Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Fourth Woman in Matthew’s genealogy: The Wife of Uriah

by John Shelby Spong

The fourth and final woman included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus with which he opens his gospel and simultaneously introduces into the Christian tradition the story of the virgin birth, is the best known of them all. Matthew in this genealogy, however, does not ever call her by her name. He refers to her rather as “the wife of Uriah,” but those who are familiar with the Jewish scriptures, as Matthew’s audience would surely have been, know from the story in the 11th chapter of II Samuel that her name is Bathsheba and you and I can read her fascinating story any time we want simply by turning to that chapter of the Bible. For those who might not be familiar with this narrative these are the details.

“In the spring of the year,” is the way the author of this book of Samuel begins his story. The spring of the year is the time when “the sap rises,” romance is in the air and, this author observes, it was also the time “when kings go forth to battle.” King David, however, did not follow the familiar script for this year so he remained in Jerusalem while dispatching his army into battle under the command of his trusted military chief, a man named Joab. Joab’s assigned task, said the author of II Samuel, was to “ravage” King David’s enemy, the Ammonites. Not only was he to conquer the land of Ammon, but his army was to accomplish this by besieging and then destroying the capital city of Rabbah, while the king remained safe and secure in the comfort of his palace.

Thus the stage was set in which this particular episode would transpire. It would be while the king was at home far from the battlefield, that he would have the adventure that would determine not just the history of the Jewish people, but also through them, the history of the world. Great changes do attach themselves sometimes to seemingly unimportant details.

It was in the late afternoon one day when King David, perhaps bored, decided to stroll out onto the rooftop of the royal palace to enjoy the warm spring breezes. Because his palace was the tallest building in the city, he could look down on all the rooftops of the other homes below. On this day, to the delight of his lecherous eyes, his gaze fell upon a young woman, who was bathing herself in what she believed was the privacy of her own roof top. David was immediately smitten by this woman’s charms and, as heads of state are prone to do, he assumed that his desires should be fulfilled. So David, after inquiring as to her identity, sent a messenger to this woman’s house, bearing his personal invitation for her to come to the palace and to have a “tryst” with the king. She came.

Whether or not she had a choice, we do not know. The rights of women were very circumscribed in that patriarchal society. Bathsheba’s roof top bath was described in this text as necessary for “purifying herself from her uncleanness,” which was a euphemistic way the Bible described the fact that she had just completed her menstrual cycle. This detail is essential to the developing plot of this story, since it demonstrated conclusively that she was not pregnant at that moment. When she arrived at the palace David greeted her and then “took her and lay with her,” the text informs us. The act complete, this woman, having served her defined purpose, returned to her own house. In all probability David thought little more about the incident. It was probably not the first time, nor would it be the last, that this kind of activity had happened in his life. It was, however, destined to be a life-changing experience in Bathsheba’s life.

In a few weeks Bathsheba, noticing some unusual, but revealing circumstances, sent a message to the palace marked “for the king’s eyes only.” In this message she informed King David that she was pregnant with his child. David, seeking to create some room in which to maneuver, asked her how she could be sure that this baby was his child. “You are a married woman,” he reminded her. Why do you assume that this is not your husband’s child? It was then that Bathsheba informed him that though she was indeed married, her husband, Uriah, was a professional soldier and that he had been away for months serving in the king’s army under Captain Joab in the war against the Ammonites. “There is no way O King,” she concluded, “that you are not the father of this baby.”

David felt the noose tightening around his neck. He was not, however, ready to take responsibility for this fact and so he opted for plan B. He would dispatch a messenger to his army chief Joab, ordering him to grant a furlough to Uriah the Hittite. His cover was that he wanted to receive a first-hand report from someone in the field of battle and he had chosen Uriah for this “signal honor.” While on this special leave, David reasoned, Uriah would stay in his home, lie with his wife and when the baby was born, they could claim that this infant had just come early. It would not be the first time in that pre-DNA world that such an explanation had been conceived of and successfully employed.

So a very surprised Uriah received orders to return to Jerusalem in order to provide a personal and private update for the king on the course of the battle. Uriah, however, did not choose to return to his own house. He, rather, slept quite ostentatiously in the street at the gate of the king’s palace. David’s plans were foiled again. He had not counted on Uriah being the ultimate “boy scout.” Uriah told the king that it would simply not be fitting for him to enjoy the pleasures of his home, his wife and his bed while all his comrades were still camping out in the fields, eating K-rations and risking their lives in the siege of Rabbah. “I could not think of doing such a thing,” he concluded. David must have thought to himself, “What a turkey!” Now he was forced to resort to plan C.

The king next took out the royal quill and on a piece of royal parchment, he wrote out new orders to be carried to Joab, his military captain. He sent these new orders to Captain Joab via the hand of Uriah, who was returning to his duty on the battlefield. The king’s orders directed Joab to charge the gates of the city of Rabbah with a “V” shaped flying wedge. These orders also directed Joab to place Uriah the Hittite at the point of the “V” thus giving him the “honor” of leading the charge. It was a position in which few survived. It was done as the king commanded and Uriah was struck down and killed immediately. Joab then sent the king a message to inform him that his problems were over and that Uriah was dead. In turn, David sent for Bathsheba and she came to his palace to be one of his wives and thus a member of his harem.

Bathsheba turned out to be a wife who exercised considerable power. After the child of her adulterous liaison with the king died in infancy, Bathsheba’s second son by King David, whose name was Solomon, was destined to succeed King David at his death, though he was not close to being the first-born son and thus the presumed heir to the throne. With the assistance of a priest named Zadok, a military leader named Benaiah and a prophet named Nathan, Bathsheba maneuvered to secure the throne for her son. King Solomon in turn secured the power of the royal family that was destined to rule the people of Judah for over 400 years. That is Bathsheba’s story as found in the Bible.

In his genealogy, Matthew traces the royal line from Solomon through the kings of Judah until the royal family was destroyed by the Babylonians in the period of history that is called the Exile. Then he picks up the genealogy and traces it from the Exile to a man named Joseph, The conclusion of his genealogy says “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus is born, who is called Christ.” Thus the genealogy with which Matthew opened his gospel and which served to introduce the story of Jesus’ “supernatural” or “virgin” birth is brought to a conclusion.

Now as we come to the end of this opening genealogy ask yourself, what was Matthew’s purpose in beginning his gospel in this way and why did he deem it necessary and appropriate to say that the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth began with Abraham and traveled through the royal family, then into the exile and finally it arrives at the life on which the whole story is to focus? Finally, what is he trying to communicate when he places into the background of Jesus, four well-known women in Jewish history, all of whom by the standards of that day were sexually compromised women?

He is informing his readers at the very opening of his story that the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth flowed through the incest of Tamar (Gen. 38), the prostitution of Rahab (Joshua 2, 6), the seduction of Ruth (Ruth 3) and the adultery of Bathsheba (II Samuel 11). That appears to be what the text of Matthew’s gospel reveals. Perhaps that accounts (at least in part) for the fact that throughout most of Christian history, the first 17 verses of Matthew’s first chapter were skipped and ignored. They were called “the most boring verses in the Bible,” the “who begat whoms,” and no one was encouraged to look at them or take them seriously. Perhaps this strange introduction reveals that there is far more to the story of the virgin birth than we have imagined in the past.

We will continue to look at Matthew’s birth narrative in subsequent weeks. Then we will turn to Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Studying the Bible can be quite exciting once one removes the blinders of literalism and begins to look at the texts for what they are. So stay tuned. We will move next to Matthew’s proof text found in Isaiah 7:14 and then to the wise men and their familiar gifts. It is a fascinating study. I hope that you are finding it so.


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