The Women in Jesus's Genealogy: If Not Scandalous, What? (Part 2)

Sandra Glahn's picture

In my last column, titled “The Five Not-So-Scandalous Women in Jesus’s Genealogy,” I made a case for relooking at the reason Matthew included five women in Christ’s pedigree (Matt. 1:1–17). Most commentators point to these women as examples of sinfulness—especially sexual sin or scandal. And I think that's seriously misguided.
 
I argued that Matthew intended his readers to think of something other than sexual scandal when they heard the names Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5), Ruth (v. 5), “the wife of Uriah” (v. 7), and Mary (v. 16). So what did Matthew’s readers hear? 
 
To answer this question we must first consider the overall argument of Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s this: Jesus is King. And what point about King Jesus was Matthew making by including these five women? With the first four, Matthew demonstrated that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that through Messiah all nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 22:18). And by including Mary, Matthew demonstrated that Jesus Christ is the promised son of the Davidic line. Indeed, the message of the women in Jesus’s genealogy is this: King Jesus is the all-inclusive Messiah for all the earth’s peoples, not only to the Jew, but also to the gentile.
 
The first four women named in Jesus’s genealogy—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah”— were, in fact, gentiles. And while the fifth woman, Mary, was Jewish, she couldn’t be gentile, because Jesus was the biological son of Mary alone, not of Joseph’s lineage. For Jesus to be the all-inclusive Jew-gentile Messiah, Mary had to be Jewish, but Jesus also had to have gentiles in his pedigree.
 
I don't think Matthew's point is only to give a head's up to women in an otherwise patrilineal genealogy. To affirm women, he could have chosen those with whom his readers were most familiar—Sarah, Rebecca, or Leah, for example. And/or he might have even included all the mothers and fathers on the list.
 
And if Matthew wanted only to make the point that God forgives sexual sin, he already had plenty of “qualified” men in Jesus’ ancestry from which to choose.
 
No, he had a different emphasis in mind. By including Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary, Matthew demonstrated that Christ has the pedigree to stand as King over both Jews and gentiles—over all the earth.
 
Matthew could not have made the case for gentile inclusion—which was of prime importance to his argument—with any of the men, because the Messiah had to be from the male bloodline going back to Abraham, meaning all the men had to be descendants of Abraham. So the only way to include gentiles in Jesus’s royal pedigree was to include his gentile women ancestors.  
 
But how do we know Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah,” as Matthew calls her, were actually all gentiles?
 
We begin with the first two women, who were Canaanites. Of Tamar, the biblical text says simply that Judah got her as a wife for his son, Er (Gen. 38:6). So nothing in Genesis would indicate that Tamar was a gentile. But Philo, a Jewish exegete who lived at the time of Matthew, wrote this about her: “Tamar was a woman from Syria Palestina who had been bred up in her own native city, which was devoted to the worship of many gods, being full of statues, and images, and, in short, of idols of every kind and description. But when she, emerging, as it were, out of profound darkness, was able to see a slight beam of truth, she then, at the risk of her life, exerted all her energies to arrive at piety…living for the service of and in constant supplication to the one true God” (Virt. 220–22). To Philo’s readers, and to those of his contemporary, Matthew, “Syria Palestina” was unequivocally gentile. 
 
As for the second woman, Rahab—she was from Jericho (see Josh. 2), the first of the Canaanite cities conquered with God’s help in the Promised Land. Slam dunk.
 
And the third woman was Ruth. The text makes clear that she was a Moabitess (Ruth 1:4), so definitely a gentile. Score: 3–0. 
 
That leaves the “wife of Uriah.” Now, notice that Matthew avoids identifying her by name, even though readers know he’s talking about Bathsheba. One might argue that this not-naming treats her as “the other,” degrading her. But wait. Can you finish this phrase: Bathsheba was first married to Uriah the [fill in blank]”? If you said, “Hittite,” you’re correct. And Matthew’s readers definitely would have known him by this title. So if Matthew wanted to emphasize the gentile-ness of Bathsheba, what better way than by reminding readers, using a sort-of shorthand, that her first husband was “the” Hittite? By the time Bathsheba bore Solomon, she was David's wife. But by reminding readers of Uriah, her first husband, Matthew stresses Bathsheba's origins.
 
And in fact, Uriah was not just any Hittite. According to esteemed Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar, “The story of David's defeat of the destitute Uriah (2 Sam. 12) marks the very end of the Jebusite [gentile] royal dynasty.”[1] And as Heather Goodman noted in an article for bible.org, “This presents a nuance to the story about David, Bethsheba, and Uriah. More than a story of lust, it has political ramifications. When David killed Uriah and took [Uriah’s] wife, it symbolized [David’s] ultimate defeat of the Canaanites of Jerusalem.” (And if Uriah was a prince, as some suppose, that makes Jesus from a gentile line of royalty, as well.)
 
Now, what was so significant about Canaanites and Hitties? As Richard Baucham, author of Gospel Women, reminds readers, these two groups “were among the seven peoples of the land of Canaan whom God had promised to drive out and Israel had been commanded to annihilate (Exod. 23:23, 28; 33:2; 34:11; Deut. 7:1; 20:17; Josh. 3:10; 1 Kgs 9:20–21; Ezra 9:10).[2] Canaanites and Hittites were as “gentile” as you could get. And Christ is both descendant and lord of them, too.  
 
Some feminist scholars have argued that by making the women the “other”—the outsider, the gentile—in Matthew's argument, he has added his own insults to women. Yet the named women's other-ness is precisely what Matthew uses to argue that this King is different, even better. Whereas in the past all pedigrees of royalty in Israel stressed only a king’s Jewishness via his male ancestors, this pedigree not only includes women but requires women in order to establish Jesus as simultaneously the king who sits on David’s throne and the ruler of all nations, King of kings, Lord of lords.  

[1] Eilat Mazar, The Palace of King David: Excavations at the Summit of the City of David, Preliminary Report of Seasons 2005-2007 (Jerusalem: Shoham Academic Research and Publication, 2009), 43.

[2] Baucham, Richard. Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: 2002, 42. 

 

Comments

Thank you for this much-needed perspective on this issue. I, for one, am sick and tired of sermons that dishonor women as they "glorify" the king. As usual, an enlightening viewpoint.

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