Matthew’s version of Ancestry.com

In the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we encounter a genealogy list. It’s the lineage of Jesus, going back 42 generations. It is listed in three groups of fourteen (Jesus to the Exile, the Exile to King David, and David to Abraham). Ho hum, you might think, as you stumble across all these names; especially if genealogy is not your thing. But let me invite you to linger with this list for a moment. Much as those who dive into Ancestry.com often discover hidden truths, or those who have swabbed their cheek and sent in a “23 and Me” DNA sample learn unknown aspects of their heritage; sitting with Matthew’s version of Jesus’ family tree has its own lessons to reveal.

In addition to such high caliber hall of fame type ancestral names (think Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Hezekiah), there appear the names of five women in Jesus’ genealogy. Not only would it have been uncommon for women to be listed in a patriarchal society, but why the inclusion of these particular women in a male driven system of reporting? What is it that Matthew wants us to know and reflect on as we read names like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (listed simply as Uriah’s wife), and Mary?

Any time there is such a detour from the norm, as is the case with these female inclusions, we would do well to pause and consider the purpose. The fact that three of the five originate in ethnicity outside of Judaism, and each of the five is in some way included in an unusual or unorthodox situation of sexuality, is further reason to ponder their addition. Matthew has printed something of a genealogy that is designed to make headlines. Perhaps more like the headlines one would read from supermarket tabloids than mainstream news outlets. What point is he intent, from chapter one of his gospel, no less, in making?

To answer the question, let’s consider the five women in turn. First there is Tamar. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, son of Jacob. We encounter her story in Genesis 38. She marries Er, the eldest son of Judah, a man so wicked that the Lord sees fit to put him to death (Gen. 38:7). By law (the levirate marriage law) Er’s younger brother is obligated to then marry the widowed Tamar and provide her with an heir. Little brother, however, is no more righteous than her first husband, so he too is put to death by the Lord. Some family, huh? Fearful that the same will befall his youngest son, Judah ignores the obligation of the levirate law this time around leaving twice-widowed Tamar to fend for herself in a society that is hostile toward vulnerable women.

What’s a woman to do? If you are Tamar you take matters into your own hands, disguise yourself as a prostitute and seduce your father-in-law when he comes to town for the sheepshearing festival. In your savvy you demand collateral (his signet & cord) so you can later prove the injustice and defend your rights. This, of course, is just how the story plays out, when Tamar is revealed to be pregnant and accused of whoring, she is able to prove the father of her child to be none other than Judah, her father-in-law.

As the world turns Matthew doesn’t skip a beat, next inserting the name of Rahab into Jesus’ ancestral list. Rahab, you may recall (Joshua 2) was the prostitute of Jericho who saved the Hebrew spies Joshua had sent into the city for reconnaissance. She later marries a man named Salmon (Mt 1:5) who is the father of Obed, the grandfather of David. Twice now in two names we have encountered the term “prostitute” in association with roles played by these women. Which leads us to Ruth.

Ruth, the mother of Jesse, grandmother of David, marries Boaz. She, like Rahab, is of foreign descent. Ruth is a Moabitess and proves her loyalty to Naomi, her mother-in-law, by companioning her back to Judah from Moab during a time of famine. As with Tamar, Ruth has lost her first husband, and Naomi (older and beyond bearing more sons) sets out to help her daughter-in-law’s cause through the same levirate marriage law. Boaz is the kinsman redeemer whom the wise Naomi sets her sights on, coaching Ruth, in the earthy surroundings of the threshing floor, to present herself to him at night. Boldness in sexuality is likely at play once again as Ruth follows the advice of Naomi and succeeds in finally getting Boaz attention. (Ruth 3)

It’s the grandson of this threshing floor couple, David, who is responsible for the inclusion of the next woman, referred to by Matthew simply as Uriah’s wife. It’s a slight play of verbiage intended, no doubt, to note the injustice King David caused Uriah by committing adultery with the loyal soldier’s wife, Bathsheba. Sex is again central to the story with the woman (unnamed by Matthew) being the object of a man’s desire and exploitation. We might say the same was true, in some fashion, for all these women who were living in a time when female welfare was dependent on marriage and the economic stability it could offer. Absent a husband, denied the provision of a male heir, and past the protection of a father, women in these Biblical times were often forced to fend for themselves in any way they could.

Is Mary the exception to Matthew’s pattern of female inclusion in Jesus’ lineage? “Yes and No.” Young, a virgin, betrothed to Joseph and found to be pregnant, her future was perilous as well. Save for the kindness and goodness of Joseph, nudged along by God, Mary could easily have been in dire straights economically and socially. The norms of sexuality and gender bias, common to the day, would not have been exempt from her story had Joseph acted otherwise.

So, what prompted Matthew to include a prostitute (Rahab), a woman who pretended to be a prostitute (Tamar), a sexually forward widow (Ruth), a woman taken in adultery (Bathsheba), and a young virgin in his “account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham”?  In part because this was, and is, the story. Matthew is simply telling the story as it exists, not creating a more interesting lineage so persons will actually read it.

But, given the Messiah Matthew’s gospel introduces, it seems he is also priming us to understand he is telling a story that is unusual. There is room in this story of Jesus, for the unexpected, the unwanted, the cast aside. There is value in those who have been mistreated, abused, overlooked and forgotten. There is inclusion in this “good news” for persons (in these cases women) who have had to resort to desperate measures to provide for themselves, and who have shown incredible tenacity, loyalty and adaptability.

In her book Texts of Terror Phyllis Trible recounts, in much more theological depth, the stories of four additional women from Scripture who endured injustice and terror in a male dominated world: Hagar (Genesis 16 & 21), another Tamar (David’s daughter – 2 Samuel 13), an unnamed woman of Judges 19, and Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11). Their stories do not end with royal lineage status, but they are important, just as are the stories of the five women mentioned in Matthew 1.

I write this blog post on the heels of having recently visited the Church of Hope, which is an American Baptist congregation that meets within the walls of the South Dakota Women’s Prison. In the course of two services with that congregation I met many women who would know something of these kind of stories and experiences. They go by different names, but their names, like those of Mary, Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab and Tamar, are known to Jesus. They are his sisters, as well as my sisters. Like their biblical ancestors (and like you and me), they are far from perfect, yet redeemed and loved and included.

With whom might you share the story of Christmas this year? Not just in its comfortable and cozy Bethlehem scenery, but in the fullness of God’s desire to be with us, among us, one of us, redeeming us? Let’s draw the circle wider and invite everyone in to hear the good news of great joy for all people: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. (Luke 2:11).

13 Comments

Filed under Christian Faith, Holy Days, Ministry

13 responses to “Matthew’s version of Ancestry.com

  1. Jim Reid

    Thanks, Dan. As usual, you’ve given us a lot to think about here.

    Are you enjoying winter in the Dakotas yet?

  2. llamacaramelvarda43091

    Thank you Dan. A very appropriate advent meditation.

    Sent from my iPod

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  3. Yes, and amen. Loved this: But, given the Messiah Matthew’s gospel introduces, it seems he is also priming us to understand he is telling a story that is unusual. There is room in this story of Jesus, for the unexpected, the unwanted, the cast aside. There is value in those who have been mistreated, abused, overlooked and forgotten. There is inclusion in this “good news” for persons (in these cases women) who have had to resort to desperate measures to provide for themselves, and who have shown incredible tenacity, loyalty and adaptability.

    Our gospel reading last week was the whole genealogy… for just the same reasons as you presented here. And as for prison settings…we found leading worship in prisons to be some of the most transformative work God did in us.

    Stay the course!🙂. Merry Christmas to your beautiful family.
    Char

  4. Judy

    Dan

    I appreciate your insight shared in this post. Since Bob is into genealogy, I made sure he read this.

    I hope you are doing well. According to Lori, you will be back in Columbus soon to be with family for Christmas. Safe travels.

    On a personal note, our son-in-law Greg had surgery yesterday to reverse the ilieostomy & all went well. We appreciated your prayers & concern when he had the first surgery. He & Becky visited about two weeks ago. We celebrated late Thanksgiving & early Christmas.

    Wishing you a joyous Christmas, Judy

    Sent from my iPad

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  5. Donna Tull

    I have read this genealogy several times but I don’t think I connected the dots. Thx for doing that in this writing….stay safe and warm…..hope your trip home is good and easy……Donna

  6. William L Baker

    This is almost an instant replay of our ASF lesson Sunday. (Janet Bailey did a wonderful job.) The depth that I had not known before. Thanks, Bill

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