Have you ever heard of Sheerah? Well, I’ve been in church all my life, and I hadn’t heard about her until Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session featured her in a sermon at The Gathering, A Womanist Church. Then I learned more about Sheerah in Dr. Irie’s new book, Badass Women of the Bible.
Sheerah’s story is important, but I hadn’t learned about her in all those years in Sunday school. She was considered insignificant and was ignored, like so many women in the Bible and so many women today. So I was delighted to learn from Dr. Irie that Sheerah built three cities in ancient Israel that are still standing today. Sheerah built “both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah” (1 Chronicles 7:24).
Dr. Irie emphasizes the great significance of Sheerah’s accomplishments, especially in ancient Israel where only males were builders. “She was a woman living in a patriarchal, androcentric culture. A culture where women could not own property. In fact, women were property! But not Sheerah, she was a builder.” Like King Uzziah, another biblical city builder, Sheerah had success as a builder because she had a “deep abiding commitment to follow the ways of God.” Sheerah was a successful city builder also because she “possessed a daring spirit,” that is, she was “bold, audacious, adventurous, unconventional, and courageous.”
Reading Badass Women of the Bible, I not only learned about Sheerah, but also I learned from Sheerah. Sheerah had a big dream, and she “implemented her dream.” Sheerah inspires me to pursue my dreams, to have the “courage to be a trailblazer.” One of the cities that Sheerah built, Uzzen-Sheerah, means “listen to Sheerah.” Dr. Irie gives a powerful challenge to “listen to a woman,” to “listen to a woman who knows what it means to be on the margins, silenced and skipped over,” to “listen to a woman who overcame the odds, who trusted God enough to risk.” Sheerah teaches us “about the value, worth, and ingenuity of women.” Among the “Questions for Theological Reflection” in this chapter are these: “What happens when the stories of the marginalized are skipped over? How are woman and girls adversely impacted? How is the church adversely impacted?”
In this prophetic, inspiring book Dr. Irie lifts up the stories of marginalized biblical women. At the beginning of the book she writes that she draws from her many years of experience in teaching Bible studies with women who had been prostituted, sexually exploited, and sexually traumatized. She learned “in a very practical way the importance of a womanist biblical hermeneutic” to help the women “navigate the patriarchal world in which they lived.” Their stories are similar to the stories of biblical women placed “in subordinate and un-empowered positions, failing to take into account their agency and self-derived survival strategies made necessary by the patriarchal culture in which they were forced to life.” Dr. Irie mines biblical women’s stories for “womanist tenets of traditional communalism (community wholeness), radical subjectivity (she matters), redemptive self-love (loving oneself regardless), and critical engagement (confronting the Powers).” Womanist interpretation centers the experiences of Black women. Living at the intersection of race, gender, and class oppression, Black women, “as persons society has marginalized, have an epistemological advantage—a way of seeing injustice and creating solutions for it that benefit entire communities, not just Black women.”
In Badass Women of the Bible I also discovered the daughters of Zelophehad. I never heard about Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah in Sunday school or from the pulpit, although these daughters of Zelophehad played a major role in the Bible (Numbers 27:1−8; 36:5−12). They brought about change in unjust laws so that women in the Israelite community could inherit land. They challenged the unjust patriarchal system not just for their own benefit, but for the good of generations of people who would follow them. This chapter has the apt title of “Sisters with the Audacity to Dream Big.” Dr. Irie compares these sisters to Ella Baker, “characterized by many as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” who also “had the audacity to dream big.” Like Ella Baker and other women in the Civil Rights Movement, these five sisters “had to contend with the injustice of sexism, patriarchy, and economic insecurity.” These women all had “the strength to do something gutsy, something courageous.” The story of these five sisters is in the Bible, but like the story of the women in the Civil Rights Movement, has received “little press or fanfare.” Dr. Irie gives them the recognition they deserve and challenges us to have the “audacity to dream big,” to change unjust systems.
In her book Dr. Irie also includes women, like Rahab and Delilah, I’d heard about, but her womanist interpretations gave me a whole new understanding and appreciation of them. In the chapter on Rahab, Dr. Irie uses the term “prostituted” instead of “prostitute” in order to hold accountable the spies and men today “who are buyers of sex.” She commends Rahab as a pragmatist who “had to make a choice not really a choice” as a means of survival for herself and her family, and as a partner with God in the midst of an unjust patriarchal system. From her work with hundreds of prostituted women, Dr. Irie testifies that every day women around the world still have to make impossible choices in order “to feed their children.”
In sermons and Bible lessons, I’d heard no positive words about Delilah. She was always cast as the villain who brought down Samson, the hero. But through Dr. Irie’s womanist interpretation of the story, I now appreciate Delilah as an independent woman surviving in an oppressive culture. “We have a tendency to demonize the oppressed—those who are not at the decision-making table due to their marginalized status,” she writes. “And, we blame them for their victimization and the strategies they use to survive.” Delilah “pieced together a living for herself in a society of patriarchy, where male desire, ideology, and perspectives were centered and normative.”
As a womanist biblical scholar, Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session centers stories of the marginalized to bring liberation to the oppressed and transformation to us all. She has the gift of presenting her thorough research in concise, clear, and compelling form and of making current-day applications. I also appreciate her as a womanist preacher and co-pastor of The Gathering, A Womanist Church. She practices her womanist theology also through her ministry on the board of Equity for Women in the Church, an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. She is host of “Equity Live: Conversations on the Equal Representation of Women as Pastors,” and host and facilitator of Equity webinars in partnership with The Center for Faith and Imagination at Memphis Theological Seminary, beginning April 30 with a webinar titled “You Don’t Own Me: A Womanist Approach to Dismantle Patriarchy and Thrive in Ministry.”
I highly recommend Badass Women of the Bible: Inspiration from Biblical Women Who Challenged and Subverted Patriarchy to all who want to expand their understanding and to spread liberating truth. Each chapter includes “What You May Not Know” and “Questions for Theological Reflection,” making the book ideal for Bible study groups, sermons, and personal study and inspiration. Written in an engaging, accessible style from the heart of a pastor and the voice of a prophet, this book inspires and challenges us to change unjust systems in order to transform our world with the Good News.
Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, an ordained clergywoman in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is co-pastor of The Gathering, A Womanist Church in Dallas, Texas. She’s a professor in Perkins School of Theology’s Course of Study and an adjunct instructor for Brite Divinity School’s Thriving in Ministry program. She holds a Master of Divinity with Certificate in Black Church Studies from Brite Divinity School and a Doctor of Ministry in Transformative Leadership and Prophetic Preaching from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She spent 17 years in social work as a parole officer and as an investigator for Child Protective Services. She worked in the nonprofit sector for 22 years, dedicating 14½ of those years to helping transform the lives of survivors of prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation with New Friends New Life, a Dallas nonprofit. Now, as a passionate innovator, award-winning minister, TEDx Presenter, and Spiritual Entrepreneur, Dr. Irie leverages 30-plus years of social work and ministry as Founder and Chief Illuminator of DreamBig, a ministry addressing economic inequities experienced by clergywomen, women in ministry, women of a certain age, and women of color in church and society by helping them leverage their experience and expertise to make a living for themselves by doing what they’re wired to do, and to make a transformative difference in the world. She is the single mother of India Liana, a freelance make-up artist and budding social media style influencer.