When Naomi was grieving inside, Alleluia.
The Moabite Ruth stayed by her side. Alleluia.
She’d lost her man, but she found another. Alleluia.
Now she’s King David’s great-grandmother. Alleluia.
How many women are listed as ancestors of Jesus in Matthew,
Answer: 4. If you count Mary the answer is 5, but the genealogy
that Matthew gives us is on the foster father Joseph’s side. Makes no sense to
The list is a remarkable one nevertheless. You have to wonder
why just these four women were chosen, and the mystery only deepens, once you
get to know them. Here they are, with the interesting “biography” of each of
1. Tamar. She was mad at Judah, one of Jacob’s 12
sons, from whose name we get both “Judea”
and “Jew.” Judah was
supposed to give Tamar the third and last of his sons in marriage and failed to
deliver. I’m sure you can understand. His first son married her and died. (The
Bible says he was wicked and the Lord slew him.) The second son, Onan, by law
had to marry her so she and (legally) her former husband could have offspring.
But knowing that any child they produced wouldn’t be his own, he “spilled his
seed on the ground.” The Lord slew him also for this wicked behavior.
Judah told Tamar to wait for a while until his third son
grew up, but time went by, the son was grown, and Judah, hoping Tamar
would just forget, hadn’t acted. So Tamar dressed up like a prostitute and
sat at the gate to the village where she’d heard Judah was
coming. He took the bait for the price of one kid from his flock. Tamar was not
dumb. She demanded, for surety until the kid would be delivered, Judah’s
signet, cord, and staff. “OK,” says, Judah.
“Let’s get on with it.”
Here’s what happened next, in the words of the Bible:
three months later Judah was
told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; and moreover she is
with child by harlotry.” And Judah said,
“Bring her out, and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent
word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.”
And she said, “Mark, I pray you, whose these are, the signet and the cord and
the staff.” Then Judah acknowledged
them and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to
my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38:24-26)
Tamar gave birth to twins. One was Perez, who stood in the
ancestral line of David and Jesus. Perez’ twin, Zerah, stuck his hand out first,
and the midwife tied a scarlet thread on it, saying, “This came out first.” But
he drew back his hand and his brother came out. It’s a curious detail. I don’t
know if it’s even possible, but it makes Perez technically the second son even
though he was born first. In the Bible stories God often prefers second sons.
It’s one of many ways Israel’s God flouts Israel’s human
2. Rahab. Rahab was a prostitute by profession.
It wasn’t a disguise. Her house, her place of business, was in the wall of the
city of Jericho. Joshua sent
spies to search out the land, and guess where they went first! The king found
out about the spies and sent men to Rahab to capture them. Rahab had hidden
them in the straw on the roof and gave the king’s men a bum steer.
All Jericho was
terrified of the Israelites, and Rahab was angling for a good deal for herself
and her family. That was OK with the spies. They told her to hang a scarlet
cord out her window (that color scarlet again), which she did. She and
everybody in the house were spared. After the destruction of Jericho,
Rahab joined the Israelites and became a respectable woman. She married Salmon
and became the mother of Boaz, who became the husband of Ruth after her first
3. Ruth. Noami was an Israelite living in Moab, east and a little
south of Israel.
Her two sons had married Moabite women. One of them was Ruth. The two sons and
Naomi’s husband had all died. Naomi decided to return to Israel and
encouraged the two younger women to stay and marry Moabite men. Ruth then
expresses the ultimate in daughter-in-law devotion with these words:
Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and
your God my God. Wherever you
die I will die, and there be buried. May
the LORD do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from
you! (Ruth 1:16-17)
Mother and daughter-in-law come to Bethlehem.
Boaz, a near relative of Naomi, takes a fancy for Ruth, whom he finds gleaning
in his fields. There’s a somewhat unseemly episode in which Boaz wakes up on
his threshing floor, after a party and some heavy drinking, to find Ruth
sleeping at his feet. (Later some scribes found this disturbing enough that they
changed a verb ending and made it Noami who lay down with Boaz. This doesn’t
seem much better to me, but at least it diverted the “disgrace” away from
David’s direct line.) Boaz wants to marry Ruth and does so after making sure a
second, closer relative to Naomi gives up his prior claim.
Ruth becomes the mother of Obed, the grandmother of Jesse, and
the great-grandmother of David. Through her faithfulness to her
mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth not only joins the Israelites but becomes next in
line after Rahab among David’s ancestors.
4. The wife of Uriah, whom Matthew doesn’t name. Her name
is Bathsheba. In this story it’s the male actor, not the woman, who engages in
less than seemly—in this case dastardly—behavior. Uriah was one of David’s
elite soldiers so he got to live close to the royal palace—unfortunately for
him. David was hanging out on his roof one day and spied Bathsheba bathing. She
was very beautiful. He sent for her and had sex with her. Later she told him,
“I am with child.” David tried to get Uriah to take some time off from battle
and spend that time with his wife. It was a good plan for hiding David’s
indiscretion, except Uriah’s soldierly sense of honor didn’t allow him to
abandon his unit in the middle of a war. Finally, David arranged to have Uriah
killed in battle and took Bathsheba as one of his wives.
This story has two surprises. One is that anyone dared report
and even write down such a story about Israel’s
most honored king. The other is that in David’s kingdom there was at least one
man, the prophet Nathan, who could call the king on the carpet and get away
with it. David repented. The child died. I guess that was supposed to be
David’s punishment. David “comforted his wife, Bathsheba,” and she gave him
another son, whom he named Solomon. Through him the ancestral line of Jesus
What made these four women, and only these, important enough in
Matthew’s mind to mention in his genealogy? Why did earlier scribes and editors
think their stories should be included in Jewish scriptures in the first place?
Personally, I wouldn’t mind being a direct descendant of a beauty queen, a
loyal daughter-in-law, a clever inside agent, and an assertive woman who knows
how to get what’s due to her. (Actually, given the amount of time that has
passed, I probably am their descendant, assuming all these people are real.)
But Jews might have focused on something different: a hero king who fell into
depraved behavior, a member of a despised foreign race acting on one occasion
like a hussy, a prostitute saving her skin, and a patriarch embarrassed by a
woman pretending to be a prostitute. To say the least, these are unconventional
In each case the story approves of the woman. In two cases the
stories disapprove of the men. In at least two cases the women are foreigners
in a society with a strong anti-foreign bent. (Naomi had to advise Ruth not to
glean in anybody else’s field except Boaz’ or she might be “insulted.”) And the
Bible approves of the foreigners. There are places in the Bible where
anti-foreigner sentiment reaches the point of viciousness. In the Bible women
are more often put down or ignored than respected. But at other times, for a
patriarchal society, the Bible is surprisingly pro-woman; and, in a society
fearful of foreign contamination, it can sometimes get downright multicultural.
Patriarchy and isolationism are the status quo. But the Old Testament—not
always, but once in a while—breaks out of this pattern.
I believe that in these snatches of something new we most
clearly hear God speaking. The New Testament’s Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews
in the first century, keeps God’s challenge going.
On to Fighters