out from under the veil (International Women’s Day Synchroblog)

This is part of a Synchroblog for International Woman’s Day, March 8, 2009. I will post links to other synchrobloggers as I receive them.


Years ago during a discussion of the Imago Dei, a professor suggested that the expression of the image of God in us says, “I am, too.” Like God, we express a personhood, a sense of being that chooses, feels, relates and seeks meaning. That has become a powerful phrase for my healing work with women. I look for that expression of her truest self, “I am, too” which is not a grasping selfishness but rather, a peaceful acceptance of oneself as a being who shows up in the world in order to matter, and to love and be loved.

I remember trying to read the Old Testament in particular as a teen and becoming depressed. After just a couple of chapters of blissful existence following the creation stories, the personhood of woman seems to drop off the pages. There are plenty of examples. Abram sold out Sarai in order to protect himself from the Egyptians (She was told, not asked.) Bathsheba was adored by David, taken from her life as she knew it (husband and all) and used to satisfy his lust, but there is no record of Bathsheba’s consent or feelings about the whole sordid matter. You get the point. Women were given and taken in marriage by fathers, brothers and uncles, they were seen as a means to perpetuate the family line with the fact of paternity something to be carefully guarded. Women lacked inheritance and property rights and certainly experienced inequality in the area of religious life (they weren’t allowed to be priests or have significant roles in the temple). The area in which they were most subjugated was in their sexuality. Gender determined the level that one could express personhood. The idea that a woman had a self to express could be seen as scandalous, even offensive. Her personhood was virtually a second or third thought. She had no power to say yes, or no to sex, or to marriage. She was not recognized as a self with a will and desires of her own.

But the stories found in scripture of subversive and powerful women send out a strong and hopeful message about the personhood of women that was so often squashed beneath the patriarchal worldview. Two of my favorite women in the Bible are Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh by refusing to kill Hebrew baby boys as they were born. They had no rights in the Egyptian courts and Pharaoh had the power to obliterate them from the face of the planet if he so desired. In a rare glimpse into the inner world of Old Testament women we are told that these two “feared the Lord”, that is they felt an internal moral imperative that rose from their allegiance to YHWH, so they allowed the baby boys to live in defiance of Pharaoh’s order. They had to lie to him to cover up what they had done, insisting that the Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women, that they were vigorous and gave birth before the midwives could arrive to help. You can’t help but notice how easy it was to play upon his prejudices. Pharaoh did see the Israelites as different from his own people, inferior and less human because they were slaves. And though he feared the proliferation of the Israelites and their potential strength as an army of men, he failed to anticipate the clever and brazen chutzpah of two lowly midwives. His plan was undermined by mere women.

Jesus often provided a means for women to be heard and affirmed in the midst of community as valuable persons in their own right. A curious story is the ”Canaanite” woman who comes to Jesus for help in Matthew 15. She begs for help for her daughter who is afflicted with some kind of evil spirit. The disciples ignore her, possibly showing some of the same sort of prejudice as Pharaoh had over a thousand years earlier. She was not a Jew and she was a woman. (The latter fact could prove to be the bigger problem as it had in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, in which these same guys were much more offended that Jesus was talking to a woman than that he was speaking to a hated Samaritan.) They asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus then says something bizarre, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (For whose benefit did He say this?)

It’s significant that the story that occurs right before this one is an encounter with the Pharisees after which Jesus teaches His disciples that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him (such as: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and blasphemies), not what is external. They had the “rights” of inclusion, were the right gender, and felt they deserved their special status, yet Jesus would have none of it. He saw them as blind guides. But back to the woman… It’s interesting that Jesus had seemingly dismissed her with some of the same prejudices of the day. The woman finds the courage to come to him again, on her knees. He responds again by insisting that, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is emphasizing the historic difference between the cursed Canaanites and the blessed Israelites, even using some incendiary language – the Israelites are good children and the cursed Canaanites are dogs. It’s almost as if he is behaving like the Pharisees. I imagine that the disciples with Him might have agreed with His statements, exposing their own deficit of heart. But the woman responds brilliantly by insisting that even the dogs are allowed crumbs from under the table. Jesus is impressed by this and heals this woman’s daughter as she had asked.

Whatever she believed about Jesus, she seemed to believe that she could eat from His table. She said, “I am, too.” She seemed to believe that the “crumbs” she could glean would be a feast. The outcast Canaanite (Phoenician) female could be fed from the same table as a Jew, as a man. This courageous woman’s encounter with Jesus was a foreshadowing of the expansive gospel that Jesus preached. In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female….

I don’t believe that Jesus was making a political, Zionist statement with his difficult words. He seems to be continuing the same train of thought that he began with the teaching about the blind teachers, the Pharisees. They were obsessed with details that could only work to set apart themselves as special. They were at the top of the religious and cultural food chain. They lived as false selves made up of rituals and rites while remaining corrupt and blind. The woman reached out to Jesus with only what was true. She had no coverings of ritualistic purity or social or religious status. She only had the courage of heart to bring her bare need to a gracious Healer. The world of the Pharisees would tell her she had nothing; she was nothing. She only had herself. And that, for Jesus, was enough.

My heart stands in awe of the women who find the courage to say, “I am, too.” Today, 2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth, gender-based injustices still threaten the physical, emotional and spirituality safety of millions and millions of women. These things are in many ways still the same as then: forced marriage, forced sex, lack of legal rights and voice, forced labor, selective abortion, wife burnings, honor killings, general violence, etc. Yet what beauty arises from ashes:

There is the woman that dared to approach Jesus to pour out perfume and love and gratitude as she bore the weight of shaming, hateful stares from the Pharisees. And the woman with the 12 year long issuance of blood which would make her a continual outcast, who dared to reach out to touch the hem of his robe…stepping out of cultural and religious boundaries, risking being stoned in order to find the possibility of being again, the hope of living in her full personhood as a full member of community.

And then there is our friend who came to the US for seminary and ordination with the dream of going back to serve God in her homeland, an Asian country. It was clear that she would not be allowed to pastor a church nor fill a pulpit there because she was a woman. When asked what she would do she replied, “I will go where the men won’t go,” and went home to enter the horrific prisons to minister to the forgotten young men there. She was treated as second best, yet the “I am, too” within her went into places only Jesus would go.

There is a woman who has survived repeated brutal rapes in a refugee camp in the Congo and became pregnant. The use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo has become shocking to the extreme. The Rocky Mountain News quoted a gynecologist who was attending the many victims and said, “It’s like they are trying to destroy woman.” Even so, this brutalized woman from the camp said, “I must live to give birth to this child. I must bring forth life to defeat so much death.”

Just this week Desmond Tutu was on the Craig Ferguson show recounting some of the stories of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He told of a woman who lost loved ones and was severely maimed herself when her house was bombed. After months in Intensive Care she spoke to her perpetrators at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing and said, “You have enriched me”. She spoke of learning compassion and forgiveness. Ferguson’s jaw dropped! How do we begin to understand a heart like that? Like the Canaanite woman, I believe she, with all of these women, speaks prophetically of the Kingdom that is ours and that we have only begun to dare to explore and experience.

These women all exude a self that stands beautifully and defiantly in the face of what would certainly mean to destroy their souls. Thomas Merton speaks of the point at the center of our being that is where our true identity resides. He calls it the point vierge, a place within that is untouched by illusions, is inviolable and known only to you and God. “It is,” he writes, “the pure glory of God within us.” It is deep inner intactness, wholeness beyond the reach of our wounds. I believe that is the place from which we can declare, “I am, too”. These women are our tutors. Like the Canaanite woman, they understand something about the heart of God that the religious, pharisaiacal men could not. They live and move and have their being in the truth of who they are in God – that place of “I am, too.”

In our prophetic dreaming for the future of Church and for this hurting world we must ponder what it might mean to make space for voices like these and to stand in the way of those who say through attitude or action, “You are less, or you are not.” The Church must not only ponder but also should lead the way in opposition to gender-based injustices. Just as important, as the Church moves deeper into the uncertainty of the 21st century, we must recognize and embrace the truth that these women are the true voices of transformative leadership within our very own walls. They speak from their truest selves, that place where God resides.

Check out the other Synchrobloggers!

Julie Clawson on the God who sees
Steve Hayes on St. Theodora the Iconodule
Sonja Andrews on Aunt Jemima
Sensuous Wife on a single mom in the Bible
Minnowspeaks on celebrating women
Michelle Van Loon on the persistant widow
Lyn Hallewell on women who walked with God
Heather on the strength of biblical women
Shawna Atteberry on the Daughter of Mary Magdalene
Christine Sine on women who impacted her life
Susan Barnes on Tamar, Ruth, and Mary
Kathy Escobar on standing up for nameless and voiceless women
Liz Dyer on Mary and Martha
Bethany Stedman on Shiphrah and Puah
Dan Brennan on Mary Magdalene
Jessica Schafer on Bathsheba
Eugene Cho on Lydia
Laura sorts through what she knows about women in the Bible
Miz Melly preached on the woman at the well
AJ Schwanz on women’s work
Pam Hogeweide on teenage girls changing the world
Teresa on the women Paul didn’t hate
Helen on Esther
Happy on Abigail
Mark Baker-Wright on telling stories
Robin M. on Eve
Alan Knox is thankful for the women who served God
Lainie Petersen on the unnamed concubine
Mike Clawson on cultural norms in the early church
Krista on serving God
Bob Carlton on Barbie as Icon
Jan Edmiston preached on the unnamed concubine
Deb on her namesake – Deborah
Makeesha on empowering women
Beth Patterson on the whole megillah revisited


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Showing 21 comments
  • Steve Hayes

    I once heard someone suggest that Jesus was in cahoots with the Canaanite woman to teach is disciples a lesson. He expressed the thoughts they had thought, and used her answers to teach them a lesson. It was as if he winked at her every time he spoke. That makes sense to me, and could be a reason that that story was remembered and eventually written down.

  • ellenharoutunian

    Hi Steve, you know, while that may be true, it seems that the text indicates that that she hadn’t spoken to Jesus before. It would make sense that Jesus would want to demonstrate to his disciples that this woman had more understanding of God’s heart than even the religious elders of Israel. I wonder if he also wanted her to act on what was true – she mattered as much as they and her true faith was pleasing to Him (in direct opposition to the Pharisees’ hearts.) Jesus directly countered the expectations of who was worthy of what and provided her a way to step into her rightful place. That takes faith!

  • Teresa

    Thanks for such an inspirational post. I love the idea of women “speaking from their truest selves, the place where God resides.” When we allow others to define us and what we can do, we are silencing not just our own voices, but God’s.

  • gracerules

    Thanks for the post and for reminding us that Jesus was such a compassionate and powerful defender and protector of women. You might be interested in reading my post on Martha and Mary and how Jesus liberated Mary of Bethany from her socially defined status of inferiority and marginalization.

  • kathyescobar

    wow, ellen, this post has so many amazing examples and powerful thoughts in it. we call you our poetic theologian. seriously great stuff & a reminder of the beauty and strength of women everywhere. thanks for sharing with us, hope we can hang out soon! xo

  • Bethany

    Beautiful post, Ellen. I think all I can really say in response is “I am, too”. Thank you for writing this.

  • Barb Dokter

    “The woman reached out to Jesus with only what was true. She had no coverings of ritualistic purity or social or religious status. She only had the courage of heart to bring her bare need to a gracious Healer. The world of the Pharisees would tell her she had nothing; she was nothing. She only had herself. And that, for Jesus, was enough.”
    Truth itself…sense of being…may I in courage and faith be a small part of encouraging and embracing the heart God has placed in all of us as his children…how truly gracious to us he is…

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