Jesus on Aisle Ten
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
This morning I came across a most amazing news story. The parents among you may already know this, but I was surprised to learn that Jesus has been coming again for a while now, and his next stop will be WalMart. Instead of clouds, he's arriving in a little cardboard box wrapped in plastic and covered with stickers that proclaim the Gospel According to Madison Avenue. Here's a sample of the wisdom:
"I Talk. Try me!" (There are several Bible verses on a microchip.)
"Fully Poseable." (Jack and Jill can make their very own crucifix!)
And lest we mistake him for just another action figure we have this:
"God's Son." (As opposed to a Transformer? A Mutant Ninja Turtle? Buddha?)
Of course I had to do a little digging. It seems this second coming is courtesy of a company in California called Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company. It also seems this thing is a something of a holy crusade ("Take Back the Toybox!") created by a Christian man. But the division selling BHTB's plastic Jesus dolls is run by a Joshua Livingston, who is allegedly Jewish and if so, ought to know better. Mr. Livingston says, "I have a very open mind and believe people can have their own beliefs and religion." One wonders what it is he thinks these Christians believe as they rush out to trade filthy lucre for a little plastic god.
Also offered are Samson, Mary, David, Ester and Moses, and with them, I have no problem. It's a great idea to teach kids the Bible using toys (or almost any other way we can) and heaven knows we need healthy alternatives to the trash they're selling to our children, especially our boys, who seem to be growing up these days on a steady diet of blood and guts.
But come on. Jesus Christ, the action figure?
I don't know why I am surprised. As a writer of books that are mostly read by Christians, I sometimes attend an annual convention put on by a trade organization created to support stores that sell Christian products, books included. Years ago at the first of these I was amazed to see a sales booth offering Christian workout clothing. (You know: so you can proclaim the Gospel boldly while sweating off those church social donuts.) Towering above the sales booth was none other than a ten foot Styrofoam Jesus, suggestively stripped down to a loin cloth, wearing a crown of thorns, and struggling in spite of a Schwarzenegger-like physique to perform a squat thrust with his cross.
It seems Jack Hayford has endorsed Our Dear Lord in a Box, and Focus on the Family is something called a "ministry partner." And speaking of the box again, I see it has yet another label:
Ah, the formative years. The age when fact and fantasy are one. As a three year old I had a teddy bear named Wilber. He probably wasn't born in Beverly Hills since I come from humble stock, but Wilber was good enough for me. He was my best friend. He could walk, and talk, and everything. When I was sad, he made me feel better. When I was happy, he was happy too. Wilber could do anything. He had magic powers. He was alive. There were moments when he was more important to me than anyone. I loved Wilber, because he first loved me.
Then I grew a little older, and one Christmas morning I got another toy, a little plastic fellow with a cape. I think he was called "Dare Devil." I don't remember playing much with Wilber after that. After all, by then I had figured out that Wilber wasn't real.
There my story ends for now. But I mustn't let you go without quoting the final pearl of wisdom on Jesus' little box, the bit in small print near the bottom where it says:
"Warning. Choking Hazard."
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:38 AM
Labels: Church and State
On Writing - INFUZE Interview
Monday, July 30, 2007
Are you interested . . . in the creative writing process, or in the state of Christian fiction past and present? If so, you might want to surf over to Infuze magazine, where Senior Editor Matt Connor interviewed me recently. Today they posted the conversation. You can read it here. I hope you find it thought provoking, and would love to read your own comments about any of the issues Matt and I discussed.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:41 AM
A STATE OF GRACE, by Traci DePree
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:02 AM
Labels: Other People's Novels
Matthew 1:17-25 MIRACLE OF FORGIVENESS
Friday, July 27, 2007
Continuing with Matthew’s story we learn Mary is “pledged to be married,” or betrothed to Joseph. In first century Palestine “adultery” was narrowly defined as sex between a married person and someone other than a spouse. “Betrothal” was actually the formal beginning of the marriage relationship, matrimonially binding in all ways except for physical consummation.
Jews took betrothal status extremely seriously, both in a legal sense and in terms of the spiritual.
Consider that the Hebrew word for “betrothal” or “engagement” is kiddushin, which comes from the same root as kadosh, meaning “set apart,” or “holy.” Indeed, there is an entire tractate in the Mishnah (part of the Talmud) called Kiddushin. This spiritual and cultural context may explain why Jesus often chose to speak in terms of betrothal when teaching fellow Jews about his purpose on the earth. It may also explain the particular miracle he chose to begin his earthly ministry.
In a culture that placed such importance on betrothal, virtually interlinking it with the concept of holiness, if Jesus had been the product of adultery he would certainly have been deemed unworthy to function as the Messiah. Indeed, this very argument was used much later in Sanhedrin 43a and 63a of Rabbinic Judaism’s Babylonian Talmud, where it is said that Mary (her true name, Miriam, is used of course) became pregnant by a Roman soldier named Panera, who is alleged to be the actual adulterous father of Jesus. Jesus is called “Yeshu ben Panera” in several places in the Talmud, which means “Jesus, son of Panera.”
So we have a third reason for the virgin birth in addition to the others mentioned last week. As we have already seen in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, God chose to use prostitutes, adulteresses and pagans to bring the Messiah to earth, but the virgin birth instructs Matthew’s Jewish readers not to place him in the same category as his ancestors. The virgin birth means Jesus himself was not himself the direct result of sin. On the contrary, his miraculous conception gives new meaning to the holiness associated with betrothal and marriage, and provides another hint that this messiah is not be the kind of king the Jews expect. He is both less, and more.
This miraculous conception, like many other miracles, came with a great price which served to test and strengthen faith. Note Matthew’s comment about Joseph’s state of mind: he is afraid. Why this fear? The answer can no doubt be found in Jewish law. Joseph has nothing to fear for his own sake, but Mary’s life might be forfeit if her “adultery” comes to light. Surely Joseph’s fear is evidence of a great love. We should remember that Joseph has only Mary’s word in explanation of her pregnancy at this point in the narrative. Who among us would believe such an extravagant claim? He has every reason to respond with bitter acrimony, and legally, her life is in his hands. Yet Joseph intends to divorce Mary “quietly.”
With a modicum of faith in human charity, we might believe a cuckold would stop short at demanding his betrayer’s death, but here we find a man betrayed who does not even wish his betrayer’s reputation to be sullied. Although the protection afforded by a quiet divorce is unlikely to succeed in the tight-knit Jewish culture of first century Palestine, still Joseph hopes to minimize Mary’s suffering.
This is surely “turn the other cheek” in action, and ample reason for Matthew to call this good man “righteous.” Many give lip services to forgiveness, but in Joseph we find a true rarity: a man who has every reason to believe he has been severely wronged, yet manages to prove his forgiveness with his actions. Anyone this obviously in love surely would be heartbroken, yet Joseph's gentle response to Mary's "sin" is perfectly in line with what the scriptures teach us here, and here.
Consider the judgmental, hard-hearted reactions Christians often have when a brother or a sister falls. We can learn much from the humble example set by our Savior’s step-father.
Next week I will explore a final, most compelling reason for the virgin birth found in the Hebrew scriptures, and a question: Is it necessary to believe Mary was a virgin?
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:10 PM
Labels: Bible Studies
A little sample of what's coming in the spring. I'll be posting others now and then until the publication date . . .
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:43 AM
Labels: Winter Haven
RIVER RISING Discussion Questions
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
If... you've already read River Rising, and you'd like to ponder the ideas within its pages, or if you're part of a reader's group and would like to discuss the book, click here for a list of discussion questions about the novel. But don't go there unless you have already read the novel, because some of the questions are spoilers!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:29 AM
Labels: River Rising
Matthew 1:17-25 MIRACULOUS CONCEPTIONS
Friday, July 20, 2007
Moving past Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew informs us of a mighty miracle: a woman pregnant by the Spirit of God. Yet he mentions the virgin conception almost as an aside. We can attribute Matthew’s nonchalant delivery to the fact that he is a Jew writing to Jews, and the Jews of all people are fully acquainted with such wonders. After all, every Jew’s own genealogy includes very similar miracles. Abraham, the first of all the Hebrews, fathered Isaac by way of Sarah’s own miraculous conception. This was followed by additional miraculous pregnancies for those other matriarchs of the Jewish faith and bloodline: Rebekah and Rachel.
So the Torah prepares Matthew’s Jewish readers for the idea of a virgin birth by establishing that God had already worked in a similar fashion to establish the Jewish people.
In view of this, one can imagine Mathew telling Mary’s amazing story with the preface, “Just as you would expect, it all begins this way . . . .” But here we find no such hint, no remez . . . just a simple statement of fact. Perhaps Matthew felt the connection was so obvious there was no need to point it out. Nevertheless, through these parallels we find one reason why the virgin birth matters. It grounds Jesus’ story solidly in the over-arcing Biblical account of redemption, which begins in Genesis.
Many Christian scholars, especially Catholics in search of support for the Immaculate Conception dogma, see other strong reflections of the book of Genesis in Mary’s story, particularly as compared to Eve. In the Catholic tradition it is taught that Mary never sinned and never felt the effects of Adam and Eve’s original sin, in other words, Mary was conceived in an immaculate state. Understand that the Immaculate Conception dogma is not the same as the ancient doctrine of the virgin birth, which makes no such claims of perfection on Mary’s part. With few exceptions, the rest of the Christian church rejects the notion of Mary’s spiritual perfection. Indeed, while the virgin birth has been part of Christian belief from the start, the Immaculate Conception did not become a Catholic dogma until a papal proclamation in 1854. But while even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits scant scriptural support for the dogma of Mary’s sinless state, (“No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture.”—CE), Protestants can nonetheless learn much by pondering possible connections between Eve and Mary, just as Paul would have us consider Jesus in terms of Adam. If the history of our fallen world is a symmetrical story beginning and ending in a garden paradise, what other parallels exist at both ends of the tale?
It is certain God had no need of a perfect Mary to effect a virgin birth, since the Bible is replete with examples of God drawing miracles from corrupted material. Moses stretches out his hand and the Reed Sea parts, but Moses had grave sins on this hands and nowhere are we told the sea itself was holy water. Contrary to the Marian dogma, the Psalmist tells us all have sinned, and Paul of course agrees. Even manna straight from heaven rots upon the earth. On one level, this is something Christians should cherish. All acts of God are miracles, but it is the contrast between profane and holy that invests a sense of wonder in His handiwork on earth. If original sin is true, a sinless son from a sin-stained mother is a miracle indeed, while perfection from perfection is only what one would expect. All is heavenly in heaven. So the all too human sinfulness of Mary gives another reason for the virgin birth: in awe and wonder we observe that Jesus entered this fallen world through the very thing he came to sanctify. And again we come to symmetry, because this is also one message of the cross. Jesus sanctified life by departing it through a form of evil symbolism already well established in the Torah. It makes sense that he would enter life in that same way. If there are connections between Eve and Mary, surely they begin with the fact that pain in childbirth is both a parent’s act of sacrificial love, and humanity’s first curse for sin.
The full dimensions of this aspect of the virgin birth can be understood only by converts, since Rabbinic Jews in Matthew’s day, as in ours, denied original sin. But there are other reasons for the virgin miracle more in keeping with Matthew’s Jewish audience, as we will see next week.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:37 AM
Labels: Bible Studies
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
FaithfulReader.com just published an interview with me, in case you're interested. They got me to talk about a few things in my past I don't usually discuss, and we had time to explore some of the themes in The Cure a bit.
If you'd like to know a little more about me, or if you're wondering if you should read The Cure, why not run over there and take a look?
Also, Cindy Crosby comments on The Cure at a different place at FaithfulReader.com. As you may know, Cindy is a frequent contributor to the book review section at Christianity Today magazine, so again, I hope you'll check it out. She made me blush!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 2:20 PM
Confused by Catholicism, Continued
Friday, July 13, 2007
I want to respond to J. Brisbin’s comment on yesterday’s blog. As he said, it is indeed strange that a Protestant might claim a religious Jew can go to heaven, while claiming a Catholic will not.
It is unwise to say a thing like, “Catholics are not Christians.”
I am not even prepared to say anyone in particular will go to hell, much less to classify an entire segment of the human race as uniformly damned. Jesus made it clear that no one ought to claim to know the spiritual condition of someone else. We should instead focus exclusively on our own personal status before God.
The blog yesterday was meant to point out some confusion, which the Catholics have been attempting to clarify since Vatican II. It seems to me the “means of salvation” language used (see yesterday’s blog) might mislead some Catholics to assume they can earn their way into heaven. I believe many knowledgeable Catholics share this concern. It even seems the pope’s own preacher is worried that many Catholics mistake ritual for redemption. (Do click on that link.) But while the language is often confusing, and while there are many side issues—doctrinal diversions, if you will—that seem to muddy the waters, from what I know of actual Catholic dogma it would be a mistake to say the differences between Evangelical Protestant Christianity and Catholic Christianity rise (or sink) to the level of damnation.
Take the controversial “means of salvation” language used in reference to church membership by Benedict and Vatican II, for example. Most Evangelicals have a problem with the fact that Catholics also view the sacraments of communion and baptism as “means of salvation,” in the sense that the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ, and baptism is an absolute requirement that must be met before one can enter heaven. But this is not the same as saying the rituals are the “cause” of one’s reconciliation with God. While most Evangelicals do not agree that the Eucharist is literally Christ, we do agree that literal participation in His death is necessary for salvation. We literally die and are resurrected now in the spiritual sense; we will literally die and be resurrected later, physically. For us the “Lord’s supper” and baptism are thus inextricably bound up with our quite literal death and resurrection with Christ, therefore we can agree with Catholics that the thing at the heart of the Eucharist and of baptism is absolutely essential for salvation. These things—ordained as they were by Jesus himself—are a “means” in the same sense that the cross was a “means,” but they are not a “cause.” And so far as I know Catholic doctrine does not teach that the Eucharist and/or baptism can cause a soul to go to heaven in spite of an unbelieving heart. On the contrary, the current Catechism clearly states that only the cross has the power to accomplish salvation. And again, consider what the pope’s own preacher said: “Christianity does not start with that which man must do to save himself, but with what God has done to save him.”
We should remember that Christian doctrine explores many theological concerns, most of which do not directly apply to the question, “What causes one to enter heaven?” It is that question, above all others, that defines Christianity versus other religions. Answering it entails decisions about the nature of God, sin, morality, justice and grace. What matters, then, is whether Evangelicals and Catholics can agree upon these essentials. If so, then surely we are brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of our other differences. And fortunately, to my knowledge Catholic and Evangelical doctrine does indeed agree on all of the essentials.
As I said yesterday, my sole concern with Pope Benedict’s recent “clarification” is that such language can easily mislead some into thinking membership in, or participation in things like the Eucharist, Baptism and the Catholic Church might actually cause a person to be saved. In short, I wish the pope would be at least as clear as his own preacher, who explained, “[Conversion to the fact that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation] is the conversion most needed by those who already are following Christ and have lived at the service of his church.” When Jesus warned, “No one comes to the Father except by me,” he undoubtedly meant it not only as a warning against fruitless religions, but also against the kind of superficial Christianity—Catholic or Protestant—which does not begin and end in Him alone.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:25 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Confused By Catholicism
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Two days ago, Pope Benedict stirred things up a bit with Orthodox and especially Protestant Christians when he approved a paper that "restates key sections of a 2000 document the pope wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, 'Dominus Iesus,' which set off a firestorm of criticism among Protestant and other Christian denominations because it said they were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the 'means of salvation.'" I remarked on this in an on-line forum, and entered a discussion with a fellow Protestant who sent me the following quotes which he says are direct quotes from the current Roman Catholic Catechism, and which (to me at least) seem to contradict the story about Pope Benedict's "Dominus Iesus" position:
"...many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity." (CCC 819)
Also from the Catechism:
"Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith, in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." (CCC 1271)
But why might Catholics be of two minds about the salvation of Protestants?
Setting aside theological difficulties these quotes raise for Evangelicals about the nature of baptism and the concept of churches as a "means of salvation," these days I think the Roman Catholic Church might be particularly motivated to find new ways to interact with Protestants, especially Evangelicals, because we have managed to retain and even increase influence in the global socio-political arena in recent years, while Catholicism is in decline. The rise of Evangelical influence in U.S. politics is of course old news, and Evangelicals are making great spiritual inroads in Latin America and Africa. So if I was a Catholic bishop (or pope) I’d be looking for ways to connect with us, in order to understand why this is happening to them and to us, and in order to find ways to work with us toward a common good. In recent articles I have read, those are precisely the reasons they have given to nay-sayers within the RCC for Vatican II’s decidedly ecumenical focus. Vatican II was, after all, an “ecumenical council” attended by Orthodox and Protestant representatives. Yet Catholics who want to strengthen inter-Christian ties must deal with the fact that prior to Vatican II, the official RCC position was that Protestants were beyond salvation. “Excommunication” back then meant a death sentence for one’s soul (according to Roman Catholicism), and millions of “traditional Catholics” around the world still hold that belief. While the quotes above from the current catechism do seem to endorse a path to salvation for non-Catholic Christians, there have been other versions of the catechism through the years in the relatively short time since Vatican II, each of which interprets the Council slightly differently. (I have one on my shelf from 1976, and I believe there was another in the mid-1980's, while the current one was released in 1992.) Given the fact that a catechism is essentially an interpretation of the Church's dogma, an interpretation which may change, I think it’s best to go straight to the words of Vatican II:
“…it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that all fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.”
It is this teaching (among others) that Benedict sought to clarify when he approved the recent statement released to the press, yet for me at least, he clarified nothing. As a non-Catholic, I still have trouble understanding how it is possible to be “incorporated into Christ” with “the right to be called ‘Christians’” (according to the quotes from the current catechism) while still not having access to “all fullness of the means of salvation.” I find these statements theologically confusing and apparently contradictory, and I do wonder if they are not attempts to have one’s cake and eat it, too.
For me the sticking point is simple: one is either saved, or not. There is no state of being “semi-saved.” Therefore it follows that one either has access to “all fullness of the means of salvation” (emphasis mine) or one has no access to the means of salvation whatsoever. Apparently, based on the quotes above, some Catholics see a way around this. But although I have read several papers by priests who attempt to reconcile the teachings with theologically limited definitions of the words “catholic” and “church” and so forth, so far I’ve read nothing that builds a bridge between them I can logically cross, because in the end it seems “Christ’s Catholic Church” in the Vatican II statement clearly means the “Roman Catholic Church,” which leaves me out.
My concern here is for Catholics, not for Evangelicals and certainly not for myself. So long as any Catholic believes the “Church” plays a causal role in salvation through baptism or any other aspect, he suffers from a work-based theology, which stands in opposition to Ephesians 2:8-9. Fortunately, there are many Catholics who understand the difference between a symbol and a Cause. For example, I recently read an article, which was extremely encouraging, quite beautiful, and in my opinion, does a much better job of explaining how people are reconciled with God than anything in the quotes above.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:18 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Matthew 1:1-16, JESUS THE STEPCHILD
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
In the prior two entries on Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, I mentioned that he uses the scriptural device known to Rabbinic Jews as remez (a “hint”) to draw attention to certain truths. These hints are found in the three ways he breaks with the genealogy’s normal pattern of defining each generation with the phrase “the father of.” He breaks with this pattern by mentioning brothers, by mentioning women, and finally, in the last generation by mentioning a husband, specifically, “Joseph, the husband of Mary.”
As is usually the case, here we find meanings within meanings.
For example, this remez draws our attention not only to Joseph, but to his father, identified as “Jacob” here in Matthew. In Luke’s genealogy (which is different for the generations after David) we see Joseph’s father called “Heli.” Why the difference? There are at least four reasons, all of which stem from the fact that the early church identified Heli as Joseph’s father-in-law, Mary’s natural father.
First, the genealogy in Luke through Mary’s family line establishes Jesus’ fundamental “Jewishness.” Rabbinic tradition interprets the Torah to define a person’s nationality as a Jew only through the mother (in the Talmud: Tosafos Yevamos 16b), while a person’s mishpacha, or “family” is determined by the father. For example, a child born to a father named Cohen (which means “priest”) becomes part of the priestly lineage, only if the mother is also a Jew. Otherwise, the child is merely a non-Jew named Cohen.
Second, Luke’s genealogy through Mary, underscores Jesus’ messianic credentials. The Messiah, as mentioned previously, must descend from David. Yet Christianity will claim that Joseph is not Jesus’ natural father as we will soon see, therefore it was essential to establish that David’s blood also flowed through Jesus’ veins by virtue of his mother.
(As an aside, it is interesting to consider the additional hint on this score provided by Matthew in verse 17, where he points out that there are “fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” In the Hebrew language, each letter’s position in the alphabet corresponds to a number (A = 1, B = 2, and so forth). Using this system, known as the gematria, the Hebrew letters spelling the name “David” have a combined value of 14. Just as letters equal numbers in the gematria, some numbers equal ideas. For example, based on the creation account, the number seven means “complete.” For a Jew like Matthew, this lends deeper meaning to Jesus’ teachings in passages such as this, and this.)
A third reason for tracing Jesus’ lineage through David’s son Nathan and thus through Mary, rather than through Solomon and thus Joseph as Matthew did, is that in so doing Luke avoids the curse already discussed which precludes the progeny of King Jeconiah (a.k.a. Jehoiachin—a descendant of Solomon’s side of the family) from inheriting the messianic throne of David.
Fourth, by referring to Joseph as “the husband of Mary” rather than his more usual “father of Jesus,” Matthew joins Luke’s own remez (“the son, so it was thought”) in directing our thoughts to the most remarkable aspect of Jesus’ genealogy: the assertion that his natural father was none other than Yahweh's Holy Spirit. The man, Joseph, while undoubtedly a worthy step-father, was not Jesus’ actual father, a fact that Luke and Matthew both take care to emphasize.
In the next part of this series, we will begin an examination of the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth, and its many levels of meaning and importance, some of which may surprise you.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:47 AM
Labels: Bible Studies
Here is what Romantic Times Magazine had to say about Dangerous
"4 ½ Stars—Fantastic, A Keeper!
When book store owner Sylvie Patterson's visiting cousin dies under
suspicious circumstances, her life--and lives of those around her--
become fraught with peril. State homicide cop Ridge Matthews is
suddenly in the picture to take his ward, 12-year-old Ben, to
military school. But Ben has wormed his way into the hearts of
Sylvie and her father and may be in danger. Thus in Dangerous
Secrets by Lyn Cote, Ben's future is put on hold while they try to
solve the mystery. Don't miss this intriguing read that will keep
(Dangerous Season and Dangerous Game precede Dangerous Secrets, but
each is a standalone story, but set in the same community, Bayfield
and Ashland Counties of WI.)
To purchase online, go to: www.booksbylyncote.com/LIS.html
Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:36 AM
Labels: Other People's Novels
Matthew 1:1-16, JESUS THE LADIES' MAN
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Last week I mentioned the importance of reading scriptures in Jewish ways, especially with an awareness of the four main levels of meaning Jewish scholars identified in the Bible. One of these levels, the remez, or “hint,” is found in the way Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus includes three breaks in the predominant “…father of…” pattern. The first of these sets of hints is Matthew’s references to brothers as discussed last week. The second set of hints that fall outside the pattern is Matthew’s five references to women. Bearing in mind that Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews about a Jew, it is wise to carefully consider the women he chose to mention . . . .
- Tamar, a Canaanite, who posed as a shrine prostitute to trick Judah (her dead husband’s father) into giving her the twin children who are mentioned here in Matthew’s genealogy. This strategy of Tamar’s violated Jewish law, which required her deceased husband’s brother (not his father) to marry her and to father a son in his name.
- Rahab, a prostitute and Canaanite.
- Ruth (see the book of the Bible named after her), a Moabite (not a Jew) who thus married initially outside of normal Jewish law. Also note that Boaz, her second husband, was not her dead husband’s nearest relative as required by Mosaic law, although this was overcome legally.
- Bathsheba, married to Uriah, a Hittite (a non-Jew) and committed adultery with King David. (While some believe she was raped, this is not likely, since she prepared herself ceremonially for sex prior to visiting David.) David murdered to marry her, which is obviously outside the Mosaic law.
- Mary, possibly accused of adultery, and certainly pregnant before marriage, thus outside the Mosaic law.
To uncover the meaning of the remez, or “hint,” Matthew provided with these particular women, we begin by noting that all of them had something in their past that a Jewish reader might hold against Jesus. Most of them were not even Jewish. All but Ruth had questionable histories connected to prostitution or adultery. Most conceived their children outside the Jewish law. With such hints at the outset of his gospel, Matthew answers several of the main Jewish objections to Jesus, and sets the stage for some of Jesus’ more revolutionary teachings.
Anticipating Jewish opposition to Jesus’ “illegitimate” birth (an objection which did indeed appear later in the Talmud), Matthew demonstrates that Mary’s pregnancy outside of wedlock is not a cause to deny the Gospel’s message. Even David was descended from prostitutes, and if God can use a king descended from prostitutes to accomplish His will, then all the more so can an “adulteress” like Mary be used in sacred ways.
Also, Jewish objections to the radical idea that gentiles could form part of the Jewish sect of Christianity are met with reminders that gentiles such as Ruth and Rahab form an integral part of Israel’s history. This is Matthew’s way of anticipating the very objections that were indeed raised within the Jewish church in Jerusalem.
We also note that Matthew chooses not to mention Bathsheba by name, referring instead to her husband Uriah, and thereby drawing oblique attention to the fact that Jesus’ ancestor David was a murderer. (David had Uriah sent to the front in a battle and abandoned there in order to take Bathsheba for himself.) By reminding Jewish readers that the Messiah could be descended from the offspring of such a criminal act, Matthew demonstrates that God’s perfect will is often accomplished through humanity’s defiance of His will. This foreshadows the power of the cross, the most evil of all human acts, which was used nonetheless to free humanity from evil.
Consider what this means in terms of your own sins and your usefulness to God. If you will just make yourself fully available to God, absolutely nothing in your past is beyond redemption. Indeed, God often makes the best use of your worst sins.
So far we have seen how Matthew used these women to head off objections to Jesus’ credentials as the Messiah. As with most passages of scripture, we can find still other meanings deeper down. For example, by applying the Jewish tradition of interpreting one scripture through a d’rash, or connection to another scripture, it is useful to consider Mary’s situation in light of the Pharisee’s confrontation of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. Surely they were aware of the rumors surrounding Jesus’ birth. Perhaps they hoped his emotions as a “bastard son” would cloud his judgment. Perhaps they hoped that Jesus harbored latent anger at his mother for allowing him to be born under a cloud of suspicion and shame. But of course, given the fact that God is love, Jesus’ birth circumstances actually fostered great sympathy in him for the woman. Thus Matthew alludes to the power of God’s great love, which can convert shame and harm to support and healing if we will only allow it.
Matthew’s choice to underscore female gentiles in Jesus’ genealogy is also a hint that Jesus came to challenge not only to the religious hierarchy of the day, but also the social. Both the Roman and Jewish worlds were fiercely ethnocentric and patriarchal. In both cultures, it was a man’s world. Although the original “Mary” was a prophetess, (Miriam is the actual Hebrew name of Jesus’ mother), in Jesus’ time Jewish women were forbidden from reading the Torah aloud in synagogues. The Talmud reveals much debate about whether women should even be allowed to learn the Torah. Women could not be legal witnesses in trials. Women could not teach Jewish law. Women could hold no official religious or legal office. Since Israel in Jesus’ time was ruled by a religious elite, this rendered women almost completely powerless. Here, Matthew hints that Jesus has come to challenge that. He wants his readers to consider Jesus’ relationships with women throughout the Gospels in light of God’s relationships with these women mentioned in his genealogy.
Jesus welcomed women into his inner circle of followers and supporters. This was very unusual, since women normally didn’t even speak to men outside their family in public, much less travel with them. Jesus was kind to prostitutes and adulteresses, allowing them to play important roles in his ministry by example. We see this in his treatment of the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman already mentioned who was caught in adultery, and the “woman who had lived a sinful life.” Jesus also challenged the customary role of women as housekeepers and opened the Torah to them. Jesus challenged rabbinic traditions which discriminated against women in divorce. Jewish men could divorce wives for “any and every reason.” (The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived at the time of Jesus, even allowed it in theory for burning the dinner.) Married women could own real property, but their husbands had the right to the produce of the property, so divorce was tantamount to a sentence of poverty. Thus, Jesus’ strict limitation of the proper cause of divorce was a protection for Jewish women. He also ignored other rabbinic traditions that put undue religious burdens on women. For example, a Jewish woman in menstruation was “unclean” and anyone who touched her was unclean until evening but the rabbis had elongated the period of impurity to a week long purification ritual. This means the woman who had been “subject to bleeding for twelve years” was a social outcast. Imagine how she must have suffered, without feeling the touch of another human being for so long! Yet Jesus, totally unconcerned about the rabbinic tradition, not only allows her surreptitious touch, he calls her “daughter” and praises her faith.
Because of Jesus’ example and teaching, women in the early church were considered:
- Leaders (10 of the 29 church leaders Paul greets by name at the end of his letter to the church in Rome are women, including the first two who came to Paul’s mind)
- Prophets (the New Testament book of Acts mentions Philip the Evangelists’ “four unmarried daughters, who prophesied”)
- Equals with men in terms of spiritual status.
Christianity has been harshly criticized in recent years as burdensome on women by some who read scriptures such as “wives, submit to your husbands” out of context, ignoring the fact that Christian husbands are subject to a similar provision. In reality, throughout Jesus’ three years of teaching on the earth he took every opportunity to liberate the women he encountered from their bondage to a male dominated culture that reduced them to a status not much elevated above livestock. Jesus celebrated women, encouraged women, and demonstrated his respect for women in highly visible, counter-cultural ways. Women, of all people, should honor Jesus for his teachings.
Next week we will examine the third of Matthew’s “hints” within his genealogy of Jesus, which is his listing of Jesus’ father as “Jacob,” in direct contradiction to his own story of Jesus birth.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 11:54 AM
Labels: Bible Studies