In the Shadows of the Past

In the Shadows of the Past

February 4, 2024

Our scripture readings for today come from the stories of
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
The four women in the genealogy of Christ.

Tamar was to be married to Judah’s son.
When he forgot about her, she took matters into her own hands.
Genesis 38:24-26

Rahab’s city was threatened with destruction.
When the spies came to her door, she took matters into her own hands.
Joshua 6:22-23

Ruth was a Moabite widow who loved her mother-in-law.
When they were left future-less, she took matters into her own hands.
Ruth 2:8-12 

Bathsheba was already married and had no choice with David.
When she was taken to join the King’s court, she took matters into her own hands.
2 Samuel 11:2-5

There are only four women remembered in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew 1. Every other name on the list had a mother too, but we only get these four by name. Each of them lived a story that was much larger than just whose wife and mother they were, but the stories we have about them in the Bible are unfortunately limited. Two of them are called prostitutes. The other two are remarried. I have a lot of thoughts about each of these women. Their stories make me angry, and sad, and I think that hearing them read aloud isn’t easy.

It helps me to have faith that their experiences were not sanctioned by God just because they’re in the Bible, and to remember that the Bible is like a mirror to humanity. It shows us a reflection of who we’ve been and who we can be. If we don’t like something we see in it, then the challenge is ours to be different. You may not have to go very far back in your own family system to find women with difficult stories, told and untold. As I speak about these four women today, I hope that you will ponder the generations of women who came before you, and what they may have endured, which brought you into existence.[1]

The first woman to be mentioned by Matthew is Tamar. She was married to Judah’s eldest son, who died. Judah promised she would then be married to his youngest son, Shelah, but she was told to wait until he was older. As time passed, Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of keeping his promise to her. So, she tricked him into getting her pregnant, and giving her his signet ring, his cord, and his staff. I wonder how little you must have to care for someone to not recognize them when you’re that close to them. I wonder what it was like for her to keep such a big secret and to be threatened with fire while Judah could do whatever he pleased. But Tamar found a way to protect her own life and to tie her family into the house of Israel, which may have meant food, safety, and a future for her. She had twins, Perez and Zerah. It must have been very hard, but Tamar found a way that she could survive.

The second woman on the list is Rahab. Rahab was a prostitute living in Jericho when Joshua and the Israelites were preparing to attack. She sees the writing on the wall when they first threaten her city, and what she does is not out of affection for Israel, or faith in their God, but to protect her loved ones when the city falls. And it does. Her mother, her father, her brothers, and all who belonged to her are spared because of her espionage. I wonder how many people that included. I picture her as the Madam of that brothel, with marginalized people of many ages and genders under her care. She is the one who makes a deal with the spies when they turn up at her door asking for a place to hide. I wonder how many she was able to save from destruction when the walls came tumbling down. I wonder how she felt when Jericho fell. I wonder how she was able to make the decision to betray her city to save her family and everyone she was responsible for.

Now, it’s not clear, historically speaking, how Rahab was married into this family tree. There are a few hundred years in the timeline here that are unaccounted for. So, it’s entirely possible that the Rahab named here is a woman whose story we don’t have. Maybe her name is there because of some long-forgotten grain of truth, and we just don’t know why anymore. If that’s the case, it’s pretty radical that a prostitute from Jericho is named as a noteworthy part of God’s family tree.

The third woman to shape this family history is Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, a race of people who “not allowed in the assembly of the Lord” according to Deuteronomy Chapter 23. However, she marries into a family from Bethlehem who happened to be living in Moab. That family belonged to Naomi and her husband, and her two sons who were married to Ruth and Orpah.

After 10 years together, Naomi’s husband and sons die. Ruth and Orpah become widows, and without a husband, Naomi could no longer provide for them. So, they had to figure out how to survive in a world where they couldn’t support themselves. Orpah returns to her family, but Ruth won’t leave Naomi by herself. This is where we get the beautiful quote from Ruth which is read at many weddings, but is actually between a daughter and her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay.”

Ruth goes with Naomi to Bethlehem, where her relative Boaz lived and owned some fields of grain. Ruth works in the field for Boaz, who recognizes her, as we read. Later she goes to visit him in the night. There is a euphemism about his feet, and afterwards Boaz marries Ruth, and takes them in. Interestingly, it says the elders bless their union saying, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” Apparently, they saw a connection between Tamar and Ruth – maybe it’s that they both made some pretty bold and risky choices.

The last lady named is Bathsheba. Her name has nothing to do with her bathing, and she was not doing anything wrong. Contrary to what you may have been told, she was not putting on a show in this scene. She was a devout woman, taking a ritual bath, in a space that was her own. The problem is that David’s balcony is so high up that he can see her within the privacy of her home. Jerusalem is shaped like a big hill, and his palace was on the top of it. The height of his balcony is a good metaphor for the height of his power at this point. Power that he abuses by abducting her, while her husband is away fighting for him in a war, which he was too high up to actually participate in.

We should not assume that just because she went to him on her own two feet, that she consented to this relationship. She was clearly unavailable; David knows exactly who she is married to, and whose daughter she is. It’s more likely that she was preserving her dignity. Neighbors would not have missed the guards coming to escort her to the see the King. I wonder if anyone walked her home afterwards. I wonder if she felt safe enough to take a bath on that roof ever again. I wonder how she felt waiting for her next period, and who supported her when she figured out, she was pregnant. I wonder if she knew King David was responsible when her husband then died on the front lines of the battlefield.

After being given some time to mourn, she is brought to the King’s home to live with his six other wives, and the child she was pregnant with dies. We get to hear David’s grief, while he laments his role in this tragedy, after the prophet Nathan lets him know that he is to blame for this whole thing. But we don’t get to hear her grief, and I can’t imagine how alone she must have felt after losing both her husband, and the child for whom she was ripped from him. She does not fade into the background in the palace though. She has other children including Solomon, whom she works behind the scenes to make David’s heir. She learns how to play the game of thrones, and once her son is King, she becomes Queen Mother of Israel, and sits on a throne at his side. She makes a way for herself as a royal wife, like many before her, and many who would follow.

These are not nice stories, and I’m not going to stand here and tell you that it all worked out for them in the end, because I have no idea if that is a fair assessment without a whole lot more information. These are the only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus, and they were women with complicated lives, who made difficult choices for their survival in a world that was rigged against them. Decisions which frequently revolved around their bodies, and who would use them, and what they would do to make a way for themselves.

The stories we have about the female ancestors of Jesus, are the kind of stories that you’re more likely to unpack in therapy than around the dinner table. The women who bore Jesus into being struggled with sexism and racism as they navigated the world. They faced abuse, assault, loss, war, and poverty. To survive all that, they took matters into their own hands. They were strong because they had to be. They were the kind of women we might be quick to judge and yet they are written into Jesus’ DNA.

Not only that, but they are the exceptional ones. If their names were shameful, or held no weight or significance, they would have been left out as every other woman was. But Matthew lifts up these four women, not because they were spotless white examples of virtue, but because they were survivors, who struggled, and by the divine light that was within them, made a way for themselves, and for those they cared for, and that is worth naming, and being proud of. Jesus is the descendant of women who had to make difficult choices when they were wronged, women who were sex workers, women who were outsiders, and women who were violated and had to live with the consequences.

Beloveds, if you have been told that for some reason you are not enough. If you have felt like your story, and your struggles, put you outside of the people of God. If you have been led to believe that the places you came from, and places you might still be, make you less worthy of God’s family. Guess what?  Whoever told you that was wrong. None of that makes you any less worthy to be here in this place, or to be proud of who you are. You are worthy like Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba. Your story is sacred. What you have overcome, what your ancestors overcame, and all of the gritty not-safe-for-work human stuff that is within you, behind you, and ahead of you – does not decrease your worth.

You are beautifully and fully human as Christ also was. You are allowed to be struggling, complicated, messy, and multifaceted. Your past does not define you or diminish you. Your story is so much bigger than just one terrible snippet of it, and your future is whatever you decide to co-create with God. You are a soul enfleshed, and all the fleshy bits are welcome.  No matter what impossible standards others may hold up before you. No matter what that self-righteous jerk once told you. The story of God includes the stories of single mothers, and sex workers, and women whose ethnicities were devalued, and women who were homeless and survivors of violence. You are what Jesus was made of and IS made of, and no one can diminish that.

It is the world that values appearances above all else, not the God who knows our innermost hearts. It is the world that gossips about who you’ve been with and what you’ve done, not the God whose Spirit is alive in you and knows your story. It is the world that is toxic in its entitlement to women’s bodies, not the God whose breath brought our bodies to life. By lifting up stories like these, in God’s family, and in our own, even though they make us uncomfortable, my prayer is that we can shift our world from devaluing women who struggle, to building community around them, and from suffering in silence to finding ways to stop the horrible things that some women face but shouldn’t have to.

To do so, we must put mercy over judgement, understanding over shame, and love over self-righteousness. We must extend the knowledge that we are good and worthy to all women, and all people, especially the ones we are the quickest to judge and who are the easiest to look down upon. May it be so and may it begin with us. Amen.

[1] If you’d like to do a deep dive on the women of the Hebrew Bible, check out the book Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney, whose insights were very influential to this sermon!

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