Friday, July 24, 2015

Sexual Scandal and the Messianic Lineage

Of all the women Matthew could have chosen to include in his Messianic lineage, he chose the ones whose sex lives raised the most eyebrows. The genealogy he gives includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, with the noticeable absence of Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. The presence of women at all within a man's lineage is unusual, as men were identified by who their father was, not their mother. So, the very presence of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba denotes their importance and honor within the family history and identity of Jesus, just as the absence of other more 'respectable' women speaks volumes about who Jesus chooses to include in his plan for human history.

Tamar is best known for dressing up as a prostitute. Rahab was a real prostitute, and Ruth arguably sort of acted like one. Bathsheba was involved in an adulterous scandal.

We tend to grimace over these stories because we don't really know how to categorize them. It's easy to want to put people into a 'good' or 'bad' category, especially when it comes to sex and wanting to define what is moral behavior and what is not. Regardless, these women have had shame, embarrassment and abuse associated with their names from the time in which they lived until now, but I think their names should inspire us towards respect, because you know what else all these women have in common besides sexual scandal? Guts.

Tamar got creative in rightfully demanding that her male protectors fulfill her legal right to be provided for. Rahab told some bold-faced lies to save the lives of Hebrew spies, which in turn changed the course of Jewish history. Ruth proposed to somebody in the middle of the night, putting her own reputation and that of the man in question at risk for the sake of her survival and that of her mother-in-law. Bathsheba survived her abuse by David as a sexual object and proved persuasive in her later years in putting Solomon on the throne.

These women did a lot of things right. Anyone who associates their names with blame is uninformed, and femininity with weakness, ill advised.

But their leery reputations,  deserved or not, are key in establishing something poignant about Jesus. A dark cloud of sexual scandal followed his own mother, Mary, for the entirety of her adult life, because of the circumstances of his birth. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus referred to as "the son of Mary", instead of "the son of Joseph", an insult that shows that his community remembered quite well his seemingly illegitimate background. People never let him, or Mary, forget that they didn't believe Joseph was his real father.

Maybe having women of questionable sexual reputation in his lineage was one of the ways Jesus comforted his own mother through the distrust and condescending remarks she surely experienced as somewhat of a social pariah.

Maybe Jesus is trying to show women that regardless of society's gaze, you are worthy in His sight.

Maybe He wants you to know that a life free from sexual scandal is not the point.

Maybe He is trying to show us that our definition of who can be a part of the Kingdom of God is much more inclusive than we think.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spiritual Favoritism and the Story of Hagar

I think it's easy to misdirect our admiration for Biblical characters because they take on a romance to them after their stories are told so many times. Despite our understanding that they were human and made mistakes, over time they subliminally take on a legendary status in our minds that numbs our ability to look at them objectively.

One of these characters is Sarah, from the Old Testament.

For years I carried benevolent feelings toward Old Testament characters like Sarah simply because they are mentioned in stories of people of faith. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that their mistakes were well-intentioned, and somehow more easily understandable or forgivable. The people who crossed them I categorized as the 'other', who somehow I assumed had been wrong from the very start.

The problem with this mindset, polarizing who is holy and who is not holy by definition of who belongs to what group, is that that's what the Israelites embodied for a long time; exclusivity to the blessing of God is a theme that we can see carried even into today. Which is why the story of Sarah and Hagar challenged my propensity to think better of those who 'belong to God' over 'those who don't'.

Genesis 16 proved to me my prejudice, and in an ironic way. The story is sometimes taught as showing that the people outside the realm of Israel were an unfortunate accident that still cause trouble today, but that is not taking the passage for what it actually says.

This chapter shows Sarah treating Hagar as 'the other', yet somehow the disapproval has been shifted to who Hagar is and the children she created. Let's reevaluate who is actually depicted as the bad guy in this story (hint, it's not Hagar), and how God responds:

-Giving your servant to your husband to have a kid that way was not nearly as shocking to Sarah and Abraham as it is to us; it's called having a concubine, and everyone did it. (An Old Assyrian marriage contract states that the wife must provide her husband with a concubine if she does not bear children within two years) In fact, four of Israel's 12 tribes were born through maidservants (Genesis 30:6, 17-18). But the fact that everyone did it doesn't make it right. It was an abuse of human dignity and the rights of a woman to her own sexuality and body, an outrageous imposition of one human will over another, and a sickening abuse of power.

Hagar was not an Israelite, which within the Law of the Old Testament, justified this kind of abuse, sadly. Here is an example of treating someone as the 'other' in action. In response to this abuse, however, we see God's blessing on Hagar, not Sarah, who is normally immortalized because she is part of God's chosen. But whereas God hadn't allowed Sarah a pregnancy, he did for Hagar, redeeming her lower situation.

-In verse 6, it says that in response to God's blessing upon Hagar, Sarah mistreated her, to the extent that she ran away. Said another way, she abused her so badly that she forced a pregnant woman to run into the emptiness of the desert, in a land and culture where to be without people and hospitality was to be without access to safety and life. Hagar ran away knowing she would die, and she did it anyway. How vicious must Sarah have been to evoke this kind of response? Here, Hagar is hopelessness and despair personified.

Again, in response, we see God's blessing. Hagar was promised great things (verses 10-12). Many have misinterpreted theses verses to mean something negative, justifying our favor toward Abraham and Sarah over Hagar. Once again, the concept of 'the other.' The Arab people we are familiar today who are at odds with Israel come from Hagar's line, and many Christians associate Judaism with God's blessing and Ishmael's line with being the ones to forever trouble God's chosen people. But if that is the case then why does God bless Hagar? Why does God show favor to Hagar, an outsider, over Sarah, a member of his chosen people and wife to a pillar of our faith? Why do we continue to treat the legacy of Hagar as 'the other' when God clearly didn't? The numerous problems with many Christians' innate favoritism of Israel over their neighbors aside, look at how these two characters are treated. God is good at showing grace to the outsider.

1) God promised to multiply Hagar's children exceedingly, making her the only woman in the Bible to receive this promise.
2) God promised to listen to her and her children through their unfavored social status.
3) God promised her child would be like a freely roaming animal, in contrast to her currently enslaved status.
4) God promised her descendants would have a place within Abraham's family and would inherit land and be recipients of his blessing.

*for a more detailed exegesis of this story, check out this awesome article:

Sarah pushed Hagar away, God brought her close. The circle of God's favor and blessing is wider than we, like Sarah, give it credit for. A propensity to favor someone who fits our constructed paradigm of who God approves of is not new, and neither is its destructive potential. The story of Sarah and Hagar proves that God loves the outsider, He listens to the downtrodden, and that no one is outside the reach of His love and grace. No one. God raised up the woman in the story who was overlooked, used and tossed out as, sadly, sometimes she still is. Hagar, usually depicted as the sad unfortunate character in the story, is elevated, while Sarah, normally associated with the faith and godliness of Abraham's life, is depicted as abusive, cruel and faithless. Misdirecting holiness to Sarah over Hagar proves we can have the same spiritual prejudice as Sarah's racial prejudice against Hagar. God uses people (and women) who we do not expect, not only to challenge our assumptions about who God loves, but about which women can be influential within the story of God's plan for the world.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Who Takes Care of Who?

"Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."

Of all the misquoted verses of the Bible, 1 Timothy 5:8 probably takes the cake as the one most used to widen the divide between men and women. I hear it used all the time to justify the worldview that it is a man's role to provide financially for the family, with it following that his wife should then stay at home. But a closer examination of the context of the verse espouses a totally different idea.

If you go back to read verses 3-8 of chapter 5 in 1 Timothy, we get a much broader picture than that of men being the sole providers. Not only does it include women, it actually targets them as the providers, specifically for widows. 

The concept of widows brings to mind something very different for us than it would have for Paul's audience. To us, a widow is exclusively a woman whose husband has died. However, the word used for widow here is much more all-encompassing. Here it can also mean 'a woman who is without a man', meaning she is a virgin who has never gotten married, or a woman who lives alone.  As Paul made a point to encourage those who weren't married to remain unmarried, this reality of women not being married, and hence, 'widows', is completely understandable. From verse 16, we can see evidence that priority was given to women in caring for these widows: 

"If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to hep them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need."

Throughout church history, the job of providing for widows was weighted toward women, one of the reasons the office of deacon was created. It only made sense within their culture to have women taking care of other women because of how separated the sexes were kept for propriety's sake. It would not have been considered appropriate for a man to call on a woman with no other man at her home, whether he be there as a representative of his church or no.

In addition, verse 4 broadens our concept of caring for family even further: "But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God."

This is a multi-generational and gender-inclusive look at what it means to provide for your family; it calls everyone, be they children or grandchildren to a person in need, to be responsible for the welfare of their extended family. Notice that nowhere does it say "a man should provide for his household." Women were called to this responsibility just as much as their male counterparts, if not more within situations involving widows. 

Somewhere along the way, these verses became popularized to mean that men go to work to take care of their family, not women, with it even evolving to create an environment of distrust toward families where women fill the role of primary financial provider. Men are accused of not living out 'Biblical Manhood' if their wives work and they themselves stay at home with their kids because somehow it makes them less of a man, and women are accused of overstepping the bounds of how God created women to operate if they choose to invest in a career. Within Christian culture, being a 'provider' has been masculinized, and that makes it hard for a lot of women to feel respected in their life choices pertaining to their careers. A more critical look at these verses can broaden our understanding of what it looks like to provide for family, bringing flexibility and freedom to whatever decision you make in what providing for your family looks like to you and those you take care of.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Feminine Images of God

"But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me."

One of the points I hear brought up quite frequently in conversations about how women are represented in the Bible is that God is always masculine, not feminine; typically we present God as exhibiting only male qualities, not female ones.

I don't think God is male, or female. To impose gender upon God is to limit Him, to make the overwhelming concept of the Creator something less mighty and awesome than it is by defining Him by human terms. As Joseph Campbell states in his book Thou Art That, "...Then alone do we know God truly, when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God," it can surely not be proper to think of that which surpasses all human thought either as a male or a female."

Characteristics of God can be seen in both men and women. Sadly, the conversations surrounding how God presents Himself shy away from including the examples of feminine imagery the Bible gives us.

While masculine imagery might be the more widely-taught presentation of God, to teach the reality of God solely within masculine terms is not a Biblical concept.

The language used throughout Scripture reflects, in my opinion, the male bias of its' ancient writers, with women and children being left out of the picture within descriptions of Biblical stories. Similarly, I think we reflect a male bias within church when a disproportionate number of descriptions of God revolve solely around male concepts, or when people are uncomfortable ascribing God traditionally female characteristics.

To see a more complex, multifaceted view of God, here are some examples of where God is referred to within feminine imagery:

God as a mother: "But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me." Psalm 131:2

God as a mother hen: Jesus: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34.

God as a woman in labor: God: "For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant." Isaiah 42:14.

God compared to a nursing mother: God: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." Isaiah 49:15.

God as a comforting mother: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem." Isaiah 66:13.

God as one who gives birth: "You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth." Deuteronomy 32:18.

God as a mother: God: "Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them." Hosea 11:3-4.

God's image reflected in both men and women: "Humankind was created as God's reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them." Genesis 1:27.

In a world where to call a man a "woman" is an insult, or to say, "you throw like a girl" as a way to tear down a man's identity as a masculine being, we have a God presented here who is not embarrassed to align Himself with femininity. In a culture where men are embarrassed to cry lest they appear weak or feminine, we see outbursts of unabashed emotion from God that would typically be ascribed to women, not men. Whereas people are told to "man up", as if that represented more strength somehow than being a woman, God represents the strength and courage of women by comparing Himself to a woman bearing a child. God refers to himself in both masculine and feminine ways, and it is an empowering thing to see that God sees strength and significance in being compared to female qualities just as He does to masculine ones.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Crippled Woman

"The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan kept bound for 18 long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"

Luke 13 tells the story of one of Jesus's numerous miracles. Typical of many miracles, the story is simple, summed up in only seven verses. A woman who had been crippled for 18 years, and could not stand up straight, was healed by Jesus as He taught in a synagogue. As usual, Jesus is criticized by a religious leader for doing so, and as usual, He verbally humiliates the naysayer to the delight of the onlooking crowd. 

But there occurs one extra special detail in this particular story-how Jesus refers to the woman He healed. 

He calls her a 'daughter of Abraham ' (vs 16).

Elsewhere in Scripture we see "children of Abraham" (Matthew 3:8, John 8:39), "seed of Abraham" (John 8:33, Romans 9:7) and "sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7), but here alone in the New Testament do we see a woman referred to as Abraham's daughter. 

I can only imagine how shocking this would have sounded to the esteemed religious leader, the crowd of onlookers inside the synagogue, and to the woman herself, who, having been possessed by a demon for 18 years, would have been shunned by her own community for close to two decades. 

Jesus calling her a daughter of Abraham is very significant; throughout the tradition of the Jewish people being called 'children of Abraham', women were excluded in many significant ways from the religious involvement men were afforded. Here, Jesus includes her into that community through a gender-specific title, and by doing so, included all women into the Abrahamic tradition on an unprecedented level.  He does not simply call her a child of Abraham, as He could have done; He calls her a daughter. This served as a statement to those watching: this woman was significant to Him specifically as a woman; she belonged to the family of Abraham as his 'daughter' just as much as men did as 'sons of Abraham.' 

While things such as this can be overspiritualized, I don't find it insignificant that in this particular miracle, Jesus enabled this woman to stand up straight in the presence of religious leaders of false spiritual piety who preferred to demand a right to take their animals to get water on the Sabbath over the healing of a downtrodden and alienated person. While Jesus physically restored her, He also gave this woman dignity, healing her crippled state in more ways than one. 

The Absurdity of Suits

So much is going around social media right now about modesty. In particular, the drama that is leggings. To wear or not to wear? Many people have valid things to say, but I also see emotion running very high (not to say emotion is a bad thing). To help lighten the discussion, I bring you this little nugget of gold : It truly made me laugh, while also showing the absurdity of placing the blame on someone else for your lust problem. I applaud the author of this piece for telling her view of truth while also maintaining a refreshing geniality! The world needs more of this right now I think.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Huldah; Prophetess, Leader, Trailblazer Et Al

When people think about the Prophets, we mostly think about men. The genre of prophesy is one of my favorite things to study, and while Isaiah is one of my favorite books of the Bible, I was excited to find out that there are 7 Prophetesses in the Bible too. While women weren't allowed to be priests in the time of the Old Testament and their participation in religion in general was quite limited, (Women were actually exempt from having to attend religious festivals and feasts for big name events like Passover. Being on your period kept you from being 'clean', so since you'd be 'unclean' so much of the time, they let women off the hook, so to speak, from attending religious events. Thanks?) Prophetess was one of those positions that they still got to hold every once in a while. Since there are only seven, we can assume that they were exceptional women. Here's the lineup: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Esther and Huldah.

Huldah is probably the least-known of the group, but she made a big impact on Jewish history and is still considered a significant part of Jewish heritage today. Fun fact about Huldah; she was related to Jeremiah, the Prophet, and they were actually contemporaries. I find it significant that Huldah was chosen to have a role in this story when Jeremiah was also available for counsel.

Huldah's story can be found in 2 Kings 22-23. History tells us that Huldah ran a school for women in Jerusalem to teach about the Scriptures pertaining to Jewish women, mothers and daughters. This made her unusual right out of the gate, beyond the whole Prophetess thing. But apparently she was well-known and respected in her community, because when King Josiah came across a Book of the Law that had been hidden in the Temple for a long time and he needed help interpreting it, he went to Huldah. In fact, he sent his priest and secretary to her, so we have two men in important positions going to seek counsel from a woman. How often do we see that in Scripture? (the answer is not often, if you hadn't picked up on that).

A part of this story that I find touching is that Huldah was married to a man whose day job was "keeper of the king's wardrobe." I'm not kidding. You can't make something like that up. He was in charge of all the king's clothes for different occasions, but he was also a tutor and advisor to Josiah when he was young, since Josiah became king at 8 years old. So this power couple of ancient Jerusalem, Huldah the prophetess and teacher and Shallum, trusted advisor and wardrobe pro, helped raise one of the greatest kings in Israel's history. When Josiah really needed help, he knew he could go to Huldah.

Long story short, her interpretation of the scroll led Josiah to an all-encompassing cleansing of the city of all sorts of cultic religious practices that didn't honor God, which made him known in the Bible as a king unlike any other in Judah's history:

"Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did-with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses."

That's high praise in a sequence of books that go to great lengths to describe how most kings for generations just did whatever they wanted. The Torah scroll described the destruction that would come as a result of Israel's disobedience, so Josiah did all he could to undo the damage his father and previous kings had created.

Unfortunately, that track record was enough to make God vow to destroy Judah, which is what Huldah prophesied. That prophesy eventually came true after Josiah and Huldah's deaths, despite Josiah's faithfulness and efforts. But during the remainder of his reign, Josiah implemented policies that helped Israel regain freedom from idols and destructive religious practices of surrounding nations. Huldah's prophecy and influence became part of the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people by igniting a spiritual revival of the nation under Josiah's reign, which is known as one of the greatest in their history.

I gain a lot of courage from reading about women who were ahead of their time, or didn't fit in within their own culture and society. Huldah certainly didn't. Prophetesses weren't common, and neither were female teachers (or schools for girls), so I wouldn't be surprised if she was looked at as rather contrarian. But what made her different was what gave her an opportunity to wield wisdom and influence, and her words to Josiah changed the lives of thousands of people. I think it could only bring good things if we as women in 2015 considered what our spheres of influence are, and leaned into the gifts and roles God has given to us, even if they make us unusual or countercultural or draw some criticism. Huldah was unusual, but that was what made her an extraordinary leader.