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.
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.
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?