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  • Writer's pictureErika Tate

Women of the Messiah

When we dive into the lectionary for the Christmas readings there are a plethora of options all dependent on the time of day. The gospel for the Christmas Vigil Mass (December 24th) comes to us from the book of Matthew. It is a straightforward account of Jesus’ birth. We are informed that this baby was born to a mother named Mary who was pregnant via the Holy Spirit. And her betrothed, the righteous Joseph, was going to divorce her quietly thinking Mary was cheating on him until an angel intervened and informed him of the situation in a dream. We are informed that this baby was named Jesus. A lot of details are left out of Matthew’s birth narrative. Instead, the details are put in the genealogy that comes directly before the birth of Jesus. 

The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew is long, boring, and dry, which is why most churches will choose to omit it during the Christmas Vigil–they want to get to the good stuff, the birth of Jesus Christ! But if we know a little of the stories of the Old Testament we start to look at that genealogy and understand who this child is that is coming into the world. An important part of Matthew’s genealogy is that out of the 42 generations named, only five are women. Four women from the Old Testament: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, & Bathsheba (who doesn’t receive the dignity of her own name but the title of “wife of Uriah”). And one woman from the New Testament: Mary. 

These women are not the traditional matriarchs of Judaism that you would expect to find in a genealogy. Infact, for a long portion of history, theologians did not understand why these women were included. The theologian Richard B. Hayes sums it up nicely “it has been suggested the four women mentioned by Matthew was in some way involved in unusual or disreputable sexual activity that thus provides a backdrop for an apologetic reading of the story of Jesus’ mother Mary (1:16), who was also suspected of sexual impropriety. If the Abrahamic-Davidic line was carried forward to the Messiah through these women of questionable virtue, so the argument goes, then readers would not be surprised if doubt attends the reputation of the Messiah’s mother as well.” (pg 112 Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels). Boiled down, these women were added due to their sexual history and nothing else. Unfortunately, this is a teaching that is still continued today in many seminaries. 

I would like to argue that limiting these women’s identity to their sexual histories is simply a maltreatment of their stories and the identity of Jesus. It could come as a shock to some people, but women are more than their sexual history. 

Each woman in the first chapter of Matthew has a powerful story that goes along with her. These stories teach us a little more about the messiah that is coming. When we look at Tamar of Genesis 38 we see a woman who has a strong sense of justice. Rahab (who is frequently labeled “the harlot of Jericho” in traditional art and writings) was a courageous risk taker. Ruth’s loyalty is one of legend. And Bathsheba was a survivor. 

These are the stories that Jesus would have heard and been surrounded by when his parents talked about his ancestry. He would have seen himself in these women. Just as any of us look at the stories of our ancestors or cultures and see ourselves.

Rachel Held Evans puts it beautifully in her book Inspired, “We know who we are, not from the birth certificates and Social Security numbers assigned to us by the government, but from the stories told and retold to us by our community.” (pg. 20). Jesus would have known who he was based on the stories that were told to him about his ancestors–including the four old testament women and the story his mother shared with him about her faith in God. We have a messiah who came into the world and was to be filled with stories of survival, loyalty, courageous risk, justice, & incomprehensible faithfulness. Those attributes sound a lot like the Messiah I’ve come to know over the years. The stories give me great hope in the Christ we celebrate entering the world. 

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