Unveiled #Me Too: courage in the face of violence and threat

Helen Paynter, author, Baptist minister, and the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College. 

This article was written by Helen Paynter as part of a series based on our book Unveiled and commissioned by BRF. This was first published by BRF and is reproduced here by kind permission from Helen and BRF.

TW: Domestic Violence/sexual abuse

Standing up to a powerful man comes at considerable cost. 

Unveiled, p. 177

In 2017, the #MeToo tag went viral, becoming a global phenomenon within a matter of weeks, and emboldening millions of women – and also men – to name their experience of sexual harassment and abuse. What had, in many places, been a shadowy secret was brought into the light. The scale of the pandemic of abuse became clearer to many. Systems and structures that collude to silence women were brought under scrutiny. Serial abusers who had concealed their crimes with threats, non-disclosure agreements and the ‘old boys’ network’ were exposed and brought to justice.

What few people might imagine is that the women who shouted ‘Me too!’ had sisters who had gone before them and had left their traces in the pages of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament has a surprising collection of stories about women who stood up to powerful men, some of whom feature in the beautiful book Unveiled by Clare and Micah Hayns. Not all were speaking up about sexual abuse per se, but they share other common features: boldness, courage and truth-telling in the face of violence or threat.

Old Testament sisters

We might think of the two different Old Testament women named Tamar. The first Tamar’s story is told in Genesis and features in Unveiled. The second Tamar’s shocking story is recounted in the book of Samuel. The daughter of King David, she appeals to her lecherous half-brother with remarkable courage and wisdom. ‘No, my brother, do not force me… do not do anything so vile… you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel’ (2 Samuel 13:12–13). Tragically, Tamar’s entreaty is over-ridden by her rapist, but when she is thrust out from his room afterwards, she raises the outcry, which is the traditional appeal for justice. ‘Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went’ (v. 19).

“Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.” 2 Samuel 21:10 – Image by ©MicahHayns

Or we might turn the pages to read of Rizpah, whose two sons were brutally murdered, on King David’s orders, in retribution for a crime their father Saul had committed. To compound this villainy, David allowed their bodies to remain exposed on the hillside for months, a dreadful act in the ancient world. In the face of such injustice, Rizpah, like Tamar, protested vigorously, making a public nuisance of herself as she guarded her sons’ bodies and grieved for them (2 Samuel 21:10). Such actions were dangerous under despotic kings who could easily have their thugs knife you (as one example among many, see 2 Samuel 20:8–10).

Or we could thumb further through our Bibles to read of another despotic king. In the book of Esther we read the story of Vashti, who boldly refused to be objectified by her husband at his debauched party.

Each of these women creatively and boldly called out the violence of a powerful man. They were noisy, stubborn and caused a public nuisance.

But not everyone was able to do that – then, as today. In Judges 19 we read of the horrific gang rape and murder of a secondary wife, thrust into the hands of a mob to protect her husband. She has no voice, her protest is stifled and she does not survive to raise the outcry. And though the act precipitates civil war in Israel, many more women were raped as a direct consequence of that military action, suggesting that the chief motivation was wounded male pride rather than outrage about a woman’s violation.

And so it falls to her sisters to take up her cause. To name the abuse, to call out the abuser, to cry for justice and safety.

In modern times many women have taken up the story of that nameless woman: Bekah Legg of the domestic abuse charity Restored, and biblical scholars Phyllis TribleIsabelle Hamley and myself (Helen Paynter), to name just four. I am reminded of what took place after the murder of Sarah Everard: the protests on Clapham Common and the Reclaim These Streets movement, which employed public grief to make a wider claim for justice.

Sadly, I can’t think of any good examples in the Old Testament narrative where a man takes up a woman’s cause or speaks effectively on her behalf (Clare’s note: perhaps the story of Suzanna and Daniel in the Apochrapah comes close). But if we keep turning the pages, we will eventually encounter a man who does, and repeatedly. A man who publicly defends a woman whose ‘great sin’ (probably sexual) has been forgiven, and whose gratitude leads her to weep over his feet and anoint them with oil (Luke 7:36-50). We can just imagine the sniggering and lewd remarks that were probably rippling through the onlookers as she did so. Jesus sternly rebukes them.

This is the same man who refuses to join the crowd in baying for the blood of a woman caught in the act of adultery, the crowd that was desperate to vilify the woman while curiously indifferent to the man she was with. Jesus shames the crowd into leaving, and then sends her home with gentle words.

Brothers, be more like Jesus

Because I (Helen) have written about domestic abuse, I find myself invited to speak on the subject from time to time. When the audience is free to choose whether to attend (unlike, for example, when I speak to trainee ministers or priests), it is always predominantly women who attend, usually outnumbering men by around seven to one. Why are men not more interested in this matter? (There are, of course honourable exceptions, such as this.)

Brothers, be more like Jesus, I implore you. Speak out against injustice. Actively stand against abuse. There is so much hatred and harm out there that it requires more than just passive non-complicity.

But the fact that these stories are present in our Bibles should encourage us. The accounts of these ancient women and the things they suffered have not disappeared in the patriarchal sands of time. These women mattered to God, and so he ensured that their stories were preserved in his word. And so they should matter to us, too – they and those who suffer like them in our own day

These stories should encourage contemporary sufferers of abuse to believe that God cares, and maybe to embolden them to speak out.

It is much harder for abuse to thrive when it is brought out of the shadows into the light; when it can no longer hide behind threats, non-disclosure agreements and the old boys’ network.

But, rest assured, in the end all will be revealed:

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops

Luke 12:2–3

Because, as the psalmist reminds us:

He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?

Psalm 94:9

Following a career in medicine, Helen Paynter is now a Baptist minister and the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College. She is the author of two BRF books – God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? and The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control

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


International Women’s Day – Tuesday 8th March

Daughters of Zelophehad by ©MicahHayns

On this day where we celebrate International Women’s Day, I’d like to remember the wonderful women of the Old Testament who have accompanied me over the past few years as I worked on our book ‘Unveiled’. Seeing them listed in this way reminds me that God has been working through wonderful women for centuries, and continues to do so.

These women remind us:

Eve, that we all stuff up, but God has a plan;
Hagar, that outsiders are seen and heard by God;
Sarah, that dreams can come true even when we feel past it.
Lot’s Wife, that women are fleeing from their homes because of war right now.
Rebekah, that parenting is difficult and it’s OK if we get it wrong;
Rachel, that even being loved by a man is sometimes not enough;
Leah, that it’s really tough when we feel marginalised and unnoticed.
Dinah, that women aren’t defined by the worst thing a man did to them.
Potiphar’s Wife, that God can work through sexy women;
Tamar, that sometimes it’s best to push forward and demand to be noticed;
Shiprah and Puah, that civil disobedience can sometimes save lives;
Jochebed, that we should never give up hope;
Miriam, that there is always time to dance and sing with joy.
Mahlan, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (the daughters of Zelophehad), that sometimes when you speak up against injustice, change happens.
Rahab, that the genealogy of Jesus names a prostitute and so no one is ‘not good enough’;
Ruth, that at times friendship is the most precious thing in life;
Naomi, that even the most bitter and bereaved can be restored to wholeness.
Deborah, that at times we need to listen to the wise women in our community;
Jael, that some women have to take up arms and fight for freedom;
The First Mrs Samson, that marriage really isn’t the best option for some women;
Delilah, that power isn’t always about being strong.
Jephthah’s Daughter, that sometimes the people we love the most can hurt and harm us;
Bathsheba, that women are too often shamed and blamed for men’s actions;
Hannah, that our prayers from the heart are heard.
Michal, that love isn’t static and can change over time;
Abigail, that many women today are keeping the peace between feuding men;
Rizpah, that warfare leads to too many grieving mothers;
The Medium of Endor, that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should;
Queen Vashti, that saying ‘no’ to powerful men is costly;
Esther, that sometimes we’re in just the right place at the right time.
Abishag, that even the most lowly of jobs can be important;
Jezebel, that our reputations don’t define us;
Huldah, that at times telling the truth means giving ‘bad news’;
Suzannah, that some women aren’t believed when they tell the truth;
Queen of Sheba, that seeking knowledge is a good thing.
The widow of Zarephath, that being generous with little can lead to abundant blessing;
Naaman’s maidservant, that the courage of the smallest can have profound consequences;
Athalia, that not all women have redeeming qualities, and that’s OK;
The Shunamite Woman, that at times we have to be feisty to fight for those we love;
And finally, Shallum’s daughters, that women are always part of the story, even if they’re not named or remembered by our history books.

Happy International Women’s Day!



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

Shallum’s Daughters: wall builders

Shallum’s Daughters ©MicahHayns

Nehemiah 3.12

We are nearing the end of our series of women from the Hebrew bible and today’s women come at the chronological conclusion of the forty posts as the final posts will be going backwards in time to reflect on women who might be able to help us connect with the Easter story.

Today’s women share only one single verse in the bible and seem rather inconsequential compared with the women we’ve been reflecting on recently; yet they were part of something far bigger and therefore deserve a day to themselves.

Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section [of the wall] with the help of his daughters.

Nehemiah 3.12

When the Babylonians invaded Judah in c.587BCE (2 Chronicles 36.15-21), they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple (built by Solomon) and the city walls. At this point in our story, the Jewish people had been in exile for around 70 years.

The Jews were allowed to return home to Jerusalem by King Cyrus and they were given permission to rebuild the temple (Ezra) and restore their damaged homes. The people were vulnerable to attack as the city walls were damaged and so God called Nehemiah to oversee the restoration. The book of Nehemiah is essentially a historical account of the rebuilding of the city walls:

Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come let us rebuild the wall.  

Nehemiah 2.17

And within the book there is an entire chapter (3) which consists of a long list of names of all those who rebuilt a section of the wall. It’s not the most riveting part of scripture I have to say, but it shows that each and every person named was important and had a role to play:

And so it continues…

The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zakkur son of Imri built next to them. The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. 

Nehemiah 3.2

The daughters of Shallum are the only women named in the rebuilding work. I find it intriguing to wonder what their role was. How exactly did they help their father? Perhaps they financed the work, or brought food and drink to the labourers? Or did they do actual hard labour, carrying stones, placing beams, hoisting doors and shovelling rubble?

Whatever their exact role involved, they were part of the working party who finished the wall in only 52 days, enabling the Jewish families to return home (chapter 7) to live and worship in safety.

Reflection and Prayer

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 
But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 
John 2.19-20

The daughters of Shallum helped to build the walls in Jerusalem that were still standing during Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. He may even have ridden through the gate they built when he arrived on the colt. Or perhaps he passed their section of the wall when he was being dragged towards the cross on his final journey.

I thought it was important to include them in this blog because it’s good to remember those who just get on with the task in hand, without fuss and ceremony, and often without being given any accolades for what they do.

During this curious time of Covid-19 it can feel that our world is crumbling around us and structures that we thought of as strong and solid turn out to be weaker that we ever imagined. When things are crumbling we can really appreciate the multitude of people performing every day tasks that keep us secure and enable us to function. Let us pray for hospital porters, cleaners, catering staff, nursing assistants and all those who keep our nursing homes and hospices running smoothy.

And let us remember that Jesus’ body (which he compared to the temple), although utterly broken and destroyed, was indeed raised in three days. And like the daughters of Shallum each one of us is called to play our own little part in the rebuilding work of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that can never be destroyed and will last forever.

Behold our lives, our faculties, our wills: we have given them all to You. We are Yours; dispose of us according to your will. We see well enough, O Lord, how little we can do. But now having drawn near to You, having ascended this watchtower from which Your truth can be seen,
and while You depart not from us, we can do all things. Amen
(A prayer of Teresa of Avila)

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

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!

Abigail: the desert diplomat

1 Samuel 25: 1-44

Abigail ©MicahHayns

In 2014 Major General Kristin Lund of Norway was appointed as the first woman to serve as Force Commander in a United Nations peacekeeping operation. (1)

Our next woman, Abigail, was also a peacekeeper.

The whole story is written rather like a play within a play. The setting is in the desert at a time when the Israelites were desert tribes, Saul was still King, the prophet Samuel had just died, and David was gaining power as a tribal leader.

Abigail (meaning father’s joy) was married to Nabal (meaning fool or moron). They could not have been a more mismatched couple. Abigail was beautiful, intelligent and sensitive whereas Nabal was surly, mean and a drunkard. He had a large farm with 3000 sheep, 1000 goats and a property at the foot of Mount Carmel.

It was sheep shearing season, traditionally a time when communities would hold celebration feasts. David, whose men had protected Nabal’s farm, sent ten men to ask for some produce for the feast as payment. Nabal responded to their polite (although 10 men sounds pretty threatening) request by shouting at them and insulting the men, and David.

Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse?

1 Samuel 25.10

David was furious when he heard this and began to prepare to go to war against them. One of Nabal’s men saw what had happened and wisely realised that there was no point talking to his master as ‘he’s so ill-natured that no-one can speak to him’. Instead he went to Abigail and explained the dangerous situation.

Abigail lost no time.

She gathered a number of gifts (including managing to rustle up 200 cakes of figs and 100 cakes of raisins, which is pretty impressive), loaded up the donkeys and headed off to meet David.

Abigail throws herself at David’s feet. Minature from Rudolf von Ems’ World Chronicle, Codex bibl. 205, fol. 136 (14th Century)

She found him and his men on their way to battle. She got off her donkey, threw herself at David’s feet and then delivered a brilliant peacekeeping speech: a speech which appealed to David’s pride and was both theologically compelling and strategically sensible. She used winning peace making strategies, many typically used by women who don’t have power and strength on their side:

  • Flattery – ‘my Lord’
  • Humility – ‘let the blame be on me alone’
  • Explanation – ‘pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal – his name is Fool and folly goes with him’
  • Gift giving – ‘let this gift.. be given to the men who follow you’
  • Appeal to the conscience – ‘let no wrong-doing be found in you as long as you live’.

Abigail’s speech changed David’s heart and he called off his men.

May you be blessed for your good judgement and for keeping me from bloodshed this day

1 Samuel 25.33

What Abigail did that day was hugely risky. David could easily have killed her, and even after her meeting with him she then had to go back home to face the wrath of her husband. Once back she found him ‘in high spirits and very drunk’ and so she wisely decided to wait until he had sobered up to tell him what she had done.

A C14th depiction of Abigail tending Nabal by John de Teye (1361-1384)
commons.wikimedia.org

He was so shocked ‘his heart failed him and became like stone’. (37)

It is likely that he had a stroke or a heart attack, and 10 days later he died.

Abigail’s story doesn’t end there as David, hearing of Nabal’s death, sends for her and she becomes his wife, and the mother of his second son (Daniel).

Reflection and Prayer

Abigail’s story is one of salvation.  She saves her household and herself from her boorish husband and from the ensuing army set to destroy them. She saved David from acting in a way that would lead to sin, and she secured peace in the region and a better life for herself and her people.

A very early role model for the female peacekeepers of the United Nations today?

As we remember Abigail let us pray for all those who are peacemakers in our communities, for those who do this on a global and national stage, but also for those who are involved in conflict mediation on a local level. Let us also remember women who are today living with partners who struggle with alcohol addiction, and who’s behaviour is unpredictable and violent. This must be particularly difficult during this difficult time.

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments,
and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of all enemies,
may pass our time in rest and quietness;
through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. 
Amen.
The Collect for Peace from the Book of Common Prayer

(1 and 2) https://unu.edu/publications/articles/why-un-needs-more-female-peacekeepers.html

Hannah: she rose

1 Samuel 1: 1-28, 2:1-11, 18-21

Here’s a quick quiz for you. How many women in the bible can you think of who were known to be infertile (at some stage)?

And how many men?

I thought so!

Hannah is one of several bible women whose story revolves around infertility and the longing for a child. She lived in Israel at the time when Eli was the High Priest. She was married to Elkanah who had a second wife called Penninah.

It’s perhaps worth giving a bit of background into the culture of the time. In the ancient world to be married and childless was a social disgrace. There wasn’t the understanding that fertility could also be a male issue, and it was believed that the woman who didn’t conceive wasn’t living up to the Creator’s command to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28). The expectation was that women should become the mothers of sons, who would continue the family name and provide for them in their old age. It was of course a classic patriarchal society and women unable to do what was required of them were often shunned and excluded from society. And so with that background we can understand Hannah’s story better:

Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

1 Samuel 1. 2

Elkanah was supportive and generous, even giving Hannah double portions of food during the annual sacrifice feast, ‘because he loved her’. But for Hannah, it was Penninah, the other woman, who seemed to cause her the most pain.

Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.

1 Samuel 1.6

Hannah became depressed, even getting to the stage that she couldn’t eat and spent her time in tears. Elikinah doesn’t seem to understand the depth of her sadness: of course, he already had children and so for him a child with Hannah wasn’t necessary:

Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

1 Samuel 1.8

Despite all of this sadness Hannah was a woman of deep faith and of hope, and the turning point in her story comes with two powerful words:

Hannah rose

Hannah rose up, went to the temple to pray day after day, even though she had to suffer Peninnah’s taunts on the way. One day she was praying so earnestly and with such passion that the priest at the temple (Eli) thought she must be drunk!

Hannah and Eli engraving by German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord

(1 Samuel 1.15)

She vowed that if God gave her a child then she would repay this blessing by offering him back to God to live and work in the temple. She becomes pregnant and carried out her promise to the Lord. When her child Samuel (which means God has heard) is fully weaned (probably about 3 years old), she took him to the temple where he grew up under Eli’s guidance. She to visit him every year with clothes she had lovingly made for him, and went on to have five more children.

Samuel grew to be one of the greatest prophets in Israel.

Reflection and Prayer

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.
2 Corinthians 4: 6-8

There was a time in Hannah’s story when her longing was so great that ‘her heart was sad’. No amount of kind words or extra portions of food from her husband was going to make any difference to this. It must have been difficult for Elkanah to know how to support his beloved wife in her despair. What changed things in the end for Hannah was that she ‘rose up’ and somehow managed to find the strength to go the temple and pour out her heart to God. Sometimes even doing that seems impossible.

These are troubling days for so many people and so let us pray for all those whose hearts are sad at this time, for those who can’t even find the strength to eat or pray, and for those who stand beside them wondering how best to help.

O God, from whom to be turned is to fall,
to whom to be turned is to rise,
and in whom to stand is to abide for ever:
grant us in all our duties thy help,
in all our perplexities thy guidance,
in all our dangers thy protection,
and in all our sorrows thy peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Augustine, 352-430