I was fortunate enough to grow up in a church where it wasn’t terribly uncommon to hear a woman called “pastor” or to see women behind the pulpit. I heard women called prophets and heard them prophecy, and I saw them pray and write books and preach. That church had many flaws, but this wasn’t one of them.
Many years later in a different setting, I sat in a church staff meeting in which leadership debated what word to use instead of “sermon” when the female guest teacher spoke, lest we offend certain members of the congregation who might believe women could not and should not give sermons. My friend and pastor, who sat next to me, leaned over and whispered, “They are really lucky I’m not doing the announcements that day. I would intentionally say sermon. A lot.” This church had very few flaws, but this was one of them.
As an adult, I’ve become painfully aware of how few churches welcome women as equals in leadership. Our current political and cultural maelstrom demonstrates how this isn’t merely a church problem, but the church is not excluded. (Perhaps, in that regard, we are both in and of the world, despite our best efforts.) It is so easy for women inside and outside the church to be abused, disregarded, maligned, disregarded, and ignored.
I scroll through Twitter and read the stories of actresses and interns and youth group girls who were harassed or worse. Later, I stand in the shower or sit in front of my journal and remember my own experiences with harassment. Sometimes, I successfully forget these stories, but occasionally I must reckon with them. Now is one of those times.
I’ve been reading Exodus lately, just a few chapters at a time and then starting from the beginning again. Like any Christian kid who grew up in Sunday school, I have heard these stories a million times: baby Moses in a basket, the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the Red sea, manna in the wilderness. (In children’s church, we skimmed over that whole murder and genocide deal, and especially the weird circumcision incident in Exodus 4.) I learned that Moses was a hero, albeit a reluctant one.
When I first re-read the beginning of Exodus a few months ago, I was struck by a very different narrative. Moses is a hero eventually, but a group of other people must be heroic first—the women. First, there are the midwives who resist Pharaoh through deception to rescue the baby boys of Israel. Then, Moses’ mother devises a plan to keep her baby safe despite the murderous plot against him. Pharaoh’s daughter then defies her father and country by rescuing and adopting this baby boy from the Nile, declaring that he can not and should not be killed like the rest of his countrymen. (Full disclosure: I can’t read this passage without being reminded of Fern, rescuing Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.) Spying her brother’s rescue from the river’s banks, Miriam brilliantly concocts a plan to reunite Moses with his birth mother. These women are all oppressed, disadvantaged and disenfranchised, and some of them are literal slaves. The work of their bodies has been taken captive by politics and tribalism, but they resist with courage and cunning. They were not only included in God’s plan, but were actually essential to its completion. Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. The deliverance of Israel begins with five women.
In Matthew, the Gospels begin with Jesus’ genealogy, and included within this long list of names are five women. Tamar: sexually abused, manipulated, and economically oppressed. Rahab: a prostitute and presumed enemy. Ruth: a disregarded widow and beggar. Bathsheba: a widow and rape victim. And of course, Mary: a poor and unwed mother. By beginning his account of Jesus’ life this way, Matthew suggests that we can not begin to understand Jesus if we don’t first understand the women who came before him. Our Messiah’s story begins here. The deliverance of the world begins with five women.
We’re now in the midst of Advent. Knowing God is somehow sovereign over all of time and history, I can’t help but think there’s a reason that our cultural reckoning with the treatment of women corresponds with this spot in the church calendar. If we want to find Jesus this Advent, we’d do well to begin by asking, “Where are the women?” Where are oppressed, abused, disregarded women rising to do the work of justice? And how can we be a part of their redemption? Not because they need a rescuer, but because Jesus is already with them, and it will be impossible to usher in his kingdom without them.
Lately, I bemoan and grow angry with the apparent lack of justice in our world. I know Jesus promises freedom and mercy and justice, but the process feels so slow. But then I see these stories in Scripture. I see the heroic and essential position to which God has elevated these women that culture hated, and I have hope once more.