—by Christa von Zychlin
Who’s ever heard of the strong, strangely-named Zelophehad sisters: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (see Numbers 27:1-8)?
Who could possibly wring laughter and empowerment from Tamar’s story (2 Samuel 13:1-22), along with deep, visceral anger?
Who would dare declare that God sometimes speaks in a woman’s voice—smack in the middle of old Bible texts?
And…where might you be served crickets for lunch?
I experienced all this and more as I listened, laughed, learned and even danced (a bit!) among Christian women of the Mekong.
The Mekong refers to the longest river in Southeast Asia, which marks the landscape and the borders of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Six years ago all I knew of the Mekong area involved scenes of rice fields, child poverty and illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever. As an American, I was also painfully aware that these lands had been a place of dread and death, where ordnance left from massive bombings in the 1960s and 1970s still imperils farmers—and their children—today.
What I didn’t know was the astonishing diversity of culture, language, entrepreneurship, creativity and cuisine all along the Mekong. Speaking of cuisine, did I mention crickets? How about pickled tea leaf salad or giant garlic shrimp?
I also didn’t know about the vibrancy of Bible reading among the women of the Mekong, women very different from me and from each other. In Laos alone, for example, there are 86 languages spoken. In Myanmar, there are 135 ethnic groups and more than 100 languages.
Our Bible study gatherings brought together women from many denominations. Most of the women from Myanmar were Baptist. In Laos, women belonged to the Laos Evangelical Church. And in Cambodia, we gathered with young Lutherans, a sprinkling of Presbyterians, Anglicans and nondenominational Christians.
As a lifelong student of the Bible, I experienced afresh the pain and pleasure of becoming like a teenager again. When we study the Bible with people different from ourselves, we allow God to help us see the world—and hear God’s voice—with new eyes and ears, and a fresh, receptive heart.
In Laos, I arrived with the rains. I was unsure what to expect as I waited to be picked up from my creaky downtown hotel. Unlike other hotels I had experienced in Southeast Asia, no giant cockroaches greeted me in the bathroom, and no millipedes pranced in the shower, so this was already good! The hotel was filled with tourist bikers and young people with backpacks. Awakened to my need for God’s presence and protection, I wondered: What would God have me see in this strange (for me) environment? Who would God have me notice and hear?
There I was, enjoying my open air breakfast of fresh papaya, sweet white bread and eggs, when the deluge began. Sheets of water poured from the sky. Everyone scrambled for cover. The Lao church women arrived with sturdy umbrellas and, unperturbed, escorted me to church.
In the sanctuary, more than 50 women in patterned skirts, woven with threads of gold and silver, sat on thin floor cushions. Some had spent days travelling by bus from home villages. Most had spent the previous night sleeping on the ground. They were the matriarchs of the church. Their Bibles were open.
We were about to embark on an adventure.
How I was welcomed by these seasoned Christians! Gathering around sacred stories linked us. The point of this workshop was NOT to have an expert explain the Bible. We were going to listen to holy words together. We were entering into a conversation with God and with each other.
We had already been made into Family (with a big “F”) through Jesus’ blood. We’d experienced new birth through water and the Spirit. Words of Scripture gave us a language to speak. The Bible reminded us of our shared family history—the good, the funny and the ugly. Regardless of culture, we all knew our sassy mothers and sisters of faith.
Our eyes crinkled, and we empathized with Sarah’s laughter, as she asked, “Will I really know pleasure in my old age?”
Our hearts beat a little faster as we accompanied Miriam, who walked into a dangerous palace and boldly, cheerfully, slipped baby brother Moses back into their mother’s arms.
We shook our heads in recognition, overhearing Mary and Martha—which sisters haven’t wrangled over who is stuck doing the dishes? We loved it that Jesus noticed what is at stake: According to God’s Word, the kitchen emphatically isn’t the only or the best place for a woman to be. We sit at the feet of Jesus!
This is where we rediscovered those Zelophehad women. Why have most of us never heard of them? The Zelophehad sisters were about to be denied any share of the family inheritance just because they were female. They spoke out. And here’s a beautiful thing—God listened to their voices, and God adjusted the law to respond to their claims. In Laos, on that sanctuary floor, we celebrated their moxie. Here were biblical names worth remembering: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.
UGLINESS IN THE FAMILY CLOSET
The Bible also names skeletons in our family closet.
Tamar was a dutiful daughter and sister. She was a good neighbor, a cook and a nurse. She did everything she was asked to do. Until she was raped. Then, as if awakened, she refused to shut up. She railed at her rapist, her brother, a mighty son of David. As she publicly spoke truth to power, Tamar’s cries became the voice of a prophet. A completely innocent victim, Tamar was a forerunner of Jesus. As she refused to cover up her brother’s crime, she made stark, insistent testimony to God’s strength made known in weakness.
As we read and re-read Tamar’s story, women got up and revealed atrocities happening in their own communities: girls sold to “husbands” in the city (actually brothel owners), women providing “guest-services” in local tea-shops, and women performing online porn in exchange for small payments to support their families. We heard accounts of rape by stepfathers and other men in authority. There were moans and sighs in the room. Female voices rose in anger. Meanwhile I thought of wealthier parts of the world, including the United States, where business owners and neighbors perpetuate the market for online trafficking and in-person sex tourism in Asia. Abuse and rape happens, sometimes even in and among the so-called Family of God.
One small group performed a skit about a young girl working in a noodle shop. Her lascivious boss was portrayed by a stout Lao woman swaggering about with a long paper mustache. We laughed until the tears came. The skit had a happy ending—the girl was rescued by an even stouter woman who explained the good news, “Bodies are holy…We are washed clean in Jesus’ blood, and I’m going to kick Mr. Mustache exactly where it counts if he doesn’t set this little sister free.” In the skit, she called the police, who hauled Mr. Mustache away. Finally, she hired the girl for her own shop, which served much better noodles anyway.
None of the women in our group that day had ever considered the story of Tamar, nor listened to her voice. I was told they had never shared experiences of sexual abuse, nor considered how the church could battle human trafficking. Airing out the closet of God’s Word can be empowering in practical ways.
A WOMAN’S VOICE
In 2014, led by the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, a group of Anglican women produced a book, Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter (2014, Forward Movement, in partnership with Episcopal Church Women). According to Freeman, there are 93 distinct females with voices in the Bible, 49 of whom are mentioned by name. Yes, this a tiny minority, but in God’s eyes, the minorities and marginalized often matter most. God listens to God’s daughters, and sometimes God, God’s-self speaks with a female voice, awakening people to truth, anger, laughter and loving action. Just so, in the Mekong, among sisters, we heard God speak.
The Rev. Dr. Christa von Zychlin served for eight years with the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong, working with women’s Bible studies.