The first chapter of Matthew includes five women in Jesus’ genealogy. Why?
First, some opening thoughts before we get to the real question:
(1) Including women in a genealogy is unusual, but not unique (see Genesis 11:29, 22:20â€“24, and 1 Chronicles 2:18â€“21, 24.).
(2) Genealogies in the New Testament (found in Matthew and Luke) are not stupid or boring. These are talented writers, with limited space, acting under the inspiration of the Spirit, and if they included something, it behooves us to pay some attention to it. This is particularly true for Matthew where the genealogy gets pride of place as the introduction to the Gospel. There are many ways–infinite ways–one could begin a text, and to do so with a genealogy means something.
(3) These are pretty dang weird (that’s a technical term I learned in graduate school) women to include. Why didn’t Matthew just stick with Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel? A brief review:
(a) Thamar (or, as you know her in the OT, Tamar). Cover your ears, kids, here’s Tamar’s story: denied a new spouse by her father-in-law after the old ones die, she pretends to be a prostitute, has sex with her father-in-law, and has a kid. More here.
(b) Rachab (in the OT: Rahab). This is the madame who hides the spies who are scoping out Jericho. In exchange for her protection of them, they don’t destroy her house.
(c) Ruth. Ruth chooses the God of Israel over motherhood, propositions Boaz, ends up being a mother, etc.
(d) Bathsheba. David saw her performing a (ritual) bath, had sex with her, found out she was pregnant, had her husband killed, and married her. But note that her name isn’t in the genealogy–her husband’s is. More on this in a minute.
(e) Mary. You know her.
OK, back to the ‘why.’ Some possibilities:
(1) They are regarded as sinners and therefore
(a) present the need for a savior.
(b) serve as a contrast to Jesus.
(2) They are foreigners or have foreign connections and therefore imply that Jesusâ€™ ministry will ultimately extend to the Gentiles.
(3) They show initiative.
(4) They each experience some sexual irregularity and/or unconventional domestic arrangement and therefore prepare the audience for the virgin birth.
(5) They break rules.
(6) They show Godâ€™s power to work through history.
(7) They were all without male protection.
(8) They are examples of the â€˜greater righteousnessâ€™ that will be preached in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5â€“7); Judah finally says, â€œshe hath been more righteous than Iâ€? (Genesis 38:26), and Boaz says that Ruth is a â€œvirtuous womanâ€? (Ruth 3:11).
(9) By their righteous need to circumvent the Mosiac Law, these women illustrate its shortcomings.
(10) These women defy expectations as Jesus does.
(11) These women are intercessorsâ€”Tamar forces Judahâ€™s line to continue, Rahab brings her family into the house of Israel, Ruth brings the Moabites into Davidâ€™s line, and Bathsheba brings her son Solomon to the throne.
(12) These are powerless women. (What should this teach the reader about Jesusâ€™ heritage?)
(13) All of the men in the stories (Judah, the king of Jericho, David, and Boaz) are guilty of failing to act to save Israel.
(14) There is a violation of social norms to serve a divine purpose in each story.
(15) Perhaps there is no pattern that applies to all five women but rather separate reasons for including each individual:
(a) Ruthâ€™s child really becomes Naomiâ€™s child, just as Jesus becomes Josephâ€™s, stressing the idea of adoption.
(b) Tamar chose not to expose Judah publicly when she could haveâ€”as Joseph does with Mary.
(c) Tamar, like Jesus, risks her life for others.
(d) Deuteronomy 23:3â€“6 prohibits relations with Moab. But Ruth â€˜redeemsâ€™ her people in the eyes of Israel through her kindness: she leaves the familiar for the alien where she has no home, like Jesus. Ruth also allies herself with the powerless, as Jesus does.
(e) The circumlocution for Bathshebaâ€™s name functions to put Uriah into the lineâ€”which he should be, because he is a righteous person. Uriah refused to spend time with his wife while his comrades and the ark of the covenant were in battle (see 2 Samuel 11:11). This is in marked contrast with the actions of David: at the time that he spotted Bathsheba, he should have been in battle but was not (see 2 Samuel 11:1).
To sum: Matthew is making a deliberate decision as an author to introduce us to Jesus by way of a genealogy. Further, while we think of genealogies as objective, non-symbolic facts, that isn’t how Matthew is using this one: Matthew has deliberately shaped this list via the inclusion of women–and unusual ones at that. Their names are red flags on the first page of Jesus’ story–red flags that Matthew is using to teach us something about Jesus. But what is it?