Signpost for Sunday June 16: 1Kings21: 1-10, 15-21a; Luke 7:36-8:3; Gal 2:15-21
Woman without her man is a savage. Woman, without her man is a savage. They used those two sentences to teach punctuation to me at grammar school. And we may have a case of women not being clearly represented with two of the readings this week. At least what we have is a case of men writing about women and a possible misreading. The women they are writing about are painted women – whores and harlots. Or are they?
We can’t save Jezebel from her age old reputation now. Her name has come to be associated with prostitutes, deceitfulness and wickedness. She definitely did turn her bridegroom Ahab away from Yaweh and into an idol worshipper (1 Kings 16:31–33) and worse (1 Kings 18:4). On the other hand, Elijah behaves no better than she does(1 Kings 18:40). But she never sleeps around and she behaves like the powerful ninth century BCE Queen that she was. She gets things done, even if they are not things that the writer of Kings wants to be done. She’s ruthless but not necessarily devious. She has Naboth falsely accused and murdered, but the dastardly deed is done by elders and nobles (1 Kings 21:11) not by assassins in the dark. She’s less of a Lucretia Borgia than we might assume. And her hubby Ahab can be a bit of sulking sop (1 Kings 21: 4). True, Jezebel is not very nice at all but the rulers of the ancient world are not the men and women who govern in the twenty first century. And there are quite a few of them who are not very nice, as we know. If you’re interested in the full story of how Jezebel has been misportrayed in the Bible, Janet Howe Gaines spells it all out.
Right now we’ve been invited to dinner with a Pharisee, so off we go. Where shall we sit? Nowhere, we must do as the other guests do: recline on our left elbows, leaning on pillows around a horseshoe-shaped table. There probably won’t be more than three guests on each side. So nine of us for dinner. But at these first century feeds people from the town who were not invited were usually welcome to come in and sit around the walls or look in at the windows and doors, and listen to the conversation. On this particular night one of them doesn’t sit quielty against the wall or look in through the door. Instead she causes a a bit of a stir (Luke 7:37-39). The implication is that she is a local prostitute, but those who know Greek say the phrase ‘sinner’ is not so specific. Anyone who failed to keep all the expected rules and rituals of the Talmud was considered a sinner. Shepherds were considered sinners too. The most outrageous thing she actually does is untie her hair (7:38). For a Jewish woman to have her hair undone in public was a total no-no. Apart from that she is rather discreet. Because everyone is reclining, she has to crounch down behind Jesus, quietly weeping and gently wiping the soles of his feet with ointment and drying them with her hair. It is a beautiful picture of love and faith.
But it’s not a picture of Mary Magdelene, as many people think. Have a look a bit further on at Luke 8:2. This phrase: ‘from whom seven demons had gone out’ comes straight after her name appears. That is a literary convention which tells us this person is being introduced for the first time. She cannot be the prostitute who has just anointed Jesus’s feet at the Pharisee’s house.