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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 1
Lent - Eastertide 2012

Jesus' Genealogy
The Woman Problem

by Julianne Wiley

In the beginning, there was a sex scandal. If the National Enquirer had been sold on some newsstand in Eden, this would have been the world’s first tabloid headline: “Eve Tempts Adam:  Bite My Apple”. Of course, the first sin had nothing to do with sex — believe me, it didn’t — but that’s what sells newspapers. So as sure as the sun rises, instead of talking about all the splendid things God had just done in Genesis, we would have been talking about “Applegate”.

Let’s look at the four ladies in Matthew’s genealogy who were Jesus’ ancestors.  But I won’t handle it the way it would be handled by a supermarket tabloid. 

The genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew’s Gospel is often an embarrassment to lectors. It seems so boring, as the lector goes on and onnnnn, reciting 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 more from David to the Babylonian Exile, and 14 more from the Exile to Christ. The names sound like a spell or incantation:  Perez, Amminadab, Rehoboam, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel. It’s comical. It is as if a multitude of dwarfs, with strange curly beards and pointed caps, is joined together by their baby-making equipment to form a living Eiffel tower of humanity.

But Matthew’s genealogy is much subtler than you might think. For one thing, contrary to the patriarchal mentality of the time, Matthew has inserted four women into the long list of men — a fascinating innovation.

Matthew’s readers, who knew the Hebrew Scriptures well, must have been unpleasantly jolted — embarrassed, even — at finding Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba on the list. Why? In brief:

First Tamar, an apparent Canaanite and apparent prostitute, who apparently seduces her father-in-law and becomes an ancestress of Jesus — apparently through incest.  I just said “apparently” four times.  I’ll clarify that later. 

Second Rahab, who really was All That — a real Canaanite and — a real working prostitute.

Third, Ruth, a Moabite. This was a pagan tribal group the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah forbade the Jewish people to intermarry with because of their treachery.

Fourth, Bathsheba, who became the mistress of King David, and brought on a moral catastrophe that almost destroyed Israel’s most beloved king.

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. It’s like saying the Word was made Flesh from Calamity Jane, Typhoid Mary, the murderous Lizzy Borden, and — let’s say — Monica Lewinski.

Instead of covering up Christ’s “less acceptable” roots, Matthew highlights them by mentioning these four women — and these four only. Did we need to know all this? Yes.

For thousands of years all human relationships, public and private, were seen in the context of pedigree: ancestors and descendants.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, sees her life this way.  She says,

His mercy is from generation unto generations,
Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed for ever.

She was standing at the point of connection, between all the generations of the past, including Eve, who is the one who famously blew it, and all the generations of the future who would call her blessed. Why is it important? Is this going to be a Patriarchal Parable, where all the evil comes from women, starting with Eve?  Or am I going to turn it into a Feminist Folktale, where, as I’m sure you know, it always works out that Women are Nice and Men are Lice?

I’m not going to tell you a patriarchal story — and I wouldn’t waste your time with feminism.  Yes, it’s OK to be a feminist in the Church, if you’re a feminist transformed by the Gospel.  It’s even OK to be a patriarchalist in the Church — if you’re a patriarchalist transformed by the Gospel.  The important thing isn’t patriarchy or feminism.  The important thing is transformation.

But if transformation is important, why is this troublesome genealogy important? For that matter, why is any Scripture important?

Is it because Scripture gives us weekly exposure to inspirational poetry?  No.  You could get lots more inspirational poetry from Helen Steiner Rice.

Is it important because Scripture provides us with a systematic code of moral theology?  No.  Most of the Bible is not moral theology, and it’s anything but systematic.

Is it important because Scripture has stories we can use at Vacation Bible School to get the kids to behave? No, not even that. Parts of the Bible are not suitable for getting kids to behave: if that were the point, the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba would not be in there.

Scripture is important for only one reason: because it’s true.  It’s not an “authorized biography” edited by a defense attorney and distributed by a public relations firm. Scripture has not been carefully scrubbed by the Big Man’s campaign manager. It tells what actually happened.  It tells the truth about men, women, families and nations.  It’s history.

Catholic philosophy says that God’s Providence can be found in history.  I find this difficult to believe.  Mind, you, I believe it, but I find it difficult.  It often looks to me like “history is just one damned thing after another”. But the valuable thing about Biblical history is that it’s not a cover-up.  It shows you how it happened, one damned thing after another.  And then it shows you what God did with it.

Jesus was introduced into human history with a mostly Semitic, 40-century, more or less 40-book prequel. The evangelist Matthew recaps the whole 4,000-year story in super-concentrated form via his genealogy, with its few heroes and its many humbugs, its anointed prophets and its string of trifling piffle kings.

It’s not a WikiLeaks exposé. Even the most wince-worthy details come to us — not from the foes of Israel, not from the enemies of Christ, not from the mockers, the skeptics, unbelievers and the atheists — but from the very first Apostle who wrote the very first Gospel, in fact, the very first chapter of that Gospel.

Surprisingly, just four women are highlighted in the genealogy, and rather unrepresentative ones at that. If you don’t like the rather eyebrow-raising selections, your quarrel isn’t with me, it’s with the authors, Matthew and the Holy Spirit: the ones who decided who made the cut.

The point?

It’s that Jesus, God Incarnate, enters into this history and saves it “from within”. He is not a magician who changes things “from outside” with one swish of a magic wand, but the true Redeemer who will rescue and transform every splintered and faltering good thing in the Universe, from the inside, for those who have faith.

Those people in the genealogies who had “faith”, who were believers, what did they believe in? They believed in One God, and they believed that His Anointed One was coming to bring a better law, a better triumph, “something better”, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says.

Take a good look at your botched personal past and your compromised personal present, your rickety family legacy, the wince-worthy history of Israel, and the Church, and the World.

It’s a mess.

The Gospel — the Good News — is not that we’re going to be airlifted out of it. It’s that He’s in the middle of it.

Scandalous Four Female Ancestors, Exhibit One: Tamar. 

To understand Tamar, the first scandalous woman in the Jesus Genealogy Series, you first have to start with Judah, the man she ultimately married.

From Genesis 37, we know that out of sheer malicious jealousy, Judah plotted with his brothers to do away with their youngest brother, Joseph.  At the last minute, instead of killing him, they had the chance to sell him into slavery in Egypt instead, and make a little money. That’s the exactly what they did.  It was Judah who decided to take Joseph’s coat, smear it with goat’s blood, and present it to their father Jacob, as “proof” that Joseph had been devoured by wild beasts.  By the way, according to some Genesis timelines, he wasn’t much more than 16 years old at the time.

On to Chapter 38: young Judah is now basically a runaway. He has left his father and brothers, abandoned the people of Israel. He’s going downhill fast. Right away he foolishly jumps into marriage with an unnamed Canaanite woman and has three sons. Prophecy says that Judah’s house is supposed to become great, and the Messiah will spring from him.  But at this point, the House of Judah consists of just five people: Judah, the unnamed wife, and the three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. And they were worthless. His first-born, Er, married Tamar, a woman he met in Canaan. However, he was such a bad man that the Scripture simply says, without further comment, The Lord slew him.

Judah’s second son, Onan, was then married to the widow Tamar. This mandated by a practice called Levirate marriage. A childless widow could gain lasting membership in the tribe of her deceased husband, by marrying her late husband’s brother. The brother would then sire a child to be the legal heir of the deceased husband. This was the longstanding custom.

Though he consented to marry Tamar, Onan committed acts that showed contempt for his own body, for her, and for the memory of his deceased brother. He perverted the procreative act so that there would be no procreation, by — the Bible says — “spilling his seed on the ground”.  It was the first contraceptive act in recorded history. Scripture says God was disgusted at what Onan did, and struck him dead as well.

Then the father’s, Judah’s, Canaanite wife died.

So. At this point, the House of Judah was down to two people: Judah himself, and his son Shelah. Shelah, the third son, was also to be reserved for the widow Tamar under the kinship marriage system, or his father Judah would have to do his duty to keep the family line going.  But clearly, Judah wasn’t about to get re-married and he wasn’t about to let Shelah marry her, either.

Did Tamar know about God’s promise that the family of Abraham would become a great nation, with the greatest portion, the House of Judah ultimately giving rise to the Messiah?  If so, the promise was looking kind of dubious. 

What happens next? The annual livestock round-up. Judah went with his hired hands to shear his sheep.  This was the high point of the year: all the herdsmen came in, fleeces were sold, everybody got paid.  So Tamar took off her widow’s garb, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place near the gates of the city.  In the words of Scripture:

Tamar saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given to him as a wife.

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a harlot, because she had covered her face. 

Then he turned to her by the way, and said, “Please let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.

So she said, “What will you give me that you may come in to me?”

And he said, “I will send a young goat from the flock.”

So she said, “Will you give me a pledge till you send it?”

Then he said, “What pledge shall I give you?”

So she said, “Your signet and cord, and your staff that is in your hand.”

Then he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.

To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  To a man with a certain kind of appetite, every woman looks like a dish. Judah is thinking. “Party time! I’m shearing the flock, I’m selling fleeces, I’m in the money, I’m in the mood, and look — a random female sitting by the city gate:  I bet I could get a quickie.”

It doesn’t say she dressed as a prostitute. “Covered with a veil, and wrapped” is not the same as going out in red leather hot pants, a halter top and stiletto heels.  It’s going incognito.

It also doesn’t say she went out and stood at the Canaanite equivalent of Times Square in NYC or Dupont Circle in DC. (The text actually says that when Judah’s Canaanite friend went out to look for her, the townspeople said “There are no shrine prostitutes here” Genesis 38:21.)

She went out incognito to the city gate, where she would see all who passed by, including Judah and his men.  If a man refused a legitimate kinship marriage, the penalty was for the woman to confront him at the city gate, strip the sandal from his foot, and spit in his face.  What Tamar had in mind was to demand that Judah or his son provide her with offspring, or face a public shaming.

However, things take an unexpected turn.  Before she has the opportunity to approach Judah, he approaches her. And before she has a chance to say a word, he says (my translation) “Hey, baby, how about a roll in the hay?”

It must have been shocking. 

Your father-in-law pops over and says, “Let’s have sex”?   OY VEH!  Now what do you do?  Here’s where we see that Tamar is a quick-thinking woman. She actually has a right to have a child with this man, but if he realizes who she is, he won’t do it.  She gets an idea:  “W—w-w-what will you give me?”

”I’ll send you a kid goat.”  Pathetic.  Like Esau who was willing to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage — bean soup — Judah is willing to sell his Messianic bloodline for nothing, and throw in a plate of barbecue.

“OK”, she thinks, “but I’m going to have to prove paternity on this guy when the time comes.”

“What will you give me in pledge?”

His signet, his seal, and his staff. 

These are the insignia of a prominent man. The signet ring was used to sign legal documents by pressing the ring into soft wax, like a brand; the seal was an engraved cylinder carried on a cord. Rolling it over a soft clay document was how you signed business contracts. The staff indicated the identity and status of the owner.

That would be the equivalent today of leaving her his drivers’ license, his ATM card, his online banking password and a couple of credit cards. And what does this prove? That not only was Judah a thug, and a jerk, it proves he was an idiot.

And Judah brought the young goat to recover his pledge from the woman’s hand, but he did not find her.  Then he asked the men of that place, saying, “Where is the harlot who was by the roadside?” 

And they said, “There was no harlot in this place.”

And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.”

So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”

Let her be burned.  Sweet. 

When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine whose these are — the signet and cord, and staff.”

So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.”

Now it came to pass, at the time for giving birth, that the firstborn was called Perez.

Eight generations later, we see that Perez becomes the great-great grandfather of David the King; and David is the royal ancestor of Jesus, “the son of David”.

Why was Tamar so insistent on her right to have a child from Judah? You have to wonder. For the most part, the House of Judah had brought her nothing but grief.  Did she know about the prophecy that from Judah would come the Messiah?  If so, she believed more than Judah did. 

But notice this: when Tamar proves Judah’s paternity, Judah finally shows a trace of conscience. He admits that she is actually in the right: “She has been more righteous than I.”  This was the beginning of Judah’s repentance for all the evil he had done; later, in Egypt, he is actually reconciled with Joseph, the brother he sold into slavery; and Joseph in turn saves the whole nation of Israel.

And it all comes from a quick sweaty embrace that, to Judah, was just an act of impulsive lust; but to Tamar, it was an act of fidelity to a bond she believed in and would not break; an act of loyalty to the promise; therefore, an act of chastity, of sexual justice. On her depended the sheer survival of the House of Judah — and therefore the existence of every Jew in the Bible, and every Jew now living, for they all came from Judah, for whom JUDA-ism was named, and from whom the Messiah would come.

Now that is sweet.

Scandalous Female Ancestors, Exhibit Two: Rahab of Jericho

Six generations after Tamar the Accidental Pick-Up, we come across Rahab, the genuine pro: not an apparent prostitute, but a real one, in the Canaanite city of Jericho. The invading Hebrews intend to wipe out the Canaanites, for they are abominably wicked.

How wicked is that? Listen to this description of the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of the Holy Land, from the book of Wisdom:

For truly, the ancient inhabitants of your holy land,

You, O Lord, hated for deeds most odious —

Works of sorcery and impious sacrifices;

Cannibal feasts of human flesh and of blood, —

These merciless murderers of children, and parents who, with their own hands, took defenseless lives.

God cursed the Canaanites because they killed babies. Archaeologists have discovered infants’ and children’s bones embedded in the walls of what used to be Jericho.  Every bridge or tower contained an ossuary, an urn to hold the bones of the children they sacrificed. This is the Great City.  This is Jericho.

Joshua sends in two spies. The two Hebrew spies stay in the house of Rahab the harlot, which is by the city wall. When the king’s soldiers come looking for the spies, Rahab hides them.

Rahab has a choice. On the one hand, the city of Jericho and its gods, who, as Scripture says, “protected neither life, nor the purity of wedlock.” On the other hand, the Hebrews and their God, who had shown His power by smashing the forces of the pharaoh of Egypt and freeing the Hebrew slaves — she had heard of this — and was now poised to destroy Jericho. 

She knew what she wanted.  She said, “The Lord your God is He who is God, in heaven above and on earth beneath.” She sides with the Hebrews. She’s in with them, and in to win. She lets the spies down the city wall in a basket and shows them their escape route. In return the spies swear to her that when Jericho falls, she and her entire family will be spared.

When, finally, the walls of Jericho collapse at the sound of the Jewish trumpets, Joshua remembers the oath. Rahab and her family are saved.

The genealogy says that Rahab later had a son, named Boaz, with a Hebrew man. But Rahab’s fame was not simply that she was the mother of Boaz, an ancestor of David: Saint Paul lists her in what you could call the Book of Hebrews Hall of Fame, as a great example of faith:

“By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.”

The Church Fathers even see Rahab as a symbol of the Church, since by faith and love she preserved her family from annihilation.

Scandalous Female Ancestors, Exhibit Three: Ruth

Next up, Ruth.  Here we go again: a non-Jew, a woman from the plains of Moab. The Book of Deuteronomy instructs Jews not to intermarry with the people of Moab, because of their treachery.  A Moabite is not to be allowed into the assembly of Israel.  Yet Ruth is a Moabite, the widow of a Jewish man. After the death of her husband, Ruth and her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, also a widow, are now both wretchedly poor and facing starvation. Naomi advises Ruth to go back to her father’s house on the plains of Moab. There at least she would survive. 

But Ruth replied,

“Urge me not to leave you or to turn back from you.

Wherever you go I will go, and wherever you stay I will stay.

Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Wherever you die I will die, and there I will be buried.

May the LORD deal with me severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 

So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving just as the barley harvest was beginning, in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem.  This is still 10 centuries before Christ.

Ruth starts gleaning a barley field, following behind the harvesters and picking up grains they might have missed. She finds herself in a field owned by a wealthy older man named — Boaz(!)

Boaz notices how hard working, well-spoken, diligent and modest she is.  Though she is a foreigner and a beggar, he treats her very kindly, because he has heard of her touching loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, a distant relative of his.

The next day, this is what happens:

Naomi said to Ruth, Is not Boaz our relative?

Tonight he is winnowing barley at the threshing floor.

Therefore bathe yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment, and go down to the threshing floor;

But do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.

Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down;
and he will tell you what you should do.”

So after Boaz had eaten and drunk to his heart’s content,
he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain;
and she came softly, uncovered his feet, and lay down.

Doesn’t this sound like a 1950s romantic comedy with Rock Hudson and Doris Day? 

The intentions are entirely honorable: Naomi wants Ruth to propose that Boaz save the family by entering into a kinship marriage with her. 

But this is not exactly legal negotiation at the city gates.  Naomi wants to make sure Boaz really gets the idea.  That’s why she tells Ruth to get out of her barley-harvest overalls, take a nice bath, anoint herself with perfumed oil, and “For heaven’s sake, Ruthie girl, put on your nice silky clothes. Make sure Boaz has a couple of drinks and is feeling happy.  Then…”

It’s midnight.  It’s dark.  Boaz wakes up, maybe because his feet are uncovered and it’s a little chilly.  He reaches down to pull his robe over his feet and legs, and — Good heavens!  There’s a woman down there!  And what does she say?  “I am your maidservant.  Please take me under your covers.” (Whew.)

Now this is all honorable, since “Take me under your covers” — “spread your mantle over me” also means “take me under your kinship protection”.  But you know what?  It’s a real Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic predicament.

The old man Boaz responds to the poor but beautiful girl like the true gentleman he is:

Boaz said: 

“Blessed are you of the LORD, my daughter!

You have shown kindness,

In that you did not go after young men,

Whether poor or rich. 

And now, my daughter, do not fear.

I will do for you all that you request, for all the people of my town know

That you are a virtuous woman.

I will perform the duty for you, as the LORD lives!”

So she lay at his feet until morning.

In any romantic comedy, there’s a complication: there’s another man who has a closer kinship tie, who would legally have first dibs on Ruth.  But he backs out of the deal quickly, Boaz marries Ruth, Naomi’s grinning from ear to ear, and when Ruth and Boaz have a baby boy, named Obed, they place the baby in Naomi’s arms, and everybody does a happy dance. 

The end of the story of Ruth contains a startling blessing. The rejoicing townspeople say to old Boaz, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord has given you by this young woman”. It seems like a strange blessing to give a new couple, considering Judah and Tamar were as far from the perfect couple as you could imagine. But the parts of the puzzle suddenly fit together. L’chaim!  Life goes on.

The baby Obed grows up to become the father of Jesse.  And Jesse becomes the father of — does anybody remember?

Yes!  King David!  This is how we got from Tamar to Rahab to Ruth to DAVID.
Bring on the ecstatic throngs, bring out the tambourines! David! Great king, war hero, rock star, national hero. Break for a roaring chorus of Hava Nagila.

Scandalous Female Ancestors, Exhibit Four: Uriah’s Wife

The fourth woman in Jesus’ family tree is Bathsheba, designated in Matthew’s genealogy not by name, but simply as the one “who had been the wife of Uriah” — and this is where the chorus breaks off and the jubilation stops: for this is real crime, real sin, and real shame.

I’m assuming we all know the story. Bathsheba was a beautiful woman who was married to a Hittite captain, Uriah, who was loyal to Israel and fighting honorably on behalf of David the King. One afternoon, King David goes for a walk on his roof terrace and sees Bathsheba taking a bath on a neighboring roof. He sends a soldier over to fetch her to the palace.  He sleeps with her. She gets pregnant. David tries a stupid little ploy to make it look like her husband Uriah’s the father.  But when that fails, David orders the loyal Uriah to carry out a deliberately doomed, fatal attack and the inconvenient husband is buried under a great heap of corpses.

After a period of mourning, David marries Bathsheba.  He thinks he’s gotten away with it.  But I have a feeling everybody knew about it.

Assume that it took 6 weeks, minimum, before Bathsheba strongly suspected she was pregnant — after all, they didn’t have pregnancy tests. They blew a few more weeks in their unsuccessful scheming to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, which as an active-duty officer during wartime, he would not do. And then after they got Uriah killed on the field of battle, they’d have to spend a month in mourning before the guilty David and Bathsheba could marry each other.  That brings us to almost 12 weeks before they married, which means in very short order after the royal nuptials, Bathsheba was probably visibly pregnant.

So everybody knew about it, and everybody was pretending they didn’t know.

Except for the prophet Nathan. He confronts the king. In the presence of the court, he tells him a little story (found in II Samuel 12):

“There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds.  But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like one of his children.  And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him”.

So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!”

Then Nathan said to David, “That man is you”.

This event is followed by David’s repentance and heartbreak. The child from the adulterous relationship dies seven days after birth. The nation faces an existential crisis as David loses control of his family and his kingdom, which is shaken by lurid crimes and rebellion committed by David’s own sons.

After the death of her infant, Bathsheba and David have four more children, including Solomon, the fabulous Temple-builder and Israel’s most glorious king. The Talmud says that a chastened Bathsheba was very diligent about raising Solomon, personally supervising his education and severely chastising him if he strayed from the path of virtue. She apparently earned the respect of her former accuser, the prophet Nathan, as the Bible relates that when, in the midst of dynastic controversy, she pressed for Solomon to become the successor to David’s throne, she and Solomon had the Prophet Nathan’s full support. Solomon became famous for his excellence as a judge, his wisdom, and his magnificence. And Bathsheba, the queen-mother, became the most powerful woman in Israel’s history.

Scandal, Ancestors and Us: What Was Christ Getting Into?

So there you have it: the four specially picked women, Jesus’ foremothers:  the accidental amateur roadside whore, the professional Jericho harlot, the loyal beggar girl from Moab, and the repentant adulterer-queen.

If we were to imagine the four women of the genealogy as Gothic statues, they should really be carrying keys on their belt-sashes, for it is they who unlock the family secrets. And the biggest family secret seems to be that God has associated them, and us, in big, BIG plans, which will go far beyond the garbled fragments we can see in their lifespans and ours.  When God makes a promise of blessings, His fidelity to His promise is sure. But the payoff may come to your great-grandchildren and not apparently to you. It may come in a moment, a decade or a couple of centuries after your death — and that counts as God keeping His promise to you.

In its indirect way, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is the most comprehensive text about Mary to be found in the Gospels. Using a catalogue of generations, Matthew is expressing both a pattern expected in life, and a pattern-breaking life that is utterly unexpected.

Are Canaanites cursed? Yes. Are citizens of Jericho cursed?  Yes. Are Moabites sprung from a wicked, cursed race? Yes. And so is Mary. She too is a Daughter of Eve — from the wicked, cursed human race.  But Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth are exceptional women from cursed races — and Mary is exceptional to an exceptional degree. Rahab the harlot may have been the only good woman among the baby-killers in Cannibal City; Mary is, as the poet Wordsworth said, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”.

Something you’ll notice from the Old Testament is that every time God wants to do something big — really big — some old woman gets pregnant.  We have Sarah – Hannah – and Samson’s mother. God’s specialty:  geriatric maternity.  Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth fit into this pattern — they’re not elderly, but still, they have unlikely, providential pregnancies.  Nobody would have easily predicted that Tamar would end up pregnant by Judah or that Rahab the harlot would survive the annihilation of Jericho and become a respected Jewish mother; or that the pious and wealthy Boaz would take a threadbare Moabite beggar for his bride.  This predicts, and yet is surpassed by, Mary, the bride unwed, who has her child by Our Lord the Holy Spirit.

It’s all predicted, and yet so utterly unpredictable.  Mary, the new Rahab, rescues her family — in this case, the human race — by faith in God’s almighty power. As a new Tamar, she chooses God’s promise even when the Chosen People don’t.  Ruth said to Boaz: “You are most gracious to me, my lord, for you have spoken kindly to your maidservant . . .” and Mary, the new Ruth, says “My soul magnifies the Lord, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” Mary is even the new Bathsheba, for she brings into the world a new Solomon, who, like the old Solomon, is a judge, but the Judge of all the world.

Matthew selects four women out of Jesus’ ancestry to illustrate incidents that include divine wrath, evil sons, illicit sex, gang-banging Israelites and Canaanites, out-of-control appetites, lies, cruelty, and greed.  These disturbing elements will resurface over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures.  But these disturbing elements are, to me, the most encouraging elements of all.  They prove, paradoxically, that the Scripture writers are telling the truth. This is not a Hallmark card.  This is what actually happened.

These Scriptures show that, without a doubt, Christ knew what He was getting into.  They show that, even if history is, for the most part, just one damned thing after another, Divine Grace will prevail.  The Divine Son of God is in this — in the history, in the flesh, in the very DNA of it all — and He’s in it to win.

Juli Loesch Wiley, a contributing editor to Voices, is a Catholic writer and longtime pro-life activist. She is the wife of Donald Wiley and the mother of two sons. The Wileys live in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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Women for Faith & Family
PO Box 300411
St. Louis, MO 63130

314-863-8385 Phone -- 314-863-5858 Fax -- Email

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