Advent Book Club – Day 5

(I’m taking part in the Twitter #adventbookclub, reading “Beginnings and Endings” by Maggi Dawn. Some days there will just be a simple thought / tweet, if I can get it into 140 characters; other times a blog post for longer thoughts; whether these are more coherent or not I’ll leave my readers to judge.)

Hmm … I wrote yesterday’s post on Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, with some comparisons to Matthew’s, without realising that today’s Bible passage was that very genealogy from Matthew chapter 1! So the comments about being part of one family still apply today.  But what else?

One thing to get out of my system: another challenge to excessive literalism is that Matthew’s neat division into sets of 14 generations only works by missing out some of the line of succession (Ahaziah, Jehoash, Amaziah between Joram and Uzziah).  There, that feels better.  Moving on …

I mentioned yesterday that, unlike Luke, Matthew includes women in his list.  And what women!  Tamar, who seduced her father-in-law Judah; Rahab, who is always introduced throughout the Bible (except here!) as “Rahab the prostitute”; Ruth, who sneaked into her boss’s bed in the middle of the night; and Bathsheba (oddly not named), who had an adulterous relationship with David and then married him after he arranged for her husband to be killed.

One fairly obvious point is that if Jesus’ family includes such people, then there’s hope for us all.  But I think that there are more positive things to be said about these women, and I have deliberately simplified and put the worst interpretation of their stories to lead into this.

One of the themes in my Twitter timline recently has been the campaign to stop violence against women, and in particular to argue against the position that women are somehow to blame for this; or at least, they should dress differently, behave differently, speak differently, in order not to “encourage” men’s actions.  At first glance, the women in Jesus’ family tree would seem to fit this pattern.  But I don’t believe this is true, and such an attitude only serves to shift the blame away from the men who are the perpetrators of violence.

To take just one example, Tamar (her story is in Genesis chapter 38).  She is first married to Judah’s eldest son, Er; but “Er … was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death”.  Following the customs of that time, she was then married to the next son, Onan – and already we can see Tamar is being treated as an object rather than a person.  Onan, however, does not want to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law”, i.e. getting her pregnant so that her child will be considered Er’s; and he is also “put to death”.

Next in line (the Sadducces’ story of one bride for seven brothers in Matthew 22 and parallels is beginning to look quite plausible) should be Shelah, but Judah “feared that he too would die, like his brothers”; in other words, it is Tamar’s fault that Judah’s sons are dying, and not their own!  How patriarchic and mysoginistic can you get?

Tamar is now back in her own father’s house, and effectively in limbo: a widow, but presumably can’t marry anyone else as she is promised to Shelah.  But that third marriage doesn’t take place because of Judah’s fears.  This is the context in which she dresses in such a way as to be taken for a shrine prostitute, has sex with Judah, and becomes pregnant.  A couple of things to note here: whatever we may think of her methods, all Tamar is doing is seeking justice and fair treatment; also that nothing would have happened if Judah hadn’t been sex-starved after his wife died.

And then what happens?  When her pregnancy is discovered, Judah orders that she should be taken out and burned for having “played the whore”.  Again, a mysoginistic attitude: no question of finding and punishing the man responsible (the scribes and the Pharisees bringing the woman “caught in adultery” – not the man! – to Jesus in John chapter 8 comes to mind here).

But this story, at least, has a happy ending.  Tamar is able to prove that Judah was responsible; Judah admits his guilt and recognises that Tamar “is more in the right”.  She bears twins, one of whom is the direct ancestor of King David, and hence in Jesus’ genealogy.

So, whether this was in Matthew’s mind or not, one of the things I think we can learn from the inclusion of women in this list is to think carefully, not automatically blaming women for “provocative” behaviour, and correctly placing responsibility for sin and violence with the individuals who are responsible.

And in particular, to consider in what ways my actions and attitudes contribute to the fairness or unfairness of society.

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