The Word of God: Both Scandalous and Divine

The Word of God: Both Scandalous and Divine May 9, 2015

St. Matthew and the Angel–Rembrandt

I feel lost. So where do I go from here?

It’s not uncommon for religious believers who engage in critical studies to feel lost—to question whether they can continue to find spiritual value in texts that do not live up to their traditionally held beliefs. Trying to answer this question when a person’s worldview begins to change can be a painful process. The answer is highly personal; it will inevitably differ for each individual. But it is possible to discover great spiritual value by adopting a critical approach to scripture, even when that view requires believers to alter their religious paradigms.

Despite its religious merits, scripture should not be seen as an infallible manual to divinity. Instead, scripture is the textual result of a human effort to reflect the divine. Though inevitably flawed by mortal hands, that endeavor can inspire meaningful spiritual growth. This is true even when a reader encounters a construct in holy writ that she rejects, since that problematic paradigm has caused the reader to define her own spiritual conviction in opposition to the one held by the author. Scripture is not a manual. It is a springboard.

If scripture is the word of God then it is the word of God made flesh. We cannot (nor should we) seek to escape the reality that scripture is a human product, which for believers, contains both human and divine qualities.

As a model for this perspective, we might consider the way the author of Matthew presents Jesus’ genealogy. Like much of the Bible, the account is strikingly patriarchal. Even though the author insists that Jesus’ conception occurred by a female generating a son without a male, Matthew’s genealogy depicts fathers begetting sons without females: “Abraham begot Isaac; and Isaac begot Jacob; and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers;” father, son, father, son, etc. But there are exceptions to this pattern. Matthew’s genealogy contains four female names and one female designation:

“Judah begot Perez and Zerah from Tamor” (1:3)

“Salmon begot Boaz from Rahab” (1:5a)

“Boaz begot Obed from Ruth” (1:5b)

“David begot Solomon from the wife of Uriah” (1:6)

“Joseph the husband of Mary, from whom Jesus was begotten” (1:16)

The passive nuance in this final line—“from whom Jesus was begotten” is significant. It means that Jesus was “begotten” by God.

More to the point, Matthew’s genealogy mentions only these five females, even though he could have obviously named a woman with each male. Clearly, the author intended to say something meaningful in referencing these four women from Israel’s past.

Who are these women? Well, Tamar deceived her father-in-law by pretending to be a harlot. Rahab was a harlot. Ruth uncovered the “feet” (a euphemism for genitals) of the drunken Boaz, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, was involved with an infamous adulterous affair. A sexual aberration of some sort occurred in each of these women’s lives, including Mary’s. Yet according to Matthew’s genealogy, God controlled the lineage of the Messiah through these unusual unions. The list seems to suggest that divinity can work through less than ideal circumstances—a point powerfully articulated by New Testament scholar and Catholic theologian, Raymond Brown:

“These women were held up as examples of how God used the unexpected to triumph over human obstacles and intervenes on behalf of His planned Messiah. It is the combination of the scandalous or irregular union and of divine intervention through the woman that explains best Matthew’s choice in the genealogy.” Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Anchor Bible, 1999), 73-74.

According to this paradigm, God is made manifest through a combination of the scandalous and the divine. This same perspective can be adopted to conceptualize scripture. When a believer in holy writ adopts a critical interpretive approach, this is precisely what she encounters with the written word of God.

Critical studies need not produce a spiritual loss. Defining scripture as a human product that is both scandalous and divine can lead to greater heights of spiritual growth.

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