Monday, May 28, 2007
By the way, this site is more manageable if you click on the individual postings in the archives, so that they open up on a separate web page. You can return to the main blog by clicking on the heading.
Texts: Genesis 12:10-20; 16; 21:1-21; 18:1-15; 20; 24:1-29, 50-67; 25:21-28; 26:6-12, 34-35; 27:1-17, 41-28:5; 29:1-30:24; 31:4-16; 31:25, 30-35
We think we know these stories. Through years of exposure--for many of us, mostly as children, in Sunday School or in “children’s Bibles”-- the tales of Genesis have become domesticated, tamed. And so, we lose sight of how profoundly strange—and how adult—most of them, in fact, are. This is especially true of those stories in which women figure prominently. So let’s review:
On the basis of textual evidence, most modern Bible scholars regard the text of Genesis (along with Exodus and most subsequent books preceding the Prophets) as a text woven out of four previous works, whose authors are referred to as J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist) and P (the Priestly Writer). J refers to God as “YHWH,” and probably wrote around the time of King David. E refers to God as “Elohim,” and probably wrote during the period after King Solomon, when Israel had been split into a northern kingdom (Israel), with its cultic centers in Dan and Bethel, and a southern kingdom (Judah), with its cultic center in Jerusalem. D, the author of most of Deuteronomy, probably wrote after the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians, and like E, reflects the prophetic traditions of the north. P reflects priestly traditions, associated with the southern kingdom. These four strands were woven into a unified text in several stages, but the major redaction probably occurred during or shortly after the exile in Babylon, after the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem.
Gen. 2-3: Humankind begins with Adam and Eve in Eden, a fruitful garden of indefinite locale, out of which flow the Tigris and Euphrates, the rivers defining the land of Mesopotamia, in which Abram/Abraham will be born and raised.
Gen. 5:32-10:32: At five hundred years of age, Adam and Eve’s descendant, Noah, gives birth to three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah’s fellow humans, the wicked descendents of Cain, are all wiped out in the great Flood.
· The descendents of Shem—the Semites (“Shem-ites”)— include both the future Israelites/Hebrews and neighboring peoples with whom they later come into conflict, notably their near-neighbors, the Moabites and Elamites, and more distant, Mesopotamian peoples, including the Assyrians and the Arameans, from whom come Abram and his family.
· The descendants of Ham include other future adversaries of the Israelites; notably, the Philistines, Egyptians (and, by extension, all other Africans) and Canaanites, and Mesopotamian peoples, including the Babylonians and Akkadians.
· Implicitly, the descendants of Japheth must comprise all other peoples. Explicitly they are identified with various “coastland” peoples, including peoples of southern Europe.
Gen. 11:10-32: For unstated reasons, Terah—the father of Abram/Abraham, Nahor, Haran and Saray/Sarah—decides, after the death of Haran, to emigrate from the city-state of Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, to the land of Canaan. However, he stops short, and settles in the Mesopotamian city-state of Haran. His son, Nahor, will settle nearby.
Gen. 12:1: YHWH commands Abraham to “go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram leaves behind Nahor, but takes along his wife and half-sister, Saray, and his nephew, Lot.
· The name, YHWH (translated in English as “the LORD”), is probably derived from the causal form of the Semitic verb, “to be,” and thus probably originally meant something like “the god who brings into being,” “the creator.” It may well have been a title attached by ancient Mesopotamian religions to the fertility god, Baal/Tammuz (who often took the form of a bull), the consort and brother of the fertility goddess, Ishtar/Astarte.
· The name, Elohim (translated as “God”), is the plural form of the common Semitic word for a god, `el. In other Semitic languages, `elohim means literally “gods.” It sometimes has this meaning in the Hebrew Bible, too. But, in Semitic languages, the plural can also have an emphatic, rather than a numeric, significance. Thus, it can signify, “a great god,” “the greatest god,” or “God, the great.” Many Bible scholars believe that, over the course of the history of the Israelites, the meaning shifted from the first to the last of these meanings. The final editor(s) of the Hebrew Bible in its present form clearly understood the name according to the last of these meanings.
The Stories Concerning Sarah:
· Genesis 12:10-20: Abram leads his household, including Saray and Lot, to settle in the land of Canaan. In a clear parallel to the stories concerning Joseph and his family’s descent into Egypt and their descendents’ subsequent exodus, a famine strikes the land, and Abram “goes down” to Egypt (Mitsrayim) “to sojourn [or ‘wander’; gur] there,” in order to survive. Fearing that Saray’s great beauty will tempt the Egyptians to kill him in order to take possession of her, Abram instructs Saray to pass herself off as his sister, “that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee” (v.13). The princes (sarey) of Egypt report on her great beauty to Pharaoh, who orders that she be brought into his house as his concubine. “For her sake,” Pharaoh enriches Abram. However, God strikes Pharaoh with “great plagues because of Saray, Avram [Abram’s] wife” (v. 17). Pharaoh complains to Abram about the deception, and sends them away, loaded with riches. Abram and his household travel through the Negev toward Canaan. Lot and he separate in order to avoid further strife over the land, which cannot support their combined flocks and herds; Lot settles near the future site of Sodom, while Abram settles in Canaan, which God again promises to confer upon his progeny.
· Gen. 16: After ten years “in the land of Canaan,” Saray has still born no children to Abram. Believing that YHWH “has restrained me” (‘atsarani: a pun on Saray’s name) from bearing children, Saray instructs Abram to “go in to” (a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse) her Egyptian maid, Hagar (whose name is almost identical to the Hebrew word for “the sojourner” or “wanderer”: hager), “that I may obtain children by her”, and Abram ‘obeyed her’ (literally, “listened to [her] voice”) (v. 2). Hagar conceives, and comes to despise her mistress. Saray blames Abram, and complains to him. He responds, “Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleases thee.” In the face of Saray’s harsh treatment of her, Hagar flees. An [or “the”] angel of YHWH finds her “by a fountain of water,” and tells her to return and submit herself to her mistress, but also delivers a promise (“I will multiply thy seed exceedingly” [v. 10]) and an annunciation: “Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shall call his name Ishmael” (v. 11), adding that he will be a man embroiled in violence and conflict (v. 12). Hagar names the place of this revelation “Be’er-lachai-ro’iy”(which means something like “the well where I have seen life).” “It is between Qadesh [holy] and Bared [in Hebrew, a word which looks very like the word for “blessed”: barekh]” (v. 14).
· Gen. 17: God changes the name of Abram to Abraham, “for a father of many nations have I made thee” (the text suggests a derivation—etymologically improbable—of his new name from the particles, `ab [“father”], and hamon [“many”] [v. 5]). Likewise, God changes Saray’s name to Sarah. God promises that Sarah, who is ninety years of age, will produce a son, in response to which Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” (yitsechaq) (v. 5). God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, as a physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents.
· Gen. 18-19: YHWH appears to Abraham, who, sitting in front of his tent, looks up to behold “three men.” Abraham addresses the visitor(s), however, only in the singular, usually as “my lord” (`adonay). Throughout this passage, Abraham’s interlocutor is referred to interchangeably in the plural and singular, sometimes as “the men,” sometimes as “the young man,” sometimes as “YHWH” (vv. 17-33); mention is later made of “two angels” (19:1, 15). They/he ask(s) after Abraham’s wife, who is hiding behind the flap of the tent, then declare(s), “I will return to thee at this season; and lo, Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son. Now Abraham and Sarah were old . . . ; and it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed [titschaq] within herself [literally, “in her middle”], saying, After I am grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (v. 12). (In Hebrew, the verb, “laugh” [tsachaq] can connote sexual pleasure.) Sarah denies laughing, but the visitor(s) insist(s) that she did, and reiterate(s) the promise that she will have a son by the following season. The visitor(s) then turn(s) toward Sodom, declaring his/their intention to verify whether Sodom and Gomorah’s sin is as bad as “according to the cry of it” (vv. 20-21). Abraham negotiates with YHWH on behalf of the people of Sodom. The two angels stay in Lot’s house in Sodom and are accosted by the people of the city, which they destroy. Lot’s daughters, bereft of husbands, get him drunk and sleep with him. The eldest gives birth to Moab, ancestor of the Moabites (19:36-37).
· Gen. 20: Abraham departs from his former encampment and “sojourned [gar] in Gerar [gerar]” (v. 1), a land under the control of the Canaanite king, Abimelekh. In a passage strikingly similar to 12:10-20, Abraham asks Sarah to pass herself off as his sister. This passage differs from the former one in several respects, however. In Abimelekh’s dream vision, God’s (`elohim) description of Sarah as “a man’s wife” (be`ulat-ba`al) uses unusual Hebrew vocabulary that suggests a pun on the Canaanite god, Ba`al (v. 3). Abraham justifies himself by declaring, first, that he thought his life was in danger because “the fear of God is not in this place,” and secondly, that he has not, in fact, committed a lie: Sarah is, indeed, his half-sister, as well as his wife (v. 12). Abimelekh’s portrait is much more favorable than was pharaoh’s. A special point is made of the fact that “Abimelekh had not come near [Sarah],” even before he was warned away by God (v. 11). Abimelekh protests that he has acted in integrity of heart and innocence, and God accepts and confirms this claim. Sarah is “chastised” by Abimelekh, whom God “heals” of the plagues, restoring the women of his house to their fertility. God does this in response to Abraham’s prayers: “For he is a prophet, and he will pray for thee, and thou shalt live” (v. 6). This is the only time the term “prophet” (nabi`) occurs in Genesis.
· Gen. 21:1-21: Sarah conceives at the appointed time, and bears Abraham a son, whom Abraham names Isaac (yitsechaq, meaning “he laughs”), in a verse which calls special attention to Sarah’s role in giving him birth. Sarah’s words continue to emphasis the punning connection between the boy’s name, laughter, and [sexual] pleasure: “God has made laughter (tsechoq) for me, so that all that hear will laugh (yitsachaq) with me. After this birth, Sarah notices “the son of Hagar the Egyptian” “mocking” (literally, “laughing”: metsacheq). She demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son away. Abraham regards this as grievous, but God (`elohim) reassures him, ordering him to obey Sarah (literally, “listen to her voice”), because “in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” God promises that “also of [Ishmael] will I make a nation, because he is thy seed” (v. 13). Abraham provides Hagar with bread and water, and sends her away into the desert. After the water runs out, she casts the child beneath a bush and withdraws, because she does not want to see him die. God hears the boy’s cries, and an angel of God appears to Hagar, reassuring her that “I will make him a great nation” (v. 18). God reveals a well to Hagar, and tells her to take the child’s hand and give him water. “And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness . . . : and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt” (vv. 19-20).
· Gen. 24:1-29, 50-67: Abraham sends his servant to Nahor, to his ancestral home in Mesopotamia (presided over by Rebekah’s brother, Laban), to procure a wife for Isaac. In the scene in which the servant encounters Rebekah, note the emphatic repetition of the word “well” (six times in nineteen verses), the many references to water and drinking, and Rebekah’s nearly miraculous feat in slacking the thirst, not only of the servant, but also of the caravan of ten of Abraham’s camels, animals notorious for the amount of water they consume, especially after a long track through the desert. This resonates with the well that figured in God’s rescue of Hagar in chapter 21, and foreshadows the prominence of the well in Jacob’s first encounter with Rachel and Leah. Rebekah’s profligate generosity in slacking others’ thirst also foreshadows the similar generosity of Jacob in rolling away the stone from the well so that Rachel and Leah may drink. Laban agrees to allow Rebekah to join the household of Isaac and Abraham, but then tries to “hold onto her.” As in the later encounter between Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Laban’s retentiveness contrasts with the profligate generosity connoted by the scenes involving wells and the slaking of others’ thirst.
· Gen. 25:21-28: Rebekah conceives and gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob, who are called “two nations,” in reference to their descendents. Note the line, “the elder shall serve the younger,” and the mention of the fact that Isaac prefers the hairy hunter and man-of-the fields, Esau, “but Rebekah loved Jacob,” the smooth man “who dwells in tents.” The scene of Esau and Jacob’s birth, and the subsequent narrative, involve a reversal, in which God favors the younger, gifted son, rather than follow social custom in giving priority to the eldest according to the “natural” birth order. Indeed, Jacob’s name signifies this reversal: it means, “he grasps by the heel,” or figuratively, “he usurps.” Edom (Esau’s other name), on the other hand, is related to the Hebrew word for “dirt” or “earth” (`adamah) and to the color, red (`edom), the color of earth.
So, inasmuch as Rebekah favors the younger son, whom God also favors, over the “natural” birth order, she operates as an agent of reversal and transformation. But, such a role comes at a cost: She suffers for it. This is symbolized by her role in the birth of her twin sons, which is already a scene of conflict, struggle, and attempted reversal/transformation. This act of birthing brings Rebekah such pain that she complains, “If it be so, why am I thus?” Later scenes in which she operates as an agent of reversals/ transformation also entail her suffering. When she directs Jacob on how to deceive his father into conferring upon Jacob the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau, she responds to Jacob’s fears his father might find out and curse him by stating, “Upon me be thy curse, my son” (27:6-13).
· Gen. 26:6-12: Isaac and Rebekah sojourn in the land of Gerar, ruled by Abimelekh, in a strong parallel to Gen. 12:10-20 and, even more so, Gen. 20. Once again, the matriarch “saves” and even materially advances (v. 12) her endangered and somewhat passive husband by duping a powerful and threatening foreign king, exploiting her beauty and the king’s cupidity.
· Gen. 29:1-30: Jacob flees to Nahor, to his mother’s and Abraham’s ancestral home, to escape Esau’s desire to kill him in revenge for having stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing. Note that, in Hebrew, the words for “birthright” (bekhorah) and blessing (berakhah) involve a reversal of consonants, just as they signify a reversal in the roles of the two sons. Laban again proves retentive, trying to cheat Jacob out of his wages, and failing to provide his daughters with the dowry that is their due. True to his nature and history, Jacob prefers the younger, beautiful Rachel to her older sister, Leah. (Note the repeated use of the terms, haqatanah, “the lesser one,” and hagadolah, “the greater one,” to refer to the two sisters. This mirrors the same terms repeatedly applied to Jacob and Esau in Gen. 27.) Like Isaac, Laban tries to reinforce the “natural order of things,” going so far as to disguise Leah and substitute her for Rachel on the marriage night. Thus, Jacob becomes the victim of a deception much like the one he played on his father, Isaac, in stealing the blessing—another reversal. This ironic parallelism between the Jacob-Esau and Rachel-Leah stories is reinforced by the fact that Laban uses the term, “firstborn,” (bekhiyrah, a variant of the word for “birthright,” bekorah) to describe Leah in contradistinction to her younger sister.
· Gen. 29:31-30:24: These two sisters, along with their respective handmaids, become the progenitors of the twelve patriarchs whose descendents will comprise the twelve tribes of Israel. Their childbearing, though, is depicted as a contest, a struggle, set in motion by Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah. Thus, the sisters’ relationship offers, in this way, too, a mirror image of the relation between Jacob and Esau, just as their efforts to overcome their respective periods of barrenness by ordering Jacob to “go in to” their respective handmaids mirrors the relations between Saray, Abraham and Hagar. However, this struggle ultimately requires the transformation of the Biblical protagonists, themselves, and not just of their circumstances: Before he is able to return home to Canaan to claim his usurped birthright, Jacob/Israel must make a peace offering to his brother, Esau. Similarly, Rachel, before her barrenness is lifted by the birth of Joseph, must make a gesture signifying a turning away from selfishness and a reconciliation with the sibling whose place she usurps: Joseph’s birth only happens after Rachel agrees to “sell” her conjugal rights to her husband for the night to her sister, in return for some mandrake plants (which were believed to enhance fertility) (30:14-24). (Note the patriarch’s relative passivity in the face of the matriarchs’ manipulations of the circumstances surrounding sexuality and reproduction.)
(The “struggles” attendant upon Jacob’s pursuit of reversals—and embodied in the story of his birth—are signified by his name change. After wrestling with God/God’s angel, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, a name the text derives from the Hebrew word for “wrestling” and the particle, y-, which stands for YHWH. Thus, the name may signify “God of struggle/wrestling” or “struggles with God.”)
· 31:4-16, 25, 30-35: Jacob continues his trickery by calling Rachel and Leah to him in the field and claiming that God has appeared to him in a dream. Jacob claims that the angel said that God has miraculously increased Jacob’s earnings among Laban’s flock by producing only animals with natural markings that had been reserved for Jacob’s animals. In fact, Jacob has himself arranged for this outcome by performing a primitive form of genetic manipulation (30:31-43). Note that Jacob does not merely order his wives to accompany him back to “the land of [his] birth” on the basis of wives’ “natural” or customary subservience to their husbands. Rather, he uses his skill with words to persuade them.
Rachel and Leah, after enumerating the ways in which their father has treated them as mere property, give their consent to Jacob’s plan: “Now then, whatever God has said to thee, do” (31:16). Jacob gathers his household, and sets out for his birth place. Laban overtakes him, and levels an accusation: “Why hast thou stolen my gods?” (31:30) These “gods” are later referred to as Laban’s terafim, or “images” (vv. 34, 35); they appear to be small household idols, possibly involved in some form of ancestor worship. Jacob, the text tells us, “knew not that Rachel had stolen them” (v. 32), and invites Laban to look through all the tents. In her tent, Rachel takes the images, places them in a saddle, and sits upon it. When her father enters, she says, “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the way of women is upon me” (i.e., she is menstruating, but note the double-entendre) (v. 35).
This scene is a fitting culmination to Rachel’s story, and a striking comment upon her husband’s. Both she and Jacob have used trickery and artifice to exploit and subtly protest against other people’s brutish confusion over the distinction between what is natural (birth order and other circumstances of birth) and what is artificial or merely conventional (social priority). But, in his devotion to the terafim, Laban has fallen into an even more serious confusion: that between what is humanly created, and the divine. In fact, these are two sides of the same confusion: Isaac, Esau and Laban have all fallen prey to mistaking what is humanly created—and, thus, contingent and mutable—for what is beyond human control (the natural or divine order of things). Rachel makes her point in the most graphic way possible: By sitting on her father’s man-made images of god, she demonstrates that she has the power to bring them within her own sphere of control; she practically incorporates them into her own body. In her claim to be menstruating (which would mean, menstruating on the images), are we given to understand that her ability to control and transform circumstances which others regard as immutable has something to do with her status as a woman? In our readings for the next three weeks, we will seek to answer that question.
* * *
Burstall, Joan. “Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters.” Word and World XIV (1994): 2: 162. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, 1994. www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/14-2_Genesis/14-2_Ross-Burstall.pdf.
Hirsch, Emil et al. “Sarah (Sarai).” Jewish Encyclopedia. N.p.: n.d. www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=245&letter=S.
The Holy Scriptures. Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
Jocobson, Diane. “Gen. 12-50: The Women of Genesis.” Harlots and Heroines: Women in the Old Testament. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, n.d. www.luthersem.edu/djacobso/HH/Outlines/Outline.Genesis%2012-50.htm.
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1992.
* Unless otherwise noted, English translation and Hebrew text are from The Holy Scriptures; Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
in the Stories of Tamar, the Midwives in Egypt, Pharaoh’s Daughter,
Zipporah,”* and Miriam
Texts: Genesis 38; Exodus 1; 2; 4:21-26; 15:20-21; Numbers 12; 20:1
The stories concerning these women perpetuate many of the elements associated with the early stories concerning the matriarchs in Genesis: the association with life-sustaining water, the preference for a younger child or underdog over an older sibling or social superior(s), and a transformative role—involving cunning and artifice/deceit—in carrying forth the plot.
However, these later stories not only replicate motifs and themes earlier associated with women; they also intensify certain elements in significant ways. The scale of these women’s transformative action broadens from the familial (Tamar) to the national (the midwives in Egypt). Moreover, allusions to “foreign” origins or relations, and to unusual and assertive sexual behavior, while present in the earlier matriarchal narratives (Sarah and Rebekah’s sexual bribery, or near bribery, of Pharaoh and Abimelekh; Rachel and Leah’s sexual bartering with each other and assertiveness toward Jacob) become much more pronounced in these later stories: The ethnic identities of both Tamar and the midwives in Egypt are highly ambiguous; Pharaoh’s daughter blurs ethnic lines in adopting a Hebrew child (Moses); Zipporah is the daughter of a non-Israelite “priest;” Tamar “plays the harlot” and dupes Judah; the Hebrew mothers’ fertility overwhelms the Egyptians.
Thus, a theme, present in the kernel in the earlier matriarchal stories, begins to take definite shape in these later narratives: Women embody a connection to “otherness” which appears to be central to their pivotal role as rescuers, deliverers and agents of transformation.
The story begins with a note that Judah “turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Chirah.” Judah takes the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite, as his wife, and she bears him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah takes Tamar to be the wife of Er. Er was “wicked in the sight of YHWH,” and so “YHWH slew him” (v. 7). Judah [in conformity with the law concerning levirate marriage in Deut. 25:5-10] instructs Onan to “go in to” Tamar, that she might conceive a son and raise him as the seed of the dead son, Er, who died without progeny. Onan, not wanting to have his own inheritance divided with his dead brother, refuses to comply, but instead “spills his seed on the ground.” “And the thing which he did displeased YHWH: So he slew him also” (v. 10).
Judah promises that he will have his youngest son, Shelah, go in to Tamar, so that she might still bear and raise progeny in Er’s name, but he instructs her to return and live as a widow in her father’s house till the boy is grown. However, the text makes it clear that this is really an attempt to ‘put her off.’ Judah appears to fear that she is something of a “black widow,” who might bring about the death of his one remaining son: “for he said, ‘Lest he perchance die also, as his brothers did’” (v. 11).
Tamar obeys, but when “she saw that Shela was grown, and she was not given to him to wife” (v. 14), she embarks on a ruse: She wraps herself in a veil and sits by the entrance to ‘Enayim [the Hebrew means “the two springs”], where she knows Judah will pass by on his way to shear his sheep. He sees her, takes her to be a prostitute [zonah; the Hebrew word for a common harlot, as opposed to a sacred prostitute], and propositions her. In response to her request for payment, he promises to give her a kid from the flock. She, however, demands collateral: His signet ring, his cord, and the staff in his hand [symbols of both his identity and his authority]. He agrees, and “went in to her, and she conceive by him” (v. 18). She returns to her father’s house to live as a widow.
Judah sends “his friend, the Adullamite” to deliver the kid in payment, and to retrieve the collateral, but the woman Judah had sex with is not to be found. Chirah inquires after her, but cleans up Judah’s behavior by inquiring, not after a harlot (zonah), but after a “sacred prostitute” (qedeshah). The “men of that place” assure him—truthfully, in fact, though also ironically—that “there was no prostitute [qedeshah] in this place” (v. 21). Chirah brings their report back to Judah, who asks him to drop the matter, “lest we be shamed” (v. 23).
Judah receives word that his daughter in law, Tamar, has “played the harlot [zantah]” and “is with child by harlotry” [zenunim] (v. 24). He commands that she be brought out and burnt to death (v. 25). She, however, brings forth the ring, cord and staff, demanding, “Discern . . . whose are these.” “And Judah acknowledged them, and said, “She has been more righteous than I; because I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more” (v. 26).
Tamar has, in fact, conceived twins. Her labor and delivery are described in detail: One infant puts its hand out of her womb, and the midwife ties a red cord around it, saying, “This came out first” (v. 28). But, his brother is the first to be delivered, and so she [the midwife? Tamar?] names him [or “calls him”] Parets, meaning, “breach.” His brother comes out wearing the scarlet thread, and he is called Zarach, meaning “splits open.”
In verses twelve and twenty, we learn that Chirah is Judah’s confident and “friend” (ro`ey; the word also means “companion” and “neighbor”). His status as an Adullamite is significant: The Adullamites figure among the ‘foreign’ Canaanite peoples whom the Israelites are later called on to shun; indeed, to wipe out from the face of the land (viz. Joshua 12:7-8, 15; Deut. 7:1-6). Judah, however, not only makes a friend and companion of a Canaanite, but marries one (v. 2).
Tamar’s ethnic identity is not explicitly stated. But, from verse six (“and Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, whose name was Tamar), it may be reasonably inferred, in the light of Judah’s physical location among Canaanites and of his having himself taken a Canaanite woman to wife, that she is a Canaanite.
Among source-historical critics, it was long assumed that Gen. 38 was a “clumsy” or “haphazard” interpolation into the Joseph narrative. This text was a primary piece of evidence for the argument that the received text was patched together from disparate sources. And, indeed, there are chronological discrepancies, especially involving the ages of the main characters. However, more recent scholars interested primarily in Biblical narrative as literature (Robert Alter, especially) have pointed out that the “weaving” of Gen. 38 into the preceding and subsequent narratives is far from artless. To describe just a few elements of the intricate parallelisms among these texts:
· Gen. 38 begins with Judah’s “going down” from his brother’s territory into the land occupied by Chirah. This resonates with the opening of the following chapter, in which Joseph was “brought down” (same root verb in Hebrew) into Egypt.
· Tamar uses articles of clothing to deceive Judah about her identity, just as Judah used Joseph’s bloodied coat to deceive his father, Jacob, about what had happened to Joseph (27:23-24, 30-34), and just as Jacob had earlier used an article of clothing (involving, as in Tamar’s story, the use of a “kid from among the flock”) to deceive his father, Isaac (Gen. 27). Joseph, in turn, will hide, and later reveal, his true identity in his meeting with his father, Jacob.
Among the elements which tie Tamar’s story to earlier (and later) narratives, some are especially pertinent to our topic:
· Tamar’s birthing of Parets and Zerach (38:28-30) involves a motif of the “reversal of primogeniture,” just as did the stories of Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. The names are significant: Tamar, the foreign woman, preserves a family line in Israel through acts of cunning and deception, and brings about a reversal/transformation. She becomes the mother of “breach/opening” (Parets) and of “tear/splitting” (Zerach). This reversal/ transformation is marked symbolically by the presence of a red cord, just as red figured prominently in the reversal of fortunes in Esau and Jacob’s birth narrative, as it will figure prominently in the story of Rahab’s rescue/ deliverance of the Israelites, and as a red symbol figures prominently in the deliverance of the Israelites from angel of death at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
· In verses six and seven, great emphasis is placed on Er’s status as the “firstborn” (bekhor), a term given great emphasis in the Jacob/Esau and Rachel/Leah cycles.
· Onan’s reluctance to “expend himself” in impregnating Tamar on behalf of his dead brother, and Judah’s reluctance to assign a similar role to his last remaining son, Shelah, resonate with the retentiveness of Laban in following through on his promise to ‘give’ Rachel to Jacob.
· Tamar’s encounter with Judah at “Enayim” [two sources/two wells] echo the earlier scenes in which Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah are all encountered near sources of water. As in their case, this seems to signify her role in rescuing the line of Israel from some threatened drought/barrenness: In this case, she will preserve a family line from dying out.
Shiphrah and Pu`ah are “women on the edge” in several respects:
· They mark the transitional point between the familial scope of Genesis and the national scope of Exodus, and indeed, they have ‘a leg in both worlds”: As midwives, they are involved in birth narratives such as those typical of the matriarchal stories in Genesis; but, the “underdog” whom they rescue and deliver is the whole nation of Israel.
· This transitional status within the structure of the narrative is underscored by the vocabulary signifying the Hebrew women’s fertility, a fertility which it is the midwives’ profession to enhance. The words translated as “multiplied,” “mightier,” “more,” “grew” are repeated throughout the text, and echo the occurrence of the same root words in Gen. 1:20-23 and 26-28. The parallelism is reinforced by Pharaoh’s proposal, “Come, let us deal wisely with them” (v. 10), with its echo of the “cunning serpent” and the “tree of knowledge” in Gen. 3.
· The midwives’ role as deliverers is associated (albeit negatively) with water: They are supposed to throw the Hebrew male children in the water, but refuse to do so.
· Their role as deliverers is associated with cunning and deceit, along with (like Rachel and Leah) defiance: They disobey Pharaoh, then trick him about doing so (vv. 17-19).
· The latter parallelism places Pharaoh alongside Laban, Esau and (in their worse moments) Isaac and Judah as a retentive character, who would stand in the way of new developments and new life. This contrasts with both the midwives’ actions and the will of God. This concord between the midwives’ acts and God’s will is suggested in a repeated image first encountered in Exod. 3: 17-18, 20: God promises to “stretch out my hand [or ‘arm’],” and “bring you up out of the land of Egypt” to “a broad land, flowing with milk and honey.” Note the presence of other motifs in the exodus connoting earlier birth narratives: God, acting in response to the Hebrews’ “groaning” (2: 23-24) and “crying out” (3: 7-8), “brings [the Israelites] out” with God’s “outstretched arm” (5:6-7, et al.) through a narrow passageway (the dry passage through the Sea of Reeds) into a new, more expansive life (“a broad land”), in which God will adopt them: “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (v. 7). Just as the scenes in which Rebekah births Jacob and Esau, and Tamar births Parets and Zerach, contain symbolic references to red, connoting the blood of parturition, so does the Exodus scene: the Israelites are commanded to smear the blood of a sacrifice on their lintels (passageways) to ensure their preservation at the time of the Passover (Exod. 12:3-7, 13, 21-23), and to commemorate the event by ritual circumcision (12:48-50 et al.) As deliverers, God and the midwives share a common mode of action; the midwives in Exod. 1 are veritable icons of God’s salvific action on behalf of God's people.
· The midwives’ ethnic identity is ambiguous. The text refers to them as “the Hebrew midwives,” but their names and their frequent and frank repartee with Pharaoh make it seem more likely that they are Egyptians assigned to work with the Israelites.
The story of the deliverance of the nation is closely followed by the story of the birth and rescue of its chief (human) deliverer: Moses. Again, his rescuers and deliverers are women: Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ sister (later, in 15:20, identified as “Miriam,” assuming that “the sister of Aaron” is also that of Moses), and Moses’ mother (identified in 6:20 as Yokhebed).
Again, these female deliverers are strongly associated with water; i.e., the river Nile, to which Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids come to wash, and on whose banks “among the reeds [suph]” (echoing the “sea of Reeds [yam hasuf]” through which the Israelites will later pass) Moses’ sister places the pitch-covered “box” [`arôn, the same word as that used for Noah’s ark, and the ark of the covenant] containing the baby Moses.
Again, we encounter multiple levels of cunning, deceit and defiance (Miriam and Yochebed’s deceit of Pharaoh’s daughter, the daughter’s defiance of Pharaoh).
The theme of ethnic ambiguity/foreign relations is embodied in Moses’ very name: The text attributes a Hebrew etymology, but the reference to the city of “Ramses” in 1:11 reminds us of a more likely Egyptian derivation: the Egyptian suffix “mss” meant “son of,” and was commonly appended to the name of an Egyptian god [e.g., Ramses = Ramoses=“son of Ra”].
Moses’ association with the foreign is underscored by his stay in the house of Yithro, the “priest of Midyan” and by Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, Yithro’s daughter. Note the strong parallels, but even stronger contrasts, between Laban and Yithro’s circumstances and behavior.
Moses’ encounter with Zipporah again occurs beside a well, and involves miraculous provision. Moses, in this case, is the provider, and his actions by the well foreshadow his role as “deliverer” (v. 19) of Israel.
Zipporah’s deliverance of Moses associates her with circumcision, which is itself associated with ritual sacrifice. Cultural anthropologists have found both to be associated with imagery connoting birth in the symbolism of male initiation rituals practiced among tribal cultures throughout the world. Thus, Zipporah functions at the narrative level in a role analogous to that of an initiant in a rite of passage and, as Karen Winslow has pointed out, as a priest in ritual sacrifice.
Note that Miriam is here termed “the prophetess.” She leads the Hebrew women in an ecstatic victory song and dance.
A number of scholars have asserted that the first lines of Miriam’s song probably actually constitute a title originally attached to the “Song of Moses” (15:1-18). Moses’ song may well have originally been attributed to her.
Miriam seems to receive an unfair portion of the punishment for her and Aaron’s contesting of Moses’ authority. But, note that her punishment, if applied to Aaron, would have caused narrative problems: Leviticus and Deuteronomy make it clear that the Aaronic priests must be preserved from all physical “impurities.” More significantly, note the reason for the punishment: Aaron and Miriam have castigated Moses for his marriage to a foreign woman. God does not appear to share their qualms about that.
Miriam’s death does not receive much notice. But, that it receives any notice at all may still be significant.
The stories concerning the midwives in Egypt, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ wife, Zipporah, replicate many of the motifs we have noted in the matriarchal narratives concerning Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar: the association with life-restoring water, assertive sexuality, scenes of birth, the reversal of primogeniture or other preference for the underdog, marginal status, exogamy or other foreign ties, the use of cunning artifice/deceit, and insubordination in the face of obtuse and retentive worldly authorities. In the Exodus stories, these motifs are not merely replicated, though: they are re-inscribed in such as way as to connote and foreshadow the primary event of Exodus and of the whole Hebrew Bible: the Passover, i.e., God’s rescue and deliverance of God's chosen people, Israel, whom God depicts as an “underdog” nation: “YHWH did not set his love upon you, or choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).
In these stories, the women protagonists’ transformative action on behalf of the underdog becomes an icon of God’s deliverance of God's people, of God's salvific intervention in human affairs. These women’s marginal status, then, is to be read in iconic terms: their “otherness,” however it is narrated—in terms of sexual marginality, foreign origins or ties, or whatever—connotes the “Otherness” of the God who subverts human priorities and brings God's underdog people out from their place of bondage. This quality of God—God’s “Otherness”—is emphasized throughout the Biblical text. This God, the God who rejects human representation in the making of idols, the God who simultaneously reveals and veils God's self in the mysterious name “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” (“I am who I am” or “I am who I will be” or “I will be who I will be”)—or, more simply, “Ehyeh” (“I am,” or “I will be”; Exod. 23:14)—, the God who confronts and seeks to kill Moses in Exod. 4:21-26, who wrestles with Jacob (Gen. 32:25-30), who refuses to “take sides” with either Israelites or Canaanites in God's self-manifestation to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), is profoundly Other. It is precisely this Otherness of the God who rules over all that seems to provide such hope to a people who felt devalued by the prevailing human systems of value and priority, and it is this Otherness which the marginalized women protagonists of the Hebrew Bible repeatedly draw upon in carrying out their transformative course of action.
* * *
“Did Moses Write the Book of Genesis?: The Promiscuous Editing of Genesis—Spinoza and the Story of Judah.” www.awitness.org/contrabib/torah/judah.html
Hawk, L. Daniel. Ever Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991.
The Holy Scriptures. Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
Jocobson, Diane. “Gen. 12-50: The Women of Genesis.” Harlots and Heroines: Women in the Old Testament. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, n.d. www.luthersem.edu/djacobso/HH/Outlines/Outline.Genesis%2012-50.htm.
Leithart, Peter. “Gleanings from Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative. Biblical Horizons 37 (May, 1992). www.biblicalhorizons.com/bh/bh037.htm
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1992.
Niditch, Susan. Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore. San Francisco: Harper, 1987.
Polzin, Robert. Moses and the Deuteronomist. Bloomington, IN: Indiana U. P., 1980.
Reardon, Patrick. “The Wise Outwit the Shrewd.” Touchstone (November, 2001). www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=14-19-108-c
Winslow, Karen. “Ethnicity, Exogamy, and Zipporah”: Annual Meeting Open Session: Women in the Biblical World. N. l.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
* Unless otherwise noted, English translation and Hebrew text are from The Holy Scriptures; Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
Texts: Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 24-26; Joshua 2; 6:22-25*
Rahab in Context
Rahab’s Place in the Bible
Rahab’s story occurs at the beginning of the Biblical section traditionally referred to in Judaism as “the Prophets,” immediately following the Pentateuch, or “Torah.” Thus, Judaism groups Joshua and the following narrative books along with what Christians think of as the “prophetic books” (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc.) Modern scholars point out that most of the narratives in Joshua through II Kings seem to share many of the concerns and terminology of the book of Deuteronomy, and so look upon them as stemming from a common authorship. Thus, scholars often refer to these books as the “Deuteronomic History.”
Rahab and the Women of Genesis-Numbers
Just as the women characters analyzed in the last session may be read as interpretations of certain themes implicit in the stories of the matriarchs of Genesis, the story of Rahab interprets and embodies certain themes implicit in the characterizations of Tamar, the “Hebrew midwives,” Miriam, Yokhebed and Zipporah. Whereas Tamar is associated with foreign identity and prostitution, Rahab embodies them. Like Tamar, she inserts herself into the community of Israel, in spite of her foreign status. Like the “Hebrew midwives,” Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zipporah, she allies herself with Israelites; and like the first two of these people, she ignores her people’s ancient enmity with the Israelites in doing so. Like the women considered in Session Two, Rahab is an agent of rescue and transformation/ transition associated with a passage through water (the Jordan, the passage through which clearly runs parallel to the passage through the Sea of Reeds), and symbols of death and rebirth. Finally, like Tamar, whose story itself reiterates a theme hinted at in the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rahab’s story seems to run counter to a biblical strand prohibiting intermarriage with foreign women. If her story glosses the stories of these earlier women, it also invites interpretation in their light: Her rescue of the Israelite spies and vital function in Israel’s transition from a wandering to a settled status is to be read in the light of the theme of reversal of primogeniture and preference for the underdog.
Rahab and Biblical Interpretation
However, Rahab’s story takes up the theme of the “faithful foreigner” in a new way, by relating it—albeit somewhat obliquely—to the question of Biblical interpretation, itself. Her character suggests an analogy to a particular type of Biblical interpreter: one shaped by circumstances which are not perfectly addressed by the received Biblical narrative—the story of Israel—, but who recognizes the authority of that narrative. In truth, though, and to varying degrees, this is the situation of every interpreter—none of us inhabits a world perfectly mirrored in Biblical narrative. In relation to the world narrated in the Bible, we are all, in a sense (and to varying degrees), “faithful foreigners.” The question addressed by Rahab’s story is: How should one deal with that foreignness, that “otherness”?
Rahab inhabits a world in which the story of Israel—a story in which her own experience is not perfectly represented—has become a dominant, inescapable force—in that sense, a world much like our own. At least three modes of response to that circumstance are addressed within her story: (1) The king and citizens of Jericho set themselves in opposition to the thrust of Biblical history, and thus find themselves overwhelmed and annihilated by it. (2) At the beginning of the story, the voice of Joshua represents a Biblical authority which seeks to take over the land and destroy all that is foreign to the bearers of the Biblical tradition, and which imperils the survival of Rahab and her household. (3) Rahab represents a voice which embraces and proclaims Israel’s faith in YHWH, and which respects and submits to the force of Biblical history, but which simultaneously “speaks back” to the bearers of that Biblical tradition, insisting that, in return for her assistance in establishing Biblical authority over her country, a place for herself and her family be found within the Biblical community. In so doing, she inserts herself and her experience into the story of Israel. However, she does so in an interesting way: Her otherness is not obliterated, but neither is it complete; at the end of her story she is still “Rahab the harlot,” but she is also “in Israel”: “And she dwelt within Israel to this very day” (Joshua 6:25; my translation).
The Problem: Rahab and the Law; Rahab as Foreigner and Prostitute
In Deut. 7:1-5, 24-26, and in several other passages, the Israelites are enjoined to enter into no covenants with the “people of the land,” and specifically, with Canaanites; but, rather, to utterly destroy them (this is referred to as the cherev, often translated as “the ban.”) While the word, “covenant” (berît) is never specifically used in Rahab’s story, her story runs closely parallel to the story concerning the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:3-27, which does specifically mention the making of a covenant; moreover, she uses terminology that typically connotes a covenant arrangement (e.g., the phrase “swear to me.”) Finally; the story of the agreement reached between herself and the spies moves through each of the stages which comprise the formal structure typical of covenants, such as that mediated by Moses (Campell 243): (1) preamble (Joshua 2:11b), (2) prologue (vv. 9-11), (3) stipulations (vv. 12-13, 18-20), (4) sanctions (vv. 18-20), (5) oath (vv. 14, 17), and (6) sign of the covenant (the red cord: vv. 18-21).
Thus, in Rahab’s story, Israel at first glance appears to have “broken” the laws of cherev in two respects: in failing to kill her and her family with the rest of the people of her town, and in making a covenant between Israel and her family.
This sense of the discord between the Israelites’ behavior and stipulations of the law is heightened by two other facets of Rahab’s portrait: her status as a prostitute (zonah), and the prophetic features of her portrait, which are detailed below. In addition to strong condemnation of foreign types of prophesy involving divination and the conjuring of spirits (Deut. 18:9-14), and equally strong warnings against the allure of foreign women, who will draw the Israelites into following other gods (7:3), the Deuteronomic laws include references to prostitution as “a metaphor for the violation of Yahweh’s covenant” (31:16-18) (Hawk 61-62). Against this backdrop, it has been argued, Rahab “as a woman of Canaan and a prostitute, . . . signifies the temptation to apostatize” (61).
This hint at possible apostasy is further evoked by another Biblical parallel, one connoting the possibility of Israel’s failure to trust and obey God. The spies in Joshua 2 set out across the Jordan into Canaan from Shittim, just as did other spies, including Joshua himself, in Deuteronomy 1:22-33. The spies from the earlier story return with a report that strikes such fear in the Israelites’ hearts that they refuse to obey God’s commandment, mediated through Moses, to carry out the invasion. God punishes them with the forty-year period of wandering. The connection between the two stories is born out by linguistic echoes, specifically the parallel uses of the words for “search out” (hpr) and “spy out” (rgl), and by the repetition of the phrase, “our hearts were caused to melt [mśś]” (Deut. 1:23; Joshua 2:11).
The hint at temptation is underscored by the description of the Israelites spies’ entry into Rahab’s house in verse one (often translated euphemistically as “they . . . came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and spent the night there;” my emphasis). The last verb form is more literally translated “and lay there.” The verb “lay” (škb) is a common Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse, especially in that particular turn of phrase (Hawk 62).
These troubling aspects to Rahab’s portrait are compounded by several other considerations: In pre-Deuteronomic times, prophets were frequently attached to sanctuaries (Blenkinsopp 40), as were (sacred) prostitutes, who, like Rahab, often dwelt between the double-casement walls (Kornfeld 1356-7; Rast 237). Moreover, in such cultures, sexual intercourse with sacred prostitutes is often an aspect of rites of induction, by which foreigners are introduced into a cultural region (van Gennep 33-35).
Rahab as Prophet
It is too easy, however, to write off Rahab as a symbol of the temptation to apostatize. For, if her character seems to connote the image of pagan prophets and hierodules, it is just as strongly modeled on specifically Israelite modes of prophecy: the prophet as a crucial figure in the conduct of “holy war,” and as a witness to the supremacy of God’s will over the will of the king. Even more specifically, her character is modeled on the images of Moses, Israel’s archetypal prophet, and Abraham, the Biblical character first explicitly termed a “prophet.” If more recent biblical interpreters have remained insensitive to the links between Rahab and divinely sanctioned prophecy, this was not the case with the greatest among the ancient exegetes, many of whom described Rahab as an “ancestor of the prophets” (Rabbis Eliezar and Judah in the Talmud and Mishna [Langlamet 1079, Telushkin 150-151]), and as a prophet, herself (Midrash Samuel, Ruth Rabba, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Procopius of Gaza [Manns 13; Neusner xiii, 62; Hanson 55; Langlamet 1083]).
A Holy-War Prophet
· The ancient predilection for placing Rahab with the tradition of the prophets is borne out by the function she plays within the narrative context. Her story occurs at the beginning of the portion of the Biblical canon referred to in Judaism as “the Prophets.” Following the work of Gerhard von Rad, recent scholars have pointed out that the book of Joshua bears the essential marks of a “holy war narrative” (Miller 160, Ollenburger 23).
· Her story is replete with terminology found almost uniquely in holy war narratives, including the terms for “spying out” (rgl) or “searching out” (hpr) the land, and for the “melting” (mśś and mwg) of hearts out of “dread” (`eymah).
· Holy war narratives typically include a number of ritual gestures marking the military campaign as having a sacral character. Rahab’s story includes, or occurs in close proximity to, a number of such traits, including the blowing of the shofar (6:4-5:8), the sanctification of warriors before battle (3:5), the cultic verdict concerning the outcome (2:24a, 6:2), the exhortation not to fear (8:1), the motif of Yahweh’s sowing panic and confusion among the enemy (10:10), and the allusion to “the ban of destruction” [herem] (6:17 ff., 7:18 f.; Gilmer 65). As pointed out below, Rahab’s action of burying the Israelite spies among the sheaves atop her house, then uncovering them, itself has a strongly ritual flavor.
· While her story, like that of other prophetic figures in this and subsequent narratives preceding the anointing of Saul as Israel’s first monarch, does not include the explicit term, “prophet” (Blenkinsopp 62), she does fulfill all the functions typical of prophets within holy war narratives: In the face of an opposition which has caused the Israelites to shrink from bold action (a circumstance hinted at by the analogy between the opening of Joshua 2 and Deuteronomy 1:22-33), she, like Moses and like the canonical prophets of the exilic period (Westermann 105-113 ff.), reminds the Israelites of God’s actions on their behalf and of God's promise to give them possession of the land (Joshua 2:9; cf. Exod. 3:6-8 inter alia); indeed, her words closely resemble the “historical credo” form used by Moses in this regard in Deuteronomy 26. This type of intervention is typical of prophets within holy war narratives (Ollenburger 31).
A Prophetic Witness Against the King
· Joseph Blenkinsopp has pointed out that the Deuteronomist seems eager to establish a strong link between the institutions of prophecy and that of the monarchy (Blenkinsopp 65). Thus, while a number of characters prior to the anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king seem to conform to the biblical image of a prophet, the term itself is rarely used until after the monarchy is established. The link between prophet and king is often one of opposition: The prophet’s function is to bear witness to God’s supremacy over that of any human ruler, and especially, to oppose the king’s will in the name of God whenever the human ruler strays from the terms of the covenant mediated through Moses. Rahab’s opposition to the king of Jericho is to be read in that light, and in relation to her allegiance to the Mosaic covenant, as detailed below.
A Prophet Like Moses
Like Moses, Rahab experiences a threat from her own people and, specifically, from the monarch (in Moses’ case, these two aspects of the threat is complicated by his ambiguous status as an Israelite who is also an Egyptian by adoption). In both their cases, the protagonist escapes this threat by means of an alliance with a “foreign” power (Exod. 2:16-21; Joshua 2:12-21; 6:17, 22-23, 25). Both of them experience theophanies involving one or more maleak. (This Hebrew word can signify any “messenger,” as in Rahab’s story [Josh 6:17, 25], or, more specifically, a “messenger of Yahweh,” that is, an angel, as in the stories of Moses and Abraham [Exod. 3:2, Gen. 19:1, ff.]) Finally, both Rahab and Moses receive a red-colored sign (`ot: Joshua 2:12; Exod. 12:21-23), which signifies protection from wrath to come.
Moreover, Rahab proclaims the Mosaic Law in a nearly verbatim quote of Moses, himself: “For YHWH your God, is God in heaven above, and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11b; cf. Deut. 4:39; my amendations). (Interestingly, Rahab’s proclamation succeeds in encouraging the Israelites where Moses’ did not.) Like Moses, she places this proclamation in the context of Israel’s salvation history (Deut. 4:32-34; Joshua 2:10), and forges a covenant between her people and a greater power (Yahweh, in Moses’s case; Yahweh’s people, Israel, in Rahab’s).
A Prophet Like Abraham
The other prophetic model upon which the character of Rahab is constructed is that of Abraham, according to his depiction in Genesis 18:22 ff. Her story reiterates many of the themes and motifs of Abraham’s story, culminating in his recognition in Genesis 20:7 (unique within Genesis) as a “prophet” [nabi`]: “For he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live.” Like Abraham (Gen. 19:1), she is visited by two “maleakîm” (“messengers,” but as noted above, the word also means “angels”) bent upon the destruction of a city (Sodom, in the case of Abraham’s narrative). Like him, she intercedes on behalf of others that they may be rescued from the destruction to come. Like Abraham’s relative, Lot, her family alone escapes the destruction. Like Abraham’s relative Lot, this escape relies on her careful observance of stipulations delivered by the maleakîm (Joshua 2:19; cf. Gen. 19:17).
Rahab and the Reader I
As we have seen in the two preceding main sections, the story of Rahab places its audience on the horns of an apparently insoluble interpretive dilemma, by inviting opposed evaluations of her character and Israel’s involvement with her. On the one hand, she bears startling points of resemblance to heroic Israelite prophets. On the other, her story appears deliberately to invoke stipulations within the law that would seem to anathematize her.
My contention is that the story does this deliberately. Against source critics who have ascribed the polarities within her story to a clumsy redaction process, I would argue that those features of Rahab’s characterization which frustrate our attempt to reduce her story to the clear and familiar terms set forth in the Deuteronomic law do not indicate a lack of artistry, but are, on the contrary, evidence of the shaping, anticipation, and frustration of readers’ expectations which are a common feature of highly literary texts (Iser 64).
Another feature of such texts, however, is that they do not leave the reader in a state of total frustration, but provide “clues” upon which the reader must seize, leading the reader to become actively involved in the construction of the meaning of the text (51, 55).
The “clues” which Rahab’s story provides toward an interpretive methodology capable of making sense of her story in its context are provided by the narrative structure of that story:
· In Joshua 2, a certain trajectory of events culminates at Rahab’s doorstep, and seems to endanger her and her household, largely as a result of the Israelites’ adherence to and application of Deuteronomic commandments. However, she accommodates herself to that trajectory, and simultaneously shapes it so that it accommodates her particular situation. Rahab’s modus operandi with respect to the general thrust of the narrative provides the reader with a model of how the general principles of a tradition (i.e., the law) may be adhered to, and yet molded to take into account situations or persons for which that tradition appears to make no allowance. Thus, Rahab provides the reader with a key for resolving the apparent discord described above.
The Literary Structure of Joshua 2
Rahab occupies central stage in Joshua 2. Aside from Joshua, she is the only character referred to by name, and her speech and/or acts figure decisively in half of the chapter’s twenty-four verses. Moreover, the narrative over which she presides occurs at a critical, transitional moment in the life of Israel, when the Israelites are poised on the brink of the Jordan, preparing to leave behind their desert wanderings to enter into and take possession of the land YHWH has promised them. This moment is ritually marked by the mass circumcision in 5:2-8, and by the passage through the waters of the Jordan in chapters 3-4. Van Gennep and Turner have noted that both circumcision and passage through water are typical of rites of passage in tribal cultures throughout the world, and that they are to be read as symbols of death (to one’s old status or stage of life) and rebirth (in a new stage of life). In 2:6-8, Rahab presides over a moment with similar connotations: She buries the Israelite spies, the vanguard of their people, among the stalks of flax on her roof. As we shall see below, they arise from that prone position with a new, far more confident and assertive, mode of behavior.
The general trajectory of events in Joshua 2 is defined by Joshua’s commissioning of the spies to “go, view the land; especially Jericho.” The king’s implied commissioning of his agents in verse 2 mirrors Joshua’s commissioning in verse 1, and creates suspense: Who will prevail, the king or Joshua?
Rahab plays the crucial role in resolving that suspense, by hiding the spies, deceiving and diverting the king’s envoys, providing the spies with means of escape from Jericho, and instructing them how to escape detection on their way back across the Jordan.
However, Rahab is no mere “booster” to the outcome envisioned by Joshua in verse 1. She integrates new purposes and interests into the project (i.e., the salvation of her family), takes indispensable initiative toward their realization, and is the means by which others (i.e., the spies) introduce their initiatives into the story; they return with the report Joshua commissioned, but having very loosely interpreted his injunction to “go, view the land” (vv. 23-24).
Rahab’s initiative is emphasized by the contrast between her behavior and the initially mute, surprisingly passive behavior of the spies, as well as by verbal nuance. The spies twice refer to “this oath that you have made us swear,” using the hipil, a verb inflection which emphasizes causality on Rahab’s part.
Joshua 2 begins with a polarity between active, vocal characters who have little physical presence in the story (Joshua and the king of Jericho), and pliant, mute characters whose physical presence stands out (the spies). Rahab functions as a kind of prism, whereby the pliant, mute, emphatically physical characters grow more active and vocal and shed some of the “dead weight” of their initial physical presence, and whereby the active, vocal, disembodied character who initially controls the plot is rendered more accessible.
In the opening of Joshua 2, the spies (like the king’s agents) are not portrayed as primary agents of their own movement, a movement which culminates in an enduring state of passivity: “And [they] lay there” (v. 1b). That agency lies with Joshua, who, like the king, is presented as a disembodied voice: We are offered no physical description of him, and barely any of his circumstances.
The emissaries, by contrast, are emphatically embodied, but mute. Their physical presence is most graphically evoked when Rahab lays them under the stacks of flax, like so many bundles of wood. Their drowsiness underscores their physicality (v. 8a.) They speak little in the first thirteen verses of the story; in this, resembling the king’s agents, whose only speech is actually attributed to the king, by use of the hipil verb inflection.
Rahab, too, appears in a more objective, physical light than do Joshua and the king, but to lesser extent than the spies. She and her house are focal points of the trajectory of events, and her physical setting is described in detail. However, at the same time, hers is the most prominent voice and the principal agency in the narrative.
In the light of her intervention, the two Israelites become more vocal and active, and in a sense, less emphatically physical. After her prophetic speech (vv. 9-13), they find a voice and an initiative of their own: “The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours . . . .’” (v. 14). Rahab’s “unveiling” of their bodies atop her roof culminates in their escape to the less confined space of the hill country (vv. 16, 22) and their eventual return across the Jordan. There, they address a now silent Joshua, simultaneously fulfilling the charge they received from him, and adding new terms which he did not anticipate (vv. 22-23). Under Rahab’s influence, they have become conveyors of words which they receive from outside themselves, but which they make their own through a process of dialogical give-and-take, and to which they add new implications.
Rahab and the Reader II: Joshua 2 and the (Re-)Interpretation of Biblical Tradition
Rahab’s story deliberately places us on the horns of an interpretive dilemma: The story itself points to passages within Deuteronomy which condemn the forging of a covenant with Canaanites such as Rahab and her family; but, it also depicts her, equally deliberately, as a prophet like Moses.
But, the story does not leave us hanging there. We have, in Rahab’s modus operandi, a model of how to resolve the discrepancy between her desire to act in a manner consistent with faith in the Biblical tradition, and the reality that her own circumstances, through no fault or choice of her own, seem to place her under condemnation by elements of that same tradition. Like the Israelite spies, we may be prone toward a passive stance toward the text we intend to survey and make sense of. Like them, we must learn, from the example of Rahab’s own behavior, to refuse a slavish, passive literalism with respect to the scriptural tradition, and to come up with creative solutions which honor the narrative thrust of that tradition, while refusing to allow particular, isolated injunctions to expel her from the tradition without regard for her manifest faith in God and in God’s involvement in human affairs.
In conformity with Rahab’s own modus operandi, the Jewish sages and earliest Christian interpreters of her story chose to (re-)interpret the foregoing prohibitions and covenant blessings not in racial terms, but in terms of faith. This involved a clarification of what it means to be a member of the people of God; i.e., an identity no longer indissolubly tied to racial blood-line, but based on faith. But, to attain such a clarification, these readers, like Rahab herself, had to abandon a passive, literalistic stance vis-à-vis every individual legal prohibition and injunction, and claim for themselves the authority to interpret the text. However, such authority is not unconstrained: Like Rahab, our interpretations must be guided by an attentive, painstaking, faithful desire to discern the “thrust” of Biblical narrative, and to live out our own lives in continuity with, and as a continuation of, that story.
Above all, Rahab’s story teaches us how to deal with our own foreignness, our own marginality, in relation to the Biblical text and tradition. For, in varying ways and to varying degrees, we are all strangers to the world of the Bible: No tradition can predict and encompass, in every detail, the fullness of our individual experience and circumstances. Like Rahab, we may even find that aspects of our experience and circumstances, aspects integral to our very personhood, are condemned by elements of that tradition, read literally and simplistically. Like Rahab, we then find ourselves torn between the desire to remain faithful to a tradition we cherish, and the danger of being rejected out of adherence to that same tradition. We must learn, in such circumstances, to do as Rahab does: To articulate our stories in Biblical terms, but not at the cost of negating the integrity of our own experience where this is not included, in detail, in the Bible itself. We must learn to carry the thread of Biblical tradition forward to include our own experience in its integrity, and be willing to interpret the received tradition in light of that experience. In so doing—and this is beautiful irony of Rahab’s inclusion within Scripture—we thereby remain faithful to the Bible, itself.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel: From the Settlement in the Land to the Hellenistic Period. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1983.
Cambell, K. M. “Rahab’s Covenant. A Short Note on Joshua 2:9-21.” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 243-244.
Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1969.
Gilmer, Harry. The If-You Form in Israelite Law. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Ser. 15. Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1975.
Hanson, A. J. “Rahab the Harlot in Early Christian Tradition.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament I (1978): 53-60.
Hawk, L. Daniel. Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster/Knox, 1991.
Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
Kornfeld, Walter. “Prostitution sacrée.” Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible. Ed. F. Vigouroux. Vol. 52. Paris: Letouzey, 1979.
Langlamet. F. “Rahab.” Suuplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible. Ed. F. Vigouroux. Vol. 52. Paris: Letouzey, 1979.
Manns, Frederic. “Luc 7, 47 et les Traditions juives sur Rahab.” Revue des Sciences religeuses 61 (1987): 1-16.
Miller, Patrick, Jr. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1973.
Neusner, Jacob. The Mother of the Messiah in Judaism. The Book of Ruth. The Bible of Jerusalem Library. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1993.
Noth, Martin. Das Buch Josua. Handbuch zum Alten Testament. Ed. Otto Eissfeldt. Vol. 7. Tubingen, Ger.: Mohr, 1938.
Ollenburger, Ben. “Gerhard von Rad’s Theory of Holy War.” Gerhard von Rad. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Rast, Walter. “Joshua.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. Gen. ed. James Mays. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP 1985.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York: Morrow, 1991.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1969.
Westermann, Claus. Prophetic Oracles of Salvation in the Old Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991.
* Unless otherwise noted, English translation and Hebrew text are from The Holy Scriptures; Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
Texts: Genesis 19:36-38; Numbers 25:1-3; Deuteronomy 23:3-4; 25:5-10; Leviticus 25:25-28; Ezra 1:1-4; 10:1-5, 9-12, 44; Nehemiah 2:1-6; 8:1-3; 13:1-3, 23-27, 30; Ruth 1-4
Ruth within the Biblical Canon
In the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, Ruth appears among the books of the Writings (the Ketuvim), the last section of the Bible, after the Torah (what the Septuagint tradition refers to as the “Pentateuch”, the first five books of the Bible), and the Prophets, or Nevi’im (Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings and the Major and Minor Prophets). This classification may be due, at least in part, to the clear indication at the end of the book that it is written centuries after the period in which it is set. This placement, alongside post-exilic narratives, psalms, and wisdom literature, also tends to focus the reader’s attention on the “parable-like form of the story” (Kathleen Farmer, “Ruth,” New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 383-4), and to lend to support to the hypothesis that book is post-exilic in origin.
Christian Bibles follow the order of the Greek-language translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (LXX), placing the book according to the period in which it is set, between Judges and I Samuel.
(On a side note, this is also the reason that the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic and all other ancient, non-Protestant branches of Christianity include books not found in the Hebrew Bible or Protestant Old Testament. Those Greek texts pejoratively characterized by Protestants as “apocryphal” were accepted as Biblical by the Greek-speaking Jewish translators who produced the Septuagint. At the council of Jamnia in AD 92, Jewish leaders adopted the more restricted Hebrew canon, as against the Septuagint, as part of their polemic against the Christian movement. At that point, almost all Christians made use of the Septuagint, including the “apocryphal books,” which non-Protestants refer to as “deuterocanonical,” as the authoritative version of the Old Testament. Luther’s reasons for excising these books from his version of the Bible cannot be detailed here.)
The Problem: Ruth and the Law
Moabites in the Legal Code
· Ruth’s incorporation, not just into the community of Israel and the Biblical Canon, but indeed, into the line of King David’s ancestry, runs squarely counter to a literalist interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:3-4, which places all the people of Moab under a general anathema, without exception, and which derives this prohibition from Genesis 19:36-38 (the Moabites are the products of the incest between Lot and one of his daughters) and Numbers 25:1-3 (the Moabites lead the Israelites into idolatry at Shittim).
Ezrah and Nehemiah
· The anathema placed upon Moabites comes to the forefront in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (the two books were not separated until the 15th Century CE, by Protestant scholars). This book details the events surrounding the return of the middle- and upper-class Hebrews who had been taken into exile in Babylon in three separate stages during the early 6th century BCE. After the conquest of the Babylonian empire by the Persians under Cyrus, the Hebrews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and, eventually, begin reconstruction of the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. This was in keeping with the Persians’ policy of tolerating, even encouraging, subject peoples in the practice of their native religions, so long as fealty was paid the Persian empire.
· Intermarriage between Hebrew men and non-Hebrew women is of special concern to Ezra/Nehemiah. Moabites and Ammonites receive special attention in this effort at racial cleansing. It is important to remember that a large number of poor and less educated people had been left in Jerusalem at the time of the exile, and had presumably mixed with populations of immigrants brought in by the Babylonians: There is a dimension of class conflict, as well as religious controversy, in Ezra and Nehemiah’s efforts to “cleanse” Jerusalem of all foreign wives.
· It is worth keeping in mind, too, that in Israel, the Northern Kingdom, after its cultic centers (Bethel and Dan) had been destroyed and most of its inhabitants carried into exile by the Assyrians during the 8th Century BCE, the few remaining Israelites mixed and intermarried with people imported from throughout the Assyrian empire. This new people, who came to be known as the Samaritans, adopted many Israelite religious beliefs and practices, including following the Torah, but mixed them in a syncretistic religion that included pagan beliefs and deities (for example, some Samaritan coins depicted a male YHWH by image and name on one side, and the goddess Ishtar—who may have been regarded as his consort--, on the other.
The Levirate Law
· The stipulations in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, often referred to as the Levirate Law, specify that the brother of a dead man marry the man’s wife and raise children in his name. The latter, at their maturity, will receive their inheritance from the dead man, and be regarded as his children, rather than as those of their biological father. A surviving brother may refuse this responsibility, but at the price of public humiliation at the hands of the widow.
The Law of Redemption
· The “law of redemption,” detailed in Leviticus 25:25-28, is often confused, following Boaz’s lead, with the Levirate Law in Deuteronomy, but they are not the same, and derive from separate biblical tests. The law of redemption stipulates that the “nearest kinsman” (as opposed to the brother) has the opportunity (not obligation) to purchase the land of a poor relative, in order to restore it to him or his family when they can afford it, or at the time of the Jubilee. This would be done out of concern that land not be alienated from the extended family/clan. There is no indication that the purchase of land extends to other property, or to an obligation to marry the wife or wives of the man who is in danger of losing control of his inherited land.
Ruth and the (Re-)Interpretation of Biblical Tradition
Those who have attended earlier sessions will recognize many similarities between Ruth’s story and that of Rahab in Joshua 2. Not least of these is the fact that both stories place the reader at what seems to be an exegetical impasse: both heroines demand our respect. This is particularly evident in Ruth’s case, as her loyalty to Naomi and her work ethic repeatedly win the admiration of other prominent members of the community in Bethlehem: Not just Boaz (2:11-12), but also his field workers (2:6-7), the town elders and general populace (4:11-12), and the women of the town (4:14-15) sing her praise. But, both stories never let the reader forget that the heroine of each of these stories is not just a foreigner, but a member of a tribe (and, in Rahab’s case, a profession) repeatedly and explicitly anathematized in earlier biblical texts: in Ruth’s case, her name is repeatedly joined to her racial identity: She is not just Ruth, but “Ruth the Moabite” (1:22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10).
In both stories, not only does this member of a despised and—according to the Torah—anathematized group win our respect, but she and her descendants are incorporated into the identity of Israel, the people of God. This is not to be read in terms of her having cast off her former self and identity, but as a reinterpretation of the notion of what it means to be the people of God. Lest the reader miss the former point, both stories make it explicit: “Rahab the prostitute with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. She has lived in Israel ever since” [Joshua 7:25; my emphasis]. In Ruth’s case, this incorporation of the other into Israel, and simultaneous broadening of the notion of what it means to be Israel, is made even more emphatic: the story culminates with a genealogy according to which Ruth the Moabite is the grandmother of King David, making her, as later Jewish exegetes would emphasize (viz. the Talmudic Ruth Rabba), a direct ancestor of the anticipated Messiah (4:18-21).
But, if these texts make it explicit that the incorporation of these women is not to be read in terms of their having cast off their former selves and identity, they do not explicitly draw the conclusion about what this must mean for Israel’s identity. Both texts refuse to lift this burden of redefinition from the reader. However, they do not leave the reader at a complete impasse: Both texts depict central characters engaged in precisely the sort of exegesis—that is, of creative, yet faithful, (re-)interpretation of received scriptural tradition—that is required of the reader her- or himself. Our last session makes clear how this is effectuated in Rahab’s case. In Ruth, the act of reinterpretation is modeled, first, by Naomi, then, even more obviously, by Boaz, and finally, by the community elders, other populace, and women, who receive and sanction the act of reinterpretation.
Naomi sets this chain of reinterpretation in motion by proposing the idea that Boaz lay claim to the right to redeem a destitute kinsperson’s land, as set forth in Leviticus 25:25-28. What is novel in this suggestion is that she should assume the law in question applies to her. She is, after all, a relative not by blood, but only by marriage. Clearly, her proposal rests on the kinship between Boaz and Elimelech, but the latter is dead, a circumstance unforeseen by the passage in Leviticus. Moreover, the designation of Boaz as a “near kinsperson” (3:12), even to Elimelech , seems questionable: neither he nor the “other kinsman more closely related than I” (3:12) is, for example, described as the dead man’s brother. And, if the bond is as close as that of nephew or uncle, it seems strange that that neither is so described.
Biblical interpretation becomes even more complex, and questionable, in Boaz’s hands. He effectively melds two separate laws from two separate books of the Torah: that concerning the redemption of land in Leviticus, and the so-called Levirate law of Deuteronomy 25:5-10, implying that acceptance of the opportunity afforded by the first enjoins the responsibilities of the latter. This link between the two laws is accepted without question by the other “near kinsman,” the elders and, following their lead, the populace, but it is nowhere else spelled out in canonical Scripture. Moreover, the Levirate law, as it is detailed in Deuteronomy, concerns marrying ones brother’s widow. But, Boaz (and the “other kinsman more closely related”) is not Elimelech’s brother, nor is Ruth his widow. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, it is hardly obvious that the stipulations in either Leviticus or Deuteronomy are intended to extend to a member of an anathematized race.
This is not to imply that Boaz engages in an opportunistic misreading of Scripture. Rather, he engages in an interpretation, based on analogy, of the intention behind the laws, as applied to novel circumstances which those laws did not anticipate in detail. If the Levirate law is intended to see to it that no man’s “name may be blotted out of Israel” (Leviticus 25:6), and the law of redemption intended to forestall the alienation of land from Israelite families, Boaz must think, it stands to reason that both should be applied to Elimelech. The application of these laws in these circumstances is creative, but hardly spurious or untied to Biblical precedent. Boaz, we may surmise, desires to remain faithful to, and to be directed by, the proscriptions of the Torah, and it is in this vein that his interpretation is received by the elders and the rest of the community.
We should be clear, however, about what Boaz’s scriptural interpretation and its reception by the community imply about their stance toward the laws in the Torah. To be sure, their respect for Scripture, their turning to it as an authoritative guide, is grounded in the sense that it is divinely inspired, even divinely authored. But, this interpretation rules out a simplistic understanding of the law as being merely transcribed word-for-word by Moses, without being qualified, not just in its reception, but even in its wording, by human limitations. To assume that the law allows for, even requires, human interpretation in the face of novel circumstances, is to assume that the law itself, in some manner, does not predict, nor should be expected to predict, in detail every circumstance to which it might apply. It is to assume that those who live by the law must accept the responsibility of creatively seeking out its intentions in the face of circumstances it does not itself anticipate in detail. It is to assume that the law, though divinely authored and inspired, is also humanly authored, and shares to some degree in human limitations.
These, of course, are just the sort of circumstances posed to the reader by the depiction of Ruth as a faithful Moabite, a creature simply not imagined in the five books of the Torah. Her depiction, like that of Rahab, forces the reader to pose the question: What are we to make of the Biblical prohibitions against any sort of dealings with Moabites, Canaanites, Ammonites, prostitutes, etc, in view of the inclusion within scripture and within the community of Israel of individuals who belong, at least racially or by past profession, to these groups. Adopting Boaz and his community’s mode of interpretation, the answer becomes clear: We are to look for the intention behind these laws, which is to preserve a faith rejected and/or contested by these groups. But, in this case, race or past allegiance matters only inasmuch as the link between them and false faith pertains; that the laws in question fail to imagine the possibility that that link may not, in some circumstances, pertain, may be chalked up to the limitations of human imagination. But, the inclusion of Ruth and Rahab’s stories within Sacred Scripture make it clear that these limitations (in this case, limitations that place blanket judgments about groups ahead of consideration of the character and faith of individuals belonging to those groups) should not be given divine sanction.
Ruth as Biblical Matriarch
Ruth bears many of the traits we have identified among female Biblical protagonists we have previously considered. She embodies the “foreigness” hinted at or explicitly embodied in the characters of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Tamar, the Egyptian midwives, Zipporah, and Rahab.
Like many of these characters, she bears the traits of an apparently illicit, but ultimately redemptive, use of sexuality (witness the seductive traits and double-entendres of her dalliance with Boaz at the threshing floor, a locale often connotative of sexuality, and even pagan sexual rites, in the Bible).
Like those characters, she is pivotal in the reversals by which underdogs or the undervalued are rescued or redeemed from their low condition: Naomi is rescued from the low and vulnerable status of a barren widow, placed at the center of a family and recognized as an honored mother and grandmother. Boaz is rescued from what is apparently a lonely old bachelorhood. Ruth, herself, is rescued from her status as an anathematized foreigner.
Like in those stories, this pivotal role as rescuer and redeemer is joined to images of fruitfulness, in her case, the fruitfulness of childbearing, couched within the setting of a plentiful harvest. The story’s images move from drought, exile, death, loneliness and bereavement, through gestures of charity and the “gleaning” or rescue of what was thought to be worthless, to images of bounty, homecoming and homemaking, birth and renewed life, and community.
What is unique in her story is the degree to which this redemptive behavior spreads out, as if in concentric waves, beyond herself: She rescues Naomi from lonely bereavement, but is, in turn, rescued by her, restored to a family and community. With Naomi’s help, she rescues Boaz, who, in turns, rescues both Ruth and Naomi, in the process, rescuing Elimelech’s posterity and restoring his name within Israel. And, from all these interlaced acts of redemption and charity come, ultimately, David, and beyond David, the Messiah.
Marginality and Biblical Interpretation
Like the story of Rahab, Ruth brings together two prominent concerns of our study: the marginal position, as women, of the protagonists we have been studying, and concerns about the interpretation of Scripture. As in Rahab’s case, Ruth’s “marginal” status, her apparent insignificance in others’ eyes, becomes a key, not just to her transformative and salvific role with respect to other characters (as is the case with many of the women whose stories we have considered), but also to the transformation of Biblical meaning, itself, and to its salvation from what might otherwise seem to be obsolence. We are encouraged, in these stories, to read the Scriptures from a marginal point of view. As was pointed out in the previous session, this is perhaps precisely because any reading of Scripture long after it was initially written is necessarily marginal: Our world is in many respects rather alien to the world depicted in the Bible and the world in which it was authored.
Session 6–“’Woman, Great Is Your Faith!’: The Syrophoenician/Canaanite Woman as Rabbinical Exegete in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28”
Text: Mark 7: 1-23, 24-31; Matthew 1:1-16; 15: 1-20, 21-28; 2 Samuel 9:1-13; Psalm 17:14-15
One of the principal insights to emerge, I hope, from this session, is the recognition that the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman in Mark and Matthew’s gospels is best understood typologically, as deliberately recapitulating many of the features of the lengthy line of women we have studied from each scroll of the Hebrew Bible—in the Pentateuch (Torah) scroll of Genesis: Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar; in that of Exodus: the “Hebrew” midwives, Miryam, Yochebed and Zipporah; in the Deuteronomic history (Prophets, or Nevi’im): Rahab; and, in the Writings (Ketuvim): Ruth. The pericopes in Mark and Matthew bring these Hebrew narratives and the women they concern into an explicitly Christian context.
· Another, larger point of the session will be to investigate the at first sight paradoxical contention that these stories, while they draw heavily on the marginality of their characters, are not themselves marginal to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. They are examples of a narrative strategy fundamental to both the Hebrew and Greco-Christian Scriptures: a kind of inversion, by which the margins are brought to the center of the narrative tradition, and notions about what constitutes the center are contested and displaced. In this manner, Biblical narrative tradition continually decentralizes itself, achieving thereby an open-ended quality.
· More specifically, it will be argued that the incident involving the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30, or parallel passage involving the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, is best read in relation to the immediately foregoing pericope involving Jesus’ controversy with the “Pharisees and scribes” over what is clean or unclean (Mk 7:1-23, Mt 15:1-20). In doing so, we will follow and develop the suggestions of Bible scholars Ben Worthington (Women in the Ministry of Jesus; Cambridge UP, 1984; 65) and William Lane (The Gospel According to Mark; Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 1974; 259).
· Rudolf Bultmann has pointed out that these latter passages conform to a widely-spread literary form: that of the “rabbinic controversy,” which bears many points in common with what later came to be known in Judaism as “midrash.” In brief, the form is recognized by these common traits: It involves an exegetical debate between rabbis. One rabbi contests another’s assertion by reference to one or more scriptural or Talmudic texts. His interlocutor defends the original assertion by bringing to bear some other scriptural text(s), often apparently distant from the first, but which bears with it some apparently superficial or allegorical points in common. He frequently gives to this newly evoked text a novel or surprising, but engaging interpretation, thereby winning the argument.
· What Bultmann and others have generally failed to mention, is that this is the form, not only of the pericopes involving the dispute over clean and unclean, but also of the immediately following dialogue between Jesus and the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman. She contests Jesus’ assertion of the primacy of Jews over Gentiles by re-contextualizing his words, alluding, albeit obliquely, to three widely separated Scriptural passages: that involving a king’s punishment for not admitting others to his table (Judges 1:7); David’s granting a place at the table to Saul’s son, Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:1-13), and that involving being “fulfilled” by “crumbs” in Psalm 17:14-15 (following the Septuagint translation: LXX Ps. 16:14-15). In response, Jesus extols her faith, and grants her original request for the healing of her daughter.
o The phrase, hupokato tês trapêdzes, calls to mind the punishment of Adonibezek, who held kings captive, “making them gather the crumbs from beneath the table” (ta hupokato tês trapêdzes mou,” and who now has the tables turned on him.
o The word translated in verse 27 as “be fed” (chortasthênai) is rare in both the Septuagint and Gospels, but appears in LX Ps. 16:14 as follows: “The children will be fed, and will leave the leftovers to their little ones.”
o The table (trapêdza) of verse 28 may suggest the narrative in 2 Samuel 9:7-13, in which Mephibosheth’s restoration to favor with David is symbolized by his being admitted to the king’s table. This demonstrates the generosity of David, who does not hold Mephibosheth responsible for the sins of his father.
o The force of the Syrophoenician’s implied midrash may be taken as follows: If Adonibezek was condemned for doing no better than to allow foreigners to eat under his table, should not Jews do at least that much? In the allusion to Psalm 16, Jesus’ pejorative reference to Gentiles as “dogs” (in the diminutive form, kunaria) is reinterpreted as the psalmist’s nepioi (“little ones”) who need “to be fed.” The allusion to Mephibosheth suggests that, like him, the Syrophoenician woman and her kin should not be held responsible for the sin (idolatry) of their ancestors.
· The implication of the use of this form in this passage is quite surprising: It not only places the Gentile woman in the role of a rabbi, but depicts her as the only “rabbi” in all the New Testament to win a disputation with Jesus.
· In many respects, the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman embodies the traits of the women we have considered in previous sessions. She is marginal by virtue of both gender and cultural/religious origins. Jesus here, at first, embodies the religious authority which would ignore her plight, regarding her as alien and insignificant to the community of faith. (Here, Jesus stands in precisely the same position elsewhere embodied by the “Pharisees and scribes” in their disputes with Jesus.) This woman, however, like those we considered from the Hebrew Scriptures, finds her voice and speaks back, couching her own experience in Biblical terms, thereby winning for herself a place within the community of faith, and acceptance and affirmation in the eyes of Jesus.
o This typological interpretation is consistent with the emphasis Matthew places on the inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy of several of the women we have encountered; specifically, Tamar (from the Torah), Rahab (from the Prophets) and Ruth (from the Writings). These are three of only four women mentioned in the genealogy, and the only ones mentioned by name. It is also consistent with the correspondences scholars generally recognize between the Gospel of Mark and the Hebrew Scriptures.
· It is possible that Jesus’ words are, as Jerry Cameny-Hoggatt has argued, a form of “peirastic irony—from peiradzein . . . a form of verbal challenge intended to test the other’s response. It may in fact declare the opposite of the speaker’s actual intention” (Irony in Mark’s Gospel; Cambridge UP, 1992). This verbal challenge, though, may be intended as much for the Gospel’s audience as for the woman, alone. It is possible to read Jesus’ response as an embodiment of that of the Christian community. This renders Jesus’ words in the Matthean parallel at verse 28—“O woman, great is your faith!”—all the more significant: For, her faith, the faith of one taken to be an outsider, turns out not to be outside the community, after all. The Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman reveals to the Christian community that their faith—the faith of Jesus—is greater, more inclusive, than they had supposed.
· If the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman appears, at the start of her story, marginal to the Biblical tradition by virtue of her gender, culture and religious background, her story is certainly not marginal in documentary, textual terms: A number of scholars have noted that it occurs at the very center of Mark’s Gospel, and also at the center of a distinct narrative section, 6:30-8:10, bracketed by the two feedings of the multitude. Joanna Dewey describes the periscope as the central point in an extended concentric structure comprising the entire Gospel (Markan Public Debate; Society of Biblical Literature; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1980; chapters 34-37).
· In recent times, the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman, and other apparently marginal figures in the Hebrew and Greco-Christian scriptures, such as those we have encountered in the course of these sessions, have generated a great deal of scholarly interest. It has become fashionable in some circles to depict such an interest as seditious, as constituting an insurrectional reading against the dominant values of the scriptural Canon(s) in which these characters and stories are found. But, the central position of the Syrophoenician woman’s story in Mark, and its relatively central position in Matthew, combined with Matthew’s introductory genealogy which makes prominent mention of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, suggest that this preoccupation with the inclusion of “marginal” figures, while it may be culturally seditious, in fact follows the promptings of the Scriptures, themselves, at least in relation to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.
The same sort of question must be behind these verses from Matthew, verses with which the New Testament begins and which are appointed to be read on the fourth Friday of Advent as we celebrate the coming of Jesus as Messiah: Who is this Jesus? What sort of people is he from? And, what does it mean to call him the Christ, the Messiah?
In some respects, Matthew’s answer would surprise no one: The messiah must descend directly from King David; how else could he legitimately claim to be anointed, like David, to rule over Israel? But, “Joseph, the husband of Mary”? That’s hardly a normal way to refer to a man in a patriarchal culture. And, why mention women at all? After all, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus doesn’t (Lk 3:23-38), and Matthew mostly leaves them out. So, why mention these particular women; three of them, along with Mary, by name: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth? What sets them apart? What do they have in common?
The answer may shock , even today: Each of these women is marginal, both as a woman in a patriarchal culture, and in other respects. Each is of pagan origin. Tamar is presumably an Adullamite. Rahab is an inhabitant of the Canaanite city of Jericho. She, like Ruth the Moabite, is of a race with whom the Torah forbids Israelites to have any dealings.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, each of these women uses sexuality in ways that seemingly defy Biblical proscriptions, but which ultimately lead to the rescue of God‘s chosen. This, along with each woman’s race, demands that the reader re-interpret scripture in a less literal way, giving its overriding spiritual concerns priority over its letter. The widowed Tamar, “playing the harlot,” seduces her father-in-law, Judah, thereby tricking him into living up to his obligation to provide his dead son with an heir. Just as Judah, following biblical law, is poised to have her burned to death for adultery, he is led to recognize that, in this case, this law does not apply, and that her faith has been greater than his own. Rahab, whom later tradition came to recognize as a prophet, does not merely “play” the harlot; she is one. But, she uses the auspices of her “house of ill repute” to rescue the Israelite scouts into the promised land, thereby winning for herself and her posterity a place within Israel. Ruth secretly seduces the aged Boaz, who has apparently abandoned hope for a wife and heir, prior to any arrangement of marriage. Rather than condemn her for licentiousness, he extols her generosity and faithfulness, and creatively reinterprets several laws to win community approval of their marriage.
So, who is this Jesus? He is, yes, the “Christ, child of David, child of Abraham.” But also of Mary, whose pregnancy occurs outside of marriage; of the quasi-adulterous union between David and the wife of Uriah; of Ruth the daughter of a despised and outcast people, Rahab the harlot and Canaanite, and of Tamar, the Canaanite who "plays the harlot." His nature embraces those who exercise authority among the people of God, who interpret and apply the scripture, but also those on the cultural margins, who have most to lose from a spiritually blind preference for its letter over its spirit and intent. Amen.