Skeletons in the Closet
Skeletons in the closet! We all have them. Sometimes they are family. Sometimes they are our friends. Sometimes they are our own. Our tendency is to hide them away, out of public view because we fear embarrassment or shame. We fear the judgment of others.
When my dad was in his mid-twenties, he received a phone call from a funeral home in Gaffney, SC asking him to be a pallbearer for a woman named Cora Lee Babar. He was a bit dumbfounded as he told the funeral director he had no idea who that was. He quickly called his younger brother, who had also received a similar phone call and had the same reaction. They were both at Furman at the time and suspecting that they should have known who she was, they got together and called their father. Poppa shared with them that the lady in question was his sister. Apparently, before they were born, Cora Lee had gone on a shooting spree in downtown Cowpens. Whether or not she was clothed is still a matter of family debate and urban legend. She didn’t hit anybody, but this escapade resulted in her being locked away in the state mental institution for the rest of her life. In all the family gatherings over the years that my dad and his siblings were a part of, she was never mentioned. Poppa was one of thirteen children and they had never counted to see if they knew them all. In the family’s eyes, she was a skeleton in the closet that no one wanted to talk about. For her siblings, Cora Lee had brought shame on the family, and she was hidden away from the family history until her death.
Matthew begins his Gospel with a family history—a genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of Abraham and David. In doing so he reminds the reader of quite a few skeletons in the family tree. A highly unusual feature in his genealogy is the inclusion of the names of four women. Although several of the men in this long lineage have their own skeletons, the fact that Matthew named women who all have questionable reputations is worth our time to explore and reflect.
It is interesting to me that this passage is not included in the Lectionary readings at all but has so much to say theologically, even more so than historically. In reading the Bible, if you are like me, our tendency is to skip the “begat” passages with their long lists of difficult to pronounce names that usually mean nothing to us. If we do this with the Matthew begats, we miss a theological treasure. Today I am only going to address the significance of the women in the passage, but there is much more here if you dare to explore further.
The first woman named is Tamar, probably a Canaanite woman. Her full story is found in Genesis 38 nestled as a nugget in the midst of the story of Joseph. Tamar marries Judah’s oldest son, Er. He dies because he is wicked, so Judah then passes Tamar to his middle son, Onan, to have a child with her on behalf of his dead brother. He sleeps with her but refuses to impregnate her because the child will technically not be his. The Bible say, “What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight so the Lord put him to death, also.” By law, Judah should give Tamar to his youngest son but is scared because the other two have died while being with her. He gives Tamar the excuse that the youngest needs to grow up more so for now she should go back to her father’s house and live as a widow.
Years pass and the youngest son grows up but Judah does not reclaim her as the law required. Tamar has to take matters into her own hands. In the meantime, Judah’s own wife dies. Tamar learns he is going to a town where his sheep are being shorn. She disguises herself and sits outside at another village he would pass along the way. He sees her with her face veiled and assumes she is a prostitute. He requests her services, and she asks him what she will get in return. He promises he will send her a young goat but she wants some collateral. She asks for his seal and his cord, basically his ID. He sleeps with her, and she gets pregnant. She returns to her father’s house and puts back on her widow’s clothing. In the meantime, Judah sends a goat to the village, but the woman cannot be found.
In a few months, word comes to Judah that his daughter-in-law Tamar is pregnant, making her guilty of prostitution. He calls for her to be burned to death. She reveals the seal and the cord. Judah recognizes them as his and declares that she is more righteous than he is. Her life is spared, and she gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. She is a foreigner and an outcast and has used devious but brilliant means to have a child and give her a place in society instead of having to live as a barren widow. She has broken all the rules. Foremost, she is a contributor to the lineage of David and Jesus.
Next we see Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho, She protects two spies who come to plot the takeover of Jericho. She lies to the king’s messengers who come to her brothel to find the spies while she has them hidden on her roof. She sends the messengers off to pursue them in the wilderness. In the meantime, she professes her faith in their God and asks that in exchange for her help, her family be protected from harm when the Israelite army comes to take the city. They give her a scarlet cord to hang in her window and promise her protection. Later, when Jericho falls, Joshua demands that only Rahab the prostitute and her family be spared. She and her family are protected and allowed to live among the Israelites. Some traditions say she became Joshua’s wife, but Matthew’s account has her as the wife of Salmon and mother of Boaz. Some scholars think historically she would be too old to fit here, but Matthew is intentional in her inclusion. She is essential in the genealogy of Jesus.
The third woman is Ruth, a Moabite woman. The Moabite tribe comes about because of incestual relations between Lot and his daughters, and Moabites are generally viewed as inferior, “less than,” by the Jewish people. Ruth accompanies her mother-in-law, Naomi, a Jew, from Moab to Bethlehem following the death of both of their husbands. Ruth voices her intentions to care for Naomi and to follow her God. As a poor widow and an immigrant, Ruth begins to glean wheat and barley in the fields. Boaz shows kindness to her. He makes sure Ruth is treated kindly by his workers and is allowed to collect sufficient food
Naomi comes up with a plan to get Ruth a husband and give them security and a place in the community. Boaz is her chosen one. Naomi has Ruth clean up, complete with perfume, and go to Boaz after his hard day of work on the threshing floor. A tired and imbibed Boaz lies down on the threshing floor to sleep. According to Naomi’s plan, Ruth goes to him and uncovers his feet, a euphemism that shows she is available to him. He awakens and she expresses her willingness to receive him as her Kinsman-redeemer. He is flattered to say the least that she has shown interest in him, an older man. He assures her he will do his best to make those arrangements. He is successful and takes Ruth as his wife. The town rejoices and gives its blessing on him and his offspring. Ruth, a Moabite immigrant with a tricky plot finds her way into the lineage of Jesus and becomes the great grandmother of King David.
The fourth woman is Bathsheba, identified by Matthew as the wife of Uriah, as opposed to her own name. In movies, art, literature, and other interpretations she has been depicted as a vile temptress who sought David’s attention and was a willing adulteress. In the biblical texts about her relationship with David, she is never portrayed as complicit in her sexual encounter with David. David spots Bathsheba from his roof, which towers high above the others in Jerusalem. He finds out who she is and sends his messengers to fetch her. She is brought to the palace, where he sleeps with her, or basically rapes her because she would have been powerless to object. He then sends her home. She sends word later that she is pregnant. Sadly, her husband cannot possibly be the father because he, Uriah the Hittite, is in the army and is out fighting David’s battles. David wants to cover up his activity and sends for Uriah. David tries to send Uriah home to “wash his feet,” once again a euphemism, but Uriah refuses because of his commitment to his role in David’s army. He tells David that it would not be right—quite a contrast to what David has done and will do. To cover up his actions, David asks that Uriah be sent to the front line of battle where he will surely be killed. Once David learns of Uriah’s death, his response back to his general is basically flippant: don’t be upset—the sword devours one as well as another. When Bathsheba learns of Uriah’s death, she mourns him. Then David brings her to his palace to be his wife. The text tells us, “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” The prophet Nathan confronts David about his actions. David finally realizes his sin, but the child he initially conceives with Bathsheba dies. He and Bathsheba later give birth to Solomon, who becomes the next king.
So Uriah’s wife, a victim of rape and a woman made a widow by the selfish actions of powerful King David, is included in the lineage of Jesus. Uriah’s name in the list is quite a contrast to the unrighteousness of David in this situation.
We have explored some of these skeletons in Jesus’ lineage. Matthew intentionally put them there, so what can we learn? We see that God can use surprise and scandal to bring about good. Even though these women are all associated with sexual impropriety, they are clearly identified as ancestors of Jesus. Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth were definitely foreigners—Ruth an immigrant, and Bathsheba was likely a Hittite.
God can take our life situations, our flaws, our sinfulness, our longings, and the things about us that our culture or religious righteousness deem as unacceptable and can redeem them and use them for God’s purposes in the world. These women give me hope that I don’t have to be perfect. In fact, God seems to delight in using people who are not perfect. These women also embody the people that Jesus came for: the poor, the widow, the captive, the broken hearted, the immigrant, the abused, those who were seen as unfit by the religious leaders of the day. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He was compassionate to women, prostitutes, and children, people who had no power. He chose fishermen, a tax collector, and others who were not thought to be worthy as his disciples. He was toughest on those who used their piety to judge, control, and condemn others. He made it clear that he was indeed the Messiah and that his message of salvation was for all the world, not just the Jewish people.
These women are reminders, signs, of the good news of the Gospel. God is love. God sent Jesus out of love for us. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises. God uses people and circumstances that are imperfect to accomplish his work. God can take our skeletons out of the closet and use us for his purposes. We are not called to be perfect to be proclaimers of God’s love. We are called to be faithful.