Francine Rivers. A Lineage of Grace. 2000-2001; Carol Stream IL: Tyndale, 2009. Print.
A Lineage of Grace is a collection of five short novels originally published separately. A friend who thought I would like them lent the five hardcover volumes to me about a year ago. In the meantime I discovered that they had been compiled into a single thick trade paperback volume which I also had access to. I ended up reading them in the single volume because it was easier to carry on vacation.
Before reviewing these books, I have to mention a misperception I had about Francine Rivers. The first book I ever read of hers was The Last Sin Eater. That is a powerful book with real literary quality. Indeed, I assumed she was a literary author with a Christian bent like Leif Enger or Edward P. Jones. Some years later I read one of her other books. It was an entertaining historical romance, a Ben-Hur type story with a female protagonist. The girl becomes a house slave rather than a galley slave, but you get the idea). That book was apparently the first in a series. It was worth reading, but after reading the second volume, I never bothered with the third. I just did not care that much, and I realized that I was in fact reading a formulaic romance.
Thanks to the detailed description of the author in the edition of A Lineage of Grace, I learned that Mrs. Rivers in fact is known as a romance writer and has received various awards in that genre. In fact, The Last Sin Eater was something of an anomaly. It perhaps showed what she could do, but producing one or two popular romances a year is certainly a better way to make money and keep the publishers happy.
The five novels that make up A Lineage of Grace can be considered romances in the sense that the main characters are women. However, probably only one could be considered a romance in the traditional Austen-Brontë sense where the focus is on how the woman got the man and lived happily ever after. That is because these books are Biblical fiction, well-imagined tales about the women who appear in the genealogy of Jesus. That tells us something of the title of collection—exactly whose lineage we are talking about.
Here are the novels: Unveiled, about Tamar the daughter-in-law and consort of Judah who gave birth to the sons who would begin the royal line of Judah; Unashamed, about Rahab the harlot the native of Jericho who helped the Israelite spies and ended up marrying an Israelite; Unshaken, about Ruth the Moabite who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David; Unspoken, about Bathsheba who committed adultery with David and became the mother of King Solomon; and Unafraid, about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
It is interesting to note that the first three women were not Israelites. With Tamar that is perfectly understandable since she is a contemporary of Jacob, and Jacob’s sons had to get their wives from somewhere since the Israelites as a separate people really begins with Jacob’s descendants. Some commentators would say that Jacob and his sons had to sojourn in Egypt for some time to develop their own identity and not be absorbed into other Canaanite or Syrian people groups.
Rahab, of course, was from Jericho, the city that would be destroyed by the Israelite invasion into the Holy Land. Not only was she a pagan, but she was a prostitute as well, but even the Bible tells us that she had enough sense to see that the Israelite God was more powerful than even the Egyptian gods (Joshua 2:9-11). The Bible tells us that she married Salmon, a Judahite, and they would become the parents of Boaz.
The Bible actually tells us more about Ruth than any of the other women protagonists of these novels thanks to the Book of Ruth. She was from Moab and actually immigrated to Judah in part because of her faith in the God of Israel.
Bathsheba and Mary, of course, were Jews. However, even Bathsheba is not exactly a role model for her unfaithfulness to her husband.
Unveiled does a clever job of imagining what life must have been like among the semi-nomadic peoples that inhabited Canaan at the time of Jacob. Imagine if you can that your first two husbands were both killed by their God because of their wickedness. What might you think about that God? Was He cruel? Was he just?
Unveiled portrays Tamar as having to marry Er through an arranged marriage. Jacob’s sons were wealthy and would have made attractive matches, but character counts. The Bible describes Er in a single sentence “Er was a wicked man in the Lord’s sight.” (Genesis 38:7) Rivers does a good job of showing, at least with some imagination, that Er was some kind of jerk. The main conflict here, though, comes from Tamar’s mother-in-law. The Bible tells us she was a Canaanite and Rivers imagines her following Canaanite gods and having mastery over her sons in spite of father-in-law Jacob’s beliefs.
This is easy enough to imagine even if it is extra-biblical. Similarly, Rivers imagines Tamar having an older sister who was dedicated to one of the Canaanite gods and becomes a shrine prostitute. We know from archaeology and the Bible that this was not an uncommon practice in those days, just as it is still done in some South Asian countries today. So when Rivers sets the scene described in Genesis 37 where Tamar disguises herself as a shrine prostitute, she obtains the clothes from those made for her sister.
Genesis 38:11 also notes that Judah sent Tamar back to her own parents after his two sons had died, and that he probably had no intent of marrying her to his third son Shelah as the law required. All Scripture says is that Judah was afraid that Shelah would die as well. Rivers displays the fear and superstition that could have gripped Judah’s whole family, that Tamar might have been feared the way a “Jonah” is aboard a ship. Clever indeed, but believable. In the end, we get a sense of justice of some kind for Tamar. She does bear her husband’s seed the way she legally was supposed to, and her sons become Judah’s heirs.
Unashamed tells a story about Rahab. The Bible tells us little of her other than what I already shared. Rivers, though presents a plausible scenario. Here Rahab is given to the King of Jericho as a concubine to give her father some political advantage. She is neither a shrine prostitute as Rivers imagines Tamar’s sister nor a wife. She might be compared to Scheherazade a little except that when the king tires of her, she is not killed but simply sent back home; but no one wants her, so she becomes a prostitute. Inferring from what Joshua 2:2 tells us, she imagines Rahab prospering because she reports to the king various things she hears in her occupation that might affect him.
Much of the conflict here comes because the Israelite spies have promised Rahab that any family member of hers in her house when they attack will also be spared. But who would believe Rahab or even want to be associated with her.
Though the Bible does not name either of the Israelite spies whom Rahab helps, Rivers easily imagines that Salmon is one of them. That is certainly a possibility since he would have been one of the leaders of Judah at the time of Joshua but also young enough not to have already been married.
Salmon has to defend Rahab’s character and his choice of bride to many of the Israelites as well. Yes, she helped them. Yes, she believes in Yahweh. But she is a Canaanite and a prostitute. Perhaps it does say something about the God of the Bible that He does recognize repentance and conversion so that even an open sinner and outsider can be adopted into God’s family and become an ancestor of King David and of the Messiah Himself.
Unshaken is probably the closest to a romance in this set of stories. But Unshaken focuses on Ruth and Naomi. Boaz is a relatively minor character. The perspective here is survival, which is probably not far from the Biblical account. Naomi returns to her hometown after a long sojourn in Moab with no one other than her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law. They have no son or husband to protect them, and both are subject to suspicion by the Bethlehemites How will they even earn a living?
Naomi’s faithfulness is questioned since she left the town years before. Yes, she went because her husband wanted to avoid the famine, but why had she returned now? And Ruth, of course, was a goy, an outsider. She had confessed her faith in the God of Israel, but the Law was pretty strict about Moabites after all the business with Balaam.
I have heard the scene in which Ruth places herself under Boaz’s feet while he is sleeping in different ways. I had never heard it interpreted the way Rivers does it, but like most of her fiction here, it is plausible. It also adds to the conflict. We see much of the story through Naomi’s point of view, which adds an interesting dimension.
Unspoken is the most romantic tale in the literary sense because it emphasizes the emotion. Rivers does a clever job of putting together what little we know of Bathsheba from the Bible into another plausible tale. The Bible tells us that Bathsheba is the daughter of Ammiel, one of David’s “thirty,” his top soldiers and bodyguards. Her husband Uriah the Hittite is also one the thirty. She is granddaughter of Ahithophel, a key advisor to David.
With all this connection to David and his army, Rivers first presents Bathsheba as a little girl with a crush on David. While she respects and seems happy enough with Uriah later after she marries, when David summons her, she goes in with eyes wide open. We also understand that David would have been a good deal older than she.
Her girlish fantasy might have been fulfilled, but the reality is not easy. Yes, David is attracted to her, but he had her husband killed. He is very busy as a king and general, and she is only one of several wives. Abigail treats her with understanding, but there is a lot of rivalry among the wives. She loses her first child but does give birth to Lemuel Solomon.
I wonder if one little detail in Rivers’ version really happened the way she says. She has Uriah learn about Bathsheba’s adultery before he goes off to battle to be killed. The Bible is silent on that, but the novel suggests that when Uriah tells David that he will not go home to be with his wife it is because he is upset at her and David, not for the reasons the Bible says he gives David. Still, it could have happened that way.
A good part of the story deals with the family conflict in the House of David, something which the prophet Nathan said David had brought upon himself (see II Samuel 12:10). Bathsheba through all this is a careful observer and intercedes for Solomon at just the right time as some of his older half-brothers have gone too far in either their search for revenge or in their political ambitions.
Solomon tells us in the Bible that he received some of his wisdom from his mother (see Proverbs 31:1). Rivers cleverly scatters a few of Solomon’s proverbial sayings in the tale to suggest both that Bathsheba learned from her experiences and her sons learned from her.
The last woman mentioned in Christ’s genealogy is, of course, Mary, His mother. So Unafraid is about Mary. The Bible really only mentions Mary a few times. She is with the 120 followers of Jesus at Pentecost. She witnesses His crucifixion. On a couple of occasions she is among a group of people following him. She is with him at the wedding in Cana. And, of course, we read about her in connection with what we know of Jesus’ birth and boyhood in the Gospel of Luke.
Rivers does these all fairly well with very little embellishment. She also tries to imagine what it must have been like to have had the supernatural experiences Mary did when she was young—visitation by an angel, virgin conception, John the Baptist’s recognition. How could she be sure?
Realistically, when she tells people what had happened, few believe her. When even her own sons do not believe her, she decides it is better to remain silent. There is also a touch of humor because her other children are more difficult to raise than Jesus was. He always seemed so obedient and joyful. She had a much harder time with her other sons and daughters. Why wouldn’t she? It can be a reminder to us not to criticize the way other people raise their children.
Rivers also imagines Mary later on in life, living as John’s adopted mother and sharing her memories with Luke as he is assembling his gospel. She also has to remind people that she has been saved by the grace of God, no different from any other believer.
One distinctive difference between Unafraid and the other books in the series is that Rivers has Mary directly tempted a number of times. Those temptations appear in bold print in the book. They mostly are given to make her doubt about herself and about who Jesus is. I do not know if Mel Gibson had read Unafraid before he made The Passion of the Christ film, but the effect is very similar to the devil character who appears from time to time in that film. The unusual makeup make that figure stand out in the film the way the black print and the genuine doubts stand out in the story. As in the film, the technique is subtle, not overdone, and probably reflects thoughts or temptations that most of us have had at one time or another.
Francine Rivers had good material to begin with, and she makes the most of it.