Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
December 23rd, 2011

The Women in Jesus’ Family Tree

A closer look at how several women break the pattern of male ancestors in the Gospel's account of Jesus' genealogy


A defining Gospel passage during Advent is the genealogy text from Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-17). At first glance, these verses simply appear to be a collection of names, and therefore incapable of producing any meaning other than the obvious — this is Jesus’ family tree. After a closer look at this passage, it became apparent to me that these verses, like Mary, are pregnant with hidden treasure.

The list of names produces a pattern: one man fathers another; one generation follows another; and every 14 generations an event important to the history of the chosen people takes place. Not only does the pattern create an expectation, it also becomes predictable. This pattern, however, is randomly broken with the inclusion of several women. It is this random inclusion of women, who break in unexpectedly, that produces the key unlocking the meaning of the passage.

Not-so-insignificant minority

Let’s take a closer look at the women mentioned in the passage. The significance lies in the fact that they happened on their roles in salvation history in rather unorthodox, unplanned and unexpected ways.

Tamar (Genesis 38) married two of Judah’s sons — both of whom died. The text makes it very clear that they died because they had offended the Lord. Because Judah was afraid that if Tamar were to marry his third son (an obligation by law at the time) that he would die too, Judah sent Tamar back to her family. Eventually, Tamar takes things into her own hands. She poses as a prostitute, Judah hires her, and she conceives guess who? Perez! It’s through an illegitimate son that the line of Judah descends.

Rahab (Joshua 2; 6:22-25) is a prostitute, a Canaanite who lives in Jericho. She hides the Israelite spies whom Joshua sent to reconnoiter the land of Jericho. In return for her help, she and her family are spared the lot of Jericho.

Ruth is a Moabite, a foreigner, who married an Israelite seeking refuge in the land of Moab during a famine in his native Bethlehem. After losing her husband, Ruth accompanies her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. There she meets Boaz (her future husband) while picking up leftover grain in his fields. Her story was so important in the Hebrew tradition that it was written down. It is one of only three books in the Catholic Bible that bears a woman’s name.

Women have been a very important part of God’s plan. Their place is not as celebrated, not as obvious, and not recorded as much as God’s interaction with men. But this is not God’s fault. It is a consequence of the domination of women by men.

The next woman isn’t even given a name in Matthew’s gospel — she is referred to as “the wife of Uriah.” She is no other than the beautiful Bathsheba whom David coveted from the roof of his palace (2 Samuel 11). David takes advantage of Bathsheba. How could she say no? The king wants you to do something, you do it. In order to cover up his sin, David orders Bathsheba’s husband killed on the battlefront. It is out of this horrible situation that the Davidic line descends through the second child born to David and Bathsheba — Solomon.

Importance of women in God’s plan

Then, along comes Mary. We know that she was extremely poor. She was most likely also illiterate. And at the time that the angel asks her to become the mother of the promised Messiah, she was unmarried — engaged, yes, but unmarried. Given Mary’s social and economic situation, she would not have been expected to be the Messiah’s mother — for the expectation was that the Messiah would be some sort of a royal, military champion, like King David, who would restore the Davidic dynasty.

So, the perfect genealogy expected for someone as important as the Messiah has been “tainted” — by women, women who were outside acceptable norms for women at the time. All but Mary is a foreigner. Their marital status certainly separates them from being exemplary women. Their stories are filled with pain and suffering resulting in the births of sons. Don’t they represent the common experience of all women in some way? The expectation of a perfectly formed Jesus Family Tree is, therefore, shattered — shattered by sexually exploited, immoral, alien, pregnant-out-of-wedlock women.

This genealogy implicitly reminds us that from the very beginning of God’s interaction with us, women have been a very important part of God’s plan. Their place is not as celebrated, not as obvious, and not recorded as much as God’s interaction with men. But this is not God’s fault. It is a consequence of the domination of women by men, which is implicitly recalled in this passage through the overwhelming majority of men mentioned. The importance of women in God’s plan continues to be illustrated throughout Jesus’ life. Women testified to the reality of Jesus in unique ways in the Gospels, and experienced his healing ministry in very special ways: Elizabeth; the woman with the hemorrhage; the woman who anoints Jesus’ head; the Canaanite woman; the Samaritan woman; the daughter of Jairus; Mary Magdalene.

Women still suffer from similar discrimination, abuse, domination and marginalization. Although our stories of heroism and dedication may never be told or recognized, Jesus’ Family Tree tells me that there is Someone who does see the bigger picture. I see a gentle finger being laid on the wound borne by women: the enduring pattern or expectation that keeps women subordinate to men (recognized in Genesis 3:16). At the same time I am reminded that this pattern can be and is shattered when we allow God’s promise to be fulfilled in our lives — the promise that the consequences of sin have been overcome in Jesus, the Son of God. This is the promise foretold in Genesis 3:15 that Mary fulfilled by allowing God to shatter everyone’s expectation for her and for her Son. Jesus’ Family Tree says to us that God is breaking the expectation that we women have become used to — the consequences of sin — and God is restoring our original dignity. His promise, therefore — not the consequence of sin — has the first and final word. The question for us is, are we living out of the Pattern, or are we living out of the Promise?

The Author : Sr. Bernadette Reis, fsp
Sr. Bernadette M. Reis, fsp holds a Bachelors Degree in Spanish and English Literature and has spent several years researching various women’s issues. She lives in Rome and works in the English department of Paoline Multimedia, an international bookstore near the Vatican.
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  • carolyn huson

    Every since I gave my life to Jesus, I have been lookin into more about the bible, exspeaically prostiutues, because i was into prostitution when God called me out my mess I was! I wanted to know why God forgave me and love me! I was a sinner by the world standards!! Through mans eyes I was damned to hell and had no hope to be saved or forgiven! The Bible is truely amazing!!!

  • Earl

    I think a male’s affirmation is required here. Thank you, thank you, thank you – I can only pray that the church one day recognizes the full measure of the feminine spirituality. Thanks again Sr. Reis for pointing it out so eloquently.

  • allison

    this is a wonderful piece that brings to our attention a number of fascinating and mostly unconsidered parts of biblical history. the role of women in various scriptures is something i am very interested in studying further, and i thank you so much for this enlightening commentary!

  • Gaby

    I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and we spent a large part of my junior year Scripture class studying the role of women in the Bible. So cool to see it discussed here!



  • Grandma Rosie

    I’m so glad I personally know you. I have had the blessing of hearing your voice and have always felt the caring, love and strength it gives me. Miss you.

  • sadie

    Thank you so much for a beautiful explanation of women in scripture! Inspiring!

  • Jan Johnson

    This is such a strong reminder that God has a plan for each of us. He grants salvation, we do not earn it. Thanks be to Him for His mercy toward us.

  • pat mertz

    Wonderful! What a good reminder to us to quit judging others and just love them instead. Thank you for this hope-filled piece!

  • Gigi S

    Thank you for that reminder that we are all called to be women who follow the path of God. It is refreshing to be reminded that the Lord raises up the lowly. Blessed Advent.



  • Ann Turner

    Thank you, Sr. Reis, for this beautiful and thoughtful commentary on the role and place of women in Jesus’ ancestry. I love how messy this all is–how these women don’t fit the norms–how the treasure we call Jesus is found amid the messiness and chaos of real life.

  • Gayle

    i did a paper on this for my Scripture grad class. It is fascinating.

  • Mary MacGillivray

    Wow! I have been exploring the Gospel of Matthew with high school sophomores and I have been wondering what to say about the genealogy. Thank you! Now I know what to uncover with them. I hope their little minds can understand.

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