Thanking our biblical foremothers
Feminism may have been inconceivable in biblical patriarchy, but it burned bright and true in the hearts of many women, including a rare few acknowledged as Jesus’ ancestors. Thanks to them, my faith is a wellspring of my feminism.
They broke the rules and defied convention, thus earning their place in the endless patriarchal sea of “begats” — males begetting males as if women had nothing to do with it: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. (A more inclusive list would include Eve, Bathsheba, and Mary, but space limits.)
Tamar means dates (both fruit and palm) in Hebrew, but her story has more in common with the Asian sweet-sour tamarind. Wife to the eldest of the patriarch Judah’s three sons, she is widowed childless, marries the second son but again is widowed childless. The law of the levirate obliges Judah to promise her marriage to the third son, but it is an empty promise.
Consigned to the netherworld of permanent widowhood, Tamar dresses up as a veiled prostitute, waylays Judah, now a widower, as he travels the countryside, and seeks his personal effects (seal, staff, cord) as security. Soon she is pregnant and at risk of death by burning for her “whoring.” When Judah later realizes that his is the greater sin for breaking a promise, he leaves her alone. Tamar has twins, from one of whom is descended Boaz; but first, a look at his mother Rahab.
A prostitute in Jericho, Rahab shelters two Israelite spies sent by Joshua for reconnaissance. In exchange for safe passage, she asks protection for her kin from the impending destruction. Although she is a Canaanite, testimonies of God’s saving deeds tell her that YHWH is different from their pagan idols and is the one true God.
As riveting as Rahab’s tale is, we must move on to the story of Ruth. Three widows in Moab (enemy territory) are led by Naomi, who enjoins daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to return to their Moabite mothers’ homes for they are all bereft of cash and possessions. Orpah accedes but Ruth protests, with a declaration of love unparalleled in the entire Bible: “… where you go, I will go, your people will be my people and your God, my God …” They return to Israel where the stranger, the widow, and the orphan can glean leftovers of grain, grape, and olive. They glean in the fields of the wealthy Boaz (Rahab’s son) who, as second next of kin, redeems the land of Naomi’s late husband and marries Ruth. But sage strategizing by Naomi helps earn Ruth this second husband with whom she starts a line which, 30 generations later, ensues in Jesus.
I end with two points. The first is a paradox. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, yet it is his line that is honored in scroll and poetry. The “lion of Judah” and “root of David” glorify his ancestors. There is a straight line from Abraham to Joseph, with some zigs and zags which constitute the second point. (Sorry, nothing about Mary’s line.)
The relentless march of male names in biblical genealogies renders women invisible. They earn their place in Jesus’ lineage precisely because they flout the law and rewrite the rules. They are not prim and proper; they are foreigners and originally impure, they are bold and brazen, making the first move; they are tagged harlots. Yet from Tamar and Rahab and Ruth are descended Jesus, in some ways more than from the males, for how could Jesus deal so freely with the law?
As we celebrate March 8, we thank them for showing us how to (re)claim our brawn and wit, our spaces and voices, our loves and lives—long before feminism was born.
And, as always, we thank God, for She provides.
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Jurgette Honculada has been with the feminist organization Pilipina since the ’80s.
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