“What is your family background?” a colleague asked me today. I knew what she meant: What is my make-up? What sort of person am I?
The same sort of question must be behind these verses from Matthew, verses with which the New Testament begins and which are appointed to be read on the fourth Friday of Advent as we celebrate the coming of Jesus as Messiah: Who is this Jesus? What sort of people is he from? And, what does it mean to call him the Christ, the Messiah?
In some respects, Matthew’s answer would surprise no one: The messiah must descend directly from King David; how else could he legitimately claim to be anointed, like David, to rule over Israel? But, “Joseph, the husband of Mary”? That’s hardly a normal way to refer to a man in a patriarchal culture. And, why mention women at all? After all, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus doesn’t (Lk 3:23-38), and Matthew mostly leaves them out. So, why mention these particular women; three of them, along with Mary, by name: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth? What sets them apart? What do they have in common?
The answer may shock , even today: Each of these women is marginal, both as a woman in a patriarchal culture, and in other respects. Each is of pagan origin. Tamar is presumably an Adullamite. Rahab is an inhabitant of the Canaanite city of Jericho. She, like Ruth the Moabite, is of a race with whom the Torah forbids Israelites to have any dealings.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, each of these women uses sexuality in ways that seemingly defy Biblical proscriptions, but which ultimately lead to the rescue of God‘s chosen. This, along with each woman’s race, demands that the reader re-interpret scripture in a less literal way, giving its overriding spiritual concerns priority over its letter. The widowed Tamar, “playing the harlot,” seduces her father-in-law, Judah, thereby tricking him into living up to his obligation to provide his dead son with an heir. Just as Judah, following biblical law, is poised to have her burned to death for adultery, he is led to recognize that, in this case, this law does not apply, and that her faith has been greater than his own. Rahab, whom later tradition came to recognize as a prophet, does not merely “play” the harlot; she is one. But, she uses the auspices of her “house of ill repute” to rescue the Israelite scouts into the promised land, thereby winning for herself and her posterity a place within Israel. Ruth secretly seduces the aged Boaz, who has apparently abandoned hope for a wife and heir, prior to any arrangement of marriage. Rather than condemn her for licentiousness, he extols her generosity and faithfulness, and creatively reinterprets several laws to win community approval of their marriage.
So, who is this Jesus? He is, yes, the “Christ, child of David, child of Abraham.” But also of Mary, whose pregnancy occurs outside of marriage; of the quasi-adulterous union between David and the wife of Uriah; of Ruth the daughter of a despised and outcast people, Rahab the harlot and Canaanite, and of Tamar, the Canaanite who "plays the harlot." His nature embraces those who exercise authority among the people of God, who interpret and apply the scripture, but also those on the cultural margins, who have most to lose from a spiritually blind preference for its letter over its spirit and intent. Amen.