Queen Vashti: #MeToo

Queen Vashti by Micah Hayns

Esther 1

In October 2017 American actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote #MeToo as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. This was in response to allegations relating to renowned film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was recently sentenced to 23 years in prison. The #MeToo became a global movement in a matter of days opening up an important conversation about women’s experiences, particularly in industries such as film and theatre.

The story of Queen Vashti is perhaps one of the earliest accounts of a woman standing up to a powerful man.

Vashti was the Queen of Persia, the first wife of powerful King Ahasuerus (Xerxes 1), and her story is told within the Book of Esther (which is named after another fabulous woman who we will look at tomorrow), during the days of Jewish captivity in Babylon.

For the Persian rulers it was a time of peace and prosperity which meant that there was plenty of time for the king to display the glory of his kingdom. King Ahasuerus was certainly a dedicated host. One of his parties, which gathered together officials, nobles and governors from across the kingdom, lasted nearly six months!

Vashti’s story begins with one such banquet, one that is so lavish that there were couches made from gold and silver, drinks were served in golden goblets, and the wine was so plentiful that:

by the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.

Esther 1.8

It was a party that Weinstein and his Hollywood crowd would have approved of!

At that time the men and women of the royal palace lived largely separate lives, and Queen Vashti had her own quarters. Whilst the king celebrated she hosted her own banquet for the women of the kingdom.

After seven days of revelry, and when the king was ‘in high spirits from wine’ he sent his seven eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti to the men’s banquet. He demanded she be brought to their party and displayed:

wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty.

Esther 1.11

Some theologians argue that this meant the king demanded she should wear nothing at all but her crown! It’s not clear if this is the case, but Queen Vashti was clearly distressed by the command.

She says no!

Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.

Esther 1.12

What a risk to take! The king was furious and ‘anger burned within him’. He had wanted to impress his party by showing how beautiful his wife was; and instead she had humiliated him publicly.

Vashti Deposed by Ernest Normand, 1859

He wanted revenge. And so, like Henry VIII, Weinstein and countless other despots since, he worked out a way to bring her down. He consulted his sages and lawyers and they found a by-law which said he could depose her as Queen because she has been disobedient to the king.

The nobles wanted to punish her to ensure the obedience of all their wives:

For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands…. there will be no end of contempt and wrath.

Esther 1.17,18

The Queen was deposed and a letter was sent throughout the whole land to every province, in every local language, with the decree that:

every man should be master in his own house.

Esther 1.22

We hear no more of Vashti and she is replaced by a young Jewish woman, Esther, who we will hear about tomorrow.

Reflection and Prayer

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this series is discovering how the stories of the women from Old Testament are at the same time ancient but also very modern and relevant to us today.

Queen Vashti said ‘no’ to the king at considerable cost to own life. We don’t get to hear why she did this. Some have argued that it was because of modesty (Midrash), others that she was unhappy with her appearance that day (Babylonian Talmud), and still others that she was a proto-feminist fighting for her integrity. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1878) says that her action was the ‘first stand for women’s rights’ (1).

Whatever the reason, she was certainly bold and you might be interested to hear that there is even an #IamVashti campaign which was started by feminist Jewish theologian Meredith Jacobs – you can read her excellent article here.

The Book of Esther is curious because it is the only book of the bible which doesn’t mention God, an odd choice perhaps as we begin Holy Week!

Let us pray for all those who continue to be exploited by the powerful, for all those who have the courage to stand up to power, and for ourselves, that we would use our own power well.

Lord Jesus, who hears the voices of the powerless,
and gives strength to those who speak up:
create safety for stories to emerge,
embolden our community to examine itself,
shine your light on abusive power, and
help us commit to holiness in every relationship,
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

  1. https://time.com/4269357/queen-vashti-feminist-history/

Judith: The Mata Hari of the Second Century BC

Strozzi, Bernardo; Judith with the Head of Holofernes; Christ Church, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/judith-with-the-head-of-holofernes-229201

Guest post by The Revd Philippa Judith White, Succentor of Christ Church Cathedral

If you are familiar with the more esoteric reaches of the Revised Common Lectionary – esoteric enough in and of itself – you will know that, every so often, it sends us to read the Apocrypha: the set of books written after the Old Testament proper, but read as Scripture by Jews and many Christians. And, if you’re among the seventeen people (and the odd dog) who do follow the Morning Prayer lectionary, then every three years, in October, you’ll read edited highlights of the story of Judith, told in the Apocrypha in the book that bears her name.

For the rest of the world, the story of Judith is well worth seeking out. It’s a war story – and like the best war films, it focuses on a small human drama that puts the whole ghastly gigantic conflict into a human scale that we can comprehend.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, is waging war upon the whole world. He sends his best general, Holofernes, to conquer Israel. Holofernes starts with a border city, Bethulia. He uses tactics that have worked before: he besieges them. And sure enough, before long the city leaders are ready to surrender.

Not, however, if Judith has anything to do with it. She isn’t introduced until chapter 8 of her own book, but she comes in like a whirlwind. After a brief introduction in which we learn she’s a wealthy and beautiful widow, she’s straight into action. She summons the city elders and tells them off. How dare they consider surrendering? What on earth were they thinking? They are sheepish. They ask her to pray for rain, so that they can hold out under siege for longer. And Judith laughs: she’s going to do better than that.

Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants. Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. 

Judith 8: 32-34

The story leaves the elders at the town gate and follows Judith out to the enemy’s camp. She has taken off her mourning clothes; she’s dressed to the nines, and she’s stunning. She gets herself picked up by enemy patrols and sweet-talks her way to Holofernes the general, to whom she introduces herself as a deserter willing to turn her city over to him. On one condition: that she’s allowed out of the camp each evening to pray, and that she doesn’t eat his food – she’s keeping kosher and she’s brought her own, in a bag that her maid is looking after. Holofernes, smitten, falls for it. He agrees to everything; lets her get him drunk; and summons her back a couple of nights later with one thing on his mind.

Judith arrives. She’s set it all up perfectly. Holofernes sends all his guards out and the two of them are alone. She drinks him under the table and, when he passes out, beheads him. The guards are expecting her to go out of the camp with her bag of food; so they don’t stop her. And she just keeps going, back to Bethulia, back to the elders, where she opens her bag – and there’s the head of Holofernes.

When the enemies find out in the morning what has happened, they panic and flee. Israel is saved. Judith leads the city in a song of praise and lives to the age of 105 – freeing her maid, refusing all suitors, prosperous, wise and universally respected.

Reflection

Judith is my middle name, named after a very dear godmother. So I was always going to like the story of the biblical Judith. I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even whether I read it for myself; but Judith the clever, the resourceful, the faithful, the beautiful, has always been one of my heroes and I’ve always been pleased to have her name.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to appreciate different facets of Judith’s character. The astonishing courage of her actions – the way she risked not just her life, but her body. The mutual trust between her and her unnamed maid. The quiet courage she had shown before this moment, calmly managing her late husband’s estates and businesses, respected by everyone at a time when women – especially women acting in ways that women didn’t usually act – were not automatically treated as worthy of respect. Her willingness to position herself in a place that wasn’t just vulnerable, but that laid itself open to misinterpretation. She knew she wasn’t planning to sleep with Holofernes or to betray her city, her friends, her nation or her God – but anyone watching would have been forgiven for thinking she might. Judith doesn’t care how she’s perceived – she only cares about doing the right thing, the thing to which God is calling her. And, paradoxically, because of this she is rightly perceived as wise and holy.

Judith is not only a woman, she’s a childless widow. Feminist readings highlight this as a particularly vulnerable position – and they’re correct. But Judith is also wealthy, having inherited her husband’s estates and businesses. With means, and with the intellect to manage them, she is far less vulnerable than many people. So Judith – like many of us – occupies a paradoxical position: in some ways vulnerable, in other ways privileged. And she responds to this paradoxical position not by emphasising the ways that she’s vulnerable, nor by claiming her privilege, but by using her position and the resources at her disposal – wealth, beauty, wisdom – for the good of her city and her nation. Perhaps this can make her a particularly good example for those of us who are privileged in some ways and vulnerable for others; or for those of us trying to work out what it means to respond to God’s call in the changed circumstances around us.

Before she leaves Bethulia for the enemy camp, Judith prays. Let’s conclude with the words of her prayer:

For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, saviour of those without hope. Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all your creation, hear my prayer!

Judith 9: 11-12

Prayer

God of the broken, strength of the vulnerable, we give you thanks that throughout history, you have called women and men to unite with you in helping the oppressed, upholding the weak, protecting the forsaken, saving the hopeless. God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us your compassion and inspire us with your love. Teach us, like Judith, to defend and protect those in need; to challenge injustice; and to work for healing in your world. Amen

Huldah: The Unknown Prophet

This image is actually of Deborah, but works as well for Huldah
Deborah portrayed in Gustave Doré’s illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours (1865)

2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34

I confess I had never heard of Huldah before and yet she is one of the seven female prophets in Jewish tradition.*

Huldah had the ear of kings and rulers and spoke with authority about the Jewish Law, and yet unlike most other biblical prophets we hear nothing about her family history, journey of faith, or personality. The frustrating thing is we get to learn more about her husband’s genealogy than hers, and he does nothing of any consequence.

Huldah, (her name means weasel which is unfortunate!) was a prophetess from Judah at the time when King Josiah was on the throne. She lived in Jerusalem with her husband Shallum, who had the enigmatic job title, ‘keeper of the wardrobe’.**

You will remember from yesterday’s post about Queen Athaliah that this period of history was one of a seemingly endless cycle of corrupt and cruel rulers of the divided nations of Israel and Judah. During this period of around sixty years the temple in Jerusalem had been allowed to fall into ruin, the people turned to idolatry, and the laws and statutes given to Moses had been largely forgotten.

King Josiah was one of the few kings who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’. (2 Kings 22.2). He became king when he was only eight year old and he ruled with justice and equity, ensuring those who worked on the restoration of the temple were being paid and that all the temple funds were accounted for properly.

Whilst the building work to restore the temple was taking place one of the workers found an old copy of ‘the Book of the Law’ in the rubble. This would have been a collection of rolls of parchment containing sections of the Torah. This was read aloud to the king who was convicted by what he heard realising with horror how far they had moved from the Lord’s will:

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes

2 Kings 22.11

He wanted to understand what he was hearing and so he sent his high priest (Hilkiah) and scribe (Shaphan) to ask Huldah the Prophetess for guidance. She speaks with authority, clarity and boldness, and speaks to them of God’s judgment towards the people:

Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols they have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.

2 Kings 22.17

She then tells them that God had seen and heard Josiah’s repentance on receiving the Law:

Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord…because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you.

2 Kings 22.18

God used Hulda’s prophetic voice to promise King Josiah protection and peace. The king responded by restoring God’s word to temple worship, renewing their vows to obey God’s law, and bringing back long forgotten Jewish festivals such as Passover. Alongside this he destroyed all the idols and shrines, sacked all the pagan priests and mediums, and pulled down the altars to Baal.

Neither before or after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did – with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with the Law of Moses. 

2 Kings 23.25

And this remarkable transformation came about through the words of a female prophet who very few have ever heard of… Huldah.

* the others are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther
** the job probably involved looking after the robes of the priests, rather like a verger would in our churches today.

Reflection and Prayer

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity,
 to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 
Ephesians 4.11-13

What is remarkable about this story is that King Josiah clearly had other learned temple priests and scribes he could call upon, and yet none of them were able to interpret scripture and explain the Book of the Law in the way that Huldah could. If her husband worked in the temple then perhaps she had developed a ministry of her own amongst temple worshippers, and had become well known for her wisdom.

As we learn of Huldah’s gifts for prophetic teaching perhaps we can give thanks for all those women and men who have opened up scripture to us and have taught us something of God’s word. I’ve been thinking a great deal about my clergy colleagues recently. So many of them are doing a wonderful job speaking of God’s love to a world that is anxious and uncertain at the moment. The temple in Huldah’s time had fallen into disrepair and the people had forgotten their traditions. Our church buildings may well be closed for a time, but the Church is certainly alive and well!

Lord Jesus, merciful and patient, grant us grace
ever to teach in a teachable spirit;
learning along with those we teach,
and learning from them when it pleases you.
Word of God, speak to us, speak by us, what you will.
Wisdom of truth, instruct us, instruct by us, if and whom you will.
Eternal truth, reveal yourself to us, reveal yourself by us,
in whatsoever measure you will;
that we and they may all be taught of God. Amen

A prayer for teachers by Christina Rossetti (1830-94)

Athaliah: The Vengeful Queen

Athaliah by Micah Hayns

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 confusion 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 kills 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 daughter 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 Maidservant by Micah Hayns

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 Widow of Zarephath

Photo by Micah Hayns

1 Kings 17. 7-24

I recently helped out at the Community Emergency Foodbank in Oxford which is run by my wonderful mother. The Foodbank provides much needed sustenance to an every growing number of families every week who struggle to provide food for themselves and their children.

Our next woman was in a similar position.

She’s known in the bible as ‘The Widow of Zarephath’ and she lived in a thriving trade centre in the province of Sidon at the time when the king of Israel was Ahab, ‘who did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him’ (1 Kings 16.30). She had a young son to care for but as she had no husband she was vulnerable. Things were especially difficult as there was a drought in the land and she was at the point where she was down to her very last day of food, and she was close to giving up.

The prophet Elijah encountered her at the city gates where she was gathering sticks for her final meal with her son:

I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it [bread] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.

1 Kings 17.12

Elijah had predicted the drought to King Abab and for some years had been living on the banks of a Wadi (stream) where he was said to have been fed by ravens (1 Kings 17.3). When the stream eventually dried up the Lord told Elijah to go to Zarephath, and it was here that the thirsty and hungry prophet met our widow.

He asked her for water, which she went to fetch for him, but then he asked for more that she could provide:

Bring me a morsel of bread

1 Kings 17.11

It may only have been a morsel, but even that meagre amount was too much for her. Elijah told her to not be afraid, to go home and make two small cakes, one for him and then one for her and her son. He promised there would be enough, not just for that day, but until the drought ended.

She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.

1 Kings 17.15-16

There was plenty of food for them all.

The widow’s story doesn’t end there though, because even in the midst of this miracle, tragedy struck. Her beloved son became ill and died. She cried out to Elijah and in her grief looked to find someone to blame for her loss:

What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!

1 Kings 17.18

Elijah had no answer for this. Instead he took hold of her son, carried him to an upper room, and cried out to God:

O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?

1 Kings 17.20

In a remarkable act of faith Elijah stretched himself out on the boy and asked God for the boys’ life to return to him, which it did, ‘the life of the child came into him again, and he revived’.

Elijah Revives the Son of the Widow of Zarephath,
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794 – 1872)

We can only imagine the joy this woman felt to see her son returned to her. Not only had the Lord provided her with enough food to sustain them through the drought, but even the death of her son was not the end of the story.

Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.

1 Kings 17.24

Reflection and Prayer

Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, 
but how far will they go among so many?...Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted'
John 6.9,11

There are numerous echoes from this encounter between Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath to the life of Jesus, and you can see why Jesus’ early disciples thought he was Elijah who had returned (John 1.21). Both Elijah and Jesus spent time in the wilderness before their ministry, and this particular story reminds us of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus feeds a crowd with the small boy’s meagre offering of loaves and fishes. The widow was similarly generous with the little she had, and was rewarded with abundant blessings.

We are not in a time of literal drought (far from it considering the amount of rain we had this winter in the UK!), but we are in a time of wilderness and I don’t know about you, but it feels rather like a drought. In these times it is generally the poor who suffer the most. Perhaps this story is a reminder to us all to be generous with what we have, whether that is a great deal, or only the most meagre of morsels. We might also pray that God would transform what little we can give and and make it far more.

And let us support our local foodbanks at this time, remembering that just a tin or packet from each of us creates an abundance for other ‘widows’ in a time of need.

O Heavenly Father, who by thy blessed Son hast taught us to ask of thee our daily bread; have compassion on those who live in poverty and hunger; relieve their distress; make plain the way of help; and grant thy grace unto us all, that we bear each others’ burdens according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
George Appleton

The Queen of Sheba

The Queen of Sheba by ©Micah Hayns

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 which 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’!