The Women of Matthew 1

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. (Matthew 1:2-6)

Readers of the Old Testament learn very quickly that, as soon as the “begats” start, it is OK to start skimming. The elaborate genealogies mean very little to us today, however important they may have been to the Bronze Age tribal cultures that produced the Old Testament.

Matthew, however, has some tricks up his sleeve that we are going to miss if we don’t pay close attention to the list of who begat whom. Specifically, we will miss the significance of the four women who appear in the 42 generations listed from Abraham to Jesus. These women are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah), each of whom had a prominent role in the Hebrew scriptures that Matthew is consciously choosing to map his own work onto.

The people on this, I suggest, have four things in common, and all four of them matter a lot. The four similarities introduce us to four different principles that we will find in the Book of Matthew and throughout the New Testament. We will look at all four in detail below, but here they are as a bulleted list.

  • They are women
  • They are famous
  • They are gentiles
  • Their stories all involve transgressive sexuality

They are women
As obvious as this is to anyone who takes a minute to think about it, it is really weird in its own context. Women did not normally appear in genealogy lists . If we look at the major genealogy lists in Genesis (Genesis 5 and Genesis 10-11), and Chronicles (1-9, though there are a few exceptions there), we get largely long, long lists of men begatting other men. Both land and perceived spiritual blessings traveled patrolinearly through the generations, so that is what people kept track of. Men mattered; women did not.

Without suggesting that the New Testament Church was a feminist paradise (it wasn’t), it is safe to say that women mattered a good deal more to the writers of the New Testament than they did to the writers of the Old Testament. One of the things that Matthew is doing in this passage is setting up Mary as the fulfillment of a prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This meant that women’s role in reproduction was spiritually meaningful. And let’s not forget that it is only through Mary that Christ could claim his humanity and his physical identity. Joseph— the subject of the lengthy genealogy that Matthew begins with—was not his real dad.

They are famous
Each of the four women named in Jesus’s genealogy would have been immediately recognizable to a Jewish reader. They were all celebrities of the Hebrew Bible. Three of them—Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth—were considered heroines, or people who helped to accomplish the work of God. The fourth, Bathsheba, is primarily remembered as part of the David story.

But all of this is part of Matthew’s argument that the life of Jesus connects to the Hebrew Bible in multiple ways. More than any of the other evangelists, Matthew wanted to show the Jewish population that Jesus was part of their story. Not only was he a direct descendant of David (which was a requirement for the Messiah). He was a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah, and he was also a modern version of Moses (hence the massacre of innocent Hebrew children when he was born). Matthew’s core rhetorical purpose requires him to connect Jesus to as many of the heroes of his culture as he possibly can. Listing these four women in his genealogy brings their story into his from the very beginning.

They are gentiles
Tamar was a Canaanite. Rahab was a resident of Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite. And Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whose identity Matthew takes as her only identifier. Matthew clearly wants us to understand that his God is the God, and Christ is the Savior, of the entire world, not just the line of Abraham. (Just a few chapters later, in Matthew 3:9, he will have John the Baptist say that God can make children of Abraham out of rocks).

This is especially important because it is likely that Matthew is writing at a time when the Church was divided between those who saw Christianity as a reform movement within Judaism and those who saw it as an entirely new religion. Matthew’s work is by far the most Jewish of the gospels. One of his central aims was to convince the Jews that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. But he was also trying to convince Jews who had already become Christians that Jesus was for everyone.

They were sexually transgressive
When her husband died and left her without a child, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law, Judah, in order to get one (Genesis 38). Rahab actually was a prostitute who hosted Israelite spies and helped them attack her own city of Jericho (Joshua 2:9-13). Ruth followed her mother-in-law after her husband died and slept at the foot of Boaz’s bed until he agreed to marry her (Ruth 1-4). And Bathsheba bore David a child after he saw her, coveted her, and killed her husband to cover it up. (2 Samuel 11). All of these acts were seen as highly unconventional ways of starting a family.

Matthew is clearly setting up the unconventional claims for Jesus’s own parentage that he and the other evangelists will make. But he is also taking aim here at an ancient version of purity culture. The four women that he singles out as ancestors of Jesus Christ would all have been defined as transgressors by his original audience. And yet three of them were heroes of the culture and the fourth was the wife of the culture’s greatest hero and the mother of the builder of the first temple. The narrow sexual standards of his day could not contain the narratives that Matthew created for his hero. And that, to a very great extent, was probably his point.

There is a master narrative at work in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ, and it goes something like this: Jesus’s most important ancestors aren’t who you thought they would be. They aren’t all men. They aren’t all descendants of Abraham. And they didn’t come from the kinds of family structures that you consider ideal. The Messiah comes from unexpected places, and he is going to do unexpected things. Get over it now or you will miss everything important about my story.


  1. Raymond Winn says:

    Such an interesting and thought-provoking essay; thx to Michael Austin for posting. One thought: by listing Bathsheba as the ’cause’ of David’s Fall From Grace, we perpetuate the idea that a victim of rape or sexual molestation bears a portion of the sin, and is therefore a ‘sinner’ even though she had no voice in the matter. I wish we could get miles-away from that implication. In this case, Bathsheba was brought to David by his command, and surely could not have denied him (he was King, after all).

  2. Hey sir. This is beautiful. One small item. there is a typo here: “This meant that women’s role in reproduction was practically was spiritually meaningful.” Can you clarify?

  3. Raymond and Matt, I have made minor corrections to reflect both comments.

  4. Raymond Winn says:

    Michael – thx for the note. I love the way that reference to Bathsheba now appears.

  5. Matt Harmer says:

    Thanks, Michael, as always, for a thoughtful analysis. I’m sure many here are aware of it, but H. Parker Blount published an outstanding article expanding upon this topic in Sunstone (November 2006) entitled “Scarlet Threads in the Lineage of Jesus.”

  6. This is fascinating, Michael. Thanks for the post.

  7. Bingo! This is how you help people be surprised by scripture. Fits really well with my intro to the NT.

  8. Mel Henderson says:

    Love this piece (and pretty much all I’ve read from you)! I’m also going to humbly submit one argument for Bathsheba being a practicing Jew: In 2 Samuel 11:2, we’re told David saw her bathing FROM his roof (contrary to all popular retellings or artistic depictions, there is zero evidence that she was on any roof), and in 11:4 it says “he lay with her, for she was purified from her uncleanness.” This suggests she was bathing in a mikvah–which is always built on or in the ground–for ritual cleansing, which by Jewish law and practice was completed 8 days after her menstrual cycle ended. This is key information because (1) her household would have known she was menstruating [given the need to visit the mikvah] and therefore NOT already pregnant, and (2) she was likely ovulating and fertile at the time David called for her. She was likely a faithful Jewish wife who was where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to be doing.

  9. Overall, a great post! BHodges is right that this is how you keep people surprised by scripture. They are rich stories and information like this helps make for a more meaningful understanding.

    I do have a request regarding the category of “transgressive sexuality.” As a woman, sexual assault survivor, and mom of daughters, please consider rewording this category.

    In a patriarchal society, women were valued for what their bodies could produce (Still the same in the benevolent patriarchy in the church today.) so anything outside of acceptable norms is noteworthy for Matthew to include. However, the label of transgressive sexuality perpetuates harmful and painful ideas about the female role in a patriarchal society and who has power over female bodies.

    Tamar pretended to be a prostitute because Judah hadn’t kept his promise to marry her to one of his other sons after his son that she married had died. Tamar needed a child, hopefully a son, to have someone to care for her since, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to own land or business to support herself. Judah’s penchant for visiting prostitutes must have been well known, otherwise how would she have known her ruse would work? This story also has the typical double standard when Judah is about to condemn Tamar for being pregnant out of wedlock until she gives proof that he is the father. Judah judges Tamar to be more righteous because he admits he hadn’t fulfilled his obligation to her. This isn’t about Tamar’s sexuality; it’s about her finding a way to survive in a patriarchal society.

    Rahab. Please ask the question why she was a prostitute. Read Melinda Gate’s book The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. She shares a conversation with women (I can’t remember where in the world) who shares that her choices were to let her children starve or be a sex worker. Guess which option this women choose? In a patriarchal society, Rahab wouldn’t have been allowed an education or other opportunities to support herself and her family. This isn’t about Rahab’s sexuality; it’s about her finding a way to survive in a patriarchal society.

    Ruth. Why did she sleep at Boaz’s feet until he agreed to marry her? Recall that as women who were also widows, the only way Ruth and Naomi had to support themselves was for Ruth to pick up bits of grain in fields. In this society, they couldn’t do business or have other ways to support themselves. Ruth’s sexuality; it’s about her finding a way to survive in a patriarchal society.

    Bathsheba. I’m relieved you recognize that she was raped. This story isn’t about her sexuality. It is about a man using his sexuality to harm a woman in the most horrible way possible. Imagine Bathsheba having to marry her rapist after he had her husband killed.

    There is much work to do in church culture today to root out these harmful perceptions of women. This isn’t transgressive sexuality. Calling it that perpetuates patriarchal perceptions of women. It’s hard to be a woman in a patriarchal world, and hard to be a woman today in a benevolent patriarchal church. Yesterday I was listening to a podcast with Nina Totenberg about her book Dinners with Ruth. Nina recalled how even when she had a job, she still had to have her dad co-sign a credit card when she wasn’t married because banks would not give credit cards to women. When I was born, it was still legal to fire a woman for being pregnant. Marital rape wasn’t illegal in the entire US until the late 90s – after I graduated from high school. All of my career I’ve had to fight to be paid equally as my male peers. There is much work to do in the world and in the church about seeing women as people. The women in these stories had sexual experiences that made them worth less in the eyes of this society. That’s why Matthew included them – to show that they still had worth even if society thought they were chewed gum.

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