These segments could be used on separate occasions by a Worship Leader. The first two segments and the account about Elizabeth bearing a son appeared in Decades of Feminist Writing self-published in 2020.
Musing on Ancient Story (A Litany ‘addressed’ to or about several women)
When women bible scholars like Savina J. Teubal, Sharon Pace Jeansonne, or Wilda C. Gafney actively study texts, all readers benefit. Characters formerly minimized experience extended strength. Their accounts of depth engage our imagination. Linking across time and culture, key divisions of feminist thought—spirituality, sexuality, survival—emerge. The following litany highlights rich insight from Israel’s origins. (See Genesis 12-50)
Sarah, the time is perhaps long overdue
for people of faith to free you
from certainty that you were cruel to Hagar,
or that God would have endorsed such cruelty.
We now choose to value the sacred friendship
between you and your handmaid.
And we determine to reconstruct stories
in ways that honor instead of malign good faith.
Daughters of Lot, we comprehend neither
the way that your father offered the two of you
for sexual abuse with Sodom’s men,
(those all struck blind by God)
nor the desperate hopelessness
that drove you, when childless, to your drunk dad.
The people of your fathered sons,
the Moabites and Ammonites,
knew conflict of their own, as did your mom—
who perhaps just looked around at the wrong time.
And, Rebekah of old, how generous of you
to serve the servant at the well, his cattle too.
But we wonder how you were so sure
that God designed for your second twin
to be all that preferred.
Why did deceit hold sway in your day?
Might sibling choice not ever mock
the one whose cradle it had rocked?
Two more sisters come to mind.
the one preferred by Jacob, the other not.
He married both, though not ‘til tricked
into a second seven years of work.
The lesson Rachel learned—
that beauty does not birth a boy—
made Leah’s ease lose luster after four or more.
To steal their father’s gods proved some encore!
Then too recall Dinah, Jake’s lone daughter,
most nearly ignored beside the dozen sons.
Until, self-confident, when put to meet ‘yon women
she knew assault by Shechem. A mere object she became
between the Hivites and her brothers
who ordered that all Hivite men be circumcised.
Ignoring any sense of sacred covenant,
they killed them all to boot.
How sad her worth; how great their peaked revenge!
More plotting schemed in store—not just toward favored Joseph.
Off in Canaan, Judah married a daughter of Shua.
Of three sons that she bore, Er proved to be most wicked
so, God had him killed. Son Onan followed suit, when,
exploiting the righteous Tamar, he spilt the stuff of life.
Bereft of a second, Judah refused the widow to his third son.
But she was not a pawn with whom to trifle.
Her widowed garments dropped, in veil bedecked, she waited—
for her chance. And soon he came, quite free a harlot to engage.
With evidence secured from Judah Juan—cord, staff, signet—
Tamar then found herself to be with child, not one but two.
Hearing that fact made Judah furious, until the father became known.
Himself—with whom those items belonged. Proof indeed.
Later, Joseph also learned the fate of “proof.”
Sold by his brothers a slave to Ishmaelites,
and from them to Potiphar in Egypt, Joseph yet handsome.
Potiphar’s wife persisted, “Lie with me.”
From her he fled. But snatching his outer garment,
she used it to complain: her husband’s protection failed.
Off to prison Joseph went. Even so, the story ends upbeat:
a skilled interpreter of dreams, he later rescued family.
How conclude about these women of Genesis? How were they perceived in ancient times? More pro than con?1 Without full choice, they took control of some events. Dependent, they nevertheless received God’s revelation. Expected to obey men, they at times directed clan destiny. Driven to endure, they struggled within time and space. Here indeed factors of spirituality, sexuality, and survival loom large upon the scene. Our thanks extend to interpreters free to see and credit them. Our wonderment—the lessons that we have not learned!
This story occurred during Israel’s period of rule by judges. God allowed military threat from the Ammonites as a way to punish Israel for turning from God. With some measure of repentance, the people looked for someone to lead them in their fight. Although son of a prostitute and therefore of uncertain lineage, Jephthah was called to be their leader.
With “the spirit of Yahweh upon Jephthah,” he could depend on God to direct the activity. But with doubts or independence he demanded a deal, or vow, with God. He chose to bind God into a deal, somewhat foolish about his own duty. “If you will really give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me upon my return in victory . . . shall belong to Yahweh; I will offer it as a burnt offering.” (11:30)
Jephthah achieved his desire—to win the battle. But he soon learned that his part of the deal had to be honored. The first to meet him on returning home was his only child, his daughter. He knew at once that she would be sacrificed. Yet, failing to admit his own unfaithfulness as the cause, he faulted her for appearing, for bringing the calamity on him. He mourned more for himself, being without heir, than for his daughter, being without life.
The daughter sensed the nature of her father’s commitment and volunteered: “. . . do to me according to what goes forth from your mouth, since Yahweh has delivered you from your enemies. . .” Death and life know power through words. To bargain not always ends in gain. While the daughter felt compassion for a father burdened by his mistakes, she developed a plan. She proposed some control over what remained of her life by requesting two months’ time in which to wander in the hills with her women friends. She would lament going into death a virgin. As Hebrew scholar Phyllis Trible notes in her sensitive study of this text2 the daughter would lament the fact that her death would be premature and violent through fire, while leaving her no heirs. A Hebrew woman knew fulfillment through bearing a child; this daughter would have no one to succeed her.
She reached out to other women in her sorrow. She had people who would understand her plight of death in life. This they did, but not just for their present. The story teller includes a postscript: “She became a tradition in Israel.” Yet most translations state “It became a tradition.” In that pronoun, they deny that SHE, the woman, became a tradition. That kind of denial occurs too often in men’s telling biblical details; the task of correcting will take generations. Many will live and die before study and preaching truly learn of God’s justice.
Faithful women for years to come annually spent four days mourning the daughter of Jephthah. Yet, Jephthah’s faithless aspect could be ignored. Instead, he has been exalted. Known as a mighty warrior, his epitaph after a natural death in Gilead, notes his six years as a judge. (Judges 12:7). The prophet Samuel praises Jephthah for delivering Israel from enemies (1 Samuel 12:11). And the writer of Hebrews (11:32-34) commends him as one “who through faith” conquered and did what was right. Not to be ignored is one Apocrypha account (The Book of Biblical Antiquities, chapter 39-40) in which the daughter, there named Seila, is noted for her wisdom while Jephthah’s wicked vow is harshly criticized.
Does this nameless daughter’s death diminish us? Do we know her as a symbol for all courageous daughters of faithless fathers? I recall an event of Sati several decades ago in India. Whereas efforts have tried to rid that land of the ancient custom of burning a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, the frenzy and measure of public approval of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar’s burning cries out. Like with Jephthah’s daughter’s burning, but in contrast to release of Abraham’s son in the region of Moriah (Genesis 22), “Why” questions emerge.
Hebrew people saw death as an “emptying out of the soul or vital force.” As a person gradually lost vigor, God took back the spirit given at birth. Israelites thought of God as the God of the living, not dead. Life knew God’s presence; death expressed separation from God. To live with God prompted remembering and expressing praise for what God had done.
Meditation – God’s World: Windows to the Future
For this glimpse into the future of God’s world,
we turn to three ancient prophets in Hebrew scripture.
As Christians claim Jesus the Jew for our key mentor, we inherit prophets Amos, Malachi and Micah.
In Malachi 1:11, Yahweh of Hosts states:
“From furthest east to furthest west my name is great among the nations.”
Micah predicts: “Peoples shall come streaming . . . Many nations shall come and say,
“Come, let us climb up to the mountain of Yahweh,”
to be taught the ways and to walk the paths of the God of Jacob, Leah and Rachel.
And Amos’s vision heralds God’s reprimand:
“Are not you Israelites like Cushites to me?
Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir?”
God’s rule over all the nations is evenhanded.
As obscure Cushite, Ethiopian tribes were enslaved and exploited before delivered,
so God controlled and maintained interest in Philistine’ destiny, alongside Israel.
As God reigns over the world the same rules apply: each nation answers for its behavior.
Not a national deity, often implied in “God bless America” lingo, the Divine intervenes with all groups.
While each nation is distinct, none is privileged.
Each remains duty-bound to care for others rather than oppress.
Impartial, God’s relation with Israel does not exclude special relations with others.
Strangers with ‘odd’ customs possess God as surely as Israel, or as Christians today.
In truth, Amos critiqued prejudice and bigotry.
How easily we ignore the wisdom that we sang as children:
“red, brown, yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”
“The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi” expressed hope for renewal.
The first chapter finds Yahweh of Hosts distraught over disrespect for Divine greatness and
failure to credit the name, which means presence, of God.
Pagan, or worship of the common folk, was more acceptable than that of the priests in Jerusalem.
For, the priests despised God’s name when they bickered over who controls the sacrificial role—
supporters of Levi or Aaron.
Or, bored with their task, they seem indifferent to the things of God when they pollute the altar.
Having confessed love for Israel in verse one,
God offers unmerited love despite the farce that followed.
Indifferent to their heritage, the priests deserved to be shamed,
compared to the sincere worship of outsiders.
Worship matters to Yahweh.
The care with which one worships reflects attitude toward the Divine.
While Israel seemed tired of waiting or obeying,
God appears to long for the day when from morning to evening all will worship with integrity.
Both priests and people need to honor the name of God, for “Great is Yahweh.”
Created by the Creator, all creation needs to extend God’s glory among the nations, throughout the land.
Not privileged, the “tribes of Jacob were ordained to be the light of Yahweh’s salvation to all ‘nations.’”
The text comments:
“From furthest east to furthest west my name is great among the nations.
Everywhere fragrant sacrifice and pure gifts are offered in my name.”
How ready are we to credit sincere worship when practiced by people not of our faith group?
Does God set an example for us here?
Micah’s oracle looks ahead to when peoples will live in peace rather than pursue war—
when they will shape a hoe to raise crops rather than destroy olive orchards,
when all will claim and learn from the one true God.
Frankly, I can hardly imagine Jerusalem, symbol of ancient holy space,
becoming a worship center for all in light of its currently deadly division.
A temple mount tied to mystery, though mocked by enemies, seems distant now
from a Zion-type, site of future exaltation.
Now coerced, the vision suggests that God will guide people to know where to gather.
It implies that Yahweh’s law will be written on hearts, as prophets like Jeremiah predicted.
It suggests that all, having been forgiven, shall know the Ultimate One.
This revelation prods us all to action, to affirm that nations affect each other.
It knows that God directs the journey for all people toward the center under one banner,
with each nation or religion proceeding in distinct ways.
This end-of-days, utopian vision expects enmity to disappear;
it combines openness toward difference with deep loyalty that worships in truth.
Long before these prophets addressed the people,
God had shared the first, universal covenant with Noah’s family.
With flood waters receding, God spoke:
“I now make my covenant with you and with your descendants, and with every living creature
that is with you . . . never again shall all living creatures be destroyed by the waters . . .
This is the sign of the covenant between myself and you . . to endless generations:
‘My bow I set in the cloud.’”
This ancient, Noahdite promise of God’s extends into our future.
Israelites understood that non-Jews faithful to high principles of justice and ethics
knew salvation in distinct ways.
When later chosen to their special task of telling others of God’s welcome,
Jews knew that the ‘cosmic’ promise to Noah held firm for all nations.
Religious faith—whether of Job, Rahab, or Cornelius’—revealed right relationship with God.
To fear God by living justly met the wide criteria of covenant.
Our present and future task still honors any search for holiness,
credits elements of Divine truth revealed through diverse traditions.
For, as “Israel’s faith came to be what it was through the encounter with non-Israelite religions and cultures,” [M. Melanchthon, IRM, Oct. ‘02] so we meet our world of Muslims, Star Trek and Microsoft.
Methodist Wesley Ariarajah from Sri Lanka writes: [Myth, II]
The church has yet to validate its experience of Jesus’ gift of salvation
without denying that “God may have many ways to bring people to their intended destiny.”
We do well to pattern our Hebrew heritage, convinced that God is ‘God of the nations.’
Our global task is to live compassion, to establish God’s shalom or peace throughout the world.
Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we reaffirm that God walks with us—
has for the past fifty and will during our years ahead.
Another window for seeing the future might be to think of the world as God’s body.
Sallie McFague welcomes this image along with God as Friend.
All holy images of God express ways to relate to that One who is beyond description.
The One in whom we live, move, and have our being is not distant.
Body, or world, matters as much as Spirit.
Salvation shapes social and economic matters, not only eternal existence.
Yet, God is at risk when we fail to care for the world.
In the beginning God shared dominion with woman and man;
biblical dominion means that the rest of creation will know God’s love
through our responsible care of it.
Like Abraham outside his tent at Mamre in Hebron on a hot day,
we might encounter strangers who provide insight into the Holy
when we extend to them a meal or shoes or support.
Christians evoke God’s mystery through Trinity.
Diana Eck, a prof at Harvard who knows very well the US’ diverse religious scene, elaborates.
[God at 2000 . . ].
Jews use an alternate term for the sacred name Yahweh/”I AM.” (Adonai)
While Muslims do not image God in any form,
Hindus speak of many gods but mean the same Ultimate One,
and Buddhists speak of a “far shore—a reality that we cannot grasp but may awaken to.”
Therefore, objects or names or image become the lens through which we met the Divine
known to our neighbor as God, Nirvana, Brahman or Allah.
Of such unity yet diversity is this, God’s world.
Reminding us of high school English lit with William Blake’s poem “The Divine Image” which ends:
“And all must love the human form
In Heathen, Turk, or Jew
Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.” [K. Armstrong, God at. . ., 111]
Naomi’s Child – Ruth 4:14-17
savor the sweet
might have wallowed
redeem the situation
a man’s world
wise neighbor women
worth more than
Praying Together on a Sunday Morning
Thanks, God, for this time of holy worship.
Thanks for the freedom to learn from Scripture; we believe in your Word.
Thanks for the joy of song.
We express our faith in unison and distinct musical parts.
Thanks for the hope and delight of Wisdom.
We long for your Lamp to guide our ways.
Bring prophets bold to name Truth, to caution failure.
Guide us in sharing past journeys, in preparing for the week ahead.
God of all nations, bless all nations.
Be known to every tribe; speak through what each finds sacred.
Whether in Korea or Angola, Ethiopia or Argentina.
May your Truth be expressed by Muslim and Jew, yes, also by Hindu.
God of Catholics and Protestants, of general hopes and distinct concerns.
In thanks, we expect Your Grace to be sufficient. . . . . Amen.
“Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
Scripture enactment of Luke 1:57-80 – (9 characters/readers)
Worship Leader: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth . . .”
Esther: (calling) Ruth, did you hear about Elizabeth?
Ruth: No, what? Is she still ill . . . confined in her house?
Esther: Not really ill. She just gave birth!
Ruth: Gave birth? To what? An idea?
Esther: Oh, Ruth, No . . . to a son!
Ruth: A son! At her age? That’s impossible.
Esther: I thought so too. But let’s go and find out.
Martha: (calling, hurried) Lydia and Nathan, God be with you. Did you hear the news?
Nathan: What news? Is something wrong?
Lydia: Do you need help?
Martha: No, I don’t. But Zechariah and Elizabeth might.
Nathan: Why? Now what happened to Zachary? The poor man can’t talk . . ..
Lydia: What else could God do to him? Isn’t being speechless punishment enough?
Martha: This is hardly punishment.
Lydia: What do you mean?
Martha: They have a child!
Nathan: A child? The two of them . . . a child?
Lydia: You must be misinformed. They can’t. Nathan, remember you said just the other night that you
hadn’t seen Elizabeth for months? Could it be? . . . Oh, Elizabeth! God be with you!
Martha: What shall we do?
Nathan: Well, what do you usually do?
Martha: I would go to them. But what if it’s not true? Then the rumor will only hurt . . . will further
remind them of their long years of being barren.
Lydia: Yes, barren—no son to continue on as priest.
Martha: But I just heard that she gave birth to a son.
Lydia: I know . . . yes, that’s what you said. But . . .
Nathan: For how long has Zachary been unable to speak?
Lydia: Must seem like years to him. Though I suppose . . . maybe about nine months?
Nathan: Nine months? Could there be a connection? (to Martha) You say they have a child?
Martha: That’s what my neighbor Sarah called out as she returned from drawing water.
Lydia: Then we should go to them . . . rather than just stand here in wonder . . . Oh, joy, a child!
Matthew: Grandma, where are we going? So early?
Sarah: To Elizabeth and Zechariah’s.
Matthew: What’s the hurry?
Sarah: There’s a new baby . . . imagine . . . Elizabeth . . .
Matthew: Who’s she? And what’s so different about a new baby? This village has lots of them.
Sarah: But this child is special . . . must be a miracle of God.
Matthew: Is that different from me . . . when I was born?
Sarah: Matthew, you’re special too . . . but this child . . . he came . . . well, when Elizabeth was too old.
She couldn’t have expected him.
Matthew: So, then is Elizabeth special? Did she do a miracle?
Sarah: Let‘s say a miracle happened to, or through, her. Our God still surprises us . . . still cares for us.
(Hurrying on) Always remember that.
Matthew: (reflective) God care . . . for a child? And, I’m a child . . . Grandma?
Sarah: We’re not the only ones coming.
(All move in center stage toward where Zechariah and Elizabeth are seated with the infant.)
Lydia: Is it true? Esther . . .
Nathan: Zachary, have you really a child? Why didn’t you tell us?
Martha: This I must see . . . to believe!
(Assorted greetings/gestures, as Zechariah nods excitedly. All hold position,
until speeches of second part.)
Lydia: (Reading, as a pronouncement) His name is John.
Esther: How can this be?
Martha: You too? They both said the same thing!
Sarah: What is going on?
Lydia: We don’t know any John.
Ruth: What do you mean?
Nathan: What does John mean? We give names because of what they mean.
Martha: Now they’re both confused. How could they both have come up with the same mistake?
Zechariah: Thank God! (stepping forward) May our God be praised . . . today . . . and forever.
Lydia: He speaks!
Ruth: Zechariah, was that you?
Nathan: I never thought I’d hear you again. Say more.
Matthew: Grandma, you said that Zechariah can’t talk. What’s happening?
Sarah: I wonder, “Whatever will this child become?”
(All move variously away while Elizabeth declares to entire audience.)
And, once again, God is here!
Zechariah then reads the song of verses 68-79, making clear breaks before verse 75 and after vs. 76.
(Recommended text translation in Raymond E. Brown’s book The Birth of the Messiah.)
A Medley of Litanies (First presented at Eighth St. Mennonite, February 25, 2001)
This text tells about the time that Moses came down from the mountain after meeting God.
As Moses descends, his face shines. With his form changed, we say that he was trans-figured.
The people were afraid to come near to him, when he called them.
But he had a message to share from God, carved on stone tablets.
Moses’ shining face verifies the divine origin of the commands that he planned to announce.
It reflects how sacred the task is, to represent God.
Moses’ brilliant glow predicts a feature of the tabernacle—it will be filled with divine glory.
The story also looks ahead to the New Testament account known as “Jesus’ Transfiguration.”
Think of the shine on Moses’ head as horn-like rays.
Those rays were intense. So, also, God’s word is living and active; it penetrates.
The text also reports that Moses covered his face with a veil, to protect the people from God’s radiance.
When he entered God’s presence, in the tent of meeting, Moses removed the veil.
Later, Paul gave this ancient practice or motif a different meaning.
Yet, the interplay of today’s texts is profound.
From times of worship, the people knew that God is constantly present.
Those who hear the word are not only to believe; they must embody or do the word in the world.
Not only Moses was called to speak for God; we all become messengers.
This psalm is one of several that tell about God’s being enthroned, an idea rich in ancient times.
It had ties to Creation and the Exodus experience. The deity came as king to save the people.
The yearly festival to celebrate God enthroned was sort-of like Palm Sunday is now, for Christians.
To repeat the basic facts of revered experience renews faith. That’s why we gather to worship.
So, the appearance or enthronement of Yahweh was at first called “the day of the Lord.”
The writer wants the people, the congregation, to feel like they are in the presence of the new king.
Awe-struck, they tremble, like the earth on occasion quakes.
Enthused, they shout: “Holy is God, and mighty!”
Convinced, they boldly assert that their king loves justice.
United, they don’t describe the act of enthroning; they just rejoice: “Holy is Yahweh our God!”
The people recall that God answered when ancestors like Moses, Aaron, or Samuel called on God.
Through a pillar of cloud, God had talked or given the Law.
When the people failed to obey the decrees, God forgave them.
How else does one respond then but—to praise God?
To shout near the sacred mountain: “Holy is Yahweh our God!”
Luke 9:28-36 (for 3 readers)
This text records the holy event when Jesus was transfigured.
Near the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, he took his favored disciples to a mount, likely Mt. Hermon.
Peter, James, and John had been with him when Jairus’ daughter was raised;
they will be with him in the nighttime of Gethsemane’s garden.
Images re-appear: a shining face, a cloud, and glory;
mystery and hiding, a voice and silence, the natural and supernatural.
Jesus went to pray, to get away—but with friends (friends who sleep).
Moses, who stands for Law (those stone tablets), and Elijah, who represents Prophets, belong together.
Earlier, Law and Prophets were known as ‘saviors’; they were the monarchs of the past (king motif).
Prophecy grew out of law; all real law is prophetic.
But Jesus’ brilliant face and the sign of God’s presence in the cloud speak winds of change.
Two men appear, through the glory, to talk with Jesus—Moses and Elias.
Word out of the haze suggests two themes: Jesus’ road to Jerusalem heads to death, a new exodus,
and power expresses a new Source.
As Moses yields to Jesus, the law as supreme gives way to law of the heart.
As Elijah yields to Jesus, prophecies of the past give way to the ultimate Prophet.
Meanwhile, the three dazed disciples tremble.
To the extent that they could bear it, they had glimpsed Jesus’ secret glory . . .
until enterprising Peter spoke of action—to set up tents and stay:
to preserve the wonder of it all; to honor a trio of leaders.
In that advice, he missed, or was blinded by, who Jesus really was.
Fear gripped the three.
Moses and Elijah disappeared and God’s voice declared from a cloud:
“This is the Chosen One. He is for all nations. Listen to him.”
Such words left them mum.
And on the following day, as they neared the bottom of the mountain, a crowd had gathered.
A man cried out: “Master, look at my only child. Your disciples couldn’t heal his convulsions.”
Frustrated by faithless followers, Jesus moved prayer into action.
He healed in order to reveal God’s greatness.
Prayer: God, rip the veils of our hearts today, so that we come alive to your love for all.
Hyatt, J. P. Exodus, The New Century Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 326-28.
Interpretation – Commentary Series – Exodus, Luke, & 2 Corinthians (specific text segment).
Kersten, Phyllis “Off the mountain,” The Christian Century, Feb. 7-14, 2001, 13.
McGuckin, John Anthony. The Transfiguration of Christ in Scripture and Tradition, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity, vol. 9, ch3; “The Patristic Interpretation of the Transfiguration: & ch. 4 “The Transfiguration in the Prayer & Faith of the Church,” Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Pr., 1986, 99-143.
Mowinckel, Sigmund. The Psalms in Israel’s Worship. Nashville: Abingdon, 109-30.