Fear is a terrible thing. And for those who live with it everyday it paralyses and robs them of hope, robs them of a sense of identity, of any confidence of who they are or what they could possibly do with their lives. Fear makes people powerless, vulnerable, and desperate. The Bible says that, ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1 Jn. 4.18). Knowing God is for you – loves you unconditionally, really knowing that is the starting point for confronting and defeating our fears. But God is also a practical God. And he gives people practical ideas to help deal with their fears too.
1 Chron. 7.20-24
“ The sons of Ephraim: Shuthelah, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, Zabad his son, Shuthelah his son, and Elzer and Elead.
Now the people of Gath who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their Cattle. And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he named him Beriah, because disaster had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzensheerah .”
Under Nehemiah’s leadership the people started to repair the walls of Jerusalem…
“Next to them Jedaiah son of Harumaph made repairs opposite his house; and next to him Hattusch son of Hahabiniah made repairs, Malchijah son of Harim and Hasshub son of Pahath-moab repaired another section and the tower of the Ovens. Next to him Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters.”
Never mind stereotypes of hairy men with badly fitting jeans that seem to be on a permanent tea break, the Bible gives us women who build! One oversees the building of three towns, the others, (daughters of a ruler) literally get their hands dirty along with all the ‘sons of’ and help to repair the walls of Jerusalem. What can we learn from them? Top tips on plastering and plumbing? Useful as those would be, I don’t think the text is that helpful on actual DIY.
So what then? Well, Let’s think about is the context in which they undertake their building projects, starting with:
The inhabitants of Gath wipe out her brothers on a cattle raid. Her father is distraught but goes on to have more children of which she is one. So this little girl grows up one of a tent people, semi -nomadic herders who have had a considerable part of their tribe wiped out by enemies. This is a family who has experienced first hand the perils of life. Her father long before her birth has been scarred by the loss of his sons.
How does that effect her - little Sheerah? I suspect that she grew up consciously aware of the risks of life. Looking over her shoulder for bands of raiders, ready to turn and run for her life at any point. Having lost one set of children I bet her parents imprinted on her the necessity of being safe, of staying close to the tents.
Interestingly, she builds towns - three of them.
By modern standards they were probably little more than walled villages, but walls are good. Walls keep out raiders, walls protect.
So Sheerah takes security seriously, so seriously that she has built places for her family, their livestock and children to be safe. No tents for them, nice solid walls that their enemies can’t get through!
It’s a remarkable feat for two reasons. One is that engineering was not something the Hebrews excelled in at this point in their history. Tents were the way they lived. But this girl has learnt something, presumably from other peoples and incorporated it into her family. She has been pragmatic and creative. Rather than following the same old traditions she has done a new thing, a wise thing. Something that set a trend and was followed by countless generations - walls.
Let’s be honest there are few enough women engineers now, but back then? Initiating the creation of three settlements, she must have been quite a woman! Presumably she had help with the building part, and presumably she has a considerable number of descendants who occupied these little towns, but the fact that she is detailed as their founder and one is named directly after her makes her pretty impressive sounding. She’s an initiator, a revolutionary thinker and designer, someone who responded to a pragmatic need, learning from the pain in her own family and past. Sound like someone we could aspire to be like?
Anita Roddick? Not a Christian, but a woman who had a vision for a new ethical way of responding to the desire for beauty products. Fairly traded, not tested on animals and with recycled packaging. Things that we take for granted as pretty normal now. She played a significant part in getting that ball rolling.
Jackie Pullinger? A remarkable woman whose story is outrageous and courageous and has inspired thousands to minister to the poor, the oppressed, those imprisoned by addiction. She didn’t have a model to copy so she initiated one, which others now use.
Elizabeth Fry? Who pioneered humane conditions and education in women’s prisons...put values in place that we still adhere to today.
These are all women who specialised in ‘thinking outside of the box’. Laying foundations (literally) that would last for generations. That would protect generations; provide security beyond their own lifetime. Do we think Sheerah knew the implications of what she was doing? I suspect not. I suspect she was doing what seemed sensible – even if it was unorthodox. And it was motivated by a desire to prevent further tragedy; to save lives.
Destroyed by the Babylonians a generation before, Jerusalem was desperately vulnerable to attack because its walls were in disrepair. Anyone could get in and attack its inhabitants – and given the enemies they were faced with, that was a distinct likelihood!
As for Shallum’s daughters, they are the only women listed in Nehemiah’s list of the re-builders of Jerusalem’s walls. Nehemiah forms a plan and gets the people to work together to rebuild it. And these women are included with their rich, powerful father who was ‘ruler of half the district’. The action of getting their hands dirty has made it into scripture so we can assume that Nehemiah himself was pretty impressed. They clearly felt the urgency of the project and threw themselves into action with the men. The motivation? A need for security-and an urgent one at that. Like Sheerah these women didn’t wait for the men to make it all safe. They didn’t cower behind furniture somewhere but put themselves in danger on the front line. They sweated, broke nails, trapped fingers, bled, got filthy in scorching temperatures because the security of their city, their family, their people, was at stake.
Across the world even today it is often women who do the hard graft. Who carry water from wells and rivers miles from home. Who farm sun scorched fields with infants strapped to their backs. Who herd the goats, harvest the fruit, feed the family, and hold it altogether. During the two world wars women flocked to factories, farms; wherever they were needed for ‘the war effort’. They broke production records, lost limbs and even their lives – in non-glorious, backbreaking, manual jobs. They, like Sheerah and Shallum’s daughters were strong, brave, and hardworking. Motivated by a love for their families and nation, by a desire to protect their children, their elderly, their men too; a desire for things to be safe, secure, and peaceful; for ‘swords to be turned into plow-shears’ (Is.2.4), for children to grow up in safety, for life to be as God intended. (Whether they actively acknowledged him or not)
Those who work in international development report that if you really want to see a community change. To see greater security, prosperity, higher food production and better health then it should be the women who are educated. Who are given loans and are provided with opportunity to start small businesses because the money they make gets re-invested into their families and communities. Not squandered on alcohol or weapons.
Sheerah and Shallum’s daughters have a lot in common with those kinds of women, be they in Africa or on a run down estate in the UK. Women can be and often are agents of change in communities. As Christian women we have a double responsibility, to bring about social change for the sake not just of the poor but also for the sake of the gospel. To provide security, not just for our own families but those around us.
Why? Because it’s on God’s heart for people to be safe, for the ruins to be rebuilt, for people to live out peaceful lives. Isaiah 61 tells us that this is EXACTLY what Jesus came for.
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners:
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of the vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display His glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall repair the former devastations;
They shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.’
Yes, that is absolutely a spiritual security, our lives in God’s hands, Jesus as our saviour. Revelation tells us that one day there will be perfect peace and security, but for many people the immediate need that faces them is safety; from an abusive partner, from debt collectors, from mugging or burglary, from bullies of all sorts. What does the good news of the gospel mean to someone in fear for their life? Their home? Their body?
Sheerah and Shallum’s daughters understood that fear and they did something very practical about it. What do those we know in fear need? What might security for them look like? How might we be initiators of that? It may not involve DIY but let’s think creatively – and let’s take the initiative rather than waiting for someone else to ‘fix it’.
© Ruth Perrin 2008. Last revised on 22 November 2008
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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