In her foreword, Sarah Bessey offers a concise summary of Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom:
Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. (x)
Kelley Nikondeha serves up powerful insights from the stories of the women of Exodus, the stories of women who resisted historical and modern injustices, and her own experiences as an adopted Latina American woman married to a Burundian man and mother to Burundian-born, American-raised children. She describes how women across time have found unique and creative ways to counter inequity and lays out a model for how women today can work to advance justice.
Nikondeha also shows how women living in patriarchal and racist cultures outmaneuvered the strict roles dictated by their gender, ethnicity, and social status. They defied a traditional understanding of biblical womanhood to step into their God-ordained roles and overturn an empire. The result is a compelling and hopeful call to action; a call for women to partner with God, sometimes in subversive ways, to set God’s people free in our churches and neighborhoods.
Raised in white evangelical culture, Nikondeha didn’t always recognize the power of women working together. She describes the revelation she had as she and her husband launched a development organization to serve a community of Batwa, a marginalized minority in Burundi. She says that watching the Batwa women work and care for their community turned her American evangelical perceptions “that women are the side dish and not the main” upside down (16). The strength of these women opened Nikondeha’s eyes to the work of women in other contexts. She explains, “women hold up half the sky—and I finally recognized that” (17).
Drawing on the Old Testament, Jewish tradition, and cultural history, Nikondeha brings her readers into the often-overlooked lives of the “Nile Network,” the women whose hard work was indispensable to freeing God’s people. These women are the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’s mother, Jochebed, Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, as well as the seven sisters of Midian, and Moses’s wife, Zipporah. Moses’ sister, Miriam, the first woman in the Bible to be acknowledged as a prophet, is front and center.
Through civil disobedience, solidarity, alliances, reparations, sacrament, and motherhood, Nikondeha explores how women have subverted cultural (and sometimes legal) norms to fight injustice and heal communities around the world and across history. She describes women at the forefront of redeeming work in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, apartheid in South Africa, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israel-Palestine conflict, gun violence in US schools, child soldiers in Liberia, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nikondeha pairs the stories of how the women of Exodus subverted Pharaoh’s oppression with stories of women fighting more current injustices to give us profound insight on where and how we can act today to bring greater justice to our world. The civil disobedience of Rosa Parks connects with the Hebrew midwives who saved the lives of baby Hebrew boys. Sitting with Jochebed as she relinquishes her son gives us insight into the unjust policies of Australia, Canada, and the US that removed indigenous babies from their mothers. Bithiah leveraging her privilege to save the baby Moses inspires the author to intervene on behalf of a Muslim friend suffering from discrimination.
Nikondeha highlights other heroes of resistance, some familiar, such as Mother Teresa and Mahalia Jackson, and some less familiar, like Emilie Schindler, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, Emma Gonzalez, and Idelette McVicker.
As a staff member at CBE, I looked forward to reading Defiant because it sounded fascinating and seemed like a timely choice for our summer book club. It resonated even more when I read it as the Minneapolis uprising unfolded—the protests sparked after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a police officer. (CBE is based in Minneapolis.) With the sounds of sirens and helicopters in the background, reading how these defiant women resisted oppression felt alarmingly real and necessary to my life. In the aftermath of the protest, as women and men showed up to serve devastated Minneapolis and St. Paul communities in a multitude of ways, I saw examples of the very collaboration, truth-telling, and holy liberated power that Nikondeha describes.
Defiant is both heart-wrenching and inspiring. It is a call for all women to join the biblical mandate to liberate the oppressed in our communities. My hope is that reading this book together releases the women of the CBE community to answer God’s call and take action in our own neighborhoods, because as Nikondeha declares:
We are all Miriam’s descendants with work to do, songs to sing, and liberation to practice until every pharaoh is dethroned and every captive set free. Women are not the soft side of church work. We aren’t meant to educate only women and children. We are not serving well only when we are supporting the men in leadership. We are called to be Exodus strong and to work alongside men to set people on both sides of the Nile free from slavery, complicity, and all manner of injustice. Liberation work is part of our Exodus mandate. (182)
To learn more about CBE’s Summer Book Club and join the conversation, click here.