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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Genealogies can reveal unexpected forebears


Jesus’ bloodline features some remarkable women

March 19, 2020

Dr. Rebecca Lister

Do you ever get irritated when reading genealogies in the Bible? All that “so-and-so begat so-and-so…”. Yet, genealogies hold deep meaning for us if we consider them closely. This is especially true for the genealogy in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew’s primary goal is to demonstrate that Jesus is a descendant of both Abraham and David. When breezing through the rest of the list, though, a trend emerges: there are women’s names. Usually, genealogies focus solely on the male line, but not in this case. Even more puzzling is that three of the five women have somewhat shady pasts as recounted in the Old Testament. Why then do these women appear in a genealogy that supposedly defines the purity of Jesus’ messianic lineage? What is special about each, and what does her story reveal to us today?

First is Tamar. Tamar has the dubious distinction of tricking her father-in-law, Judah, into sleeping with her. Second and third are Rahab and Ruth. Rahab was the Canaanite prostitute who harbored Joshua’s spies and eventually helped bring about Jericho’s downfall. The Book of Ruth is an inspirational story about a loyal young widow who finds love again with a wealthy relative, Boaz. Next up in Matthew’s genealogy is Solomon’s mother and David’s infamous wife, Bathsheba. The verse does not state her name overtly, but mentions she “had been the wife of Uriah” (Matt. 1:6). The final female Matthew mentions in the genealogy is Mary, “of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ” (Matt. 1:14). All  five were pivotal characters who triumphed in the biblical narrative despite living in a male-dominated world.

After her husband dies, Tamar disguises herself as a temple prostitute and sleeps with Judah. She knows the only way she can force her father-in-law to honor his familial duties is to bear him a child.

Though some storytellers through the centuries have portrayed Bathsheba as a woman of questionable character, it is clear that she had little or no choice in her situation. It is David who commands Bathsheba to come to him, and it is David who orders Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to the front lines to be killed. No one refused a king — especially David — anything. Bathsheba’s first son with David dies, but her second son, Solomon, becomes one of the most famous kings in the Bible.

Rahab and Ruth were additionally disadvantaged because they were both foreigners. Rahab was a Canaanite, and Ruth was a Moabite. The Israelites had strained relations with both of these ethnic groups due to years of warring and in-fighting in the region. Strict purification laws prevented Jews from having any sort of close personal relationship with foreigners, much less inter-marrying with them. Despite this, both Ruth and Rahab long to become part of God’s people, the people of YHWH. Ruth refuses to leave the side of her grieving mother-in-law, Naomi.

The death and loss Ruth and Naomi faced together formed an unbreakable bond, and by the end of the story, God transforms their numbing tragedy into hope — the hope of love with Boaz, and a baby.

Rahab, too, recognizes God’s power and casts her lot with the Israelite spies she agrees to protect.

Rahab knows deep within her that the Lord will win Jericho. She bargains for her own life and those of her family members and is guaranteed safe passage. Eventually, Rahab marries into the tribe of Judah, has a son named Boaz, and becomes Ruth’s new mother-in-law.

All five of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy were strong women who, despite being at the mercy of the men in their lives, secured their status and the Davidic line. Some feminists decry the fact that, in ancient Jewish society, these five special women had no other value than the ability to bear children. This may certainly be true, yet without them, God’s rescue plan for us would never have come to pass. Jesus would never have existed. Men may have thought they controlled the world, but ultimately, it was the “yes” of a woman — Mary — that allows us to call ourselves Christians today. 

Rebecca Lister, associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania; Presbyterians Today Blog

Today’s Focus:  Remarkable Women

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Philip Woods, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Deb Worland, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray:

Loving God, thank you for the perseverance and persistence of these women in the Bible. Shine your face upon all of us so your love will light our path. Amen.