Announcement: Exponent II Mormon Feminist Midrash Short Story Contest

Deborah under the palm tree “Deborah Under the Palm Tree” by Adriene Cruz.

Exponent II is excited to announce a short story contest of Mormon feminist midrash. Midrash is a Jewish tradition of spinning out a new story based on scripture, filling in narrative gaps or retelling the scripture from a new point of view. Stories can help resolve tension or evoke questions as they ask the reader to consider possible meanings, even as the fictionalized accounts are not meant to be taken literally.

For our short story contest, we are inviting writers to tell us the missing stories of women from the scriptures. Give us the perspective of Deborah, Huldah, Dinah, Miriam, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Sariah, Laman’s wife, or Emma Smith. We want to hear their voices. We want to know how they came to hear the voice of God and how they made choices in their lives. What were their childhoods like? How were they personally influenced by the great and terrible things that happened to them in the scripture stories? What did they think about in private moments? Let your imagination reveal new interpretations and meanings of scriptural stories and help us to hear the women of the scriptures.

Many of the stories we receive will be printed in our Winter 2015 issue of Exponent II and the winner of the contest will receive $150. Submissions should be between 800-3000 words and the deadline is November 2. Please send them to We look forward to reading your stories.

“I want midrash to give a voice to women in the Bible who have had nearly none. To be an advocate for biblical figures over whom the ages have kicked considerable dust, and to imagine their lives.”
– Rosen, Norma. Biblical Women Unbound: Counter-Tales. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.

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Honoring Scriptural Villains


By Jenny

Sitting around a campfire with other Mormon feminists until the early hours of the morning this last weekend, I realized how deep the conversation gets late at night when the embers glow crimson.  It reminded me of testimony meetings around the campfire at girl’s camp.  Late at night we would share deeply of our stories and listen to each other, crying with love and understanding.  A powerful bond is created through the telling of stories.  I used to feel that bond with the heroes in the scriptures as I read their stories.  But lately, especially as I have thought more about scriptural villains, I have found a lack of depth to the scriptures.  I write my post today in honor of scriptural villains who did not get the chance to tell their own stories.

First up are two of the most familiar villains known to our Mormon family:  Laman and Lemuel.  We know them as the murmuring older brothers to the ever-faithful, ever-perfect Nephi.  They were riotess, godless men who abused their younger brother, gave their parents grey hair, and created an entire civilization of wicked people who fought against the civilization created by Nephi and his righteous brothers.  That is their story…or at least the story we know, written from the perspective of a younger brother.  I wonder what kind of story my brothers would write about me.  What kind of story would my enemies write about me?  Would it align with my own story about myself?  I can answer that with an emphatic “NO!”

Add to the mix the fact that Nephi was painstakingly engraving this story on plates.  If I was going to that much effort to tell my story, with the intent that it would be around for future generations everywhere to read, I would make every effort possible to make myself look good, even if that meant making my enemies look worse than they really were.  In effect, I as an imperfect human would not have the capacity to tell another person’s story accurately.  It would only be my story from my perspective.  So what we have is not so much Laman and Lemuel’s story, but Nephi’s story about them.  And for over a century, we as members of the church have condemned these complex human beings based on a simple story that is missing millions of pieces of information, as well as multiple perspectives.

I spent my life condemning these characters that I barely know.  But now I honor them for their humanness.  I have compassion for them and I know that I can’t judge them based on the little information I have.  They may not have had the faith (nor the arrogance) of the hero Nephi.  But they had the courage to live their own story instead of living within Nephi’s story of them.  They broke away from family and tribe to live authentically according to the dictates of their own consciences.  They had the courage to be the villains in Nephi’s story of them.  I know how hard that is.  I have also had to become okay with being the villain in other people’s stories and not to let that affect my own story about myself.  I know people talk about me.  I know they are still perpetuating a story about me as an apostate who needs to be avoided because my ideas are dangerous.  That is their story and I can’t do anything about it, but live my own story that doesn’t involve apostasy or dangerous ideas.

The other scriptural villain that I love is the lesser-known Noadiah, the false prophetess.  One of the reasons she is my favorite is because this is all we know about her:  “My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat, according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear.” Nehemiah 6:14.  After reading that a few years ago, I closed my eyes and wondered, if only one line was written about me and my life, what would it be?  It would depend on who wrote that one line of course.  If it were my current bishop, I imagine that he would write, “Jenny was a strong and faithful member of the Church until she got into things she shouldn’t have online and fell down the slippery slope to apostasy.”  And just like that, in one line, I would go down in history as a villain, an enemy to God.  I crave more information about Noadiah.  Nehemiah wrote his memoir as if he was doing the work of God in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.  We don’t know many details about how or why Noadiah tried to thwart him.  We only know that from Nehemiah’s point of view, he was right and she was wrong.  He was with God and she was against God.  And in the span of history, he had the power because he had the pen.  So now people of our generation, taking the Bible to be the word of God, caste Noadiah as a false prophetess.

I wonder if Noadiah was fighting for something that was beyond her lifetime.  Did Nehemiah’s anger come from a power struggle because of his status and authority?  Was Noadiah a threat because she knew she was not inferior to men and she refused to be subjugated by their authority?  Ultimately, I think Nehemiah’s issue with Noadiah could probably be boiled down to the fact that he wasn’t willing to listen to a difference of opinion.  He thought he knew God’s way and that was all he needed.  Anyone who opposed that was an enemy.  Not much has really changed in human nature since then.

I wish I could sit up late, watching the glowing embers of a fire, feeling the night breeze on my face, as Noadiah and I discuss her life and what she fought for.  I want to understand her disagreement with Nehemiah on a deeper level.  I don’t even care if I would disagree with her.  I just want to hear her story of herself.  I want to know what made her a false prophetess.  I want my people to stop seeing the world in black and white.  I want us to stop making flat characters of complex human beings.  I want the Mormon church to be like those late evening testimony meetings at girl’s camp, as we shared our stories and discovered the depths of each other’s souls.  We condemn the villains in our scriptures, we condemn the villains in our present church.  But if we could sit down and talk to all villains past and present, we might discover that the only real villain is our condemnation of people before we truly and deeply know them.

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A Review of Walking With the Women of the New Testament

51Hil65oDaL._SL500_AA300_Walking With the Women of the New Testament by Heather Farrell contains 60 meditations on women of the New Testament.  All the named women in the New Testament are featured, as well as many who are not, such as Jesus’ sisters and the mother of the man born blind.

At 291 pages the book has heft to it, and this tangible fact relays one of its main messages: that women in the New Testament were numerous and real, with “real lives, real feelings, and real problems.”  Each entry begins with the scriptural passage telling the woman’s story and artwork depicting her story, and is followed by a 2-3 page meditation by Farrell in which she frames the story in terms of its historical context and/or the possible feelings and motivations of the woman in the story, and then a reflection on a spiritual lesson to be gained from the story.

For example on the Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), Farrell writes,

“We don’t know if this young man’s death was the result of a long drawn out illness or an unexpected accident, but no matter how she died, it is likely that his mother’s grief was fresh.  She may have only had hours to process the news of his death and all the implications that came with it.  As a widow, with no male to take care of her, this woman’s plight might have been hard indeed.  The newness of her grief makes Christ’s tender words, “Weep not” (verse 13) all the more powerful.  He was telling her that even though her grief seemed unbearable, she wouldn’t have to mourn much longer.”

Farrell then explains the etymology of compassion (“He had compassion on her.” (verse 13)), and notes that “in the accounts we have of Jesus raising someone from the dead, all of them are done in the presence of, and usually on behalf of, women.”  This is an interesting insight I’d never thought of.  Farrell continues,

“Raising a person from the dead is an incredible miracle for anyone to witness.  Yet I can’t help but feel that it has special meaning for women, whose bodies create mortal life and who spend so much of their time nurturing and shaping lives.  It seems to me that Christ wanted to demonstrate to women that He had power over the grave.”

I think the meditation on the Widow of Nain is reasonably representative of the other entries in the book.  It’s a heartfelt and faithful reading that reflects Farrell’s original impetus in studying the scriptures with a focus on the women’s stories.  She writes, “I wanted to gain a better testimony of God’s love for women and better understand women’s roles.”  So she kept a journal as she read, which gave rise to this book.  She encourages readers to do the same: read while reflecting on suggested questions, read between the lines, and rely on the Holy Ghost.  She acknowledges that the details about these women are scarce, and that “while there is much truth in the Bible, some of it is missing, and if we want those gaps filled in, we don’t have to turn to outside sources.  The Holy Ghost can enlighten our understanding and teach us.”  While I agree that the Holy Ghost is the unparalleled teacher of truth and wisdom, I would also have liked if the book delved deeper into other historical and scholarly work that has been done on the subject.  I generally prefer exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text, or reading “out of” a text), and this book includes quite a bit of eisegesis (an interpretation that expresses the interpreters ideas, or reading “into” a text).

I feel I must point out that while Farrell’s book is a thoughtful and comprehensive meditation on the women of the New Testament, it is not what I would consider a feminist reading of them.  It does not challenge current gender roles in the Church or attempt to stretch the understanding of roles that women in the New Testament may have held.  For example one of the questions she suggests readers reflect on in their scripture reading is, “What type of influence would she [the woman in the story] have had on those around her?”  She writes of current times:

“I think the problem is that in our society we often don’t see women.  Too often we take their influence in our lives and in society for granted.  Similarly in the scriptures, we simply don’t see the women.  The pages of the scriptures are filled with their stories and their influence, but too often we skip right past them, not even realizing they are there.”

Seeing women in the scriptures and in the world is something feminists have long fought for, but when the focus is on their “influence” I think we lose the perspective of their being agents unto themselves, not just an influence on the other actors or agents in a story.  Too often in the Church praising the “influence” of women is done as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that they hold so little actual power.

That said, this book acknowledges the women of the New Testament as being more present, both in numbers and in significance, than some would suppose.  I think it would make a good addition to Church member’s libraries (it is definitely written from an LDS perspective) and would be a great resource in preparing for talks and lessons as a way of finding examples of gospel principles in the lives of women in scripture.

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Forms of Grace


And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.

Poor Joseph. Birth order and his father’s feelings were not his fault. He was only 17. But still, you’d think common sense or modesty would have warned him off of telling his brothers about his dreams. They weren’t terribly nice guys, for instance Simeon and Levi had murdered all the men in Shechem’s household as they lay recovering from circumcisions. Clearly Joseph underestimated his brothers’ hatred for him, and would have been murdered himself if Reuben hadn’t stepped in and gotten him sold into slavery instead. (Reuben, who may have felt he owed their father some form of apology after he’d slept with Mama Bilhah). Joseph was apparently still peeved at his brothers many years later, because when they showed up in Egypt he “spake roughly unto them” and put the fear of God into them by framing Benjamin for theft before revealing his identity and insisting that they all move to Egypt, reuniting the happy family. All this is of course a prelude to the enslavement of the Israelites and their dramatic exodus back to Caanan (a land flowing with milk and honey–no going back to Egypt to buy corn [1]).

This story is about forging a covenant people. It’s such good drama that Hollywood, Broadway, and Disney have all had turns at telling it, and like all good drama, the story involves flawed characters whose motives aren’t always admirable. Here we have a cast of sinners motivated by jealousy, retribution, and the will to survive, whose lives turn out to form an enduring story of faith. God works in mysterious ways.

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A Book Review: Girls Who Choose God


Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding, Illustrated by Kathleen Peterson

Girls Who Choose God is a book I wish I’d had as a child, and am thrilled to have for my children. Featuring 11 women from the Bible, this lovely book was conceived when my dear friend Bethany’s three-year-old daughter asked her, “Mom, where are the girls?” when looking through her cartoon book of scripture stories. Bethany wanted her daughter to know not only were girls there, but they have stories that are stirring in their boldness, unconventionality, morality, and dedication to changing the world for good. The women featured are,

Mahlah and her Sisters
Mary the Mother of Jesus
Samaritan Woman at the Well
Mary and Martha
A Generous Widow
A Healed Woman
Mary Magdalene

Each of their stories framed as a choice. For example, when Miriam sees Pharaoh’s daughter approach the basket in the river, the authors write, “Miriam had a choice to make. She could stay hidden to avoid getting in trouble, or she could speak to Pharaoh’s daughter in hopes of saving her brother.” The stories conclude with the choice the girl or woman made, and then provide a question for the reader. From Miriam’s story: “What choices have you made to bring your family closer together?”

I like that the women featured run the gamut from sister to prophetess, and I like that the questions are far-reaching, not at all pointing girls toward deferential female roles. There is Miriam’s question that may seem at first to point toward a role type-cast for women (nurturing families). But there is also Deborah’s question: “When have you chosen to be a leader?” And Esther’s question, “When have you chosen to stand up for others?” When I read this book with my kids they are enthusiastic about answering those questions, they see themselves as leaders, peacemakers, and helpers.

I love that the book uses inclusive language. Male names are not always first (“Eve and Adam” instead of “Adam and Eve”). The authors use the word God instead of Heavenly Father throughout the book. I notice a great effort they’ve made to use language to shine light on women playing the key role in stories that make up our spiritual heritage.

The women are described as people children can aspire to be, with qualities they might see in themselves. “Miriam was a quick thinker. [Her] boldness rescued her brother and reunited her family.” I am used to stories of prophets and heroes from the scriptures being almost always men, and it surprised me how I felt reading about the widow who gave her two mites: “Jesus admired her noble deed. He called his disciples over to learn from her actions.” To learn from her. Our girls need stories told in this way to help them see themselves as full agents in the gospel.  The words “bold” and “courageous” appear several times in this book, words usually used to describe people like David and Nephi, but now used to describe Mary and Mahlah.

I love that the authors included the Daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah and her Sisters), because this is one of my favorite Bible stories. To me this story has delicious subversive potential, but the question that follows is so perfectly relevant to children (and adults): “When have you chosen to solve a problem peacefully?” I didn’t know of this story until I was an adult. I hope it becomes more well known through this book.

Girls Who Choose God is unique. I don’t know of another illustrated book on women in the Bible, and it’s definitely a first for an LDS audience. The illustrations are striking and accessible, and match the text perfectly in their portrayal of bold women. Excitingly, the Church has acquired the paintings and will install them in the Conference Center this year.  Finally, the authors are donating 100% of the profits to a charity called Interweave Solutions that supports educational and entrepreneurial endeavors for women.

I think this an important book for two reasons: it’s the first of it’s kind, and it’s providing something we have far too little of — examples of strong, godly women.  Stories matter.  They don’t determine what girls can dream of becoming, but they absolutely inform it, and these are stories I want my daughter to know.  It’s also a beautiful book, in prose and in the artwork.  I hope you have a chance to own it.


*If you’ll be at the Exponent Retreat this year, you can buy a copy from Bethany there.

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