This Advent, Let’s Pray With Our Foremothers in the Faith

The cover photo depicts four major foremothers in the Old Testament:(Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathseba) layed over a picture of the Gospel of Matthew from a Bible.
Old Testament Foremothers

I fell in love with the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel decades ago, when I encountered it—in rapid successionin both Fr. Raymond Brown’s “A Coming Christ in Advent and Gail Godwin’s novel “Evensong.” Unfortunately, even daily Mass-goers won’t get to hear it this year, as it’s proclaimed only when December 17 (the first day of the “O Antiphons” leading up to Christmas) does not fall on a Sunday. 

Matthew’s genealogy is a startling, tongue-twisting list of fathers that also includes four mothers:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Their tales are filled with fraught sexual encounters, including incest, prostitution, and rape. We may be tempted to look away–or even question how these brutal stories can be considered sacred texts. And yet, each of these women played a key role in the history of salvation. So, in the spirit of the first antiphon—O Wisdom—let’s peek at the wisdom of our foremothers in faith. 

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Tamar (Genesis 38)

In biblical times, if a married man died childless, his brother had to marry the widow to father an heir for the deceased. Tamar had married Judah’s oldest son, Er, who died, then his middle son Onan, who also died. Judah—understandably skittish—asked Tamar to wait a few years before marrying his youngest, Shelah. When it became clear that a third wedding was not forthcoming, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked Judah into sleeping with her; their son Perez became an ancestor of Jesus. 

After news of her pregnancy kindled her father-in-law’s rage, Tamar confronted Judah with the truth, and he admitted, “She is in the right.” Why was she praised for her deceit? I believe it’s because the marriage protocol in question was not just a human precept; it was what the people understood as divine law. Tamar knew it, and so did Judah. Instead of placing her hope in men, Tamar bravely placed her hope in God—and took matters into her own hands.

When have women (and men) of our day struggled with dawning awareness that those who should have known better were not doing the right thing? My mind goes straight to the clergy scandal, which eroded the trust of countless Catholics. Yet I also think of politicians who put the wishes of the gun and fossil fuel lobbies above the welfare of children, and of CEOs who amass wealth while denying their workers a living wage. In the face of their disgraceful conduct, I am inspired by women and men who speak truth to power, often at personal risk. Tamar is the patron saint for those who take bold action in the service of God’s vision—for our Church and for our world.

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Rahab (Joshua 2, 6:20-25)

At the beginning of the book of Joshua, Israelite spies reconnoitering Jericho sought shelter in the house of Rahab, a prostitute. She hid the spies then helped them escape—in exchange for their promise that she and her family would be spared in the eventual attack. The spies kept their word, and Rahab’s family thrived in Israel; her son Boaz became an ancestor of the Messiah. 

Why don’t we remember Rahab as a traitor? Perhaps it’s because saving the city was never one of her options. In her whispered bargaining with the spies, it was clear that Rahab could see the writing on the walls of Jericho. Whether through divine power or military might, they were coming down. She could save her family, or she could save no one; those were her choices. 

As we consider how to help God’s light shine more brightly in this world, we can become overwhelmed by the great looming darkness, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I met a woman recently who apologized for not being able to commit to a certain volunteer opportunity; she has her hands full providing foster care for refugee children. I begged her not to apologize;  while the rest of us wring our hands about the immigration crisis, she is providing foster care for refugee children. She is saving who she can. Like her, we can choose to act within our circle of influence—and challenge ourselves to widen that circle. Rahab is a patron saint for everyone who refuses to let what they can’t do prevent them from doing what they can. 

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Ruth (The Book of Ruth)

A nice Moabite girl who married into a family of famine-displaced Israelites, Ruth had more than her share of grief. First, her father-in-law perished, then her husband and brother-in-law died, leaving the women in the family unprotected. When her mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to take her chances back home in Bethlehem, it would have been sensible for Ruth to give up on this gamble. But Ruth would not leave Naomi.

It’s a sweet story. After accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem, Ruth did the kind and brave thing at every turn until she was rewarded for her troubles with a loving husband, Boaz, and a son, Obed. Like Rahab (her new mother-in-law!), Ruth was a foreigner who nevertheless played an essential role in the story of Israel, as her son became the grandfather of King David. Dear little Ruth: great-grandmother to a king!

Why did Ruth stay with her mother-in-law instead of returning to her own parents? Maybe Naomi made her laugh; maybe Ruth’s own mother was a terrible cook. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Ruth pitched her tent with her chosen family and found blessing there. Today, people are redefining traditional social structures in vastly creative, life-affirming ways, strengthened by bonds of love that have nothing to do with lineage. Ruth is a patron saint for everyone who keeps faith with whatever oddly configured gaggle of persons they call family. 

RELATED: What Ruth and Naomi Teach Us About Intergenerational Friendships

Bathsheba (2 Samuel 1112, 1 Kings 1)

Here we come to the most disturbing tale. According to the Biblical text, when King David glimpsed Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop, he “sent messengers and took her.” Bathsheba was impregnated by a powerful man who had her husband killed to hide his own sin. When the child of that horrifying encounter died, Bathsheba may have mourned the baby, but I can’t imagine she wanted anything to do with his father. Nevertheless, David had married her, and soon there was another son: Solomon, who one day would ascend the throne and become known for his wisdom.

Did Bathsheba ever grow to love David? Scripture doesn’t say, though I find it hard to believe she didn’t hate his guts. What is easy to believe, however, is that Bathsheba loved Solomon, and that her love was patient. The king already had several sons from other wives—warrior sons who might have been more logical successors. At David’s deathbed, however, Bathsheba deployed the clever and persuasive words needed to secure her son’s future.

It would be easy to define this foremother by what happened to her, but Bathsheba lived for decades beyond that one awful night. She was a person, not a story. For many of us, tragedy divides life into before and after. Events mark us, but they do not have to define us. Bathsheba is a patron saint for everyone who plucks a pen from the ashes and dares to write the next chapter. 

A Way Forward

Together, all the women (and men) of Matthew’s genealogy prepared the way for the Messiah. Each of them was crucial to Jesus’ becoming who he was. Not genetically, of course; the lineage ends with Joseph, the “foster father” of our Lord. Change even one ancestor, though, and you don’t get to the man who looked with love and mercy at a pregnant teenager claiming the impossible and took her into his home anyway. 

There, raised by Joseph and Mary (the fifth and final of Matthew’s named mothers) the boy Jesus would grow in wisdom, age, and grace. In that home, he would learn how to be a man—a man who would show little tolerance for religious hypocrites, but who would look beyond appearances, forgive sins, welcome Gentiles, hobnob with scandalous women, and give second chances to those defined by their lowest moment.

We, too, are called to prepare a way for the coming Christ. As we pray with our foremothers in faith this Advent, let us open our hearts to the possibility that, through our own messy, complicated lives, the Word will become flesh and dwell among us once more.