If the Bible were ever made into a movie, there are certain parts of it I wouldn’t watch.
I would love to see Jesus talk to the woman at the well. I would love to see God part the Red Sea for Moses, or see Elijah call down fire from Heaven.
But the Bible is raw, and wild, and it doesn’t just consist of church-like stories.
It involves sordid stories of sex, lies, violence and betrayal…in the first few chapters.
Murder Sex and Lies
For example, Tamar’s story starts innocently enough; she marries a man named Er. And then the Bible says that Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so God kills him.
The Bible doesn’t explain this or name how Er was wicked, it just mentions it and moves on. However Er died and left Tamar without any kids, and in an ancient patriarchal society, a childless widow didn’t really have a place.
So the Torah offers a solution to this. If a man dies and leaves his wife barren, the next brother in line steps in and sleeps with his brother’s wife.
Onan, the brother, marries Tamar next and, again, he does something wicked and God kills him.
Now Judah, the father of the two boys, has one more son, and the law requires that the last and final son has to marry Tamar so she can have kids. (For a complete and wonderful treatment of this story and Tamar’s heroic part in this, I recommend Maelstrom by Carolyn Custis-James).
The problem is that Judah is starting to see a trend happening with his sons. They sleep with Tamar, and then they die. So he doesn’t want to give his last son to Tamar.
But Tamar, not one to give up, slaps on a little extra rouge and some lipstick, and she goes down to where she knows Judah will be, and she presents herself to him dressed like a prostitute. And Judah sleeps with her, without knowing she’s his daughter-in-law.
The price that is negotiated for sex is a goat, obviously. And since goats don’t fit in your wallet, Judah couldn’t pay her immediately, so Tamar, still disguised as a prostitute, asks for his signet ring as a promise.
Fast-forward a few months, and Tamar begins to show she is pregnant. The people around her put two and two together, and decide she must be guilty of being promiscuous.
Judah shows no mercy, and says that she should be burned to death. And then in a twist that Hollywood should envy, Tamar sends the signet ring to Judah and says, “Okay, you can kill me… but see if you recognize this.”
Because (in a fairly progressive stance for its day) the Torah says that both parties involved in fornication should die. Judah has a change of heart, and Tamar has twins.
Saving Spies and Murderous Kings
Flash forward to another time in Israel’s history. They are about to enter the Promised Land but need to scout out the place first. They send in two men to the country as spies, but the word has spread that the Israelites might have snuck in to spy, and so a search party begins to look for them.
They need a place to hide, and they go to a prostitute named Rahab. She takes them in. She tells them that she will help them, and asks that in return for her secrecy, that they protect her and her family. And while the Israelites prepare for battle, the future of the people of God hinges on whether or not a prostitute will keep her promise.
Interestingly, when this happened there were two kinds of prostitutes in Canaan: 1) those who worked at the Canaanite temple, and 2) those who worked for cash. The language the Bible uses, insinuates that Rahab was the second kind
The Bible doesn’t whitewash this. It doesn’t call her an escort, it calls her a harlot. In fact, the sign that they give her to show them where she and her family are hiding is a scarlet cord.
Scarlet, the color of sin
But probably the most notorious scandal in all of Israelite history comes a few hundred years later, when David is the King of Israel.
He gets up one night and sees a woman bathing. David sends someone to ask about this beautiful woman, finds out she is married, but he is the king of the Jews, and he can do what he wants.
So he takes her.
David tries to trick Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, into coming back from war and sleeping with his wife so that he would assume the child was his own.
But Uriah refuses to do that while the other men are at war. So David kills Uriah, trying to make it all just go away.
Ultimately his sin is made public, and David’s shameful actions have overshadowed his life ever since.
The Grace in Genealogies
The New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, points out that the last book in the Hebrew Bible is the book of 2nd Chronicles. It is a book of records and genealogies.
There is a reason that Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, starts off with a genealogy. Jewish readers would understand that Matthew is connecting this to the previous story, and that it was the beginning of a new chapter.
But Matthew doesn’t write just any genealogy, it is a genealogy with an edge.
Matthew opens the story of Jesus with the stories of these women and men, and he wants us to know that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, came through these shameful stories.
Last year, I read a great book written by missionaries from Asia called “Ministering in an Honor/Shame Culture” where they wrote about why the Bible is filled with so many genealogies.
Most American’s who read the Bible just skim through these at best, but people in other parts of the world are more likely to memorize them.
Here is a story the authors tell to describe this:
One weekend I visited my new friend [named Nurdin]. After lunch we strolled through his village, in part so Nurdin could introduce his American friend to neighbors. Every person I met seemed to be a relative of Nurdin—a cousin, an aunt, a nephew and so on. So I jokingly asked, “Does the whole village consist of just one family?” He chuckled, and then explained an important feature of his culture—all children must know seven generations of ancestors. Village elders would even stop children at play and require them to recite their family lineage back seven generations. Nurdin’s explanation helped me understand the importance of genealogies in cultures like those found in the Bible. Genealogies, overlooked by modern Western eyes as irrelevant, are essential in group-oriented societies. They determine identity, define family, confer status, identify potential spouses, and establish social rank. Genealogies function as a manual for life by defining the boundaries of honor and shame.
It might seem irrelevant to modern people reading Matthew 1, but right out of the gate, the New Testament is trying to tell us something about who God is, and what kind of community God is seeking to create.
The missionaries then go on to tell a story of a young Middle Eastern man who, when he became a Christian, immediately memorized the genealogy of Matthew 1:1-18; the genealogy with those stories about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and David and Bathsheba.
The young man memorized these because he wanted to know his family ancestry, the lineage he was born into spiritually.
The people who wrote and lived in the world of the Bible thought a person’s identity comes from the family they are born into. To them, honor is something that is inherited from one’s ancestors.
Now imagine being that young man reading these stories about your new family. What would he now know about what it meant to be a Christian?
Now imagine your own life. Consider the status updates and tweets you post, carefully crafted to tell the best possible version of yourself, one that you know isn’t the full truth. Imagine all the ways that almost every community you belong to makes you compete and maneuver to prove yourself and justify your existence and belonging to the group.
Think through all the ways that we attack and expel and shame people for the slightest missteps just so we can secure our own group standing…and then think of what this genealogy might say to you.
You don’t have to live this way.
You don’t have to fight to belong.
You don’t have to fight for honor.
God’s heart has always been to honor the shamed, and God in Jesus is creating a new kind of community, a new kind of family where honor isn’t fought for, protected and hoarded… and where shame has no power.
You don’t have to earn your right to belong. It is part of the family ties.
Next Up: A Community of the Shamed