Wicked: 1. morally very bad: EVIL 2a: FIERCE, VICIOUS <a~dog> b: disposed to mischief: ROGUISH 3a: disgustingly unpleasant: VILE <a~odor> b: causing or likely to cause harm, distress or trouble <a~storm> 4: going beyond reasonable or predictable limits; of exceptional quality or degree <~ skill at cards> Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
Wicked: very, very good, excellent, extremely, in a grand way; “cool”; “awesome.” As in, that concert was wicked! The Online Slang Dictionary
Before one word of the Bible was ever recorded, its stories and instructions were communicated orally. Though many modern cultures rely heavily on the written word, ancient cultures developed strong oral traditions in which information was handed down from generation to generation.
From their earliest years, children would have thought of the stories of women like Abigail, Bathsheba, and Esther, not as some ancient chronicle, but as part of their own family history. A woman like Esther, for instance, may have been thought of as a cherished aunt rather than as an ancient queen from the distant past. Some unsavory stories, like the ones about Jezebel or Samson’s wicked girlfriend, Delilah, may have been reserved for later, to be told only after the children went to bed. Preserved with remarkable faithfulness because of a strong oral tradition, these and other stories eventually made their way into the Bible we read today.
One of the things that makes Scripture so believable is that these unsavory stories remain part of it. In truth, the Bible never attempts to clean up the stories or whitewash its characters. Even Sarah, a biblical matriarch whom the New Testament refers to as a holy woman, had her shadow side, wickedly abusing her servant girl Hagar and then throwing her out into the wilderness with no means to survive. And there are far more wicked characters, like Queen Jezebel or Herodias and Salome. If the Bible were merely a puff piece, surely several of these stories would not have made their way into the version we read today.
Why did God put them there? Why did he allow these unpleasant stories to be commemorated? For those who believe Scripture to be the inspired Word of God, these and other stories are in the Bible for a reason. In our study, we will try to uncover what we can learn by exploring them.
Please know that most all content for this study comes from the book “Wicked Women of the Bible” by Ann Spangler. In the book, Ann does a remarkable job of retelling the stories of these women in an amazing way. So as not to violate any copyright laws, especially since I post these studies online, our stories will be told by using the actual biblical text from The Message Bible.
A Wicked Disguise
(The Story of Tamar)
How a Widow Dresses Up Like a Harlot for a One-Night Stand
Genesis 38: 6-30
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn. Her name was Tamar. But Judah’s firstborn, Er, grievously offended God and God took his life. So Judah told Onan, “Go and sleep with your brother’s widow; it’s the duty of a brother-in-law to keep your brother’s line alive.” But Onan knew that the child wouldn’t be his, so whenever he slept with his brother’s widow he spilled his semen on the ground so he wouldn’t produce a child for his brother. God was much offended by what he did and also took his life. So Judah stepped in and told his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow at home with your father until my son Shelah grows up.” He was worried that Shelah would also end up dead, just like his brothers. So Tamar went to live with her father. Time passed. Judah’s wife, Shua’s daughter, died. When the time of mourning was over, Judah with his friend Hirah of Adullam went to Timnah for the sheep shearing. Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law has gone to Timnah to shear his sheep.” She took off her widow’s clothes, put on a veil to disguise herself, and sat at the entrance to Enaim which is on the road to Timnah. She realized by now that even though Shelah was grown up, she wasn’t going to be married to him. Judah saw her and assumed she was a prostitute since she had veiled her face. He left the road and went over to her. He said, “Let me sleep with you.” He had no idea that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you pay me?” “I’ll send you,” he said, “a kid goat from the flock.” She said, “Not unless you give me a pledge until you send it.” “So what would you want in the way of a pledge?” he said, “Your personal seal-and-cord and the staff you carry.” He handed them over to her and slept with her. And she got pregnant. She then left and went home. She removed her veil and put her widow’s clothes back on. Judah sent the kid goat by his friend from Adullam to recover the pledge from the woman. But he couldn’t find her. He asked the men of that place, “Where’s the prostitute that used to sit by the road here near Enaim?” They said, “There’s never been a prostitute here.” He went back to Judah and said, “I couldn’t find her. The men there said there never has been a prostitute there.” Judah said, “Let her have it then. If we keep looking, everyone will be poking fun at us. I kept my part of the bargain—I sent the kid goat but you couldn’t find her.” Three months or so later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law has been playing the whore—and now she’s a pregnant whore.” Judah yelled, “Get her out here. Burn her up!” As they brought her out, she sent a message to her father-in-law, “I’m pregnant by the man who owns these things. Identify them, please. Who’s the owner of the seal-and-cord and the staff?” Judah saw they were his. He said, “She’s in the right; I’m in the wrong—I wouldn’t let her marry my son Shelah.” He never slept with her again. When her time came to give birth, it turned out that there were twins in her womb. As she was giving birth, one put his hand out; the midwife tied a red thread on his hand, saying, “This one came first.” But then he pulled it back and his brother came out. She said, “Oh! A breakout!” So she named him Perez (Breakout). Then his brother came out with the red thread on his hand. They named him Zerah (Bright).
A widow who was all but forgotten by those who should have cared for her, Tamar, was remembered by God. Perez grew up and became the father of a stream of descendants who bore delightful names like Amminadab, Abijah, Jehoshaphat, and Zerubbabel. From him also came Boaz, King David, and the wise King Solomon.
As for Tamar, God made her a happy woman by rescuing her from two wicked husbands and then blessing her with two fine sons. As if that weren’t enough, she is among a handful of women listed in a genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Though their stories are laced with distasteful details, like incest, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and murder, each woman in the genealogy list is remembered as part of a vital chain of human beings that stretches from Abraham to Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.
The story of how Tamar tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her so she could become pregnant by him can strike us as both sordid and bizarre.
- Why do you think the Bible includes sordid stories like this one?
Unlike contemporary readers, Jewish people who heard the story would probably have thought of Tamar as a hero and not as a villain.
- Why do you think the Jewish people might have thought of Tamar as a hero and not a villain?
(One of the worst fates that could befall a woman was to be without children because a childless widow lacked economic, legal, and social status. When Judah told Tamar to remain a widow even though he had no intention of providing her with a husband, he was breaking the custom of levirate marriage, a common practice in many ancient cultures.)
Judah was also sinning against Tamar by preventing her from remarrying as other widows would have been allowed to do should the family not provide a husband. Despite her father-in-law’s ill treatment, Tamar maintained her loyalty to his family by risking her life to produce an heir. Otherwise, the line of Judah, from whom the Messiah was to come, might have died out. Tamar’s actions meant that Abraham’s line would continue, not through Judah’s wicked Canaanite sons, but through the children he had with Tamar.
- After condemning his daughter-in-law, Judah realizes his own sin. Have you ever had a similar experience—possibly while scolding a child? If so, how did you respond?
- In Tamar’s culture, a woman’s worth was determined by her ability to bear children, particularly male children. Take a moment to put yourself in her shoes. You have lost two wicked husbands, the second of which was determined to keep you from having children. Then your father-in-law does the same thing to you by failing to provide a husband. How would that make you feel? How would you pray?
A Wicked Outsider
(The Story of the Woman of Samaria)
How a Loose Woman Becomes the First Evangelist
Jesus realized that the Pharisees were keeping count of the baptisms that he and John performed (although his disciples, not Jesus, did the actual baptizing). They had posted the score that Jesus was ahead, turning him and John into rivals in the eyes of the people. So Jesus left the Judean countryside and went back to Galilee. To get there, he had to pass through Samaria. He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon. A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.) The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.) Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.” The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?” Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!” He said, “Go call your husband and then come back.” “I have no husband,” she said. That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.” “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?” “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.” “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.” Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it. The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves. In the meantime, the disciples pressed him, “Rabbi, eat. Aren’t you going to eat?” He told them, “I have food to eat you know nothing about.” The disciples were puzzled. “Who could have brought him food?” Jesus said, “The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time! “The Harvester isn’t waiting. He’s taking his pay, gathering in this grain that’s ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. That’s the truth of the saying, ‘This one sows, that one harvests.’ I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others.” Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman’s witness: “He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!” They asked him to stay on, so Jesus stayed two days. A lot more people entrusted their lives to him when they heard what he had to say. They said to the woman, “We’re no longer taking this on your say-so. We’ve heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He’s the Savior of the world!”
Just as they have always been told he would, the Messiah has come to them in the shadow of their sacred mountain. He is teaching them the way of salvation, restoring their dignity as men and women who have been especially chosen by God. Many believe, foremost among them the woman who had gone to the well by herself.
Living on the margins, shunned by her neighbors, she is no longer an outcast. She has a new life and friends—so many of them—brothers and sisters who also believe.
It’s amazing what one day can bring. She had gone to the well feeling forsaken and alone. But God hadn’t forsaken her! Neither had he condemned her. Instead, he had seen the hurt in her heart and chosen her, a woman others had spurned, to be the first to preach the good news. No wonder that in her haste to tell the story, she left her water jar behind.
- What does Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman teach us about how to approach a stranger whose values and culture might be very different from our own?
Not quite Gentile and not quite Jewish, the Samaritans were descendants of Gentiles and Israelites, the latter of whom were left behind when many of their countrymen were taken into captivity in 722 BC, after the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria.
Several hundred years later, in a failed attempt to improve relationships between Jews and Samaritans, Herod the Great married a Samaritan woman by the name of Malthrace, who became mother of both Herod Antipas and Herod Archalaus.
While the Jews considered the Samaritans impure, the Samaritans returned the compliment by calling the Jews “apostates” (those who forsake their religion or faith). It’s in the midst of such a hostile religious environment that the story of the Samaritan woman unfolds. Remarkably, Jesus ignored the cultural markers of the day not only by speaking to a woman, but by speaking to a hated Samaritan with questionable morals.
It’s interesting to note that not only does Jesus ignore barriers of religion, race, and gender, but he chooses this setting in which to reveal himself for the first time as the Messiah.
- It is one thing to suffer hardship not of your own making and another to suffer the consequences of you own sinful choices. How have you experienced God’s love despite your struggles with sin and imperfection?
(The Story of the Woman Who Wiped the Feet of Jesus)
How a Prostitute Lets Down Her Hair, Scandalizing Everyone but Jesus
One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.” Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Oh? Tell me.” “Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.” “That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.” Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.” That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!” He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
- What does this woman’s story say about the human tendency to judge others by outward appearances?
- How have you experienced this tendency in your own life, either in judging others or sensing their judgment against you?
In the Middle East, hospitality has always been considered a sacred responsibility. To keep from caring for guests would have been considered a grievous offense.
Mealtimes were often leisurely, especially if guests were being entertained. To eat with someone meant that you enjoyed a good relationship, that there was peace between you, which is why so many religious people were scandalized by the meals Jesus shared with notorious sinners.
It was the host’s responsibility not only to care for his guests, but to protect them from harm, even to the point of defending them with his life should that be necessary.
With that as the backdrop, we can see the story more clearly. Not only did Simon refrain from offering the usual kiss as Jesus entered his home, but he withheld common courtesies, like providing water and olive oil for Jesus to wash his hands and feet. By not offering these amenities, especially to a rabbi, Simon delivered a stinging, public insult.
- Why do you think there was a prostitute in the home of a Pharisee, who would’ve considered her unfit for his table?
(To show one’s extreme generosity, it was common practice to invite outcasts to a formal meal. But these unfortunates were only allowed to eat once all other guests had completed the meal. Rather than crashing the party, this woman may have humbled herself by identifying with outcasts, thus exposing herself to ridicule because of her desire to thank Jesus for everything he’d done for her.)
- As you think about the story, take a moment to consider which of the characters you identify with the most. Are you the host who is trying to put the young rabbi in his place, one of the guests, or the woman herself? What makes you identify with that person?
- Have you ever loved someone so much that you didn’t care what other people thought? Do you love Christ like that?
- Jesus says those who’ve been forgiven much love much. Take a moment to consider whether there are sins you haven’t yet admitted, maybe even to yourself. Let this woman’s story encourage you to tell God everything that is weighing on your heart.
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