“Every woman has a story and every woman’s story matters to God.”
The movie, “Hidden Figures,” released in December of 2016, is the story of three remarkable African-American women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn) who worked for NASA, and served as the brains behind the launch of John Glenn, the eager American astronaut, into space. This award winning, cinematic masterpiece tells the story of three gifted women, whose abilities as mathematician, scientist, and engineer, assisted in the drama of the quest for the United States to send a man to the moon, before the Russians could get there first. The book and movie were appropriately entitled, “Hidden Figures” because this designation accurately describes the attempts to veil these women’s accomplishments, and their persistence in valiantly overcoming prejudices, obstacles, and impediments to work in a “man’s world.” These women had to shake off the daily perceptions that they were not intelligent enough or gifted enough to do “men’s work.”
It took faith, bravery, and talent to realize they were not only in the right place; but possessed the right stuff – a God-given ability to be who God gifted them to be.
And so, together, we will examine the story of another woman, Sheerah, who is a “Hidden Figure” of the Bible. This masterful, incomparable woman built three cities in ancient Israel; yet, her story remains largely untold.
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1st Chronicles, Chapter 7: 20-24 (NAB)
“The sons of Ephraim: Shuthelah, whose son was Bered, whose son was Tahath, whose son was Eleadah, whose son was Tahath, whose son was Zabad. Ephraim’s son Shuthelah, and Ezer and Elead, who were born in the land, were slain by the inhabitants of Gath because they had gone down to take away their livestock. Their father Ephraim mourned a long time, but after his kinsmen had come and comforted him, he visited his wife, who conceived and bore a son whom he named Beriah*, since evil had befallen his house. He had a daughter, Sheerah, who built lower and upper Beth-horon and Uzzen-sheerah.
(*the name Beriah means “calamity” or “misfortune).
The book of 1st Chronicles is a fascinating and detailed account of Israel, starting with Adam, recorded in Genesis, as the first man of creation. The Chronicler, as the writer of 1st and 2nd Chronicles is called, filled his books with genealogies. In a very methodical way, the descendants of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are accounted for, with even more detail about the kings of Israel, especially David and Solomon. Throughout the entire writing, the Chronicler provides minutiae of the nation of Israel; including the mundane details of showbread, the descriptions of bowls, cups, and forks, the choice of grain, and more. The Chronicler leaves little to the imagination, intent on providing the most detailed record of Israel’s history, to the reader.
Written in approximately the 5th century BCE, early biblical scholarship surmised Ezra wrote 1st and 2nd Chronicles. Later critical scholarship abandoned this idea and decided to call the writer of 1st and 2nd Chronicles, the Chronicler instead. This is to indicate we cannot possibly know who wrote these historical books. Out of the hundreds upon hundreds of names of people in the genealogies of 1st Chronicles, only 53 women are mentioned, including the name of Sheerah.
So, what are we to make of this brief bible verse about a woman named Sheerah? How can we discover who this woman was and the amazing feats she accomplished, if there is ONLY ONE sentence in Scripture about her. How can we know the details of her life’s work, the exceptional nature of her abilities, her intelligence, her persistence, her zeal and passion, that she poured into the planning and building of the three cities, if there are only a few words about the details of her life in 1st Chronicles? Moreover, how did she manage to overcome the social context in which she was born and lived, to build three cities, as a woman, when the expectation of women, in ancient Israel, was only household duties and motherhood?
Perhaps we start by considering her ancestral lineage/legacy and the circumstances of her birth. Her father was either Ephraim or Beriah, the son or grandson of the great ancestor, Joseph. Her parentage is unclear, as Ephraim may have been her father or her grandfather. The text is deliberately vague in this detail. Sheerah was either the granddaughter or great-granddaughter of Joseph and Ashenath (Joseph’s Egyptian wife whose father was a priest). Sheerah was of African descent, since her grandmother, Ashenath, was Egyptian and Joseph’s tribe was a nomadic Afro-Asiatic people. In consideration of her ancestral lineage, exceptional achievement was a part of her DNA.
We know by Joseph’s narratives in Genesis, he was an overcomer, who moved obstacle after obstacle to achieve great prominence and fame, as Egypt’s architect and financial overseer. Joseph served Egypt well, by assisting Egypt to plan for the famine that would ultimately strike the country. Joseph possessed a visionary ability to see the future before it happened, and he built the store warehouse cities; where he stocked grain until the famine struck. Sheerah, his daughter-descendant possessed the same visionary ability; for anyone who was born a female in the ancient world of Israel, must have first envisioned herself a builder, before she undertook the assignment of planning and then building three cities. Sheerah is the only woman in the entirety of Scripture to do so!
Sheerah possessed the same brilliant mind as her ancestor; the ability to oversee the plan, the ability to structure the architectural design, and the ability to manage the building project, despite the “handicap” of being born female in an androcentric society. Her gender could not stop her gift, and could not block the call on her life. She achieved even greater feats, as a city planner and builder than her grandfather Joseph. Joseph built store warehouse cities of Egypt; but, his daughter-descendant, Sheerah, built three cities in Israel. This visionary gift that passed from grandfather to granddaughter was NOT rooted in gender; but, informs us that the gift of creativity and intelligence comes from God. It is God who bestows it upon both God’s sons and daughters, as God chooses.
But what of Sheerah’s immediate parentage? How did her sitz n leben (her social context) fit into the puzzle of this heroine’s life; the one who is first credited, by the Chronicler, of building Upper and Lower Beth-Horon, and the city that carried her name Uzzen-sheerah (meaning “listen to Sheerah.”) Go ahead girlfriend!
Sheerah’s life starts in crisis. Her brothers or uncles were killed in a battle with Gath, when they attempted to raid Gath’s cattle, and were slaughtered instead. This brief narrative outlines her birth, as Sheerah was born after this crisis occurred. (“after disaster had befallen his house.”)
As if the extraordinary feats of Sheerah were commonplace, the Chronicler continues his genealogy details, and omits the rest of the incomparable story of this female architect and city builder. And so, we are left to our imaginations, as to the balance of Sheerah’s phenomenal story. To this regard, the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, Ph.D., biblical scholar, preacher, womanist, and teacher is helpful.
From her blog: “She Build A City: Sheerah the Biblical City Builder” (Rev. Dr. Gafney)
“Sheerah started building. She had a dream, she had a plan, she had a vision, she had a calling; she had a commission. She was born to do this work; it was in her bones and in her blood, in her heart and in her hands. And, it didn’t matter if nobody else understood. It didn’t matter what the other women and men were doing or saying.
She planned her work and she worked her plan. Somehow, she learned to design and build cities. She chose the sites for her cities, taking into account water and natural resources with an eye to defense. Maybe she had to go back to the drawing board, over and over again. Visions and dreams don’t always come to fruition the first time out. She didn’t quit when it got hard-and it got hard-she had to hire and supervise contractors and subcontractors. She had to manage her workforce; paid labor, forced labor and slave labor were the only options. She couldn’t be everywhere on the construction sites, so she had to mentor some other women and maybe men to share in the responsibility. Maybe she had to make or commission the architectural drawings. Could she even read? I don’t know; but I know she planned her work and she worked her plan.” (Rev. Wilda Gafney – wilgafney.com)
What type of cities did Sheerah build?
“Unbelievably, the cities that Sheerah built are still standing today! Now called Beit-ur, these neighboring towns were the ancient Upper and Lower Beth-horon. The cities laid on two ridges, with valleys on each side. Beth-horon, the Nether, being separated from the Upper, by a small valley, and a rocky and rough pass, is where the Upper Beth-horon stood. The latter was nearest to Jerusalem about 12 miles from it. Down its pass was where Joshua drove the Amorites.” (Joshua 10:1-11) – comments excerpted from Hitchcock’s Bible Dictionary
What of Uzzen-Sheerah? What is the significance of Sheerah’s last city?
The last city that Sheerah built she named after herself: Uzzen Sheerah. This term means “listen to Sheerah.” Scholars believe this indication pointed to a prayer. Sheerah. who lifted up the last task of building her last city, was praying to God for assistance. We can imagine the trials and tribulations she suffered because we all have been there. When Sheerah’s back was against the wall, she went to God for help. “Listen to me, Oh Lord,” we can imagine she prayed. “Help me, Oh God, to complete my project!”
Sheerah built three cities, and two of the three still endure. Through the Old Testament period, through the age of the Maccabees, and more than thousands upon thousands of years after Sheerah designed and constructed three cities, the remnant cities of Upper and Lower Beth-horon are still a part of Israel’s contemporary landscape.
Sheerah’s determination, faith, and persistence in using the giftedness which God gave to her, should encourage us to do the same with ours. Each and every daughter of God is bestowed giftedness; but, it is up to us, as to how we will use it. Will we be a builder or will we use our gifts to tear things and people down? The question for us becomes this: Are you a builder and what are you building?
In the book of 1st Chronicles, building is a sign of divine blessing. Ultimately, Sheerah’s life demonstrates to us, her contemporary sisters, that NOTHING IS TOO IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD! So we must build too! There are careers and vocations to build. There are schools and communities to re-build. There are ministries to build; there are businesses to build; there are friendships and relationships to build – THERE IS WORK TO DO!
And so, let us build, with help from the Lord, and with our dreams and visions at hand. We, the Sheerahs of today, are the new builders for tomorrow, and we are unstoppable with God on our side!
Questions for our discussion and consideration
In 2nd Chronicles, chapter 8, verse 5, Solomon is given credit for building Upper and Lower Beth-horon. Obviously another writer redacts the story, to give credit to Solomon and take credit away from Sheerah. Why do you think it is difficult for men to give credit to, and/or to accept the giftedness/abilities of women, especially when it moves into an area that is considered as “men’s work?”
How can we encourage more young women to be Sheerahs? What can we do to assist them?
What are some of your dreams and visions about building your own Sheerah She-Shed (in other words your own dreams and visions)? How do you plan to go about it?
OUR SENDING PRAYER –
Awake, my soul, and with the sun, Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay Thy morning sacrifice
Lord, I my vows to Thee renew
Disperse my sins as morning dew;
Guard my first springs of thought and will,
And with Thyself my spirit fill.
Direct, control, suggest, this day,
All I design to do or say. (Excerpted from a prayer by Thomas Ken)
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