Women in Jesus’ Ancestry
Luke, surprisingly perhaps since he is generally considered the most woman-friendly of the four Gospel writers, does not include any women in his genealogy of Jesus. Matthew, however, lists among his genealogy 3 different women by name and then also references Bathsheba (but only by her husband’s name). These references are a radical idea. Genealogies are typically traced through men, particularly in the Ancient world but we still often do it today, too. That’s why you get so many cases where somebody is introduced as a “son of (father’s name)” in the Bible. Rarely does the Bible or any other Ancient book speak of sons or daughters of their mother as a primary characteristic. It just wasn’t as important as their fathers, so the fact that women were included here does say something about what Matthew wanted to get across.
Even more significantly, these women generally are not the ones you would brag about descending from.
Tamar pretended to be a prostitute in order to publicly shame Judah because he wouldn’t marry her off to one of his sons as he had promised (Genesis 38). Generally speaking today, we wouldn’t call this a good or ethical idea. Yet she is praised for using what little power she had to creatively solve an injustice – an injustice that probably would have eventually resulted in her death without having a provider. It is Judah who repents at the end of the story, not Tamar. Including her name in this ancestry gives her tribute.
Then we have another prostitute, Rahab, and a non-Israelite one at that (Joshua 2). Joshua, the Israelite leader, sent two spies into Jericho before attacking the city. The first thing recorded that they do is go to visit a prostitute even though sleeping with the enemy city’s prostitutes is not really the conventional approach to spying on the enemy. In this case, they did learn that Jericho was afraid of them in exchange for sparing her and her family’s lives, but did that require going to a prostitute? Probably not. In any case, the spies promise to save Rahab’s family’s lives in exchange for her help, a bargain she was probably able to strike because of her other services. She is also praised for these actions.
Ruth is another foreigner. After her husband and her father-in-law die, she pledges to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi and they return together to Israel. This sets up what is sometimes called a great love story between Ruth and Boaz and in some ways it does deserve that label. Ruth goes looking for any food she can get, ending up in Boaz’s field at Naomi’s suggestion. Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s late husband so Naomi could rely on him. Boaz not only followed the legal requirement to leave some of the field for those in need – he actually upgraded her job and directed his other staff to leave more out for her so she could earn more.
Then it gets even more interesting. Ruth “uncovered his [Boaz’s] feet” while he was sleeping – commonly thought to be a euphemism for his penis. In other words, she initiates sex with him while he was sleeping. He gets up, realizes what he’s done, and offers to marry her. He probably was already interested in her based on those prior actions, but it was her pretty-scandalous initiative that accelerated them to marriage.
Bathsheba is a different story, one I’ve already covered talking about with her rape at the hands of David. She is not named in Matthew’s genealogy, only referred to as the wife of Uriah. This is a very interesting point. She is not identified by her own name, which might suggest she wasn’t viewed favourably by Matthew, but she also isn’t identified by the name of her royal rapist or simply left out either. Instead, she was identified by her husband who she was stolen from (to use the language of women as property that would have been thought at the time) and who was then killed to attempt to cover up David’s actions. It arguably still limits her personhood, but it also reminds everyone how she wasn’t just a Queen who mothered the next King, Solomon – she and Uriah were victims of a king’s injustice.
Jesus, Their Descendant
These women are ancestors of Jesus according to Matthew. Yes, we are talking about some kings and otherwise rich and powerful people, but alongside them we have a pretend prostitute, an actual foreign prostitute, a foreign widow making significant sexual advances, and a rape victim. Not exactly royal lineage to be proud of, but Matthew includes it when he didn’t have to (whether it is literally true or not, he could have opted not to mention that part which would maintain Jesus’ honour). Why?
First of all, it blows up the idea that only men matter. Jesus’ line would not have happened if it were not for the actions of these women, the injustices done to these women, and the actions they took in response to those injustices.
Second, we have interesting questions about sexuality that I’m not brave enough to delve into here. Was Tamar wrong in what she did? Did she have other options that she should have done instead? Was Rahab’s profession wrong, or her use of that profession to save herself and her family? Could Ruth have waited for Boaz to make the move? This is not to discard many perspectives on Christian sexual ethics – some which have been around since the beginning – but it does demonstrate that the Bible is not always as clearcut as we might think and want it to be.
Finally, there is the foreigner element. In the last post I suggested that Luke’s genealogy was to help demonstrate how Jesus is for more than just Jews. Having these foreign women in the picture does add that element to Matthew’s story as well, even if he is generally the more Jewish-oriented of the two.