Four daughters of eve save her heritage
Rooting an individual in history
In his opening lines Matthew claims that Jesus was a man of amazing import, a true heir of both Abraham the patriarch and David the king, yet more important than either, a man as significant as Adam and none other than Judaism’s long awaited Messiah. Little wonder that he supports his case by then citing Jesus’ pedigree, for scriptural genealogies serve to root individuals in history and to identify their heritage. However, Matthew’s genealogical presentation does more than simply trace Jesus’ claim to David’s throne. To first century Jewish eyes, this tree’s departure from the male-oriented norm of biblical genealogy would have emphasised the women that it mentions. Which is precisely what Matthew meant it to, for, as with so many of Matthew’s other embellishments, they are there to make a point.
Work out who they are and the five wives in Matthew’s genealogy all fit a pattern. The identity of four of them is undisputed. An entire book is devoted to Ruth’s story, Tamar’s fills a few paragraphs and the Gospels introduce us to Mary. The rather oddly described ‘her of Uriah1’ is Bathsheba, who featured so prominently in David’s life. It is Rahab, the wife of Salmon, who is hardest to place. In the biblical histories, only the well-known prostitute from Jericho carries that name. She was a contemporary of Salmon’s generation (Ruth 4:20, Josh 2:1) and, whilst the Hebrew Bible fails to tell us whom she married, mentioning her fits Matthew’s purpose so well that it could hardly be anyone else.
Why let the women in?
Matthew was not trying to emphasise just the famous mothers, for he omits Sarah and Rachel, woman whose stories would have regularly enlivened Israeli childhood evenings. Commentators have therefore sought some other common thread and many suggest that all these women were involved in unusual or illicit acts of procreation2. Matthew’s aim, they argue, was either to defend Mary’s unusual position or to highlight that Jesus aligned himself with the despised and outcast. However, it seems contrived to take the experiences of Ruth, an impoverished widow who observed inconvenient legalities to the letter3, and consider them equivalent to the criminal adultery of Bathsheba, a senior army commander’s spouse4.
An alternate view suggests that, because these women were all foreign, Matthew included them to underline the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ mission5. Ruth was certainly not an Israelite (Ruth 1:4), one may reasonably infer a Canaanite origin for Rahab (Josh 2:1) and similarly for Tamar6 However, Bathsheba, though her husband was foreign, may well have been of Israelite stock and even from the tribe of Judah7. Of course, this thesis collapses entirely should one try to extend it to Mary.
Neither of the traditional explanations can quite account for Matthew’s choice of women, however the genealogist stock-in-trade of tracing hereditary suggests another possibility. In every case, one senses that insidious rebellion against God’s judgements, if left unchecked, would have destroyed a godly heritage. For both Tamar and Rahab, the Canaanite religion embodied it8. For Ruth, it hid amongst the encouraging words of a mother-in-law, whilst for Bathsheba it broke out in the threatening actions of a son-in-law. For Mary, it took the form of a usurper sat upon David’s throne. Against this rebellion, each woman was safeguarding the precious heritage of an earlier generation. Tamar preserved the birthright of her husband Er (Gen 38:1-26) whilst Rahab ensured the continuation of her father’s family in Canaan (Josh 2:1-14, 6:25). Ruth preserved the legacy of her husband Mahlon (Ruth 4:13-15) and Bathsheba ensured that her son Solomon inherited David’s throne (1 Kgs 1:11-12). Mary, according to the Gospel writer Luke, preserved the heritage of her forefather David (Luke 1:33). For each of the five women, their choice to do things God’s way proved critical. For each, their decision to wade against the tide of rebellion unlocked the heritage that they sought.
Tamar engineers some self condemnation
Tamar, the wife of Er, was most ingenious in the way she overcame the threat. When Onan’s refusal to continue his brother’s line brought his death, then Judah baulked at a further son marrying Tamar and Er’s inheritance began to look as good as lost (cf. Deut 25:5-6). However, the death of Judah’s wife, and his departure to seek solace amongst the Canaanites, provided Tamar with the opportunity to act. By posing as a harlot, i.e. a temple prostitute, she both solved the problem of the legacy and obtained conclusive evidence of Judah’s idolatry. When Judah discovered her pregnancy and call for her to be burnt on grounds of harlotry9, her proof that they were partners in crime left him condemned by his own words. She had forced her wayward father-in-law to recognise both the righteousness of her actions and his own need for a change of heart.
Rahab chooses a better god to serve
Rahab’s choice, to embrace the purposes of God and resist rebellion, emerged out of a growing realisation that her city’s days were numbered. She was probably the kind of woman imitated by Tamar, a sex worker within the Canaanite religious establishment and familiar with entertaining strangers. However, when she recognised the true intent of the Israelite spies she realised that others would as well. Their vulnerability provided an opportunity to switch sides, whilst negotiating a future for her family.
Ruth and the reformation of Naomi
For Ruth the moment of decision came when Naomi encouraged her to stay in Moab. I believe that Ruth’s story starts early in the time of the Judges, when Israel were suffering, at the hands of Eglon, the foreign domination so symptomatic of an unclean land (see Appendix E). The curse of famine in Israel, coupled with the prospect of a better life across the border, drove Elimelech and his family to become economic migrants to Moab. Once there, his sons shunned the Law (Lev 21:14, Ezra 10:10), by marrying Moabite wives to ensure their family’s prosperity. However, then came the day when the voice of God was once again in the wind, ready to reveal the inadequacy of human security. With the loss of the family’s male contingent, Elimelech’s legacy hung in the balance. Both Tamar and the daughters of Lot (Gen 19:14, 31-36) provide precedents for preserving a heritage under such circumstances. One of the daughters-in-law would have to marry an appropriate male relative and bear Elimelech an heir, thus keeping the legacy from leaving the family (Num 27, 9-11, 36:8). That marriage was unlikely to happen outside Judah, but Israel was not a good place for a Moabite. Not only had Moses bound the Israelites never to seek the peace or prosperity of Moab (Deut 23:3-6), but also the recent reversal in the family’s fortunes probably coincided with the violent end of 18 years of Moabite oppression (Judg 3:28).
When the news, that God had visited Israel and was blessing them with food (Ruth 1:5-6), prompted Naomi to return, she counseled her daughters-in-law to ignore the Law and stay in Moab. One took her advice, but Ruth chose to risk being a Moabite in Israel in order to follow Naomi. She was implicitly renouncing her family’s rebellion and choosing to walk in the ways of Israel’s God. Moreover, once in Bethlehem, she continued to act in accord with the Law, by providing for their needs in the manner that it permitted (Lev 19:9-10). The attention this drew, from Elimalech’s relative Boaz, completed Naomi’s reform, for now she found herself encouraging Ruth to make use of the very ‘kinsman redeemer’ legislation that she had formerly advised her to ignore.
Bathsheba provides David with a choice
Bathsheba arrived at the point of choice later in her life, after the loss of her first child by David. God revealed that their next son, Solomon, would be heir to the throne (1 Chr 22:10). Unfortunately, David failed to make this information public, for the matter of succession was still unclear when Adonijah declared himself king (1 Kings 1:5-34). As this coup d'état threatened the smooth and godly succession to Solomon, the prophet Nathan was quick to act. He spurred Bathsheba to remind the aging David of God’s earlier words and to ask that he declare Solomon his chosen heir.
As Bathsheba brought her question, Nathan reinforced it by asking whether David has instigated these events. Adonijah’s actions presented both deity and king with the same choice, honour a son who had rebelled against his father’s authority, or keep your word and support Solomon as king. Between them, Bathsheba and Nathan forced David to reflect on the choice that God would make and act accordingly. Thus David hastily had Solomon anointed, whereupon Jerusalem rallied behind the new monarch and the uprising collapsed. Bathsheba, by her timely intervention on behalf of God’s purposes, had quashed the rebellion of an unfaithful son.
Tamar tricked Judah into condemning his own apostasy, Rahab undermined the stronghold of rebellion that she had once served, Ruth brought Naomi to advocate the Law she once flouted and Bathsheba reminded David to obey God’s words. Like Matthew’s other women, Mary also stood against the rebellion around her, willingly accepting God’s commands with the declaration, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, NKJV). Through her obedience the world was to gain a saviour who could deliver it from its rebellion (Matt 1:21)10.
All five of Matthew’s women preserved a heritage by choosing to walk counter to the very different spirit that pervaded their immediate circumstances. However, as we look a little closer at the legal ramifications for these women, it is not hard to see another pattern beginning to develop, for, at some point, each found themselves guilty under the law of crimes that carried the penalty of death.
In Tamar’s time, Judah, the legal authority within his family, ruled that idolatrous ‘harlotry’, such as Tamar’s, was a crime against God and therefore Tamar deserved to die. The Law of Moses condemned Rahab to die, for it reserved compassionate treatment of enemies only for nations outside Israel’s borders (Deut 20:11-17), any nation refusing to allow them to occupy their promised land faced complete annihilated. That same law also had something to say about Mary’s situation, for it treated an engaged virgin as a married woman and so, to those around her, it would have appeared that Mary, whilst living in a city (Nazareth), had become pregnant by a man who was not her husband and yet had not cried out. For such a crime, the law commanded the penalty of death (Deut 22:13-21).
It is easy to see the pattern developing with Tamar, Rahab and Mary, though to see it in the other two requires a bit more scrutiny. At no time during Adonijah’s rebellion did Bathsheba appear to be in any sort of legally imposed jeopardy. However, Matthew reminds us that she was also ‘her of Uriah’, recalling the death penalty carried by her adulterous relationship with David.
In the case of Ruth, I feel we must look to a judgement by Ehud to understand her legal jeopardy. During Ehud’s violent overthrow of Moabite occupation, he instructed Israel to pursue the fleeing Moabites and to kill all whom they overtook. He was treating these Moabites like ‘enemies who occupied the land’, which would effectively have condemned Ruth under the same legislation as Rahab.
Had there been an insistence on imposing the full penalty of the law, then the outcome would have been the execution of four of our women, if not all five. In each case, somebody’s choice to exercise mercy allowed the purposes of God to live on in a woman’s life. Judah pardoned Tamar, Joshua set aside the Law for Rahab, David spared Bathsheba, Boaz chose to allow Ruth to prosper and Joseph took Mary.
One might argue that these women effectively earned their salvation, where it not for Bathsheba. She stands alone in having done nothing to deserve the mercy that she subsequently received and her pardon is firmly rooted in the grace of God. As David was the highest mortal tier of Israel’s judiciary, the judgement of his adultery and murder fell into the hands of the only higher authority, God himself. The prophet Nathan’s eloquent case for the prosecution confirmed David’s guilt, but, although certain spiritual repercussions remained inescapable, David received mercy at the hands of his judge. The grateful king, having the authority to pass sentence upon Bathsheba, then extended to her the same grace that Eve received in Eden.
The experiences of these four women all echo that of Eve to some extent. Rahab had no husband and so was under the authority of her father. In her culture, it would be safe to assume that she was dutifully obeying her father and that he therefore sanctioned her harlotry. Nevertheless, the spy’s instructions cast her in a Noah like role, with authority over her entire family (Josh 2:18). Hence, her father’s salvation depended upon him being in her house rather than her being in his.
Ruth was complicit in her husband’s sin of marrying a Moabitess, and whilst he married into Moabite society to advance socially, Ruth’s later behaviour implies she married out of a genuine desire to serve his God. Subsequently she received authority over his inheritance, albeit through the normal legal channels.
David and Bathsheba were both complicit in adultery, but, whilst Bathsheba obediently sought to comply with her lawgiver’s lead, David flagrantly flouted the Law. Nathan brought God’s judgement, that the first son of this union would die but the second would be king. However, he failed to explain the case law upon which it rested. David had hastily married Bathsheba, however as he then stood before the heavenly court, God striped him of his spiritual authority and gave it to his wife. Henceforth, it would not be David’s fatherhood that determined who became the next ruler, but Bathsheba’s motherhood. Bathsheba already carried an adulterously conceived heir, however, in Moses’ test for a wife suspected of adultery, we find that under such circumstances her thigh would wither (Num 5:22). In other words, the priest’s portion that she carried would waste away and come to nothing. The next king could not be this un-named son, for the legacy of Eve could not pass to such a shrivelling seed, the crown would go instead to Solomon11.
David’s Adam-like fall continued when Satan prompted him to assess his might and take a census (1 Chr 21:1-16). God then gave him a choice of outcomes, three years suffering famine, three months of failure against enemies or three days facing the sword of the Lord. His choice to face the sword is telling. His nation could never have withstood it for three days when one night had seen Sodom’s ‘Eden’ reduced to dust. Yet, though plague brought death to the land, as David had correctly anticipated, the Lord was merciful and spared Jerusalem from Eden’s fate. Nevertheless, from that day onward David’s fear of the sword excluded him from God’s sanctuary, every bit as effectively as the sword that drove Adam from the garden (1 Chr 21:28-30).
With Judah and Tamar (Gen 38:15-26), the transfer of authority from man to woman is at its most manifest. Both indulge in the same idolatrous act, but Tamar comes out of it possessing all Judah’s authority, in the shape of his staff, cord and signet ring. She then used these objects to bring Judah back into line.
Setting aside the law
As the lives of Matthew’s women have come under the spotlight, a pattern has emerged, a pattern into which neatly fit both equating Rahab with the saviour of the spies and setting Ruth at the time of Ehud. The circumstances of all five women share a distinctive set of features, amongst which promoting righteousness and forgiving sins play a prominent part. For each, their decisions preserved a heritage through the advocacy of godliness in the face of rebellion. Furthermore, each faced death under the law and saw the law set-aside in order that their heritage might survive. These were five of a kind. The treatment of each mirrored that of their Edenic progenitor and, for each, the mercy they received ultimately preserved the legacy of Eve, a seed with a guarantee of God’s mercy and the authority to crush the serpent’s head.
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1 Some later manuscripts and many translators aid their readers by using her name instead of this phrase.
2 E.g. France, Matthew, 74.
3 Naomi’s recognition of Boaz’ position and her expectation that he would understand Ruth’s actions and request (Ruth 2:20, 3:3-4) suggests they shared a common legal framework (similar to Deut 25:5-10).
4 D.K. Stuart, “Uriah,” ISBE, 4:956.
5 E.g. see Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 46.
6 Genesis infers Tamar’s ancestry rather than proving it (Gen 38:1-3, 12).
7 Bathsheba’s father Eliam has a namesake amongst Uriah’s fellow thirty mighty men, a son of Ahithophel the Gilonite [see D.K. Stuart, “Uriah,” ISBE, 4:956]. Eliam and Ahithophel appear Hebrew names and Gilo was a city of Judah (Josh 15:51).
8 Judah’s physical movements mirror his spiritual journey. He goes down from his relatives and turns to Hirah the Adullamite, there he saw Er’s Canaanite mother Shua and took her (Gen 38:1-2). When Judah’s wife Shua died, the text reunites him with Hirah in the shearing season, i.e. when Canaanite men traditionally visited their cult prostitutes [see Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament, n.p., Ge 38:26]. Judah seems aware that his family would despise his Canaanite idolatry.
9 This fiery judgement echoes that earlier served up to Sodom (Gen 19:24).
10 The sin referred to here encompasses rebellion (Mic 1:5, 1 Sam 15:23).
11 This ruling renders Jesus’ power to heal the unclean a defence against any accusation that his conception was adulterous.