Women in Matthew’s genealogy

Why list women ancestors at all?

The Birth of Jesus

When Matthew wrote the opening chapters of his gospel, he described the birth of Jesus.

That should have been simple. But it wasn’t.

Why? Because Joseph and Mary were not legally married at the time Jesus was conceived – betrothed but not married.

Matthew did not shy away from the problem. He made it clear that Joseph was not the father of Mary’s unborn child.

To conservative Jews, this made Jesus unacceptable on three counts:

  1. He was not from Jerusalem, the religious center, or even from Judah, but from provincial Galilee. Many Jews thought Galilee was not really Jewish at all. Galileans were comparatively recent converts to Judaism, and they had been forcibly converted.
  2. The women in Matthew's genealogy 2Compared to the rabbis, Jesus was poorly educated. The story of the finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41) is put in Luke’s gospel to show that, had he been given the chance, Jesus could have shone in the Temple schools. But he had not attended any of the colleges/schools attached at that time to the Jerusalem Temple, and his early education must have come from an obscure provincial rabbi.
  3. Worst of all, Jesus seemed to be illegitimate. There was a shadow over his birth. Jews in 1st century Israel believed your lineage – who your parents were, and their parents, and their parents – was extremely important.

Cleverly, Matthew does not try to hide the doubts surrounding Jesus’ birth. Instead, he subtly presents them as a plus by tying Mary’s irregular pregnancy and Jesus’ ancestry in with Jewish heroines whose own ancestry was irregular.

The first heroine: Tamar

The first of these was Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, whose husband practised a form of birth control that prevented her becoming pregnant. Undaunted, she seduced her father-in-law Judah so that she could conceive.

Her story shows that irregular unions had been part of the Jewish ancestry.

For her full story, with Bible text, see Tamar and Judah

The second heroine: Rahab the prostitute

The second woman named in the genealogy was Rahab, who reputedly helped Joshua to capture the city of Jericho. She is always called Rahab the Prostitute , but she may have simply been an inn-keeper in a sleazy part of town.

Whatever she was, prostitute or inn-keeper, she was not someone you would call respectable – and yet the city of Jericho might not have fallen without her help, and the whole invasion of the Canaanite states (later Israel) would have been impeded. So, respectable or not, she was an essential element in the unfolding of God’s plan.

For some information on her story see Rahab of Jericho

The third heroine: Ruth

The women in Matthew's genealogy

Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem

The third woman was Ruth who, God help us, was not even Jewish but a Moabite, and thus a foreigner from an enemy nation.

Despite this she became the grandmother of King David, the great Jewish hero.

The story of her loyalty to Naomi her mother-in-law is often quoted as the ideal family relationship. For her full story, with Bible text, see a Bible love story: Ruth and Boaz

The fourth heroine: Bathsheba

The fourth woman was Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon and thus eventually Queen Mother, which meant she was the most powerful woman in the country at the time Israel was at its zenith.

For the full story of this shrewd and beautiful woman, with Bible text, see Bathsheba and her son Solomon

Why did Matthew do this?

Taken together, Matthew was making the following points:

  1. Great heroes, people who furthered God’s plan (like Jesus of Nazareth) were not necessarily from high-born priestly families
  2. God had a plan that was not apparent to people at the time
  3. The presence of certain women in the ancestry of Jesus gave legitimacy to doubtful events surrounding Jesus’ birth and Mary’s marriage status

Taken separately, Matthew was saying that certain features of the stories of these women could be seen in the life of Jesus:

  1. Tamar: her dogged determination to have justice done, even when it meant her life was threatened
  2. Rahab: an unlikely heroine from a low rung of the social ladder, who nevertheless helped in the quest for a Promised Land
  3. Ruth: a woman who was not even Jewish, as Jesus was not a Judahite but a Galilean, she was the grandmother of King David
  4. Bathsheba: a woman who became pregnant under irregular circumstances as Mary had done; despite this her son Solomon became a hero of the Jewish people.

What does Matthew’s gospel say?

Matthew 1:1-17

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Ammin’adab, and Ammin’adab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Bo’az by Rahab, and Bo’az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uri’ah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehobo’am, and Rehobo’am the father of Abi’jah, and Abi’jah the father of Asa, 8 and Asa the father of Jehosh’aphat, and Jehosh’aphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzzi’ah, 9 and Uzzi’ah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezeki’ah, 10 and Hezeki’ah the father of Manas’seh, and Manas’seh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josi’ah, 11 and Josi’ah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoni’ah was the father of She-al’ti-el, and She-al’ti-el the father of Zerub’babel, 13 and Zerub’babel the father of Abi’ud, and Abi’ud the father of Eli’akim, and Eli’akim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eli’ud, 15 and Eli’ud the father of Elea’zar, and Elea’zar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob,

16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.

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Links

Ruth story, text, study guide
Bathsheba schemer or victim
Bathsheba Marriage or the Palace?
Tamar and Judah
Mary of Nazareth Extraordinary Woman