Cunning women in biblical patriarchy
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2020 - 12:00am

Lent has come early to many places, not just Christendom, with the COVID-19 virus wreaking havoc on countries and communities, industries and economies with the worst yet to come.

Through the present chaos and crisis, we must not forget that we need to take a long, hard look at women. We need to track our gains and our deficits. And part of acknowledging our gains is giving thanks to the women who came long before us, who helped pave the way.

To do this fellow-Sillimanian and third-generation Protestant, Jurgette Honculada, goes way, way back to biblical times. She recalls that in the 1980s, she despaired of a faith that was, in part, so unapologetically patriarchal. She adds that what greatly helped rescue this faith was feminist theology which reclaimed women in the Bible who found ways to transcend, if not subvert, this seemingly incorrigible patriarchy.

Jurgette graduated from Silliman University in 1968 with a Bachelor of Journalism degree, summa cum laude. Semi-retired retired now (in her early 70s). Over the decades she has been engaged in the trade union and women’s movements, more specifically in women’s advocacy and trade union and gender education and training.

In reflections shared with me, Jurgette pays tribute to three women who stand the law on its head by predating the injunction to be “as cunning as serpents and gentle as doves.” They break the rules and thus make it to the “sea of begats” that constitutes Jesus’ lineage, all of 42 generations starting with Abraham. Jurgette wryly notes that women are mentioned only five times “meaning to say that in the 37 begettings, women did not figure at all?” (The two other women in Jesus’ lineage are the lustrous Bathsheba and his mother Mary of singular faith and loyalty, she adds.)

These three remarkable women, Jesus’ ancestors, are Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. Tamar means date palm in Hebrew, but Tamar’s bittersweet tale is more like the sweet-sour Asian fruit tamarind. “Wife to the oldest of the patriarch Judah’s three sons, she is widowed childless, is married to the second son but again is widowed childless. Judah’s promise to later marry her to his third son remains unkept.”

Jurgette continues, “Without a male (father, husband or son) as male peg for her identity, Tamar is in the land of the living dead. She escapes it through a simple yet masterful strategy. Playing a whore, she seduces Judah, now a widower, who is journeying.” Long story short, people call for her burning because of a scandalous pregnancy. But Judah, realizing he is the father and his is the greater sin (for consigning her to widowhood), leaves her alone. Tamar births twins one of whom is Perez who has Boaz for a descendant.

Jurgette says that it is Boaz’ mother, Rahab, “who inspires praise and stirs imagination. A prostitute, Rahab provides shelter and safe passage to two spies sent by Joshua preparatory to the Israelites’ attacking Jericho and taking Canaan, the promised land. In exchange they are to spare all her kin, swearing by the Hebrew God Yahweh. It is not her disreputable occupation that defines Rahab but her faith that redeems her.”

Yet, Jurgette continues, “there is a third, equally wondrous, story that links Rahab directly to Ruth.” A troika of widows in Moab is led by the elder Naomi who enjoins her daughters in law, both Moabites, to return to their mothers because together they are a triple liability. Orpah agrees but Ruth refuses, declaring that “… your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” Naomi and Ruth return to Israel where strangers, orphans and widows can glean leftovers from harvest to survive. Thinking out of the box (like the women before her), Naomi counsels Ruth to glean in the fields of Boaz (second next-of-kin) and, later, to sleep on his threshing floor. Naomi’s strategizing is superb and, before long, Boaz decides to redeem a piece of land of Naomi’s late husband, and in the process, marrying Ruth. They start a line that produces David and Solomon and, eventually, Joseph and Jesus.

Jurgette stresses two noteworthy points. The first is that “although Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, it is his line that is honored in scroll and poetry and song.” Such accolades as “lion of Judah” and “root of David” glorify his ancestors. Jurgette asks: is this saying that paternity is as much biology as it is functioning as a father from day-to-day? Such an inclusive and fair perspective, she observes. In any case, there is a straight line from Abraham to Judah to David et. al. – with some zigs and zags.

 “These zigzags,” Jurgette says, “constitute the second point, the remarkable, if not outstanding, women, who earn their place in Jesus’ lineage by rewriting the rules.” Come to think of it, Jurgette notes, thanks also to these women, Jesus refusal to abide by unjust strictures, this seeking after the “law above the law.”

Penultimately, Jurgette tells me of a quickening of the blood as she reread the accounts of Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. She urges the reader, female or male, believer or un, to take the time to savor their stories (Genesis 38, Joshua 2, and the entire book of Ruth, respectively) especially with the month-long lockdown providing some free reading time.

And so, Jurgette says, we women (of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and of other faith traditions as well) have much to thank for and to rejoice over – starting with three women who followed their hearts, were true to their instincts – and disobeyed the rules. Thus, she adds, did they reclaim their voices and spaces, their body and soul, their will and their wit.

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