Book Review: Defiant

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Last week, I had a conversation with Kelley Nikondeha and I asked her why she chose to write about the women of Exodus in her latest book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom. Kelley shared that she believes “we need a better archetype when we think about women and the way that we interact with our families, churches, and communities at large…the exodus women give us such an amazing picture of what our engagement can look like…” and I couldn’t agree more.

With the expertise of a theologian and the heart of a storyteller, Kelley Nikondeha introduces us to the oft-forgotten women of the Exodus narrative. The delight and care she takes in telling these women’s stories draws the reader in from the very first sentence. In each of the book’s chapters, Kelley brings a new woman (or group of women) to our attention, weaving scriptural exegesis, artistic narrative, deep reflection, and her own lived experiences to give us a glimpse of these women often shrouded in the pages of patriarchal history and theology. She draws on the work of scholars such as Walter Brueggemann, Wilda C Gafney, and Christina Cleveland as she guides us through the Delta Nile region and introduces us its inhabitants.

I grew up reading the Exodus narrative many times over, but I never really saw these women. I knew they were there, but considered them as a side note to the main story. Kelley showed me women who overthrew kingdoms, brought goodness by their calculated disobedience, and collaborated across enemy lines in search of justice. For the first time, I saw myself in the narrative. I imagined myself at the riverbed with Jochebed, pacing the palace corridors with Bithiah, and present with Shiprah and Puah as they birthed life in the midst of a death edict. You will find yourself wanting to join in Miriam’s redemption dance and weep with Zipporah as she intercedes through sacrament. Kelley pictures for us how these women, though individual actors, are all part of a larger network of women working towards collective freedom.

The unique part of Kelley’s work is how she is able to succinctly identify the themes that occur throughout the chapters, highlighting the women as powerful movers of the story-line. However Kelley does not finish here, but rather she invites the reader to step into these themes and ponder what it might mean to be an “exodus-strong” woman in today’s world. Using current events, Kelley unpacks the concepts of privilege, justice, and modern womanhood to teach us all important lessons about our need to identify injustice and become involved in resisting pharonic powers wherever they may be.

Defiant is powerful and subversive, faithful yet imaginative—a perfect read for these times. This book is an invitation to rediscover the wisdom that this sacred text holds for our modern lives. It is also a celebration of what it means to be a woman caught up in the work of loving God and neighbor. As Kelley shares in the book, “Women create the conditions for liberation”. May it be so, beginning with you and me.


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