Beginning in July, CBE hosted a book club that brought our community together to read and engage with Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom. Kelly Nikondeha, author of Defiant, writes about the women of Exodus, beginning with the mothers of the people of Israel and the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who refused to obey Pharaoh. She then imaginatively relates the stories of Jochebed and Bithiah, Miriam and her descendants, and Zipporah and her seven sisters. With each woman, she highlights unique acts of courage, tenacity, and freedom while showing that we too can act in the same way in our modern world. In this article, CBE book club members reflect on their journeys with Defiant through the many questions we engaged while reading and our next steps that flowed from reading this powerful book.
A fellow reader put it this way, “Kelley Nikondeha weaves together the stories of biblical figures and contemporary women so flawlessly that it all feels timeless. I [was struck] over and over by her dedication and gift for presenting the stories of women across time and space that demonstrate faith, grace, discernment, and the ability to make space for others to find freedom.”
Over the six weeks the book club met, we tackled many topics ranging from womanhood and motherhood to discrimination, privilege, freedom, and solidarity. Our professional backgrounds were diverse and included nurses, CPAs, real estate agents, professors, students, ministry workers, stay-at-home parents, and retired folks. We each brought our own life experiences to CBE’s virtual table, and contemplating these questions together with people from many different contexts helped each of us grow and expand our perspectives.
On the whole, Defiant encouraged us to redefine biblical womanhood and motherhood, and many of our presuppositions had to be eradicated. We, as egalitarians, tend to squirm when we are given a picture of a “biblical woman” who looks a lot like a 50s housewife with high heels and a string of pearls. While the women in Exodus look nothing like this 1950s trope, Nikondeha shows that these Exodus women are biblical women simply because they are in the Bible.
In the words of one reader, “I love that these women are included in the Bible to remind us that they broke so many cultural and gender barriers in their time and encourage us to not shrink from such opportunities today.” The mothers specifically are described as saviors, along with the midwives, of all the people of Israel. Without them, Moses would never have been saved to lead the people out of Egypt. “I am sometimes aghast at their tenacity and courage,” another reader mentioned, reflecting on these powerful women who refused to allow their circumstances to overcome them.
Our discussion also focused on discrimination and privilege; one quote we reflected on from Defiant was “privileged yet seemingly paralyzed” (64). One reader resonated with this, saying, “I absolutely identify with ‘privileged yet . . . paralyzed’ or, better yet, ‘privileged yet . . . blind.’” We all were pushed to think about the blinders we have to our own privilege and how women can play the victim or simply deny we have any power at all. In reflecting on this conversation, another reader wrote, “Having privilege does not mean I feel powerful, as a I often feel powerless to do what needs to be done. The paralyzed feeling for me centers around seemingly invisibility, as my voice is not acknowledged by male co-church leaders. Pharaoh’s daughter encourages me to [recognize my privilege] and, [act on it] anyway.” The Exodus women are good examples of how to use privilege to create freedom, even when we don’t feel powerful. They inspire us to follow their lead.
Freedom is a key theme in Defiant. For some of our readers, freedom has been a difficult journey, bringing out questions and doubts that have been under the surface for years. In reflection one reader shared, “I continue to pray. To seek answers or peace I must face I may never find. The stories in Defiant can bring me more frustration, but also strength if I let them.” Part of finding freedom through the women in Exodus is struggling with them and through them. Some readers spoke to finding freedom in recognizing how much privilege we already have, acting on our power, believing in and practicing mutuality, listening to the voices of women to help form our worldviews, engaging in rituals of communion and worship, and moving towards solidarity. These acts promote faith and courage; they also bond us to each other.
The women in the stories not only found individual freedom but they also had networks, what Nikondeha calls “Nile Networks,” that empowered and highlighted their need (and ours) for one another in fighting injustice and pursuing freedom. We reflected that during this pandemic, we have seen our networks shift to chatting with neighbors from a distance, Zoom calls, and protecting aging parents—all these things are part of our newly found networks in this season. Readers mentioned specific work in their areas of influence in the academy or nonprofit work specifically, not only to use their network to effect change but even to create a network for the pursuit of freedom.
The stories of the Exodus women that Nikondeha weaves together with the stories of historical and contemporary women greatly influenced our thoughts and perspectives, but they also grabbed our hearts in tangible ways, showing a practical way forward for growth. A reflection from one reader sums up much of the group’s response to Defiant:
What can I do to defy the pharaohs of my day and rescue those threatened by the destructive undercurrent of the rivers cutting through our communities . . . What injustice plagues my ZIP Code—and am I willing to follow the women into the rivers of risk and rescue?”
To give you a taste of our conversation, here are a few more reflections from readers about Defiant-inspired action:
[I was] reminded that the women in the exodus took huge risks because they feared God and it gave me courage to keep on fighting. So often fighting injustices can wear us down to where we have not the energy to fight any longer or we begin to doubt the efficacy of what we are doing. Reading Defiant encouraged me to keep up the good fight
I don’t think I’ve fully embraced the power to be able to love courageously and with freedom, and Defiant convicted me to do these things!
“Listening to young women might be a good start to liberative practice in our churches and communities. . . Are we willing to listen to their ideas and partner with them—and one another—for the sake of justice?” [page 93]. I have some things to think about and unpack around this…it’s a good challenge.
With all that is going on, remaining silent and on the sidelines is no longer an option. I can no longer stand with those who shrink back to their comfy existence and pretend we have no privilege. I am ready to hike my skirt up and get moving towards righting wrongs around us. She is such a motivating writer!!
I’m learning to be uncomfortable and not run/hide from my discomfort.
This book is getting me off the couch and off the ‘excuse train’ and lighting a fire in me to be active in the justice movement. I am praying for God to match me with a mentor and a tribe to move forward with this fire in my belly! As a retired teacher, I am hoping and praying God leads me to be used in the educational realm regarding racial and social injustice and reparations.
Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom promotes courage and action in an incredibly important season in our world. Every step we take to follow after the Exodus women brings us closer to our own liberation and the liberation of others. Yet another reader is able to portray our group’s heart on action and our response to Defiant,
Each time we speak up or act in protection, nurture and support a plan for change even for one individual, collaborate with other women or people different than ourselves, create solidarity, or inspire hope, then we are creating conditions for liberation. It doesn’t have to be giant public acts. However, we must personally recognize within ourselves our decisive acts as liberating in order to further grow us toward larger acts with broader impacts.
Editor’s Note: CBE’s Defiant conversation also included a book review, author interviews (blog and video), discussion questions, and a Facebook group to connect everyone. You’re welcome to use these materials for your own book club or small group study. Click here to learn more.
Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash