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Published Date: July 31, 2007

Published Date: July 31, 2007

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Met with Dancing


Gender does not exist alone, but is, in fact, a social construct.1 A woman is part of a community that defines and shapes the definition of gender. It is not enough just to focus on gender, as though that will reveal all there is to know about African Christian women. In fact, even the qualifiers “African” and “Christian” are at one level too broad. For example, a woman from Rwanda will have experienced life much differently than one from Nigeria because the social and political situations of each country are quite different. Again, an Anglican raised in the church will have a different perspective on the faith than a newly converted pentecostal. Those differences need not discourage, for they provide the spice which enriches the entire meal. As Denise Ackermann explains, “Difference, once acknowledged, opens the way to participation and inclusiveness.”2

I hope to accomplish several things in this article. First, I want to allot space for the African Christian woman to speak her thoughts. In the past, African women have been silenced, or, if they did speak, no one bothered to listen. Now, after these women were told for so long to keep quiet, some in the West are a bit presumptuous in their expectations, shoving a microphone under an African woman’s mouth and turning the stage lights on. I recognize that it is not always easy to speak when one’s voice is not warmed up, so my intention in doing short, private interviews was to allow for a free exchange of ideas, and then to give those ideas a careful hearing.

In focusing on African Christian women’s identity, one is faced with establishing just what is meant by the term “identity.” I would suggest that there is no single, elusive identity waiting to be discovered, but, rather, several identities that interact in various social settings. Govinden Devarakshanam notes that the search for a “true” identity is futile. “We need to affirm many identities, to challenge colonial, imperialist paradigms of our identity which make us think of ourselves one-dimensionally, in ways that reinforce and sustain white supremacy.”3 Women are assigned identities such as wife, mother, daughter-in-law, job holder, and housekeeper. All these shape her own perception of individuality, and no woman can be reduced to a single identity.

Not only will the African Christian women interviewees speak, but, second, I will ponder a particular biblical story: that of Jephthah’s daughter, found in the book of Judges, as it reveals (more or less) the identity of a nameless daughter, as well as her interaction with and relationship to God and others in the story. I will use a narrative-critical approach informed by a feminist perspective on this story because of this approach’s power both to bring biblical stories to life and to relate these stories to contemporary experiences.

Not only will the interviewees’ and Jephthah’s daughter’s voices be heard, but, third, I will also suggest possible connections between contemporary African Christian women’s experiences and those recorded in the biblical story as a way to empower and encourage all women (and men) today. For, if these stories from the African women are merely heard, then we might fall into the trap noted by James when he spoke of the person who looks in the mirror, but, when one turns away, one has forgotten what one looks like (James 1:22–24). To hear the stories is to assume responsibility. That responsibility takes the form of communion building—that is, acknowledging differences as potential strengths leading to participation and inclusiveness. Our differences make us special and unique before God, and in that truth we find common ground.

Project defined

My study into the stories of some African Christian women began as I taught at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST) in Nairobi, Kenya. I enjoyed meeting many women from across sub-Saharan Africa and wanted to know more about their experiences as Christian women. I developed several questions that I felt might interest women in the West, my target audience. I brought the questions before a few graduate-level female students for their comments. In the end, we chose six questions, easily answerable in about one-half hour. Each of the twentyseven women interviewed met with me privately in a quiet room, where I taped our conversation and then later transcribed it. To hear from women who have spent their whole lives in a rural setting, I traveled about an hour’s walk from our home to interview three Kenyan women with whom I had formed a relationship. I also interviewed a Kenyan woman, Judy Mbugua, who has traveled to many places in the West and is the international chairperson for AD2000 Women’s Track4 as well as the continental coordinator of PACWA (Pan African Christian Women Alliance).

To all the women, I asked the following questions in the order given:

  1. Why did God create you? How might your family, your husband answer that? How would you wish they would answer that?
  2. Describe yourself.
  3. Have you ever wished that you had been born a boy? How different for you would it be if you were born a boy?
  4. How much of your own life do you control? How does God and your husband/father/brother affect the control of your life?
  5. Does Jesus (God) reveal himself to you? If so, how? Does he do it in the same way as he would to your father, husband, brother?
  6. Finish this sentence: “Do you know what women lack most? They lack ———.” What would raise, change, or improve women’s ———?

I chose the title of this article, “Met with Dancing,” from the story of Jephthah’s daughter, a young virgin who is introduced as she runs to greet her victorious father. Her story will be dealt with in greater detail below, but what captured my imagination was the initial joy she exuded in celebrating her father’s return from battle. That image of unrestrained joy is one that resonates with the African Christian woman singing and dancing with joy in worship before her God.

Unfortunately, neither Jephthah’s daughter’s story nor the stories of African women stop there. The daughter is overcome with grief from outside forces—in this case, her father. Grief and sorrow are also a very real part of so many African Christian women’s experiences. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to begin my study of comparing the stories of African Christian women and those of the women in Judges with a tale of joy turned to tragedy, for it seems that these extremes characterize the life experiences of contemporary African women.

Jephthah’s daughter

“And there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her.” (Judg. 11:34)5

We first meet Jephthah’s daughter running out of the house, filled with joy at the return of her father. Following tradition, she was dancing and playing music to celebrate Israel’s victory. She had no premonition of what lay ahead. Instead, she seemed sure of herself, her duty, and her love for her father. One might wonder if she also felt secure in her father’s love. Did she assume that he would embrace her, kiss her, and perhaps dance with her in celebration of his victory?

Tragically, she does not know what the reader knows. Earlier in the story, the narrator let the reader see a part of Jephthah that bodes evil for his daughter. Though he is remembered as a mighty warrior (11:1, see also Heb. 11:32), we see traits of weakness and insecurity that come together for his daughter’s demise. First, we learn that his mother was a prostitute (11:1). Right away, the reader is alerted to his less-than-desirable background. Another man mentioned earlier in Judges, Abimelech, is the son of a concubine, and is quite violent (see Judg. 9). It may be that the author is suggesting that these two men share character traits.

A second piece of information we discover about him is that Jephthah’s own brothers force him to leave the house and prevent him from taking any inheritance with him. The reference to being thrown out of his house foreshadows his lot in life. After leaving home, he picks up with robbers, living a wild, unsettled life. And, more importantly for our purposes, later in his story, we see him again with an empty house, bereaved of his daughter. We sense that Jephthah himself is experiencing at a personal level what the nation as a whole is going through, namely, moral decay and spiritual depravity leading to acts of unspeakable violence and horror. A quick perusal of the entire book introduces the reader to an enemy stabbed through the temple with a tent peg (Judg. 4), an entire town burned alive (Judg. 9), a concubine raped by angry townspeople before being cut up by her husband (Judg. 19), and young women stolen during a festival (Judg. 21).

After some time, the Gileadites plead with Jephthah to lead them in battle against the Ammonites, which, after some wrangling, he agrees to do. In calling together the troops, the narrator mentions that the Spirit of the Lord has come upon Jephthah (11:29). He prepares to attack, and then, unexpectedly and unprompted, makes a most unusual vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (11:30–31).

Questions flood the reader’s mind. Why did he make the vow in the first place? What had he expected to come out of the house to meet him? What was God’s response to the vow? None of these questions is answered adequately by the narrator directly; however, the silence should not necessarily be understood as condoning the vow. The editor of Judges will often refrain from interpreting or evaluating specific behavior. The whole book, however, has, as its theme, “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). The narrator often allows the reader to judge whether a specific act would qualify as an example of doing what was right in one’s own eyes. But the narrator also presents character traits and flaws to help the reader determine the appropriateness of an individual act.6

The events themselves might suggest that God honored the vow. The language of the text might also support this, as in the vow Jephthah asks that God gives “the Ammonites into my hands,” and we find that “the Lord gave them into his hands” (11:32). Yet, God’s silence need not indicate approval; in fact, it may signal rejection of the vow. God called out to Abraham, checking the knife as it was raised above Isaac’s neck (Gen. 22:11–12), but condemned Manassah for offering his son (2 Kings 21:6, see also Lev. 18:21). Moreover, because the battle had already been structured by Jephthah as a fight between the Lord and the Ammonite god, Chemosh, its outcome had little to do with his vow. Until we have more clues, we cannot determine at this point just what God’s reactions are to the vow.

The battle won and the Ammonites defeated, Jephthah now returns home. His daughter, unnamed throughout the story, has heard the news of his conquest and has prepared to meet her father with a celebration. One wonders if she organized a meal in his honor, whether she herself was busy in the kitchen when a call rang out that her father had been spotted on his way to his house. One might imagine her dropping the spoon with which she was preparing the stew, hastily wiping her hands and smoothing the stray hairs from her face, then darting out the door to play music of celebration and dance.

As we picture her heading out the door, we wonder if she shooed aside a noisy hen scratching in the dirt at the doorway or stepped over the family’s goat resting in the small patch of sunshine let in by the open door. For, in the Israelites’ homes, the animals shared space with the human occupants. Animals were kept on one side of the house, much like today in a Maasai’s home, where pride of place goes to the cows and goats. Their space is as one enters the home, and, after passing through their space, one enters the living and sleeping quarters of the Maasai. How different our story would be if that imagined goat jumped up from its nap and scampered out the door ahead of Jephthah’s daughter.

The daughter is never named for the reader. This is unsettling to our ears. One way this discomfort has been dealt with is to give her a name. My children listen to Bible stories on audiocassette by Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey, a radio program. These tapes offer both Bible stories and tales of everyday life that involve moral decisions. I listened recently with them to a tape telling the story of Jephthah, only to discover that in their telling of the tale, they named the daughter Adeena. Moreover, they leave open the possibility that she does not die in the end, for they claim the vow is ambiguous at this point. (Interestingly, in the twelfth century, a tradition within Judaism developed that suggested that she was not killed, but just put in solitary confinement.) 7 This makes for a much nicer story, especially for children. In a similar vein, the ancient work by Pseudo Philo, The Book of Biblical Antiquities, chapters 39–40, in its retelling of the story, names the daughter Seila. In this rendition, the narrator allows God to chastise Jephthah for his reckless vow. Frankly, I wish the biblical narrator had named the daughter and been more direct in the denunciation of the vow, but we cannot claim that comfort. Instead, we must wrestle with the realities of oppression and arrogance that promulgate lost identities and missing persons.

Though she is unnamed, we do know that she is his only child. The narrator stresses this point by repeating it: “She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her.” She is his only heir, and one might be tempted to posit that she was also the apple of her father’s eye. Other examples come to mind, such as Abraham’s love for Isaac or Jacob’s love for Joseph and then Benjamin. Phyllis Trible in a footnote remarks that, in the Greek Bible, the descriptions are translated with monogenēs (only) and agapētē (beloved). 9 With the first term, John describes Jesus in John 3:16 (his only Son), and with the second, in Mark, God uses the term when speaking of Jesus, his beloved Son, at his baptism (Mark 1:11).

At least two ramifications can be drawn from this important information that Jephthah has one child, a daughter. First, the reader must know that Jephthah’s hope for a future family line is held tenuously by this one offspring. This motif is found elsewhere in early Israelite history; one thinks immediately of Abraham and Isaac, the son of the promise. Much energy is spent describing how God preserves Isaac, his mother Sarah (from other men who were told by Abraham that she was his sister), and Abraham, so that Sarah and Abraham’s children will one day be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Thus, when the reader first learns that Jephthah has one child, one is not immediately concerned, but rather expects that God will work wondrously and providentially to secure the family line—until the reader remembers the vow.

On a more speculative note, in repeating that she was Jephthah’s only child, the narrator might be commenting on either the favored quality of the daughter, or condemning Jephthah, or both. Stories of families having only one child generally focus on God working specially in that family. One can think of Ruth’s Obed, Hannah’s Samuel, Manoah’s wife’s Samson, or Sarah’s Isaac. A single child might indicate that God is going to do something special with that one. Yet two points must be kept in mind. The other “only child” examples are all males. Inheritance is through the sons, though exceptions were made, as in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (Num. 27 and 36), where Moses decreed that “if a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter” (Num. 27:8). Second, large families were blessings, and infertility itself in ancient Israel was seen as disgraceful. Barren women were ashamed, and the culture looked at their condition as resulting from some displeasure by God.

I suggest that both concepts are working here in our story. The narrator is highlighting the special quality of this daughter, noting at the end of the text that she is remembered each year with a lament. Yet, I think there might also be a rebuke here against Jephthah. That is, Jephthah’s foolish pledge wiped out his family, though only one child had to pay with her life. He had no sons or other daughters who could support or cover up the loss of his one and only child. God did not bless his pledge with more time or opportunity to act rashly again. Unfortunately, that lesson is not considered in much of the history of reflection on this text. But, within the story itself, I suggest we see divine condemnation that Jephthah’s reckless promise to God should not be rewarded with many children and grandchildren.

Children are a blessing

Children were essential to the Israelite economy. In subsistence farming, the Israelites were dependent upon children who provided necessary labor. Within the African culture as well, children are highly valued. They are understood as a gift from God for the extended family, not just for the father and mother. While most families desire both boys and girls, they are valued for different reasons. Boys will stay close to the parents, remain part of the family, and offer assistance to their parents and siblings. They can prepare the soil for planting and build the houses (though in some tribes, such as the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, the women build and maintain the houses). Young boys might watch over the livestock as it grazes a few kilometers from the house.

Girls are appreciated for their household skills. Young girls watch over younger siblings, fetch water and firewood, and work in the gardens. Because so much labor is involved in just accomplishing daily tasks, lots of hands are needed. It is estimated that as much as seventy-five percent of a woman’s day in rural Africa is spent getting the necessities for her family—collecting water that might be as much as several miles’ walk away from the house, gathering firewood, picking the vegetables in the garden, cooking them on the fire, and cleaning the clothes and dishes. And the cycle begins again the next day.

As the women interviewed reflected on their own childhoods and whether or not their identities as women were affirmed, several expressed the conviction that they were desired by their parents, even that their parents were happy to have girls. Pauline Mukeshimana, age thirty-two, from Rwanda, declared, “I was happy to be a girl, because, in my father’s family, they have boys, boys, boys, boys, and when I came, I was the firstborn, a girl. So they were very happy. That is the significance of my name. It means ‘by God’s grace, I have a girl.’ So I grew up with thinking, like I am more preferred.” Charlotte Niyonsavye, fifty-four, from Burundi, explained that she was the first girl after four boys. Her name, given to her by her father, means “I asked for her.” Both her parents were very happy to have her, because, as she explained, the country was at peace at that time, and children of both genders were desired so that the population could grow. In exploring this further, I asked a Kenyan father of three daughters if he was sad not to have a son. He told me that, in his tribe (Kamba), they say that he is rich with cows and goats—that is, he will gain wealth from the bride price. And, as girls do most of the work around the house, their labor is valued.

But, some women desire to be valued for things other than bride price and kitchen work. The frustration of many was aptly put by Mariette Ouahanata, twenty-four, from Burkina Faso, when she noted that “they don’t know also the girls can do better and work even more than cooking in the kitchen.”

So, girls can be seen as a blessing for the family, but not in all families. One woman noted that her failure to produce a son after three girls incited the husband’s family to urge him to get a second wife. Feli Negura, thirty-four, from Congo, explained, “In my family it has not been easy for me . . . to live with my husband.” She and her husband were from different tribes; moreover, because she gave birth only to girls, her husband’s family was pressuring him to marry another wife in an attempt to have sons. His father had married a second wife because the first wife had only girls. But Feli stood firm: “I will not go away.” She is now happy with her husband and three girls.

From Feli’s story, we can highlight several important points. First, we note the dishonor that enveloped her in her family’s eyes.8 Second, Feli’s story highlights the family’s or community’s leverage over individual marriages and children. Tribal concerns and parental interests strongly influence the course of a son’s or daughter’s marriage. For example, I have heard it said on a number of different occasions that a primary duty or expectation of a wife is to agree with and support her mother-in-law. The story of Ruth in the Bible is set up as an example of a wonderful daughter- in-law who helps her mother-in-law with humility and love. Failure to do whatever the mother-in-law requests leads to much disharmony within the marriage. Often, the husband will follow his mother, leaving the wife feeling outnumbered and alone. As we shall see below, Jephthah had complete control over his daughter’s future (or lack of it).

The fact that Jephthah had but one child, a daughter, has been commented upon. I suggested that the narrator might be judging Jephthah in emphasizing his small family. It is a truism that Africans consider a family with many children to be a blessed one. Reinforcing this idea, Jane, from rural Kenya, noted that women need children. She encouraged barren women to pray to God, who was able to give children to the barren women of the Bible. She does not think barren women were somehow cursed or punished by God in their barrenness, but she did feel quite sorry for them, as she herself has four children.

Marriage is an almost universal goal among African Christian women; it seems the expected norm. That was certainly the case at the time of Judges, and, as we return to the story, we see the daughter speaking for the first time, speaking about the immanent loss of that hope of marriage and family. Her father has spoken unjustly to her, blaming her for his despair: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judg. 11:35). His rash vow has caught up with him.

“My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies.” (Judg. 11:36)

The daughter now speaks, addressing her father. Her response to him reveals much about her character, including her bravery, realism, and self-confidence. She echoes some of his words, but nuances them such that she deflects the blame he has laid upon her. Her tone is deferential, but, at the same time, retains a measure of self-respect that, had she been a weaker person, might have been stripped away by the father’s words.

She begins her response by echoing her father’s words. The Septuagint presents her first sentence as a question. This raises queries in the reader’s mind. It may be that her response indicates that she can hardly believe her father would be so foolish as to pledge his daughter’s life in a vow. Perhaps she is offering him a chance to restate or reformulate his vow. Again, her desire may be to give her father pause, to cause him to reconsider what he has done, and to seek a way out before the Lord. As I noted above, child sacrifice was not honored by Israel’s God (see Ezekiel’s indictment, Ezek. 23:37–40). Isaac was spared by God when Abraham demonstrated his faithfulness and obedience (Gen. 22). Saul was persuaded by the people to spare Jonathan’s life after Saul’s foolish oath that no man in the army was to eat anything until the enemy was completely defeated. Though Jonathan had not heard the oath, nevertheless, he was still judged guilty. Yet, the people ransomed him, because he brought great victory to the Israelites (1 Sam. 14:24–45). In the face of Jephthah’s apparent resignation, perhaps his daughter was trying to warn her father against following through on his “unholy” vow.

The daughter repeats her father’s words, “opened my mouth to the Lord,” but then in the next clause modifies them significantly. Instead of accepting his excuse that he “cannot take back [his] vow,” she emphasizes that he, her father, is responsible for “what has gone out of [his] mouth.” Lest he think he can blame the Lord for this horrible dilemma, she reminds him that it was his own words, and not the Lord’s direction, that has landed them in this imbroglio. Moreover, just as he cannot blame God for the trouble, so too she does not accept that she is the cause of his sorrow. Her response focuses the responsibility back where it should be: on his own words that came from his mouth.

Finally, she notes that her father was given vengeance over his “enemies, the Ammonites.” I find it curious that she identifies the enemies by name. It may be that she names them to reinforce to her father that she is not his enemy, if he has spoken to her angrily. He cannot make her into the enemy, for God has delivered him from his enemies, the Ammonites. These final words of her first sentence reveal her self-confidence, her unwillingness to be defined as her father’s downfall. She knows that she is not the enemy. Whatever might characterize her father’s relationship to the Lord, she displays the conviction that neither she nor the Lord is at fault.

All of the above cited evidence points to a woman who understands that vows must be kept and who believes that God would not ask for human sacrifice to appease or compel him. She rejoices in God who grants Israel victory, evidenced in her celebrating with dancing. Her faith appears uncomplicated and sincere, unlike the manipulative approach of her father.

Jephthah’s vow contrasts sharply with another vow made just a bit later in Israel’s history, the vow of Hannah, mother of Samuel: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head” (1 Sam. 1:11). Hannah reflects a humility not present in Jephthah’s vow. She juxtaposes her own helpless state with a recognition of God’s power and mercy. She is not bargaining with God for personal gain; her desire is for the child to be in the service of God. True, having a child will also take away her shame, but she is willing to give God all the honor through her child.

Jephthah’s daughter has acknowledged that the Lord has indeed given him the victory. But she does not use that term, instead referring to his conquest as “vengeance.” Her choice of terms might reflect what she knows about her father’s character. He only asked God for the victory, and he himself admitted that he had no grudge against the king of Ammon (11:12). He called on God to judge between them concerning rights to the disputed land (11:27). There was no cause here to avenge himself; it was enough that God decided in Israel’s favor and that they retained possession of the land. Yet the daughter attributes to her father a much harsher judgment on the Ammonites than perhaps they deserved.

And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” (Judg. 11:37)

Lacking any response from her father, she plunges on. She asks that she might have some time to grieve her death sentence. Her pill is all the more bitter because she will die without having truly lived as a woman. She apparently was coming to the age of marriage and was hoping for children. The narrator supports the daughter’s interpretation of her plight by stating twice in the following two verses that she was a virgin.

There are numerous examples of barren women in the Bible. And, in many cases, God opens their wombs and the children born become central figures in God’s plan for Israel. One can think of Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Manoah’s wife, and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother. These women testify to their plight: their lack of respect within the community because of their barrenness. And they extol God for his faithfulness in allowing them the honor of motherhood.

Jephthah’s daughter does not grovel before her father, but places before him what appears to be a reasonable request. As her punishment is so great, she should go out and mourn her fate. She asks that she might travel to the mountains and lament her virginity. It is often in the mountains that God can be found. One thinks of Moses meeting God on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19–20), of Elijah meeting God in the fire on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), and in the whisper on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19). She has chosen to lament in a sacred space.

She does not mourn alone. Several companions join her in her mourning. And for two months they live outside their homes, in the wilderness10 in the mountains. It was common for women to be found in groups at this time. We find them dancing when God brought victory in battles (Exod. 15:20), rejoicing over a baby’s birth (Ruth 4:17), or mourning a death (John 11). Mentioning the companions also allows the narrator to explain that the memorial lament offered each year by the women of Israel has its roots in their sharing Jephthah’s daughter’s pain for two months as they mourned her plight of dying a virgin. They will remember her with special honor because she will have missed the honor of motherhood. Trible suggests that the final statement should be rendered, “She became a tradition in Israel,” because “the unnamed virgin child became a tradition in Israel because the women with whom she chose to spend her last days have not let her pass into oblivion.”11

The remaining verses of this act in Jephthah’s play are devoted to the daughter. The reader mourns with the narrator and the companions that this virgin has been sacrificed. To end on such a vile note would be tragic, and, thankfully, the narrator exonerates the daughter by explaining the Israelite custom that remembers her yearly. A four-day festival commemorates her sacrifice, and stands in judgment of Jephthah’s reckless vow.

Against this background, I asked African women what they thought about their own power to make choices, especially as they made self-determining decisions about marriage, family, and schooling. Some expressed the overflowing joy witnessed in Jephthah’s daughter at the beginning of her story. They exuded self-confidence and were comfortable with themselves. Others expressed discouragement and frustration at limitations placed on them by their communities and cultures.

How much of your own life do you control?

An overwhelming majority of the women interviewed believed that they controlled their own lives. They did place restrictions on themselves, such as not deserting their children or husbands to pursue schooling. I wonder if at least some of the women felt that they could do anything they chose to do because they only wanted to do that which their culture and society approved. They were independent within the strictures of their culture.

Many women said they were free to marry whomever they chose; however, some had to stand up for themselves and their choices in the face of family opposition. Mary Aluel from southern Sudan told me, “In our area, a girl, she cannot have her own choice to [marry]. They [the extended family] can tell you, you can go. But for me, I can have choice. I said no. I cannot go the way you send me to go if I don’t like. Do not oppose me; I cannot be forced. [The family imprisoned her in a house for three days, but she was] happy to be there until they changed their minds but not me. I didn’t change my mind. So they stop it. Until now they forget; they cannot talk again to force me.”

Grace Kiuta, twenty-nine, from Kenya, noted that, when she decided on her husband, there was “a lot of opposition, . . . but I just said I met my man and say I will just get married to this, because I am feeling that it’s the will of God.” Her parents did support her, but other family members did not approve because she was marrying a pastor, someone who would likely always be poor. I asked her if she would have gone ahead with the marriage if her parents had protested. She believed she still would have married.

Mariette Ouahanata, twenty-four, from Burkina Faso, explained how she was allowed to choose her own mate. “When I was three years old, my father died and leave me with my uncle, and—that uncle—I appreciate him very well, the way he educate me, although he is not a Christian.” She noted that he kept her at home, away from social dancing, so that her eventual husband would respect her and not say, “You come to me, others have already spoiled you.” Then, in her late teens, she became very ill. No help in the village was found, so they took her to the city to be with her grandmother. While there, a missionary friend of the grandmother’s prayed for her healing. She was healed and decided to go to church, where she “gave her life to Jesus.” About three years later, she decided to attend Bible college, and her uncle felt that, as she was twenty years old, she could decide for herself. She also selected her husband. “I decide, we decide first that I will marry him, and he decide he will marry me. After that, we went to our parents to let them know we have decided to marry each other. They can’t force me to give me another man. Now the way I was [very ill several years previous], they were thinking I would die, and I didn’t die, so now I’m OK and I have chosen a man to marry. So they say they are OK with my decision.” In Mariette’s case, her recovery from the serious illness seemed to give her special status with her family, as she describes it. They would not stand in her way.

In describing her freedom to choose directions in her life, Charlotte Niyonsavye, fifty-four, from Burundi, explained that she first thinks about what she wants to do, and then she does it. She noted that her behavior is not typical of women in her village. She attributed her differences to the fact that her husband is a Christian, he studied theology himself, and he is very considerate. She does not use her freedom irresponsibly, but does feel that she can make choices. Zipporah, seventy-four, from rural Kenya, expressed her confidence in partnering with her husband. She explained that, when they might disagree, they will “talk, talk, talk, and talk” about the issue. I sensed she felt herself to be in a secure position within her marriage.

Some interviewees stated that their husbands are the final authority in the home, but that belief does not seem to impact their sense of autonomy. The two concepts exist side by side with no apparent sense of contradiction. For example, Rev. Judy Mbugua, fifty-two, from Kenya, states that “I would say I do control my life in the sense that there’s nothing that I want to do that my husband puts his foot down and says, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ And, again, this is because my husband and I are very good friends. So, if he knows that I want anything, he wouldn’t get in my way to stop it.” Judy does believe that her husband is the final decisionmaker of the family, but she adds that she wishes all women could share their thoughts with their husbands, rather than the typical relationship where the husband always just says “no” to his wife’s ideas and requests.

In a similar way, Angelique Cyamanzi Chelo, thirty-three, from Congo, told me that she was free to marry whomever she chose: “I always ask God to give me a Christian husband, a husband who will not be beating me, because I was always afraid to be beaten every time. A husband who I will obey him in every situation through what he will do for me.” I asked her to give me an example of how she obeys her husband. She answered that the couple should “always talk together and do what your husband needs and him also to do what you need. . . . Even Bible says the husband is the head; I have to do it.” She noted as an example that she might prepare a meal for his friends. “I feel also, because husband is like a near friend, you have to tell him what is not going wrong . . . or what is going bad for you. I have to be open, and I’m always open before him.” She added that he is open before her as well.

This sense of autonomy, coupled with a hierarchical arrangement in the home, finds a parallel in evangelical Christian women in the United States. R. Marie Griffith discusses the language and reality behind it of women who promote male “head ship” within the home, and yet feel their “submission” is selfempowering: “For these evangelical women the meanings of submission and surrender represent far more than simple passivity. . . . Submission works as a valuable tool for containing husbands and thereby regulating the home, and may be subtly modified or subverted, so that the women retain a kind of mediated agency through their reliance on the omnipotent God.”11 Both groups share a position that God created certain gender-based roles for women (and for men) to fulfill. As a woman engages fully in her God-given roles of submissive (or obedient) wife and loving mother, she will be happy and contented.

Griffith notes that submission also at times has been discussed as a way to manipulate one’s husband: “Surrender to God may be seen . . . as what I have termed ‘containment,’ that is, a submission more of word than of deed that celebrates the power to influence—or, in less flattering terms, manipulate—one’s husband to one’s own ends.” This attitude toward submission was most evident in one interviewee’s discussion with me about decision making in her home: “I find that I don’t just do what I want. In a way, it is safer for me in the sense that I don’t have [to] make a decision which I later could regret.” She further explained her “psychology” of the home, wherein, if she wanted something, she would pray about it and then create the situation such that her husband believed that it was his idea all along to do that thing when, in fact, it was her idea.

Before leaving these women’s stories about marriage, I should highlight one further point from Angelique’s account: her reference to wife beating. It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss this subject fully, but, unfortunately, this practice plagues much of Africa. Alcohol abuse is often behind the violence. Newspapers report weekly on women who are hacked to death with pangas (eighteen-inch knives used in cutting grass for the cows and sticks for the fire) or doused with kerosene and then burned. These more shocking crimes arouse the outrage of the population, but the daily beatings go on. In many ways, the newspapers record stories of situations wherein “every man did what seemed right in his own eyes,” harkening back to the days of Judges. As in Jephthah’s case, so too today in much of African culture, the man—the father or husband—has unlimited control over decisions and directions within the family. Wives and daughters struggle to be heard and to find their own way.

Though the issue of marriage is the place where women struggle most in maintaining or creating autonomy and space for selfdetermining decision making, a second subject concerning control of one’s life is schooling. Esther Yogo Suwa, thirty-six, from southern Sudan, claims, “I do control my life. Like now, I decide for myself going to school, and I’m still struggling with it. My husband might say, you know, we don’t have [financial] support, and why do you still go? But I just go because . . . No, he didn’t support me [financially]. I understand; I know he can’t. It is not that he doesn’t want to do it.” When I asked if he encouraged her, she said, “Yes, but sometimes when things become worse, he’ll say, I wish you’d stay home.” She laughs and adds, “You know I can work and support the family, but he does encourage me.”

Adel Matabisi noted that “I grow up feeling that, like, you are responsible for your whole life. Everything. You are the one who can make them [decisions], until I received Jesus, then I said, ‘Oh, I understand it is not my responsibility. I have just to do the right thing and have faith to Jesus that he will do the rest.’ I just say, ‘Oh God, do anything you want for me. But I still have what I want. Like as I am here [at school]. I said, I want to study. And I start this studying in Congo before the war. Then the war start, I say I will not stay home, I have to continue, then I came here [to NEGST]. But . . . my husband helped on it, because he understood and he is the one who said, ‘Oh yes, this is a good idea. Go ahead.’”

Adel’s response suggests another tension that Christian women face: that of feeling in control of their lives and yet ceding control to God. Adel expressed a resolution: “I know it is God’s decision [whether she goes to school or not], but I have to perform it, I think.” There is a “partnership” of sorts. The sense of control seems to come from the recognition that one is enacting the very will of God. This same sort of relationship was noticed by Griffith in her study of American evangelical and pentecostal women. She notes that “surrender to God may be seen, first, as a way of releasing divine power.”13

Moreover, Adel noted that her Christianity did not take away her “wants” such as studying: “So I said, ‘Yeah, if you can allow me to study,’ and now I am studying.” She petitioned God concerning her wants, and she is doing what she wanted—perhaps, one would say, with God’s permission.

It may be that petitioning is a key to understanding the apparent paradox between a feeling of power and of surrender that many interviewees expressed. Prayer, for most of the women with whom I spoke, is a dynamic process wherein God speaks directly to them as they seek God. Such communication circumvents any male authority, including their husbands. Griffith notes that many evangelical women in the United States understand themselves as submissive to their husbands, but as warriors of prayer, battling evil and sin. That latter role is active, aggressive, and empowering.14 This parallels the lamenting done by Jephthah’s daughter and her companions, wherein they separated themselves and sought solace in a holy place. We are not told about their prayers, but we know that every year four days are set aside to remember her before God; thus, her life becomes a connecting point between the Israelite women and their God.

Conclusion: glancing back and moving forward

I will close this article in the same way I finished the interviews: by asking the women what they might like to tell me. Many encouraged their churches and Christian communities to allow a more active role for women in leadership positions, and it is this aspect of their comments that will serve as possible steps forward.

Many women desired a more active leadership role in their churches. Mary Wambui, twenty-one, from Kenya, told me, “You know, many Christians, like . . . [in] some denominations they [women] are hindered . . . they can’t talk in public, they cannot express themselves . . . they cannot raise the point.” Mary Aluel, from southern Sudan, concurred: “In Africa, many ladies are Christian, and there is no problem they can do what in church. . . . They believe you are a person who can serve, they can allow you to tell the word of God, but it’s hard to become a pastor. It’s very hard in Africa. They can let you work in church like a helper, but not to be like a pastor or say the word with authority. It’s difficult. You cannot lead. I cannot agree, because, if you educated, you can teach or lead.” She lamented that women can hold ideas in their hearts, but no one will listen. And they feel ashamed. As she left the interview, she said that she’d like to be a man.

Mary mentioned the value of education in determining a leader. Janet Mutinda, thirty, from Kenya, who acted as an intern at her church, would agree. She noted that “in the African church, theological training is a privilege for few. I wish the church would move beyond that and not just make it for few, usually just men. And some of them [women at NEGST] feel I’m competing with men when we have a student body meeting and a guy says something and I respond. I’m not responding because he’s a guy, I don’t disagree with him because he’s a guy. It’s the issue. I’m not dealing with the person. So for them, they feel it’s disrespect.” She adds that, now at graduation time, many ask her what she will do. “‘Ah, you are a pastor,’ and they say it in a very sarcastic [way], even Christians, and for many years I never wanted, even when I was working as a youth pastor at Nairobi Chapel, I never wanted anybody to [identify me as a pastor].” But now Janet is thinking about what it means to be a pastor, though she did not share with me any conclusions she might have discovered.

Dinah Elegwa, twenty-three, from Kenya, noted that “in most churches, women are not allowed to lead, and I don’t think it’s they cannot lead, it’s only that they’re not given a chance to do it, but when they are given a chance and the freedom to do it, they will do it even better.” When I asked her why she thought this situation existed, she said, “I think it is because of the African culture where women are just looked down on.” Grace Kiuta, from Kenya, agreed. “Even in the church, they don’t have any freedom, the women. And, yet, if you see them, many of them are very good gifts, but now they cannot even talk in the congregation. Some churches, they don’t allow them to preach. They’re told to talk with the women. And sometimes I feel that, if the church is doing this, and the world also is looking down on [women], who is going to help these women to come out of this? I think the church should be the help. They could just accept women, that they are people that they can give ideas and they are people of God also, and God respects them, and God loves them also.”

Judy Mbugua, from Kenya, explains, “African Christian women are very dynamic in the sense that, in spite of so much suffering, by tradition and culture, by lack of knowledge, because even most of them up to now don’t know how to read the word of God for themselves or to write. When they come up in faith . . . they are so dynamic. And so the women of the world can support the women of Africa because they are so dynamic . . . in spite of so many problems. And we can be partners.”

Unlike Jephthah’s daughter, whose fate was sealed with an unholy vow, African women are taking charge of their own lives, defining their own way, carving out for themselves a future and a hope, and working out their own relationships with God and God’s calling on their lives. Some women will seek change within the church leadership structure, others within the village’s traditional community structure. Others will play a role in educating village women to read and write, while still others will themselves earn doctorates. And they will encourage their own daughters to reach for their dreams.

Their own dreams, however, might be at odds with the reality they see around them now. Ambiguities and contradictions stir underneath the seemingly placid waters of their cultures. Christine Mutua, twenty-eight, from Kenya, stated, “An African Christian woman is tied to her culture. And that culture has a significant impact on your life. So when the decisions you make, you can only make them in the (OK, you are a Christian but . . .) in that culture which you must operate in. It is positive and negative. One [negative], like I was telling you, like some of the decisions that you make, although I really want to do this, because of the culture you are in, you have to wait, you have to think of what do the other people think. So, you might not achieve your dream. Like I may be thinking of finishing my masters and going for a Ph.D., but, then, my mother-in-law may be telling my husband, ‘No, a wife is supposed to stay at home.’ So many pressures are playing, and you may bow to pressure.” She added that one “positive [aspect of African culture] is that you feel accountable.”

The realities of African culture include traditional roles for men and women within both the home and the church. Many women are seeking to broaden the opportunities for women within the church and economic life of the village. Yet, to a woman, each who was a mother extolled the joys of motherhood. Their children, boys and girls, were blessings from God beyond description. Being a mother was a privilege they would not trade for anything, even for the possibility of being a man with all his power, prestige, and authority.

And so, in the end, the women I interviewed were satisfied with themselves; even more, many had deep joy. God’s gift of creating them in God’s image, and then letting them be part of the process of creation in their own motherhood, grounded their self-esteem. The strictures of society, the limitations of the church, and the failings of their husbands were all tolerable and hopefully to be improved upon. Unlike our biblical text, theirs is a story of hope, a story yet unfinished. And their hope in all their struggles is God. As Rosemary Wahu Mbogo, twenty-eight, from Kenya concluded, “So, if we can encourage African women to rise up to their potential, they can do great things for Christ. I think so.”


  1. Denise M. Ackermann, “Participation and Inclusiveness Among Women” in Groaning in Faith: African Women in the Household of God, ed. Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro and Nyambura J. Njoroge (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1996), 140.
  2. Ackermann, “Participation and Inclusiveness,” 145.
  3. Betty Govinden Devarakshanam, “In Search of Our Own Wells,” in Kanyoro and Njoroge, Groaning in Faith, 118.
  4. The AD2000 Women’s Track seeks to promote the vision of world evangelism by mobilizing, encouraging and training women primarily through already established churches and women’s groups. Online:
  5. All Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
  6. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, (New York, N.Y.: BasicBooks, 1981), 183–84.
  7. See George F. Moore, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908), 304.
  8. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress, 1984), 113, n. 32.
  9. In Israelite culture, the mother of girls may have been treated similarly. One is left to speculate about the mother of Jephthah’s daughter, about whom the Bible is silent. Was she consigned to invisibility because she only produced a girl?
  10. The wilderness also holds a special place in Israel’s history as the place where God took care of Israel, feeding and protecting it. Though our story does not use the term “wilderness,” the sense of the passage indicates that the daughter and her companions went far from towns and villages. They were on their own, in God’s care.
  11. Trible, Texts of Terror, 106–07.
  12. R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000), 182–83
  13. Griffith, God’s Daughters, 185.
  14. Griffith, God’s Daughters, 191–98.
Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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