I was eating dinner in the cafeteria at ABU (now Crandall). We had just received the schedule for that year’s senior seminar and thesis presentations.
Suddenly there was a lot of activity on the other side of the table. I heard exclamations of “Heresy!” There were mumblings about “those psychology majors.” When I asked what the matter was, I was shown the title of the offending thesis: “Exploring Jesus’ Feminine Side.”
I said, “Flip the page over to see the details. Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
I then witnessed a look of utter dismay. “It’s your thesis?!?”
Guilty as Charged
Yes, I was the offending party. I was the biblical studies major who was bold (or crazy!) enough to submit such an audacious title for my thesis. I was also the one who was crazy enough to tackle the parts of the Bible most people skip over – the genealogies.
But I had questions:
- Why are there five women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17? Women are rarely mentioned in any of the other genealogies in the Bible.
- It’s pretty obvious why Mary, the mother of our Lord, would be one of the five women highlighted in the genealogy. But who were these other four women that Matthew put in there? Where are the matriarchs of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah?
It turns out that these women are the type that people conveniently forget to mention when discussing their family background. Two of them are prostitutes (one by profession, the other only dabbled in it). One committed adultery. One is a member of a despised enemy nation. And, quite frankly, anyone who didn’t believe her story about pregnancy by the Holy Spirit would wonder about Mary’s morals, too.
So why did Matthew include them? What point was he trying to make by so closely associating them with Jesus the Messiah? Let’s first take a look at their stories.
Tamar: The Jinx
In Genesis 38, we read about Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. This poor lady had it tough. Her first husband, Judah’s oldest son, died because he was evil in the Lord’s sight. She was left with no husband and no heir to his estate.
Following ancient Near Eastern custom, Judah’s second son married Tamar. He didn’t want to fulfill his duty by providing a son who would inherit part of the estate that had passed to him at his brother’s death. He made sure Tamar wouldn’t get pregnant whenever they had sexual relations. The Lord was displeased with this so Judah’s second son died, too. Tamar was a widow twice over and still didn’t have a child!
Judah was afraid. What is wrong with this woman? He only had one son left. He wasn’t about to let him anywhere near Tamar in case he died like his two older brothers. So Judah came up with an excuse: he’s too young to get married right now. Tamar went back to her parents’ house to wait for him to grow up.
A long time passed. The youngest son grew up. Judah’s wife died. Tamar realized she was never going to marry the youngest son. She would be a childless widow forever if she didn’t act.
She heard that Judah, her father-in-law, was coming to town. She disguised herself as a prostitute, covering her face with a veil, and waited. When Judah saw her, he propositioned her but he didn’t have anything to pay her with. She agreed to sleep with him in exchange for his staff and seal, both of which were unique objects that could be used to identify their owner.
Three months later, word reached Judah that Tamar was pregnant. He ordered that she be burned in punishment. As she was being led away, she sent a message to Judah. “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” She produced Judah’s staff and seal.
He had tried to go back to pay the prostitute and get his things back. He couldn’t find a prostitute and the townspeople said there had never been a prostitute there. He didn’t try to find her again to save himself further embarrassment.
“She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Judah stopped the execution. Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah, and Perez became part of Jesus’ ancestry.
Judah thought Tamar was a jinx who would cause him to lose his youngest son. He didn’t realize it was his two older sons who were in the wrong, not her. By refusing to allow Tamar to marry his youngest son, Judah made it impossible for his family line to continue. If it wasn’t for Tamar’s quick thinking and unconventional actions, there would have been no one to carry on the family line that ultimately led to Jesus the Messiah. God used Tamar to bring about the salvation of the entire world!
Rahab: The Prostitute
We find Rahab’s story in Joshua 2. This is the Israelites’ second attempt at the conquest of the Promised Land. Joshua sent some spies to check out Jericho. The presence of strangers sometimes sounded alarm bells for the locals. In an attempt to make their visit less suspicious, the spies stayed at a prostitute’s house. This was no ordinary prostitute, however. This particular prostitute believed in Israel’s God!
Some sharp-eyed citizens spot the spies and tell the king of Jericho they are at Rahab’s house. Rahab hides the spies from the king and redirects his search by telling him that the spies had already left the city. She sends the king’s men on a wild goose chase to search for the spies outside the city. The city gates are shut behind them for the night, ensuring that the spies would remain safe from them.
After the king’s men leave, Rahab explains to the spies that the inhabitants of the land are terrified of the Israelites. They’ve heard about how the Lord parted the Red Sea and how the Israelites defeated the two Amorite kings. She knows that the Lord has given them the land. She declares, “The Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”
She makes a deal with the spies: She will save their lives if the Israelites will spare the lives of her and her family when they take the city. The spies agree. Rahab helps them escape the city and advises them on how to avoid being caught by the king’s men who are looking for them.
We read about the miraculous defeat of Jericho in Joshua 6. Israel fulfills the promise the spies made and Rahab, her family, and everything she owns is saved. The author notes that “she has lived in the midst of Israel to this day, for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.”
God did mighty miracles to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and take them safely to the land that had been promised to Abraham. The Israelites, however, were too terrified of the inhabitants of the Promised Land to attempt to conquer it under Moses’ leadership. In punishment for their unbelief, they wandered the wilderness for 40 years until a new generation was ready to conquer the land with Joshua as their leader.
Rahab was a prostitute in a pagan city. She merely heard about the great things the Lord had done for Israel – she didn’t see any of it with her own eyes. Yet she had the faith to believe that God would fulfill his promises to Israel. She put that faith into action by putting her life on the line to hide the Israelite spies. Rahab also made the decision to join the Israelites and follow their God after they came to conquer her city.
We find out in Matthew’s genealogy that Rahab became part of the Messiah’s lineage. Other New Testament writers make special mention of her as well. Rahab is praised for her faith in Hebrews 11:31; her name is mentioned along with other greats of the faith like Abraham, Moses, and David. James 2:25 states that Rahab was justified before God because she hid the spies. God used Rahab to fulfill his promises to Israel and accepted her because of her faith, which was demonstrated by her actions.
A Beautiful Tapestry
Matthew chose to include Tamar and Rahab in the genealogy that introduces his gospel and leads into the story of Jesus’ birth. They are unique threads woven into the beautiful tapestry of the God’s people. Both became an integral part of the Christmas story that we will be celebrating over the next few weeks.
In our next post, we will look at the stories of Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Their stories are just as unconventional and surprising as Tamar and Rahab’s. They don’t fit the norms of Israelite society either. However, these three women are also included in Jesus’ family tree and become part of the tapestry of God’s people.