Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
January 5, 2020
Scripture: Nehemiah 6.10-16
I was rather absent-mindedly scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, and I happened upon a targeted ad for a conference. I thought to myself that it couldn’t possibly be real, couldn’t possibly be something that anyone in their right mind would sign up for…The National Mansplaining Convention. I kid you not. The men—because of course they were, no offense—who organized this unbelievably sexist event argued that they would– for the low, low price of 999 face-palmed shaped holes in your wallet, increase femininity by a total of 500%, and would lead the all-female attendees in Making Women Great Again, complete with red hats. I’m not sure how you measure such a thing, but I digress…
Friends, I’m here to tell you that after researching it…this event EXISTS IN REAL LIFE. I…have no words. While of course it seems ridiculous, particularly that I am inexplicably part of the target audience for this ad, it’s not really so strange when you think about it. Mansplaining, after all, is a tale as old as time. Men elevating their own voices over a woman’s, for no other reason than their gender, is a founding tenet of biblical patriarchy, and is always a factor when reading scripture.
Take Nehemiah, for example. His story takes places in the 5th century BCE, around a hundred years after the Babylonians had destroyed the city of Jerusalem and nearly burned the entire place to the ground. Babylon had taken many of the Jewish people into captivity—primarily, they took the best and the brightest, the educated, the influential, and the strong. They left behind the poor and uneducated, to fend for themselves in the ruins of what had been their sacred city.
So, one hundred years later, the enslaved Jews were finally allowed to return home. One of these was Nehemiah, who at the time was a cup-bearer to the Persian king. He was not a priest, not a scholar, but a layperson and a servant to the king. He asked for the king’s permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls around the city; Nehemiah promised loyalty to the Persian empire if they would grant him his request, and so the king allowed it, even making Nehemiah the governor and thereby giving him the authority to rule as he saw fit. An average dude, elevated to the highest position in the land.
But rebuilding the wall was not Nehemiah’s only goal, or even his primary one. He had come home to Judah to divide, not unite its citizens. You see, when Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem a century prior, the Jews he left behind were left without temples, without priests, without Torahs, without leadership, without wealth, without resources. We don’t have much information on how they maintained their faith, but we know that they did. On the flip side of that, the Jews who were exiled and held captive for those hundred years needed a means to survive as well; and so, each group of Jews believed that God was with them, on their side. But if God is with US, how can God possibly be with THEM? When Nehemiah came back to his ancestral homeland, vested with the authority of the empire, his understanding of God left no room for his long-lost Jewish cousins. He saw the poor and destitute citizens left behind in Jerusalem as “foreigners”—and therefore, as foreigners, they were not welcome inside the rebuilt walls of the new and improved Jerusalem. Any exiled Jews who had married one of THEM was to divorce their spouse and consider their children illegitimate; the exiled Jews were to abandon their own people in the name of ethnic and religious purity, by authority of the newly-appointed governor, Nehemiah. Chapter 13 tells us that Nehemiah “contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.” Ah, mansplaining God’s law…twisting the sacred traditions of the ancient people of God into a warped and oppressive society, Making Jerusalem Great Again.
Nehemiah’s policies, cloaked in the lie and prejudice of a God-ordained decree, broke apart families and left countless women and children without status or identity, without shelter, without future. His original purpose in Jerusalem, to rebuild the wall around the outskirts of the city, was designed to separate US from THEM, to keep out the unwanted and the unclean.
All of this brings us to our text today. Nehemiah is meeting with Shemaiah, who he quickly realizes is a hired hand, employed by Tobiah and Sanballat –both foreigners– to intimidate him. Upon realizing this, Nehemiah prays this prayer of desperation and vengeance—“Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.” For many of us, this may be the first time we’ve heard the name Noadiah—that’s because this verse is the ONLY mention of her name in all of Scripture.
The Hebrew word for prophet is navi, and she is referred to here as a naviah, a prophetess. There is no language distinguishing her as a “false” prophet of any sort, simply the naviah—Noadiah. She’s mentioned like a ringleader: Noadiah and the prophets, Gladys Knight and the Pips. Her name in Hebrew means, “ Yahweh has revealed himself,” or “Yahweh has become manifest.” Her name and her reference here are both a testament to her authority as a prophet. A prophet, by the very definition, is a messenger from God who intercedes on behalf of the people, on behalf of the community, to God—and vice versa. Noadiah is not only a prominent prophet in Jerusalem, but she is leading the charge against Nehemiah’s resurrected wall, against Nehemiah’s ethnic cleansing of her city, and against the discriminatory practices that are leaving her fellow women and their children behind with nothing. She is a prophet of the highest caliber, and her prophetic wisdom is enough to make this politician Nehemiah afraid, very afraid. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Here’s the catch in all of this, though. Put simply, Noadiah lost the battle. Nehemiah won. The walls were rebuilt, his reforms were instituted, and the people of Jerusalem were divided thereafter. Women and children were left abandoned, and God’s law was distorted into something beyond recognition. Noadiah was silenced, relegated to a one-time mention in an obscure book many centuries later. Sometimes, walls win. Sometimes, we claim God for ourselves and then barricade God behind the locked walls of law and legalism, leaving love out of the equation.
Being a prophet, a navi or naviah in Hebrew, means speaking truth to power, even when the power threatens to muffle the truth. It means putting the fear of God into that which would seek to oppress God’s people, even when the oppression continues. Nehemiah is the definition of power in this text, having been given the position of governor, pushing ahead with his plan to secure the city even against the opposition of the prophets. Prophesying means to tell the hard truth of love when the law seeks to silence it. Noadiah and the rest of her gang of prophets spoke enough truth to strike fear into the heart of their opponent, so much so that Nehemiah prayed for their divine destruction. Being a prophet means reminding the powerful that God’s heart is always inclined to the foreigner, to the “other,” to the poor, to the ones on the other side of the wall. Even in the moments when power wins out over prophecy, that doesn’t make the prophecy less true.
Noadiah means God is revealed, and God will be revealed whether the walls are built or not. When families are torn apart at the border and children are abandoned to fend for themselves, because that is simply the law; when wealthy men make decisions that destroy the lives of the poorest among us; when the Nehemiahs of the world mansplain the Word of God and silence the Noadiah who seeks to show us a better way…still, God is there. When the women—and men, too, I suppose—who have something to say are silenced by a system that values power over proclamation of the love of God, still, they will prophesy.
May the God who breaks down barriers and cares for the foreigner, the God who tears down walls and opens the gates for all to enter, remind you of the prophesy of grace as you go from this place. Amen.