In the year 2000, now almost twenty years ago, a little book was published that would touch the lives of millions of readers, both church-going or not. “The Prayer of Jabez,” in its second print, sold 2 million copies, and would eventually become the fastest selling book in American literary history, with more than 20 million copies in print. The book not only became a New York Times Best Seller; but, also spark a new church movement across the country. The prayer of Jabez in the book of 1st Chronicles, for the first time, was universally preached, taught, studied, and discussed from Sunday to Sunday, for several years, making an obscured text in 1st Chronicles, one of the most preached narratives of recent biblical history.
Undoubtedly, Bruce Wilkinson’s book became a phenomenon in the church, capturing the attention of the pulpit and the pew, as the prayer of 1st Chronicles, chapter four, verses 9-11, was thoroughly dissected, verse by verse, by scholars, theologians, and laity alike.
Yet, one of the most curious and troubling aspects of Dr. Bruce Wilkinson’s book, is his presentation of Jabez’s mother. From his learned viewpoint (and was there any other?), Jabez’ mother cursed his life at inception by naming her baby, “Pain.” It seems a cruel, insensitive, and selfish choice – a mother who deliberately crippled her son’s destiny with a name which had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with her.
The question for this study, and for us, as women, who love Scripture, and are willing to dig deeper to find the authentic meaning of women’s narratives in the Bible is this: Does the portrayal of Jabez’s mother, as the protagonist of her son’s story, give us a fair and accurate understanding of her/story within his/story? Are we willing to take a second look at this woman, and rehabilitate her story, from the pages of a best selling book, which vilified her very existence? If we are, we will discover an untold truth: “Until the [lioness] tells [her] side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
The war on women in Scripture is a sustained, subtle, nuanced one. It is a war that begins with one story at a time. It starts with the suggestion that Eve deliberately seduced Adam, and was therefore, responsible for the fall of humanity. It continues with the suggestion that Bathsheba, by simply bathing on a roof, was responsible for King David’s sexual indiscretions. It is the suggestion that Queen Vashti was a disobedient wife and deserved the loss of her throne. It continues with story after story about women in Scripture who have coerced men, misled men, seduced men, and used men for their own devious purposes. This mindset assists in the dangerous and biased proposal that women are indeed the cause of the “fall” because of our defective gene, femininity. Collectively, we women are responsible in large part, responsible for creating chaos, confusion, disobedience, and all that comes with it:
As Apostle Paul writes in his letter to Timothy:
“But refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides, that, they learn to be idle, gaddling about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (1 Timothy 5: 11-13)
As the author Liz Curtis Higgs writes in her bestseller, “Bad Girls of the Bible,” –
“What labels a woman as “bad,” hasn’t changed since Eve. All of the usual suspects are there: disobedience, lust, denial, greed, anger, lying, adultery, laziness, cruelty, selfishness, idolatry. It all boils down to a heart that’s hardened against God; however temporary the condition; however, isolated the tough spot. To that extent, we’ve all been Bad Girls. And to a woman, we all long to be Good Girls.”
SPEAK FOR YOURSELF LIZ!
It is most interesting that “Bad Girls of the Bible, penned by a woman, sold over one million copies, becoming a national best seller. In contrast, “The Bad Boys of the Bible, sits on the shelf, practically unheard of, collecting dust.
So what makes us so eager to throw shade at the women of Scripture; but give the men a pass? The story of Jabez’s mother, obscured and more recently misinterpreted, may provide some assistance with our questions.
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor………………………………
(1st Chronicles 4: 9-11) – NRSV
“Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I born him in pain.” Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.”
Jabez’s mother’s story begins as most women of Scripture – a woman who had a life; but her name is not given. In her case, this woman was defined by her son, instead of her husband. In their three sentence story, there are only several pieces of pertinent information, told of this mother and son:
(1) – She is a mother
(2) – She names her son – Jabez
(3) – His name means “pain.”
(4) – Jabez calls on the God of Israel in prayer
(5) – God granted Jabez’ request
The query begins with the suggestion that the translation of Jabez’s name means “pain.” When reading the NRSV translation of the text (the closest to the original language of Hebrew), the reader begins to make assumptions. Either Jabez’s mother experienced intense physical pain, or perhaps her pain was emotional instead. Maybe her pain was both physical and emotional; but, what kind of mother would decide to transfer her pain to her innocent newborn child, to saddle him with a moniker that would define his existence?
Dr. Bruce Wilkinson, a professor of biblical studies, and a graduate of several seminaries (B.A. & Th.M – Master of Theology) observes the following about Jabez’ mother in his best-selling book: “Only God knows for sure what caused the pain of this anguished mother. Not that it made much difference to young Jabez. He grew up with a name any boy would love to hate. Imagine if you had to go through childhood enduring the teasing of bullies, the daily reminders of your unwelcome arrival, and the mocking questions, “So, young man what was your mother thinking.”
Yet, by far, the heaviest burden of Jabez’s name was how it defined his future. (“The Prayer of Jabez,” pg. 20-21)
So, the scene is set for us, and the judgment is made: Jabez’s mother is presented as an indifferent, unfit mother who deliberately cursed her son with a name that defined his entire future, right? She was a mother who is self-absorbed and self-directed by the very nature of her DNA. Maybe or maybe not!
Our first step is to understand what Jabez’s name really meant in the original tongue. The word in Hebrew is “etseb” and can mean the following: sorrow, hardship, hurt, toil, labor, or pain.” The pairing of the other terms beside the word “pain” suggests that Jabez’ mother may have been in a state of sorrow, distress, hurt, or hardship. These word pairings suggest her emotional state could have been connected to a stressful context, (whether temporary or permanent) and thus, the naming decision for Jabez, her son.
While this information may invoke new sympathy from the reader, the decision to burden her child with the name “sorrow, hurt, hardship, etc., still gives us legitimate pause. We think to ourselves, “Did Jabez’s mother really need to go that far?”
Further investigation into available biblical commentary leads us to another possibility. We, as women, who bring an alternate perspective to the text, (the hermeneutic of suspicion) have the right to ask different questions about Jabez’s mother, and even come up with different conclusions, than Dr. Wilkinson:
“The meaning of Jabez’s name and the source of his mother’s sorrow comes from the fact that he was born prematurely. A disability from birth may well account for the sickness and sorrow Jabez prayed about in his maturity. The name “Jabez” would, in colloquial speech, actually mean “Speedy/Preemie.” According the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) what Jabez’s mother said was simply: “I have born very quickly.” Therefore, perhaps with a chuckle, she called him, “Jabez.” (“The Prayer of Jabez” – Thomas F. McDaniel, Ph.D – tmcdaniel.palmerseminary.edu)
In consideration of this interpretation of the text, which has solid agreement in biblical scholarship, we must consider giving serious thought to an alternative understanding of a mother who names her son Jabez. Similarly, we recall names like “Pee Wee,” “Little Man,” and “Peanut” in our own social context that describe our tiny babies and their conditions at birth.
When, or if, we follow this different line of thought, we notice that Jabez’ mother, instead of being indifferent to his pain, was really his ally. Jabez, when he prayed, was asking God to save him from harm, not because of a pronounced maternal curse; but because of a prenatal condition. The entire story is changed and Jabez’s mother is rescued and redeemed from the reputation of being a “bad mother.”
With righteous indignation, we hear this mother’s muted voice demanding: “When you tell my story, get it right!” So, here is our assignment – to reclaim, rehabilitate, and re-tell Jabez’s mother’s story, whenever and wherever possible. When we do, we not only reclaim her story and restore her voice; but, we empower ourselves in the process because: “Every woman has a story and every woman’s story matters to God.” And if, our ancient sisters’ stories matter to God, then, of course, they must matter to us!
QUESTIONS FOR OUR DISCUSSION AND CONSIDERATION:
Maya Angelou wrote: “You may write me down in history, with your bitter, twisted lies.” How does (or does this) particular thought apply to the misrepresentation of women’s stories in Scripture?
Why would a scholarly alternate translation possibility of the text be omitted from Wilkinson’s best-selling book, especially since Dr. Wilkinson is a scholar himself?
Why does the re-telling of Jabez’s mother’s story matter to us? How can we be a part of redeeming her story and her reputation?
“Change your intention and you change your path.” – Oprah Winfrey
“A half truth is more dangerous than a lie. A lie, you can detect at some stage; but half a truth is sure to mislead you for long.” – Anurag Shourie
“Trading old broken mirrors that feed lies into our souls for new mirrors of freedom require choices.” – Danielle Bernock
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