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Subversive women in the genealogy of Jesus

5.1. 2011

The revolutionary story in Matthew 1:1-17

Like many Bible readers, I used to skip the genealogies because I thought they were boring and insignificant to the message of the Bible. But then one day in my New Testament class in seminary, the professor tipped us off to the revolutionary message contained in Matthew’s genealogy. Upon further study on my own, I found that this genealogy does, in fact, contain a world-shattering, subversive story.

The narrative begins by giving Jesus the titles of an Israelite king: Messiah, Son of David. It establishes him as a true son of Israel, a “son of Abraham.” The genealogy then goes on to underscore his Israelite heritage further, placing him right at the center of the trajectory of Israel’s story: He descends from Israel’s greatest king.

This genealogy, however, tells a particular version of the Israelite story. The particulars of this story proceed from the interruptions in the normal pattern of the genealogy, which states, “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so.” This pattern progresses in an uninterrupted line of fathers. Every time another element interrupts the genealogy, the reader should take special notice; at these points, Matthew is trying to tell us something important, something he feels significantly shapes the history of Israel, especially in terms of the direction Jesus takes that history.

The five major interruptions in the normal pattern of the genealogy result from the mention of women. The normal pattern traces an exclusively male lineage, as was the custom in the highly patriarchal society of the first-century Mediterranean world. The in-breaking of five women itself signals something fundamentally different in this version of Israel’s history. Matthew tells the story not merely by highlighting the powerful male figures but by giving special notice to minor female figures, the exceptions to the rule. A contemporary equivalent might be a review of American history that lists all the presidents from George Washington to Barak Obama with the insertion at various places of women such as Harriet Tubman, Mother Jones and Monica Lewinsky. These are women who represent exceptions to the rule, who challenged the rules, exposed the shortcomings of the rulers or both.

In Matthew’s genealogy, Tamar leads the invasion of women into the patriarchal narrative. By including her, Matthew recalls for the reader a story in which Tamar scandalously impersonates a prostitute in order to bring about justice for herself and in the process exposes the sin of her father-in-law, Judah. We are not only reminded of a story in which a woman cleverly asserts herself but also of Judah’s sin. Judah was the father of the tribe of Judah, the one from whom Jews/Judeans draw their name.

Matthew’s reference to a story that reveals Judah’s sin says something important about Matthew’s reading of Israelite history. Matthew locates the righteousness of Israel not in the father of the tribe but in a woman who impersonates a prostitute; she is the one who brings about justice.

Soon after Tamar, Rahab charges into the story line. Tamar impersonated a prostitute, but Rahab actually was a prostitute, as well as a Gentile. She represents the outcasts of society. Matthew here prepares the reader for the kind of people Jesus will locate himself among, sinners and outcasts, the people from whom the kingdom of God will emerge.

Right on Rahab’s heels comes Ruth, another Gentile and possibly another seducer. She came from Moab, an enemy of Israel. Her inclusion represents the enemy Jesus calls his followers to love. She also represents the widow, the alien and the poor whom the laws of Torah command society to provide for because of their vulnerability. Ruth’s story itself tells of a woman who through her assertiveness caused these laws to work.

Next in the succession of women is one who is unnamed, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. She is the one through whom David fathered Solomon. In referring to Bathsheeba, not by name but by telling us that she was Uriah’s wife, Matthew highlights the sin of King David. Matthew reminds the reader that Bathsheeba was someone else’s wife, that David had Uriah killed because of his lust for her. Her inclusion in the genealogy strikes a major blow at what must have been the dominant version of Israel’s story, one that longed for the glory days of the empire of David and Solomon. Matthew began the narrative by telling us that Jesus is a “Son of David,” but now he reminds us that David was an adulterer, a liar and a murderer. The central patriarch of the narrative has been cut down. (The reader should also note that the Davidic line of kings failed, ending in the “deportation to Babylon,” an event Matthew clearly highlights.)

Culminating the succession of women is one who, in another Gospel, sings that God brings down the powerful from their thrones. Mary, a young peasant woman who gets pregnant before her wedding, gives birth to the Messiah. Mary not only interrupts the normal pattern of the genealogy, she breaks it. Up until now, even with the previous interruptions, the normal pattern of “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so” maintained. This time, however, Matthew writes “Mary, from whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew does not say that Joseph is the father of Jesus. The male line is broken in the final sequence to give birth to a new king who is at once Davidic and non-Davidic.

Five women interrupt and finally break the patriarchal pattern of the Israelite lineage of Jesus. They remind us of the sins of the fathers; they remind us of the laws of Torah that command society to provide for the marginalized and the poor of the community; they remind us of assertive women who made those laws work; they remind us that salvation comes from the marginalized and the powerless who become our heroes; they remind us that there is no such thing as a pure ethnicity, that there is ultimately no strict “us” and “them,” that we are our enemies and they are us, one humanity.

Jesus is born not from the human, Davidic line but through the Holy Spirit from a spiritual lineage of women: seducers, prostitutes, victims, heroes, Gentiles, poor and outcast. That’s where our salvation comes from. That’s where, for Matthew, the kingdom of God emerges. The kingdom of God emerges from Israel through its marginalized and poor.

Bert Newton is a member of Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church

Bert Newton is a member of Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church

Matthew tells us that from Abraham to Jesus are three sets of 14 generations, or six sets of seven generations. The implication is that Jesus begins the last seven, the final epoch. He begins the seventh set of seven generations, an allusion to the Jubilee year, the seventh Sabbath year. Jesus inaugurates the Jubilee generation, an era in which everything will be reconstituted, redistributed and turned upside down. Matthew prepares us for this radical remaking of the world by giving us a genealogy in which five women, one for each of the books of Torah, radically transform the Israelite story.

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