Don’t know who Noadiah is? You’re not alone. Almost no one does. But she was one of the most important women of the Bible and still remains important today, especially in light of debates on the role of women in ministry.
Sermon preached May 22, 2015 at La Sierra University Church.
If God is with us, he can’t be with them. If God is with me, then he can’t be with you. If God’s right, they’re wrong… If I’m right, your wrong.
The nation, if one could even call it that, was weak. The temple was still destroyed and the walls that once surrounded it, marking the holy from the profane, lay in ashamed shambles. It had been around a hundred years since the Babylonians had sacked the city of Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, yet in so many ways, the past remained the present reality. Cyrus, a Persian king, who had conquered Babylon, had allowed the Jews to return to their home. Yet, the city had not grown or been mended. Only a small number chose to return to the city they once called Zion, while the majority decided to continue on in their new Persian home.
One of these who did not make the initial trek home, a man by the name of Nehemiah, eventually managed to hear a first-hand description of the un-repaired state of the city. The words he heard disturbed him. He had never seen Jerusalem before. He had only grown up in the riches of Babylon. Yet, he remembered the stories of glory told of Solomon. And so he developed a vision, a plan for rebuilding that would, as he envisioned it, restore the former glory of Solomon. He beseeched the Persian Empire to install him as governor of Judea and to give him the authority to lead the rebuilding efforts. He promised loyalty to the empire and they approved. Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem along with a new group of exiles, armed with weapons and with the force of the empire as the newly installed Governor. But he was not there to join hands with his fellow Jewish brothers. He was not interested in bringing the body of Israel back together. He had come to divide, not unite.
When Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem some hundred years earlier, he took with him the rich, the young, the educated and anyone of importance. He did not, however, take the majority of the Jewish people: the poor, the peasants, the laborers. Many who made the long trek into Exile, marching to their new home in Babylon, saw the victory of Nebuchadnezzar as marking the victory of the Babylonian god Marduk against Yahweh. But then came the prophet Ezekiel and with him, a vision that would change everything. He proclaimed that contrary to the thinking of their day, he had seen God “riding on a chariot.” Their God, Ezekiel revealed, was not buried underneath the ruins of a destroyed building. No, their God was traveling alongside them into their Exile.
This vision changed everything for the beliefs of those traveling to Babylon, but not always in a good way. When the idea was cemented that God was traveling with the Exiles “into their Exile”, the belief developed very quickly that God was no longer in the ruins of his temple, he was no longer with the poor. If God was with them, he was not with those left behind. If God chose to go with them, he did not choose to remain with the others. If God punished them because he loved them, he left those back in Jerusalem to fend for themselves because he hated them. Yet, as terrible as this train of thought might seem to us now, it was the new theological discovery of the time. It was supported even by those who should have known better, such as the prophet Jeremiah.
We don’t have much knowledge of how the “poor of the land,” those believers left behind, worshiped or kept their faith in the wake of the temple’s destruction, but we do know that they did. They had found a way to survive even without their elite priests, without their religious structures.
It was with this new theology, this belief that God had chosen the Exiles and rejected the poor and destitute, that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem with a vision that had no room for what he saw as the “other.”He put his newfound authority to use. His reforms came swift. Nehemiah and those exiles who agreed with him saw their fellow cousins, those poor Jews who had remained, as foreigners. And as foreigners, they needed to go. Any Jewish exiles who had married “these sorts of Jews” were to divorce their wives immediately and consider their children illegitimate. If they had married anyone from a foreign land, even if that person was a believer in Yahweh, they were to divorce her and abandon their children. Nehemiah did not request these changes, he enforced them and sometimes by his own hand. According to his own testimony, angered by their lack of respect for the former traditions, 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’” (Neh. 13:23-25).
Nehemiah’s policies, the Biblical Scholar Wilda Gafney describes,“included breaking apart families and leaving women and their children as persons without status or identity, with neither shelter nor sustenance” (2008:111–12). Among these dramatic changes was also the issue of who could serve Yahweh. During the time before Nehemiah was installed as the political authority, those of foreign descent had been allowed to serve as priests to God. Those working in the ruins of Jerusalem had made the decision that what made one fit to serve was dedication to Yahweh, not one’s racial purity. The prophet Isaiah had proclaimed and affirmed this as God’s will. Nehemiah wholeheartedly disagreed and began to systematically throw out priests whose racial ancestry did not meet the goal of his vision for a pure Jewish state. Along with racial purity, harsher reforms were instituted for ritual and religious observance. Sabbath was not only enforced, but done so on the threat of death.
In the midst of this chaotic social reform that Nehemiah pushed for, there was also the project that he had received his authority for in the first place. The walls of the temple were to be rebuilt and along with them, the walls of the city itself. The walls that separated the “us” from the “them”, the walls that could keep those who were unwanted from entering, those walls were to be rebuilt. Reaction to these plans and the vision it carried came speedily. Aside from the objections of those priests who were thrown out, not counting the cries of divorced women and abandoned children, a new voice rose to cry out against Nehemiah. Her name was Noadiah.
For most of us, this may be the first time we’ve heard of this woman. She is, afterall, only mentioned by name once in a single verse within a book of the Hebrew Bible that we do not typically read on a regular basis. As recorded in Nehemiah 6:14, Nehemiah beseeches God in a desperate prayer:“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” (Neh. 6:14).
Obscure and strange, her name reminds us more of images from the book of Genesis and the destruction of the world by flood than the time of the Exile. And perhaps to her, she saw the reforms of Nehemiah as just such a flood. To understand the role of this woman, it is important that we recognize that Noadiah was not merely one more voice among a crowd… she was a prophet. Her name in Hebrew can be understood to mean “Yahweh has revealed himself,” or “Yahweh has become manifest,” both of which testify of the authority she held in speaking on behalf of God as a prophet.
Her name, the authority that it invested and her work as a Prophet were not misplaced. Not only was she a “woman of God,” but she was outspoken. In fact, of all the prophets that had active ministry during the time of Nehemiah and who Nehemiah himself admits spoke out against him, we know of only her name. She is not only prominent, but she is leading the charge against him. She is, suggested by the way in which Nehemiah refers to her, the leader of all the prophets in Jerusalem. The one whose name meant “Yahweh has revealed himself” found herself surrounded by the support of those who Yahweh also had revealed himself to. They’re support for her was unanimous enough and in agreement with her enough for Nehemiah to find it unnecessary to refer to them as anything other than “the rest of the prophets.” Noadiah was the only one who was worth mentioning.
And yet, why does Nehemiah mention her at all? Many of us will not understand that when Nehemiah prays for God to remember Noadiah, he seeks to curse her. He invites God to, if He so chooses to, kill her. By this act, Nehemiah would be vindicated. Again though, vindicated from what? How powerful was Noadiah’s influence and what was her message that could shake Nehemiah so greatly he needed God to step in? Her objections centered on the issue of rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem. Yet, why should anyone have objected to the idea of rebuilding a city’s defenses? Why should there have been such resistance? Simply because the walls were not being rebuilt to protect the city, but to keep others out. With this focus, one can see that Noadiah and the prophets had a larger vision in mind behind their objection. They were opposed to Nehemiah’s entire vision of ethnic purity, not simply the physical walls he hoped to resurrect from their dusty grave.
At this point it’s helpful to keep in mind that Nehemiah is a politician, nothing more and nothing less. He is not a scribe trained in the scriptures of his time, nor is he a priest like Ezra and he more importantly, is not a prophet. He never claims to speak God’s word. Instead, what he has is a personal vision of glory for Israel. Nehemiah is afraid because what the prophets claim is that he is acting against God’s will. He is not a visionary achieving God’s great mission, but a misguided man attempting to push his own vision against God’s. Nehemiah prays for God to prove that he, Nehemiah, understands better than Noadiah what the nation needs. So then, we might ask, who was right? The one who wrote the book that cursed the prophetess, or the prophetess who though silenced can still speak to us in spite of this curse? We need not simply come up with an opinion.
Many years before Noadiah’s prophetic ministry and Nehemiah’s vision of national ethnic purity, a prophet had already spoke God’s will. Some years after the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls by Babylonian forces, the prophet Zechariah received the following vision: “when the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him, and said to him, “Run, say to that young man: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it” (Zech 2:3-5). Jerusalem was to be a city without walls. Jerusalem was to have God himself be the walls. Jerusalem was to be a place filled with a multitude of people, open to all nations. Jerusalem was to be exactly as Noadiah and the “rest of the prophets” were arguing it should be.
Noadiah and those with her were merely following the vision God gave Zechariah. Without realizing it, those who have always imagined Noadiah to be false, have equally condemned Zechariah. How quickly assumptions can lead us to dangerous conclusions. A woman who was bold enough to stand up and speak, a woman who by nature of her own gender was already not respected by Nehemiah, spoke what God ordained. However, as is the case often with prophets, those spoken to didn’t listen. We don’t know how the efforts of Noadiah ended, but we know that she and the prophets of Jerusalem lost. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, continued his reforms and forever silenced Noadiah. The woman who was more outspoken than any found her voice muffled.
Nehemiah, like many, refused to listen to those God had ordained. He refused to heed the warnings God sent by those whom he had sent. He chose to trust in his own intuitions, his own beliefs about what God would or would not do, rather than be open to what God was in fact doing at the present. He chose to listen to his own interpretation of one prophet and ignore the words of another. He believed he was following God’s will but in truth was fighting it. He refused to listen to God and as a result, forfeited the vision God had for Israel at that time. He refused to listen to the woman God sent and as a result, forfeited the blessings that could have followed.
In the course of this story, have you noticed anything that sounds familiar? Have you heard the echoes of issues from our own time? Do we not still today find ourselves in a similar, albeit different circumstance? This summer, the Adventist church will meet as a worldwide body in San Antonio, Texas. The issue to be voted on is the question of whether the Adventist church will, as a worldwide body, vote in favor of or against the recognition of women’s ordination. To clarify, the issue at stake is not whether the church will “ordain” women, as if that was something the church ever had authority to do. No, the issue is whether the church will agree that God has already ordained these women to do his ministry and whether we will recognize and support God’s work in their ministry. The church itself cannot ordain, but merely recognize what God is already doing. It can only affirm where we see the Spirit leading.
Many have chosen to object to the idea that God has ordained women, quoting scriptures here and there which they believe limit the role a woman can have within the church. Again though, does this not sound so similar to our story tonight? Are those against women’s ordination listening to one set of scriptures (for instance, parts of Paul) and ignoring another (such as other parts of Paul and countless other verses)? Are they emphasizing one vision at the expense of what other visions scripture holds? How is that any different, at its core, from Nehemiah who chose to listen to the opinion of some prophets (such as Jeremiah) but ignore others (namely Isaiah and Zechariah)? Are they not following in Nehemiah’s footsteps, who refused to recognize God’s ordained mission for Noadiah?
But, the objection is surely to arise as it usually does, a prophet is different from that of a minister! They are not the same! You can’t compare apples and oranges! Actually, I agree, but for completely different reasons. When Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:28, he divides the church into eight offices of hierarchy, beginning with Apostles, Prophets and then Teachers. For the time of Paul and earliest Christianity, an apostle was a titled reserved only for someone understood to have had time with Jesus when he was on this earth. In this context, an apostle is by no means the equivalent of today’s minister. So then, what is the equivalent of today’s preacher? The third on the list, teachers. Who’s second? Prophets. According to Paul’s earliest structure of the church, a prophet was not only different than a teacher, he or she held an authority stronger than teachers. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:5, he wishes that all could be prophets, so as to teach and edify the church.
What about Deborah, to mention another famous prophet of the Old Testament? She was a triple force: the judge of Israel, a prophet and military leader. There were most assuredly male priests then, practicing their rituals and sacrifices. There were probably some scribes as well, trained in the traditions. All of them were men. And yet, as prophet and leader of Israel, who did the Israelites turn to for instruction both religious and political? According to Judges 4:5: Deborah, a woman.
I find it strange that if women were approved and endorsed by God to lead his nation politically, militarily and spiritually… that if Paul considered prophets, and the women who were prophets, to hold a higher role in the church than teachers (albeit no more or less valuable)… that somehow people can today claim that God would not ordain women to do ministry as teachers? Does that make sense at all? Not only that, but women were also allowed into the position of apostle, which was higher than Prophet. Paul mentions in Romans 16 the apostle Junia, who was, according to his description, like family to him and also foremost among the apostles. So if women could be included in the top 2 offices of the church outlined by Paul, how can one argue that the lower office of teacher is something God would never bestow to a woman. In both the offices of Apostle and Prophet, women taught and were already, by definition, teachers. But the truth is, that for many, like the example of Nehemiah, biases don’t die easily nor do our pre-conceptions of who God uses or how he would do so.
Israel, as early as the prophet Amos’ own day, hundreds of years before Nehemiah, believed that they knew God’s limits. Amos, in a shocking and surprise twist, denies this with words that would have struck as close to the heart as any. He proclaims “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”(Amos 9:7). Even today, the statement is shocking if understood. God asserts that not only was he behind the events of the Exodus, but he was behind the migrations of their enemies. In other words, the Exodus while special, was not unique for God. He was helping the nations around them as well, even at the same time. For these Israelites, this was insanity at its worse. If God was with them, he was not with the Philistines. If God was with Israelites during the Exodus, he was not with the Arameans from Kir. They refused to accept that God could use the Philistines in his plan. They refused to accept that they might not understand that for God, there was no limitations for who he chose to use.
Already at the beginning of the Jewish people’s return from exile, God was ready to begin the mission of evangelism to the nations. What blessings might have been brought about had Nehemiah simply listened? Blessings which would take another four hundred or so years before Jesus would finally usher them in, four hundred years before the apostle Paul would proclaim foreigners as the inheritors of Abraham. Will we in today’s countless debates make decisions that delay what blessings God might be ready to or is already bringing out?
If God is with us, he can’t be with them. If God is with me, then he can’t be with you. If God’s right, they’re wrong… If I’m right, your wrong. This was the spirit of Nehemiah. Do we wish to have THIS spirit or the spirit that has moved men AND women across the world today and in countless times past to proclaim the gospel? Do we wish to make the mistake of assuming that we know better who or how God will use people instead of opening our eyes to see what it is that God is already doing at the present? This is the question that I hope those who have a voice on this issue will consider and prayerfully seek God about as our church and others move to make a decision on an issue that directly affects so many in the body of Christ.