Defiant (Kelley Nikondeha) -- Review

DEFIANT: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom. By Kelley Nikondeha. Foreword by Sarah Bessey. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. Xi + 216 pages.

When we think of the Book of Exodus, our minds probably immediately go to Moses. There’s a good reason for that, as he is the lead human character in the story. He is the one whom God calls to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land. While all of this is true, women play an essential role in the story and it's not just a background role. Women such as Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter play rather definitive roles in the story. Without the women who populate the story, there would be no Moses or perhaps an exodus. So, perhaps there’s a need for a retelling of the story to highlight the contributions of the women in the story. We have that retelling in the form of Kelley Nikondeha’s Defiant.

Kelley Nikondeha is a skilled and thoughtful storyteller who serves with her husband as the co-director for Communities of Hope in Burundi. In that position, she also serves as chief story-teller. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, a book that I found to be beautifully written and compelling exploration of the concept of adoption, both in her own experience and in the biblical story (my review is here). That attention to detail in both contemporary and biblical stories emerges here in Defiant. As with the earlier book, she demonstrates an amazing ability to weave personal stories with the biblical story to create a compelling narrative that enlightens and inspires. As one who has attempted this myself, I am impressed by her abilities in this regard.

In Adopted Nikondeha shares her own story of being adopted and of being an adoptive parent in conversation with the biblical story. Here, she focuses her attention on the Exodus narrative, teasing out the stories of the women of Exodus. But this is not just about a book in the Bible, it is a book about women, biblical or otherwise, who push boundaries to bring freedom to their communities. In reading the book you will discover insight into the biblical book of Exodus, but you will also see in new ways the strength displayed by women who give of themselves to the pursuit of freedom.
Nikondeha offers the women in the Book of Exodus as archetypes for modern women. At one level, she writes that women "can defy the pharaoh's (and pharaonic policies) of our day; we can subvert ordinary tasks for salvific purpose; we can organize for resistance and work in solidarity to repair our neighborhoods." Secondly, these archetypal women "challenge us to consider our social location." That is, she asks us to consider the question of how the social position of these women, including both the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh's daughter, influenced their actions. (pp. 6-7). She writes that she engages in this work as both a student of scripture and as "a woman hungry for justice." Both are evidenced in this book.

As she begins the story in chapter one, she seeks to balance the way scripture often focuses on twelve men, whether the twelve sons of Jacob or the twelve apostles, with the stories of twelve women. Here we're asked to imagine twelve women who serve as parallel founders to the men whose stories are foundational to the biblical story. In the course of this conversation, she not only introduces us to biblical women, but also to the Batwa women of Burundi, with whom Nikondeha has worked, as well as other modern women who have demonstrated courage and leadership.

This conversation sets the stage for the rest of the book. We're invited to consider the lives of Shiprah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who resisted Pharaoh and saved the lives of male Hebrew babies. There is Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who contributed to freedom by relinquishing her beloved son to the daughter of Pharaoh, all of which was aided and abetted by Moses' older sister Miriam. Then there is Bithiah, pharaoh’s daughter. Though she's not named in Scripture, Jewish tradition has given her the name of Bithiah. Here is the story of a person of high birth, a princess of the realm, who rejects her father's murderous acts and conspires with Jochabed to save Moses. In other words, she leveraged her privilege. Then there's Miriam, who assisted in the transfer of Moses to Bithiah's care. She might have been young, but she was courageous and thoughtful. In this chapter Nikondeha brings into the conversation the students from Parkland, Florida who stood up for gun laws, bravely taking on the NRA, among other stories. There is a chapter on the relationship between Jochebed and Bithiah, as they conspired together to save Moses, suggesting the power of motherhood. In this chapter Nikondeha shares her own story of being an adoptive mother to children from Burundi, mixing her family story with the story Trayvon Martin. Though she is white, her son is black. She shares how she comes to realize that her son might suffer the same fate as Trayvon.

We move on in the book from Egypt to Midian, where Moses meets the seven sisters, who are strong and determined, herding their flock for their father Jethro. Moses will rescue them, but they will teach him as well. The story of the sisters is mixed in with modern stories of women who pushed boundaries, reminding us that women have pushed against injustice. Among those seven sisters was Zipporah, who became Moses' wife, and his savior, when for some reason God attacked him. She is pictured circumcising their son and using the foreskin to ward off the attack. This leads to a reflection on the story of Mary's anointing of Jesus, which Nikondeha provocatively, but I think rightly, suggests anoints Jesus not for burial but as God’s Messiah. In other words, Zipporah and Mary both engage in sacramental, even priestly acts.

When Moses and Zipporah return to Egypt, Nikondeha envisions them encountering a Nile Network of neighbors from two sides of the river, linking Hebrew and Egyptian women in a network that resists Pharaoh. It is this network that leads to the Hebrew women gaining access to Egyptian good for the exodus. This invites us to consider the freeing power of neighborliness.

Finally, we come to a chapter titled "Descendants of Miriam." Here she reminds us that Miriam was a partner with her brothers in leading Israel out of Egypt. Nikondeha pictures Miriam leading the singing and dancing as the Hebrews crossed through the Reed Sea. While Moses may have led the singing, Nikondeha notes that there is good reason to believe that it was Miriam who wrote the songs. Along the way she played the drums. Miriam, as noted here, is the first woman to be declared a prophet. She is the forerunner of those who beat the drums of freedom in the ages to come.

This is one of those books, along with Debbie Blue’s recently published book Consider the Women, which I also found to be beautifully written, that will open one's eyes to the broader movements of scripture, bringing forth persons who normally are left in the background, giving them a voice in the story. As a good storyteller, she knows how to weave ancient and modern stories into a compelling narrative. She draws you into the narratives, both the biblical and the personal, opening your eyes to parts of the story you might not have noticed before. She fills gaps in the story, interpreting, faithfully I believe, the fuller story. If you’re reading this review, hopefully, you will be convinced of your need to read this book. You can read it for yourself. You might even want to read it in groups. With that in mind, the publisher has provided a study guide. I can assure you that you will never read the Exodus story the same again after you read it through this lens. I also expect you will use the tools provided here to pay attention to the women who appear in other biblical stories, noting their strength of character and the power of their faith in God. So, take and read Kelley Nidondeha's Defiant. You won’t be sorry! 


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