Scandal broke out in Washington D.C. in 2003 when The Washington Post exposed Valerie Plame Wilson as a covert operative on weapons of mass destruction. The political uproar that ensued over this damaging leak of classified information was clearly warranted.
What the story broke for me was my stereotyped ideas of government spies. Anyone on the look-out for the manly, James Bond-type of secret agent would be completely fooled by this attractive blond forty-year-old wife and mother who for twenty years worked as an undercover agent on one of the CIA’s most dangerous missions.
All of the intrigue, intelligence, and danger you might find in the stories Valerie Plame could tell, are present in the stories of women in the Bible who were often called upon to move out of their comfort zone and take unexpected risks to address injustice, undermine evil plots, and advance the kingdom of God on earth. And, like many covert operatives, they acted courageously while unaware of the vital piece their actions in the immediate setting contributed to the achievement of the master plan.
Queen Esther is an obvious example. Under the ominous threat of genocide, even Mordecai acknowledged young Esther had been divinely stationed “for such a time as this.” After months of advising his cousin covertly from outside the palace walls, he could now do nothing but await Esther’s instructions. The crisis jarred her out of focusing on maintaining her personal safety to risk her life for a bigger cause. The Jewish nation counted on her to piece together palace intelligence she had gathered from her privileged insider position as King Xerxes’ queen. Ultimately, she maneuvered masterfully through palace politics to overthrow the enemy’s plot.
Less obvious is the story of Ruth the Moabitess. No one I know thinks of Ruth as a covert operative, but that is just the point. Unlike Esther, whose story took place in the highly visible arena of world power, Ruth operated under the radar in the margins of society. When adversity drove Naomi’s family into Moab, who imagined she’d return bringing with her a key kingdom operative on whom so much would depend? Who would suspect a young non-Jewish female immigrant of carrying out so vital a kingdom mission as the one God entrusted to Ruth?
Ruth’s movements were confined to the realm of ordinary family concerns, making it easy to miss the fact that global matters were at stake in her activities. She was putting food on the table, caring for her grieving mother-in-law, marrying, giving birth, and later (along with Naomi) raising a little boy. It wasn’t The Washington Post that blew Ruth’s cover, but the biblical narrator of her story who announces at the very end that the family she battled to save is the royal line of King David which, turns out, is the promised line of Jesus. Although Ruth never knew it, without a doubt, the whole world was counting on her actions.
The strategy God implemented at creation—to advance his kingdom through the efforts of his male and female image bearers—rose to new heights when Jesus mobilized all of his followers to disperse throughout the earth with the gospel. A secular journalist, analyzing different religious movements, remarked,
“It is an explosive concept, with the potential for unleashing creative Christian energy in many areas of endeavor—ordinary lay-women and men, indistinguishable from their colleagues and neighbors, going about their normal occupations, who nevertheless “catch fire” with the gospel and change the world.”
Most of us don’t live our lives on the dramatic scale of a Valerie Plame, an Esther, or a Ruth. But their stories are important reminders that more is always going on than meets the eye. As image bearers, ezers, and as Christians, we are part of a cause that is greater than our individual lives. God strategically stations His ezers where there is kingdom work to do. That alone lifts our everyday lives—our words, our actions, our relationships—to a higher level of significance.
The stories of Esther and Ruth also raise questions about notions that God prefers to do important kingdom work through men, that passivity and dependency are acceptable qualities in anyone who follows Jesus, or that He only occasionally calls on women to do important kingdom work if and when the men are absent or falling down on the job.
Both Esther and Ruth had to dig down deep and summon up levels of courage, wisdom, and strength they never knew they had in order to do the work God was calling them to do. No one would rescue them. They needed to rescue others.
Neither woman operated in a vacuum of godly male leadership. To the contrary, they collaborated with two of the strongest male leaders in the entire Old Testament—Mordecai and Boaz. Both men were blessed and grew stronger because of the heroic initiatives of the women.
It’s wonderful to imagine what might happen if each of us took our lives this seriously. How would it change things if instead of leaning on others, we viewed ourselves as covert kingdom operatives? If we actively embraced our responsibility to live out the gospel, to advocate for others, battle for justice and mercy, and advance the kingdom one square inch of earth and one life at a time?
When my cell phone rings and someone I care about is on the line wondering if I’m doing anything and if I want to “hang out” for a while, it just might be an opportunity for a covert operation.