What do the following women have in common?
- A woman who acted as a prostitute to be faithful to her family.
- A prostitute.
- A foreign migrant.
- A woman taken for a man’s sexual pleasure.
- An unwed mother who flees as a refugee.
Each of these women are found in Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew! The women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The television program “Finding Your Roots” shows how the fascinating stories of people’s ancestors influence identity. Courage, hardship, villainy and artistry are discovered in the treasure trove of the past, and people’s view of themselves is expanded, challenged and enriched. In the genealogy of Jesus, our view of God is also enlarged, challenged and deepened with our focus on Jesus’ grandmothers and mother. Our author, Merryl Blair, takes us on a journey to discover the significance of these five vulnerable, ordinary and resourceful women. All would have been judged or used harshly, yet they ensure that God’s plan will be fulfilled.
The study begins with little-known Tamar (see Genesis 38). It is an odd story — and to our sensibilities, a revolting tale. Tamar is married to one of the sons of Judah, who dies. As was the custom, in order to ensure the family line, Tamar is given to the next brother as his wife. Any children born would be considered the first husband’s offspring. But the second brother also dies. There is a third brother, but Judah will not give Tamar to him in marriage. Stuck in limbo, Tamar cannot remarry outside of Judah’s household. Audaciously, she veils herself and pretends to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law will impregnate her so her first husband’s family will continue. Astonishingly, she is counted as righteous.
If we want to be smacked upside the head of our preconceived beliefs about who God can use, we have only to consider the story of Rahab (in Joshua, chapters 2 and 6). Rahab is a prostitute, living in the walls of Jericho, vulnerable to invading armies or abusive customers. She works to provide for her parents, sisters and brothers. She tells two spies from Israel that “the Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). She provides escape for the spies and the knowledge that Jericho lives in fear of Israel. In recognizing the power of God, she is able to save her family from the invading army of Israel.
The story of Ruth is one of the loveliest in Scripture, featuring steadfast love and faithfulness. Ruth is a despised foreign immigrant who comes into Bethlehem with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth and Naomi have endured a time of famine and grief. Both are widows, poor and without protection in a time of political instability and chaos, when everyone did “what was right in their own sight” (Judges 21:25).
Steadfast love is a commitment that endures through adversity and sings in times of joy. It climbs high, above that which is required, to summits of mercy. Love in the biblical understanding is not a feeling; it is the way we choose to live, doing what is right, or righteous, for other people. The word in Hebrew is hesed. It is God’s love for us. Two characters in the story of Ruth live boldly into hesed, going beyond the status quo of recognized obligation into actions that bring new life.
Only named as the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba is also featured in the genealogy of Jesus. She has been betrayed as a seductress, but the text tells us that King David “takes her,” which is a way of describing rape elsewhere in the Bible. When Bathsheba sends word that she is pregnant, David manipulates events so that her husband is killed in battle. Bathsheba becomes one of David’s wives and reveals her strength as she becomes an agent in carrying out God’s plan for the next king of Israel.
Surprisingly, the mother of Jesus, Mary, says nothing in the Gospel of Matthew. She is the unwed mother with whom Joseph deals kindly. She is a refugee, like so many others, fleeing from a deadly army. Our author expands our view of Mary using the Gospels of Luke and John and the history of Mary’s veneration in the church. As a model of discipleship, Mary challenges our notions of faithfulness.
The five women prefigure Jesus’ own ministry to people not deemed acceptable. In them we glimpse the “startlingly newness of the Realm of God … a realm that requires us constantly to question our areas of exclusion and our points of prejudice” (page 80). Rather interesting, don’t you think?
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
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