Past and Present

Why These Women in Jesus’ Genealogy?

by Julie M. Smith

Most Readers of Matthew’s Gospel take one look at that first page full of “begats” and impossible-to-pronounce names and quickly turn the page. But Matthew was a deliberate writer; he didn’t begin his gospel with a boring list, but rather with a selective portrait of the progenitors who made Jesus. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the genealogy is the inclusion of women—and unexpected ones at that. While it is not unprecedented to include women in a biblical genealogy (see, for example, Genesis 11:29, 22:20–24, and 1 Chronicles 2:18–21, 24), it most certainly is unusual and, generally, women are not included in genealogical lists in the Bible. What’s more, the women who are included are not the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, who are Jesus’ ancestors) but rather women whose stories are, truth be told, fraught with difficulties, at least at first reading.

Tamar (Matthew spells it “Thamar”[1]) is the first woman included in the genealogy. Here’s a brief recap of this troubling story (which the institute manual calls “sordid”): Judah marries Shuah[2], a Canaanite, and they have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries Tamar but dies—slain by the Lord for his unspecified wickedness—without fathering children. Following the practice of levirate marriage (which is: if a man dies without progeny, his widow is to marry his brother and the children of that union are considered the children of the deceased man; see Deuteronomy 25:5-6), Tamar is married to Onan. Onan, presumably not willing to create a child who would inherit what Onan himself would otherwise inherit, chooses to spill his seed instead of impregnating Tamar. Onan is then killed by the Lord for this wickedness. Judah tells Tamar to wait at her father’s house until Shelah is grown and promises that she can then marry him. As the years pass, it becomes apparent to Tamar that Judah will not keep his word. Apparently, Judah blames Tamar for the deaths of his sons.

Instead of remaining a pariah for the rest of her days, as she would with no children, living with her father though she was once married, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She dresses up as a harlot and waits by the side of the road.[3] She then becomes pregnant—by Judah. When he finds out about her pregnancy, he wants her burned. The only reason this doesn’t happen is because Judah gave “the harlot” his signet (the ancient version of a driver’s license—what he uses to establish his identity) as a promise of future payment. Tamar produces the signet and says plainly, “By the man, whose these are, am I with child”.[4] At this point, Judah acknowledges that the signet is his and says, “she hath been more righteous than I,”[5] which is, of course, a rather backhanded compliment: Judah has married outside the faith, raised (at least) two wicked sons, presumed his daughter-in-law guilty of his sons’ deaths, lied to his daughter-in-law, refused to keep the law of levirate marriage and, of course, had sex with a prostitute. It’s not too hard to be more righteous than that.

Matthew could have left Tamar out of the genealogy, but instead deliberately chose to have the reader think about her story as part of the introduction to the story of Jesus. So we not only have to ask ourselves, “Why is this story in the scriptures in the first place?” (“to edify” is not the first answer that comes to mind) but also, “Why did Matthew want us to think about Tamar as a precursor for his story of Jesus?”

In answer to the first question, Judah’s story provides an important counterpoint to his brother Joseph’s in the next chapter of Genesis: Joseph, although propositioned by the boss’s wife, flees in order to preserve his personal purity.[6] That’s a pretty stark contrast to Judah, who not only was willing to have sex with a prostitute, but was hypocritical enough to want his daughter-in-law killed for having extramarital sex. Tamar was waiting by the roadside for Judah, but she didn’t exactly grab his clothes and beg, as Potiphar’s wife did. The message seems to be that regardless of circumstances, we get to choose our response to temptation. (If one follows these stories through centuries and millennia, there is also some irony here, since Joseph ends up leading his people into [what will become] slavery in Egypt[7] while Judah and Tamar’s coupling ends up leading to the lineage of the Messiah.)

Another approach to this story relies on noting that Judah wanted Tamar burned instead of stoned.[8] Why? Leviticus 21:9 explains that, while stoning is the usual penalty for adultery, burning is the penalty when the woman involved is the daughter of a priest. As the daughter of a priest, Tamar would have been of the covenant line. Remember that Judah’s wife was a Canaanite, which means that their three sons were of mixed lineage. None of them has seed. It is only those who are a part of the covenant line—Judah and Tamar—who are allowed to produce the heir. The message may be that it is important to keep the covenant line pure; perhaps this is what Matthew wants to convey to his readers. (But we’ll need to reconsider this idea when later stories show that some of Jesus’ maternal ancestors were outside of that covenant line.)

A third possibility emphasizes the importance of progeny—of fulfilling the original commandment to multiply and replenish the earth.[9] Note that while Tamar’s means were unorthodox, the result is that she claimed what was rightfully hers: progeny through Judah’s line. Also note that Onan was killed for refusing this of Tamar, while Judah wasn’t killed for sleeping with a prostitute, perhaps because of the mitigating circumstance that he “owed” Tamar seed (since the father could substitute for the brother in a levirate marriage). The point might be that progeny is so important that unorthodox means of obtaining it can be justified, much as, in the Book of Mormon, Nephi’s means of obtaining the brass plates reflected God’s will.[10] Just as Nephi introduced the Book of Mormon with a story of uncustomary behavior to show that scripture is important, Matthew may have wanted to emphasize that progeny is important by way of introducing Jesus’ story. Further support for this theory comes from parallels between Tamar’s story and Rebekah’s.[11] Note that both shared some unusual things in common: both had twins, both deliberately deceived a patriarch in order to ensure that the covenant line would proceed despite the unrighteousness of the patriarch.[12] Or, there may be a message here about how the importance of maintaining the covenant line is so great that something normally unthinkable—deceiving a patriarch—can be justified.

A final possibility is this: Tamar risks her life for other people, namely, her descendents. In this sense, she is a type of Christ in risking her life for her “children.”

Jesus’ second named maternal ancestor is Rahab (which Matthew spells “Rachab”[13]). Rahab is a brothel owner living in Jericho, who chooses to harbor the Hebrew spies and therefore was spared when the Hebrews later attack Jericho.[14] One interesting facet of her story is the use of a red cord to signal to the invaders that her family should not be destroyed.[15] It is hard to avoid the parallel between this event and the blood on the doorposts during the Passover[16], so it may be that the message of Rahab’s story is that the quintessential Hebrew experience—the Passover—can be experienced by converts. If that is the case, then we can see why Matthew would have wanted Rahab’s story highlighted as part of Jesus’ inheritance: His mission will further extend the blessings of the covenant to the Gentiles.

The next woman Matthew mentions is Ruth.[17] Her familiar, beloved story concerns her decision to follow her mother-in-law after the death of her husband.[18] While Ruth’s story certainly seems more palatable than Tamar’s to the modern reader, it would have been at least somewhat problematic to the ancient Israelite reader, who would have had to grapple with the fact that the lineage of David (and, thus, eventually the Messiah) included one from the number of the hated Moabites (see, for example, 2 Chronicles 20). Much as with Rahab, the message here may be to suggest that Jesus’ ministry will include a role for people from outside of the covenant line, even those who have been despised throughout Israel’s history. Note also that Deuteronomy 23:3 prohibits relations with Moab. But Ruth “redeems” her people in the eyes of Israel through her kindness (a frequent word and major theme in the book of Ruth): she leaves the familiar for the alien where she has no home, as did Jesus. Ruth also allies herself with the powerless, as Jesus does. In this sense, she may prefigure Christ.

The final woman included in the genealogy is Bathsheba, although Matthew doesn’t name her; she is “her that had been the wife of Urias.”[19] Uriah was the ill-fated husband who was sent off to die in battle so that David could steal his wife.[20] Matthew’s interesting phraseology here functions to put Uriah into Jesus’ line even though he is not related to Jesus by blood. Perhaps Matthew wanted to emphasize a spiritual lineage of righteousness: a close reading of 2 Samuel shows that Uriah went beyond the call of duty and loyalty, while King David did just the opposite.

So we have four stories—one more troubling than the others—of women who are the ancestors of Jesus. Why would Matthew have put these difficult stories into Jesus’ genealogy instead of choosing the “safe” stories of the matriarchs from Genesis? Further, while we think of genealogies as objective, non-symbolic facts, Matthew has deliberately structured this list to include women, and unusual ones at that. Their names are red flags on the first page of Jesus’ story—red flags that Matthew is using to teach us something about Jesus.

It may be that this collection of unconventional unions is designed to prepare the reader to more easily accept Jesus’ miraculous birth. Similarly, the point may be to deflect criticism heaped upon Mary for what anti-Christians saw as her promiscuity by situating Mary in a long line of sexually irregular women from Israel’s history. Perhaps by showing that Jesus, a sinless person, could result from sinful (or, at least, questionable) unions, Matthew was highlighting the potential for individual choice to overcome genetic or familial predilections. Maybe Matthew included these women to show that God’s power is enough to overcome human weakness—that a perfect person can come from a family line filled with imperfections. It may also be that these troublesome stories are some of the stumbling blocks that Isaiah prophesied would keep people from Christ.[21]

Another possibility is that these problematic women prepare the reader for the less-than-perfect people among whom Jesus would conduct His ministry. Or it may be that highlighting a handful of sinful women in Jesus’ family history shows the need for a Savior or serves as a contrast to Jesus’ own sinless life. It is also possible that all of these women were viewed as rule breakers or women who defied expectations and therefore set the stage for Jesus’ ministry, which would challenge common notions of propriety in many ways, but perhaps most notably regarding the role and treatment of women.

There are several ways in which these women’s stories prefigure major themes from Jesus’ ministry. They can be seen as examples of the “greater righteousness” that will be preached in the Sermon on the Mount.[22] Judah finally says, “She hath been more righteous than I,”[23] and Boaz says that Ruth is a “virtuous woman.”[24] Additionally, each woman can be seen to circumvent the law of Moses and thus reveal its shortcomings, which in turn establishes the necessity of Jesus’ ministry. Also, these women are, as Jesus is, intercessors: Tamar enables Judah’s line to continue; Rahab brings her family into the house of Israel; Ruth brings the Moabites into David’s line; and Bathsheba brings her son Solomon to the throne.

There are so many possible explanations for why Matthew chose to include these women—these unusual women—in Jesus’ genealogy. At this historical distance, it is probably not possible for us to determine precisely what Matthew’s reasons were, but it is clear that he has written something surprising; an appropriate response is to ponder the possibilities. Modern readers generally do this Gospel an injustice by skimming over the genealogy as if it were just a collection of facts. The Gospels were written by talented writers with limited space, acting under the inspiration of the Spirit. This is particularly true for Matthew, where the genealogy gets pride of place as the introduction to the story of Jesus. There are many ways, infinite ways, one could begin a text, and to do so with this particular genealogy has significance. Matthew thought women—and not just any women, but women with unusual, out-of-the-ordinary lives—were worth including and their stories worth thinking about.

[1] Matthew 1:3

[2] Genesis 38:2

[3] Genesis 38:14

[4] Genesis 38:25

[5] Genesis 38:26

[6] Genesis 39

[7] Exodus, chapter 1.

[8] Genesis 38:24

[9] Genesis 1:28

[10] 1 Nephi chapter 4

[11] Genesis, chapters 25 and 26.

[12] I realize that there are other—many other—readings of Genesis 27; my point here is to sketch out one possible reading that makes for interesting parallels between Tamar and Rebekah.

[13] Matthew 1:5

[14] Joshua, chapters 2 and 6.

[15] Joshua 2:18

[16] Exodus 12:7

[17] Matthew 1:5

[18] Ruth, chapters 1 to 4.

[19] Matthew 1:6

[20] 2 Samuel 11

[21] Isaiah 8:14

[22] Matthew, chapters 5 to 7.

[23] Genesis 38:26

[24] Ruth 3:11

Julie M. Smith has a graduate degree in Biblical studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She is the author of Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. She also homeschools three sons, teaches institute, and blogs at timesandseasons.org.