Matthew 1:1-16, JESUS THE LADIES' MAN

Last week I mentioned the importance of reading scriptures in Jewish ways, especially with an awareness of the four main levels of meaning Jewish scholars identified in the Bible. One of these levels, the remez, or “hint,” is found in the way Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus includes three breaks in the predominant “…father of…” pattern. The first of these sets of hints is Matthew’s references to brothers as discussed last week. The second set of hints that fall outside the pattern is Matthew’s five references to women. Bearing in mind that Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews about a Jew, it is wise to carefully consider the women he chose to mention . . . .

  • Tamar, a Canaanite, who posed as a shrine prostitute to trick Judah (her dead husband’s father) into giving her the twin children who are mentioned here in Matthew’s genealogy. This strategy of Tamar’s violated Jewish law, which required her deceased husband’s brother (not his father) to marry her and to father a son in his name.

  • Rahab, a prostitute and Canaanite.

  • Ruth (see the book of the Bible named after her), a Moabite (not a Jew) who thus married initially outside of normal Jewish law. Also note that Boaz, her second husband, was not her dead husband’s nearest relative as required by Mosaic law, although this was overcome legally.

  • Bathsheba, married to Uriah, a Hittite (a non-Jew) and committed adultery with King David. (While some believe she was raped, this is not likely, since she prepared herself ceremonially for sex prior to visiting David.) David murdered to marry her, which is obviously outside the Mosaic law.

  • Mary, possibly accused of adultery, and certainly pregnant before marriage, thus outside the Mosaic law.

To uncover the meaning of the remez, or “hint,” Matthew provided with these particular women, we begin by noting that all of them had something in their past that a Jewish reader might hold against Jesus. Most of them were not even Jewish. All but Ruth had questionable histories connected to prostitution or adultery. Most conceived their children outside the Jewish law. With such hints at the outset of his gospel, Matthew answers several of the main Jewish objections to Jesus, and sets the stage for some of Jesus’ more revolutionary teachings.

Anticipating Jewish opposition to Jesus’ “illegitimate” birth (an objection which did indeed appear later in the Talmud), Matthew demonstrates that Mary’s pregnancy outside of wedlock is not a cause to deny the Gospel’s message. Even David was descended from prostitutes, and if God can use a king descended from prostitutes to accomplish His will, then all the more so can an “adulteress” like Mary be used in sacred ways.

Also, Jewish objections to the radical idea that gentiles could form part of the Jewish sect of Christianity are met with reminders that gentiles such as Ruth and Rahab form an integral part of Israel’s history. This is Matthew’s way of anticipating the very objections that were indeed raised within the Jewish church in Jerusalem.

We also note that Matthew chooses not to mention Bathsheba by name, referring instead to her husband Uriah, and thereby drawing oblique attention to the fact that Jesus’ ancestor David was a murderer. (David had Uriah sent to the front in a battle and abandoned there in order to take Bathsheba for himself.) By reminding Jewish readers that the Messiah could be descended from the offspring of such a criminal act, Matthew demonstrates that God’s perfect will is often accomplished through humanity’s defiance of His will. This foreshadows the power of the cross, the most evil of all human acts, which was used nonetheless to free humanity from evil.

Consider what this means in terms of your own sins and your usefulness to God. If you will just make yourself fully available to God, absolutely nothing in your past is beyond redemption. Indeed, God often makes the best use of your worst sins.

So far we have seen how Matthew used these women to head off objections to Jesus’ credentials as the Messiah. As with most passages of scripture, we can find still other meanings deeper down. For example, by applying the Jewish tradition of interpreting one scripture through a d’rash, or connection to another scripture, it is useful to consider Mary’s situation in light of the Pharisee’s confrontation of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. Surely they were aware of the rumors surrounding Jesus’ birth. Perhaps they hoped his emotions as a “bastard son” would cloud his judgment. Perhaps they hoped that Jesus harbored latent anger at his mother for allowing him to be born under a cloud of suspicion and shame. But of course, given the fact that God is love, Jesus’ birth circumstances actually fostered great sympathy in him for the woman. Thus Matthew alludes to the power of God’s great love, which can convert shame and harm to support and healing if we will only allow it.

Matthew’s choice to underscore female gentiles in Jesus’ genealogy is also a hint that Jesus came to challenge not only to the religious hierarchy of the day, but also the social. Both the Roman and Jewish worlds were fiercely ethnocentric and patriarchal. In both cultures, it was a man’s world. Although the original “Mary” was a prophetess, (Miriam is the actual Hebrew name of Jesus’ mother), in Jesus’ time Jewish women were forbidden from reading the Torah aloud in synagogues. The Talmud reveals much debate about whether women should even be allowed to learn the Torah. Women could not be legal witnesses in trials. Women could not teach Jewish law. Women could hold no official religious or legal office. Since Israel in Jesus’ time was ruled by a religious elite, this rendered women almost completely powerless. Here, Matthew hints that Jesus has come to challenge that. He wants his readers to consider Jesus’ relationships with women throughout the Gospels in light of God’s relationships with these women mentioned in his genealogy.

Jesus welcomed women into his inner circle of followers and supporters. This was very unusual, since women normally didn’t even speak to men outside their family in public, much less travel with them. Jesus was kind to prostitutes and adulteresses, allowing them to play important roles in his ministry by example. We see this in his treatment of the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman already mentioned who was caught in adultery, and the “woman who had lived a sinful life.” Jesus also challenged the customary role of women as housekeepers and opened the Torah to them. Jesus challenged rabbinic traditions which discriminated against women in divorce. Jewish men could divorce wives for “any and every reason.” (The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived at the time of Jesus, even allowed it in theory for burning the dinner.) Married women could own real property, but their husbands had the right to the produce of the property, so divorce was tantamount to a sentence of poverty. Thus, Jesus’ strict limitation of the proper cause of divorce was a protection for Jewish women. He also ignored other rabbinic traditions that put undue religious burdens on women. For example, a Jewish woman in menstruation was “unclean” and anyone who touched her was unclean until evening but the rabbis had elongated the period of impurity to a week long purification ritual. This means the woman who had been “subject to bleeding for twelve years” was a social outcast. Imagine how she must have suffered, without feeling the touch of another human being for so long! Yet Jesus, totally unconcerned about the rabbinic tradition, not only allows her surreptitious touch, he calls her “daughter” and praises her faith.

Because of Jesus’ example and teaching, women in the early church were considered:

  • Leaders (10 of the 29 church leaders Paul greets by name at the end of his letter to the church in Rome are women, including the first two who came to Paul’s mind)

  • Prophets (the New Testament book of Acts mentions Philip the Evangelists’ “four unmarried daughters, who prophesied”)

  • Equals with men in terms of spiritual status.

Christianity has been harshly criticized in recent years as burdensome on women by some who read scriptures such as “wives, submit to your husbands” out of context, ignoring the fact that Christian husbands are subject to a similar provision. In reality, throughout Jesus’ three years of teaching on the earth he took every opportunity to liberate the women he encountered from their bondage to a male dominated culture that reduced them to a status not much elevated above livestock. Jesus celebrated women, encouraged women, and demonstrated his respect for women in highly visible, counter-cultural ways. Women, of all people, should honor Jesus for his teachings.

Next week we will examine the third of Matthew’s “hints” within his genealogy of Jesus, which is his listing of Jesus’ father as “Jacob,” in direct contradiction to his own story of Jesus birth.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 11:54 AM  


J. Brisbin said... July 5, 2007 at 1:26 PM  

Very meaty!

[Fourth paragraph, having written and deleted the first three]

Keep up the good work!

(Wanted to say something brilliant and witty, but I worked 13 hours yesterday--a holiday--reroofing our house with my 58 year-old dad. I can't put thoughts together all that well today, even though I want to express...well...something. ;)

Michelle Pendergrass said... July 5, 2007 at 2:12 PM  

Wonderful essay. I really enjoyed reading this and appreciate the *new to me* parts.

Athol Dickson said... July 5, 2007 at 2:55 PM  

Thanks, Michelle and "J" for your encouragement. And thanks to those who commented on last week's post. It's good to know someone is reading....

Dayle James Arceneaux said... July 5, 2007 at 7:46 PM  

Well I'll certainly be reading.

I have argued this point many times. The greatest women's rights advocate in all of history is Jesus. I would go as far as saying that He has done more for women than all other activists combined.

And yet, by today's feminists, Christianity is considered the enemy. Maybe this is our fault for not explaining ourselves clearly enough. Thanks for helping get the word out.

Kelli Standish said... July 6, 2007 at 11:35 AM  

I cannot tell you how deeply encouraging this post has been for me.

For years I was part of a cult (long story) and afterwards graduated to an extremely harsh church that would not even allow a woman to lead a single song during praise & worship, since that would be considered having "authority" over men.

I have never been a usurper of men's authority. Never wanted it. I've just longed to love and serve others within what I sensed was my calling.

So I cannot number how many times I wished I were a man, in that church, so I could just make a difference.

Your words, and your explanations, bring healing to pain I didn't know I still carried.

Thank you. Thank you.


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