by John Shelby Spong
Matthew is the gospel writer (82-85) who first introduced the story of Jesus’ miraculous or virgin birth into the tradition. He did so with the seventeen most boring verses in the entire Bible! (See Matt. 1:1-17) These verses are Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus, but we refer to them the “who begat whom” verses. Yet in these incredibly boring verses, I am convinced that we can discover clues that will reveal both why the virgin birth story was developed in the first place and why it seems to be of such importance to the author of this second gospel to be written.
First, some comments on the genealogy in general. Matthew began his description of the line that he claimed produced Jesus with Abraham, the traditional father of the Jewish nation. Matthew was himself a deeply committed Jewish writer, probably a scribe, and he was writing for a traditional Jewish faith community. He was, therefore, very interested in grounding the Jesus story in the very DNA of Jewish life and history. So he made Abraham, the first pivotal person in Jewish history, the first pivotal person in Jesus’ lineage. David, who originated the royal family that ruled some portion of the Hebrew nation for between 400 and 500 years, became his second pillar in Jesus’ ancestry.
The next historical marker in Jesus background that is reflected in this genealogy was what is called the Exile. The citizens of Judah, first in 596 BCE and finally in 586 BCE, after being defeated by the Babylonians, were marched into the land of their conquerors to spend the period of Jewish history, known as the Babylonian captivity, as an underclass of laborers. This Exile lasted for two to three generations and was the time in history when the life of the Jewish nation quite literally hung by a thread. The last period covered by Matthew’s genealogy was from the Exile to the birth of Jesus.
Matthew suggested that each of these epochs in Jewish history had been fourteen generations long. That is the point in which every shred of literal accuracy, which people like to attribute to this gospel, begins to break down.
Abraham, if he lived at all, would be dated around the year 1850 BCE. David became king of the nation, first in Hebron, about the year 1000 and seven years later in Jerusalem, his newly-conquered capitol. So, between Abraham and David, there are some 850 years. If a generation is considered to be 20 years, which actually might be far too long in that time when life expectancy did not exceed 40 years, there would have been 42 generations between Abraham and David. The time from King David to the Exile would be 400 years plus or some 20 generations. The time from the Exile to the birth of Jesus would have been around 600 years or some 30 generations. So Matthew’s scheme for dividing Jewish history into the stages that he wishes to describe breaks down quickly. (To achieve his 14 generation mathematical symmetry Matthew literally had to omit the names of some of the kings in Judah who reigned between David and the Exile who are actually described in the Hebrew Bible.)
The next problem that gives a biblical commentator pause with this genealogy, which goes from Abraham to David to Joseph to demonstrate Jesus’ royal lineage as a son of David, is that when he arrives at the virgin birth story, his narrative completely denies the role of paternity to Joseph in the life of Jesus. The Virgin Birth story says that Joseph, the presumed male agent in conception, was replaced by the Holy Spirit. So this elaborate effort to ground Jesus in the life of the Jewish people is compromised by the account of his miraculous birth. Literalism wobbles visibly.
Another unusual detail in what Matthew portrays as the lineage of Jesus is that he included the names of four women in the genealogy. In this patriarchal world that was quite unusual. Women were not thought then to be equal partners in the procreation process. In that day no one knew that women produced an egg cell and were biologically co-creators of every baby that had ever been born. Women were rather thought of only as nurturing wombs, into which the males placed the seeds of life that women simply brought to maturity. Yet Matthew included four women in this genealogy. They were not mythical women either, for the story of each of these women can be found chronicled in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The fascinating thing about these women was that by the standards of that day, each of them was considered and defined as a “morally compromised woman.” Please listen to the drama being presented here. In this 17 verse genealogy with which Matthew introduced the story of the Virgin Birth, he made the claim that four of the women who were in the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth, were what his generation would have called unclean or scandalous women. What do you imagine was Matthew’s purpose in opening his story this way?
The first of these “shady ladies” was Tamar and her story can be found in Genesis, chapter 38. She was the wife of Er, the first born son of the patriarch Judah. Judah had two other sons, Onan and Shelah, a fact that becomes important as the story unfolds. This chapter tells us that Er was “wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord slew him.” (Gen. 38:7). Under the law that governed widows in Hebrew history, it thus became the duty of Onan, the next oldest son, to marry the wife of his deceased brother in order “to raise up offspring for your brother.” (Gen. 38:8). Onan objected and practiced a primitive kind of birth control that came to be called “Onanism.” This act displeased God, according to this story, and so we are told that God also killed Onan. Now it became Shelah’s turn to marry his brother’s widow, but Shelah was only a boy, about five years of age and, having seen what happened to his two older brothers when they were married to Tamar, he was eager to avoid this fate.
So Judah violated the code of behavior and the demands of the Torah and sent Tamar back to her family of origin, to live under her father’s protection. In this patriarchal society, Tamar was now “damaged goods” and she would no longer be thought of as “marriageable.” Judah, seeking to perfume his behavior, promised to send for her when Shelah grew up.
Some time passed during which Shelah did grow up, but Tamar was forgotten. Next, we are told, Judah’s wife died and now he was a widower. After a period of time for mourning, Judah returned to his business as the owner of large flocks of sheep and planned a trip to Timnah to talk with his sheep shearers. When Tamar learned of this intended visit, she removed her widow’s clothing, put on a veil and the clothes of a prostitute and positioned herself at the entrance of her town which was on the road to Timnah and where Judah would have to pass by inevitably.
He did. Judah saw her and assuming, as she intended him to do, that she was a prostitute, he turned aside to make a contract with her. They bargained for a price and it was agreed that her payment for “services rendered” would be a “kid from my flocks,” which would be sent to her the next day. Wise to the ways of the world, Tamar, still veiled, required that Judah give her something of value, something that she would return when his payment of the lamb was received. They settled on Judah’s signet ring, the cord that was wrapped around his waist and his staff. The two of them then went off to have their tryst, after which Judah went on his way and Tamar went back to her father’s home and once more put on the garments of her widowhood.
The next day, Judah, true to his word, sent one of his servants with the lamb to redeem his property. This servant, however, could not find the woman. He inquired of the people of the village as to the identity of the prostitute, who solicited business at the gates of this village. They denied that anyone had ever done that in their town. The servant returned and reported to Judah his failure to locate this woman. Judah, not willing to the subject of ridicule, decided to forgo any further effort to recover his ring, cord and staff, charging them off as “losses from a business deal,” and a number of months passed.
Then Judah heard the local gossip that Tamar, his daughter-in-law was pregnant and would soon produce a “child by harlotry.” Judah was incensed at this news and now, exercising his authority over this woman he had earlier rejected, ordered her to be brought out and burned at the stake. As she was being led to her place of execution, she sent word to Judah, her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong,” and she included his signet ring, his cord and his staff. Judah recognized them as his own and publicly repented. “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah,” he said.
Because sex with one’s daughter-in-law in that day was considered to be incest, Judah did not “lie with her again.” (Gen. 38:26), but he did provide for her care and after she gave birth, married her and brought her into his harem. Tamar became the mother of twins whom she named Perez and Zerah.
Matthew, by using the name Tamar, incorporated her story into the genealogy of Jesus. He was saying through this device that the line that produced Jesus went through Judah to Perez to the son of Perez, whose name was Hezron. Here, Matthew was asserting that the Christ Child had an ancestor who was guilty of incest. It is an interesting way to open a narrative about the Virgin Birth!
That, however, is only the first of the women to whom Matthew alludes in this genealogy. The other three are equally as fascinating and provocative. We will turn to each of them in detail as this series unfolds.
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
by John Shelby Spong