Reflection for the first Sunday of Advent
27th of November, 2022
I did something quite dreadful to Kathryn, today’s Bible reader, by asking her to read the very beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew. We are now in a new church year and for the next twelve months we will be listening to Matthew’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ, but it will not surprise you to learn, having listened to them, that the seventeen verses that Kathryn read this morning are not in the lectionary. Normally we would never hear Jesus’ genealogy read out in church, and obviously I think that is a pity, which is why we have it today.
Only Matthew’s telling of the gospel starts with Jesus’ ancestors. Luke also has a genealogy, but Luke puts it in his third chapter, after all the birth stories have been told, after John has baptised Jesus, and when we are told that Jesus is about thirty years old. Only Matthew begins with this list, which tells us how important Matthew thinks it is. The list is not historical; it is theological. Matthew is telling us that Jesus was the son of Abraham and the son of David. But Matthew also tells us that Jesus is descended from Abraham and David in unusual ways. In this boringly long list of names are some fascinating stories that tell us a lot about who Matthew thinks Jesus is.
Most of the genealogy tells us that so-and-so was the father of such-and-such, but there are four places where this pattern changes and mothers are mentioned as well as fathers. We are told that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar; that Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab; that Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth; and that David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. Only four women are mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, and none of them is remembered by the people of Israel as a shining heroine of the faith; these are not Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel. These are all women from the margins; women whose stories involve potential shame.
Tamar’s story is told in Genesis chapter 38, and it is one we do not often hear. It certainly is not in the lectionary. Judah son of Jacob himself had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah, and he took Tamar as a wife for the eldest, Er. When Er died sonless, Judah married Tamar to Onan, and told him to raise up sons for his brother. But Onan did not, instead ‘he spilled his semen on the ground,’ and so he died, too. Judah then told his daughter-in-law to, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house. But when Shelah grew up, Judah did not marry him to Tamar. She was left as a childless widow in her father’s house, a woman without any status at all in her society. So Tamar acted.
Tamar heard that her father-in-law, Judah, was going to Timnah to shear his sheep, and so she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down by the side of the road. The author of Genesis tells us:
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, “Come, let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He answered, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” And she said, “Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. (Genesis 38:15-19)
You can see why this story is not in the lectionary.
Judah did send the kid to the supposed prostitute, but she could not be found, and when Judah asked the people said that there had been no such woman. Three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ So Judah did what any patriarch would do, and ordered that Tamar be burned to death. As Tamar was being brought out, she sent word to Judah that it was the owner of the signet and the cord and the staff that she showed him who had impregnated her. Judah of course recognised his own belongings, and so he told everyone that ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ Tamar has twins by Judah, Perez and Zerah, and it is Perez who is the ancestor of Jesus.
The next woman mentioned is Rahab, and it is generally accepted that the Rahab mentioned is the prostitute of Jericho from the Book of Joshua. Joshua sent two men as spies to Jericho, who entered Rahab’s house and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told about them, and he sent orders to Rahab to give them up. But she hid them on her roof under stalks of flax, said that they had already left, and sent the king’s men on a wild goose chase to the Jordan. She then let the men out of her window on a rope, because her house was within the city wall itself, and when Joshua and his army invaded Jericho Rahab and her family were spared. (Joshua 2) Matthew tells us that this Gentile prostitute was also an ancestor of Jesus.
We do not often hear the stories of Tamar and Rahab; but we do know the stories of Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah who became the mother of King Solomon. Ruth, in the book named after her, takes the advice of her mother-in-law Naomi and sneaks herself into Boaz’s bed. (Ruth 3) David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house and sends messengers to bring her to him so that he can lie with her. Male biblical commentators tend to believe that Bathsheba was flaunting herself on that roof deliberately, which is not in the biblical text; female biblical commentators tend to believe that there is no way that she could have said ‘no’ to the king even if she had wanted. In either case, once Bathsheba tells David that she is pregnant David at first tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, and then has him killed. It is not a very edifying story, as the prophet Nathan later points out to David. David marries Bathsheba, and Solomon is their son. (2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:25)
Rahab and Ruth are clearly non-Jewish, Tamar was often regarded as non-Jewish, and in the list of names Bathsheba is identified not by her own name but by the name of her Gentile husband. The Law told the men of Israel not to intermarry with non-Jews, (Deuteronomy 7:3) and after the return from the Babylonian Exile, when Nehemiah found that some of those who had been left behind had intermarried with women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab, he ‘contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair’. (Nehemiah 13:25) Yet here at the very beginning of the gospel Matthew shows us that God’s plan includes Gentiles as well as Jews, and that the Messiah himself has Gentile ancestry.
These four stories are also linked by sexual impropriety. Tamar behaved like a prostitute; Rahab was a prostitute; David and Bathsheba committed adultery; and Ruth made sexual advances to Boaz. Immediately after the genealogy Matthew tells a similar story in which Joseph discovers that his betrothed, Mary, is pregnant by someone else. The possible impropriety of Jesus’ own birth might be one reason that Matthew includes these women in his genealogy.
I want to tell their stories for two reasons. The first is simply because we would not otherwise hear about Tamar and Rahab, and I think that that would be a pity. We cannot appreciate the breadth of the Bible if we only hear child-friendly stories. Taking the Bible seriously includes reading the dangerous and difficult tales of sex and death, rather than ignoring them.
The other reason I wanted us to hear these stories of sexual impropriety this week is because of a new culture war developing in Australia, imported from the USA and the UK. The people and groups who campaigned against marriage equality, who used to argue that gay, lesbian and bisexual people were sick or sinful and so should be kept away from children, are now saying exactly the same things about transgender people. Just as they once argued that gay people recruited children, and so children should be protected from even hearing about us, now they argue that children seeing trans people or even drag performers could falsely declare themselves to be trans. Recently Senator Alex Antic accused the ABC of grooming children because Play School showed drag performer Courtney Act reading a picture book about a girl who wanted to wear a suit rather than a dress to a party. Senator Antic said “Cross-dressing. Let me ask you this, does ABC agree that transgender or cross-dressing are adult concepts?” (The ABC answered no.) Last month neo-Nazis turned up to protest at a Youth Festival in Moonee Ponds which included a drag performer. I lived through a ‘think of the children’ scare campaign as a young gay woman; I do not appreciate politicians, political candidates, and neo-Nazis replaying it with trans people today.
The story of Jesus’ ancestry that Matthew gives us is the story of people going beyond the boundaries of what their culture understood as acceptable or safe. It is the story of women exercising their sexuality in ways that their society found perverse, so perverse, indeed, that Tamar was almost executed for it. It is a story that reminds us that humanity is infinitely complex, and that the ways in which we understand questions of sex and gender have changed over time. The good news of Jesus begins long before Jesus begins his ministry, even before Jesus is born. The gospel begins in this list of Jesus’ ancestors, and in a God who does new things, who uses those others consider perverse, who brings safety out of peril, honour out of dishonour, grace out of disgrace, and good out of evil. This is one of the things that we celebrate at Christmas. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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