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The Lukan and Matthean accounts of Jesus’ genealogy diverge after David. Matthew traces Jesus’ line through Solomon (and thus traces the royal Davidic line as it is found in the Bible and in Seder Olam). Luke traces a line through Nathan, also a son of David by Bathsheba.
The two lines come together once more in the generations following the deportation to Babylon, where both lines include Shealtiel (Greek, Salathiel) and his son, Zerubbabel (Mt 1:12; Lk 3:27). The generations around Shealtiel and Zerubbabel mark the first major dilemma in untangling the genealogy of Jesus. Three problems may be noted:
- In Matthew, Shealtiel’s father is Jechoniah (aka Jehoiachin). In Luke, Shealtiel’s father is Neri.
- In both Matthew and Luke, Shealtiel is the father of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3:19, however, the father of Zerubbabel is Pedaiah.
- Following Zerubbabel, the genealogies of Jesus once again diverge, with Matthew tracing a lineage through Abiud and Luke tracing a lineage through Rhesa. Presumably, these are two sons of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3, however, the sons of Zerubbabel are listed as Meshullam and Hananiah.
Let us take these issues one at a time.
The Father of Shealtiel
As with Joseph himself, the Matthean and Lukan genealogies both purport to identify the father of Shealtiel, but the two lists disagree! Is Jehoiachin the father of Shealtiel, or is Neri? Seder Olam follows the Old Testament in describing Jehoiachin as the father of Shealtiel with no apparent need for any elaboration on the matter. Luke complicates matters by adding Neri son of Melchi (and his immediate ancestors) to the mix.
Is there any reason to question Jehoiachin’s paternity? Jereremiah 22:30 reports that Jehoiachin (called Coniah in this passage) was condemned to die childless:
Thus says the LORD:
Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.
The early death of Jehoiachin’s son Zedekiah may well have been understood to be the fulfillment of this curse. But if Jehoiachin was childless, this fact at least raises the possibility that, while Shealtiel was the legal heir of Jechoniah, he was not his biological descendant. How can this be?
In Hebrew thought it was a terrible fate for a man to perish without sons to carry on his name. Therefore, several strategies are described in the Old Testament for avoiding this situation:
- If a man died childless, the custom of levirate marriage provided for his widow to marry his brother. (Levir is the Latin word for “brother-in-law.”) The firstborn son of this union was legally reckoned to be the son of the dead man (Deut 25:5-6).
- If a man had daughters but no sons, the custom of Zelophehad adoption permitted him to legally adopt the husband of his oldest daughter (Num 36:1-13), provided they marry within the tribe of their father. The children of this marriage would be considered the grandchildren of their mother’s father.
- If a woman was unable to conceive, there was a custom in the patriarchal period whereby she would provide her husband with a female slave by whom to father children (Gen 16:1-2, 30:1-4). There is no evidence this custom prevailed into exilic or postexilic times.
In light of ancient marriage customs, there are a number of ways a son could be reckoned the legal heir of a man who was not his biological father. This include:
1. Levirate marriage. One possibility is that, once Jehoiachin was imprisoned in Babylon, his wife contracted a levirate marriage with Neri. The firstborn child of this union, Shealtiel, would legally be the heir of Jehoiachin. But one must then ask why there are six others also listed as sons of “Jechoniah the captive” in 1 Chronicles 3. By the levirate custom, the children after Shealtiel would be considered merely sons of Neri and would not appear in the 1 Chronicles genealogy at all.
2. Zelophehad adoption. By this theory, Neri was Shealtiel’s grandfather—the father of his mother. If Neri had no sons, the Zelophehad custom permitted him to adopt the sons of his eldest daughter. If this daughter were married to Jehoiachin, then Shealtiel could be called both the son of Jehoiachin and the son of Neri. By this theory, the line from Shealtiel back to Nathan (Lk 3) represents the ancestry of Shealtiel’s mother, while the line back to Solomon (Mt 1) represents that of his father.
3. Simple adoption. It is possible that Shealtiel was adopted by Neri after the death of Jehoiachin. Assuming he was a minor at the time, Neri may have taken him into his home and raised him as his son. Thus, though biologically the son of Jehoiachin, he became the legal heir of Neri, his distant relative. Alternatively, the adoption might have gone in the other direction. Although I cannot vouch for its accuracy, the Loeb family tree website, a compendium of ancient Jewish (and specifically Davidic) genealogy, offers the following explanation:
King Jeconiah…married Tamar, his cousin, her second marriage, the daughter of the late crown-prince, Johanan, his uncle [i.e., a previously unknown son of King Josiah—DJP], and begot Zedekiah, the crown-prince. The early death of the crown-prince was the fulfillment of “Coniah’s Curse”, placed on King [Je]Coniah’s off-spring by Jeremiah “The Prophet”.
The king adopted his step-sons, the sons of his wife, Tamar, by a previous marriage since they too were of the “royal seed”, that is, her first husband was a Davidic prince.
Some of the details of this report are questionable. Most blatantly, Zedekiah was the son of Josiah and thus the uncle of Jehoiachin, not his son! The remainder is logically coherent, although certainly not proven. For what it’s worth, this report means Neri’s mother later went on to marry Jehoiachin. The king subsequently adopted Neri and Tamar’s children after the death of his own son, Zedekiah (presumably after his release from prison in Babylonia in 561 BC).
I leave it to the reader to decide which, if any, of these alternatives makes the most sense of the data.
According to the book of Jeremiah, God pronounced a curse on Jehoiachin’s line. This is most clearly expressed in Jeremiah 22:28-30. There God declares that none of Jehoiachin’s offspring would ever sit on David’s throne. Jeremiah 36:30 makes a similar pronouncement concerning Jehoiachin’s father Jehoiakim. Some scholars take this pronouncement to describe a permanent condemnation of Jehoiachin’s line. Others believe that Jeremiah’s words were only intended for the near future—the lifetime of Jehoiachin himself.
The theory that the curse upon Jehoiachin was only temporary is buttressed by several facts recorded in the Bible and early Jewish tradition. First, Jehoiachin apparently repented while in exile. The last chapter of 2 Chronicles records how he was elevated from prison and given special honors at the Babylonian court. Although he was not permitted to return to Judah, he is recognized by the Jews as the first Exilarch or ruler of the exiled community in Babylon.
Second, there are also rabbinic sources that indicate God removed the curse on Jehoiachin, which they attribute to his repentance while in prison. For example, according to Leviticus Rabbah 19:6:
The Holy One, blessed be He, then said: “In Jerusalem you did not observe the precept relating to issues, but now you are fulfilling it,” as it is said, As for thee also, because of the blood of thy covenant I send forth thy prisoners out of the pit (Zech 9:11) [which means], You have remembered the blood at Sinai, and for this do “I send forth thy prisoners.” R. Shabbethai said: He [Jeconiah] did not move thence before the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned him all his sins. Referring to this occasion Scripture has said: Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no blemish in thee (Song 4:7). A Heavenly Voice went forth and said to them: ‘Return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings'” (Jer 3:22).
Pesiqta Rabbati 47 records the following:
R. Joshua ben Levi, however, argued as follows: “Repentance sets aside the entire decree, and prayer half the decree. You find that it was so with Jeconiah, king of Judah. For the Holy One, blessed be He, swore in His anger, As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on a hand, yet by My right—note, as R. Meir said, that it was by His right hand that God swore—I would pluck thee hence (Jer 22:24). And what was decreed against Jeconiah? That he die childless. As is said Write ye this man childless (Jer 22:30). But as soon as he avowed penitence, the Holy One, blessed be He, set aside the decree, as is shown by Scripture’s reference to the sons of Jeconiah”—the same is Assir—Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron 3:17). And Scripture says further: In that day … will I take thee, O Zerubbabel…the son of Shealtiel…and will make thee as a signet (Hag 2:23). Behold, then how penitence can set aside the entire decree!
According to these sources, the curse was lifted because of Jehoiachin’s repentance. (See also b.Sanhedrin 37b-38a; Pesiqta de Rab Kahana; and Numbers Rabbah 20:20.)
In any event, the Bible is unanimous in casting Zerubbabel as the rightful heir and legal successor of Jehoiachin. Later rabbinic speculation insisted in no uncertain terms that the Messiah would be a descendant of Zerubbabel. The medieval Tanhuma Genesis states:
Scripture alludes here to the verse, “Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? Thou shalt become a plain” (Zech 4:7). This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David…. From whom will the Messiah descend? From Zerubbabel.
Any plausible claim on behalf of Jesus’ messiahship would have to involve descent from Zerubbabel (Hag 2:21-23), regardless of any irregularities surrounding the legacy of his grandfather Jechoiachin.
The last king of Judah was Zedekiah, a son of Josiah, whom the Babylonians defeated in 587 BC. Ten years previously, Zedekiah’s predecessor and nephew Jehoiachin (Matthew’s “Jeconiah”) was carried into Babylonian exile. In Babylon, his descendants (mainly in the line of Hananiah son of Zerubbabel) were prominent leaders of the exiled community. At some point, they began to be called by title “exilarch,” a Greek rendition of the Aramaic title resh galuta’, “head of the exiled community.” The Exilarchs enjoyed a life of ease and much of the pomp and pageantry associated with royalty, but their actual authority was restricted to internal Jewish matters. In the land of Israel, the post-exilic fortunes of the house of David are a bit more murky.
The Lay Nobility
In Eretz Israel, those who reorganized the nation following the Exile made the ancient ruling families the basis of order. Originally, the heads of these prominent families were the rulers of the various tribes. These dominant families had probably already assumed leadership of the people during the exile, when they may have served as rulers and judges (Ezek 8:1; 20:1). Later, many Jews returned to their homeland, at which point these family patriarchs functioned as representatives of the people. It was they who negotiated with the Persian provincial governor (Ezr 5:9ff) and, in association with the “governor of the Jews,” directed the reconstruction of the Temple (Ezr 5:5, 9; 6:7-8, 14).
This lay nobility is often described in rabbinic literature as “the eminent men of the generation,” “the eminent men of Jerusalem,” or “the leading men of Jerusalem” (Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus [Fortress, 1969] 225). We read of them in the New Testament, where Luke speaks of “the principle men of the people” (Lk 19:47). Jeremias argues that the many references to “the elders” of Israel, who with the chief priests and scribes constituted the Sanhedrin, in fact describe this lay nobility. For the most part, they would have held to Sadducean values and beliefs (Jeremias, 228-229). Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43; Mt 27:57; Lk 23:50-51; Jn 19:38-42), a rich landownder, was probably a representative member of this group.
Who were the members of the lay nobility? A passage from the Mishnah (m.Taan 4:5) provides a list of the privileged families who were entitled to supply wood for the altar. These families are:
- “on the 1st of Nisan, by the family of Arah of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:5; Neh 7:10];
- on the 20th of Tammuz, by the family of David of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 8:2];
- on the 5th of Ab, by the family of Parosh of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:3; 8:3; 10:25; Neh 3:25; 7:8; 10:15];
- on the 7th of the self-same month, by the family of Jonadab the son of Rechab [cf. 2 Ki 10:15, 23; Jer 35:8; 1 Ch 2:55];
- on the 10th by the family of Senaa of the tribe of Benjamin [cf. Ezr 2:35; Neh 3:3; 7:38; 11:9];
- on the 15th by the family of Zattuel of the tribe of Judah [cf. Zattu: Ezr 2:9; 10:27; Neh 7:13; 10:15] together with the priests and Levites and all whose tribal descent was in doubt and [or “namely”] the family of the Pestle-smugglers [or Mortar-smugglers: b.Taan 28a] and the family of Fig-pressers;
- on the 20th of the same month [it was brought] by the family of Pahath Moab of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:6; 8:4; 10:30; Neh 3:11; 7:11; 10:15];
- on the 20th of Elul, by the family of Adin of the tribe of Judah [cf. Ezr 2:15; 8:6; Neh 7:20; 10:17];
- on the 1st of Tebet…an additional offering, and a wood offering [by the family of Parosh].” (Jeremias, 226-227).
This list is most likely from the early post-exilic period, probably deriving directly from the casting of lots to provide wood recorded in Neh 10:35-37 and 13:31 (Jeremias, 227). Their ability to provide wood needed for the sacrificial cultus indicates that they were people of some means, and that their position could involve financial sacrifice.
The family of David is included among the patrician families of post-exilic Israel, as would be expected. The entire patrician class, however, comprised a very small group. Elishah ben Abuyah (born before AD 70) stated: “My father Abuyah was one of the notable men of Jerusalem. At my circumcision he invited all the notables of Jerusalem” (Jeremias, 225). This suggests that the “notables of Jerusalem” could all gather in one room and formed a close social circle. The Bible recognizes three distinct Davidic lines that issued from Zerubbabel. If he had a foreign wife whom he divorced in compliance with Ezra’s reforms (Ezr 10:16ff), there were likely other lines as well (and later Jewish tradition in fact claims he had two foreign wives). It is likely that the full prestige of Davidic ancestry—and the full burden of civic responsibilities—would fall only on the line of Meshullam, Zerubbabel’s eldest son (from a Jewish mother).
Social Function of the House of David
In practical terms, what did membership in the house of David mean in the time of Jesus? Senior members of the family would have been members of the Sanhedrin, as noted above. With the rest of the Sanhedrin, they had a ceremonial duty on the Day of Atonement in accompanying the man who led the “goat for Azazel” into the wilderness (m.Yom 1:5). They would also have been responsible for their family’s offering of wood for the altar on the 20th of Tammuz every year.
Overall, however, the importance of the lay nobility in general was not very great in the time of Jesus, as is demonstrated by the meagerness of the evidence (Jeremias, 222). The Talmud relates that the custom during the Second Temple period was that the kingship belonged to the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, which wielded political power. On religious matters, however, the people were led by a “Prince” or “Patriarch” (nasi’). The nesi’im were either of Davidic descent or, if not, were appointed by an assembly of judges or by the Sanhedrin.
At this point, we need to consider another prominent line in the Davidic genealogy: that of Hillel the Great. By the end of the first century and especially after the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 AD, the Palestinian nesi’im were usually chosen from among Hillel’s descendants, apparently beginning as early as Gamaliel II (90-110). By rabbinic tradition, Hillel was a descendant of Elnathan, governor of Judea in the post-Exilic period, who was in turn a descendant of David through his son Shephatiah. He thus belonged to a non-royal Davidic line in his patrilineal descent. Elnathan, however, married Shelomith, the daughter of Zerubbabel and thus of the Solomonic line. This makes Hillel a descendant of David through two different ancestral lines, that of Solomon and that of Shephatiah, comparable to the way Jesus’ genealogy is traced through both Solomon (Mt) and Nathan (Lk).
Hillel was the spiritual leader in Israel circa 30 BC–AD 10. He rose to that position when Shemaiah and Abtalion, the non-Davidic leaders who preceded him, conceded his prowess at halachic interpretation(see t.Pes 4; b.Pes 66a; y.Pes 33a). He thus became nasi’ because of his scholarship, not his bloodline. Even so, Hillel’s pedigree did not escape notice, especially as his descendants continued to serve as religious authorities. Not only did the Jews of late antiquity accept the Davidic heritage of the Hillelite nesi’im, some held messianic expectations concerning them. According to Hayes,
A tradition attributing Davidic lineage to the patriarchs led to messianic speculation regarding them. Some rabbinic figures attacked this position, as did the church fathers in the Byzantine period. The office, which was held by descendants of Hillel, was abolished by the authorities in Palestine in 425 BCE (Christine E. Hayes, “Nasi’,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder [Oxford, 1997], 494).
The social role of the Davidic dynasty was thus much different in the time of Jesus than it was 600 years previously. Rather than being kings and warriors, the most prominent heirs of David were halachic interpreters. This shift no doubt served to enhance the general expectation of a Davidic messiah, both by highlighting the religious significance of the dynasty and by simultaneously denying it the trappings—and the accompanying power—of royalty.
What might life have been like for members of the house of David who did not occupy the most senior positions in the family? Here there are numerous traditions, both Jewish and Christian, that point to the possibility that many Davidides lived quite modestly.
To continue with Hillel: the great halachic scholar was born to a wealthy family of merchants in Babylonia (b.Sotah 21a). He wanted to study the Torah, however, and his parents did not approve of this decision. Therefore he traveled to Jerusalem without their financial support and worked as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished.
According to Christian tradition, Mary’s father Joachim was a shepherd with a sizeable flock, but he consistently donated most of it for sacrifice in the temple or for the poor, resulting in a very modest lifestyle for him and his wife.
The common thread in both of these stories is the theme of voluntary poverty in the service of God. Hillel turned his back on a life of ease in order to study the Torah; Joachim gave away much of his wealth in the service of God.
It is beyond dispute that Joseph and Mary were poor. According to Luke 2:24, they did not offer the customary offering of a pigeon or turtledove and a lamb when presenting Jesus in the Temple (Lev 12:6-8). Rather, they took advantage of a provision in the Mosaic law that allowed those of modest means to offer a less costly sacrifice: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24). This was actual poverty—more like Hillel who legitimately could not pay for his classes than like Joachim who gave freely out of his abundance. Everything the Bible tells us Joseph and Mary’s character indicate that if they had the means to provide a lamb, they would have done so.
But how did they arrive at this state of poverty? Was it by choice like Hillel? Hillel became poor because he separated himself from his father’s financial support in order to study Torah. Was there some motivation for Joseph to cut himself off from a ready source of wealth for some religious goal? It may well be that Joseph, “a righteous man,” customarily gave as much to charity as possible. In other words, he had wealth enough but chose to spend almost all of it on others. Perhaps this is what he did with the gifts of the Magi (Mt 2:12). But again, this theory does not jibe with his inability to offer a lamb for Jesus—which was also a religious obligation a righteous man would be duty-bound to honor if at all possible.
Other factors were almost certainly involved. One possibility has to do with Herod’s rise to power in 37 BC. At this time, Josephus reports, Herod put to death “all the members” of the Sanhedrin (Ant. 14:175). According to Antiquities 15:6, he also put to death “forty-five of the principal men of the party of [the Hasmonean priest-king] Antigonus.” In short, Herod would not tolerate any threats to his power and dealt with any potential rivals with swift brutality. Throughout his long reign not even his own wives and sons were safe from his jealousy. Matthews account of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Mt 2:16) is not at all out of character with what we know of Herod from extrabiblical sources.
Furthermore, we should note that Herod’s own precarious claim to the throne rested more in his alliance with Rome than with his own pedigree. Herod was an ethnic Idumean, and even though this people had previously converted en masse to Judaism, the fact remains that he was a descendant of Edomites (cf. Obad). This fact helps to explain his agitation at news of one “born king of the Jews” in Matthew 2:2.
It is thus entirely possible that any Davidic claimant might have become a victim of Herod’s thirst for power. Clearly, some Davidides (those who were members of the Sanhedrin when Herod came to power, as well as any partisans of Antigonus) were killed outright. It does not require much imagination to envision others fleeing houses and lands to protect themselves and their families.
Might Joseph’s own father have lost his life or livelihood in Herod’s rampage? In such a situation, Joseph (or his father) may well have been reduced to poverty and chosen to “lay low” in Nazareth, far from Jerusalem, supporting himself by working as a simple carpenter.
Bauckham in fact raises the intriguing possibility that there may in fact be documentary evidence about Joseph’s net worth (“The Relatives of Jesus,” Themelios 21/2 (1996) 18-21). He draws attention to the tradition, preserved by Hegesippus, that Zoker and James, the grandsons of Jude, “the Lord’s brother,” were poor farmers. When asked about their possessions by the emperor Domitian,
they said that between the two of them they had only nine thousand denarii, half belonging to each of them; and this they asserted they had not as money, but only in thirty-nine plethra of land, so valued, from which by their own labor they both paid the taxes and supported themselves.
Some of the details of this story are historically improbable, as Bauckham admits. Even so, the size and value given for the land the two brothers held in common is so specific that it is hard not to believe it rests on some kernel of accurate tradition. The size of the family’s smallholding in Nazareth may have been well known in the circle of Jesus’ followers. Bauckham raises the possibility that this parcel of land belonged to the family of Jesus for several generations. He writes,
The farm was not divided between the brothers, but owned jointly, no doubt because this family continued the old Jewish tradition of keeping a smallholding undivided as the joint property of the ‘father’s house,’ rather than dividing it between heirs. So, two [sic] generations back, this farm would have belonged to Joseph and his brother Clopas. Unfortunately, because there are two possible sizes of the plethron, it seems impossible to be sure of the size of the farm: it may be either about 24 acres or about 12 acres. In either case, this is not much land to support two families…
Especially two families among which there were at least seven children. Therefore it would not be surprising for Joseph—and Jesus—to supplement the family income by working as a carpenter. Bauckham continues,
As in the case of many village artisans, Joseph’s trade was not an alternative to working the land, but a way of surviving when the family smallholding could no longer fully support the family. It did not necessarily put Jesus’ family any higher on the social ladder than most of the peasant farmers of Nazareth.
Next: The Texts
I somehow missed this article when it came out in New Testament Studies a few years back, but Brice C. Jones has the scoop on Stephen Carlson’s interpretation of the κατάλυμα (katalyma) in Luke 2:7, traditionally—yet erroneously—rendered “inn.”
I don’t know of any adult Bible readers who think of this space as the Bethlehem equivalent of a Motel 6. I’ve usually heard it explained as the guest room of a private home. Carlson’s interpretation takes it one step further by paying close attention to the marital and living customs of first-century Judaism:
“Luke’s infancy narrative therefore presupposes the following events. Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2.5). Bethlehem was his hometown (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12.2–8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family’s town (v. 39; cf. 1.26–27). To be sure, this scenario as presupposed in Luke’s infancy account diverges greatly from the conventional Christmas story. There is no inn, no innkeeper, and no stable. But it is grounded in a careful exegesis of the text.”
Scot McKnight reviews Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship (Brazos, 2015). Vowed, formalized, celibate, same-sex friendship was a real thing in the Middle Ages. Hill sees it as something that needs to be recaptured.
The Amazon summary reads,
Friendship is a relationship like no other. Unlike the relationships we are born into, we choose our friends. It is also tenuous–we can end a friendship at any time. But should friendship be so free and unconstrained? Although our culture tends to pay more attention to romantic love, marriage, family, and other forms of community, friendship is a genuine love in its own right. This eloquent book reminds us that Scripture and tradition have a high view of friendship. Single Christians, particularly those who are gay and celibate, may find it is a form of love to which they are especially called.
Writing with deep empathy and with fidelity to historic Christian teaching, Wesley Hill retrieves a rich understanding of friendship as a spiritual vocation and explains how the church can foster friendship as a basic component of Christian discipleship. He helps us reimagine friendship as a robust form of love that is worthy of honor and attention in communities of faith. This book sets forth a positive calling for celibate gay Christians and suggests practical ways for all Christians to cultivate stronger friendships.
And McKnight closes his review with this quotation:
I find myself wondering which is the greater danger—the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness ? A great company of saints witnesses to the fact that we can indeed flourish without romance, marriage, or children; I don’t know of one who witnesses to the possibility of our flourishing without love altogether (41).
So, one of the reasons I haven’t been blogging as much lately is that I’ve been working working on the Galatians volume of the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Marion Soards has ably handled the exposition; I’m responsible for supplementary materials: sidebars, sermon/teaching ideas, and so forth. My deadline is still about a month away, so I’m still going to be fairly quiet around here, but I thought I’d repost a bit on the reception history of the Hagar story from Genesis that, you may know, figures prominently in Galatians 4.
In chapter 1 of Reading the Bible with the Dead, John L. Thompson surveys the history of Christian interpretation of Hagar, Abraham’s wife-concubine whose story is told mainly in Genesis 16 and 21. Hagar enters the biblical narrative as Sarah’s Egyptian slave, forced to sleep with her husband Abraham in an ill-advised scheme to produce for him an heir. She is used, abused, and then cast out of the family when, after the birth of Isaac to Sarah, it was deemed she had outlived her usefulness.
In Galatians 4, Paul used Hagar yet again—this time as an allegory for slavery to the Mosaic law. The “throw-away” sexual surrogate becomes a symbol of all that is second-rate in the economy of God. But such readings miss some amazing details of Hagar’s depiction in the book of Genesis, and Thompson credits feminist interpreters with bringing these details to light. Three observations and criticisms have registered with respect to Hagar’s story in Genesis. First, there is the concern “to recognize and recover the dignity, eminence, and even the exemplary character of Hagar” (15). Second, other feminist interpreters take an opposite approach by calling attention to what Hagar suffered and what this tells us about the character of Abraham (and Sarah). Finally, Hagar’s story has drawn attention to what may be called “the sins of the narrator” (16), the subtle clues in the text that betray the patriarchal biases of the storyteller himself, if not the Deity behind the action.
After this brief introduction to the problems surrounding the Hagar narratives, Thompson raises the question to which many modern interpreters believe they already have the answer: Has the church forgotten Hagar? In fact, Thompson finds that interpreters of previous generations had long struggled with the disparities of these biblical texts—and often came to conclusions quite similar to those of modern feminists.
Did Paul’s Allegory Win?
In answer to the first concern, that of recognizing the positive dimensions of Hagar’s character, Thompson notes that there were, in fact, two strands of allegorical thought surrounding Hagar. The one in Galatians 4 we know, but ancient interpreters realized this was only one piece of the puzzle. For Philo of Alexandria, the symbolism of Hagar was the “preliminary teachings” that the wise must study on their way to true wisdom (symbolized by Sarah).
For Origen as well, Hagar does not represent a literal wife or a fleshly union, “but rather the virtue of wisdom” (19). Abraham thus did not take on a second wife, but a second virtue. Her expulsion from Abraham’s camp provides a contrast between the meager skin of water with which she is provided and the divine spring she discovers in the wilderness. She is thus like the Samaritan woman of John 4: “both had their eyes opened to see a well of living water, which in each case was Jesus Christ” (19).
Later patristic interpreters likewise found in Hagar some symbol of godly virtues. For Didymus the Blind, Hagar could only symbolize these virtues because, as a historical person, she possessed them in a literal way, “as evidenced by her good behavior and her worthiness to receive heavenly visitations” (19). He even invokes Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” to argue that, since she had a divine vision, Hagar must have been pure in heart.
In all of the patristic era, Augustine is virtually alone in attributing purely negative characteristics to Hagar. For him, she is a figure of heresy. Into the medieval period, the church’s assessment owes more to Origen and Didymus than to the bishop of Hippo.
Abraham on Trial
Nor does the early church let Abraham off the hook for his despicable treatment of Hagar. The earliest worries about Abraham expelling Hagar and her son Ishmael come from the rabbis. In Genesis Rabbah, there is great interest in the meaning of the Hebrew term in Genesis 21:9 where Ishmael is “playing” with Isaac. For the rabbis, this term was associated with shameful deeds—”fornication, or idolatry, or attempted homicide” (23). Whether these speculations are true, it must be said that they apparently arose out of a sense of discomfort with Abraham’s seeming extreme reaction against Ishmael’s otherwise innocent behavior.
The disparity between Ishmael’s “crime” and the “punishment” inflicted by Abraham captured the attention of Christian writers as well. John Chrysostom “attributes great reservations to Abraham over the severity and oppressiveness of Sarah’s plan to evice Hagar and Ishmael. A few years later, preaching on Galatians, he makes some similar moves, arguing that only the stirrings of divine providence can account for this event, for otherwise the penalty would be vastly more serious than Ishmael’s brashness warranted” (23).
Abraham’s severity in this episode was a preoccupation of Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout the Middle Ages, with varying success. Thompson explains,
Rashi reported that Hagar’s “wandering” in Genesis 21:4 may have implied her moral wandering into idolatry, while Abraham Ibn Ezra insisted that later on, after Sarah’s death, Abraham lavished gifts upon Ishmael’s children. None of the rabbis, however, nor any Christian commentator, can equal the blunt confession of Rabbi Nachman, writing in the thirteenth century: “Sarah sinned in afflicting her, and also Abraham for permitting it. God hearkened to Hagar’s cry, and as a result her descendants persecute and afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah. (24)
Christian interpreters as well wrestled with the questionable morality of Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar. Thompson lists Cardinal Cajetán, Conrad Pellican, Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Martin Luther as Christians who noted the ethical problems with this text. He quotes Luther’s assessment,
Abraham simply sends away his beloved spouse, she who first made him a father, along with his firstborn son, giving them only a sack of bread and a skin of water…. But does it not seem cruel that a mother burdened with offspring should be dismissed so miserably, and that, to an unknown destination, indeed, into a vast and arid desert? … If someone wanted to rant against Abraham at this point, he could make him the murderer of his son and wife…. Who would believe this if Moses had not recorded it? (25)
None of these precritical interpreters intended to hang Abraham without a trial. On the contrary, they strove to find a way to harmonize the actions of the biblical characters with the moral standards they learned in Christ. But as Thompson notes, “If some [commentators] appear to have worked overtime to exonerate Abraham, they never lost sight of the seriousness of the charge against the patriarch nor brushed aside the terror inflicted on Hagar and her son” (25-26).
What then about the “sins of the narrator” in how Hagar’s story is told? Feminist interpreters charge that traditional, patriarchal exegesis has locked Hagar into “a petty and stereotypical role” (26) and whitewashed the injustices committed against her. But Thompson argues the history of exegesis of these passages does not quite fit this billing. “They are admittedly patriarchal, albeit in an unconscious way,” Thompson argues, “and they are capable of succumbing to gender stereotyping, but they show a surprising tendency to rise above these traits in pursuit not only of ‘literal’ exegesis but also in defense of Hagar” (26).
Again, Thompson surveys numerous commentators, this time from the Reformation era. Zwingli, Pellican, Musculus, and Luther all characterize Hagar as a humble, pious woman, despite the culturally bound gender stereotypes within which they worked. Musculus in particular believed Hagar had every reason to complain of her treatment. He even admits that “Hagar would not have sinned had she voiced some of her complaints. AFter all, Job and Jeremiah offered laments, and even Christ cried out fromthe cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (27). Luther could even speak of the godliness of “saintly Hagar” (28) and ponder how her experience is a figure of the Christian path from humiliation to faith and repentance.
Hagar in Church and Pulpit
Reading the story of Hagar with the dead offers a payoff to Christians today. Freely admitting that not every early interpreter saw Hagar in such a sympathetic light (Augustine and Calvin in particular are noted for being “curiously untouched by the various expressions of interest and sympathy that most commentators drew from this biblical text,” 29), Thompson suggests there are four key lessons we can learn from the history of exegesis of Hagar’s story (29-31):
- Hagar is Important. Any incursion into the patriarchal narratives that treats Hagar as the lectionary has mostly done, excising the dubious deeds of Abraham as well as Hagar’s own triumphs and travails, is at once a betrayal of the integrity of the biblical text and the squandering of a rich homiletical opportunity.
- Hagar’s Story Is Terrifying. Nothing is gained by “reading for the center” so as to pretend that Hagar’s misfortunes did not happen or that they weren’t so bad after all, given the happy ending that came her way.
- Hagar Is More than a Symbol. Despite the precedent offered by Paul’s allegory of Hagar as a figure or type of those who foolishly sought justification through the law, Galatians 4 should not erase or upstage the compelling portrait of Hagar in Genesis.
- Hagar Is Connected to Us by Our Own Tradition. If it is dysfunctional to ignore Scripture’s silences, it is hardly better for preachers to suppose they can fix the Bible alone, by exercising their own authority or creativity. Instead, congregations ought to be reconnected to Christian tradition by being reminded of the witness of past interpreters.
A final note: Thompson covers vast swaths of history of interpretation in only a few pages. While at one level I would have preferred more extensive quotation from the primary sources, I appreciate that this would make the book large and unwieldy. He provides a 28-page “Finding Guide” at the back, broken down by biblical book, of the major historical interpreters whose works are currently available in English. Readers who want to check Thompson’s citations and do additional research are thus armed for the task.
Christ is born! Glorify him!
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God’s Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Interviewed by Baptist Press, Licona expressed what every New Testament scholar in the world knows: that the Gospels sometimes take the same sorts of liberties in telling the story of Jesus that other ancient Greek biographies take in telling the stories of their subjects. In other words, these differences of presentation—some may rise to the level of “contradiction”—are within the expected tolerances for the sort of literature they are.
Of course, saying out loud what reputable experts know is a serious no-no in some provinces of Baptistland. Chaplain Mike of Internet Monk hits the nail on the head:
Ironically, in the interview Licona was actually trying to increase Christians’ trust in the reliability of the New Testament by pointing out that what we might consider “contradictions” according to our post-Enlightenment standards of historical veracity were simply characteristic of the way historians wrote then. He also affirmed that these “contradictions” were all written with regard to peripheral details in the accounts and not major points. In addition, he suggested that what we are really talking about here in the vast majority of cases are “differences” and that there is only a handful of stubborn differences that might rise to the level of actual contradictions — and again, even if they did, these relate only to peripheral details.
This, however, was not good enough for Al Mohler, who was involved in another dispute involving Licona’s understanding of Scripture in 2011. In that case, even though Licona wrote a book which strongly defended the literal resurrection, his handling of one pericope (Matthew 27:51-53) as a “poetic device” fell short in Mohler’s eyes and “ “handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon.”
With regard to the dispute we are considering today, Dr. Mohler has commented, “It would be nonsense to affirm real contradictions in the Bible and then to affirm inerrancy.” He was not satisfied with Licona’s suggestion that certain forms of inerrancy might be ruled out by his approach. “What you lose is inerrancy itself,” Mohler asserted.
Whatever. Personally, I much prefer to deal with the Bible as it truly is rather than what I might wish it to be.
To the extent that it is possible for a lifelong Baptist to have a patron saint, Joseph of Nazareth is one of two that I will claim. (The other is Vincent of Lérins, whose feast day is May 24.) I’m drawn to his story as a loyal, humble husband and father. I know what it’s like to need to find a new place to live—and in a hurry! Here are some of the lessons Christians can learn from Joseph:
1. Meat-and-potatoes spirituality. Joseph was not a prophet, priest, or rabbi. He was simply a “righteous man” who tried to do what was right, based on the laws and traditions of Israel. He ensured that Jesus was properly received into the Jewish community through circumcision and the ceremony for the redemption of the firstborn. He participated in at least some of the pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem. Even his early inclination divorce Mary discreetly when he suspected she was unfaithful grew out of his commitment to the Torah. People who make their living with their hands don’t as a rule have much time for abstractions, but they can be very good at a lot of old-fashioned spiritual disciplines like honesty, generosity, consistency, and hard work.
2. Openness to mystery. All this does not mean, however, that Joseph merely went through the motions of his religion. It is clear that he was open to hearing something fresh from God. On a number of occasions, angels delivered important information or instructions through his dreams.
3. Family as a vehicle for devotion. We remember Joseph because he took care of his family. That is his spiritual legacy: not sermons, miracles, epistles, or missionary travels. In a lot of depictions of the Nativity, Joseph is portrayed with a worried expression on his face. Even at the incarnation Joseph, we are led to believe, was wondering how he was ever going to take care of his wife and her newborn son. He may not have been the most pious or well-educated man in Israel—and he was certainly not the richest—but he gave his all to the people he loved.
4. Actions, not words. There is not a single recorded word of Joseph in the New Testament. There is no Magnificat when the angel announces that Mary’s son is the promised Messiah—or even a bewildered “How can this be?” There are no gentle words to Mary when he tells her he has changed his mind and wants to go through with the wedding. Nor are there any bold challenges to any who would question Mary’s honor. We know what Joseph is like not because of anything he says, but because of what he does.
O God, who called your servant Joseph to be the faithful guardian of your incarnate Son, and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to follow his example in constant worship of you and obedience to your commands, that our homes may be sanctified by your presence, and our children nurtured in your fear and love, through the same your son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Eighth Lesson:
The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12)
The Sixth Lesson:
St Luke tells of the birth of Jesus.
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. All returned to their own towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the village inn. (Luke 2:1, 3-7, NLT)
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”