Gag Order?

Read: 1 Corinthians 14:26-36

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NRSV).

In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I speak in church on a regular basis. And while my husband is a highly intelligent person, he would be the first to guffaw at the prospect of my going to him for guidance on matters of doctrine. Rock music, yes. Doctrine, no.

So, what are we to do with passages that seem to slam the door on women’s full participation in the church?

Some, of course, insist that this is a definitive word for all time. The simplicity and apparent obedience of this stance is appealing to many. Its advantages start to fade, however, as soon as we seek to apply it. Why should we issue a gag order for wise and intelligent women whose words would benefit the whole community?

Early in my career I was privileged to work with Dr. Isabel Wood Rogers. “Dr. Izzie” served as a mentor to generations of students. She held a Ph.D. in ethics and theology from Duke University and served as moderator of the PC(USA)’s 199th General Assembly. Yet even Dr. Izzie had stories to tell about congregations trying to figure out how to avail themselves of her gifts without violating what they perceived to be Scripture’s prohibition against women speaking in church. One congregation got around it by allowing her to speak from a lectern (not the pulpit), and then only if she agreed to wear a hat. Having known her, I’m not sure what’s more ridiculous about that story—the congregation’s machinations or the idea of Izzie in a hat.

So, even the “Paul said it; I believe it; that settles it” approach has its problems. In fact, there is some reason to think that the apostle Paul may not have said it. Some ancient manuscripts place these two controversial verses after verse 33, while others place them after verse 40. This suggests that they may, in fact, be a marginal gloss inserted into the text of Paul’s letter by someone else. Interesting as this suggestion is, it doesn’t really solve the problem for those of us who recognize the whole, complicated project as Scripture.

More productive, I think, is simply to acknowledge that these verses were written to a very particular context two millennia removed from our own. This is where the “What brought THAT on?” question comes in handy. In that culture, it was considered shameful for women to question or contradict men in public. Most of us do not live in such a culture. So, we need to receive these ancient words with a large grain of salt and ask, “What do these words mean in our culture?”

Interpreting the Bible is not for the lazy. It requires that we look not only at the cultural and historical context of a passage but at its literary context as well. I think the literary context of these verses gives us an important clue as to how to apply it today.

Paul’s overriding concern in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to be the edification of the whole church community. “Let all things be done for building up,” he says in v. 26. With that as our guide, I think we can safely dispense with the gag order.

I, for one, will continue to speak in church as often as I’m invited—and probably sometimes when I’m not.

Ponder: Who were the women who helped you to grow in faith? How would you have fared without them?

Pray: Thank you for calling wise and gifted women to lead your church, O God. Make your church ready to receive them.

Stand By Me

Read: Psalm 137

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9, NRSV).

Before you back away from this text in horror, pause for a minute to think about what’s behind it. And before you wish you could somehow cut it out of the canon, consider what it asks of you. Finally, bear in mind the awful possibility that you might need it someday.

Now, let’s look at all of these suggestions one at a time.

What’s behind this outburst? The first clue comes from the opening of the psalm, which is unusual for the specificity of its context. Most psalms are hard to pin down historically, but this one is clearly a psalm that was written “by the rivers of Babylon.” In other words, it was written by someone who had experienced the trauma and disillusionment that came when the Babylonian army swooped into Judah in 587 BCE. This was written by someone who had seen the Temple burned, the land lost, and scores of friends and relatives murdered. (So much for God’s promises to Abraham….)This was written by someone who had been carted off into a strange land to wait and wonder if God was even paying attention.

The second clue as to what brought this on is in the words, “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!” What’s been done, specifically? The next verse offers another clue. Imagine reading it with this inflection: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” That’s right. These are the words of someone who has witnessed their children dashed against the rocks.

Suddenly, this psalm doesn’t seem so repugnant. Or perhaps it is, but we are beginning to understand why someone would scream it. We might scream it, too, if we had experienced what they had.

Now let’s consider what this psalm asks of us. At the very least, I think it’s an invitation to stand beside people who have suffered such atrocities. Unfortunately, war crimes are still being committed. While we may be tempted to run away, this psalm asks us to stay—to stand beside those who suffer and listen to their lament. Even more, it invites us to do whatever we can to put a stop to such horrors.

Finally—though it pushes us to think about the unthinkable—we need to bear in mind the awful possibility that we might need words like this someday. God forbid we should, but the very fact that this cry from the heart of darkness is part of Scripture implies that these words are not off limits. They are not pretty, but they are permitted. We can say them, and God can handle them.

The last half of Psalm 137 will never win any popularity contexts. But before we cut it from the canon, we need to imagine ourselves standing beside the person who wrote it. Because it is with Bible study as it is with real estate; the three most important words are location, location, location.

Ponder: Do you hear v. 8 as a cry for vengeance or a cry for justice? What’s the difference?

Pray: Give us the courage to stand beside those who suffer, merciful God. And when we suffer, give others the courage to stand beside us.

Good Intentions

Read: Romans 7:14-20

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15, NRSV).

Don’t you wish you knew what was behind this statement? This is really one of those times when I find myself asking, “What brought THAT on?” I’m imagining the apostle Paul in all sorts of situations—some of them unsavory. Oddly, those are the ones that make me like him a little more.

Any time we delve into a New Testament epistle, it’s important to remember that we are reading someone else’s mail. And since twenty-one out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament ARE letters, that’s a lot of snooping.

Still, as Bible professor Peter Enns points out, the fact that these letters are included in the canon means that “we are supposed to read these letters—and not only read them, but find some way to draw them into our own lives.” Which is not to say we can just “drag these letters into our own life as is. We have to work at finding the connection between them and now.”*

Sometimes, finding that connection means doing some homework. Take, for instance, this verse from just a few chapters later in the book of Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). That’s a lovely verse…until it isn’t. If your particular politician is competent, wise, responsible, and sane, this verse is great. But what if they aren’t? We don’t have to work too hard to imagine what that might feel like. Do we still have to assume that an appalling politician’s leadership is “instituted by God”? It’s bad enough dealing with such people without granting them divine authority.

Enns suggests that we would do well to remember Paul’s context before we attempt to apply such verses to our own. The letter is written to first-century Christians in the city of Rome, after all. It was a place that was notoriously dangerous for both Christians and Jews. Paul himself ended up as a prisoner—and ultimately a martyr—there. So, maybe in this context, Romans 13:1 is “a word of wisdom for the church to keep a low profile and not to stir up trouble” (Enns, p. 259).

Having said all of this, however, I’m not sure we need too much context to help us get the gist of Paul’s I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate lament. The context of that statement seems to be, well, the human experience. We don’t need to know the particulars to understand what he’s talking about. We’ve all been there.

One of my favorite lines from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is this one: “Alice generally gave herself very good advice…though she very seldom followed it.”

Who’d have thought it. Alice and Paul are on the same page.

Ponder: How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? What’s that about?

Pray: Inspire our good intentions, O God. Strengthen our attempts to fulfill them. Forgive us when we fall short.


*Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Good News (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), pp.  254-255.

High Anxiety-Deep Peace

Read: Psalm 46

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns…Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth (Psalm 46: 4-5, 10, NRSV).

Chaos is all around in this psalm. First, there is cosmic chaos. (It’s never a good thing when the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.) Then, there is political chaos with the nations and the kingdoms slipping (That’s terrifying, too—just in a different way.)

But in the midst of all this chaos—Zion—the city of Jerusalem stands serene. It’s a still point at the center of the psalm. A place of safety where the people of God can take refuge. Why? Because God is there. “The Lord of hosts is with us,” the psalmist says. “The God of Jacob is our refuge.”

I’ve often wondered what specific situation gave rise to this psalm. It sounds like something that could have been written the night before a battle—maybe one of those times when Jerusalem was under siege. “God will help it when morning dawns,” the psalmist says. And even though there is reason to be afraid—to panic, even—the psalmist hears God saying, “Be still! Be still and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth.”

It can’t have been easy to “be still” in that situation. It isn’t easy. When we’re afraid—when we feel our anxiety rising—it’s as if fear takes us by the throat. We start to panic. We want to run. But just when we feel like the fear is going to win, we hear God’s voice saying, “Be still. Be still.”

Our first thoughts might be, “Seriously? You want me to be still? In this situation?”

It’s only when we remember who God is that this inner stillness—this peace that passes understanding—is possible. The psalm says, “Be still and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” So what if the nations are slipping—I am King of Kings and Lord of Lords! So what if the mountains are slipping—I am the creator of heaven and earth! Remember who you’re dealing with. The Lord of Hosts is with you—the God of Jacob is your refuge.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about Psalm 46 and my suspicion that it was written the night before a battle, but it reminded me of my great uncle, Ralph Bielema. Ralph was an army chaplain in WWII. He was sent to France just after D-Day and followed Patton’s troops through the Battle of the Bulge and the less-known (but every bit as horrific) Battle of Hurtgen Forest. At the end of the war, he witnessed the horrors uncovered in one of the newly liberated concentration camps.

Some years ago I inherited the communion cup that Ralph used during the war with those soldiers. By the time it found its way to me, it was black with tarnish, so one day I decided to take some silver polish to it. The cup cleaned up beautifully, but there was one area that no amount of polish could completely clean. All around the rim was a faint shadow. I realized—in a moment that still takes my breath away—that it was the shadow of all the lips that had sipped from that cup. For some of those men, it was surely their “last supper.” We can only hope that it brought them some comfort, some sense of that “peace that passes understanding.”

As we face the future, we can’t be sure what’s ahead. But we can be sure of one thing: The Lord of Hosts is with us, and the God of Jacob is our refuge. And that, is what makes it possible for us to face whatever comes with peace, courage, confidence, and joy. May God give you all of those things—now and in all the years ahead.

Ponder: What situations make you anxious or afraid? How might you find peace in the midst of that chaos?

Pray: Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire your still, small voice of calm, O Lord.

Introducing Our New Series: What Brought THAT On?

Have you ever read a Bible passage and found yourself wondering, “What brought THAT on?”

In this series we’ll explore the real or imagined back-stories for some of the passages that have left me wondering the same thing. We’ll never know whether they are right, I suppose. But just trying to figure them out can bring us to a deeper appreciation of these puzzling passages—and closer, perhaps, to what they may mean for our lives.

So, prepare for some good old-fashioned detective work as we ask, “What brought THAT on?”

Carol M. Bechtel

The Woman Caught in Adultery

Read: John 7:53 – 8:11

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground (John 8:3-6, NRSV).

Let’s call her Kate.

I know, I know. The story doesn’t tell us her name, but “Kate” sounds like someone we might know from school or church or water aerobics class. Kate is a real human being with a favorite color and a favorite song. She has strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. In short, Kate is more than just a woman wearing a scarlet letter “A.”

Seeing Kate as a person instead of a pawn is key to understanding this story. Let’s remember that as we consider the other characters.

First there are the morality police. (That’s not how the gospel writer identifies them, of course, but if the sandal fits….). You can tell a lot about these guys by what they do and say. After having caught our friend, Kate, “in the very act of committing adultery,” they drag her into the temple precincts and make her “stand before all of them.” So, public shaming is high on their agenda. If she was caught “in the very act” as they say, one wonders why they haven’t dragged her partner in as well. After all, the “law of Moses” has an equal opportunity death penalty for both parties in cases of adultery (see Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22-24 if you dare). Maybe they just aren’t that interested in shaming a man.

But I think shaming, misogyny, and bloodlust are just icing on the cake for these guys. Their primary goal is to set a trap for Jesus. After citing the law of Moses, they turn to Jesus and ask, “Now, what do you say?” To make sure we understand that this is a trap, the gospel writer whispers loudly to his audience: “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” Got it. Trap baited and set.

Jesus, however, does something completely unexpected: he bends down and writes with his finger on the ground.

Wait. What?

While we can’t be sure why he did this, I think it’s fair to say it took the attention off of Kate for a moment. (Thank you, Jesus!) It’s clear that it also frustrated the morality police. They continue to pepper him with questions until finally, he stands up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bends down again and writes some more in the dirt. Jesus seems to have sprung a trap of his own because, after this, “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.” Jesus and Kate are alone at last. He straightens up and asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

What, I wonder, did he write in the dirt? There’s no way to know, of course. But I have a theory.

The first time, I think he wrote her name: KATE. KATE. KATE.  I see you. I know you. I love you, would have been the message to her.

The second time, I think he wrote the names of her accusers—along with a few pithy details of their sins. Enough to send them a strong signal that—to paraphrase the Samaritan woman in chapter 4—this guy knows everything you’ve ever done.

Who knows. But whatever he wrote, it sent the morality police scurrying away. And it left our friend Kate alone with the one man who would never hurt her, shame her, or disappoint her.

Ponder: What does this story have to say to us today? Have you ever been the target of a mob? A member of one?

Pray: Thank you for seeing us, for knowing us, and for loving us, O God. Forgive us for being so quick to cast stones.

The Woman at the Well

Read: John 4:1-42

Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:6-9a, NRSV).

So, you know that moment when you’re watching a scary movie? You’ve just relaxed because your favorite character is no longer in peril. “That was close!” you think.  But then another little voice in the back of your mind says, “Brace yourself…the monster is probably going to…AHHHH!!!”

Or maybe your cinematic preferences run more toward romance. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to know what’s going to happen when the violins start to play, and the handsome young lead gets down on one knee and pulls out a ring box.  “Oh, I know how this goes!” you say to yourself. And if it’s the Hallmark channel, you’re almost never wrong.

Oh, I know how this goes! That’s exactly what an ancient audience would have thought on hearing the beginning of the story of the woman at the well. The future bridegroom journeys to a foreign land and encounters a young woman at a well. Water is drawn, words are exchanged, and the woman runs back to tell her family about the stranger’s arrival. One thing leads to another (usually over food), and by the end of the story, the couple is engaged.

The original audience for the story of the woman at the well would have expected something very like this. The fact that it takes place at Jacob’s well would have reinforced these expectations, since Jacob and Rachel’s engagement had happened much this way in Genesis 29 (see also Genesis 24 for Isaac and Rebekah’s version). In technical terms, it’s called a type-scene. Part of the fun is knowing how it’s going to turn out.

But it doesn’t turn out that way in John 4, does it. What looks like a marriage proposal quickly morphs into a graduate seminar. Jesus and the woman start talking theology. In fact, this is the longest theological discussion recorded in this gospel. By the end of it, she’s convinced he’s the Messiah, and hurries back to town to evangelize her neighbors. They invite him to stay with them, and two days later, they pronounce him “the Savior of the world.”

If the ancient audience of this story was caught off guard by some of its improvisations, I suspect that their surprise was nothing compared to that of the Samaritan woman’s. From the very moment Jesus asked her for a drink, he treated her with respect. Sure, he knew all about her, but that didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to him. His “engagement” with her was based on love—a love that defied all stereotypes and expectations.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on the Samaritan woman that didn’t emphasize her “notorious” character. That’s the story we expect to hear. But maybe we should consider the possibility that this story says something more—something new. After all, some of God’s best stories have surprise endings.

Ponder: What is the most surprising aspect of this story for you? How has your own engagement with Jesus surprised you?

Pray: Help us to see beyond our expectations, gracious God. Open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to all the ways you want to surprise us.


Read: Exodus 32

[The people] said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off”; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf! (Exodus 32: 23-24, NRSV).

Aaron gets mostly positive press in the Bible. He’s Moses’ brother, after all, as well as God’s hand-picked priest. But then there is this story—the one about the golden calf. It is anything but flattering. Not everyone, evidently, was a fan.

But let’s circle back to the beginning of the story. Moses has left Aaron to babysit the newly liberated people of God while he goes up the mountain to hobnob with God and fetch the ten commandments. He is gone a long time, and the people get restless. “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us,” the people say to Aaron. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

It’s hard to know what to be shocked about first in this statement. The people don’t seem to feel much loyalty to “this Moses.” But they have even less loyalty to the God who had engineered the exodus in the first place. Never mind. Out of sight, out of mind. Make us some gods we can keep an eye on.

What were Aaron’s feelings at this point? The Bible is stubbornly silent about that. If anything, his quick response gives the impression that he didn’t agonize much over it. He seems to have had a pretty detailed plan on hand for just such an eventuality. After passing the plate for everyone’s gold jewelry, he takes the gold from them, forms it in a mold, and casts an image of a calf.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but most people don’t just “happen” to have a calf mold lying around. The fact that Aaron’s got one, makes the whole thing sound premeditated.

So, why—when Moses comes back down the mountain and confronts him—does Aaron make it sound like the calf just popped out of the kiln of its own accord?

Most of us are pretty good at prevaricating. We learn it as soon as we’re old enough to get caught with our hand in the cookie jar. Maybe that’s why this story is in the Bible. It’s to give us a glimpse of how dumb we look when we try to “spin” our way out of taking responsibility for our sins.

The story also reminds us that we’re only fooling ourselves. The last line of the chapter is pretty matter-of-fact about it. “Then the LORD sent a plague on the people,” it says, “because they made the calf—the one Aaron made.”

So much for spin!

Ponder: When was the last time you tried to spin an excuse to make yourself look better? Did it work? How did it make you feel afterwards?

Pray: Help us to own up to our mistakes, O God, for our own sake and everyone else’s.

Ananias and Sapphira

Read: Acts 4:32 – 5:16

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land…You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him (Acts 5:1-3; 4c-6, NRSV).

Integrity has been in the news a lot lately, though that’s mostly due to its absence.

Have you noticed that the people who talk about integrity the most are often the ones who embody it the least? Here is a glaring example, “ripped from the headlines” as they say.

This past week House Speaker Kevin McCarthy cited integrity as his reason for refusing to reinstate democrats Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff to the House Intelligence Committee. This from the man who had just appointed conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene to the Homeland Security Committee and serial liar George Santos to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “Integrity matters more,” McCarthy opined in his letter to House Minority Leader, Hakeem Jeffries.

One is hard pressed to know what to say in response to such hypocrisy. Political strategist Rick Wilson, however, came up with this memorable quip: “Man, the self-awareness removal surgery really worked well.”

In truth, we have all had a certain amount of self-awareness removal surgery. That’s what leads us to thinking the story of Ananias and Sapphira is about somebody else.

To really understand the story of this notorious couple, it helps to get the backstory. In the previous chapter we’re told that the early Christians “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). The result of this remarkable commitment was that “there was not a needy person among them.” We’re then introduced to Barnabas, the poster-child for integrity, who “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”

It’s against this background that we meet Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They agree to hold back some of the proceeds from their real estate sale. When their hypocrisy is revealed, they take turns dropping dead and are carried feet first into history.

Not surprisingly, “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (5:11). What is surprising, however, is that the church continued to grow. It seems to have been slow going at first. Directly after the Ananias and Sapphira incident, “none of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” Eventually, however, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.”

We could worry over many things in this story. Questions like, “Does Christianity really prohibit private property?” or “Does God really strike people dead for lying?” come to mind. These are great questions, but I think I’d be content if we simply took this story as a reminder of the importance of integrity.

What if the Church grew not in spite of the sobering story Ananias and Sapphira, but because of it. Maybe today more believers would be “added to the Lord” if those of us who bear Christ’s name gained a better reputation for integrity. What would it be like for the Christian church to again be held “in high esteem”? Now there’s a wistful question!

Truth be told, I’m glad the author of Acts was honest enough to include the story of this notorious couple. As preacher Will Willimon points out, this story reminds us that the church has always been full of “real people struggling to be faithful in a world which makes faithfulness problematic.” At the end of the day, “the Ananiases and Sapphiras of the church…are us.”* And it’s up to us—with God being our helper—to restore the Church’s reputation for integrity.

Ponder: What examples of integrity have you witnessed lately—either inside or outside the Church? How do those examples motivate you?

Pray: Help us to be honest with ourselves, with others, and with you, O God.


*William H. Willimon, Acts in the Interpretation Series (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988), p. 55.


Read: 2 Kings 9:30-37

When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; she painted her eyes, and adorned her head, and looked out of the window. As Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it peace, Zimri, murderer of your master?” He looked up to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down; some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her (2 Kings 9:30-33, NRSV).

Jezebel. Her name has become a byword for wanton wickedness, a metaphor for immorality. If there were a lifetime achievement award for biblical villainy, she would be a contender.

Still, one wonders if a biographer from her home town of Sidon might have been more sympathetic than the biblical author. She is royalty, after all. Even her enemy, Jehu, admits as much when he sends some servants to “see to that cursed woman and bury her; for she is a king’s daughter” (2 Kings 9:34). A less prejudiced perspective might even highlight some admirable qualities. Let’s run with that for a moment.

Jezebel is deeply religious. (OK, so it’s a fertility cult, but her zeal is impressive.) She does her level best to kill off all the prophets of the LORD (1 Kings 18:4). Plus, she is a staunch patron of the prophets of her own gods, Baal and Ashera. Four hundred of the prophets of Ashera were said to eat at her table (1 Kings 18:19). That must have been some running tab.

She is politically ambitious and has the intelligence and savvy to achieve her goals. In fact, she and her husband, Ahab, are the original power couple. (Think Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards.) One could argue that she’s the more powerful of the two, especially in light of her “take charge” attitude in the Naboth’s vineyard incident (see 1 Kings 21). She must have clerked at a local law firm to come up with that plot to entrap Naboth and steal his coveted vineyard.

We should also acknowledge her strength, courage, and adaptability. It couldn’t have been easy coming into a foreign palace—and a foreign culture—as an outsider. Yet, she thrives on the challenge. Even the prophet Elijah—riding the wave of a spectacular victory over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—turns tail and runs for the wilderness when Jezebel threatens him (1 Kings 19).

And then there is this final scene in 2 Kings 9—Jezebel’s spectacular exit. You have to admire her poise. When Jehu the usurper rides into town (fresh from killing Jezebel’s son, Joram), Jezebel must know the score. Yet, she calmly applies her make-up. After taking her own sweet time, she makes her way to the window and hurls out an insult designed to cut Jehu to the quick. “Zimri,” she calls him. Zimri was an infamous assassin whose reign didn’t outlast a head of lettuce (1 Kings 16:8-20). Say what you will about Jezebel, that insult was well-aimed.

Jehu, of course, is not amused. “Who is on my side? Who?” he shouts. Three of Jezebel’s eunuchs shoulder past her to stick their heads out the window. “Throw her down,” Jehu commands. One imagines them glancing at one another and shrugging. (Hmmm—why might three men castrated so they could serve in the queen’s bedchamber have reason for resentment?) They toss her out.

By the time anyone ambles down into the courtyard to retrieve her body, there’s not much left of it. The biblical author is quick to remind us that this poetic justice is in perfect fulfillment of Elijah’s prophecy that the dogs would lick up her blood at the scene of one of her most notorious crimes—the murder of Naboth. What goes around comes around, I guess you could say.

Jezebel surely deserves her notoriety. Still, we’re drawn to her character even as we’re repelled by it. (Think Tony Soprano.) And I think it’s that mix of admiration and revulsion that makes her one of the Bible’s most memorable characters.

Say what you will about Jezebel, you’ll never forget her.

Ponder the misogynistic, racist trope that applies the term “Jezebel” to women of color. (Hint: it says more about the people who use it than the women they slander.)

Pray: Judge us all according to your steadfast love and mercy, gracious God. Shape our values and our character according to those same qualities.


Read: Genesis 4:1-16

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8-9, NRSV).

Cain is notorious for being the world’s first murderer. While that reputation is well-deserved, I would like to focus on his facility for lying. Since most of us are not guilty of murder, it’s easy to sidestep this story as being “about somebody else.” When we focus on Cain’s lies, however, it’s a story that strikes closer to home.

So, Cain and Abel each present an offering to the LORD. God shows a preference for Abel’s offering (we’re not told why), and Cain is not amused. In fact, he is “very angry.” God notices this, and warns Cain that he is on thin ice. (Actually, the metaphor God uses is that “sin is lurking at the door,” which sounds every bit as dangerous.) Cain, however, ignores the warning and invites his brother out for a walk from which Abel will not return. Did Cain plan to kill his brother on that walk? If so, it’s premeditated murder. In any case, God shows up after the fact and confronts Cain with a question: “Where is your brother Abel?”

We as readers may have some questions at this point as well. If God knew that Cain was a ticking time bomb, why didn’t God stop him rather than simply warn him? If God knew what happened, why did God bother to ask? While these are good questions, the Bible isn’t interested in answering them, so I suggest we move on. The biblical storyteller is interested in Cain’s response to God’s question, so let’s look there. “I don’t know,” Cain says. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

First of all, “I do not know” is a bald-faced lie. Cain knows full well that Abel is lying dead in a field somewhere. Cain could have led God right to the scene of the crime—or at least he could have if he weren’t so eager to distance himself from the deed.

In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So, Cain shrugs his shoulders and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

You’ve got to hand it to him. This is a classic bit of misdirection designed to make God feel guilty even for asking. If God were more of a push-over, God might have replied, “Oh, well, no—sorry I asked.” But God is not a push-over, and is having none of it. Of course, being omniscient helps some, too, and God knows full well that Abel is lying in a pool of his own blood and that it was Cain that put him there. So, there is that. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that after the initial lie, Cain’s first instinct is to shift the blame.

One could argue that Cain came by this character flaw quite naturally. Back in Genesis 3 Cain’s father, Adam, is quick to blame Cain’s mother, Eve, for the forbidden fruit affair. She in turn passes the buck to the snake. But God is not fooled by either of them, and wastes no time dealing out the consequences.

There are consequences for Cain as well. First, he will have a much harder time farming. There is a certain poetic justice to this, since he desecrated the ground by spilling his brother’s blood on it. But God also condemns him to being a “fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” This is too much for Cain, and he cries out that “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”

This is the point at which God puts a “mark” on Cain—not to brand him as a murderer but to protect him from being a “marked man.” Justice, it seems, is being tempered with mercy. It’s a lesson Cain will have the rest of his lonely life to learn.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked earlier in the story. Ironically, that’s the moment when he inadvertently stumbles onto the truth. He expects the answer to his rhetorical question to be “No.” But it’s “Yes.” Yes—a thousand times yes. We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.

Ponder this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” When is silence not only betrayal, but a lie we tell ourselves?

Pray: Give us the wisdom to know the truth and to tell it—to ourselves, to others, and to You.


“Notorious” Series Introduction

The dictionary defines someone who is “notorious” as a person who is “famous or well-known, typically for some bad quality or deed.”

Some of the characters featured in this series deserve that reputation; others do not. We’ll take a closer look at those in both categories, and you can make up your own mind. But whether the characters deserve to go to jail or to rehab, they can teach us a few things about integrity.

So, strap yourselves in and get ready to meet some of the Bible’s most notorious characters!

Carol M. Bechtel