December 30, 2007
Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17
For many Americans genealogies are not important. For most Americans a genealogy is simply a list of ancestors. It is unimportant to who you are. What is important to many Americans is what you yourself have accomplished. Southerners know different. A genealogy is more than a list of ancestors. It is a story of who the ancestors are and, as such, who your are and whose you are. A genealogy tells stories of possibilities, of success and failures. It tells of your place within the nation, of history. It ties you to the broader sweep of time than simply the present. And so, tracing ancestors has become a hobby for some. My brother is the one in my family that draws our family trees, adding leaves and branches as he finds an ancestor here and there in his search. I looked at his work one day and realized that is was only the males he traced. Yes, women appeared, but as wives and mothers. Their lines were never traced back. I don't think it is male chauvinism on his part. I think it is just the way that the records are kept. It is hard to find the records of women's lives. Their names change when they marry and so it is difficult to follow their lines backwards. And this is the way it is in the scriptures as the writers traces the lines of kings, patriarch, rulers back. The end of Ruth contains the genealogy of David. No women are included. In II Kings, the recitation of the line of the kings rarely includes women.
Matthew begins his account of Jesus' life with the heading,” An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Inexplicably, he includes four women among Jesus’ male ancestry. Each of the women, Tamar, Rehab, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah” are foreign (or in Bathsheba’s case, identified with a foreigner) and were involved in “sexual irregularities.” The usual quick explanation is two-fold: Matthew includes them as a signal that the kingdom includes gentiles and as a way of countering rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy. If the answer were that easy, then why does Matthew include four women? One would have accomplished both goals. Because Matthew liked doubles, two would have been sufficient. Four is overkill and leads to the question, what else did the inclusion of these four women in the genealogy accomplish.
A closer look, rather than a quick dismissal, may provide insight into Matthew’s objectives in writing the gospel. So, what are the stories Matthew wanted his readers to remember or the listeners of the genealogy to ask about? A clue may lie in the very inclusion of women which is so quickly dismissed. The inclusion of women in a Jewish genealogy is unusual. As already noted, the four women are either foreign or identified as foreign. The four form two pairs. In the first pair, Tamar and Rahab, one woman acted as a prostitute, the second was a prostitute. The second pairs a seductress, Ruth, with a woman seduced, Bathsheba. The first and the last are coupled with great names in the Jewish lineage: Judah, from whom those who are left in Judea trace their ancestry, and David, the great king.
Let us begin to examine the stories individually to see what they may show us. Tamar, the first woman mentioned was married Er, Judah’s son. Er died before fathering sons. As was the custom, Judah ordered his next son, Onan, to go to Tamar so that Er might have sons. He did not. His actions displeased God and so God killed him. Judah then told Tamar to return to her father and wait until his third son was old enough to father children. After a while, Tamar, seeing that this son was now grown, and that Judah made no move to send him to her, took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a prostitute, and waited for Judah. Judah accosts her and negotiates a price for her favors. Tamar agrees to a kid in exchange for her services. Judah does not have a kid with him and so Tamar asks him for tokens as a pledge for the payment. Judah agrees. In a few months, Judah hears of Tamar’s pregnancy and decides to have her burned for her adultery. She sends the tokens, he realizes that she was the one he thought was a prostitute and takes her into his household.
Judah, the ancestor of the Jews, breaks the law by not giving Tamar his third son. Tamar acts to secure offspring for her husband (and herself). It takes a trick for Judah to realize his wrong. Tamar, by acting as a prostitute appears to be behaving with less regard for the law, is in reality acting within the spirit of the law. Judah, who was ready to enforce his property rights over Tamar (even though she remained in her father’s house), is caught in his hypocrisy.
The second woman did not play the prostitute, she was a prostitute. Rahab hides the spies whom Joshua has sent out. She recognizes that God has given the Israelites the land. She understands and obeys God’s will. She is rewarded for her faithful actions.
The second pair of women also function as a doublet: a seductress and a woman seduced. Naomi, Ruth's mother in law, moved with her husband and her two sons to Moab during a time when there was drought in Israel. There, her sons grew up and married, but had no children. As time went on, Naomi's husband and her two sons die. She decides to return to her family in Israel. Her two daughters in law try to go with her, but she sends them back. She tells them that she will not be able to find them husbands. One daughter in law returns, but Ruth does not. She tells Naomi, "wherever you go, I will go and your people will be my people." Ruth follows Naomi back to Bethlehem. There they settle. Ruth goes to gather grain in the fields and meets Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz. He has heard of her kindness to Naomi and treats her well. On the night when Boaz will celebrate the completion of the harvest, Naomi advises Ruth to go to him where he sleeps on the threshing floor and “uncover his feet” and lie there. Boaz awakens. He is taken that the young woman has come to him and not “gone after young men, whether rich or poor” (Ruth 3:10). He tells her that if her nearest kin will not act as such, he will do so. Ruth’s obedience to God, her humbleness, her kindness to her mother-in-law are all rewarded. Likewise, Boaz shows humility, kindness and obedience to the law.
The final woman is Bathsheba, named as the wife of Uriah, though at the time of Solomon’s conception, Uriah had been killed. The story is a familiar one. David sees Bathsheba bathing, sends for her, seduces her. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. He has committed adultery with the wife of one of his commanders. He orders Uriah to return so that David may cover up his sin and hide the fact that he is Bathsheba’s child’s father. Uriah returns, but does not sleep at his house. He explains that while all of Israel are fighting for David, he will not sleep with his wife. David then has Uriah killed in battle. David tries to hide what he has done, but Nathan indicts him. Here David, the royal king, has broken the law and acts with hypocrisy. Uriah, on the other hand, the foreigner, acts with more righteousness than David, the king.
The outside stories, then, are stories of the men, two of the giants of the tradition: Judah and David. Each broke the law and tried to hide it. They try to hide behind hypocrisy. The middle stories are the stories of the women, foreign women, among the least of these. In contrast to the great men, they acted with faithfulness to a God they did not fully know. They acted with humility and obedience to that God. They, without being schooled in the law, act with righteousness.
Matthew included these four women not simply to show that gentiles are included in the kingdom or to counter rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy. He had a larger purpose. He intended to teach the members of his community what it meant to be a Christian, how even the giants among the Jewish ancestors could fall short, but how the least, even gentile women could keep the law.
These are themes that we will encounter in the next year as Matthew's gospel will be the lectionary gospel: Humility and obedience to God, the importance of righteousness.
And so, as we end one year and begin another, it is good to ponder humility and obedience to God. Take time this week to think about these stories. Take time to remember that the outsiders are included in the family of God. Take time to remember that those who are thought to be the most Godly may be the ones filled with hypocrisy.