Episode 1 Transcript

Episode 1: A Tale of Incest, Prostitution, Seduction, and Rape


Use your imagination to join me in eavesdropping on a conversation from a long time ago. It’s a conversation between two men, after a great calamity. It is set late in the first century of the common era, in the city of Antioch, well north of the boundaries of Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee. 

As it turns out, neither of these men ever planned to live here. However the sacking of Jerusalem a few years earlier—along with the destruction of the Temple— forced them to find refuge outside their homeland. Their conversation, like so many other conversations about calamities before and since, is about understanding how God could have let such a disaster happen.

As we approach these men, their conversation, really more of an argument, is already in progress. One of the men, let’s call him Simeon, is part of a group called the Pharisees. They are deeply committed to purity, obedience, and good moral citizenship. Simeon is animated, agitated. As we walk up we hear him say, 

“… we were so close! We had been working so hard to rebuild a community faithful to God. A community set apart by its moral conduct and adherence to the laws of God. And God was going to keep his promise and restore us to our rightful place of political influence and leadership.

“And then you and your Jesus came along, and you messed everything up. While we were trying to restore the obedience and faithfulness of the people, you challenged us at every turn. And look where it led—instead of a community known for its righteousness, your churches are full of every kind of reprobate and sinner. Don’t think I haven’t heard about what goes on in your church at Corinth! It is disgraceful to even talk about, and it is a disgrace to God. No wonder He turned against us, and sent the Romans to destroy our Temple.” 

“God’s judgment against us is all your fault. If you and your Jesus hadn’t led the people astray, we wouldn’t have lost God’s favor. Now we are all paying the price for your loose moral standards, and your lawlessness.”

The other man, Matthew, soon to be the author of the Gospel of Matthew, pauses briefly, then responds. “When I was a young man, I always admired what you were trying to do, Simeon, although I was never able to live up to your standards. I understand what you were trying to accomplish, but it was misguided. If you look at these calamities and conclude that they were the acts of God, that in his anger he caused the destruction of the temple and the killing of so many thousands of our brothers and sisters—well, you’ve missed the essential truth of who our God is. That is not the God we serve. He is not responsible for this.

“However, if this calamity causes you to wonder what he has been doing in the middle of all of this, I would tell you that he is doing now what he has always done. After all, he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Here, I will show you. Let me start by telling you a story from our very own Scriptures. This is a story of incest, prostitution, seduction, and rape…”

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode One: A Story of Incest, Prostitution, Seduction, and Rape

The Teaching

So let’s talk about the Gospel of Matthew. This book leads off the New Testament with what may be the 17 most-skipped-over verses in the Bible. Many Bible reading plans and small group studies stumble right out of the gate on these verses, because what are we supposed to do with this long list of names? We can see how it may have been important for some reason when Matthew wrote it, but it doesn’t seem to have much relevance for us today. So we dutifully read through all the begats, look around to see if anyone is going to try to make something of it, and then sigh with relief when everyone seems ready to move on to verse 18. 

So, go ahead. Groan a little bit. Roll your eyes. Because we’re not going to skip these verses. Matthew does have a purpose for these verses, and that purpose is for us as much as it was for his original readers. These names set the stage for the rest of his gospel.

His first purpose is the one we’re most familiar with. Matthew claims in verse one that Jesus is the Messiah, or the Anointed One, the son of David, the son of Abraham. These verses establish the credibility for that claim by tracing the human line of descent from Abraham, through David, down to Jesus. 

Now, if that were Matthew’s only purpose, we may be justified in rushing through the names. This, after all, is not a point of contention or doubt for us. We don’t need to verify his bloodline. But let’s keep digging.

The next feature of the genealogy that we notice is that he clumps the names into three groups. This doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, until we get to verse 17 where he takes the time to call it to our attention. Matthew tells us that the names are clumped into three groups of fourteen generations each. The first clump is the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, the second is the fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and the third is the fourteen generations from the exile to Jesus. 

Now your first reaction to this might be, “Wow! Exactly 14 generations between each of those milestones in the history of Israel, right up to and including the birth of Jesus. Surely that is a sign.” But hold on. It turns out that Matthew isn’t giving us all the generations between each of those milestones—14 generations isn’t nearly enough to cover the time between the exile and the first century. There’s not a miraculous sign here. Matthew is giving us a condensed list, choosing some names to include and leaving others out. So why is he making a big deal about clumping these names into 3 sets of 14 generations each?

When I was in high school, there was a national standardized test that we all had to take in order to graduate. It was called the ASVAB, and it measured your readiness to enter the military. It had an answer sheet where you had to color in the circle that matched your answer. I bet you had to take something similar. 

I had a friend who had no interest in either college or the military. When he took the test, rather than stress over actually trying to answer the questions, he just filled in the circles on his answer sheet so that they spelled “ZZ Top.” Then he turned in his test and went home.

It turns out that Matthew is doing something similar, at least aesthetically. The Hebrew spelling for the name David has three letters. If you add up the number of each of those letters, you get fourteen. So the number of David’s name is three and fourteen. In the genealogy we also get three and fourteen. Matthew is clumping and arranging the names of the genealogy in such a way that it spells David, like my friend spelled ZZ Top. 

You may be saying this sounds like a stretch. And on the face of it, I would agree with you. But it turns out that this kind of interweaving of words and numbers was a common practice in ancient times. I don’t know if it somehow lent weight to an argument, or if, more likely, it was just aesthetically pleasing and demonstrated the care and attention of the author. Either way, although it may be interesting, its force is lost on us. And we end back right where we started, wondering why these names should mean anything to us.

Which brings us to the third feature of the genealogy. If the first two features fall right into line with the expectations of Matthew’s time and place, with this third one he breaks all the rules. The normal practice was for genealogies to trace bloodlines through the fathers. And yet Matthew is audacious enough to include the names of five women in this list. He doesn’t have to use these names to fill out his list to get to the number 14. In fact, he has more than enough men to choose from, if that were his purpose. No, he cherry-picks the names he wants to include. He’s using these women because he wants to. 

If Matthew is trying to establish a claim to legitimacy, including these women was not the way to do it in his day. He is breaking the rules here, thumbing his nose at convention, but to what purpose? Let’s take a look at the stories of these women, and see what we can learn.


The first woman on the list is Tamar. We can find her story in Genesis 38. Now I warn you, if the Bible had a ratings system, this episode would be rated R, or worse. There’s a reason VeggieTales doesn’t have a character based on Tamar. 

I encourage you to read the text for yourself, but here is the storyline: Judah is the lead male character in this story. Judah’s oldest son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar. Before they have any children, Er dies, leaving Tamar a widow. In those days married women were dependent on their husbands and sons for economic support. Er’s premature death leaves Tamar on her own, with no way of providing for herself. So, while this next part might seem strange and unseemly to us, by custom and by law in a situation like Tamar’s, one of her deceased husband’s brothers is supposed to take responsibility for her (which seems ok), but he’s also supposed to get her pregnant. Because any children produced by such a union would be considered heirs of the deceased brother, and would provide support for the widowed woman.

This duty fell to Judah’s second son, Onan. However, Onan wasn’t happy about this arrangement, probably because any children he fathered with Tamar for his deceased brother would compete with his own children for a share of Judah’s inheritance—and Tamar’s children would actually outrank his own children in the future settling of Judah’s estate. So, verse nine tells us that Onan “spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.”

Now you can see why this story doesn’t make the rotation for Sunday School. But the story gets even more messy. Next we find out that Onan dies, too. Now the duty to provide offspring for Tamar falls to the youngest brother, Shelah. However, Shelah is underage, so Judah tells Tamar to go back to her father’s house and wait for him to grow up. But Judah was being disingenuous. After having two of his sons die after marrying Tamar, he didn’t want to risk losing the third.

A woman in Tamar’s situation was entirely dependent on the men in her family doing right by her, but Judah and his sons are abandoning their responsibility to her. With no one to take her in, and no children of her own, her situation becomes desperate. So Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, and waits by a road where she knows Judah will pass by. Sure enough, Judah walks by and notices her. They negotiate a price for her services, then they complete their transaction, and he goes on his way, without ever knowing that his liaison was with his daughter-in-law.

Three months later, word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. This confirms the suspicions he’s had about her all along, and he orders that she be killed by burning, probably feeling justified in keeping her away from his son. As she was being dragged away to be executed, Tamar sends word to Judah that the child is his, along with some incontrovertible evidence. 

Judah admits the truth of her claim, saying that “she is more in the right than I.” Tamar is saved from the flames, but at the cost of two black marks against her name—prostitution and incest. 

We learn that she is carrying twins. And it is through one of these twins, Perez, a child of prostitution and incest, that the line of descent to Jesus proceeds. Matthew wants us to know that this is part of the story of Jesus’s family line. Now, if you were trying to talk up the legitimacy of a family tree, and you were cherry-picking the stories to tell, is this a story you would include?


The second woman Matthew lists in the genealogy is Rahab. Rahab’s story is in Joshua 2. This story can be adapted for a G rating— so long as you don’t try to explain what a prostitute is.

The setting for her story is the city of Jericho. Joshua is the leader of the people of Israel. Israel is supposed to take the city of Jericho, so Joshua sends two spies to infiltrate the city and check it out. When the spies get to Jericho, they rent a room from a sex worker named Rahab. Now, it might be ok to think of this as an AirBnB, but generally when you have the combination of prostitution and rooms for rent, that equals a brothel. So our spies are setting up shop in a brothel.

The king of Jericho somehow finds out the spies are there, and sends men to get them. Rahab hides the spies, and then runs down to the king’s men and does the old, “Look over there! They went that way,” which works beautifully.

She asks the spies to spare her and her family when they take the city, which they agree to do. And so Rahab the sex worker is brought into the family of God. But her good deeds weren’t enough to erase what she was. She is known from then on as Rahab the harlot, not Rahab the merciful, or Rahab the wise.

Matthew tells us that she marries an Israelite by the name of Salmon, and they have a son named Boaz. And it is through Boaz, the son of a sex worker, that the line of descent to Jesus proceeds.


Next in Matthew’s list of women we find Ruth. You may be breathing a sigh of relief that here we truly have a story that is rated G. All that talk of sex was getting uncomfortable. Well, you may want to fast forward, because this one is even more explicit, although a bit camouflaged.

The story is in the book of Ruth, chapter three. There we meet two women, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, both of whom are widows and now only have each other. This, as we saw with Tamar, means they have no one to provide economic support. Naomi has a relative, Boaz—the same Boaz who is the son of Rahab the sex worker. Naomi plots a scheme to get the support that she and Ruth need. 

Naomi tells Ruth to clean up really well—you know, the long bath, not the quick shower. She tells her to put on some perfume, and to dress up in her best clothes. We smile because we can see what Naomi has in mind. She wants Ruth to catch the eye of Boaz.

Then Naomi tells Ruth to go hide close to where Boaz is going to sleep for the night. Once she sees him lie down, Ruth is told to uncover his feet and lie down next to him. Now this sounds odd to our ears. What is going on here? But the meaning becomes crystal clear when you learn that in ancient Hebrew “uncover the feet” is a euphemism for “uncover the genitals.” Naomi is telling Ruth to find the motel room where Boaz is sleeping for the night, climb into bed with him, and undress him. 

You may be thinking, “No. Way. This can’t be the story of Ruth!” I know. It is a shock. But outside of the flannelgraph children’s stories—which give us a blond-haired blue-eyed Scandinavian Ruth and a very Scottish looking Boaz—we don’t spend a lot of time actually studying this book. And so the romanticized picture from our youth is what we remember. But the Hebrew language in Ruth chapter three is full of sexual puns and innuendo, which our English translations unhelpfully clean up for us.

However, the story is there to be seen even in English. Their night together on the threshing floor ends with a discreet attempt at coverup. Ruth gets up early in the morning, before anyone can be recognized, and sneaks away, because Boaz says no one can know that a woman spent the night with him. Then she comes back a little later in the day as if they hadn’t been together all night, and are seeing each other for the first time. It sounds like quite the performance.

You may have been taught that when Ruth asks Boaz to “spread his cloak over her” she is invoking some formal ceremonial request for him to act as her kinsman-redeemer, and nothing unseemly is going on here. Well, to that I would say this: Based on what you know about ancient Jewish customs pertaining to the social interactions of women and men, could there be any ceremony that made it ok for a woman to sneak into a place where a man is sleeping, lie down next to him, and stay with him all night? 

What if they had been caught? Can you imagine them saying, “No, wait. It’s not what you think! We were performing the kinsman-redeemer ceremony. In a sleeping bag together. Over and over. All night long. Nothing happened.” 

“Oh, ok, sure. We believe you, Ruth.”

The kinsman-redeemer angle is part of what’s happening in this story, but it doesn’t explain why they’re together all night on that threshing floor, with Ruth all perfumed up and Boaz’s “feet” uncovered. No, the simplest reading of the story is the best one: Ruth seduces Boaz, a man she barely knows, at her mother-in-law’s direction, and secures a lifeline for two destitute women. Ruth and Boaz marry and have a son named Obed. And it is through Obed, the child of a carefully orchestrated seduction, that the line of descent to Jesus proceeds.


The fourth woman in Matthew’s genealogy is Bathsheba. Bathsheba’s story we know from 2 Samuel chapter 11. Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is off to war. David, the king of Israel, is walking around the roof of his house when he sees Bathsheba bathing. She catches his eye. 

David, being king, sends for her, and then he sleeps with her. Later, Bathsheba sends word to the king that she is pregnant. Now this is a problem, because, remember, Bathsheba’s husband hasn’t been around—he’s off fighting David’s war. People will know something’s amiss with the timing of this pregnancy, and by the law, it will cost Bathsheba her life.

In an attempt to cover up what he has done, David has Uriah recalled from the battle, hoping that while he is home he will sleep with his wife, and no one will ever know about David’s dalliance. But, in a show of solidarity with his brothers-in-arms, Uriah refuses the comforts of home while the war is still going, and doesn’t sleep with Bathsheba.

Now more desperate, David sends Uriah back to the front with a secret note for the commander. The note instructs the commander to move Uriah to the front of the lines where the fighting was the hardest, and then to draw back and leave him alone so that he would be killed. David’s commander follows the order, and Uriah is killed.

After a period of mourning, David marries Bathsheba, and she has a son. His son.

When I was growing up, people usually seemed to point fingers at Bathsheba. What was she doing bathing out there in the open where David could see her? That is a bit of revisionist history, I think. But it lines up with our propensity to blame women for how men act toward them.

So, while it’s often a mistake to apply modern standards to people from a different time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there is a significant power imbalance between David and Bathsheba. This is on him, not her. The Bible seems to back that thinking up, because the guilt is laid squarely at David’s feet, not Bathsheba’s. We don’t have any hint about how much choice David gave Bathsheba, of her willingness or reluctance to participate in David’s plot.

So at one end of the continuum, if she was a willing participant carried along by passion, this is a story of murder and adultery. And at the other, more likely end of the spectrum, it is a story of murder and rape. 

David and Bathsheba’s first child dies, but they have another son named Solomon. And it is through Solomon, a child of murder and rape, that the line of descent to Jesus proceeds.

Why These Women?

The fifth woman on Matthew’s list is Mary, the mother of Jesus. We’ll save her story for the next episode.

By including these women, Matthew is telling us a story of incest, prostitution, seduction, and rape. Maybe you think I’m just focusing on the sordid parts of the story— but there isn’t much more to tell. This is what’s recorded. These are the stories of these women. They are not the stories they would have chosen for themselves. In each case, women with no power, in desperate circumstances, did what they had to do in order to survive. And Matthew included them in his list.

Maybe you are thinking that, when it comes to women, Matthew didn’t have a lot of options to choose from — that the Hebrew Scriptures are full of the stories of men, but not many about women, especially not many in the line of Jesus. But Matthew did have options. He could have included Sarah, Rebeka, or Leah. Their stories are more detailed, and not nearly as salacious. 

But remember, Matthew broke the rules by including women in his genealogy in the first place. And he chooses these women specifically, women about whom we only know very little, and what we do know is messy and sexually explicit, and uncomfortable.

Why? Why does he do this? What is he trying to say?

One, it seems kind of obvious that Matthew has something to say about women, their place in society and in the life of a community centered on God. The stories of women were and often still are defined by the things that happen to them. Whereas for the men, the ones with power and agency, indiscretions were merely one episode in a larger narrative. Men could recover from a mistake, could redeem their story and their name. But that wasn’t true for women, even if the indiscretion was something that was done to them, and not something they chose. Matthew wants to right that ship.

Two, it is likely that all four of these women were Gentiles. Tamar was either a Canaanite or an Aramean. Rahab was a Canaanite. Ruth was a Moabite. And Bathsheba was a Hittite. In case you’re not sure why that matters, in the times Matthew is writing about, when Jesus was teaching, Gentiles were outside the boundaries—you had to be a Jew, or become a Jew to be on the inside. So Matthew is telling us there were three strikes against these women: they were women, they were reputationally damaged in such a way as to make them permanently stained, and they were “from the wrong side of the tracks.” The role of Gentiles in God’s plan is an important storyline in what comes later, and Matthew is signaling that right from the start.

Three, and I think this is the big point here, Matthew is telling the story of God’s work with people through the very human lives of these women. These women are the stand-ins for everyone who has been pushed to the edges. Everyone who finds themselves rejected by the good church people in their town. 

What is the story of God’s work in the world? The Pharisees—the group who in Matthew’s book were what I would call the good church people—they had one answer, and it’s an answer that is still in practice in most churches today. It’s an answer about purity, conformity, compliance, and performance to a standard. 

But Matthew points to a different answer about God’s work in the world. And in his book we’re going to hear about sex workers, people with bad reputations, traitors, and others who find themselves on the bad side of the good church people. People who, like these four women, were treated as if they were the epitome of everything wrong with the world, and yet somehow were the very people that Jesus sought out during time when he walked in sandals on the Earth. 

Matthew is answering a serious challenge from people like Simeon, a challenge that continues to be uttered by good church people today. And his answer turns the world on its head.


“So tell me, Simeon, what do you think of my story? More importantly, what would have been the rightful place of these women in the world you were creating? Would they be welcomed in as full participants, or would their stories more rightly place them on the outside, excluded and shamed? 

“You wonder what God is doing. I’ll tell you. God is doing what he has always done. He is working in the messiness of people’s lives to write a beautiful story. A story that does not leave people like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba on the outside looking in, or stuck in the footnotes of history. What you see as the messiness of our churches is a reflection of the work God has been at all through his long history with us. He makes all things new, and that includes the people you think are the problem.”

Test This Teaching

As we wrap up this episode, I have a couple of requests for you.

If you find that you identify much more closely with the four women we’ve talked about than you do with good church people, well, I’m honored that you’re listening to me. I’m sorry that the church has gotten so far off track, and has failed you so spectacularly. This is not what Jesus intended us to be like, so please don’t let our failure cloud your view of him. My request is that you stick with us. I think you will be thrilled and amazed at what you see in him. In the meantime, if you have questions, please reach out through the podcast website, JesusForSexWorkers.com.

If instead you find that you are much more closely aligned with the group I have been calling the “good church people,” please don’t be too offended. That is the group I most closely identify with, as well. If you stick with me on our journey through Matthew, I think you will see that we have a lot of work to do, but I also think that you’re going to be overwhelmed with the beauty of what Jesus came to do. What I ask of you is the same thing I ask when I teach or preach in our church, and that is for you to test this teaching.

In this case, there are two simple tests. The first is, does what I’m saying here line up with what Matthew is teaching in his book? I invite you to scan ahead in Matthew, and see if he references any other people like the four women we’ve talked about here. And if he does, is what I’m teaching consistent with the message he is presenting about those people? Or, am I somehow twisting Matthew’s words into something that he did not intend? 

The second test is bigger, and more important. Does the application of this teaching lead to actions that are consistent with the actions of Jesus? Does it lead to compassion, affection, and love for the same kinds of people that he identified with? Does it lead to frustration and anger towards the same kinds of people he got angry with? Does following this teaching make your path look more or less like the path Jesus walked? If a teaching fails this test, then it should be rejected, no matter how logical or airtight the arguments in its favor seem to be. Part of the reason the church has gotten so far off track is that we haven’t used this test to sift a lot of the teaching we’ve come to believe. We’ve learned to walk the way of Simeon, the Pharisee, instead of the Way of Jesus.

As a final note, if you disagree with me on some point, then I welcome the feedback. I wish I was right about everything, but I know that is not possible. Like you, I think that everything I believe and teach is true. However, since I know that it is impossible for me to be right about everything, there must be things I’m wrong about—I just don’t know yet what those things are. It’s my job to help you see these things in your life, and it’s your job to help me. I welcome rebuttals, questions, feedback, and concerns on the website JesusForSexWorkers.com. The only rule is that the discourse has to be healthy: you have to treat me and others on the site as if they were acting from the best of intentions, and you have to demonstrate the humility to recognize that you may be the one who needs to change.

That’s it. I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, where we’ll talk about the fifth woman on this list, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thank you for listening.

Closing Credits

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