A Modern Over-thinking of the Sexual and Relationship Ethics of “The Cherry Tree Carol”

Cherry Tree Carol Jacket 200
Okay. Ever since I heard this song, this has bugged me. I know I’m over-thinking this, but I’m being entertained by my over-thinking, so I decided to share.

Do you know “The Cherry Tree Carol”? There are different versions, what with it being a folk song and all (here’s an MP3 of a pretty one), but here’s the basic storyline.

Joseph and Mary are walking in a cherry orchard, and Mary asks Joseph to pick her some cherries, because she’s pregnant.

Joseph gets angry, since he knows the baby isn’t his (they haven’t had sex — in most versions of the song they’re not yet married). He says to Mary, “Let the baby’s father pick the cherries for you.” (Some versions of the song call his words unkind; others say they’re angry.)

Jesus then speaks from out of Mary’s womb, and commands the cherry tree to bend down and give her cherries. Which, of course, it does.

Mary says to Joseph, “See? I have cherries at command.” (In other words: “The baby’s father is God, and I didn’t cheat on you.”)

In some versions, Joseph then begs forgiveness, says he’s not worthy, wallows in guilt, hopes God won’t smite him, etc. In other versions, Mary’s “In your face, douchebag” is left as an implication. (In some versions, Mary then asks the baby Jesus to predict the future, either after he’s born or from inside her womb — which he does. Damn, theology is weird. That’s not relevant to this particular story, though.)

Okay. So here’s the thing:

It is entirely reasonable for Joseph to be pissed.

How on Earth was Joseph supposed to know that the baby was the supernaturally-conceived son of God? Why would he imagine that, even for a second? Think of Joseph’s arc in this song. “Gee, I was such an unkind jerk for not considering the possibility that your pregnancy was supernatural, rather than the result of perfectly ordinary human sex. I mean, that’s only been the case in EVERY SINGLE PREGNANCY THROUGHOUT HISTORY.”

Assuming you accept that monogamy is a reasonable relationship arrangement (which I do, although I certainly don’t think it’s the only one), it’s reasonable to be pissed off when your partner breaks that agreement. It’s especially reasonable to be pissed off when your partner breaks their monogamy agreement, gets pregnant with someone else’s kid, and then just assumes that you’re going to parent this kid.

Okay, yes. “I’m ticked off, I don’t feel like picking cherries for you right now, let the baby’s father do that” isn’t the best response to this. It’s definitely on the sarcastic side. But as responses to “I cheated on you and got pregnant” go (which, again, is the entirely reasonable conclusion for Joseph to come to), it’s pretty mild. And Mary didn’t exactly tell him in the most sensitive way, either. “Hey Joseph, can you get me something to eat? I’m hungry — because I’m pregnant, with a baby that you know perfectly well isn’t yours. Now, make with the cherries.”

In fact, I would argue that in this story, Mary is being a total drama queen. If she can talk to the baby Jesus in her womb and get him to do telekinesis, couldn’t she have done that before this little incident? “So, Joseph, you’re probably not going to believe this, but I’m pregnant with God’s baby. I know, you have every reason to think that’s bullshit — but here, I’ll show you. Baby — bend that tree!” Instead, she manufactures this passive-aggressive little drama, where she gets to be the martyr. “Oh, Joseph, I’m so hungry, because I’m pregnant with someone else’s kid. What? You’re angry? You don’t trust that I kept our monogamy agreement? Oh, I’m so hurt. But I’ll prove it. Baby — bend that tree! See, Joseph? The baby’s father is GOD! In your face, douchebag!”


A Modern Over-thinking of the Sexual and Relationship Ethics of “The Cherry Tree Carol”
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16 thoughts on “A Modern Over-thinking of the Sexual and Relationship Ethics of “The Cherry Tree Carol”

  1. 1

    There’s also the fact that Joseph’s completely entitled to be pissed off that God’s impregnated his fiancé. Pissed off at God rather than / as well as at Mary, depending how she’s describing this, but seriously, that’s pretty messed up, God.

  2. 3

    Based on OT laws, it’s really a surprise that Mary wasn’t stoned to death.

    Also, it’s entirely possible that Joseph and Mary were an asexual couple, but I have a hard time believing a marriage would happen in that time period without a husband wanting to prove his husbandness immediately.

  3. 4

    Tabby: Mishnah Makkot says that a sanhedrin that puts one person to death every seven years is destructive. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah adjusts that rule to once every seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva take it even further: they say if they were in charge, they’d never execute anyone.

    With these opinions being published and taken so seriously just a few decades later, it would be somewhat surprising if this transgression had been punished using execution. At least through the courts. Maybe if Rabbi Elazar was one of the most progressive people in his time, and Joseph found an unusually conservative sanhedrin? Though I think the Great Sanhedrin had to hear all capital cases, so it would be hard even to get the case heard.

    Plus I’m not sure what you’re saying about asexuality. It looks like you’re saying that you don’t believe asexuality existed two thousand years ago.

  4. 5

    dhasenan, oh, it existed two thousand years ago. But it’s highly unlikely a couple would have married for that reason, and the times being what they were, an asexual man would likely have still wanted to copulate on his wedding night (the woman, of course, would have had no say in the matter). It’s no different from all the gay men who got married to women and still had children.

  5. 6

    @4: Actually, the very next line (line I) in Mishnah Makkot 1:10 reads, “Rabbi Simon ben Gamaliel says [of those other Rabbis you quote], ‘So they would multiply the number of murderers in Israel.” Thus mocking (in Sean Hannity style) the entire principle they are supposed to be evincing. The Talmudic commentary on the whole of Mak. 1:10 is incredulous that any Rabbis could possibly have said what Tarfon et al. said, which indicates that they were dreamers, and not actually reflecting reality.

    The complete (Babylonian) Talmud reads on this:

    The question was raised whether the comment [of R. Eliezer b. Azariah was a censure, namely] that even one death-sentence in seventy years branded the Sanhedrin as a destructive tribunal, or [a mere observation] that it ordinarily happened but once in seventy years? — It stands [undecided]. How could they [being judges] give effect to that [policy]? Both R. Johanan and R. Eleazar suggested that the witnesses might be plied with [intimate] questions such as, ‘Did you take note whether the victim was [perchance] suffering from some fatal affection or was he perfectly healthy?’ R. Ashi [enlarging on this] said: And should the reply be, ‘Perfectly healthy’, they might further be embarrassed by asking, ‘Maybe the sword only severed an internal lesion?’ And what would be asked, say, in a charge of incest? — Both Abaye and Raba suggested asking the witnesses whether they had seen the offenders as intimate as ‘kohl-flask and probe’? Now [with regard to] the Rabbis, what kind of evidence [in such a charge] would they deem sufficient to convict? — According to Samuel’s maxim; for Samuel said that being caught in the attitude of the unchaste is sufficient evidence.

    So, the actual Rabbis commenting on the Mishnah relentlessly mocked the Rabbis who said that, as saying and proposing something ridiculous, and the commentary concludes that even the appearance of unchastity should be sufficient grounds to execute. They also had no idea how they could have said such a thing (the commentators say they have to just speculate at how such a low rate of execution would be accomplished), indicating that the actual rate of execution was wildly greater. They even speculate that maybe there was a confusion in the text and that what they really meant was that it was in practice unusual for capital crimes to be committed as often as once in seven or seventy years, although that absurdity they also reject. Leading to the speculation about how such guys could have been rigging their court to make it seem so. Evidently, none of the Talmudic commentators had ever experienced such a liberal court, and made fun of the very idea of it.

    I suspect something else may have happened. The passage is actually about convicted bail jumpers being rounded up abroad and returned for execution (Mak. 1:10A-E). Then suddenly there is a general opinion of all capital sentencing? That makes no sense, since the capital sentencing laws are in the previous tractate, Sanhedrin. If anyone had actually imagined death penalties being rare or avoided when possible, it would surely have been in the long gruesome section of Sanh. describing the horrific procedures for effecting executions. For it to appear only here, in this one section of Makkot (which tractate is only about the law of witnesses—applicable here, as Mak. 1:10 is about how one finds reliable witnesses that someone apprehended is in fact a convicted bail jumper, sufficient to warrant completing the sentence of death upon them), suggests that it actually was originally a commentary on the practice of bounty hunting. On this thinking, a court that hunted down these (effectively self-exiled) convicts more often than once in seven years was the court that was actually considered bloodthirsty (just let them go, would be the gist then). The “seventy” is a textual gloss (the rabbis stating that aren’t stating that as their view, but as their reading in the text, i.e. they are saying their copy of the Mishnah says seventy; that’s not an endorsement per se, and we can’t tell which is the transmission error, the seven or the seventy; IMO, probably the seventy).

    The Talmudic Rabbis didn’t notice this (that possibly a word or two dropped in transmission, disguising the original meaning of line 1:10F, tying it back into the actual subject of section 10), and so were perplexed at how such a line could be here, and try to explain it away or ridicule it.

    So, it would seem, either way, in actual fact, people were regularly killed just for the appearance of being unchaste. And this made line 1:10F either improbable (it was more likely about bounty hunting in fact) or ridiculous (as all the commentators observe).

    Upshot: The non-execution of Mary is a valid point. She probably would have been. Even the imagined liberal courts would have exiled her (from all of Israel), and she would be forbidden to marry a Jew ever again. Because her guilt was beyond question (you couldn’t deny her pregnancy). She also couldn’t claim supernatural causation even were that commonly occurring (and of course, as Greta noted, it wasn’t), because you need two witnesses, and she is the only witness to that fact. Her testimony would thus have to be rejected in court, even if it were believed.

  6. 7

    My thoughts are that the Christian god is an admitted rapist (and Joseph is actually being an asshole – being pissed at one’s partner becasue ze was raped isn’t really an acceptable response).

  7. Erp

    It can be interesting looking at the two gospel stories of the birth independently. In Matthew Mary is found to be pregnant and Joseph plans to divorce her when he dreams of an angel explaining the situation to him. Jesus is born in Bethlehem and is visited by the Magi. Joseph then has another dream of an angel warning him to flee to Egypt with his family; he does so. After Herod dies, Joseph has another dream visit and is told to return; he does return but is worried and has another dream after which he goes to Nazareth. Mary has no real role in this story and no visits to her by angel; no indication that God had explained anything to her (except possibly via Joseph).

    In Luke on the other hand Mary has the big role. The angel visits her (but not Joseph) though only once (but while awake and not in a dream). No explanation on how Joseph was reconciled to finding his betrothed pregnant and not by him. We also have them living in Nazareth, visiting Bethlehem for the census but returning shortly after the birth via Jerusalem (no visit to Egypt).

  8. 10

    Matthew 1 is notable for having one of the the most immediate contradictions in Christianity — The kid is specifically said to be the fulfillment of a prophecy where a virgin gives birth and the boy is called “Emmanuel”, but the name actually given is “Jesus” (and as far as I know he’s never called Emmanuel by anyone).

    As implied by Erp @#9, the Cherry Tree Carol contradicts Matthew (where Joseph gets the info about Mary being preggers by God from an angel in a dream). No magic cherries.

    Catholics got very very squeamish about Mary not being a virgin after Jesus was born (that is, Joseph would have presumably consummated the marriage), so they came up with this whole confabulation about Joseph being old, old, old, and too tired — and holy! — to get up to any sex with Mary, who was not only a virgin by this doctrine, but a perpetual virgin. Joseph had children from another marriage! That’s why Jesus had brothers — they were really half-brothers from Joseph! Jesus’ birth was so magic that Mary’s vagina wasn’t even affected!

    (More theological glurge on the topic than you can shake a stick at in the Catholic Encyclopedia on the topic.)

    I note that the entire article on the Virgin Birth of Christ very conveniently ignores Matthew 1:25 which directly implies that Joseph did have sex with Mary after Jesus was born. Unless “know” suddenly no longer means “have marital sex with”, for some special reason.

    And, here’s something I just thought of . . .
    1) The genealogy of Joseph’s descent from the Davidic line is given in Matthew 1 (and contradicts the genealogy given later in Luke, but never mind that now).
    2) Joseph had sons from a marriage (or marriages?) before marrying Mary (supposedly).
    3) Therefore, Joseph’s sons were the real heirs of David. If James “the brother of the Lord” was the oldest, he’d have been the real Messiah.

    I don’t know if anyone has pointed that out, and it would be interesting to see if Catholic minds lock up and emit ERROR ERROR DOES NOT COMPUTE.

    Speaking of logic bombs for Catholics (or indeed, many devout Christians), here’s another one:

    1) Marriage is between one man and one woman.
    2) King David married eight women (and divorced none of them).
    3) Given (1) above, David’s only legitimate marriage was to Michal, his first wife, and his other seven marriages were illegitimate
    4) David’s son and heir Solomon was from his final illegitimate marriage to Bathsheba
    5) Therefore, none of the Davidic kings were legitimate, and that lack of legitimacy extends to Joseph, and therefore to Jesus.


  9. 11

    @10: Many good points about problems in Catholic “sex theology,” IMO. I especially like catching the fact that in Matthew, Joseph is the one God informs of the miraculous nature of the birth, so he already knows (this makes sense for an observant Jew like Matthew; he could not countenance it being the other way around).

    Though it’s off the theme of that specifically: technically Jesus calls himself Emmanuel in the conclusion of that Gospel: Emmanuel means “God is with us” and among Jesus’s closing words are “I am with you.” This end-parallels-the-beginning structure was a common literary device of the time. It’s all set up to be a wink at the theological fact that in Jesus, God is now with us. It’s the message of the author, not a historical fact, of course.

  10. 13

    So, it’s been decades since I’ve addressed specific Christian theology, but Mary’s told, through a third party, that she’s going to be pregnant by someone (some entity?) she’s never met.

    Even if you could take the story literally (that there was no PIV involved), where exactly is her consent to these circumstances?  It’s just assumed she’s okay with this situation, right?

    Just sayin’.  : – /

  11. 14

    My thoughts? Gods Always Gets Away With Everything.
    How does the alleged fact that Jesus’ biological father is a supernatural being change anything?
    If Jesus’ conception was consensual, then Mary did cheat on Joseph.
    And if it wasn’t, then God is a rapist.
    Either way, God is an asshole.

  12. 15

    @AAAtheist: IIRC, it’s even worse than that. In order for Yahweh to have a worthy mortal to knock up, he intervened in Mary’s conception also, such that she would be born without original sin. So poor Mary was literally born to be Yahweh’s baby mama. (Granted, by Christian theology, we’re all here to be fucked with, literally and/or figuratively, for Yahweh’s holy amusement…but that’s pretty sociopathic even by Bible standards.)

  13. 16

    More logic bombs for Catholic (and possibly other Christian) brains:

    1) Everyone is a “sinner”, because Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience was and is somehow contagious.
    2) However, Mary (mother of Jesus) was born without this sin, by divine fiat.
    3) Therefore, God can arbitrarily remove sin from any human
    4) Therefore, the fact that Original Sin exists at all in everyone except Mary (and Jesus, I suppose) is because God arbitrarily refuses to remove this sin.

    It also follows that Jesus’ sacrifice was unnecessary, since God can remove sin directly; no need for atonement. Therefore, Jesus suffered for no reason.

    Now, some might argue that the ability to sin has something to do with free will — that is, having sin removed would just turn everyone into robots/slaves, and God doesn’t want robots/slaves, supposedly.
    However, given the above, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception means that God wanted at least one robot/slave.
    Therefore, Mary was a sexbot/slave for God. Her alleged response to the Annunciation (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”) was nothing more than a hardwired programmed response.

    Now, an increasingly desperate response to the above might be “Well, God can do anything, including remove Mary’s sin while still leaving free will!”, in which case the obvious response is: “If God could do it for Mary, he could do it for anyone, and everyone, which means that the damnation of those not in communion with the Church must be arbitrary.”

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