The astonishing inclusion of women in a genealogy that normally consisted only of “son of…” is even more astonishing when we look at the stories of Tamar, Rahab Bathsheba and Mary, the four women who are included. For each of them a prohibition existed in the law that mandated their death or exclusion.
The first woman listed is Tamar (Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38:11-30). When Tamar was deprived of her rightful husband by her father-in-law Judah, she executed a carefully planned scheme to get what was rightfully hers: an heir. Judah refused to allow her to marry his third son after his first and second son, who had both been married to Tamar, died. It was the custom at the time that sons in succession would marry their brother’s widow.
Tamar disguised herself as a roadside prostitute and when Judah solicited her services she required him to leave some personal items as surety in lieu of his payment of a kid. When she became pregnant and was accused of being a whore, Judah ordered her to be burned. She then used the items he had given her as evidence to prove he was the father of her unborn child. In Leviticus 20:12 the law states that, since both the man and woman participate in the act of intercourse, both Tamar and Judah should be put to death, but that didn’t happen. Tamar gave birth to Perez, who was an ancestor of Jesus.
The second woman was a Gentile and a prostitute named Rahab (Matthew 1:5, Joshua 2: 1-21, 6:17-23). Rahab sheltered and saved the lives of the spies that Joshua had sent to Jericho. In the destruction of Jericho she and her family were saved by tying a red cord out the window of her lodgings in the wall of Jericho. Even though all of Jericho was to be destroyed, that didn’t happen. Rahab was spared and she became the mother of Boaz, another ancestor of Jesus.
The third woman was Ruth, the Moabite (another Gentile) who journeyed back to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Left without resources in Moab by the death of Naomi’s husband and sons, one of whom was Ruth’s husband, Ruth was gleaning in Boaz’ field when she was noticed by Boaz. Boaz claimed her as his bride according to the Jewish custom that involved redeeming related women who had lost their husbands. Deuteronomy 23:3 states that no Moabite is to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, but that didn’t happen. Ruth became Boaz’s wife and gave birth to Obed who was a direct ancestor of King David and therefore of Jesus.
The next woman is “the wife of Uriah” (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11:2-27) not named here, but known to us as Bathsheba. King David broke four commandments when he lusted after Bathsheba and brought her to his house. This was most probably a rape, and certainly Bathsheba was in no position to say NO to the king. When Bathsheba told him she was pregnant David tried to trick Uriah into thinking he was the father. When that didn’t work he had Uriah killed and took Bathsheba as his wife. Leviticus 20:10 states that a man who commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife shall be put to death, but that didn’t happen. Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, another of Jesus’ ancestors.
And finally we have Mary (Matthew 1:18-25). Mary, pregnant and not married, could have been stoned or at least exposed to public disgrace by Joseph and his family, but that didn’t happen. Joseph took her as his wife and Mary gave birth to Jesus. Mary sings in her ‘Magnificat’ that he has “lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Is it possible that this genealogy of Jesus is the beginning of Jesus’ message of inclusiveness in the gospel? All of the women mentioned were outside the norms and rules of Jewish society but they were part of what defined Jesus. They are listed among “the favoured ones”. This is, indeed, good news for all women, and especially for those who may have experienced marginalization in the church community.
By Carrie Hinterberger of Chilliwack, BC. Carrie is a former teacher-librarian and loves to lead women in Bible discussions that explore gospel texts from a woman’s perspective, December 2008.