Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus departs from the Hebrew norm.
When a Biblical author introduces an important figure into his narrative, he sometimes starts by giving that person’s genealogy. His illustrious ancestry underscores the figure’s historical significance.
Let me offer two examples. When the author/editor of Genesis introduces Abram (later renamed Abraham) into his story, he begins with Abram’s genealogy (Genesis 11:10-30). The list of Abram’s ancestors stretches back to the patriarch Noah. This ties Abram into the story of God’s redemptive interventions into history.
When the author of the book of Ezra introduces Ezra into his narrative, he also does so by giving Ezra’s distinguished ancestry (Ezra 7:1-6). The genealogy underscores Ezra’s status in the line of priests going back to Aaron, Moses’ brother. It gives Ezra great credibility as an interpreter of Torah.
It should not surprise us then when Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17). The genealogy highlights Jesus’ royal ancestors stretching back to King David. This supports Jesus’ status as the promised Son of David who will usher in the kingdom of God.
It does not stop with David, but also pushes the recitation of Jesus’ ancestors back to Abraham, thereby firmly establishing Jesus’s status as a genuine Jew. Both identities are important to the story about Jesus that Matthew will recount.
Matthew Places a Surprise in Jesus’ Genealogy
Matthew, however, gives an unexpected twist to his genealogy. Old Testament genealogies always trace the line of descent from father to son. What counts is the male succession. The names of mothers are omitted.
But Matthew includes four women in his genealogy. And they are four women whose names you would expect a Jew with a proper sense of social propriety to suppress, not highlight.
The first is Tamar. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Jacob’s son, Judah. She marries Judah’s son, who then dies. Following early custom, Judah’s second son should marry Tamar. But he refuses and subsequently dies, too.
Now legal custom dictates that Tamar should marry Judah’s third son. Judah, however, is fearful of losing a third son to this unlucky woman, so he procrastinates on the marriage. This keeps Tamar in a socially disadvantaged position. In her world it represents an injustice.
To rectify it, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and entices her father-in-law unknowingly into fathering twins. Judah wants to execute Tamar for adultery but Tamar turns the tables and wins vindication. (For Tamar’s story, see Genesis 38.)
The second is Rahab. She is a prostitute in Jericho who hides two Israelite spies who are scouting out the town and its defenses. In return she and her family are spared when the town falls to the Israelite armies. (For Rahab’s story, see Joshua 2.)
The third is Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite, widowed along with her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite. They return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown. There Ruth ultimately wins the attention of Boaz, a local land owner. He marries her and she becomes great-grandmother of David.
As a Moabite, however, she would have been considered an outsider in Israelite society. In her faithfulness to Naomi, however, she sets an amazing example of chesed (steadfast love), the highest virtue of Israelite culture. The Biblical story places her on par with the two wives of Jacob. This is an astounding honor for a foreign woman. (For Ruth’s story, see the Book of Ruth.)
And finally Matthew mentions the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, the woman whom David seduces and commits adultery with. She mothers Solomon, after her first son dies, a divine punishment on David’s sin. (For Bathsheba’s story, see 2 Samuel 11-12.)
Why This Departure from the Norm?
All four women have some scent of irregularity about them. So it is really odd to find Matthew including them in his genealogy. Why would he do so? There may be two reasons.
First this genealogy immediately precedes Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. That account places great emphasis on Mary being a virgin when she conceives Jesus.
Her pregnancy would have been scandalous in her own society and cause for extreme social condemnation. Joseph plans to divorce her until God sets his anxieties at ease. But
The second reason may not be intentional, but reveals something about the spirit of the Jesus movement that arises out of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself is constantly welcoming the social and spiritual outsider. He is notorious for welcoming sinners, tax collectors, the sick, lame, and those socially ostracized by unclean illness like lepers.
The early church also breaks the boundaries that defined proper Jewish society. The Christian movement (as recounted in the Book of Acts) welcomes into its membership Samaritans, eunuchs, and supremely Gentiles as fully equal members of the community. And we see in both Acts and the letters of Paul hints that women were playing important roles in the growth of that community.
This spirit of inclusiveness makes the Christian movement suspect to those who feel the boundaries of the spiritual community must be drawn quite rigidly. (It still does.) It makes early Christianity a threatening force in the Mediterranean cultures of its day.
Matthew may be exhibiting something of this inclusive spirit by including the four women he does in his genealogy. When we encounter this feature in the very opening words of Matthew’s gospel, it alerts us that as we read into the Jesus story that Matthew will recount, we need to expect that our social and spiritual preconceptions of what is proper will be challenged over and over again.