Jesus’ Female Ancestors

June 13, 2006 | 33 comments
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The first chapter of Matthew includes five women in Jesus’ genealogy. Why?

First, some opening thoughts before we get to the real question:

(1) Including women in a genealogy is unusual, but not unique (see Genesis 11:29, 22:20–24, and 1 Chronicles 2:18–21, 24.).

(2) Genealogies in the New Testament (found in Matthew and Luke) are not stupid or boring. These are talented writers, with limited space, acting under the inspiration of the Spirit, and if they included something, it behooves us to pay some attention to it. This is particularly true for Matthew where the genealogy gets pride of place as the introduction to the Gospel. There are many ways–infinite ways–one could begin a text, and to do so with a genealogy means something.

(3) These are pretty dang weird (that’s a technical term I learned in graduate school) women to include. Why didn’t Matthew just stick with Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel? A brief review:

(a) Thamar (or, as you know her in the OT, Tamar). Cover your ears, kids, here’s Tamar’s story: denied a new spouse by her father-in-law after the old ones die, she pretends to be a prostitute, has sex with her father-in-law, and has a kid. More here.

(b) Rachab (in the OT: Rahab). This is the madame who hides the spies who are scoping out Jericho. In exchange for her protection of them, they don’t destroy her house.

(c) Ruth. Ruth chooses the God of Israel over motherhood, propositions Boaz, ends up being a mother, etc.

(d) Bathsheba. David saw her performing a (ritual) bath, had sex with her, found out she was pregnant, had her husband killed, and married her. But note that her name isn’t in the genealogy–her husband’s is. More on this in a minute.

(e) Mary. You know her.

OK, back to the ‘why.’ Some possibilities:

(1) They are regarded as sinners and therefore

(a) present the need for a savior.
(b) serve as a contrast to Jesus.

(2) They are foreigners or have foreign connections and therefore imply that Jesus’ ministry will ultimately extend to the Gentiles.

(3) They show initiative.

(4) They each experience some sexual irregularity and/or unconventional domestic arrangement and therefore prepare the audience for the virgin birth.

(5) They break rules.

(6) They show God’s power to work through history.

(7) They were all without male protection.

(8) They are examples of the ‘greater righteousness’ that will be preached in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7); Judah finally says, “she hath been more righteous than I� (Genesis 38:26), and Boaz says that Ruth is a “virtuous woman� (Ruth 3:11).

(9) By their righteous need to circumvent the Mosiac Law, these women illustrate its shortcomings.

(10) These women defy expectations as Jesus does.

(11) These women are intercessors—Tamar forces 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.

(12) These are powerless women. (What should this teach the reader about Jesus’ heritage?)

(13) All of the men in the stories (Judah, the king of Jericho, David, and Boaz) are guilty of failing to act to save Israel.

(14) There is a violation of social norms to serve a divine purpose in each story.

(15) Perhaps there is no pattern that applies to all five women but rather separate reasons for including each individual:

(a) Ruth’s child really becomes Naomi’s child, just as Jesus becomes Joseph’s, stressing the idea of adoption.
(b) Tamar chose not to expose Judah publicly when she could have—as Joseph does with Mary.
(c) Tamar, like Jesus, risks her life for others.
(d) Deuteronomy 23:3–6 prohibits relations with Moab. But Ruth ‘redeems’ her people in the eyes of Israel through her kindness: she leaves the familiar for the alien where she has no home, like Jesus. Ruth also allies herself with the powerless, as Jesus does.
(e) The circumlocution for Bathsheba’s name functions to put Uriah into the line—which he should be, because he is a righteous person. Uriah refused to spend time with his wife while his comrades and the ark of the covenant were in battle (see 2 Samuel 11:11). This is in marked contrast with the actions of David: at the time that he spotted Bathsheba, he should have been in battle but was not (see 2 Samuel 11:1).

To sum: Matthew is making a deliberate decision as an author to introduce us to Jesus by way of a genealogy. Further, while we think of genealogies as objective, non-symbolic facts, that isn’t how Matthew is using this one: Matthew has deliberately shaped this list via the inclusion of 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. But what is it?

33 Responses to Jesus’ Female Ancestors

  1. Bro. Jones on June 13, 2006 at 10:08 am

    You said: “Genealogies in the New Testament (found in Matthew and Luke) are not stupid or boring.” Maybe true, but I would submit that they are irrelevant in today’s Western society, especially in the post-Proclamation on the Family Church. The modern “basic unit” is the nuclear family. In ancient days (and, depending where you are, current times) your position in the patrilineal family was vastly more important, especially if you were trying to estabish some claim to authority.

    So, if anything, I vote for your #11: these women are mentioned because they had particular influence on their male lineage, and the intent is to say, “We’re talking about THAT Judah, the one who you know from the story with Tamar. Yeah, that one.” For that matter, these women figure prominently in the OT, and including them helps ground Jesus in scriptural authority. Compare the Book of Mormon’s prophecies about Joseph Smith, which link him as a descendant of Joseph and Ephraim.

  2. Julie M. Smith on June 13, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Bro. Jones:

    As for the relevance of a genealogy, if our goal is to understand what Matthew was trying to teach us about Jesus, then *our* view of genealogies is not relevant–all that matters is what *Matthew* thought about genealogies.

    You write, “these women figure prominently in the OT, and including them helps ground Jesus in scriptural authority.” This is true. But including women like Sarah, Rebekah, etc., would have accomplished the same goal, so we still need to look for reasons why Matthew included these particular women.

  3. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 10:57 am

    Genealogy, irrelevant? You have got to be kidding.

  4. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 11:07 am

    I should add that the most trivial considerations rule out living together as *nuclear* families in the next life.

  5. Sideshow on June 13, 2006 at 11:55 am

    There’s at least one more idea why some of those women could have been included on the list: maybe by including sinners and non-Israelites in the lineage of the only perfect person, God was trying to show that lineage doesn’t determine a person’s worth. In addition, no matter what choices people (in Christ’s lineage) make, God will use events to achieve his own purposes.

    This reason is less gender specific, but the women contribute significantly to it.

  6. Nate J on June 13, 2006 at 11:56 am

    This is coming from a man who grew up in the nuclear family of 4, but married into an extended family of two parents, ten children, 45 nieces and nephews (2 of which are older than me). I find it very interesting that women were mentioned in the genealogy, simply because how often in Old Testament theologies is the woman mentioned?

    I believe the specific women were mentioned because they were the type of people who Jesus would spend his life with. It\’s kind of like a Dickens tale, where the poor and the flawed actually turn out to be the most well-adjusted and spiritually rich. Don\’t know about Tamar, though. LOL

  7. Kevin Barney on June 13, 2006 at 11:57 am

    It is interesting to see this list of possibilities all laid out in one place. I don’t know for sure why Matthew included the women, but I do believe it was for one or more of the reasons on your list. I’m just not sure which one(s) was/were uppermost in his mind.

    I have long thought the genealogies in Matthew and Luke fascinating. For anyone who wants more background on them, I would recommend the late Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah.

  8. Jim F. on June 13, 2006 at 1:23 pm

    Julie, thanks for giving us so many reasons to think about. I’ve often recommended that we think about why these five women are included in the genealogy, but I’ve never come up with nor heard this many interesting reasons. This is a big help.

  9. Ed Johnson on June 13, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    Note that once you abandon patrilineal descent by including women, it becomes unclear what importance such a genealogy is supposed to have. Surely every Jew in Jesus’ day was descended along multiple lines from Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. This doesn’t make Jesus special, it makes him just like everyone else.

  10. Jim F. on June 13, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    Ed Johnson (#9): It goes to show that genealogies are not important as descriptions of biological reality. They are part of the story, meant to tell us something.

  11. Ben H on June 13, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    (Related to at least #s 1, 4, 5, 10) They are all “Eve” characters, wouldn’t you say? For another comparison they are stumbling blocks and rocks of offense (Isaiah 8:14), like Christ.

    I love how Boaz says, “All the city doth know that thou art a virtuous woman,” (Ruth 3:11) right before he says, “Let it not be known that a woman came into the floor” (Ruth 3:14).

  12. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    Ed (#9), Those women *were* in the line of patrilineal descent. No one is ever born without a mother. Father, mother, son/father, mother, son/father, … Unless a Y chromosome has some spiritual significance we are not aware of, Jesus’s mothers no doubt had as much r more influence on his heritage as his fathers did – even when restricted to the patrilineal line of inheritance.

  13. Patrick Mason on June 13, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Julie. Besides the specific issues involved with Jesus’ genealogy and Matthew’s inclusion of women in His lineage, I’m thrilled at the general lesson here that there is not just one, or even two or three, but sometimes 15+ ways to read scripture! It suggests something of the expansiveness and richness of God’s revelation to humanity, whether in the form of Christ or scripture or personal revelation or creation (etc.).

  14. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    The primary evil of colonialism is not extending the franchise to the colonies. Sound familiar?

  15. Ed Johnson on June 13, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    “genealogies are not important as descriptions of biological reality.”

    I have no idea what you mean, since genealogies are, by definition, descriptions of a particular biological reality.

    “They are part of the story, meant to tell us something.”

    Yes, obviously. That’s the whole point of Julie’s post. What are they meant to tell us? Why is this particular biological reality important or interesting?

    Patrilineal genealogies are often used to confer special status on the person with some particular patrilineal descent. But once you include both men and women in the genealogy, then such special status is no longer conferred in the same way, since when you go back we all share the same ancestors. I see people mixing this up all the time.

    Note that after David, no more women are listed. Perhaps Matthew was trying to show that Jesus had a special status as a patrilineal descendent of David. (Although we should note that this is actually a genealogy of Joseph, husband of Mary, not of Jesus.)

  16. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    In the doctrine of royalty, daughters along the most primogentive line are legitimate candidates to rule, but not their children. i.e. they move to a new line in marriage, the line of their husbands.

    Patrilineality is simply a consequence of the convention that sons inherit lands – going so far as entailment when a branch has no male heirs – and righteous, generally first born sons inherit presidency.

    So demonstrating that Jesus is (at least by adoption) a patrilineal heir of David and of Judah, makes him a legitimate candidate to rule or preside over the whole tribe. If he or his earthly father were patrilineally descended from say Esau he would have no such claim, in the eyes of the Jews at any rate.

  17. Jim F. on June 13, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    Ed Johnson: genealogies are, by definition, descriptions of a particular biological reality. No, they are descriptions of a particular family reality, which isn’t necessarily biological.

    Mark Butler: daughters along the most primogentive line are legitimate candidates to rule, but not their children. Is that true of Israelite royalty? How do we know?

  18. Ed Johnson on June 13, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    Oops…you’re right Mark, the genealogy in Matthew is indeed patrilineal, and the women are mentioned not as links in the father-son chain, but as notable mothers involved along the way. I was mixed up about that. So my comment is a little off point.

  19. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    The best examples I can think of are the Queen of Sheba, who started out pagan, and became Jewish, and Jezebel who was pagan all the way through – and who exercised an enormous amount of influence. Leviticus sure doesn’t seem to anticipate the idea, however. I think the idea is that daughters get married *early* on, not live long enough to ever inherit the house of their fathers.

  20. Clinton on June 13, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    Rahab is an interesting choice to include on the list. In Jewish tradition Rahab later marries to Joshua. Others have also suggested that Rahab is much more than the local Madam and is in fact the local High Priestess. I support of this possibility they note that she lives in such a prominant place and is invited in to see the king. Why don’t the guards just search her house??? She must have a fair amount of clout in order to keep them out. The marriage of Joshua to the local High Priestess would have added to his clout as a pseudo-king of Isreal.

  21. Julie M. Smith on June 13, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    Leviticus? Why did you single out Leviticus, Mark Butler?

  22. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 5:56 pm

    Leviticus, Deuteronomy, the Law, does it matter? Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the equivalent of the Doctrine and Covenants for the Hebrews. Any other account would do, if it were detailed enough.

  23. Julie M. Smith on June 13, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Mark, I guess I was curious as to which particular passage in Leviticus you were thinking of, because I can’t think of any off the top of my head that would support your position. The daughters of Z in Numbers, on the other hand, would seem to argue the opposite of #19.

  24. Mark Butler on June 13, 2006 at 6:34 pm

    The Numbers account is one I did not recall, Julie, one that gives great support for the idea that a daughter may rule under the conventions of Jewish inheritance, if she has no brothers. (i.e. her prerogative is higher than that of her fathers brothers, or her grandfathers brethren, or their descendants).

    And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

    And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren. And if he have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his father’s brethren. And if his father have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his kinsman that is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it: and it shall be unto the children of Israel a statute of judgment, as the LORD commanded Moses.
    (Numbers 27:6-11)

  25. Kimball L. Hunt on June 13, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    Julie: Brilliant. Stupendous. Thanks!

  26. danithew on June 13, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Julie, I re-read Matthew 1 just this last Sunday and had similar thoughts. These women really are interesting. I think Thamar (or Tamar) sticks out especially. But they are all interesting.

  27. Bro. Jones on June 14, 2006 at 12:38 am

    #2: “As for the relevance of a genealogy, if our goal is to understand what Matthew was trying to teach us about Jesus, then *our* view of genealogies is not relevant–all that matters is what *Matthew* thought about genealogies.” Oh, point taken. I was just suggesting that part of what you’re getting at is that *Matthew’s* audience placed great stock in geneaologies, which is part of why he put it in–it’s like the ritual beginning to a tale. You see the same thing in other ancient stories; I think specifically of ancient Scandinavian sagas, although they only tend to go back two generations when they introduce a person.

    #3: What I meant was, “We modern types are not necessarily impressed (and shouldn’t be) at the fame or noteriety of a person’s ancestors.” Naturally geneaology is important in the modern Church’s mission, but we’re most interested in the biological/demographic details of our ancestors, not necessarily their pecking order in the hierarchy of ancient civilizations. We don’t have twenty-generation geneaologies preceding the introduction of new Apostles at conference, do we?

  28. Mark Butler on June 14, 2006 at 12:47 am

    Of course the whole idea of primogentiture is a little foreign to a Zion society, which by all accounts is more like a society of friends than the French monarchy. President Hinckley is an excellent example, as is the Savior himself.

    It is eminently worth noting that the Melchizedek Priesthood is the Holy Priesthood after the order of the Son of God. That this is the Church of Jesus Christ. That we take upon *his* name. That the Lord is the ultimate servant, not the enlightened despot.

    Why do we honor Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, George Washington and not Louis XIV; Kaiser Wilhelm; and Caesar Augustus? Is it perhaps that because the former had something greater in mind than their own personal glory? The welfare of the people perhaps?

  29. Space Chick on June 14, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    So what is Mary’s lineage then, if the one described here is Joseph’s?

  30. Julie M. Smith on June 14, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    Space Chick: Some think that Luke is giving Mary’s genealogy. It doesn’t look that way in English, but in Luke 3:23 the phrase “the sonâ€? (of Heli) is assumed by the translators. It is possible that this phrase means ‘of the family of Heli’, that it applies to Jesus, not Joseph, and that Heli is Mary’s father. But who knows?

  31. grego on June 18, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    They were aberrations to a normal lineage.

  32. Robert C. on June 27, 2006 at 3:03 pm

    The Word Biblical Commentary suggests the following theories:

    (1) These women were sinners and including them points to a need for a Savior and also justify Christ’s defense of Mary’s alleged adultery (implicitly reminding them that David was descended from sexual sinners…).

    (2) The four women were Gentiles so Matthew is establishing the propriety of the eventual inclusion of the Gentiles in Christ’s salvation.

    (3) Matthew is showing that God often uses surprising and unlikely turns of events to bring about his will (e.g. Mary’s virgin birth).

  33. DKL on June 28, 2006 at 1:18 am

    Wasn’t there a post at BCC by Bob Caswell about how he was related to Jesus?