Jesus, Born of Woman

The book of Matthew sets the scene for Jesus’ life and ministry by delineating a selective genealogy. Among the names listed, Matthew names five socially controversial women, each with a fascinating back story of her own: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Each of these women was failed by a patriarchal system, and each overcame that adversity through cleverness and loyalty. Although each of these women represents a controversial story in a patriarchal society, they each turn that system against itself to their advantage. Each of these women was regarded by early Christians as righteous for it, even if their own contemporary society would have cast them as sinners. The stories told about them reveal them to be more righteous than the clueless men who held them back until they educated them. [1] What better forebears for Jesus could there be?

Let’s revisit the controversy surrounding each of these women:

Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She married his eldest son, Er, who died young (Genesis says he was killed by God for his wickedness, so I’m thinking bar fight? syphilis?). Judah ordered his next eldest son, Onan, to impregnate Tamar. Any children from this act would have been considered the children of Er, the eldest, which was problematic because the oldest son inherits, and if he has a son, that son inherits. Onan was being ordered to disinherit himself, and instead he opted for coitus interuptus. This displeased God, and he was also killed in some unspecified way. By right, Tamar is owed Shelah, the youngest son, who it appears is not yet of age. Judah promises his third son to her, but then drags his feet, believing Tamar to be cursed. In the meantime, Judah’s wife dies, and after he mourns her, he declares his intention to go to Timnah for the sheep shearing. Tamar cleverly disguises herself as a prostitute with a veil on her face, and Judah takes the bait. She agrees to take his staff and seal in exchange for a goat he will send her later, but instead she keeps the staff and seal. When she is revealed to be pregnant, Judah angrily orders her to be burned to death for prostituting herself until she reveals that he was the man who impregnated her by showing the tokens he gave her as payment. He rescinds his punishment and recognizes that she was right to do what she did because he did not deal fairly with her. She gives birth to twin boys: Zerah and Perez (Perez was a forebear to King David, and according to Ethiopian tradition became the king of Persia).

Tamar overcame a system that was unjust to her, ultimately reclaiming her rightful place. She was rejected by Judah not giving her his third son, but then redeemed by bearing two sons directly to Judah. She was like the rejected cornerstone who was the foundation of the whole building.

Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute, the original hooker with a heart of gold. Her name literally means “prostitute woman,” a shortened form of a Hebrew phrase rāḥāb-N meaning “the god N has opened/widened (the womb?).” [2] She ran an inn, an excellent place for spies to gather intelligence. When Joshua sent spies into her city, she hid the spies from the Canaanite soldiers who wanted to kill them, and was in turn promised that she would be spared from the ensuing massacre if she hung a red cord out of an upper window, possibly the earliest form of “red light district.”

Biblical interpreters have viewed Rahab as a model of hospitality, mercy, faith, patience, and repentance in her interaction with Joshua’s spies. Thus the harlot of Jericho became a paragon of virtue. [3]

When the city fell, she and her family were protected and added to the Jewish community. Tradition holds that she converted to Judaism later in life and was considered a woman of worthy works, a great addition to Judaism. She was also reputed by the midrash to be one of the four most beautiful women in the world. She was mother to Boaz, [4] who married Ruth, our next named heroine.

Ruth was another outsider, a woman from Moab, daughter-in-law to Naomi. She had married an Israelite husband who died, as did his father. Both widows, Naomi released Ruth from her obligation to stay with her, but she chose to stay anyway, to make a life with her fellow widow. They arrived in Bethlehem together in a state of extreme poverty. Naomi’s dead husband Elimelech had a rich relative living in the city, Boaz. It was harvest time, and Naomi sent Ruth to work in Boaz’s fields. When Ruth said Boaz had spoken kindly to her, Naomi hatched a “honey trap” plot for Boaz, instructing Ruth to lay down by Boaz’s feet at night on the threshing floor. [5] Boaz recognized that Ruth was socially vulnerable due to her actions, and while he was definitely interested, he had to first check with a nearer relation to her that had first right of refusal. He met the other man at the gate, and the man took off his shoe to symbolize he was not interested in Ruth. Boaz married her, and their descendents included Obed, Jesse, and King David.

Bathsheba is probably the most well-known of these women, and often cast in the most notorious light. She was wife to Uriah the Hittite, so another outsider. King David lusted after her while she was bathing on her rooftop, and sent for her. He impregnated her, then murdered her husband (or at least caused his death by putting him in the front lines of battle) to cover up his actions, marrying the woman he made a widow. The narrative uses passive language for Bathsheba’s role. Was she raped? Even if she was a willing partner which cannot be known from the text, the power difference between them is clearly in David’s favor. Was her husband a good man who loved her or an indifferent husband? Was David her lover or her captor? We don’t know. Islam reveres David as a prophet and doesn’t accept the story as we have it in the Bible, instead claiming that Uriah’s death was accidental, and that David broke with Israelite tradition in marrying Bathsheba, a widow. [6] Other scholars point out that David was remiss in his duties as he should have been at war like Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, not being a creepy peeping Tom. Some scholars infer that Bathsheba seduced him, deliberately displaying herself to ensnare David. Again, the text is not explicit in ascribing these motives or reasons. Early Christians saw Bathsheba as an honored queen, a forerunner to Mary. Bathsheba’s son, King Solomon, bows down to her in veneration, and she intercedes for the people with the King, an archetype of Jesus’ role with the Father.

Mary is the final woman listed in Jesus’ genealogy. She is another woman in a vulnerable position, caught in the cross-hairs of a culture that renders her powerless, relying on her superior qualities to navigate shark-infested waters. She is pregnant before marriage, an offense that would have ruined her life and future prospects even if she were merely set aside by Joseph. She doesn’t fight or argue against her fate, but meekly and faithfully accepts it. She doesn’t share her inner feelings, but instead stays on a quiet, righteous path. She has been venerated since the earliest days of Christianity, and is also revered in Islam with one of the longest chapters in the Quran dedicated to her.

In Islam, she is known as Maryam (Arabic: مريم‎, Maryām), mother of Isa (Arabic: عيسى بن مريم.ʿĪsā ibn Maryām, literally’Jesus, son of Mary’). She is often referred to by the honorific title sayyidatuna, meaning “our lady”; this title is in parallel to sayyiduna (“our lord”), used for the prophets. A related term of endearment is Siddiqah, meaning “she who confirms the truth” and “she who believes sincerely completely”. Another title for Mary is Qānitah, which signifies both constant submission to God and absorption in prayer and invocation in Islam. She is also called “Tahira”, meaning “one who has been purified” and representing her status as one of two humans in creation (and the only woman) to not be touched by Satan at any point. [7]

Conclusion

Some bible scholars refer to the feminization of Jesus, the idea that the church has been infiltrated with a neutered, peacenik Jesus, a guy they wouldn’t drink a beer with, and that as a result, the church is more appealing to women and less to men. However, this is not new; the early Christian church also had many women. Origen responded to the criticism that the church was only for “women and poor people, which was seen by detractors as evidence of its weak appeal. Jesus is particularly appealing to those who are not in positions of earthly power, and that describes women more than anyone else historically.

As a perfect being, Jesus embodies both female and male characteristics, but so do we all. Matthew’s particular listing of these five women exemplifies that Jesus (and all of us) literally descend from both men and women, and for their lack of power, these women are more inherently righteous examples than the men associated with their stories. Judah is a promise-breaker. The Israelites are marauding warriors and spies in the Rahab story, killing women and children, and only willing to save her if she betrays her people. Boaz is generally seen favorably, but is also a little slow on the uptake. King David is at his thuggish worst in the Bible’s portrayal of this story. And Joseph is kind, but without the wisdom of divine intervention, he was initially planning to just set Mary aside which would still leave her and her son vulnerable in their community.

I can’t think of better examples of the mission of Jesus than these five humble, wise, persistent women.

Merry Christmas.

 

[1] Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition.

[2] Holy Handmaid’s Tale! “May the Lord open.”

[3] William L. Lyons, William L., “Rahab through the Ages: A Study of Christian Interpretation of Rahab”, Society of Biblical Literature Forum, July 2008

[4] Although some apologists disagree, claiming the two are different women due to a spelling variant. Matthew seems willing to see them as one.

[5] Given that “feet” often mean “genitals,” make of that what you will.

[6]  Tafsir Nemooneh, vol. 19, p. 257; Oyoun Akhbar Al-Ridha, vol. 1, p. 154; Amali Saduq, p. 91

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary,_mother_of_Jesus

Comments

  1. Jesus was and IS 100% percent man. God took the feminine out of Adam in the garden when he created Eve. Your feminism is a work of great iniquity.

  2. Iniquity? Shame on you for being such a misogynist that you can’t even contemplate a possibility.

  3. Donald John, don’t be a weirdo.

  4. This is a lovely read, thank you for sharing.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

  6. King Solomon and all the Kings of Judah were descended from the first 4 mentioned women. Except for Tamar, they are all foreigners, and all but Ruth are of questionable virtue to some contemporary readers. Yet they are all ancestors and prototypes for Mary, who shares the royal blood that they all contributed to. Jesus is God of all peoples and His divinity overcomes all of the problems, obstacles, or sins of everyone. The poorest outsider can still be part of His royal family.

  7. Alma 7 suggests to me that Christ has taken on our experiences, so that he can succor us, his grace is an experiential gift, of course he embodies the feminine as well as the masculine. Really he embodies and knows and comforts the human. Angela has given us a blessing in her review of these women and the circumstances and their faith. Although not an ancestor of Christ, I also think of Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary who seems to give the first witness other than Mary herself, of the divinity of the in utero Savior. She knew what it felt like on the fringes because she was childless for so long. On the other end of the matter -his death vis a vis the birth – women figure as the ministers to Christ’s crucified body, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. Thank you Angela. So inspiring.

  8. I guess the law of chastity is a Modern invention.

  9. I love Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, and this is a great exposition. Thanks, Angela, and Merry Christmas!

    No, the law of chastity isn’t a modern invention, but having Jesus descend from people who pointedly broke it conveys the utterly vital message that Jesus isn’t just for the squeaky clean among us, and thank God for that. I love and honor these women—especially Tamar, whose savvy and intelligence I can’t help but admire.

  10. Thanks. I have always liked H. Parker Blount’s Sunstone article Scarlet Threads in the Lineage of Jesus – Four Women of the Old Testament (https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/143-44-51.pdf), which tells the story of these women.

  11. Beautiful! Thank you!

  12. Like back

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.