the two rival kingdoms: it doesn’t work out that way. Her husband was a brutal man who had killed his six brothers in order to obtain the throne. Her brother is the other Jehoram, the one that was King of Israel at the time (you can see it’s confusing!).

Athaliah and Jehoram have children but tragedy struck when a rival faction of rebels seeking independence raided their palace and captured her entire family, leaving only her youngest son, Ahaziah, who eventually succeeded his father to the throne. Ahaziah’s rule only lasted a year as he was assassinated during a state visit to Israel by Jehu (King of Israel) who not only orders the killing of Athaliah’s son but also her entire extended family. In a gruesome additional detail we are told that the heads of the 70 murdered royal princes were placed in a basket and sent as a grizzly package to King Jehu.

On hearing what had happened to her family Athaliah doesn’t seem to grieve their demise: she is more concerned for power. She proclaims herself Queen of Judah and executed all those who had any royal claim, even killing the women and children: it is a truly horrific period of Israel’s history.

Her sister Jehosheba managed to rescue one of Athaliah’s grandchildren (Joash) from her purge, and he is brought up in secret by a priest named Jehoiada. The priest instigated a rebellion and proclaimed the child King when he was only seven years’ old.

Queen Athaliah was furious when she saw what had happened.  

…all the people of the land were rejoicing and blowing trumpets. Then Athaliah tore her robes and called out, “Treason! Treason!’.

2 Kings 11.14

Her cries were useless. She was taken out and summarily executed at the gates of the palace.

‘..and the City was quiet, because Athaliah had been slain’.

2 Kings 11.20

Reflection

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, 
they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right,
 the other on his left. Jesus said,
 “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 23.32-34

Athaliah is the only women in this lent series about whom I’ve struggled to find a single thing that is commendable or likeable. She was brutal, power hungry, and attempted to wipe out the entire line of Judah. Her sister even had to hide one of her own grandchildren from her for fear that she would commit murder. The only defence is that Athaliah was born into a violent world where both parents were brutally killed and her husband was similarly violent. Perhaps this might give us some context for her actions, but it is important to remember that women can be thoroughly evil and that some terrible crimes have been committed by women not just against them.

On reflecting on her I realise that I find it easier to consider women who are abused, victimised and enslaved than those who are powerful, vengeful and cruel. I wonder why that is?

Next week we will be heading into Holy Week where we will reflect again on Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem, a journey which leads to his violent death on the cross. Whilst on the cross Jesus took all the pain, violence and suffering of the world onto himself and, surrounded by criminals, cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

Perhaps that is all we can do when faced with cruelty and violence in our world. We can pray for forgiveness. We can remember that Jesus died for the criminal and cruel as well as for those who nurture and care. And we can recognise that each one of us has the capacity to be cruel and violent as well, even if we aren’t quite as evil as Queen Athaliah!

Prayer

This beautiful prayer was found in the clothing of a dead child at Ravensbruck concentration camp

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering – our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let these fruits that we have bourne be their forgiveness. Amen

Naaman’s servant: faith in adversity

Naaman’s Servant ©MicahHayns

2 Kings 5

This next story is rather close to the bone as it involves a contagious disease. Those suffering from this illness were designated ‘unclean’ and were separated from society for the protection of others. The disease was known as leprosy, although in the bible the term actually describes a multitude of skin diseases, such as psoriasis and scabies as well as ‘Hansen’s Disease, which is what we now call leprosy. Leprosy was not a discriminating disease, it infected people across society – those living in poverty suffered alongside the wealthy and powerful.

Our next woman had no power, prestige or popularity. She was merely a servant girl and, like so many of our women, we don’t know her name, but she was an Israelite girl who had been captured during one of the many raids on Israel by their Aramean enemies to the north. She is described as ‘a young girl’ and so it is likely she was around 12 years old. She had been given as a servant to the wife of Naaman who was the commander of  King of Aram’s army and was known by all to be ‘a great man’ – he was highly respected, popular and had won battles for the King, but he suffered from this disease.

It might be useful to have a big of background to the political situation of the time. The year was around 930BC and Israel and Judah had been separate kingdoms for around 80 years. Israel had seen nine rebel kings who had turned to idolatry, worshipping golden calves, the god Baal, and other deities.

But despite this turbulent situation, there remained a ‘remnant’ within the kingdom who had continued to worship the true and living God, Yahweh (1 Kings 19.18). It is likely that our servant girl came from one of these families. She had a strong faith and perhaps it was this that enabled her to speak up when confronted with Naaman’s distress at his illness:

She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.

1 Kings 5.3

It isn’t hard to imagine the terror of being captured in an armed raid and being taken to a foreign land to work as a slave in the household of the very person who had captured you. Perhaps she held her captors in contempt and might secretly have enjoyed watching her master suffer from his painful and debilitating skin disease. But whether she felt this way or not is immaterial because the young woman doesn’t act on this. She seeks to help him by pointing him towards someone who she knew had the power to heal: the prophet Elisha.

It is extraordinary that these few confident, faithful words from a servant girl had such power that they galvanised the whole family, and even the king, into action.

Naaman’s wife spoke to Naaman and then he went to the King of Aram who gave him permission to travel to Israel and sent him to the King of Israel with a supportive letter and gifts. The journey would have taken them several days and, although it doesn’t say this in the text, it is probable that Naaman’s wife and the servant girl would have gone along with them. What must it have been like for her to travel back to her homeland, a place where she was once free and loved, but this time with those who had captured her and killed her people?

I wonder if she witnessed Elisha the prophet who, to Naaman’s horror, sent out his servant to tell him that his healing would come if he washed himself in the river Jordan seven times:

I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!

2 Kings 5.11

Naaman did not realise that his healing would be deeper than just being cured of his skin disease. He also needed to be healed of his own arrogance, pride, self-importance, and no doubt much else besides.

If the young girl had been there she may well have been worried whether those confident words said to her mistress and which sparked such a journey would be fulfilled. What if Naaman didn’t get healed by Elisha and the whole journey was in vain? What would be the consequences of this outcome for her?

If she had worried, she didn’t need to:

So [Naaman] went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

2 Kings 5.14

Naaman turns to God and they return to their home in peace:

 “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; 

2 Kings 5.15

Reflection and Prayer

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, 
but set an example for the believers in speech, 
in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 
1 Timothy 4.12

The story of this faithful servant girl is a good reminder of the importance of having the courage to speak up about our faith at times. She could easily have believed that she was insignificant and that no-one would listen to what she had to say, and have kept quiet. Yet she shared her faith, and in doing so transformed the life of another person.

How often do we think that what we have to offer or share isn’t of much value? How often do we keep quiet about our faith in case we are ridiculed, mocked or ignored? Are there moments in your own life where you wished you had spoken up? Let us pray for the courage and faith of this young girl.

Prayer

Empower me
to be a bold participant,
rather than a timid saint in waiting,
in the difficult ordinariness of now;
to exercise the authority of honesty,
rather than to defer to power,
or deceive to get it;
to influence someone for justice,
rather than to impress anyone for gain;
and, by grace, to find treasures
of joy, friendship, healing and peace
hidden in the fields of the daily life
you have given me to plough.

The Queen of Sheba

Queen of Sheba ©MicahHayns

1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9

Our next woman is well-known, but the detail in the Bible is actually rather scant. Most of what we know about her is taken from legend, poetry, art and myth. In Ethiopian tradition she is called Makeda, and in Islamic and Yemeni tradition she is Bilquis.

The Queen of Sheba is the most exotic and enigmatic woman of this lent series and is markedly different to all the other women: she is a female ruler from a far-flung land, she is wealthy, and she seems to be totally independent of any man or of any particular social group. But what really sets her apart is that her journey is one of intellectual curiosity over and above anything else. She is a woman who loved wisdom and was willing to travel the world to seek it out.

She was the queen of a land situated to the south of the Arabian desert, believed to have been the kingdom of Sheba, or Saba (which is in modern day Yemen). She had heard reports that King Solomon was the wisest man in the East and so set off on the long journey (some say it may have taken several years) to find out for herself.

When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions 

2 Chronicles 9.1

She was fabulously wealthy and arrived in Jerusalem with a huge entourage that included camels, spices, precious stones, and gold. These were gifts for the king and would have been expected of a Royal visit. Her main interest does not seem to have been his wealth or huge palace, for her the audience with the King was a meeting of minds:

She came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the King to explain to her.

1 Kings 10.3
Piero della Francesco, Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, circa 1410-20

She was impressed by Solomon’s intellect, wisdom and wealth and this led her to turn to praise God at all that she saw:

Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.

1 Kings 10.9

Gifts of gold, spices and precious stones were handed over and then the Queen, having asked all the questions that she had on her mind, and learned all that she could from King Solomon, set off back to her home land.

Reflection and Prayer

Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
Proverbs 1. 20-22

One of the many reasons I love my job as a university chaplain is being in the midst of so many people who are thirsty for knowledge and who are dedicating their lives to learning and seeking understanding. Like the Queen of Sheba they travel from around the globe in hope to find some of their questions answered.

There is difference between knowledge and wisdom though isn’t there? * Knowledge can be gained through reading, research and gathering information, but wisdom uses discernment, judgement and understanding to take this information and to use it for good. I often marvel at how the cleverest of people can make the most foolish decisions at times!

One of the great things about getting older is knowing that wisdom often come with maturity, especially if we are willing to learn from our mistakes and to change

In the Book of Proverbs ‘wisdom’ is personified as a woman,’lady wisdom’, who cries out on the streets calling men and women to the knowledge of God. Let us pray for wisdom, for ourselves and for our leaders at this time of global emergency.

Most Gracious and Holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you;
intelligence to understand you;
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you;
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate on you:
and a life to proclaim you,
through the power of the Holy Spirit
and the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen
Frank Topping, 1994

* John (my husband) says ‘knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad’!
 

Reclaiming Jezebel

Guest post by Matilda Hadcock, Undergraduate of History, Christ Church, Oxford

1 Kings 18-19, 21 and 2 Kings 9

Jezebel ©MicahHayns

The end of Jezebel’s life was a tragic one: she was pushed out of her window and fell to her death, then her body was eaten by dogs. Only her skull, feet and the palms of her hands remained.

This was said to have been God’s plan all along, revealed to the prophet Elijah. God had condemned the King of Israel, Ahab, including all his descendants and his wife in the curse:

Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.’

1 Kings 21,23

Some people would argue that Jezebel deserved the end she received – as a harlot, pagan and temptress she should have expected nothing less. Others see Jezebel as a feminist icon – she lived the life she wanted and had no qualms about tarnishing her reputation; she probably would have glorified in her death. Neither interpretation leaves enough room for nuance.

The story of Jezebel is far from pleasant, and neither is it whole. Her story is told in pieces in the Bible, as is usually the way, through the men in her life. She is depicted as a wicked woman, but what else might her story tell?

There are two dictionary definitions of ‘Jezebel’. The first is in reference to her historical and biblical status as the Phoenician wife of Ahab, who pressed the cult of Baal on the Israelite kingdom and was finally killed in accordance with Elijah’s prophecy. The second is more descriptive: a jezebel is an impudent, shameless or morally unrestrained woman who gets her own way through deception. Along with sexual immorality, Jezebel is associated with vanity, worshipping false gods, and the female vice of seduction.

These common associations require some myth-busting.

Jezebel was the daughter of a Phoenician king, Ithobaal I, but she moved to Israel on her marriage to King Ahab. It was, as ever, a political marriage, the culmination of friendly relations between Israel and Phoenicia. Jezebel is blamed for introducing the nature god Baal-Melkart into Israelite society, thus confusing the Israelites about which was the true religion.

In fact, it was custom for Ahab to set up an altar for his wife to pray at, in the tradition of her home religion. The worship of Baal may well have been the only reminder of home that Jezebel had in Israel. The accusation that she prayed to false gods is only one perspective; at the time and in her mind, she must have been devout and loyal in her faith.

When Elijah orchestrated the killing of the priests of Baal, Jezebel was distraught. She threatened Elijah with death, bravely declaring:

So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them [ie. dead] by this time tomorrow.

1 Kings 19.2

Violence is common in the Old Testament, and Jezebel is not unique in her use of brutality. She stood up for what she believed in, asserting her queenly power in perhaps the only way that she knew would carry meaning.

Regarding her sexual immorality, there is no evidence in the Bible that Jezebel was unfaithful to her husband. She provided him with children, and cared for him. When Ahab got angry because he could not have the plot of land he desired, it was Jezebel who sought him out and calmed him. Ahab threw himself on the bed and turned his head away:

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?”

1 Kings 21,5

She seems to have been doing her best to be a good wife and Queen.

In the scene before her death, Jezebel appears at the window, looking down on Jehu, the new King of Israel. Jehu had been appointed by Elijah’s successor, Elisha. He had usurped and killed Joram, Ahab and Jezebel’s son, in order to remove the religion of Baal from the region.

Jezebel, in the last moments of her life, was looking down on the man who had killed her husband and her son. She is reported to have dressed up when she heard he was coming. Some interpret this to mean that she was attempting to seduce Jehu, acting indecently as ever. The alternative is that she put on her make-up and her royal garments in one last show of authority as the old Queen and mother of the rightful King. She was in a vulnerable position: she may have known she was about to die and the political situation was certainly not favourable. Rather than seeing her outfit as vanity and the work of a temptress, perhaps it should be considered as the last-ditch attempt of a grieving mother to maintain some dignity and pride.

But Jezebel was said to have been condemned by God. Why? She acted violently and hurt other people, apparently intentionally. In order to please her husband, Jezebel had the innocent commoner Naboth stoned to death. He had wanted to keep the vineyard belonging to his ancestors, but Jezebel fraudulently used Ahab’s seal to secure Naboth’s murder, pretending that he had blasphemed. This was an evil act, which her situation cannot excuse.

Prophets of Yahweh were massacred, and ultimately, Jezebel worshipped deities other than God. She was a false worshipper and did not heed His covenant. Elijah had attempted to spread God’s word amongst the Israelites and, however aggressively he had done so, she had responded in kind, threatening his life.

It is hard to know where Jezebel stands as a woman in the Judeo-Christian narrative. The understanding of Jezebel as a sexually and morally dubious character should not be believed so easily – it has been developed culturally, often for literary and cinematographic purposes. But neither should she be let off the hook. According to the Book of Kings, Jezebel really was a nasty piece of work, in league with her equally horrible and untrustworthy husband, Ahab.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood labels the seedy, misogynistic, patriarchally-run nightclub‘Jezebel’s’. Offred’s best friend, Moira, works there as a prostitute, and whilst the reader expects anti-establishment feminism, the nightclub comes to represent disappointment, weariness and loss of hope.

Perhaps this is reflective of Jezebel’s life? She lived in a time of political and religious turmoil, she was married to a seemingly wicked man, and she witnessed the murder of priests of her religion and one of her sons. Few people in the Old Testament are truly and immediately ‘good’. Whilst Jezebel cannot be considered a symbol of righteousness and virtue, not all of her actions deserve condemnation. She might not have been ‘good’, but we should be wary of reducing her to a figure of evil.

Prayer

A prayer of repentance:

If my soul has turned perversely to the dark:
If I have left a sister or brother wounded along the way;
If I have preferred my aims to thine;
If I have been impatient and could not wait;
If I have marred the pattern drawn out of my life;
If I have cost tears to those I loved;
If my heart has murmured against thy will,
O Lord, forgive.
F.B. Meyer

Abishag the Shunnamite

1 Kings 1: 1-27, 2:13-25

Abishag ©MicahHayns

The Award for the best name in the Old Testament goes to…

Abishag the Shunammite!*

She also had undoubtedly the strangest job in the entire Bible.

King David was very much past his prime. He was now an infirm old man and was so unwell that he couldn’t even keep himself warm at night. His servants tried to help by piling blankets on him, but this didn’t make any difference. They were worried for his life and so they came up with a plan.

They went out into the countryside of Israel and found a beautiful young virgin girl, probably around 12 years old. She was called Abishag and she was a Shunnamite from Isaachar.  

It was an interesting role description to say the least.

Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm.

1 Kings 1.2
David and Abishag by Pedro Américo, 1879

Abishag’s role was to care for the King during the day, and at night she was to lie next to him to keep him warm! Thankfully the text clarifies one aspect:

The girl was very beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually.

1 Kings 1.4

Like any lady-in-waiting or butler in a royal household Abishag would have seen a great deal from the sidelines without anyone paying her much attention, and she was in King David’s room to witness the drama over who would succeed the King to the throne.

King David’s eldest surviving son was Adonijah and he, having garnered support from a rogue priest (Abiathar), had announced himself as King without David’s blessing. He held a large celebration banquet with numerous royal officials and it seemed as if he would become the next king. David though had promised the throne to his younger son, Solomon, whose mother was Bathsheba.

A number of deathbed audiences ensued with both Bathsheba and Nathan pleading with the ailing King David to take control of the situation. He eventually does and Solomon was anointed by him as the next King. David died soon after and Solomon became the King of Israel. Abishag witnessed the whole thing from the edge of the room.

A little while later the ousted prince Adonijah returned to the palace and pleaded with Bathsbeba for the hand of Abishag the Shunnamite in marriage. She takes his request to Solomon who is furious:

 And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! 

1 Kings 2.22

Why is he so angry?

It’s likely that Solomon realised that Adonijah’s proposal was a last ditch attempt to obtain the throne. It showed that Abishag was considered part of David’s harem, and therefore a marriage to her would have been politically expedient for him. It backfired badly as Solomon was so enraged he had Adonijah killed and the Priest Abiathar removed from the priesthood.

We don’t know what happened to Abishag after David’s death. It is likely that she remained part of King Solomon’s Harem, which at around 700 wives and 300 concubines was rather large!

Reflection and Prayer

Abishag the Shunammite had a memorable name and was set apart in King David’s household for a particular role (even though that role was bizarre and is uncomfortable for us to read or imagine every being acceptable), but there were countless other unnamed women who were just one of the 1000 wives and concubines of King Solomon. What must their lives have been like? It’s very hard for us to imagine isn’t it.

As we reflect on Abishag’s story let’s remember in prayer all those who care for the elderly and those at the end of their lives: particularly nurses, home carers, those who work in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices. It must be particularly difficult at the moment and especially hard when family members aren’t able to be with their loved ones in their final days. I hope those in the UK joined the nation in #clapforcarers at 8pm last night – how wonderful to see!

A prayer for Nurses:

*my husband’s Joke..
Abishag the Shunnamite… or she might not!

The Witch of Endor: going the extra mile

1 Samuel 28

Medium of Endor ©MicahHayns

One of the films I’m most looking forward to once we can go to the cinema again is Blithe Spirit, based on the play by Noel Coward and starring the great Dame Judy Dench. She will playing the role of the psychic medium Madame Acarti who summons the ghost of the late Elvira Condomine, the first wife of Charles, who then proceeds to haunt him and his current wife. You can see the trailer here

Our next woman is also a medium and she is commonly known as the Witch of Endor, although oddly the bible never actually calls her a witch. We don’t know her name but she was clearly a well-known figure in Endor and her life was likely to have been ‘underground’ and on the margins. The ancient religious tradition of the time believed that consulting the dead could reveal secret wisdom, but all witchcraft and necromancy (speaking to the dead) had been banned by Jewish law:

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord’

Deuteronomy 18. 10-12

Added to this King Saul had recently expelled all the mediums and ‘spiritists’ from the region (1 Samuel 28.3).

I have a confession to make here. My husband is a magician and before ordination I spent my time organising parties which included magic, fire eating and general sorcery. But we didn’t summon ghosts or consult with the dead, so hopefully that’s OK!

Considering King Saul had just banished all spiritualists it’s surprising that in his time of greatest need he turned to the Medium of Endor for answers. He was at the end of his life and the Philistine forces, with David now on their side, were preparing to fight him once again. He didn’t know what to do and so, in flagrant disregard for his own law, he disguised himself and went out late at night to visit the Medium to ask her to consult the late prophet Samuel.

She lets him in but is wary. She quickly sees through his disguise and thinks it might be a trick :

‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul’

1 Samuel 28.12

But she does what’s asked of her and summons up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. There is all the drama you would expect: Madam Acarti would have approved!

..she cried with a loud voice...I see a divine being coming up out of the ground.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe.” 1 Samuel 28.13-14
Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857.

Samuel tells Saul what he doesn’t want to hear: that Saul had angered the Lord, and by the next day he and his sons would be dead. He’s devastated by this news, understandably.

The story ends with a gesture which shows the kindness of the Medium of Endor towards the King. She saw Saul’s distress and offers him food, which he refused at first. She insisted and persuaded him to stay and even killed the fatted calf and baked some bread. He eventually ate and is restored enough to go on his way.

He does indeed die the very next day.

Reflection and Prayer

It’s hard to know what to make of this story. Do we believe the soul of Samuel was really summoned up, or was this some kind of trickery, or an apparition of a weary, hungry and desperate man? It’s been a cause of debate for centuries, with her being called a ventriloquist, a demon and a prophet. She’s been portrayed in fantasy art and even has a mention in the Star Wars franchise (the planet where the Ewok’s live is called Endor!). I don’t know the answer. I think it’s dangerous to dabble in the occult, but I’ve also been around enough magicians to know that most of it is simple sleight of hand and clever illusions.

But perhaps what we can take from this story is that she was a woman who was part of a persecuted group, who encountered the very person who had banished her people. She did what was asked of her but went the extra mile and provided much needed hospitality to her oppressor. An early Good Samaritan in fact!

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him....Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, 
“The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
From the parable of the Good Samaritan
Luke 10: 25-37

Support for our neighbours and for those in need is crucially important at this time isn’t it? And that support can sometimes come from the most unexpected people. Let us be thankful for all those who, like the Medium of Endor, go the extra mile.

Lord Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves,
we lay before you the needs and concerns of our community,
knowing that in your love for us you will hear, guide and heal
according to your wisdom;
help us in our daily living, to respond
with the same love, patience and mercy
to those who call on us.
For your names sake. Amen
Frank Topping