A woman of valor is a sight to behold—just read Proverbs 31 to see her in her glory, shining like a solitary stone perched in a pronged setting. Industrious producer, blessed mother, purveyor of wisdom, she even finds time to tirelessly advocate for the poor of her community. No wonder she is praised at the city gates.
But let me say the quiet part out loud—a woman of valor is an exhaustible resource. Her incessant labor and accompanying energy only last so long before she is spent. Sustainability is hard for the strong but singular woman at work in the world. Discouragement knocks on her door without retreat until, at last, she opens the door and gives it some bread to placate the dogged demands. It happens to all valorous women at one time or another.
Let me say the quiet part out loud—a woman of valor is an exhaustible resource.
My experience and exegesis tell me that the strategy for sustainability is the practice of solidarity. When women band together, they endure the various seasons with their varied demands. They devise strategies to survive the never-ending days, take turns on the frontlines, and act as ready resources for one another. Women create shared space for lament, ambition, recharging, and more.
I first saw this in Matara, a small community in Burundi. The pristine land, uncut by human hands, became host to thirty Batwa families. The women, babies strapped to their backs, worked side by side in a ribbon-like formation across the green landscape. They ploughed soil, dropped seeds, harvested cabbage and carrots and potatoes. They exuded prolonged stamina because they worked together and took care of one another along the way. Individual plots would have meant solo effort and smaller yields, but collective plots and shared workload meant they all lasted through the growing season and had more bounty to bring home to their families. Their collaboration was so productive that the community elected several of them to the leadership committee, defying the patriarchal patterns of the region.
Meditating on the Exodus story offered another lesson in solidarity. The seven sisters of Midian tended the family flock, probably in the absence of any brothers. Daily they navigated the arid landscape to get the sheep to the well and water. Daily they dealt with the terrain, but also the aggressive tactics of the other shepherds in the region vying for the same water source.
When we meet the sisters, they’re approaching the well with their herd. Some men jostle to the well and disrupt their efforts. Moses springs into action, deliver that he is, and defends the women. Then he waters the sheep. The sisters make their way home early that day, to the surprise of their father. The Exodus narrator wants us to laud Moses and get a foreshadowing of his deliverance capacity—but when I read their story, I couldn’t take my eyes off the strong women.
They were the original deliverers offering salvation to their flock before Moses showed up.
We get a glimpse of one day when a deliverer came to the well—but what about all the other days? These sisters had strategies to meet each day, each tussle with hostile men, and ways to guard the sheep from other kinds of predators roaming the land. They knew each other well enough to know who should engage in a match of wits, who could maneuver the flock to the front of the line the quickest, who could distract the shepherds with her beauty and which sisters were stronger in tandem. I imagine that there were days when one or another needed a break, to take on the easier chores. I guess that one was more skilled with the flint and with rescuing ewe in distress or soothing lambs just out of the birth canal. And together they supported and protected each other. Their sistered solidarity was key to their stamina on all the other days.
They were the good shepherds who guarded the sheep, guided them to green pastures and still waters. The sheep knew their voice. They were the original deliverers offering salvation to their flock before Moses showed up. And I think that these women showed him what solidarity looked like and how necessary it was for the long arc of liberation work ahead.
May we be women of valor, working together toward liberation.
Kelley Nikondeha’s new book, Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom (Eerdmans, 2020), releases tomorrow (March 24):
There would be no Moses, no crossing of the Red Sea, no story of breaking the chains of slavery if it weren’t for the women in the Exodus narrative. Women on both sides of the Nile exhibited a subversive strength resisting Pharaoh and leading an entire people to freedom. Defiant is about the deep work women do to create conditions for liberation in their church, community, and country. The women of Exodus defied Pharaoh, raised Moses, and plundered Egypt. We are invited to consider what the midwives, mothers of Moses, Miriam, Zipporah and her sisters demonstrate under the oppressive regime of Pharaoh and what it might unlock for us as we imagine our mandate under modern systems of injustice.
Connect with Kelley at kelleynikondeha.com