Did you zone out a little when that Scripture was read this morning? Do you usually just sort of skip over this part, because most of the names are obscure – we don’t really know who they are or their significance. But with a closer look we do recognize some of the names and it is even more of a surprise that some of them are here. Today in our Lenten series on Messy People we take a look at the women who are named in Jesus’ genealogy found in Matthew. Five women are named: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba – who Matthew doesn’t directly name, but instead calls her the wife of Uriah (Remember Uriah from last week? The one David had killed…), and Mary (the mother of Jesus). It is extremely interesting that Matthew names these particular women. Each one of them has a story more suited for a Netflix series, or Reality TV than for the bloodline of the Messiah. But against all expectations, here they are and for a culture that traces lineage almost exclusively through men, it is significant. Right here at the very beginning of the New Testament, Matthew turns things upside down. He declares, “Heads up, people. The Messiah isn’t what you were expecting.” This Messiah is one who comes for all: for the poor, the sinful, the abandoned and rejected, the alien, the Gentile and the Jew. Yes, he is the Messiah, Yes, he is the Son of David. Yes, he is royalty. But yes, he is also the son of the least, the Savior of all. This is a message of hope for the majority of the world. Most of us wouldn’t qualify if Jesus came only for the pure, for those with pristine backgrounds and life stories. These five women and their messy stories can give us hope. I also believe that during this time of uncertainty, the message of these five women is important on other levels – to remind us that our hope has always been and will always be in Christ. Life is as full of the unexpected now as it was in those biblical times. Both good and bad times color our lives, but our hope lies far beyond any single event and instead finds its fullness in a single place – in Christ alone.
Tamar is mentioned first. Her narrative is found in Genesis 38. It is not an easy story; in our day and age it is hard to understand. She is the daughter-in-law of Judah, married in turn to his two oldest sons. Both of them are bad men who die under God’s judgment. Judah then promises to give her to his youngest son when he comes of age and he sends her off hoping she will just go away because he believes her to be bad luck. He has no intention of keeping his promise and Tamar finds out. She is not that naïve and so she forms a plan. After her father-in-law’s wife dies, Tamar has an opportunity to encounter him. She puts on a veil to disguise herself and sits beside the road where he will be passing. Judah sees her and assumes she is a prostitute but does not recognize her as Tamar. It helps to understand, they live in a world where women have almost no way to make a life on their own, outside of marriage and bearing children, prostitution is one of the few vocations available to women. Judah approaches her for sex; Tamar requires him to leave his seal and staff with her as pledge for payment (the payment will be a goat delivered later, but Tamar doesn’t care about the goat, she wants the personal items that identify Judah). They have sex and she gets pregnant. Soon, Judah is given the news that his unmarried daughter-in-law is pregnant and he demands that she be brought out and burned for her sin. She sends a messenger to him, along with the staff and seal, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these things. Identify them, Please. Who’s the owner of the seal and staff?” Judah acknowledges them and says, “she is more in the right than I, since I would not give her to my youngest son Shelah.” Tamar carries the pregnancy to term and delivers twins – Perez and Zerah.
Tamar’s situation is complex and messy. She is someone who stands outside of the community of the Israelites, outside the community of promise, for Tamar is a Canaanite, yet she is hugely important for the future of generations to come. In this ancient community, heritage is important. As distasteful as this story may be to us, Tamar is faithful to do everything she can to carry on her husband’s name and unknowingly, her actions contribute in a direct way to the birth of the Messiah. For her son, Perez not only continues the family name but is part of the line from which Jesus is descended. Shocking!
Next up is Rahab. Her story, found in Joshua 2 tells us that she is also, a Canaanite and she is a prostitute. Remember, again, that prostitution is one of the few vocations available to women, and Rahab is most likely in this profession, to provide for her family. She is an observant and perceptive individual. She recognizes what the God of the Israelites has done for them, and she declares her allegiance to and confidence in, the God of Israel. She shelters the spies that Joshua sends to Jericho, protecting them, hiding them, and guiding them to safety. In return, she asks that she and her family be spared. She is instructed to hang a scarlet cord out of the window of her house as a signal to the advancing army which is there to overthrow Jericho. Rahab and her family are rescued. Rahab later marries an Israelite named Salmon, and they become the parents of Boaz.
Boaz then grows up to marry Ruth, who is the next woman named in Jesus’ genealogy. Her story is found in the book of Ruth. Ruth is an admirable character even though she is from an ethnic group that is despised and rejected by the Israelites; she is a Moabite and not a part of the bloodline of the nation of Israel. (Pause and take note that none of these first three women in Jesus’ genealogy are Jewish. One of the things we can make of this is that the reign of Jesus the Messiah is highly inclusive. That those who may be rejected and even despised are welcome. Yet another sign of hope!) Ruth is admired for her faithfulness, and through her, Naomi (her mother in law) receives restoration and the family and community are also enriched. Her story goes like this. Ruth marries into a Jewish family and subsequently through the deaths of her father-in-law, husband, and brother-in-law, she is left with nothing – she, her mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are utterly impoverished; they are homeless and poor. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, decides that her best bet is to return to Bethlehem and for Ruth to return to her own people. Ruth is having none of this and despite Naomi’s pleas, Ruth clings to Naomi and declares her loyalty to her and to the Israelite God, YHWH. Once they arrive in Bethlehem, things don’t look so good for them. Even so, Ruth is determined to make the best of things. They connect with a distant relative, Boaz, and Ruth is allowed to follow behind the harvesters in his field, picking up the gleanings. Boaz takes note of all that Ruth does to care for Naomi, his admiration grows over time. In due course, she and Boaz marry, thereby securing her future and that of Naomi’s. They have a son, Obed, who is the father Jesse, who is the father of David (you know KING David! who we talked about last week). Ruth is a favorite figure in scripture because of her steadfast faithfulness, her kindness, her devotion to Naomi, her willingness to make things work, and most of all her faith in the God of Israel (even though she is part of an excluded race), she is indeed recognized as a woman of God and a woman of character.
Next, is Bathsheba. She is unnamed here in this genealogy found in Matthew, she is just called the wife of Uriah. Uriah the Hittite was one of King David’s trusted military officers. One day while most of the military is away, David is on the roof of his home and spies Bathsheba bathing. He uses his clout as a king to call for her and he commits adultery with her. She becomes pregnant and David conspires to have her husband placed in a precarious position in battle so that he is killed. After a period of mourning, David calls for her and marries her. The baby they have together dies, but she bears David another son, Solomon, who will eventually become king, rebuild the temple, and is renowned for his wisdom. Scripture does not fill in the details for us on Bathsheba and David, we do not know if she is complicit in the adultery or if she is a victim. The entire event is troubling and messy. Scripture tells us that David becomes reconciled with God and is known as a man after God’s own heart. His name is possibly the most significant in Jesus’ genealogy. Yet, I wonder if we could see the inclusion of Bathsheba as a reminder not to place David on too high a pedestal and I also wonder if her presence may remind us of the grace of the coming Messiah who redeems people caught in relationships of unequal power, caught in improper relationships, who restores them in the true love and freedom offered by God.
Finally, it is Mary the mother of Jesus who is named. Mary’s place is uncontested even in a culture prone to contest it. She is the one who gives birth, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Son of God made flesh. She is descended from the line of David. Mary’s sense of her place in history is clear and she rejoices in this – as we can read in the Magnicat found in Luke (1:46-55) Even so, the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy while engaged but not married make her, though undeniable, an unlikely name bearer for the Messiah.
The women of Jesus’ genealogy are real women with complex and sometimes messy lives. Their inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy is significant and I believe it is cause for hope. For these women pave the way for the Messiah, for our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Not so that he could come from a pristine bloodline, with a perfect ancestry – but as a reminder that he comes into the world for all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. That he is not above and beyond us. He comes for the poor, the sinful, the abandoned and rejected, the alien, the Gentile and the Jew, the sick and the frightened. In this there is hope for all! Christ is with us in all of our circumstances- of this we can be assured. As we navigate these uncertain times, Christ is with us and within us – Christ in you – the hope of glory (col 1:27)