While those of you who have read my previous posts are scrambling to put together a model of a first century Bethlehemite home complete with guest room and attached stable, I am departing slightly from the Nativity scene itself as I turn to Matthew’s genealogy which precedes his passing reference to Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.
In his genealogy of Joseph’s line, Matthew includes references to four women from Abrahamic/Davidic line. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (or Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon).
Why does Matthew mention these women at the beginning of his gospel? As with most good storytelling, there is no single right answer to this question. That is, I think Matthew likely had multiple reasons for highlighting these women at the beginning of his gospel. In this post, I have no intention of being exhaustive because that would be exhausting.
Who is Tamar?
The story of Judah & Tamar which is found in Genesis 38 is often overshadowed by the surrounding context. It is found near the beginning of what is often referred to as the Joseph Narrative. Yet, there are themes in this story which parallel Joseph’s own experiences and contrast Judah and Joseph. Both men are trapped by women who take their clothing as evidence. One man is innocent and the other is guilty.
Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah. Her husband, Judah’s son, dies before she has a child. In the ancient world, this could leave a woman destitute. So, the custom was that a brother would provide an heir. Judah’s son Onan refuses to fulfull this duty and he dies. Having lost two sons already, Judah is reluctant to send another. Tamar dresses as a prostitute and Judah sleeps with her leaving his personal items as a promise for payment. The now pregnant Tamar reveals herself to Judah and gives birth to twins one of whom is Perez.
Who is Rahab?
Rahab (whose very name would bring Egypt to mind) is a Canaanite prostitute living in Jericho. She makes a deal with Joshua’s spies in exchange for information and protection. According to Matthew, she marries Salmon who fathers Boaz. Boaz figures prominently in the life of our next “strange woman”.
Who is Ruth?
The story of Ruth is more widely known because she has a whole book named after her. Like Tamar, Ruth is a foreigner who marries into the Israelite family, the people of the covenant. Like Tamar, Ruth’s husband dies which again leaves her and her mother-in-law in a potentially socially precarious situation. Instead of returning to her own people, Ruth chooses to return to Israel with her mother-in-law and to covenant herself with Israel’s God.
Naomi, her mother-in-law helps Ruth navigate her way into the path of Boaz a living and affluent relative who might be willing to marry her, redeem Naomi and Ruth, and provide an heir. Ruth lays herself at Boaz’s feet at night. Let us be grown-ups. This action is a sexual proposition. Boaz does not act that night it seems but he does arrange to marry this foreign woman. Ruth gives birth to David’s grandfather, Obed. Boaz’s is a descendent of Judah through Perez.
The Book of Ruth was likely written while Judah was under Babylonian or Persian rule. Many scholars argue that like Jonah which was likely written at the same time Ruth deliberately raised questions about Israel’s relation to foreigners especially those perceived as enemies. In contrast, to Ezra-Nehemiah which recounts the practice of (and may even advocate for) putting away foreign wives and children, Ruth and Jonah suggest an alternative. Foreigners can be brought into the covenant. Look the story of Ruth says, a Moabitess showed herself more faithful in the period of the Judges than most Israelites and David is her descendent.
Who is Uriah’s wife?
Matthew does not name Bathsheba, why? I suspect everyone knew Bathsheba’s name and that she was the mother of David’s son Solomon who built the first Temple. So, it may be that Matthew is deliberately reminding his readers of Bathsheba’s origins. She was another man’s wife when she became pregnant the first time by David. That child died. David had her husband killed to protect himself from scandal. Moreover, Uriah was a Hittite who was being more faithful to the covenant and Israelite ritual than David himself. Bathsheba was likely a foreigner also. Yet, it is through her that the Davidic line of the kingship is continued.
So, why does Matthew include these women?
1. Even if Joseph and Mary accepted that she was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, it is quite likely that other rumors with more “plausible” and “ordinary” explanations abounded. So, Mary’s own character was likely suspect like the prostitutes, adulterers, and forward women in the Davidic line.
2. These women help to highlight a larger agenda and issue that the early Church faced. The Gospel had gone out to the Gentiles (the foreigners). So, Matthew may be highlighting these women to show that Israel’s God was already in the business of including foreigners. Indeed, didn’t the promises to Abraham include blessing the nations? So, do we include the Romans & Greeks? Yes, we do. Luke has other ways of addressing this theme including his sequel The Book of Acts. Matthew has the foreign Magi come an bring gifts to Jesus which recalls the Queen of Sheba coming to meet Solomon.
3. Just as Jesus will do throughout his ministry, Matthew may be challenging notions of purity. In modern times, we have seen ample evidence of those who seek to appeal to a pure blood line. Is David’s bloodline pure according to your standards?, he may be asking. Is it not by coming into covenant with the Creator, the God of Israel, that makes one clean? Is this not available to all human beings?
With the current Syrian refugee crisis (and Syria is not the only place in the world where atrocities are taking place), Matthew’s inclusion of “strange women” in David’s and so Jesus’s Genaeology presents a challenge to our xenophobia.
These women may not be in our Nativity sets but Matthew asks us to think of Joseph, Mary, & Jesus in light of their stories.
Check out these books on Amazon. For a great book about reading the bible from and with the margins, see Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned or on women in Ancient Israel see Carol Meyers’s Discovering Eve and Phyllis A. Bird’s Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities