This summer, as a CBE International community, we are reading Kelley Nikondeha’s latest book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom. (It’s not too late to join! Pick up the book in the CBE Bookstore and join our Facebook discussion group.) Defiant explores the lives of the women of Exodus and shows how they “exhibited a subversive strength to defy Pharaoh and lead an entire people to freedom” (from the publisher’s description). Each chapter focuses on an Exodus woman (or group of Exodus women) and connects her story with the stories of women today and in recent history who also exhibited a holy defiance toward modern pharaohs. We chose Kelley’s book to read together this summer both for the way she brings to life the women of Exodus and for how deftly she shows how women today can embrace the freedom we have in God and harness it to liberate others.
Kelley graciously agreed to let us get to know her a little better and hear more about the book from her perspective.
Ellen Richard Vosburg: I would guess that most people don’t think of Exodus first when they think about books of the Bible that empower women to lead, but you show clearly that those women are there. You mentioned in the book that you found these women by way of Moses and looking for a model to follow when you became a pastor’s wife. Could you share more about that journey, and how it led you to the Exodus women?
Kelley Nikondeha: I came of age in evangelical spaces that did not offer much in the way of female archetypes beyond the contemplative Marys: Mother Mary who “pondered all these things in her heart” and Mary of Bethany who “chose the better thing” by sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus. In an odd textual twisting, these women were portrayed as mild women who knew their place. The evangelical culture filled in the gaps with domestic expectations more akin to Martha. We completely missed Mother Mary who sang of liberation and Mary, a disciple of Jesus, learning alongside the men in a patriarchy-busting move. In retrospect, I was always looking for a better archetype for my own engagement in the church and community at large.
When I accepted Claude’s marriage proposal, he was already an ordained Free Methodist minister. He never accepted a congregational call, instead opting for community development work in his Burundian homeland. He, not unlike Mother Mary, wanted to see people set free, to see the hungry satisfied and the lowly uplifted in tangible ways. As we worked together in Burundian communities, I witnessed the strength and capacity of the women to transform their own landscape. They contributed to the work in undeniable ways—even the men recognized it—and the women were invited into official leadership roles in the village. Something in me shifted as I watched them lead. I saw with fresh eyes the potential of all women, not just the anointed few.
Right about this time I returned to the Exodus narrative. Reading the story as an adult, my more mature sensibilities (combined with insightful commentaries) helped me to see the liberation arc in fresh ways. At first I focused on Moses and his mothers, seeing the salvific role they each played in his life. Without these women and their nervy engagement in liberation work, he quite literally would have died. End of story. These two women made Moses possible. And then I saw the women that came before, the midwives who delivered boys and girls alike in defiance to Pharaoh, and the seven sisters of Midian who came after the mothers and demonstrated solidarity. I think the combination of seeing the mothers in the text and the Burundian women in their communal context helped me see the full landscape of the Exodus women in all their liberative glory. They were the archetype I’d hungered for since my youth—strong, engaged, compelling and full participants in the liberation work of their time.
ERV: When did you realize you wanted to write a book about the Exodus women? How did you first begin to bring their stories together with those of the more contemporary women whose stories you tell (for example, Rosa Parks, Emma Gonzalez, Emilie Schindler)?
KN: Somewhere between our development work in Burundi (which began in 2008) and my work on articulating a practical theology of adoption (which was published in 2017), I saw the women of Exodus in this new way. As soon as I discovered the women of Exodus and embraced their witness as a personal archetype for my own engagement in the world, I knew it would be a matter of time before I shared more widely with others.
For me it’s a short distance between biblical text and current context. Once I saw the Exodus women defying Pharaoh, I noticed other women moving in defiance of the pharaonic forces of racism in America, past and present. Rosa Parks sitting in her seat and Bree Newsome pulling down a Confederate flag, both brave acts of defiance, like the midwives. When Jochebed hid her son, I thought of women who hid Jews from the Nazi regime to guard their lives. So many know of Oskar Schindler from Schindler’s List, but lost on the cutting room floor was the work of his wife, Emilie. She hid Jewish workers, procured food and medicine, and even proper burial for those brutalized by the Pharaoh of her day. And when I wrote of young Miriam with all her youthful moxie, I could see Emma Gonzalez standing up to the NRA and Ahed Tamimi standing up to the occupying forces in her West Bank village. It is a liberation thread that runs through all these women, from Exodus to today’s news feed. Women have never ceased their work in the freedom enterprise, even if we have not always had eyes to see it as such.
The first time I preached about the Exodus women was in the wake of the 2016 election. Gathered were black, brown, and many white women. Some were immigrants, others from indigenous clans, still others visiting from different countries. The energy in the room was palpable as I spoke of our Exodus matriarchs. Yes, as a preacher, I was energized by these women and excited to share their stories. But there was an equal buzz from the women in the room, a reciprocity as we engaged in spirited dialogue about our liberation mandate and what that might look like in our present Egypt. In that setting it began to be clear that these twelve women might have something to say to our current situation, to show us what faithfulness looks like in perilous times and how we can imagine our engagement now. The Exodus women could activate us by showing us another way women can engage in their church and their communities.
I realized that women wanted permission to engage with the issues of the day, maybe even to join others on the streets in protest against injustice. But they wanted to see it in Scripture to be sure this was allowed. The women of Exodus were both picture and permission for women to get off the sidelines and follow where they Spirit led them. I knew it was time to birth this book.
ERV: What books are you reading this summer and enjoying?
KN: This summer I’ve read history books. I read Bethlehem: Biography of a Town by Nicholas Blincoe, diving deep into the truth and tales of my most beloved town in Israel-Palestine. I completed Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture by Karen L. Cox to better understand the part of white women in promotion of the Lost Cause narrative in the South, along with their campaign to erect monuments across the southern landscape. I am currently reading The Herodian Period edited by Michael Avi-Yonah to better understand Herod the Great and his influence on the world of the Advent narratives in Matthew and Luke. Summer for me is a time to read slowly, deeply, and hope for a paradigm shift or two.
I have also enjoyed the poetry of Clint Smith (Counting Descent), Mohja Kahf (Hagar Poems) and Najwan Darwish (Nothing More to Lose). Each morning I look to a couple poems to connect me to beauty, truth, and learning from another angle.
Confession: I don’t read fiction. My idea of a light read is a cookbook or art book. To that end, I have devoured Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi and the recently released Falastin, also by Tamimi. As I’ve stayed home more than not, I’ve enjoyed time in the kitchen becoming familiar with pomegranate molasses, tahini, zatar with real Palestinian hyssop, and date syrup. I’ve finally mastered hummus, labneh, and an array of salads heavy with parsley and mint. If I close my eyes, I imagine I am at Chef Fadi’s table on Star Street in Bethlehem.
Read part 2 of our conversation here.
Image adapted from photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash