“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…” (Matthew 1:1-2)
In the Spring I did a study of the book of Matthew where I skipped over every part that didn’t specifically mention women, and only read the parts that did. It was fascinating to flip page after page, skipping over huge swaths that don’t speak of a single woman, wondering what it would feel like to be a man and have my experience be the norm, rather than the exception. But even then, I remember thinking that it was strange to have women mentioned in the genealogy of Christ. In such a man-centric world, why were they included? And why those five women? Now, in the midst of the season of Advent, their stories seem especially important.
The first to be mentioned is Tamar. Her story is one of the stranger ones in the Bible, found in Genesis 38 (and not to be confused with the story of a later Tamar, found in 2 Samuel.) She is a widow, promised children and a husband by her father-in-law, Judah, and then denied what was promised to her. Judah wrongs her by breaking his word, and it is only through deception that she is able to have the child she was promised. Yet her boldness is rewarded, and Judah ends up says, “She is more righteous than I,” (v 26). It is through this act that she finds herself in the genealogy of Christ.
I’ve never been quite sure how to take the story of Tamar. She is clearly to be applauded, but the way she seduces her father-in-law seems a little icky, to be honest. And yet she is praised and held up as a sign and symbol through her inclusion in the genealogy. There must be something important about her strange story.
After Tamar, the next woman mentioned is Rahab, the gentile prostitute who hides the spies when they come to Jericho in Joshua 2. I don’t know much about the cultural standing of women like her in ancient Jerichoan society, but I’m pretty sure that there’s never been a culture that holds her profession in high regard. But Rahab is one of the most personable and engaging of all the women whose stories are told in the Bible. She lies flawlessly to save the spies’ lives, and her eloquence is beautiful. “As soon as we heard it,” she says to the Israelites in verse 11, “our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.”
Rahab is one of the clearest examples I can find of being unashamed of the journey. She doesn’t seem embarrassed about what she has done, or resentful of the cards she’s been dealt. Instead, she humbly and fiercely advocates for herself and her family, and the Israelite men respond to her requests generously. Her courage and ingenuity are recorded, and she too is tied into the line.
Next to be mentioned is Ruth, who was also an outsider. According to Deuteronomy 23, the Moabites were under a special curse, and yet Ruth clings to Naomi and the people of God with a tenacity that is profound. There are parallels between her and the woman in Matthew 15, who asks to be included in the kingdom, and when Christ responds cryptically, she says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” The boldness with which that woman demands to be redeemed is like Ruth’s, first attaching herself to Naomi and then demanding from Boaz the rights she is owed. Ruth has nothing--no people, no husband, no way of income. But her compassion is deeply rooted, and not only is she given a place among the Israelite people, she is included in the lineage of Christ.
Perhaps the most profound inclusion in Christ’s genealogy is Bathsheba. She is mentioned in Matthew’s list not by name, but as “the wife of Uriah.” At first, this bothered me. If she’s going to be named, let her be named, I thought. But then I went back and read her story again, and the utter silence of Bathsheba in the story of David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11 is thunderously striking. Whereas all the women included in the genealogy so far have been extremely active agents over their own future to an extent uncommon for women in their time, Bathsheba gives us nothing but silence. And it occurred to me for perhaps the first time how much of a victim she is--her rape and the subsequent life she must lead show themselves most forcefully in the silence she gives us, and the way her name has been stripped from her.
It all made sense when I got to Bathsheba: God did not include these women in the genealogy to show that women are generally included in his redemptive plan, but that women in all their specificity are included and made whole. All the archetypes are there: the wronged, righteous women like Tamar; the bold temptresses like Rahab; the courageous, industrious workers like Ruth; the silent victims, wronged like Bathsheba; and finally, the strong and quiet humility of Mary.
I (and, I think, many protestants) don’t give Mary enough credit--or at least, we give her credit for the wrong things. Yes, it would be terrible to give birth in a stable, but not as terrible as being shunned by everyone you know. When I think about trying to convince the people I love the most that the Holy Spirit impregnated me I realize just how fierce Mary’s courage is. To say “Let it be to me according to your word,”--those are hell raising, foot stomping, finger snapping words. I want to give her a standing ovation. Anyone who envisions Mary as a meek and mild woman is just wrong; she was strong enough to put even her husband Joseph--who was a pretty courageous guy himself--to shame.
Each of these women were flesh and blood, breathing, fighting, crying, and smiling. But these women are also, like so many beautiful parts of the season of Advent, signs to us. Women to point to and rejoice with. Their stories have been folded into the genealogy, so that we might know our own stories are also tucked away in the fabric of redemption. So that we can find not just affirmation in the fact that Christ has redeemed the poor, weak, and wronged as well as the mighty, but also that we might rejoice in the specificity of our God. He spoke through stories so that we might believe in the only story that truly matters--the story that is being told backwards and forwards and shoots into every other story in each corner of the universe.
For to us a child is born. To us--the prostitutes, the good girls, the victims, the outcasts, the destitute, and the lied to--a son is given. Rejoice.
(Image by Stabat Mater dolorosa, "Red.")
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard