Forty women: 19. Deborah

It’s not supposed to be Deborah. She’s a prophet. She can make good judgments in disputes between Israelites. She’s perfectly happy sitting under her tree, holding court.

It’s tough, of course, because the Israelites are going through one of their regular phases of great wickedness. There’s plenty of disputes to be sorted out. There’s plenty of God’s wisdom needed and probably plenty of it ignored. They aren’t all that interested in what God has to say.

It’s tough because of Sisera, too. He’s cruel and harsh and has a huge army, keeping the Israelites firmly under his thumb. And so finally, finally, the Israelites realise that they need to ask for help. Not from Deborah, obviously. They need the Lord’s help.

But look, she knows the pattern. This isn’t their first time through this cycle of wickedness, oppression, and finally crying out for help. Help always comes in the form of a judge. Not a judge sitting in a law court, but a judge leading his people to victory over their enemies. So Deborah looks around for the answer to Israel’s prayers, and she finds Barak. He should lead Israel’s army up against Sisera’s and God will give them victory and rest from their enemies.

But Barak, it turns out, is something of a coward: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” (Judges 4:8).

Maybe he hopes that she won’t go. She’s a woman, after all.

But Deborah, it turns out, is no coward: ‘”Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” ‘ (Judges 4:9).

Deborah will go with Barak, to raise an army and lead it against Sisera’s troops. And Deborah’s trust will be proved worthy, when God gives them the victory. And Deborah’s prophecy will be proved true, when the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.

Maybe it should have been Barak. But as it turns out, Deborah is certainly up to the job.

Forty women: 20. Jael

Forty women: 18. Rahab

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord recognises that God is God, that he is all-powerful, that he is Almighty. The fear of the Lord causes hearts to melt and knees to tremble, and mouths to dry and men to bow down.

Rahab feared the Lord. Rahab, safe within the walls of the city of Jericho, had heard the stories of this shambolic group in the wilderness whose God had enabled them to defeat the organised armies of Sihon and Og. Stories of this group of runaway slaves, whose God had enabled their break for freedom by drying up the waters of the Red Sea. Stories of the claim they had – even though they were taking their time about it – to come and conquer Canaan. Starting with Jericho.

Rahab had heard the stories, she felt the fear, and she knew that the Israelites’ God was God indeed: “When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:11).

Yahweh, the Lord, is God in heaven above and on the earth below.

Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, is God in heaven above and on the earth below.

What do you do when you are confronted with this God and realise you are on the wrong side of him? What do you do when your courage fails and you are afraid?

You change your allegiance. You throw your lot in with his. You disobey your own king, you hide the Israelite spies, and you plead with them for mercy. You don’t want to be a Canaanite any more. You want to be on God’s side.

You plead for mercy. For your life to be spared, and the lives of those you love. You demand a sign that will protect you on the day when your city is destroyed. Instead of losing your life, you will save it.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom for Rahab. It prompts her to switch her allegiance, to defy her king, to seek mercy and protection for herself and her family. And we know it was only the beginning. She lived out the rest of her years on earth as a faithful Israelite, and her memory lived on much longer. Rahab was honoured as one of those women mentioned by name in the ancestry of Christ himself. She is honoured for her faith in the book of Hebrews, and for her righteousness in the book of James.

Because it doesn’t matter, in the end, whether you first turn to God out of love or fear. What matters is that you turn to the Lord, who is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Throw yourself on his mercy and he will not let you fall.

Forty women: 19. Deborah

Forty women: 17. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah

These five women know where they come from. Their father was Zelophehad, their grandfather was Hepher, their great-grandfather was Gilead, their great-great-grandfather was Makir, their great-great-great-grandfather was Manasseh. And so their great-great-great-great-grandfather was Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

They belong. They are part of the the family, the tribe, the clan and the nation.

But they don’t have a brother. And without a brother, Zelophehad’s name would be forgotten. No one would list him in their family because that line would always go through the male line of ancestors. Even if all five girls had children, none of them would be remembered as Zelophehad’s descendants.

These five women know that their father was a good man. He may have died in the wilderness, but not because he was rebellious. Not because he set himself up against the Lord. He deserves to keep his place in the family. In the history.

And so they go to Moses and make their case: “Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” (Numbers 27:4).

And then Moses takes the case to God, and God, it turns out, takes the women’s side: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.” (Numbers 27:7).

The property and the inheritance will pass to his daughters and his name will not be forgotten. The women are their father’s children, and it is their right.

There’s even a new law given, to establish this right for all women in Israel. Because the women belong too. They belong to the family, the clan, the tribe and the nation. Because Israel’s history is their history. Because their father’s name should not be forgotten.

And neither should theirs.

Mahlah.

Noah.

Hoglah.

Milcah.

Tirzah

Forty women: 18. Rahab

Forty women: 16. Miriam

He’s always been the special one. Even when you were a little girl, you had to look after him, to watch when your mum put him in the river, to make sure that she was allowed to keep caring for him when he was taken to the palace. He’s your little brother, and he’s always been special. Different. Set apart.

And now he’s back. Back from his self-imposed exile in Cush, with a wife and a family of his own. Now he’s back and apparently he’s here to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He’s here with God’s staff in his hand and God’s word in his mouth. Him and Aaron, your other brother.

And you.

Because you’re a prophet too. (Exodus 15:20).

God speaks through you, just as he does through your brothers. And on that day when Moses has led you all on dry ground through the waters of the Red Sea, and led everyone in singing praise to God, your voice is heard too. You are singing too, leading all the women in their praise to God.

Moses isn’t that special, is he? He’s married to a foreigner, for a start. And yes, fine, God speaks through him, but as you and Aaron point out to each other, God has spoken through the two of you as well. You’re expecting to confront Moses about it. But instead God calls all three of you, brothers and sister, and he is going to confront you about it.

You, Miriam, stand before God, with your two brothers, and hear his voice. And suddenly, you realise, it is different. Moses is different. Special. Set apart. For while you have heard God speak, as he does to all his prophets, you have not stood face to face with the living God. You have not gone up the mountain into the cloud.

You have stood at the bottom of the mountain with everyone else, trembling and terrified. Because God’s holiness is terrifying.

And so now, as you stand there, and the Lord’s anger burns against you – you, personally; you, Miriam – you realise that you have sinned. And not just against your brother, Moses. You have sinned against your God, Yahweh. You have sinned by calling into question how he has chosen to speak to his people. You have sinned against God by thinking yourself more important than you are. You have been foolish and you have been sinful and you need to learn humility.

God sends his judgment on you, turning your skin white and flaky with the unmistakeable signs of leprosy. Uncleanness. Exclusion.

There is the humility. You can’t do anything. Aaron can’t do anything. But he turns to Moses and asks for help. And Moses, holding no grudge, turns to the Lord, on behalf of you, his sister, and prays, “Please, God, heal her!” (Numbers 12:13).

You and I also have a brother who holds no grudges, who is a better mediator between God and his people even than Moses. We have a brother we can’t claim to be equal with but whose humility exceeds our own. We have a brother we can turn to, no matter how foolish or sinful we have been. We have a brother who intercedes for us, crying to the Lord, “Please, God, heal her!”

Forty women: 17. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.

Forty women: 15. Zipporah

Marrying a foreigner is a risky business in the Old Testament. Sometimes it works out well, as it did for Boaz. And sometimes it’s a disaster, as it was for Solomon. But for Moses, it seems to have saved his life.

He’s come home from meeting Yahweh in the bush that burned but wasn’t destroyed and now he’s got to return to Egypt, to rescue the Israelites. And he’s taking his family with him. Zipporah and her sons are loaded onto a donkey, while Moses walks alongside with the staff that God gave him. But it takes a while and they have to stop overnight.

At which point, the Lord is on the point of killing Moses. It’s not the first time his life has been at risk, of course. And it’s not the first time that a woman saves him.

Zipporah steps in to save her husband. She does the obvious thing:

‘But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)’ (Exodus 4:25-26).

I mean, your guess is as good as mine.

Circumcision, of course, was a sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham. Presumably Moses had been circumcised as a baby, but it seems as though his sons had not. Perhaps God’s action against Moses was because his family did not bear that covenant sign, because they still lived as foreigners. Perhaps Zipporah’s action signifies her commitment to Moses’s God, Moses’s people. Whatever is going on, it works. The blood propitiates God’s anger against Moses. The blood from the circumcision keeps him safe. Gives him life.

Moses is her bridegroom, her husband. Now he becomes a ‘bridegroom of blood’.

We too have a bridegroom, of course. A bridegroom of blood. Blood from his circumcision. Blood that poured from his side. Blood that propitiates God’s anger against us. Keeps us safe. Gives us life.

I have no idea how Zipporah knew what to do. But I know she did the right thing.

Forty women: 16. Miriam

Forty women: 14. Pharaoh’s daughter

I don’t really like babies. They mostly aren’t all that pretty, in my opinion. Especially not when they’re screaming. Or pooing. And if they’re not doing those, they’re generally sleeping. So, yeah. Don’t put me in charge of the creche. But even I find that babies bring out a protective instinct. They’re so helpless. So vulnerable. And when they open their eyes wide and just look at you, well, it’s hard to resist.

Pharaoh’s daughter couldn’t resist. She’s bathing in the river, with all her maidservants in attendance, when she sees the basket. They open it up and there’s the baby. Crying.

She knows where it’s come from. This is one of the Hebrew babies. One of the babies that was supposed to have been killed. One of the babies that her father ordered to be killed.

But it’s a baby. Helpless. Vulnerable. Needy. And when she looks at it, her protective instinct kicks in. She can’t save all the Hebrew boys, but she can save this one. She’ll take him into the safest place in the country – the Pharaoh’s own palace, and she’ll raise him as if he’s her own son.

Although he’s such a small baby that he’ll need a wet nurse. The young Hebrew girl standing nearby offers to find one for her. So that in the end it’s Moses’ mother who gets to look after him anyway.

Shiphrah and Puah refusing to kill the babies they help to be born.

The Levite woman refusing to destroy her own baby, and setting his sister to watch over him.

Pharaoh’s daughter, moved to keep him safe in her own home.

These first two chapters of Exodus are all about the women. All five of them, bravely doing the right thing. Desperately doing the right thing. Compassionately doing the right thing.

And after all, it’s such an ordinary thing. Women all over the world every day are helping others give birth. Women all over the world every day are keeping their baby safe. Women all over the world every day are watching over their younger brothers. And women all over the world every day are caring for children as if they were their own.

Women all over the world every day are doing something amazing.

Forty women: 15. Zipporah

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