Last week, approximately a month too late, we finally had our Gospel Doctrine class on the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2; Luke 2). I decided to pick up the story a little earlier and discuss Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (actually Joseph) in Matthew 1. We discussed a number of issues related to this genealogy, and I wanted to end by discussing the women listed in that genealogy. Women were not typically listed in Hebrew genealogies (see the Old Testament), so this makes Matthew’s exceptional in that regard. Matthew’s genealogy lists four women (five if you count Mary)- Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. On first glance, not a terribly auspicious group. Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah, Rahab was a prostitute who betrayed her own city of Jericho (to the benefit of the Israelites), and Bathsheba was an adulteress for whom David slew Uriah the Hittite, which leaves Ruth, who went by night and after uncovering his “feet,” slept beside a strange man. I remarked to the class that this was a group of “scandalous” women, and apparently, as a whole, not one dedicated to our contemporary ideals of modesty or chastity. A member of the class took serious issue with my depiction of Ruth as being like the other “scandalous” women. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that, even if pure and virtuous, Ruth is “scandalous” by her inclusion in the lineage of David (and later Jesus), even though she was a “Moabitess,” a non-Israelite by birth. Moreover, as pointed out in a footnote to the NRSV, in ancient Hebrew literature, sometimes a “foot” is not just a foot. I’ll keep this PG-13 by not making that point more explicit. Whether Ruth was or was not a virtuous woman is really completely beside the point I am trying to make, and was beside the larger point that I was making in discussing the inclusion of these women in Jesus’ genealogy.
The distressing tendency of female Biblical figures to fall into the Madonna/whore dichotomy (and disproportionately on the latter side of the division) is well known, and its too disturbing to elaborate on here. My purpose is to point out that we have an inability to appreciate and find meaning in the stories and lives of characters in the scriptures, unless they can be simply categorized as a paragon of virtue or a cautionary tale. Ruth, in the LDS Church, has been cast in the virtuous role, and there is a cultural blind spot to those parts of her tale that do not seem to conform with this preconceived notion. There are likewise figures on the other side, whose virtues are too easily ignored because of the role in which they are cast. We ought to have greater appreciation for the fact that these facile categories obscure more about human nature than their elucidate, particularly given that the space between triumphant virtue and abject moral failure is one that most of us occupy every day of our lives.