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Sex, Scandals and Jesus

I had a reputation in seminary for being that really weird student who liked to study the implications of genealogies in scripture. While most people's eyes were glazing over the recitations of who begat whom, I was carefully looking at why the authors thought these genealogies were important.


In particular, I always found the genealogy of Jesus rather fascinating. It's well known, of course, that there are two different genealogies for Jesus, one in Matthew's Gospel, one in Luke's.


It's Matthew's Gospel I want to focus on for a moment today.


This past summer I started a "Harlots and Heroines" Bible Study on Wednesday evenings. Needless to say, reading scripture from the perspective of the women's stories has been very enlightening for many of the participants. Most of them are women, because as soon as you say we're going to talk about women in scripture, men all but disappear. Kudos to my one male participant who has actually been coming regularly and has found these insights intriguing. (I actually did a preaching series last summer on women in the Bible. Some men, including the senior pastor, complained around week nine because we were spending too much time on that topic. It was lost on them when I pointed out women have had to listen to the men's stories 52 weeks out of the year, every year, for the past two thousand years. Spending 13 weeks on women's stories shouldn't be that big of a burden. But just goes to show how patriarchy and sexism are still quite abundant even in our more "progessive" churches. But I digress...)


There are four women mentioned in Jesus' genealogy. (And yes, I know, people point out that Jesus wasn't really Joseph's son so how can this be his lineage? I'll get to that later.) Clearly, Jesus had more women than that in his genealogy, but the author of Matthew's gospel took great pains to make sure these women get mentioned. The question becomes: Why?


There are a lot of reasons I think these women get the nod. But the two that rise to the top for me are: righteous behavior and sex scandals.


Wait a minute, you might say, those seem like contradictory things! How can sex scandals be...righteous behavior?


This is the damage purity culture has done to our understanding of scripture, unfortunately. We don't like to delve into how the Bible actually has a lot of sex in it, and in some cases, those sexual actions that the Biblical author saw as a righteous act, we try to downplay, ignore, or even criticize. But let's look at those women.


Tamar, Rahab, Uriah's wife (or Bathsheba, but she's not named, and I'll get to why later), Ruth and Mary.


So let's break down these women's stories.


Tamar

You'll find the story of Tamar in Genesis 38, sandwiched between the rape of Dinah and Joseph being sold into slavery. (This placement is interesting, but the topic for a different day) Tamar was Judah's daughter-in-law who was married to Judah's eldest son. The eldest son died, and so, according to levirate law, she was to be given to her husband's brother, and if she had no child with her first husband, her first child with the brother would be considered the first brother's son in terms of inheritance. So the second son decides he's not going to get Tamar pregnant by perforing coitus interruptus so that he'll inherit a double share of the wealth--which ticks God off so the second son dies, too.


Judah decides Tamar is cursed, and won't let her marry his third son. (Because of course, it's the woman's fault.) This is abrogating justice and the law for Tamar, but clearly no one is going to advocate for Tamar unless she advocates for herself. (Story of our lives, am I right?) So, she heads to a different town she knows Judah is traveling to, hides her face with a veil, and pretends to be a prostitute. Judah doesn't have the goat agreed upon as her price to pay her, so she keeps his staff, seal and cord until he returns to pay. Of course, when he goes to pay her, she's gone.


A few months later, low and behold, it's discovered Tamar is pregnant. Judah gets ready to have her stoned, until she reveals the staff, seal and cord he had given the prostitute. He then marries her and she is blessed with twins.


It's hard for some to see why what Tamar did was considered righteous because we try to view sexual relationships through a "purified" lens, but Tamar was actually in the right, Judah was in the wrong for withholding his youngest son from her. She is the righteous actor in this in that she is the one who forces Judah to "do the right thing" in terms of his legal responsibilities toward Tamar.


Rahab

You'll find the story of Rahab in the book of Joshua 2. She's a prostitute who hides the two Israelite spies from the King of Jericho. I mean, she's a prostitute. It doesn't get much more scandalous than a woman who sells herself for money. Nevermind the men who are the ones who demand they have some sexual outlet outside of marriage that make her profession necessary to begin with, and prostitution always flourishes wherever there is an unequal distribution of power. Now, I'm sure these spies were only in her home because she lived in the city wall (where most who were considered outside "normal" society lived) and just gave them easy access to get in and out of the city unnoticed. I'm sure that's it. And prostitutes/brothels were good places to go to learn information if you wanted to go unnoticed... except they aren't asking any questions/learning any information, and apparently they've been noticed because the King knows where to look for them.


Anyway, so Rahab lies. And God rewards her. Yeah, you read that right. She lies and God rewards Rahab for her loyalty and "righteous action" in siding with the Israelites. Same thing happened with the midwives in the Exodus story. They lied and were rewarded as well. Raises some fun ethical questions regarding fibbing, doesn't it? Still, this lying prostitute is honored to be among those listed in Jesus' lineage because of her loyal and faithful actions toward the people of God.


Ruth

You can find her story in...well, the book of Ruth. Between Judges and 1 Samuel. (Although in the Septuagint, or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, you'll find her story after Proverbs. This is an interesting point regarding placement because it fits well in both spots for different reasons. The book of Proverbs ends on talking about women of worth, or a woman of "havil." And that's precisely who Ruth is. It also fits after Judges because this story takes place during the time of the Judges and Ruth is the righteous foreigner who behaves the way Israel was supposed to behave, but failed to.) This story is, in essence, what happens when people follow God’s most basic command to care for and love the neighbor, no matter who that neighbor may be. The righteous actions in this story aren't hard to fetter out.


But wait, how can Ruth's story be scandalous and sexual? We get how she's righteous, and we all know that famous verse she says to Naomi, "Your God will be my God." I mean, that's why she's listed here, right? Partially. But that's only part of what earns her a place of honor. It's how she becomes the great-grandmother to King David that is of interest.


Ruth shows up in Judah as an immigrant outsider (and not just any outsider, a Moabite outsider, who is despised and cursed by God because of how they and the Ammmonites attacked Israel as they left Egypt. So Moabites are not permitted into the assembly of the Lord according to Deuteronomy. Not to mention the incestuous origins of the Moabites as they are descended from Moab, who was one of Lot's daughter's sons that was produced after they slept with him when he didn't try harder to bring their fiancés out of Sodom with them). She's also poor and starving to the point that she's having to glean from the fields of Boaz who is himself following the Deuteronomic law to leave a portion of his fields unharvested, and Boaz provides protection for her so other men won't molest her while she's gathering her food. Good on Boaz. Where Boaz fails is he does sort of let his bigotry get in the way once he learns who Ruth is in connection to Naomi. He doesn't immediately offer to be the "kinsman redeemer" for her.


But don't worry. Mother-in-laws make good schemers and matchmakers. So that's what Naomi sets out to do. When Naomi hears that Boaz showed kindness to Ruth, she tells Ruth essentially to go prostitute herself by going down to the threshing floor with Boaz.


Respectable women were not permitted on the threshing floor. That's where men went and got drunk and did guy things. So here's the scene: Boaz gets drunk and passes out on the threshing floor. Ruth shows up (at her mother-in-law's urging, no less) and lies down at his "feet." (Now there's some debate over whether "feet' was a euphemism for male genitalia. The Bible doesn't like to name sexual body parts so euphemisms tend to get used.) Regardless of whether she lies at his actual feet or...well...you know...something gets his attention enough to wake him up out of his drunken stupor and he tells her to just lie there quietly and then the next morning, he decides maybe he ought to marry her. You figure that out. But he realizes there's another man who might be a closer relative, so he gives him the option to marry her first, and that guy gets a little interested when he discovers there's some inheritance to be gained but once he finds out she's a Moabite, and that he'd have to follow levirate law and his first child with her would actually inherit the land, not his other children, he passes.


Somewhat like the Tamar story, Ruth moves Boaz to the right action of becoming her "kinsman redeemer." This is levirate law at play again, so technically, the first son she and Boaz produce is viewed as Naomi's grandson.


But anyway, lots of righteous action...and sex...tied up in this story.


Uriah's Wife (Bathsheba)

Ok, we all know this is Bathsheba, so why isn't she named? Some might claim they don't use her name because of her affair with David, which would make her an adulteress. But I don't think that's what is going on. Certainly, that sexually scandalous element fits in, but I don't think it's Bathsheba's actions that the author of Matthew is trying to point us to. Instead, he's actually trying to point us to Uriah: the only righteous actor in that whole story.


Now to be clear, I by no means am blaming Bathsheba for what happened with David. David was a king. He held the power. No one says no to a king without risking being killed (as her husband would discover.) She was not trying to seduce him. She was performing her ritual bath following her period as Jewish law dictated (even though she was a Hittite. She was still following Jewish law.) David wasn't even supposed to be home, he was supposed to be out on the battlefied with his men. The story starts off with this chastisement: "In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem." - 2 Samuel 11:1. Even the prophet Nathan casts her in his parable as "an innocent lamb." So by no means do I throw any blame on her. Just so we're clear on that.


But, she is a passive character. It's her husband, Uriah the Hittite, who actually does something righteous in this story--and it's related to sex. Only in his case, it's the refraining from sex that is notable. David calls Uriah back from the front lines of his war and tells him to go sleep with his wife (kind of a weird command from a king, so no wonder Uriah was like, "I'm sorry, what?"). Uriah refuses, claiming a code of honor with his fellow warriors while they were in battle. It was common for warriors in preparation for battle to abstain from sex, as a practice of discipline. So David sends him off to carry his own death warrant to Joab, David's general, who is ordered to let Uriah be purposely killed in battle. Uriah's righteous action gets him killed.


That's why Uriah gets the nod in this geneology--he's the righteous actor in this sexually scandalous story.


Mary & Joseph

Matthew's gospel, unlike Luke's, doesn't tell us much about Mary's encounter with the angel because we get Joseph's perspective on all this instead. Still, the sexual scandal of a woman pregnant out of wedlock is kind of big deal. But we can't turn to Mary in terms of the righteous action in this story, as we are focusing only on what Matthew is wanting to tell us, Mary is passive. We don't get to hear that whole, "I am the Lord's servant," from Mary. Mary's role winds up being more like Bathsheba's in that she's a passive character. Joseph winds up being the actively righteous character in this story in how he behaves toward Mary. I mean we know this story, right? Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but before they're married, Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant "by the Holy Spirit." Because, right. Likely story.


Now, Joseph COULD have been a jerk, he was legally within his rights to publicly embarrass her and even have her stoned for adultery.


Joseph doesn't go that route. Instead, he decides to "quietly" divorce her. Then when the angel comes to him in a dream, he decides, ok, maybe not. He marries her instead and names the boy Jesus, thus adopting him as his legitimate son. (That's where Joseph's lineage here matters even though Jesus isn't biologically his son according to Matthew and Luke's Gospels. Legally, he is Joseph's child.)


Themes of righteous acts continue throughout these opening chapters of Matthew: how the Magi thwart Herod, how Joseph seeks to protect Jesus by taking him and Mary down to Egypt to escape Herod's very Pharoah-like decree to kill all the male children under the age of two.


Jesus of course goes on to pick up this theme of righteousness (if you're confused about this, just start with the Sermon on the Mount).


Given this genealogical history, it should come as no surprise then that when Jesus gets into an argument at the temple regarding his authority, he points out that tax collectors and prostitutes are more righteous in terms of their faith than the religious leadership.


"“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." (Matthew 21:31-32)


Let that be a lesson to those of us in leadership who want to stigmatize those on the margins of society. True righteousness is not found in our notions of "purity."


So I hope this gives you a new perspective on how you view this Advent/Christmas season!

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