A small group of us from around Harrisonburg, Virginia gathered together on Monday night to do a little SR and to plan a few SR events for the spring. We met on campus at Eastern Mennonite University. It had been a while since we had been together, more than a year, and we were happy to see each other again, happy too for an occasion like this to study texts together. After a few minutes of catching up, I passed around the guidelines and a text bundle called "going the extra mile." We read the guidelines aloud, which I had just revised before the meeting, talked about them for a few minutes, then jumped into talking about al-Qasas 28.23–28, the story of Moses's finding refuge in Midian with the family of his future father-in-law. We spent longer than usual talking about the passage from the Quran, about forty minutes, so we only had time to read one more passage, Genesis 24.10-20, the story of Abraham's servant who goes to Nahor looking for a bride for his master's son, Isaac.
It would be impossible to recount all our turns of conversation, but here are a few that stood out to me as especially insightful. In the passage from al-Qasas or "The Story," one of the young girls suggests to her father that he hire Moses as a shepherd: "Surely the best (man) to employ is one who is strong and honest" (v. 26). Moses had demonstrated his strength earlier in the passage. But how did she know he was honest? Perhaps, one of us suggested, it was Moses's telling "his story" (v. 25) to the father and not hiding the fact that he had killed a Coptic man while trying to help an Israelite. It seemed an incredible risk for Moses to tell his whole story like this to a stranger in Midian, and it seemed an incredible risk for that stranger to welcome him into his family nonetheless.
We also puzzled over the terms of employment: the father seems to have little to offer Moses as payment besides his daughters. He says, "I would like to marry one of these two daughters of mine to you if you agree to work for me on hire for eight years. And if you stay on for ten, it is up to you" (v. 27). At first, we thought the father was saying, Look, I'll give you one of my daughters now as a bride if you agree to work for me for eight years. Then, if you want to stay on a couple more years, fine. That's your call. But one of us in the group was puzzled by that phrase "it is up to you." Maybe what the father is saying is closer to this: If you work for me for eight years, then I will give you one of my daughters in marriage, but I'll choose which one. If you work for me for ten years, then you can choose which one. It will be "up to you" (v. 27).
I made a lot of the word "then" in v. 25, where it says, "Then one of the maidens came to him," wondering whether it signaled a simple continuation of the narrative or perhaps answered a phrase two verses earlier, "And when [Moses] came to the waters at Midian" (v. 23). Perhaps, just as Moses came to Midian and saw the need of the two girls at the well who could not water their flock, just as he saw their vulnerability and helped, so now this girl comes to Moses, sees his need, and offers to help. It may be a more daring move for a girl to help a man like this because it presumes her advantage, her superiority for a moment over Moses, and that is why she comes to him "bashfully" (v. 25). In other words, her bashfulness may have less to do with putting sexual codes at risk, more to do with moral ones, presuming that she has something to offer and give to this man in need. It's that taking moral initiative that makes her bashful, but not so bashful that she doesn't act. She does. She helps.
We only had twenty minutes to talk about the Genesis passage, where one of us puzzled over the servant's prayer, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham . . ." (v. 12). Was it not permitted servants to address God directly? Why this deference? That good question started us wondering about the servant (was he Jewish or not?) and the rest of his prayer. At first, we laughed a little at what seemed to be his dictating terms to God: look God, here's what I want you to do to prove that you're listening to me and that you're going to do what I ask. Let there be a woman who offers to give me and my camels water, and let that be a sign that she's the one who will marry my master's son. But maybe there's a better way to read his prayers. Maybe he's not asking for a sign so much as praying that the woman who offers the most help, the woman strongest in service, be the one that God chooses: "Let her be the one you have decreed for your servant Isaac" (v. 14). It's as if the servant's prayers are working to inform God's decree.
As we talked about what to read in future sessions, we realized that for most of our group, right now, the theme doesn't matter so much. It's the experience of reading, lingering over the scriptures together that matters. We talked about whether it was a good idea to read these texts without preparation. Should we study and pray over these passages ahead of time, or is it better to read them fresh, share our first impressions and see where conversation goes from there? There are advantages to both approaches. We agreed not to make a rule about this. We'll get the text bundles out to people ahead of time but leave it to each of us individually to decide how much time to spend preparing.
Our next meetings in Harrisonburg are scheduled for the fourth Mondays of the month: February 23rd, March 23rd, and April 27th. If you're interesting in joining us, write to email@example.com.