The Carol Project Overview

Welcome to the Carol Project! This blog was originally produced while I was working on my sabbatical project on the unpublished works of Carol Grizzard Browning. It now serves as a resource for my classes. I especially welcome general interest readers who are Carol’s friends and former students, along with newcomers to her work. I invite you to explore using the Table of Contents below.

If you would like to donate to the endowment fund for the Carol Grizzard Browning Lecture Series, then follow this link to learn more:

A Listing of all blog entries:

We don’t know what our legacies may be.

My favorite project ever.

The outsider may be the best thing ever to happen to your village.

All the earth.

God’s kingdom is not a gated community.

There is nowhere to banish the Others.

After the sycamore tree (parts 1 and 2)

Moses Maimonides: Reason and revelation

Those radicals of the 12th century BC (Deborah)

The forgotten prophet (Huldah)

The ornament of the world

Proclaimer (but not a hooker): Mary Magdelene

Everyday miracles (Hannah)

Fifteen pigs for a copy of Aristotle

Sojourner and sinner (Abraham)

The difficult woman (Sarah)

My heart is in the East and I in the West

Who is  my neighbor? (parts 1 and 2)

Myths are about connections.

All species belong together, belong to God.

Outrageous acts of love and audacity.

Momentary peeks into eternity.

The first temptations of Christ.

The God of surprises

The universe is full of wonder that we take for granteed.

A new lease on life (Lazarus)

The giver of life and those who take it.

What the donkey trod (a reflection on Palm Sunday)

Slip of the lip (Peter)

Betrayers of Jesus (Judas)

Constantine planted the tree of power in our garden

The effects of Easter begin now

Back and forth on the Emmaus Road

Politics and rhetoric in Samuel

Praying the Lord’s Prayer

God won’t break even when we lament

What did David know and when did he know it?

What is in your hand? (Moses)

For some reason, Zaphenath-paneah looks familiar (Joseph)

A cursed family.

A lot happened between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”

She wasn’t defensive because Jesus wasn’t offensive

Making Mommie Dearest look mild

Hadassah-in-disguise (Esther)

Learning to live faithfully in Babylon (Esther)

From Furies to kindly ones

Vows we should not keep (Jephthah)

The praise that I choose

Ordinary people can leave extraordinary legacies (Ruth)







Ordinary people can leave extraordinary legacies

Editor’s note: I began this blog with excerpts from Carol’s sermon about the book of Ruth entitled You Never Know. It is appropriate that I end this exploration of Carol’s unpublished works with the complete sermon. I appreciate your readership and your positive comments. Carol did all the work of study and writing. All I did was read and edit her manuscripts into a form appropriate for this digital medium. Thank you for hearing her voice, which had already spoken in sermon and lecture. My study of her written work has only amplified my admiration for her scholarship and wisdom. I hope her words have been a blessing to you. In this final post, Carol speaks about Ruth, my favorite book of the Old Testament:

The book of Ruth is unique in the Bible in several ways. For one thing, there are no villains in it: no greedy or manipulative characters, no evil king, no attacking nation. Everyone in the book is doing the best they can. For another, there are no high-status people in it: no judges, no kings, no generals, no prophets, no sages. God does not speak, nor do we see direct divine action after the first few verses. All the characters are everyday people dealing with the tragedies and triumphs of normal life. Finally, nothing happens that seems to be of any importance to anyone except the humble people who are involved. There are no wars, no visions, no vital task to be achieved. It’s the only biblical book we have that’s about “just folks.”

In order to understand the conversation between Naomi and her daughters-in-law in Chapter 1, we have to know some of the laws in the Torah. Until a woman married, it was the responsibility of her father to provide food, clothing, and shelter for her. If she were wronged or assaulted, it would count as a crime against him and he would receive any reparations; he had to represent her in order for the crime to be punished. If her father were dead, her brother took on these responsibilities. Once she married, her birth family had no more obligation to her; these things became her husband’s responsibility. When he died, these things became her son’s or grandson’s responsibility even if they were newborn. Women couldn’t ever inherit from their husbands, but sons could, and so widow and son could survive. But no one had the obligation to take care of a sonless widow, so if she did not remarry and nobody was willing to assume that task, her options were begging, prostitution, or starvation. So if a married man died without sons his closest male kin had the obligation of marrying her and fathering a son with her; this boy would count as the dead husband’s and would inherit his property. This is called “levirate marriage.” It wasn’t a trick; everyone including the child would know who the birth father was.

This law couldn’t help Orpah and Ruth in Moab: their husbands, brothers-in-law, and father-in-law all died. That’s why Naomi makes a point of telling her daughters-in-law that she has no more sons for them to marry, and why Orpah reasonably returns home. But Ruth insists on staying with Naomi. It is to her great credit that she is willing to share this poverty-stricken and dangerous life in order to make it easier for the older woman. “Ruth” means “compassionate”; this has fallen out of the English language except in the term “ruthless.” Her compassion is particularly evident because, since the men who connected their lives are dead, Naomi and Ruth are no longer actually related. Notice that each of them is arguing against her own best interests for the sake of the other: Naomi will have an easier time in Bethelehem if she’s accompanied by a young, strong woman, while if Ruth stays in her own country she will be cared for and will have an easier time remarrying.

The two widows have a difficult time when they get to Israel. Naomi succumbs to depression after the multiple deaths in her family. Ruth is supporting them both by gleaning in the fields. It’s not a job. She’s just permitted to follow the harvesters and take whatever is too under-or-overripe for them: it’s all hard or rotten. She and Naomi are surviving on food that isn’t good enough for other people. This is marginal living at best. And it’s harvest; how will she and Naomi survive when winter comes and even this meager source of food is gone?

At this point Ruth meets Boaz, a landowner in whose field she’s gleaning. He looks after Ruth, ordering his men “not to bother her.” This is important. Without father, brother, husband or son, Ruth was fair game. When she returns to Naomi that evening, she tells Naomi about Boaz’ kindness. Naomi suddenly comes alive. She remembers that Boaz is a relative of her dead husband Elimilech and consequently should marry Ruth. Obviously Boaz has not realized the implications of his distant kinship connection to Elimelech. But Naomi has and, suddenly energized, gives her Moabite daughter-in-law advice: she tells her to dress her best and then go to the harvest festival and, after Boaz has eaten and drunk, uncover his . . . feet “and he will tell you what to do.” In a G-rated sermon, I can’t tell you what that idiom means, but if you read 2 Samuel 11, especially verse 8, you’ll get the idea.

Ruth does as Naomi tells her. She goes to the harvest festival, waits until Boaz has finished celebrating, and uncovers his feet. Boaz, expressing gratitude that she didn’t choose a younger man, agrees to marry her. In time they have a son named Obed. The women of Bethlehem then gather around the rejuvenated Naomi in 4:13-15, saying “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without kin, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” [NRSV] That’s quite a statement. To say that a daughter was worth more than a son would be unheard of in that patriarchal society. To say a daughter-in-law was worth more than a son would make no sense. To say that a daughter-in-law, and a foreign one at that, was worth more than seven sons was probably grounds for an insanity hearing. These women have incredible respect for Ruth.

There are several good points to be drawn from this story. One is that Naomi and Ruth, although they are on the lowest rung in their society, nevertheless aren’t passive. There isn’t much that they can do, but they band together, increasing their chances for survival, and they stand up for Ruth’s legal right to have a husband and child from her first husband’s family. They don’t wait for Boaz or anyone else to notice their predicament and come up with a solution. They know their rights and take responsibility for their own lives, and that’s a good lesson to learn.

We also notice that Ruth the foreigner, Ruth from a land that had fought wars against Israel, is the best in this story of all good characters. She is the one who makes the happy ending possible, at least on the human level. If she had not been so incredibly loyal to her mother-in-law, if she had not been willing to do menial labor to keep them both alive, if she had not had the courage to speak to Boaz, their marriage would not have taken place. For people who felt that anyone from outside their tribal group was suspect and dangerous, this story of Ruth’s great loyalty would come as a revelation. It is Ruth the Moabitess who is God’s agent in Israel. The outsider may be the best thing ever to happen to your village.

Thirdly, we notice that speech the women of Bethlehem make after the birth of Obed. They don’t see the point of the story as “at last Ruth is married again” but “at last Naomi has kin again.” The child of her dead husband’s cousin and her dead son’s widow is, of course, no blood kin to Naomi, but because of the laws of levirate marriage he counts as her grandchild. The women of Naomi’s town understand that this desperate woman has been given family. She is no longer legally alone in the world. They see that God cared enough about an old widow-woman to act in her behalf.

This leads to the fourth point: the women give God credit for what’s happened: “Blessed be the Lord,” they say, “who has not left you this day without kin.” The birth of Obed was not announced by angels, as other births in the Old and New Testaments were, nor was it prophesied. God has taken no overt action here. We the readers have not been told that God did anything except end the famine, or told anyone to do something, or even wanted something to happen. But the women of Bethlehem see God’s action nonetheless. It takes special eyes to see God’s work when there’s no fanfare accompanying it. But these women have such eyes, and praise the Lord for the redemption they have seen in the lives of the forlorn elderly widow, the foreign widow, and the lonely landowner in their little town. They understand that God doesn’t act only in the lives of kings and generals, but is involved with all of us, powerful and powerless.

There’s one more point I want to emphasize; it’s the main one. In the very last verse of the book we find that in time Ruth and Boaz’ son Obed had a son named Jesse, and that Jesse had a son named David. This is announced matter-of-factly, just one of the many little genealogies in the Old Testament. But Jesse and David are names we know. Suddenly we realize that we have been reading the story of King David’s great-grandparents–and, when we look at the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, we realize that they are his ancestors as well. Wow. All of a sudden this may make us want to take a second look at this story. Suppose Ruth hadn’t left Moab but had stayed like Orpah did, like Naomi told her to? Suppose she and Boaz hadn’t even met during the harvest and Naomi and Ruth had starved that winter? Suppose Boaz hadn’t been willing to marry this foreign woman? What would that have meant to the history of Israel and the history of the world? We thought this was a story about people who didn’t have much effect on anything, and now it turns out that they did.

We should learn from this story that, just as we didn’t know everything about Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz as we were reading their story, so we don’t know everything about the people in our lives, the people in our newspapers, any people anywhere. We can never judge folks, saying, “Well, he’ll never amount to much” or “She’s just a waste of skin” because we don’t know what God has done, is doing, and will do with and through them. A lot of people in the Bible seemed of no account to most people: Joseph, the accused rapist and jailed slave; Moses, the fleeing murderer; Amos, the professional sycamore-fruit-slitter and part-time shepherd; Mary, the unwed mother-to-be; Peter, the excitable fisherman who left job and family; Paul, the persecutor of the church who, in the eyes of his own people, turned traitor. At various times in their lives, many people would have said of them that they’d never do anything that mattered–just as that might have been said of Ruth and Naomi. We need to remember that we never know all of anybody’s possibilities, how they may change, how they may contribute to the Kingdom of God.

But if that’s true of other people, it’s also true of us. Certainly Ruth and the others didn’t know what important people were going to come out of their genetic heritage. They never knew. Naomi obviously thinks when she returns to Bethlehem that her life is just tragedy. “Call me Bitter,” she says to the women of her town. Ruth herself, when she was gathering the soft and spotted vegetables that kept her and Naomi alive, must have had moments when she wondered what she was doing, why she hadn’t returned home as Orpah did, whether she had sentenced herself to death by hard work because of her decision to stick with a woman to whom she had no legal obligation. Boaz, I’m sure, took some heat for marrying a Moabitess–the Talmud, written a few centuries after the book itself, criticizes him sharply for doing so–and so he may have known self-doubt as well. And although they had a son, they didn’t live long enough to know that the greatest king of Israel would result from their controversial marriage, and also one greater than he. All three of them probably thought for their whole lives that they were just ordinary people whose names would never be known outside of Bethlehem and Moab, people there would be no need to remember after they were dead, people whose lives counted for nothing in the larger scope of things. Naomi never knew how great the family God gave her would become; Boaz never knew how cosmically important that night at the harvest-festival was; Ruth never knew that her loyalty to Naomi saved far more than one person. They never knew that they weren’t ordinary at all.

So I wonder: what don’t we know about our lives? What will we never know? What impulsive decisions and chance encounters like the ones in this book may turn out to be the most important moments of our lives? Maybe the things that we think matter most about us, like our jobs or our bank accounts or our talents or our preaching, will turn out not to matter next to something we think of as purely personal. We don’t know what our legacies may be. Ruth’s story shows us a different way of looking at life, both our lives and the lives of others. It should remind us to seek God’s guidance in all things, and not just the ones we think are important. We may not be the best judges of that. It should also remind us that, like Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, there are no worthless, no-account, ordinary people. Not even us.

Postscript: Recently, Carol and I were sitting on the front porch enjoying the spring weather. Her neurological disorder scatters her thoughts, so linear conversation is difficult. We were making occasional remarks about the flowers in the yard and random wisecracks. After a period of silence, she turned to me, smiled, and said: “Remember, whatever happens, God is still in control.” Her attention skittered away, but her words remain solid.

The praise that I choose

If we want to praise God, finding out what God wants is probably a good idea. Fortunately, we have a whole Bible chock-full of information on what God wants and doesn’t want. There are three Bible passages that come to my mind here: Isaiah 58, Matthew 25, and Mark 12.

The first passage is Isaiah 58:4-8, which says, “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Will you call this a fast acceptable to the Lord? Is not THIS the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator will go before you. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.” Jesus quotes from this chapter in his first sermon in the book of Luke (chapter 4).

Jesus also references Isaiah in Matthew 25:31-46, a passage in which he discusses post-mortem reward and punishment specifically. This is when the Son of Man divides everyone into the righteous and unrighteous, saying to the righteous, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.” When the righteous say they don’t remember doing these things for him, Jesus responds with “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of my brothers or sisters, you did it for me.”

Finally, we have Mark 12:28-43a. In this story, Jesus is asked which is the most important law, and he responds with “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: to love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

I don’t think we tend to think of these things when we think of praising God. It’s a lot easier to spend an hour in church once or twice a week, or to sing praise choruses or things like that that don’t really require anything of us. But we need to remember the emphasis the Bible places on taking care of those in need. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves. I take pretty good care of myself, and you probably do, too. We make sure that we have everything we need—food, clothing, shelter, health care—and a lot of what we want as well. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, remembering that the parable of the Good Samaritan defines “neighbor” as anyone who needs our help, regardless of what we think of that person, then we have to be as concerned with other people’s access to the necessities of life as we are with getting them for ourselves. We need to be concerned with people here and around the world who don’t have drinkable water, enough to eat, access to medicine, who are at risk for communicable diseases that we in this country have the ability to cure, who are living in places where they are denied education and freedom by their governments.

Praying for these situations is good—but we need to be more involved than that. We can do this through giving time, sweat, and/or money to groups like World Vision, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps, and similar organizations that act on behalf of those no one else seems to care about. These places all have websites. I recommend World Vision: through them you can buy starter animals for Third World communities that can give them flocks of sheep, hens, goats, ducks. You can buy people access to well water. Last Christmas I gave a family in Burma 1/10 of a water buffalo. We can adopt orphans through some of these organizations—you don’t get the orphan, but you contribute to her or his support. We don’t have to look overseas to find people in need. There’s plenty to be done here. We can work in soup kitchens, pantries, or clothes closets that give to people in need. We can urge our churches to establish such programs. It’s not hard. Let us give God the praise that God desires.

Editor’s note: This is a portion of a chapel address that Carol delivered entitled The Praise That I Choose. Biblical quotes are from the NRSV.

World Vision:

Vows we should not keep

I’ve been writing this sermon for about seven years and it’s not over yet. Think of it as a work in process. In my opinion the book of Judges is the darkest, grimmest, most troubling book of the Bible. It describes centuries of violence and increasing chaos as Israel fights a series of no-holds-barred wars for control of the territory. As so often happens, the years of fighting lead Israel to act like her enemies. This means that as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out who the good guys really are. They’re all acting the same.

There are many unpleasant stories here in Judges, but the story of Jephthah’s daughter wins the title of “Most Troubling Tale in the Most Troubling Biblical Book” as far as I’m concerned. It’s a passage that’s hard to know what to do with. We are concerned about child abuse and here is a biblical example of the most extreme form of it. The story in Genesis of Joseph saving Egypt from the famine is pretty easy to understand. The meaning of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke is beautifully clear–and clearly beautiful–but this one? I can’t stand this story. It makes me angry. That’s why I’m preaching on it: it’s in the Bible that I love, and I can’t deal honestly with the good parts if I can’t deal with this as well. How do we react to Jephthah? How should we remember his murdered child?

Jephthah is the son of an Israelite man and a prostitute. His father Gilead has other sons, and if you’re familiar with the Old Testament you know that brothers don’t get along that well. When Gilead dies his half-brothers drive Jephthah out rather than share the inheritance from their father with him. Their tribe supports them. So Jephthah lives as an outlaw in the wilderness, assembling a small army of his own. When his father’s tribe is attacked by the Ammonites, the elders who supported Jephthah’s greedy brothers ask him to command them in the fight against Ammon. Jephthah agrees to help those who kicked him out. Surprisingly, he tries to use diplomacy to settle the dispute between Ammon and Israel—the only time in the book of Judges that anyone resorts to diplomacy—and, in fact, does so twice, but is unsuccessful both times. Eventually, of course, war results. Judges 11:29 says that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah as he prepares for it. Even though the elders of the tribe chose him as leader, God endorses that choice. But Jephthah makes a vow to God, saying “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” He’s talking about human sacrifice; he definitely says “whoever,” not “whatever”; some translations get that wrong.

It is disturbing that the narrator tells the story in such a matter-of-fact style. There’s no statements like “Jephthah made a vow, and boy, was that stupid,” or “He killed his daughter, which certainly wasn’t what God had in mind for her.” Even so, the narrator does seem squeamish at the end, saying, “He did with her according to the vow he had made” instead of the more accurate and brutal “He burned her alive.” The narrator also shows that the girl reacts much more maturely to it than her father does. When she comes out of the house, Jephthah says to her, “You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me.” Actually, he’s the cause of great trouble to her. She responds to this by agreeing that he must fulfill his vow, however thoughtless it was, asking only that she have two months to “bewail her virginity.” It’s not really her lack of sexual experience that she and her friends are mourning for–in two months she could do something about that–but the fact that she will have no children, no one to keep her name alive among her people. And she was right. We don’t know her name. We can refer to her only by the name of her paternal killer: Jephthah’s daughter. And there’s one more thing: in Hebrews 11:32-34 Jephthah is referred to as an example of great faithfulness to God–a man who burned his child to death.

There’s plenty of guilt to go around in this story. We may wonder why Jephthah ever thought of human sacrifice in the first place. The answer is in the first part of this chapter, which tells the story of his brothers forcing him away from his father’s people and their traditions. When he returns to Israel as the leader of his tribe, he brings with him the non-Israelite custom of human sacrifice. Had his brothers treated him as a brother, this probably wouldn’t have happened. They and the community that let them get away with cheating Jephthah drove him into alien territory where he learned alien ideas, and so they share responsibility for what happened, although Jephthah bears the lion’s share.

We also note God’s role in this story. Jephthah is fighting holy war against the Ammonites and defeat means death for everyone on the losing side—civilians, soldiers, even animals. In verse 30, Jephthah unnecessarily vows to God, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of my house to meet me shall be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” This is entirely Jephthah’s idea. Once Jephthah has said that, there can be no good outcome. If Jephthah wins, he will perform a human sacrifice. If he loses, then all the Israelites including his daughter will die. But it is God’s intention to save Israel, which is why the Spirit of the Lord is with Jephthah in the first place and why God gave the Ammonites into his hand. God never asks for nor endorses Jephthah’s vow. What happens is Jephthah’s fault because he made an irresponsible vow based on a misconception of God’s nature.

Jephthah, who was a good guy at the beginning of this story, willing to help the people who’d treated him so badly, ended up making several serious mistakes. The first one is a mistake about process: he thought God had to be bribed into helping him. What makes this so pathetic is that the story says that the Spirit of the Lord was already with Jephthah. Jephthah thought he had to do something dramatic to get God’s attention, something painful and amazing to make God support him. He wasn’t aware enough of God to be able to tell that God was with him.

To make his bribery mistake worse, Jephthah misunderstood God’s nature. He was mistaken about what kind of God he was dealing with. It’s not just that he thought God wanted a bribe. He thought the bribe God would want was a human sacrifice; he thought that God desired blood and pain and death. Blood often plays an important role in sacrifices. It is vital, precious; it is sometimes understood as life itself, as in Genesis 4:10 and 9:4. Jephthah thought that he had to offer God the life that comes from someone else’s death in order to be acceptable to him, but that wasn’t the case. In Exodus 4:22, God refers to Israel as “my first-born son.” That story and those that come after it show God as faithful to that first-born child, desiring the child’s well-being, growth, and maturation. Jephthah, on the other hand, stupidly thought that God would want him to kill his own first-born. Traditional religion in general in that time and place said that’s what deities wanted. Clearly Jephthah had been listening to the wrong people. What voices misinterpret God’s nature to us? Do we still think God wants blood? How often do we offer God things—like hatred of people who are different from us, or violence in the name of Christ—that God doesn’t want?

Jephthah’s third mistake was arrogance. He thought he knew and could perform God’s will for others. He thought that God’s desired destiny for another human being was to be burned alive. He didn’t think that was God’s will for him, you notice. Not only did he think that God required human blood, but he decided it was someone else’s blood. Certainly “whoever” came out of his house wasn’t as valuable to God as he himself was. He was willing to make somebody else–anybody!–pay the price he thought God demanded; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to pay it himself by breaking his vow and taking whatever punishment ensued. Breaking his word to God would be serious, but at least then he would have been putting himself and not someone else on the line for his religious beliefs. As it was, while Jephthah may have suffered emotional pain, it’s nothing compared to the agony he put his daughter through.

What can we learn from this story? One thing is that we need to be aware of God. Jephthah was so spiritually blind that he couldn’t tell God was with him already. Perhaps he thought God’s presence would be announced by amazing omens: comets, the birth of five-legged calves, and the like. I think of Elijah here who, in 1 Kings 19, was fleeing from the rulers of Israel when God told him that the Lord was about to pass by where he was hiding. Elijah experienced a powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But the Lord was not in any of those things. After the dramatic events, Elijah heard God in a still, small voice. Still, small voices are easier to ignore than hurricanes and earthquakes. But a still, small voice can be more important. It’s not the loudness or softness that matters; it’s whose voice is speaking—and Jephthah wasn’t listening. Do we think God isn’t with us because we’ve never been struck blind on the road to Damascus, or had a vision of God in the Temple, high and lifted up? God does that sort of thing—for Paul, for Isaiah—but not always. Not even usually. We need to be attuned to the still, small voice. Jephthah was not attuned to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

We also have to be always aware of something that we already know: People will use God as an excuse to do terrible things. We have a tendency to hide our own agendas behind God, to pretend that God is telling us to do things that are our own desire. Sometimes we even convince ourselves that we’re doing God’s will when it’s just our own. Jephthah, spiritually blind, really thought that sacrificing someone would get God’s attention. But that doesn’t mean he was right. Surely people around Jephthah would have tried to stop him from killing his daughter if he hadn’t offered a religious reason for doing it. We need to make sure that we are not cloaking our own plans in religious garb. While our thoughts may run to what other people have done (such as 9/11), often in our own country people have used God to justify terrible things—slavery, the denying of equal rights to all citizens, the subordination of women, among others.

Nothing can make this story easy to deal with, and the fact that Jephthah is mentioned in Hebrews as an example of righteousness makes it especially difficult. I think Jephthah is in that Hebrews passage because he fulfilled his vow to God. But that was not a vow that God wanted Jephthah to make or to keep. We should be aware that not everything done in the name of God is God’s will. Let us be assured of God’s love for us, not scared into thinking we’ve got to work hard for God’s love. Let us be careful to do only that which is right in God’s eyes, to offer only that which God desires, making no vows that we should not keep.

Editor’s note: I include this sermon as an example of how an interpreter can wrestle with a difficult passage. Carol tackles one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible in her sermon Jephthah’s Daughter [Judges 11:30-40]. All quotes are from the NRSV.

From Furies to Kindly Ones

The Eumenides begins in the fall, at the time of the mysteries of Demeter celebrated at Eleusis (the story of Demeter’s success in recovering her daughter Kore/Persephone from death). This is the play in which female characters—Apollo’s priestess, the Furies, Clytemnestra’s ghost, and above all Athena—take the stage and determine the action. We begin at Delphi, witnessing the horror of Apollo’s priestess when she sees the bloody Orestes (whose presence renders the shrine impure) and the sleeping Furies, who have followed him to the shrine in his search for cleansing.

We “met” the Furies in Libation Bearers, although no one but Orestes could see them until The Eumenides, the play in which we also meet Athena and Apollo. The Furies (who, like the Fates, are female powers who regulate human life) are old, female, vengeful chthonic deities who live deep in the earth, where destructive power lies. They do not fit well into the new post-war world in which peace must be made if the excesses of the past are to be avoided. And the Furies are single-minded in their harrowing punishment of those who shed the blood of kin. Apollo, a young god, has interfered with their pursuit of Orestes, ordering and purging the matricide they are determined to punish. His also-young sister Athena is judging this conflict involving her brother and stemming from a war in which she was also involved on the losing side. Like the Furies, she is female—but she is one who has learned how to live in a man’s world by upholding masculine powers and values; she does not speak for the feminine and, in fact, largely denies it.

The play then moves to Athens, ultimately to the Areopagus, the chief homicide court of Athens instituted by Athena for the rule of law. Here the play reaches a resolution to the violence and resulting chaos and moral confusion that has occurred. Apollo argues first that the marriage bond trumps the maternal one, while the Furies protest that killing a husband is not as serious as killing a parent, since marriage partners are not blood kin. Later, Apollo argues that mother and child are not blood kin either because the father forms the child and plants it in the woman’s womb; she contributes nothing but space. While Orestes’ fate is the specific issue, the real subject is more than that: can there be extenuating circumstances even for the most horrible of crimes? Can a human being be rightfully punished for following a deity’s command (which applies not only to Orestes but also to Agamemnon)? What have the deities become as the younger generation rises to power, represented by Apollo and Athena . . . and the offstage Artemis, who required Iphigenia’s sacrifice in the first place? Whose fault is the violence that resulted from that act? How can and should the younger generation of deities relate to human beings? How can they relate to the older chthonic deities embodied in the Furies? How can and should society be structured? Are all murders equal? What is family? For while Orestes’ specific problem seldom arises, his state of being caught between two vital and desperate requirements is not unique.

Part of Aeschylus’ agenda is to reexamine human justice, civic duty, and how people may live not just with the gods and goddesses but also with each other. It is not just Orestes but Argos entire that needs to be restored. And it is restored. The Furies threaten that if Orestes is justified, the world will become more violent and their terror will be taken less seriously—and they see the threat of the terror they invoke in their victims as an important element in keeping people from kinslaying. Athena, always a man’s woman even though she seems to have no interest in sex, eventually decides that Clytemnestra’s crime was more serious than Orestes’, upholding the marriage bond rather than the tie of blood. The Furies erupt in . . . well, fury, threatening to unleash their power against the civilized world and cultivated land, but she convinces them to use their power in other ways, to protect the land and help it to provide for people, to live in honor in Athens and be a part of its culture. After all, their home within the hearth offers not only primal destructive power but also the force that makes crops grow. It is that part of their heritage that they now embrace. They accept Athena’s offer and become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones.

Editor’s note: This is the final section of Carol’s paper Liminal Characters in the Orestia.

Learning to live faithfully in Babylon

Having told the story of the book of Esther, I’d like to make a couple of points about the character of Hadassah-Esther. The first is that she was clearly intended to be a decoration for Ahasuerus’ court, to be called out when she was wanted and ignored when she wasn’t. And she was willing to live that way. No one expected much from her and she was safe and indulged. But of all the characters in the story, she emerges as the bravest.

Mordecai made sure she knew what was going on and encouraged her to act to stop it, but you didn’t see him march into the king’s throne room himself to plead for his people. In spite of what Mordecai said, I think she stood an excellent chance of surviving. She was the Queen and no one knew she was Jewish. That means that she risked her otherwise-safe life for her people, which gives her more credit than if she braved the king to save only herself. Notice that she fights for her people with what I suppose we might call “women’s weapons”: she doesn’t have Haman executed or threaten the king or suggest terrorism as an appropriate response. She, who managed to intrigue Ahasuerus out of all the women who came to Susa to compete to be his queen, does it again. The trip to the throne room, the banquet, the next banquet, forced him to spend time with her, to remember why he chose her in the first place, to side with her rather than with his favorite advisor. Probably no one else could have done that; certainly she was beneath Haman’s radar and so he didn’t stop her from seeing her husband. He would certainly have been able to keep anyone he thought of as a threat from reaching the king.

A second point is that timid Hadassah became a real queen because she was confronted with a horrible situation. That would never have happened if she’d spent her whole life in the women’s quarters experimenting with perfumes and makeup. She clearly had never thought she would be able to deal with something like this—she turned Mordecai down flat at first, remember—but as it turned out, she was able to deal with it better than anyone else could have. Like Esther, we hate being faced with difficulties. We hate crises and anxiety, the feeling that there’s too much resting on our shoulders. But when I look back on my life, those are the situations in which I’ve grown most. I might even say those are the only situations in which I’ve grown at all. It’s often said that in crisis we see what people are really made of. The Haman crisis revealed Esther as a brave and resourceful woman, one who out-tricked her clever enemy in the banqueting hall and out-strategized those Persians who took up arms against her people in spite of the king’s edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves. I’m sure she was as surprised to discover that she had these abilities in her as anyone else was.

The crisis didn’t affect Ahasuerus that way. We see no real growth or development in him from first to last. His outstanding characteristic—aside from his love of parties—is to let other people make the decisions for him. This is how Vashti is divorced, how the contest to choose his new bride is organized, and how the massacre of the Jews becomes law. He can no longer lean on Haman (Haman being rather severely dead at this point), but he puts Mordecai and Esther in charge of cleaning up the mess that he and Haman left. He is choosing better people to lean on, but he’s still leaning. He gives Mordecai the signet ring that he’d earlier given Haman. He’s choosing a better, more trustworthy person to lean on, but he’s still leaning.

There’s one more thing I’d like to point out about Esther. She’s often compared to Moses: they are both leaders of God’s people who are living in a powerful country that treats them badly and they both achieved this status through unusual means (Moses, the baby drawn from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter; Esther, the secretly-Jewish queen). But Moses’ task is to lead God’s people out of the hostile nation and to the Holy Land. Esther’s, on the other hand, is to straighten things out so that God’s people can stay in the hostile foreign country. As you recall, many of the Jewish exiles and their descendants elected to return to their ancient homeland (while still being under Persian control). Although the Jews in Susa have eleven months’ warning of the massacre, at no point in Esther does anyone suggest leaving Susa and heading west to their old home. Ahasuerus’ edict ordered the massacre to be empire-wide, which included the area that had been Israel, but there were few Persians there. They would have been safe there. But they don’t want to go. They were born in Susa, they have families, friends, houses, jobs there, and they want to stay in the only home they’ve ever known. Esther and Mordecai make it possible for them to do that. And that was important: the Jewish community of Babylon developed into the strongest Jewish center of learning in the world, and it rather than old Israel was the center of Jewish culture for centuries.

We can learn several things from this story. First, as Mordecai did, we can learn to see how God has worked in our own histories. When Esther became Queen this book didn’t say “through divine action,” but Mordecai knew that was the case anyway. Let us learn from this story to see our difficulties and crises as opportunities for growth. They can help us learn more about God, they can integrate us more deeply into the community of God’s people, and they can teach us some things about ourselves. And, finally, let us learn that sometimes God’s will isn’t for God’s people to congregate together in communities where everyone thinks just like us. Sometimes we are led to Israel, and sometimes we’re needed in Babylon.

Editor’s note: This is the second  half of Carol’s sermon on the book of Esther.


The book of Esther tells what happened to some of the Jewish exiles living in Persia, focusing on Mordecai and his young cousin Hadassah, whom he raised. For most of the book Hadassah is meek, a woman who knows her place, but when the chips are down, she saves her people from annihilation.

The book opens with the Persian king Ahasuerus giving a party that lasts for 180 days. When it’s over, he’s still got a little party in him and so he immediately throws a small party for his chief advisors. This one is only seven days long. His advisors’ wives are having a party with his wife, Queen Vashti, at the same time. Ahasuerus comes up with the kind of idea that comes to you when you’ve been drinking for 187 straight days: he orders Vashti to come to his party wearing the royal crown. It sounds as though he wants her to wear the crown and nothing else. She refuses. The king’s advisors are horrified—not because a subject has defied the king but because a wife has defied her husband. They tell the king to divorce her right away, and he does. He sets in motion the massive legal system of the Medes and Persians, a system to say that Vashti is no longer queen and all men are rulers over their own households.

Once he recovers from what must have been a world-class hangover, he remembers Vashti and is lonely but doesn’t know what to do about it. His advisors say, “Virgins. You need a lot of them and you need them now.” They proceed to go throughout the empire to find beautiful virgins for the king. They find Hadassah and want to take her to the king. Mordecai tells her to go, but warns her to keep her Jewish heritage secret. She will no longer be Hadassah; she will be Esther, a Babylonian name. She obeys. Each girl selected spends one night with the king. In the morning, she will either become queen and the competition will stop, or she will be sent to the king’s harem. Clearly this procedure is designed to make sure no uppity Vashti types become queen; based on the little we saw of her, she would not participate in anything like this. But Hadassah does. She charms King Ahasuerus and so she becomes Queen Esther, Hadassah-in-disguise.

We’ve already noted that Ahasuerus is pretty much dominated by his advisors. He doesn’t seem to make any decisions for himself. His favorite advisor is Haman, who is descended from Agag the Amalekite. Haman is the poster boy for egoism; he demands that everyone bow down to him. But Mordecai, who is the doorkeeper to the king’s palace, just won’t. Jews have a tradition of refusing to bow down to any human being. Haman has to walk past him at least twice each day. Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him drives him crazy. Eventually he decides to kill . . . not just Mordecai but all the Jews of the Persian Empire. Haman tells Ahasuerus that there’s one group of people in the king’s huge empire of many ethnic groups that obeys laws other than the king’s and that they should be put to death. Without even asking who these people are, Ahasuerus gives Haman permission for the massacre, actually giving him his own signet ring—the one he used to seal official documents and proclamations so everyone would know they were genuine. By giving Haman that ring, Ahasuerus has given him kingly powers.

Mordecai hears about the approaching murder of the Jews and is extremely upset. “Esther” learns that he’s in mourning, but she can’t ask him why: everyone knows he’s Jewish and so “Esther” can’t admit to their kinship. Her servants look into it and bring her a message from her cousin, asking her to intercede with her husband. But “Esther” is unwilling. She knows perfectly well that her whole job as queen is not to be Vashti, not to take stands, not to embarrass Ahasuerus. And there’s this pesky law: people who come into the king’s presence unbidden can be put to death immediately. Not to mention the fact that in dealing with this situation she’ll probably have to tell the king that she’s Jewish, which he’s not likely to be thrilled to hear. So she sends word back to Mordecai that it’s been thirty days since her husband has called for her, and it’s very unlikely that he’s been alone during that time: remember that the palace is full of the beauty contest losers. She just can’t do it. He sends back this message: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14, NRSV) Mordecai clearly means that God will deliver the people and has, in fact, put Esther in this royal position to make this deliverance happen. This convinces her: the woman who has been the docile, noninterfering non-Vashti will confront her royal husband. She asks that the Jews of the city fast and pray for her for three days.

After the three days have passed, she goes into the king’s throne room. All eyes must have been on her, aware that she had not been called. The king welcomes her and asks what she wants. You’d expect her to say “My life and the lives of my people” or “Haman’s head” or something of the sort—maybe even “for you to go to start going to AA meetings.” Instead, she invites the king and Haman to feast with her that day. So they come; Haman boasts that he is so powerful that even the Queen recognizes it and includes him in this special meal. Of course the king’s intrigued. At the meal’s close, Ahasuerus thanks her and asks her what she wants, even if it’s half his kingdom. She asks the two men to come to a banquet the next day.

At the next banquet the king asks again what she wants, and finally she tells him. But she’s getting good at playing the castle-diplomacy game: she tells the king that she and her people have been marked for death but, just like Haman, she doesn’t mention who the people are and Ahasuerus doesn’t ask. He wants to know who’s done this and when she points to Haman, the king is so furious he has to go outside. Haman, of course, panics; he’d never thought of her as an enemy. He didn’t know she was Jewish and probably couldn’t have imagined that a woman might overthrow his plans. Now he knows better and he throws himself on her, begging for mercy. When Ahasuerus walks in, he thinks that Haman is trying to rape his wife. She knows better, of course, but doesn’t say anything, and Haman is taken away to be hanged. Unfortunately, the massacre is still on: remember that the laws cannot be amended or revoked. But the king issues a new law saying that the Jews can defend themselves and puts Mordecai and Esther in charge of that. On the appointed day the Jews rise up against their attackers and are victorious.

Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the first half of Carol’s sermon Esther: Who? Me? All quotes from the book of Esther are from the NRSV.