Forty women: 25. Peninnah

Once a year is enough for most celebrations. Christmas and Easter. Passover and Purim. Birthdays and anniversaries. Once a year is enough for sad commemorations too. Remembrance Day or the death of a loved one.

Once a year Elkanah and his whole family decamped to Shiloh, the home of the tabernacle, the place where God dwelled among his people. Once a year Elkanah insisted they all go, to worship the Lord and to offer the appropriate sacrifices to him.

And all of that would be fine. Just fine. I mean, it’s no mean feat, travelling with all your children, and organising everything you’ll need along the way, and making sure your household can run smoothly in your absence. But sure, it’s important to Elkanah, and it’s only once a year, and that doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation from the Lord.

But that’s not the part that hurts. That’s not the part that’s like a bruise you carry with you all year, painful whenever it gets touched. That’s not the stabbing pain you have to brace yourself for when the time comes round each year. Every year.

Because, of course, you aren’t the only wife Elkanah takes with him. There’s two of you in this household. And maybe from the outside it looks as though you’re the favoured one. You’re the one blessed with all those fine sons and daughters. But you know different.

And every year, when you all trek up to Shiloh, you know that everyone in the family will have that made plain to them. Because when the sacrifices are made, and the meat is divided up, you’ll get your portion, and your children will get their portions, and Elkanah will get his portion. But she will get a double portion.

Because he loves her.

And you can’t help yourself. It’s so public and it’s so painful and you can’t stop yourself. It’s not much. A snide comment. A roll of your eyes. Forgetting to wait for her. Not passing a message on to Elkanah.

It’s not your fault she’s so touchy. What has she got to cry about anyway? She’s the one in the honoured place. She’s the one with the double portion. She’s the one he loves.

The pain will settle back to a manageable level. Years of experience have taught you that. But it won’t ever go away. And every year you set your face towards Shiloh it will get that little bit harder to make yourself keep going.

Forty women: 24. Ruth

Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse.

Sometimes when your first husband dies, when you leave your home and your country and follow your mother-in-law down the long road to her former place, when you arrive and have nowhere to stay and no food to eat, sometimes people will be kind. Sometimes they will let you glean for wheat in their fields. Sometimes they will tell their workers to leave plenty for you to find.

Sometimes you’ll find a man who will protect you from other men. He will show you where you can be safe and make sure you get water to drink without risking abuse or assault.

Sometimes a man will have heard your story and honour you for it. He will recognise your kindness, your loyalty and your faith and praise God for you.

Sometimes an invitation to share his lunch will just be an invitation to bread and wine, and no favours will be demanded in return.

And sometimes, you’ll do what your mother-in-law tells you, and risk everything, going to lie in his bed and ask for his protection, and he still won’t take advantage. He’ll still show you honour and kindness. He’ll generously send you home, with a skirtful of grain. And then he’ll claim you lawfully, publicly, graciously acting as your kinsman-redeemer.

Sometimes you’ll be given a second chance, a second husband. You’ll bear him a child, a son. And your son Obed, will be the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

Forty women: 23. Mara

You’d be bitter too, if you’d travelled with your husband to another country, with your two fine sons, to avoid a famine, and even though you arrived safely, and there was plenty of food, and there were wives for the boys, but despite all that they died. All of them. Elimelek, your husband, and Mahlon and Kilion, your sons.

You’d be bitter if you found yourself alone and unprotected, many miles away from home. And then you heard that after all that, the Israelites had survived the famine anyway. They had enough food.

You’d be bitter if you realised that you were too old for anyone to want you as his wife now. Too old to have more children – more sons – of your own. And though your sons both married, neither of them had children to bear their name, to carry on the family. You’d be bitter if you knew the Lord’s hand had turned against you. And when your daughters-in-law protested that they wanted to come with you, that they were still your family, you’d be bitter at having to explain it to them: “Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” (Ruth 1:12-13)

You’d be bitter, even if one of them insisted on accompanying you all the long, weary way back to Bethlehem where you arrive in husbandless, childless shame. You’d be so bitter, that when the people ask, “Can this be Naomi?” you’d spit out your reply: “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara.” Don’t call me ‘pleasant‘. Call me ‘bitter‘.

And you’d be sure to tell them why: “Because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21).

You’d be bitter because of what the Lord had done.

But, bit by bit, as the Lord rebuilt your family, as he gave you a new protector, as he brought a new child to put into your arms, people would look at you and they would not say ‘Mara has a son!’. They would look at you and say ‘Naomi has a son!’

The trick for Mara was not to let the bitterness take hold, so that Naomi could grasp the happiness when it came.

Forty women: 22. The concubine

There’s some things about this woman that are very hard to pin down. She’s described as a concubine, but for the most part she’s treated as a wife, and in the absence of any other wife, it’s hard to see how she could have had secondary status. She’s said to have been unfaithful to her husband but it’s not absolutely clear that this took the form of adultery. What we do know is that she left him and went home to her parents. Maybe that was the ‘unfaithfulness’. For she left her father’s household in marriage and to return to it could have been interpreted as unfaithfulness to her husband.

He cared enough to go and persuade her to return. Not immediately, admittedly, which suggests that whatever the source of their quarrel, it was serious. Maybe it was adultery, after all. But he is not done with her, whatever she had done. And her family welcome him. They still consider him to be her husband. They like him and they keep persuading him to stay longer. Perhaps they are sorry to say farewell to their daughter again. But in the end, he must go home, and he must take his wife with him.

It’s on that journey that their world ends.

It’s in Gibeah, in Israel, where no one will give their fellow Israelites shelter for the night. They aren’t asking for much – they have provisions with them. They just need a bed and a roof. Doors should have been opened to them.

In the end, one old man offers them shelter. But he is unable to protect them from the wickedness of the city. Just as, centuries earlier, crowds had banged on Lot’s door, demanding that he send out his visitors to be raped, so now the crowds bang on the door of this old man, demanding that he send out his visitor to be raped.

And just as Lot went out to appease the crowds, offering his own daughters, so this old man goes out to appease the crowds, offering his daughter and his guest’s concubine. But Lot was lucky. His guests brought him back inside. They protected him and his daughters and enabled them to escape the city before it was destroyed. This time, there is no such protection. The concubine is sent out to the crowds where she is used and abused and raped and left for dead.

Gibeah, you see, has become Sodom. But Gibeah has not the protection granted to Sodom, when the Lord had promised to save those who were righteous.

Maybe there were no righteous people here. Maybe the concubine was an adulterer. Maybe her husband was weak or wicked or angry or vengeful.

But they did not deserve this. She had not deserved this. Her death could not be allowed to be the end of it: ‘When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!”’ (Judges 19:29-30).

Speak up. Speak out. Make the secret things known. Make the shameful deeds public. Make the nation see what horror they have been complicit in. Compel them to make amends. Force them to do better.

Forty women: 21. Delilah

Love makes us all vulnerable. Maybe that’s what love is, even: willingly making yourself vulnerable to someone else. Letting them in deep enough to change you, to touch you, to hurt you.

Samson was the great and mighty hero. The strong man who tore apart the city gate with his bare hands. He’d been blessed by God since his birth. He was clever and handsome and everything he wanted fell into his lap.

But he’d been stung before. His first wife, a Philistine woman, had tried to coax his secrets out of him in order than the Philistines could use them against him. The plan backfired and she ended up being used by them in revenge against him. He’d liked his first wife well enough, she’d been his choice, but she’d been a bad choice for him.

And then he meets Delilah. Beautiful Delilah from the valley of Sorek. And he falls in love.

Delilah, on the other hand, sees an opportunity. The Philistines want to know Samson’s weak point. He’s too strong for them and too clever for them and he’s repeatedly proved that. But surely he’ll tell Delilah how he can be defeated? He loves her. He’ll make himself vulnerable to her.

For eleven hundred shekels of silver from every Philistine ruler, Delilah will do it.

She’s not subtle about it: “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.” (Judges 16:6).

Samson is not going to let another woman be his undoing. So he lies to her. And again the next night. And the next.

But Delilah is not giving up. Just think of all those lovely silver shekels that will be hers. One way or another, she’ll get him to tell her his secret. Nagging and prodding and poking him about it every day, “until he was sick to death of it.” (Judges 16:16). Like the dripping tap of water, in the end it wears away at him, and he gives in.

This is her moment. She sends for the Philistines and a barber. And the moment Samson is asleep, she acts. She exposes his weakness, through her persistent nagging. She waits for him to expose it further, when he sleeps. And she exploits his weakness, calling on the Philistine leaders to take advantage of him.

If only he hadn’t loved her. If only he hadn’t laid himself bare, exposing his deepest weaknesses, trusting her not to exploit them.

And for what?

I daresay those silver shekels made a hard pillow for Delilah to rest her head on each night.

Forty women: 20. Jael

Yesterday I mentioned Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera would be delivered into the hands of a woman. Indeed he was. But that woman was not Deborah. It was Jael.

When the Israelite troops attacked Sisera’s army-ful of chariots, it soon became clear that it was going to be a rout. The Israelites were destroying their enemies. Sisera, their leader, did not stay to be destroyed. He got down from his chariot and fled on foot.

He fled to a safe place, to the tent of one of his allies, to hide and lick his wounds. He fled to a safe place, where there was no one dangerous to fear. Just a woman. Just Jael, inviting him in, telling him not to be afraid, giving him a blanket to rest under. Just Jael, generously giving him milk when he’d only asked for some water.

And so he lay down and slept, weary and exhausted, trusting that Jael would guard the tent. Trusting that Jael would lie for him, pretending there was no one inside.

But Jael was no ally of Sisera’s, even though her husband was. Perhaps Jael knew of Sisera’s cruelty in oppressing the Israelites. Perhaps like Rahab generations earlier, she’d heard about the Israelite God and knew him to be the Lord of the heavens above and the earth below.

And so, while Sisera was sleeping, when he was most vulnerable, she picked up her weapons. The tent peg and the hammer.

And so, when Barak, the leader of the Israelite army came past, she went out to meet him. ‘“Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead.’ (Judges 4:22).

Don’t assume that the mighty leader of the great army with all its chariots and horses, the man with all the wealth and power, the tyrant and the oppressor – don’t assume that he will be victorious in the end. Don’t assume that he is invulnerable. Don’t assume that you are too weak, too insignificant, too female to defeat him.

Don’t assume that the woman minding her own business at home is no threat. Don’t assume she’ll do what she’s told. Don’t assume that her husband speaks for her.

Because you never know when that man will turn out to be Sisera, and that woman will prove herself to be Jael.

Forty women: 21. Delilah

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