Matthew begins his Gospel with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt.1:1) His main aim is to support the claim that Jesus is a descendant of King David. Matthew wants to provide proof that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed king who fulfils messianic prophecies and who will reign in the eschaton, the end-time era.
The Israelites and ancient Jews regarded the ancestral line as passing through fathers, not mothers. Accordingly, genealogies in the Hebrew Bible contain men’s names predominately, though women’s names are occasionally included. A feature of the genealogy in Matthew 1 is the inclusion of four women.
Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar …
Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab,
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth,
Obed fathered Jesse,
and Jesse fathered King David.
David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife.
Matthew 1:3a, 5-6
Of the forty generations recorded, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “Uriah’s wife” (Bathsheba) are the only women mentioned. Why these, and only these women? Why not Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah who are often highlighted in Jewish writings and who were also Jesus’ great-grandmothers?
Do the four women in Matthew 1 have anything in common? Do they have anything in common with Mary the mother of Jesus? What is their significance? In this article, I look at three aspects of the lives of these mothers.
1. Gentile Women who Joined the Israelite Community
It is often noted that the four women were probably Gentiles.
~ Tamar’s unusual story is told in Genesis chapter 38. She does not appear to have been related by blood to Jacob’s (i.e. Israel’s) family. Rather, she seems to have been a local Canaanite and therefore a Gentile.
~ Rahab lived in the Canaanite city of Jericho and was a Gentile. Her story is told in Joshua 2 and 6:17-25.
~ Ruth was from Moab and was a Gentile. Moabites were prohibited from joining the Israelite community “to the tenth generation” (Deut. 23:3). So her acceptance by the Israelites in Bethlehem and her inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy are especially noteworthy.
~ Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam, a Gilonite (2 Sam. 23:34; cf. 1 Chron. 3:5). Giloh was a town in the Judean hills. This information about her father does not give an indication about Bathsheba’s ethnicity, but perhaps information about her husband does. Before she was taken by King David, she had been married to Uriah who was a Hittite.
Craig Keener believes all four women were Gentiles and he comments on their significance,
“When Matthew cites these four women, he is probably reminding his readers that three ancestors of King David and the mother of King Solomon were Gentiles. The Bible that accepted David’s mixed race also implied it for the messianic King … Gentiles were never an afterthought in God’s plan …”
The women may signal that people of all ethnicities are welcome in the messianic kingdom (Gal 3:27-29; Rev. 5:9-10). Mary was not a Gentile, however; she was a pious Jew. From Luke’s Gospel we know she was related to Elizabeth who was a descendant of Aaron the High Priest (Luke 1:5, 36). Jesus’ great-grandmothers may well have been Gentiles, but his mother Mary was not.
2. Daring and Courageous Women who took a Risk
Perhaps the four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy are there because they all took risks with the hope of a better life. They didn’t sit idly, waiting to be rescued.
~ Tamar went to extraordinary lengths and put herself in danger to have a child with her father-in-law Judah. In effect, she was calling in a debt that Judah owed her. This was her legal right under Levirate law. (More about Levirate law here.) Having a son was Tamar’s best chance for a secure future. She gave birth to twin boys; a double blessing.
~ Rahab committed treason against her own people in Jericho when she helped their enemy Israel. She cut a deal with the Israelite spies in order to save herself and her family, and she joined the community of God’s people. It is only in Matthew 1 that we learn she became the mother of Boaz.
~ Ruth left her homeland of Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi―a huge leap of faith for Ruth―and the pair went to live in Bethlehem. Then, in another daring move, she effectively proposed marriage to Boaz in a clandestine meeting. Her aim was to save herself and Naomi from destitution. Israelites were forbidden from marrying Moabites, but Boaz recognised Ruth’s virtue and married her anyway (cf. Ezra 9:10–12).
~ Bathsheba was one of several wives of King David (1 Chron. 3:1-5). When David was old and nearing death, she was encouraged by the prophet Nathan to make the bold move and ask for her son to become king. She did this knowing that palace politics could be dangerous, even deadly. Nathan trusted Bathsheba, and she secured the throne for her son Solomon instead of David’s oldest son, Adonijah.
To some extent, these women were outsiders, politically and ethnically. They had little personal power, but they wanted in. If they had not taken a risk they would have remained outsiders with an uncertain future, and they would not have been part of Jesus’ royal lineage.
The infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give no indication that Mary did anything to bring about her pregnancy. It would have taken a great deal of courage, however, to agree to God’s extraordinary plan of making her pregnant with his son. Mary trusted in God and was a risktaker, nonetheless. Her willingness to take the risk has made it possible for potentially all humans to be rescued: to have a better, more abundant, life in her son Jesus, as well as a wonderful hope and future.
3. Marital Irregularities: Immoral or Righteous Women?
Some say the four women in Matthew’s genealogy were immoral in some way, or that they each suffered disgrace. Yet this is not how the Bible describes them.
~ When Judah discovered the truth of Tamar’s actions which led to her pregnancy, he declared her more righteous than himself. And Tamar is spoken of positively in Ruth 4:12.
~ Rahab, despite continuing to be identified as a prostitute, is commended in both Old and New Testaments. James writes that Rahab is considered righteous (Jas 2:24-25), and she is included in the list of faith heroes in Hebrews 11 (Heb.11:31; cf. 11:2).
~ Boaz says this about Ruth: “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” (Ruth 3:11 NIV). He says this during her visit to him at night, alone (Ruth 3:13-14). What did happen that night?
~ In 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12, David is held fully responsible for the actions surrounding Bathsheba’s wretched entrance into palace life (cf. 1 Kings 15:5). Interestingly, she is nameless in the Greek text of Matthew 1 and is identified only as “Uriah’s wife.” This seems to distance Bathsheba from David’s crimes.
These four women and Mary were righteous even if they don’t appear that way to the casual or narrow-minded observer. All four, as well as Mary, could have been accused of sexual immorality. Judah initially ordered Tamar to be burnt to death because he first thought she had acted immorally (Gen. 38:24). Mary could have been stoned to death for being pregnant to someone other than Joseph, her betrothed. Some of these women, especially Bathsheba, continue to be maligned. Each of them could have become victims. Instead, they were blessed.
R.T. France points out that “in each case there were at least suspicions of some form of marital irregularity, though all four were in fact vindicated by God’s subsequent blessing. They form an impressive precedent for Jesus’ birth of an unmarried mother from an obscure background.”
The women in Matthew’s genealogy all have unusual stories about how they came to be mothers (Tamar, Mary) or how they came to be mothers in the community of Israel (Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba). The stories surrounding the conception of Tamar’s and Mary’s baby boys and the stories surrounding the admittance of Rahab and Ruth into Israel, as well Bathsheba’s unique experience, all have the potential to scandalise, but each woman was righteous. Not a bad word is said about the women in the Bible. All four were respected.
The inclusion of Jesus’ non-Hebrew great-grandmothers shows that ethnicity is, or should be, no barrier to belonging to the community of God’s people, as Jesus is himself “mixed-race.” Their inclusion highlights that God rewards daring acts of faith and hope that might appear strange. Their example shows that God can use difficult situations and redeem painful trials such as injustice (Tamar), abuse and loss (Bathsheba), war (Rahab), and famine (Ruth). Our ethnicity, our past, our pain, our reputation, our gender is no impediment for entrance into Jesus’ kingdom and full acceptance into his royal family (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-10). Jesus’ four great-grandmothers in Matthew 1 show us that if we want in, God facilitates this and welcomes us.
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 Matrilineality (tracing ancestry through mothers) was accepted by some Jews in the first century CE, but more universally from the second century onwards. Before then, ancestry was primarily traced through fathers as in Matthew 1. Shaye J.D. Cohen has published his investigation of matrilineality in Judaism in “The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law,” AJS Review 10.1 (Spring, 1985): 19-53. (Source: JSTOR)
 Tamar and Bathsheba are previously mentioned in genealogies, in 1 Chronicles 2:4 and 3:5 respectively.
 Marrying close relatives was preferred by the early Israelites and Jews, and I believe that many of Jacob’s twelve sons married their half-sisters, but Judah did not. Here’s why I think this.
The Bible names all of Jacob’s twelve sons but only one daughter, Dinah, because of her sad story. I suggest Jacob’s four wives/concubines had more than one daughter between them. The odds of twelve surviving sons to one surviving daughter are not impossible, but they are improbable.
Most, or all, of these daughters (except for Dinah) may have married their half-brothers, just as Abraham and Sarah had done. (Abraham and Sarah had the same father, Terah, but different mothers.)
Marrying close relations is seen in Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage also. (Rebekah is the daughter of Milkah, the wife of Nahor and the daughter of Haran. Both Nahor and Haran are sons of Terah and therefore brothers of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac is the grandson of Terah, the son of Abraham and Sarah.)
Endogamous marriages (marrying a close relation) kept political power and economic resources within an exclusive group. Whereas marrying an outsider could threaten social stability and religious identity with a community. Several early Jewish writers state that endogamous marriages are preferred.
Judah, however, did not marry a close relative. He married a Canaanite woman (Gen. 38:1-2). Tamar is likely a Canaanite woman also.
 Tamar was within her legal rights to have a child with Judah. (Judah was illegally withholding his youngest son from her.) Furthermore, Tamar waited until Judah’s wife had died, and she waited for him to finish mourning for her, before implementing her scheme. The fact that her scheme went off without a hitch, when it could have easily gone horribly wrong, seems to indicate that God helped her.
 Rahab is consistently referred to as a “prostitute” (Hebrew: zanah; Greek: pornē) in both the Old and New Testaments (Josh. 2:1; 6:17, 22, 25; Heb. 11:31; Jas 2:25).
Was Rahab an innkeeper? Her home is referred to as an inn or lodging house (katagōgion) by Josephus in Jewish Antiquities 5.1.2 (line 7). And in the Aramaic Targum (Aramaic translation/interpretation) of Joshua, Rahab is referred to as an “innkeeper” (pundeqita). However, cognates of this word are used, perhaps as a euphemism, in other Aramaic verses where the context clearly indicates prostitutes (e.g., 1 Kings 3:16; Ezek. 23:44).
The Hebrew Bible does not plainly say Rahab was an innkeeper, but in many cultures, inns offered sexual services as well as bread and board. Inns and brothels were one and the same.
The Bible only says good things about Rahab. The biblical authors do not judge or condemn Rahab in any way for being a prostitute, whatever that looked like for a Canaanite woman living in the bronze age.
 Matthew says that Joseph took Mary as his wife before Jesus was born (Matt. 1:20, 24).
 Tamar’s name is mentioned in a blessing of fertility (along with the names of Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s wives) said over Ruth (Ruth 4:11-12). This indicates respect. Rahab is respected by Jews and Christians because her faith in Israel’s God led her to protect and help the Israelite spies (cf. Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). Ruth was an honourable woman with an honourable reputation in Bethlehem despite her ethnicity as a Moabitess (Ruth 2:11-12). Bathsheba is respected because she was the queen mother of Solomon and was given a throne at his right hand (1 Kings 2:19).
© Margaret Mowczko 2020
All Rights Reserved
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