This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Five Women.

            In the genealogy of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, the line of descent is traced through the men.  But woven into the text we also find five women mentioned by name.  They are all famous figures whom Matthew’s readers would have known.  And they all have in common a certain tension with the normally accepted mainstream of the Bible.  We can only wonder what Matthew was thinking by including them.  I think he wanted his readers to understand quite clearly that this Messiah, while emerging from the mainstream of Scripture – indeed, among Jesus’ ancestors are all the kings of Judah beginning with David – Jesus would also pointedly include the subtle yet tremendously important minority views represented by these women: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
            At least three of the women are non-Israelites: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth.  Another, Bathsheba, was married to a foreigner.  The fact that they are included here indicates a resistance to the ethnocentrism and xenophobia of books like Ezra and Nehemiah.  The book of Ruth was likely explicitly written to balance the excessive anti-foreigner impulses going on at the time.  “They tell us not to marry foreign women, but, guess what, the great-grandmother of the great King David was… a foreign woman!” 
            All these women had some kind of moral issue.  Usually this was a sexual transgression against the law or cultural standards.
            Tamar pretends to be a prostitute, luring Judah into a sexual encounter (Genesis 38:1-26).  But in doing so she demonstrates far more loyalty and dedication to Judah’s family than he.  He had been remiss in allowing her to provide offspring for his sons.  Indeed, Tamar’s act actually changes the whole trajectory of the narrative.  Before it, the sons of Jacob were disunited and even sold one of their own family into slavery.  After Judah realizes what he has done and is shamed by this woman into seeing the importance of his own family, the story takes a turn to where the brothers are eventually reconciled with Joseph, the one they had sold.  Tamar sins; but her action reveals a greater sin on the part of Judah.  In the end, Tamar is commended.
            Rahab was a prostitute.  She earns her place in Israel by sheltering and giving information to the spies Joshua sent in to Jericho.  Of the whole city when it is destroyed, only this prostitute and her family survive.  (See Joshua 2:1-24.)   Not only did her moral life not preclude her election into the people of God, it was the main reason for it.
            As for Ruth – well, what was happening on the threshing floor (Ruth 3:7)?  Arguably it was pre-marital intimacy.  If this is a sin she is not punished.  She becomes ancestress to David and all the kings of Judah.
            Then we have Bathsheba.  Certainly King David was at fault (2 Samuel 11:1-27).  Technically, she is an adultress, married to Uzziah the Hittite, but sleeping with the king in the palace.  But instead of being permanently punished and rejected for this sin, she becomes the mother of King Solomon. 
            And finally Mary with her mysterious pregnancy.  Her husband-to-be is ready to call off the wedding, until he is approached by God in a dream (Matthew 1:18-25).  Mary, far from being rejected for her apparent wrongdoing, becomes the mother of the Messiah.
            In each case the Bible contradicts itself by lifting up an obvious lawbreaker as a positive example.  Their sins are almost universally sexual.  What this tells us is that we must be very careful when we start to use the Bible as a weapon against minorities or sinners, especially sexual ones, which are our favorite to prosecute.  The larger point is that whenever we try and identify a single, specific, unified message in the Scriptures, we are in danger of over simplification and reductionism.
            Under Christendom, the empire needed a unified, simple moral code to be extracted from the Bible and imposed on the people.  This meant ignoring parts of the Bible that may have contradicted or balanced that moral code.  Thus these five women have been sitting there in this text for at least two-thousand years, and were barely noticed.  Occasionally they were observed as women, but rarely as foreigners, and almost never as sexual sinners, until the late 20th century.  Those values would undermine what the empire needed the church to be saying.
            (To their credit, the church never removed these women from the text.  This is what would have happened if some scholars were right in their view of the Scriptures as hopelessly perverted by an imperialistic church.  If it was the agenda of the early church to excise all anti-imperialism from the Scriptures, they did a miserable job of it.  With the exception of some more obscure apocalyptic writings, the Bible remains the most anti-imperialistic text in all ancient literature.)
            My point is that the Bible is not monolithic.  It cannot be reduced to one simple meaning.  One single, consistent moral system cannot be extracted from it.   The Bible is full of, “but on the other hand….” And we have to learn a both/and, inclusive, dialogical approach to Scripture study.  Instead of seeking answers, we should be seeking conversation.  Instead of wielding the text as a weapon against others, or using it as a means of social conformity and control, we should be more discerning, holding different texts in balance, seeking to grow from the interaction.  In this encounter there are several parties: text, community, the individual, and their various contexts, all under the Holy Spirit.
            These five women insist that there is more to the Bible than a set of written rules for life.  They insist that all so-called rules are conditional and situational, and that sometimes keeping the spirit of them means breaking the letter.  The larger truth is the movement of God’s love, peace, justice, and healing in the world.  And this is what Jesus is about all along.

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