An Advent with grit

This Advent, Karie Charlton turns to biblical women with stories that are brutal and beautiful, messy and good.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

This year, I welcomed Advent and my period together, which brought a new perspective. If we hear about women’s bodies at all during this church season, we hear about pregnancies, especially the miraculous kind announced with angels’ beautiful singing. But as I shed the lining of my uterus, feeling uncomfortable and cranky, I was reminded that Advent is not always beautiful. All is not calm and bright. And sometimes we need someone to acknowledge that the story of Christ’s birth and the hope of his coming again goes beyond being meek and mild to include grit and grace.

Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus provides that grit by naming Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Their stories are not the ones we usually tell in Advent with hot chocolate and candlelight. No, these are stories that will set fire to the soft straw we tuck around our ceramic nativity sets. This year, I’m inviting them in to my cranky, bloody, Advent season, so I can remember the women whose stories are brutal and beautiful, messy and good.

Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) can be told well only if you first understand the concept of “levirate marriage.” The basic idea is that if your husband dies, his brother is supposed to marry you (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). But Tamar’s in-laws send her away instead of marrying her to the next brother. In Tamar’s time, women had to be attached to a man to survive. Widows lived in poverty. To correct the injustice, at just the right time, she dresses as a sex worker and conceives with her father-in-law Judah. The scandal of a pregnant widow reaches Judah, and in a show of righteous indignation, Judah insists that Tamar be put to death. Then Tamar brings out the seal, cord and staff of the baby’s daddy. When Judah recognizes the items as his own, he says, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar gives birth to twins, Zerah and Perez.

Rahab’s story can be found in Joshua 2 and 6. We probably know Joshua best as the one who fought the battle of Jericho. But before the walls came tumbling down, Joshua sent spies into the city. The spies arrived at the house of Rahab. Her house is in the city wall, the front line when the city is attacked, a place for the poor and oppressed. Some commentaries speculate that she was a keeper of the public house or an innkeeper, but she is also referred in the books of Hebrews and James as a sex worker. Rahab hides the spies and tells the city officials looking for them that they have left town. Then Rahab talks to the Israelite spies. But instead of begging the Israelites to save her family from the coming siege, she shares how she believes in the saving power of Israel’s God.

In Ruth, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi go to Bethlehem without husbands or sons. The childless widows have little hope for a better future. Ruth seeks food for them both by gleaning barley fields. She comes unknowingly to the field of Boaz, a prominent man of the village, who turns out to be a relative of Naomi. When the time of the threshing arrives, Naomi suggests that Ruth prepare herself attractively and approach Boaz during the night as he sleeps by the village threshing floor. Ruth suggests to Boaz that he should marry her. He does, and they have a son, Obed.

Matthew’s genealogy doesn’t use Bathsheba’s name but instead calls her “the wife of Uriah,” pointing out the unusual circumstances of how she and David came to have a son together. Bathsheba’s story is in 2 Samuel 11 and 12.  The headings in the Bible can sum up the story: David commits adultery, David has Uriah killed, and The prophet Nathan tells David he’s been a real jerk. I made up that last one, but you get the point. David confesses his sin. The child dies. Just a few short verses later Solomon is born. Later, when Bathsheba hears Psalm 72 written by David for the coronation of Solomon, which outlines the attributes of God leaders are to emulate: Honesty, fairness, justice, peace and defender of the poor and vulnerable, I wonder if she rolled her eyes or if she was filled with hope.

In Advent we anticipate Christ being born of Mary. During birth, her body painfully broke open. Through blood and tears, generations of women have made this miracle possible.  They have experienced oppression in their lives and violence in their bodies. And yet, in their stories we can find hope; hope that justice will be birthed into the world again. As I stand in the pulpit bleeding and preaching, my body and my words echo their pain and prayers as women of faith will continue to do for generations to come. Maybe blood is beautiful after all.

May Advent be filled with justice and hope, for this generation and the next.